Newsreel (October 2007)
Available at: http://www.egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=7709
Photo By: Mohamed al Sehety
Hold Your Tongue
Rumors regarding president Hosni Mubarak’s health were in abundance in September, with reports circulating that speculated everything from sickness to hospitalization, out-of-country treatment and even death. Predictably, the media ran wild.
A faster official response might have nipped the rumors in the bud, but the presidency launched a public relations campaign after the rumors spread across the country for five days. The state-run press ran news of the president’s meetings as he made public appearances in visits to Smart Village and to factories in Borg El-Arab. Later, he met with King Abdullah of Jordan, Quartet Middle East Envoy Tony Blair and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema in Alexandria, all with extensive coverage in the state-run press to defuse speculation.
First Lady Suzanne Mubarak appeared on pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya and declared that the president’s health was “excellent, and he is as active as ever. I’m bemused as to who would benefit from spreading these rumors that make the public confused.” She said that those spreading the rumors should be punished.
Seventy-nine-year-old Mubarak, who has been president for more than a quarter of a century, underwent surgery for a slipped disc in 2004 and suffered a minor health scare while delivering a televised speech the year before.
Speaking to Al-Ahram last month, the president said he believed the rumors were politically motivated and produced by “illegitimate movements,” alluding to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement.
As if on cue, Sheikh Al-Azhar Mohammed Sayed Tantawi promptly condemned the rumormongers, declaring that, “Islam and all heavenly religions prohibit promotion and fabrication of false rumors.”
The Muslim Brotherhood denied spreading the rumors. Deputy Supreme Guide Mohamed Habib issued a statement announcing that “our Islamic values do not agree with such actions. We don’t do these things and we are against anyone who does. We are supportive of the president’s well-being and his ability to perform his duties properly for the greater good of the country.”
Brotherhood or not, it was the media that took the fall. Under article 76 of press law, the press can be held criminally liable for spreading false information that would distract the public and create panic. The Central Bank released a statement saying that the rumors prompted the “withdrawal of foreign investments worth more than $350 million in the two days of publishing these rumors.”
The wheels were quickly set in motion and a committee of the Higher Press Council (HPC) proceeded to review all articles published concerning the health rumors. Within days, the State Security Prosecutor had summoned 41-year-old Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the independent daily El-Dostour, for questioning over the rumors.
Eissa has become known for his confrontational style of journalism and anti-government, anti-Mubarak writings. El-Dostour itself had carried front-page stories for several days, including one that contended Mubarak sometimes lapses into comas. The paper has previously been closed by the government for seven years in 1998, and in 2006 Eissa was sentenced to a year in prison for libeling the president, although an appeals court reduced the sentence to a LE 20,000 fine.
The El-Dostour editor told local media he was shocked at the summoning.
“All the independent and state dailies have written about the subject and no one else has been summoned. This is a way of settling scores with El-Dostour and with me for all I that have written.” He went on to claim that “they are using me to scare journalists and critics from criticizing Mubarak or from talking about the possibility of his son inheriting power.”
Eissa was charged with disturbing the peace and harming national interests. At press time, he was to be transferred to Bulaq Court to be tried on October 1, and under Articles 102 and 188, could face up to three years in prison if convicted.
In a separate trial concluded in mid-September, Eissa and three other editors-in-chief each received one-year prison sentences and LE 20,000 in fines from Agouza Criminal Court — and not for the health rumors. They were charged with insulting the president and the governing National Democratic Party (NDP) as well as with a new offense of insulting the “symbols” of the party: Mubarak and his son.
The state-run daily Al-Ahram alleged, in a front-page story on the sentence, that “the accused used their pensto disseminate liesby exploiting their press rights. The phrases that included the insults were not in the public interest, but were there to vilify and degrade the symbols of the NDP and exceeded the limits of criticism.This confirms violating the principles of the Press Charter by publishing false newsthat was not proven to be true.”
The lawsuit was filed against the editors of the opposition weeklies in early 2007 by a lawyer allegedly affiliated with the NDP. Eissa and co-defendants — Adel Hammouda of Al-Fajr, Wael El-Ibrashy of Sawt El-Ummah and Abdel-Halim Kandil of Al-Karama — are appealing the verdict.
The men are free pending the outcome of the appeal.
Rights groups including the Egyptian Organization for Human rights have expressed “deep concern” about the plan to try Eissa and have called for the elimination of all prison sentences for so-called “publishing offenses.”
“Youth Speak, We Listen”
At a three-day international forum, more than 500 youth from over 100 countries gathered in Sharm El-Sheikh in early September to discuss their views on peace and youth empowerment. The platform, titled “The Power of Youth for Peace,” was provided by the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement and is the first of its kind to take place in the Middle East and North Africa.
The forum brought delegations from all over the world together to discuss peace building and globalized networks. The participants discussed obstacles to peace and what people can do to encourage development and leadership.
“Youth are central to the process of peace,” the First Lady pointed out in her speech, noting that it’s “not just because they are the stakeholders of our future, but because many of them are already playing decisive roles in shaping our future. We must listen to them.”
The forum had a special focus on information and communication technology, with both Microsoft International President Jean-Philippe Courtois and Egyptian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Tarek Kamel in attendance, talking with youth about the future of tech in community development.
Participants, ranging in age 18-25, networked over the three days, discussing leadership and youth activism. The youth in attendance were extremely active within their home communities, having started their own NGOs, gone on cultural exchanges, or worked with youth development groups. For Barbara Kreissler, the UNIDO project manager who spoke at the conference about ICT and development, communication was the key for youth at this conference.
“Young people don’t have these pre-fixed ideas on things, and for me, its a very different atmosphere [from] what I usually see. In a lot of conferences everybody just likes to listen to themselves and there is no real interaction and communication and that is very different here,” says Kreissler. “There is a spirit of listening to each other and also, I have to say I learned a lot from the young guys that have spoken. I really admire the passion that they have.”
Although legal experts say a governor does not technically have the authority to shut down an NGO, Cairo Governor Abdel-Azeem Wazir has done just that.
Last month, Wazir issued a decree ordering the dissolution of the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid (AHRLA). A bewildered public didn’t know what to believe, especially after independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm ran a report saying that the justification for the closure was the misappropriation of funds. A week later, the state-owned daily Al-Akhbar told a different story, reporting that the decree was issued based on the lack of a permit from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which would allow AHRLA to receive funding from international donor agencies.
The association’s members and staff have since announced the creation of the Human Rights Legal Aid Group and issued a statement saying that they had been expecting the dissolution decree not only because of “the governing state’s corruption,” but because AHRLA had been an advocate for the man on the street since its inception.
The group’s members declared they would not stop providing legal aid to victims of human rights violations and would appeal the governor’s decision before the Administrative Court. They demanded that the NGO’s financial ledgers be referred to the Central Auditing Authority, because, according to them, “the arguments used to justify this decision are only pretexts and absurd justifications. The association did not commit any violations necessitating its dissolution.”
With four offices and more than 30 employees, AHRLA was one of the first NGOs to speak out against torture in Egypt and to publish torture victims’ firsthand accounts. Prior to their closure, AHRLA had been involved in the first lawsuit alleging a serving State Security officer had engaged in torture.
The case ended in his acquittal in early September.