Area: 1,001,450 sq.km.
Head of state: President Hosni Mubarak
Egyptian intellectuals and media are rallying to stop President Mubarak from seeking a fifth term of office at elections in 2005. Self-censorship is meanwhile increasing among journalists as pressure grows to re-islamicise Egyptian society.
President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, stressed the need for extensive political reforms in his annual speech to parliament in November 2004 because, he said, with presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2005, the time had come to make laws about the country’s political life. He called on MPs to pass government measures about trade unions and political parties and revising legal penalties affecting the media.
He said an opposition was an "inseparable part" of the country’s "democratic structure" and that civil society had a role to play. The government approved creation of the openly reformist Al-Ghad, the third opposition political party authorised in the past quarter-century, in late December. The party said it would launch a newspaper and radio and TV stations.
Rumours that Mubarak planned to install his son Gamal, 41, a key figure in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), as his successor aroused hostility in the country and in the opposition press.
About 700 public figures, intellectuals and political movements launched an appeal in October to amend the national constitution to bar the president from standing for re-election. A well-known member of the national journalists’ union, Ibrahim Mansur, admitted that its chances of success were slim but said it was a warning to the regime that Egyptians would not give up hope of ending the NDP’s rule.
Two years in prison for libel
Mubarak promised in February to amend the 1996 press law and abolish prison sentences for press offences. He took no action but repeated his promise at the end of the year. Meanwhile journalist Ahmed Ezzedin, of the privately-owned weekly Al-Usbu, was sentenced to two years in prison in June for libelling deputy premier and agriculture minister Yussef Wali, whom he had accused a year earlier of lying. Ezzedin went into hiding after refusing to show up at his trial.
Despite its long history, almost all the country’s press is controlled by the government and attacks on press freedom are still common. Censorship was formally banned in the 1974 national constitution, except for foreign publications and during a state of emergency, which has been in force since 1981 and was renewed for another three years in February 2003 when demonstrations against the Iraq war began to grow.
Since the US-British invasion of Iraq, the government has ordered the media to avoid printing anything likely to stir up an already impassioned population or undermine relations with the United States.
But the state of emergency is no longer the regime’s main weapon to control the media. More insidious methods are now used while laws and the country’s strong social and religious taboos also curb press freedom.
The Supreme Press Council, which is supposed to meet each month to issue authorisations to set up new media, only meets once a year. Government-controlled newspapers, which have the biggest circulations, are in the hands of powerful pro-regime figures appointed by the government’s Advisory Council.
Hisham Kassem, editor of the weekly Cairo Times, which is licensed in Cyprus, says pro-government editors behave like regime officials and ensure self-censorship. The national journalists’ union, dominated by members from government papers, rarely criticises attacks on press freedom. But more and more editorials, even in the main pro-government daily Al-Ahram, openly criticise the ruling party’s monopoly of power and the regime’s corruption.
The opposition and foreign media have little room for manoeuvre as printing and distribution is done by government-controlled firms. Most papers have financial problems which the government uses very effectively to bring them to heel. The press is also corrupt, with the authorities and large firms buying its silence or collusion through bribes or purchase of advertising space.
All newspapers - pro-government, opposition or independent - censor themselves on matters involving the president and his family, the judiciary, the army and religion. Censorship and self-censorship imposed by zealots and Islamist movements are gaining ground in films, television and the written press. With 45% illiteracy, the print media is not as directly concerned as the broadcast media.
An unwritten rule also bans interviews with Israeli citizens and officials and journalists strictly observe it for fear of the secret police, being denounced by their colleagues or else because they believe it is right.
1 journalist was in prison
1 was given a prison sentence
Several others were physically attacked
and 1 expelled from the country
"Press freedom is fairly limited"
Abdel Halim Qandil, editor of the Nasserist weekly magazine Al-Arabi and one of the country’s most outspoken opposition journalists, was kidnapped and roughed up in Cairo on 2 November 2004 by plainclothes thugs who threatened to kill him if he continued to criticise "top people." Al-Arabi campaigned during the year against President Hosni Mubarak engineering a fifth term of office.
How is press freedom in Egypt these days?
Prison sentences for media offences remain the law despite Mubarak’s promise in early 2004 to abolish them. Courts can punish libel with damages, fines or imprisonment, which obviously encourages journalists to censor themselves.
The daily Al Shaab (The People), organ of the pro-Islamist Labour Party, closed down in 1998, five of its journalists were jailed and the paper was ordered to pay $3 million in damages for libelling former agriculture minister and deputy prime minister Yussef Wali. The paper is still suspended despite an appeal court ruling on 23 December 2004 allowing it to reappear. So press freedom is fairly limited and, more seriously, is threatened by current laws.
How would you rate 2004?
Difficult. I myself was physically attacked for criticising the government and the president’s aides. Several journalists were jailed for the same reason. Pro-government newspaper editors however stay on the job after the official retirement age of 65. Ibrahim Nafii has now edited the daily Al Ahram for 25 years.
But there were a few bright spots, such as Mubarak’s decision to allow newspapers run by businessmen, such as Al Misri Al Yum (The Egyptian Today), Nahdat Masr (Egyptian Renaissance) and Al Mawkif Al Arabi (Arab Opinion).
How does the censorship work?
Officially, newspapers haven’t been pre-censored for years, except for foreign ones, but in fact censors interfere with the three main pro-government dailies, Al Ahram, Al Akhbar and Al Jomhuriya, by controlling printing facilities and by the government’s appointment of editors. The regime also has a monopoly of broadcasting. The few independent media, such as the TV station Hilm (Dream) and the radio station Nujum FM (Stars FM), stick to non-political topics and don’t have news programmes.