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Amid crackdown, Egyptian journalist remains cheerfully defiant

Liz Sly

By Liz Sly Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CAIRO, Egypt -- When rumors that President Hosni Mubarak was sick began circulating in Cairo in late August, editor Ibrahim Eissa weighed in with some of the biting commentaries that have earned his Al-Dustour newspaper a devoted readership.

"The president in Egypt is a god and the gods don't get sick," he wrote in a front-page editorial Aug. 30, questioning why no one in the government would address the 79-year-old president's reported illness. "Mubarak's state wants to present the President as someone who is sanctified, who makes no mistakes and who no one questions and no one competes against."

Within days, charges of defamation and of damaging the country's economy were brought against him. His trial started Oct. 1. Meanwhile, on Sept. 13, a court sentenced him to a year in prison on an outstanding charge of criticizing Mubarak's son and presumed heir, Gamal Mubarak, by saying that he was not yet ready to rule the country.

"When you are a free reporter in an un-free society you expect such things to happen," said Eissa, 42, who is appealing the sentence yet remains cheerfully defiant about the prospect that he may go to jail.

"However," he added, "the idea that I could be taken away from my children because of something I wrote is to me outrageous."

Eissa's entanglement with authorities is part of what some say is becoming the harshest crackdown against Egypt's media in years.

Since opening the door briefly to greater freedoms in 2005, the Egyptian regime has spent most of the past year trying to close it again. Liberal and leftist opposition activists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, judges, professors and bloggers have all been harassed, detained or imprisoned.

In the past three weeks, at least five editors and two journalists have been sentenced to prison for articles they wrote. None has yet been jailed and all are appealing their sentences.

But Eissa is convinced that the government means business, and that at least some of those convicted will be going to jail, including himself because he is the man most closely identified with criticisms of the president.

"A lot of people believe I'm the only one who will end up in jail," he said. "Everybody knows they don't like Ibrahim Eissa and they want to stop Ibrahim Eissa from writing."

Indeed, Eissa's Al-Dustour has become identified with a new form of journalism in Egypt -- feisty, controversial and critical of Mubarak, who had previously been off-limits to Egypt's historically fettered press.

Al-Dustour "has actually changed the culture. Attacking the president was a taboo. It has severely undermined the cult of personality around him," said Mohammed El-Sayed Said, who edits the independent Badeel newspaper. He was charged last month with defamation for criticizing the lawyers from the ruling National Democratic Party who brought the charges against the other journalists.

Eissa launched his paper in 1995, but it was closed three years later. Then, when Mubarak announced that he was permitting multi-party elections in 2005, Al-Dustour returned, quickly blazing a trail into the forbidden territory surrounding the president, whom Eissa routinely compares to the godlike pharaohs who ruled Egypt more than 7,000 years ago.

"We have this habit of turning presidents into gods," he sighed. "When Bush got a biscuit stuck in his throat everyone in America wrote about it, but for anyone here to write about the president's health is unthinkable."

Many Egyptian newspapers reported the Mubarak health rumors, which were triggered after he dropped out of sight for at least a week, but Eissa was the only one charged for doing so. Though Mubarak is now back in the public eye and the government has strenuously denied that he was ill, Eissa defends his columns focusing on the reasons why such rumors spread so easily in a repressive society.

"We wrote about the rumor; we did not spread it. It's a big difference," he said in an interview at his drab Cairo office, adorned with pictures of his heroes, Che Guevara and the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

Though Eissa is undoubtedly a prime target of the regime's wrath, the range of issues and journalists targeted suggests a broader effort to muzzle the media, said Adil Hamouda, whose Al-Fagr weekly has built its reputation on exposing corruption.

Hamouda is among those sentenced last month, to a year in jail, for a story published in 2006 about the embezzlement by top officials of charitable funds. He responded to the sentence by republishing the article.

"If you look at whom they're targeting, it's a huge cross-section," he said.

Journalists attribute the crackdown to a range of factors. The ruling NDP is holding a crucial congress next month at which Gamal Mubarak is likely to be confirmed as heir to his aging father. A wave of labor unrest has made the government edgy. A business boom has increased opportunities for corruption among an elite keen not to have their activities scrutinized.

The White House has condemned the clampdown, saying it "appears to contradict Egypt's stated commitment to expand democratic rights."

Mubarak, whose country receives nearly $2 billion a year in U.S. military and economic aid, responded by saying he would "not accept pressure or interference in our internal affairs." Officials from the ruling party, which brought the charges, did not return phone calls.

The journalists say they will not be cowed. "We have become part of this world," Hamouda said. "They cannot silence us now."

Eissa, meanwhile, is preparing for the possibility that he will be spending time in one of Egypt's nightmarish prisons.

"I've found out that I'm allowed to take my iPod," he said cheerfully. "This is progress in the Mubarak era. Yes, they do torture you in your cell, but they allow you to listen to your iPod!"

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