- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

Leading Egyptian newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa waited patiently as his trial got under way on May 19, only to be surprised when the government tacked on an additional charge, distancing his chances of appealing the charges brought against him.

Already sentenced to one year in prison for “publishing false information likely to disturb public order,” the Al-Dustour chief listened as government attorney Samir El-Shestawy raised a civil claim against the embattled editor.

Mr. El-Shestawy has been a leading antagonist against Eissa. He previously raised criminal charges against the editor over 2007 articles surrounding rumors of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ill health. That case was thrown out of court in March.

That did not stop Mr. El-Shestawy from trying to win over the court on new crimes. He used his children, who were present in court, as a means of garnering support for what critics say is a way of “settling political scores” against Eissa.

“They [his children] entered my office crying about what they had read concerning President Mubarak’s health,” Mr. El-Shestawy told the court.

He said the articles in Al-Dustour had “deeply disturbed” his children and requested that they be allowed to give testimony in court.

“My claim against Ibrahim Eissa is not a personal dispute between me and him. It concerns articles written in an unacceptable style, which presented extreme details about the president’s health,” the lawyer argued.

It has been a long road for Eissa, who is facing yet another charge. Last year, in what the local press called “Black September,” the Al-Dustour editor and colleagues Wael el-Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Abdel Halim Qandil of Al-Karama and Adel Hammouda of the weekly Al-Fagr, were given one-year prison terms.

In total, 11 journalists received jail sentences in September 2007 for charges that varied from insulting Mr. Mubarak’s party to insulting the president himself. Eissa’s appeal case was postponed until today, when the court will reconvene to make a decision on the case that since its first stirrings has not interested foreign media or foreign governments.

In President Bush’s recent jaunt in the Middle East, stopping in Egypt to attend the World Economic Forum on the Middle East at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, there was not a word spoken of the editor, only a reference to political crackdowns.

“Too often in the Mideast, politics has consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail,” Mr. Bush said.

“America is deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners in this region, as well as democratic activists who are intimidated or repressed, newspapers and civil society organizations that are shut down and dissidents whose voices are stifled.”

Al-Wafd editor Anwar Al-Hawary, who also has been the subject of the Egyptian government’s crackdown, says that the belief that Washington supports freedom and democracy in the region has waned following the optimism that Mr. Bush created before the 2005 presidential elections here.

“We don’t see America as a solution anymore, not since Bush doesn’t put pressure on Mubarak to change things,” said Al-Hawary, who, like Eissa, is appealing court sentences against him. Last year, a Cairo judge sentenced the Al-Wafd editor to two years in prison and one-month of hard labor for news reports that “threaten the national sentiment.”

These press conundrums come less than two years since parliament legislated a controversial press statute that maintained prison sentences for journalists in the nation. In 2005, Mr. Mubarak promised to end jail terms for journalists, but international rights groups, notably Amnesty International has said this law and government actions have “curtailed freedom of expression.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who monitors press worldwide, agrees.

“The growing number of court cases brought against Egyptian journalists is in complete contradiction with Hosni Mubarak’s electoral program,” the international press freedom organization said.

“The deterioration in relations between the independent and opposition press is a reminder that freedom to inform can never be taken for granted. Egyptian journalists, although freer than their colleagues in the Arabic world, have to face a return to censorship and control of the media,” the organization said.

The more traditional reporting media are not the only segment that is being threatened by free speech. Eissa and his fellow editors’ cases have been sidelined by the international press in favor of bloggers who have felt the wrath of Cairo.

The poster child of Egyptian bloggers has been Kareem el-Beheiri, who was detained on April 6 at the government-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company he worked at in the northern Delta town of Mahalla. Riots broke out in the city on April 6, lasting a few days and leaving at least three people dead and hundreds more arrested.

Rights groups, including RSF and Amnesty, have called for el-Beheiri’s release. It comes less than a week after Human Rights Watch criticized and condemned the treatment of Ahmed Maher Ibrahim, 27, who was stripped, beaten and threatened with rape after using the social networking Web site Facebook to support calls for a May 4 general strike.

Egyptians have been using Facebook as a means of galvanizing support for boycotts and mass demonstrations. According to the social networking site, as many as 70,000 people were members of a group supporting the April 6 and May 4 general strikes.

Over the past few months, Egypt has witnessed a number of strikes and protests against low wages and price rises.

According to RSF, Egypt has 6 million Internet users “and its blogosphere is one of the most active in the Middle East.”

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