Cairo prison iPod blues

Beirut was flooded with liberal Arab activists over the weekend as the Network of Arab Liberals held a workshop here. MENASSAT schmoozed with some of the attendants, including Egypt's Amira Abdel-Fattah, who among other things revealed what her husband, Al-Dustour editor in chief Ibrahim Issa, will be listening to on his iPod in prison.

BEIRUT, March 31, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The workshop by the Network of Arab Liberals (NAL) was organized in collaboration with the German Friedrich Naumann Stiftung which advocates reform and democracy throughout the world from a liberal (free market) point of view. Discussion topics included political communication in the member states and the countries' media environments.

The workshop itself took place behind closed doors but MENASSAT schmoozed with two of the network's key players at the opening reception at the Crown Plaza hotel in Hamra on Friday night.

It was only two days Friday since one of Egypt's most outspoken newspaper editors, Ibrahim Issa of the daily independent Al-Dostour, was sentenced to six months in prison for writing a series of articles questioning the health of 79-year old Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

His wife, Amira Abdel Fattah, was in Beirut as a member of the Egyptian NAL division. She told MENASSAT that neither she nor her husband attended last Wednesday's court hearing.

"It has become somewhat of a tradition for us not to attend court hearings. It's for two main reasons. First, the court atmosphere is very tumultuous. You have the NDP Hesba lawyers screaming defaming slogans at you and calling you 'a disgrace to Egypt.' Anything can happen in that environment," Abdel Fattah said.

Secondly, the couple needs all the time they have to make the necessary preparations for Issa's appeal and possible prison sentence.

Issa was handed a six-month prison sentence on Wednesday for "publishing false information and rumors" about President Hosni Mubarak's health. Meanwhile, Judge Sherif Kamel reportedly threw out six other pending lawsuits against Issa that were related to his articles. Issa was allowed to remain free on a $37 bail pending his appeal.

In his articles, Issa had sarcastically raised the question whether Mubarak might be a God, "because Gods don't get sick."

"Ibrahim knew what he was doing. This is his job. There was a big rumor about Mubarak’s health deteriorating. Every Egyptian was talking about it. How can you ignore such an issue as a member of the press?,” Abdel-Fattah said.

Sheikh Imam's "Citadel Prison"

She also stressed the importance of local and international pressure from rights groups and the media in her husband's case.

"Ibrahim would have marked the first time Egypt tried a journalist before a military court. I think the pressure, both from inside and outside, helped convince the authorities to relocate the case to a civil court. I saw the documents."

When asked about Issa's current state of mind, she said that he is "fine" and that they will appeal in the case.

In the event that he will have to sit out his prison sentence, there is one bright spot: the prison authorities will allow him to bring his own iPod.

“This is progress in the Mubarak era," Issa himself said in earlier remarks. "Yes, they do torture you in your cell but they allow you to listen to your iPod!"

When asked what kind of music she would put on Issa's ipod when she sends him off to jail, Abdel Fattah said that Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam’s "Sign al-alaa," ("Citadel Prison") will be a given favorite.

On a more serious note, Abdel Fattah warned that the Egyptian authorities are constantly seeking new tools to suppress journalism in Egypt.

"As a journalist in Egypt, you have to live your life and do your reporting under constant threats and harassment," she said.

Several press freedom groups have recently voiced concern over Egypt's deteriorating press conditions.

In the fall of 2007, several Egyptian journalists were given prison terms for misquoting an Egyptian minister and writing about President Mubarak's health.

Abdel-Fattah attributed the crackdowns on the country's independent press to the fading legitimacy of the national government.

Free market

"When a government loses its credibility, it starts acting irrationally. It appears that's what's happening in the case of Egypt. The situation is very unpredictable at the moment. But something is due to happen. There are strikes almost every day. People are frustrated."

Alo present at Friday's reception was Dr. Ronald Meinardus, who is the regional director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Cairo.

Dr. Meinardus said the newly formed NAL aims to "promote liberal politics and empower individual freedom through liberal solutions" within the existing limited framework of political freedom in the Arab world.

"We plan to use the space granted to political liberal parties by Arab governments and work from there. You cannot implement democracy overnight. You have to work with what you are given."

Some of the strategies used by the NAL are education and youth empowerment. The network regularly organizes civic educational events such as youth leadership workshops.

"Education is often the key to empowerment. You just have to make sure that you are targeting the right audiences," Dr. Meinardus said.

In addition to working closely with human rights and activist groups, the network will also work with young entrepreneurs.

Why? Because the market is the place where "freedom and competition take place," said Meinardus, adding that the business society hosts many "progressive and liberal mind sets."

Moreover, Meinardus pointed out that the group aims to target the audiences that fall "in between the Islamists and semi-democratic governments."