Despite presidential pardon, Egypt's Issa remains defiant

On October 6, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak gave outspoken editor and journalist Ibrahim Issa a presidential pardon after he had been sentenced to prison for questioning the health of the 81-year old President. MENASSAT met exclusively with Issa and talked about the state of journalism in Egypt and about what to expect if Mubarak's son Gamal inherits the presidency.
Issa doustour
Ibrahim Issa has promised that his presidential pardon will not affect the editorial line of Al-Dustour. © Alexandra Sandels

CAIRO, October 14, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It is late afternoon and the office of Al-Dustour newspaper in Cairo's Giza district is bustling with life. In his office at the end of the corridor a smiling Ibrahim Issa sits in an armchair, flanked by photos of Ché Guevara and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The editor in chief of Al-Dustour, Ibrahim Issa was just given a pardon by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak after he was sentenced to two months in jail for articles in which he questioned the president's health. 

"I already thanked the president for this clever and courageous step. I think that is enough. They realized they made a mistake. We have nothing against the president personally; we have a problem with his policies," Issa told MENASSAT in an exclusive interview this week.

"And when it comes to presidential pardons... I fight for this to be the rule and not the exception."

Like a landmine

Presidential pardons aside, Issa is far more concerned with the state of the press and press freedom in Egypt. He says Egyptian journalism suffers from an arsenal of laws that negate freedoms.

"It's like a landmine that can burst in your face at any time. Thirty-three different articles in the press law? And violating any one of them is a horrible crime in Egypt."

At least seven journalists were sentenced in September 2007 to up to two years in prison on charges ranging from misquoting the justice minister to spreading rumors about the president.

In his articles, Issa cast doubt on the health of 81-year-old Mubarak, ironically raising the question whether the president was in fact human at all because, after all, "Gods don't get sick."

"The state wants to present Mubarak as a sacred person who never does anything wrong and with whom nobody can compete," Issa wrote in one of his pieces.

The prosecution claimed that Issa's articles harmed Egypt's economy after foreign investors allegedly pulled out investments worth more than $350 million from the Egyptian stock exchange.

Issa was first sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of LE 200 or $36 against which he appealed.

On September 28, Issa's appeal was rejected and the editor was sentenced to two months in prison.

He was granted a presidential pardon by Mubarak on October 6.

'Fascist action'

Issa's case had attracted widespread attention from both local and international media. Rights groups continuously rallied for the Egyptian authorities to acquit the editor, claiming the case had weak legal grounds.

"Sending journalists to prison is a fascist action in a backward country like Cuba or Yemen and it happens here in Egypt too. The government must realize that putting journalists in prison is a disaster," said Issa.

"I don't think journalists should be happy about the pardon. They shouldn't show any gratitude. They should make a move to stop this bleeding wound."

Following the pardon, speculations arose among the public that Al-Dustour might lower the tone in its criticism of the regime.

Issa fired back immediately, promising that the content of his paper will not change just because Mubarak pardoned him.

"People think that it will help lower the voice of the opposition. That is not true! We had an editorial meeting immediately after the pardon was given and we published a statement saying we will not change our strategy," he said.

Financial menace

While Al-Dustour claims it will maintain its current policy, the Egyptian authorities appear to be changing theirs in order to keep tabs on the independent newspapers by imposing hefty fines on starving papers.

On Saturday, a Cairo civil court fined Adel Hammouda, editor in chief of the independent daily Al-Fajr, and a journalist from the same paper, Mohamed Al-Baz, LE 80,000 or roughly $14,500 each in a case brought by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawy.

Tantawy had filed the law suit around one month ago when Al-Fajr ran the controversial article by Al-Baz titled, 'The Grand Vatican Sheikh,' in which Sheikh Tantawy was depicted as the Vatican pope dressed in a robe with a large cross around his neck in a photo montage accompanying the article.

"We're happy that they're not going to prison, but if we were fined LE 160,000 ($29,000) it could cause our closure. The press law not only holds writers responsible but also publishers. What publisher is going to be willing to risk his cash? I don't think editors like Adel Hammouda will change, but the publishers might. Independent journalism is in a tight spot, facing financial abuse," said Issa.

On December 6, Issa will be back in the courtroom, facing an additional lawsuit along with three other Egyptian editors for defaming the president and his aides. The case was raised last year by Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

What might Issa do if he himself is faced with a big fine this time around?

"I would be happy to pay LE 1 million ($181,000) in fines if there was justice in the case. But there are no independent judges. The whole judiciary system is biased," he sighed.

Who will stop for Gamal Mubarak?

Not a big fan of the policies of the Mubarak-regime, Issa has also cast doubt on the popularity of the 81-year old Mubarak's son Gamal who many believe will take over the Egyptian presidency after his father.

"Not even a taxi will stop for Gamal Mubarak," goes the saying on the street, and that belief persists.

"Not even a tuk tuk [a three-wheel taxi, Ed.] will stop for Gamal Mubarak at this point," grinned Issa. :He is not popular on any level. People don't like him. His only chance is if Mubarak puts him in power before he dies."

The popularity of the regime set aside, Egypt has been marred recently by a series of highly publicized catastrophes and controversial events, sparking anger on the Egyptian streets and casting even more doubt on the authorities.

At the end of August, a huge fire demolished the historic building of the Shoura Council in Cairo. A week later, a rockslide killed over 100 people living in a Cairo shanty town – a tragedy in which the authorities were accused of failing to act.

The day before Issa was handed his prison sentence, Cairo's National Theater caught fire.

How much longer can the government control the anger of the people?

"There is no policy for this. They will continue to do what they have traditionally done: practicing oppression, stopping demonstrations and putting journalists in prison. Their instincts are always the same," said Issa.

What are the hopes for the political opposition in times likes this then?

Issa is dismissive.

"We don't have an opposition anymore. There is the Muslim Brotherhood, but they of course have their own agenda. For example, we're faced by a big capitalist financial crisis. The left should be talking about it. Where are they?"