OPINION: Bush’s message to Egyptian democrats — you’re on your own

Forsaking the Egyptian free press

Two years ago, political liberalization in Egypt was at the center of Bush’s attention, and Kassem’s newspaper, al-Masri al-Yom (the Daily Egyptian), was at the forefront of a fragile Cairo Spring. With Mubarak under pressure from Washington, Kassem was able to employ journalists who reported critically on domestic issues and secular liberal columnists whose voices had previously been stifled. Other newspapers soon rushed into the gap, some of them aggressively populist. Taboos on criticism of Mubarak and his family were broken. By this year, the new independent press had captured a quarter of overall newspaper circulation, compared with just 3 percent four years ago.

The free press survived even as Mubarak moved methodically to crush other nascent centers of opposition in the past 18 months, including liberal political parties, a movement of judges seeking greater independence for the courts, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this month, irritated by press speculation about his failing health, the 79-year-old president turned on the newspapers. First, one of the most fiery independent editors, Ibrahim Eissa of the newspaper al-Dustor, was charged by a state prosecutor with disturbing the peace and, even more absurdly, harming Egypt’s economic interests. A trial date was set for Oct. 1.

Two days later, on Sept. 13, Eissa and three other newspaper editors were hauled into court and sentenced to a year in prison for publishing articles critical of Mubarak; his son and presumed heir, Gamal; and other government officials. It was the biggest single assault on the press in Mubarak’s quarter-century in power and one of the worst blows in years to media freedom in the Arabic-speaking world.

Yet there was no reaction from the State Department or the White House, which Kassem once credited with helping to create the space his newspaper occupied. [complete article]

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