Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Press Freedom

Q&A: Sacked for Writing Against the Egypt Regime

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani interview former editor ABDELHALIM KANDIL

CAIRO, Mar 26 2009 (IPS) - For years, Abdelhalim Kandil has been one of Egypt's most high-profile opposition journalists, known for writing hard-hitting articles critical of the ruling regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Kandil boasts an impressive track record, having worked as editor-in-chief of a number of the country's most widely-read independent and opposition newspapers, including Al-Arabi Al-Nassiri (2000-2006), Al-Karama (2006- 2007) and Sout Al-Umma (2008-2009). Kandil is also general coordinator of Egypt's pro-democracy Kefaya movement.

On Mar. 16, Kandil was abruptly removed from his position as editor-in- chief of Sout Al-Umma by the newspaper's publisher, Essam Ismail Fahmi, after he wrote a series of articles critical of some state officials and of the government's political and economic policies.

Excerpts from an interview with him:

IPS: Why were you forced from your position as editor-in-chief of Sout Al- Umma? Abdelhalim Kandil: I was removed from the post because I attempted to publish three articles that were extremely critical of the ruling regime. Ultimately, however, none of them were published in Sout Al-Umma – although they did appear online – because the government forced the publisher to remove them from print.

The first article criticised the Egyptian government's close and often secretive relationship with Israel; the second urged the army not to participate in government campaigns against the political opposition; and the third accused high-level state officials of liability in the 2006 Red Sea ferry tragedy (in which more than 1,000 Egyptians drowned due to negligence on the part of the ferry owner).

For all of these articles, the publisher of Sout Al-Umma came under pressure from security agencies and other sensitive state organs. For the last article, the pressure was applied directly by the presidency.

The publisher, Essam Ismail Fahmi, said that I could not work as editor-in- chief of the newspaper while simultaneously working as general coordinator for the Kefaya pro-democracy movement. But I must point out that I was working with Kefaya even before I took the position at the paper, and my political work never adversely affected my journalistic responsibilities. In fact, in the nine months that I ran Sout Al-Umma, the paper's distribution grew by three times, according to official figures.

I don't feel any ill-will towards Essam – it was very courageous of him to hire me in the first place. The government pressure campaign against him began as soon as I took over as editor-in-chief, and, ultimately, the pressure on him ended up being more than he could bear.

I'm prepared to suffer the consequences for what I write. Thank God, really, because much worse could have happened.

IPS: How much oversight do government censors generally have over Egypt's independent press? AK: There are no major privately-owned newspaper print houses in Egypt. Therefore, almost all opposition and independent broadsheets must be printed by state-run print houses, which gives official security agencies a chance to closely monitor them.

If government censors don't like what they see, they can pressure the publisher to remove the offensive content. This is what happened to my three articles.

IPS: What is the current state of Egypt's independent press in terms of journalistic freedom? What 'red lines' still hamper journalists? AK: Just as the state has succeeded in containing Egypt's political opposition parties, it has also succeeded in containing the opposition press.

We used to say that Egypt had an effective opposition press even if there weren't any effective opposition parties. But since 2000, when Egypt's Socialist Labour Party was closed down – along with its newspaper, Al-Shaab – there has not been any genuine opposition journalism. Opposition writers have been forced to avoid red line issues – namely, criticism of the president and his immediate family.

Most independent papers do enjoy a margin of journalistic freedom. However, the majority of these are owned by big business magnates who often enjoy close working relationships with the government. And these papers, too, are closely monitored by security agencies, which can indirectly influence what appears in print.

For example, two leading independent papers, Al-Masri Al-Youm and Al- Dustour heavily covered the nationwide general strike held on April 6 of last year (organised to protest runaway inflation and the lack of political change). But although a second strike is being planned for this April 6, both papers are writing precious little about it this time around.

In all of the newspapers that I have run, I have found the same pressure originating from the same quarters. This is due largely to the fact that in Egypt the same state officials remain in their positions year after year without end.

In terms of press freedom, I doubt Egypt will see any genuine improvements until after the death of the current ruler.

IPS: Is the state curtailing press freedom in response to rising popular displeasure with the government and its political and economic policies? AK: In light of the current global economic crisis, the government has become extremely sensitive to criticism, and appears to be fearful of a rising popular discontent fuelled by a vigorous opposition press. For this reason, the government has continued to closely dictate the boundaries of local press freedom, and has the capacity to issue administrative orders to close down newspapers critical of it. Therefore, I expect the scope of press freedom to decrease in the immediate future.

However, the government cannot entirely dictate terms to the general population, which appears ready to explode – not for political reasons, but because of Egypt's grim economic prospects. Egypt is already seeing a new labour strike almost every day because of rising inflation and increasingly difficult economic conditions.

Egypt's political opposition, meanwhile, is trying to take the anticipated popular explosion and turn it into a viable, grass-roots force for political change. Egypt is now at a crossroads, though, and – given the difficult political and economic circumstances – anything could happen.

IPS: Do you plan to continue writing in other venues? AK: For now, I will continue writing articles for (London-based daily) Al-Quds Al-Arabi. I am also thinking about returning to (independent weekly) Al-Arabi Al-Nassiri, maybe as early as next month.

I'm not sure, however, if I want to run another newspaper in Egypt. I don't want to bring government pressure down on another publisher, who will eventually be forced to invent reasons to fire me.

At the end of the day, I write for the people and not for the satisfaction of the ruling regime. And I intend to continue doing this for as long as I can.

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