CAIRO, (AP) – A leading independent Egyptian daily has fired its chief editor, an outspoken government critic, amid what journalists are calling a state crackdown on the media ahead of parliamentary elections.
Ibrahim Eissa’s dismissal from Al-Dustour, announced in the paper Tuesday, comes as uncertainty has grown over Egypt’s political future, with parliamentary elections less than two months away and constant speculation about the health of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. Presidential elections are set for next year.
Eissa had long been a vocal critic of the government. Over the weekend, he was pulled from a popular talk show he hosted on a private satellite TV station, which the Journalists’ Union condemned as “an organized attack on media freedoms.”
Before his firing from the newspaper, Eissa warned of a government campaign against any criticism in the media, especially in light of approaching elections that activists expect to be marred by widespread fraud.
“The Egyptian regime cannot give up cheating in elections, so the only solution for the authorities is to stop any talk about rigging, rather than stopping the rigging itself,” Eissa wrote in an editorial in Al-Dustour on Sunday. “So the result is the silencing of satellite channels … and then the turn of the newspapers will come.”
Al-Dustour reported on its website early Tuesday that the paper’s mogul publisher Elseyed el-Badawi fired Eissa on Monday. The editor, however, claimed he was still in charge of the daily’s online edition. Neither of the two could immediately be reached for comment.
At the paper’s Cairo office, reporters reached by phone said they were the only ones who showed up for work Tuesday while editors and management staff were absent.
Later the journalists issued a statement saying that they rejected Eissa’s dismissal. “Without Ibrahim Eissa the paper will be tasteless, colorless and odorless,” said the statement posted on the paper’s website.
Egypt’s media, television in particular, were tightly controlled in the past and restricted to positive coverage of government activities. But an explosion of privately owned satellite stations over the past five years has brought programming that pushed government boundaries when discussing politics.
El-Badawi, a businessman who heads the opposition Al-Wafd Party, bought Al-Dustour in August shortly after he was elected to the party post. At the time, there was speculation he would fire Eissa in a move that would bring him and Al-Wafd closer to the government. Al-Wafd is expected to field a large number of candidates in the November election.
Al-Dustour has been sharply critical of the government and often breaks political, social and religious taboos in commentaries on Egyptian society. Its sharp language earned it the ire of censors and it was shut down in 1998 for seven years.
In 2008, Eissa was sentenced to two months in prison on charges of insulting Mubarak after he reported about the president’s health. Mubarak later pardoned him.
The first sign of the latest media crackdown came in early September, when private and opposition newspapers were ordered to pull reports of a street poster campaign supporting the powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for president. Journalists and editors were barred from writing about the story in subsequent issues and the posters were removed.
The question of who will succeed Egypt’s ruler of almost 30 years has gained added urgency since Mubarak traveled to Germany earlier this year for surgery to remove his gallbladder and a benign growth in the small intestine.
Mubarak has not yet announced whether he will run for a sixth term in 2011 presidential elections. Many believe his 46-year-old son Gamal, a powerful figure in the ruling party, is being groomed to succeed him.
Another program, the 12-year-old “Cairo Today” was also shut down Monday. Like Eissa’s talk show, it was broadcast on a private satellite TV network. Information Minister Anas el-Fiqqi told The Associated Press the closure of Orbit TV’s “Cairo Today” had no political dimension and was only because the network had not paid its bills, though officials from the station have disputed that.