“Journalism is a profession of martyrdom on paper. If you’re not ready to die on the writing pad or go to prison, look for another job. The press’ job is not to applaud. Being a journalist means not saying what the authorities want you to say, but what people need you to say.”
-- Wael El-Abrashi, executive editor-in-chief of Sawt El-Umma
The extraordinary trial led to unprecedented street demonstrations in support of the two defendants -- Judge Hisham Bastawisy and Judge Mahmoud Mekki. That together with the backlash in the opposition press forced an unprecedented hasty retreat by Mubarak’s government. Both judges were eventually acquitted.
As might be expected, the Egyptian government doesn’t like losing a case in its own kangaroo courts. Any retreat in the face of the emerging opposition is considered a sign of weakness that could only encourage others to join the ranks of an increasingly vocal group of dissidents.
The first target of the regime’s ire was Ayman Nour who was found guilty of contesting Mubarak in last year’s presidential elections. Just for the record, Nour confessed his guilt. He had no other choice because there were millions of witnesses that can testify to the fact that he did indeed run a quixotic campaign to unseat Mubarak.
But Nour wasn’t locked up for his real crime. He’s currently serving a five-year sentence on account of allegedly perpetrating fraud in setting up his tiny opposition party -- Al Ghad. Some of the thousands of signatures his supporters gathered to register the party were contested by the government -- an entity that is knee deep in serious corruption scandals.
In the latest sorry chapter of the government’s post-election vendetta, a major actor in rallying support for both Ayman Nour and the falsely accused judges is facing his own day in court. He’s merely a scribe who has a dangerous habit of recording in print what the vast majority of Egyptian citizens know to be the self-evident truth.
Egypt remains the kind of police state where people say pretty much what they please -- in cafes, in taxis and at social gatherings. But if you dare to convert public sentiment to ink on the front page of a major opposition paper -- watch out. Because, one way or another, the powers that be are going to figure a way to get their pound of flesh.
Stifling political dissent is an art form and some dictators are better at it than others. The thing about Mubarak is that he always goes for quality -- not quantity. They’ve got this Egyptian saying that if you beat down an unshackled man, the guy in leg irons is going to take notice.
So, it should surprise no one that the regime is now going after one of the undisputed lions of the Egyptian opposition press -- Wael El-Abrashi, the executive editor of Sawt Al-Umma. In the dock with her boss is Hoda Abu Bakr -- a tigress who is a prominent journalist with Abrashi’s paper. Remember these two names. Because if Egypt ever emerges from its dark night under authoritarian rule, these two scribes will deserve their fair share of the credit.
The government’s indictment is straightforward enough. El-Abrashi and Hoda Abu Bakr published a black list with the initials of the delinquent judges who looked the other way while the ruling party systematically fixed the recent parliamentary elections.
Was there ample evidence of wide spread vote tampering? Yes. Were security forces used to prevent supporters of the opposition from casting their vote? Yes. Is it true that many of the judges responsible for supervising the integrity of the elections looked the other way? Yes. Did El-Abrashi and Hoda Abu Bakr have the right to publicly identify the judges suspected in facilitating the ruling party’s well-documented fraud? Apparently not. In Egypt, that can lead to felony charges.
If El-Abrashi and Hoda Abu Bakr are guilty of anything, it is an unhealthy dose of audacity. They insist on exercising their right to challenge government corruption and are certified leaders in the campaign to obstruct Mubarak from installing his son as his successor. And since they live in a country ruled by a regime that doesn’t exactly encourage speaking truth to power, they will probably join Ayman Nour in confinement.
What possible defense does El-Abrashi have for exposing the initials of some of the ruling party’s collaborators who posed in judge’s robes while certifying the “integrity” of Egypt’s sham elections? Did El-Abrashi fail to notice that he lives and writes in a country ruled by a one-party state? Has the man forgotten his address? Did he mistake Egypt for Sweden?
And what was Hoda Abu Bakr thinking? Didn’t she realize she was taking a huge risk in participating in such a risky venture? In a male dominated society, she made a rash decision to identify the judicial culprits that legitimized a blatantly fraudulent election. What if Egyptian women start following her to the front lines of the battle for political reforms? Did she really expect to avoid jail time for posing a threat to an authoritarian regime unaccustomed to dealing with ‘impertinent’ journalists?
Isn’t it dangerous to have a lion and tigress armed with pens running around the public square with the declared intent of documenting what it’s like to vote like an Egyptian?
Wael El-Abrashi has voiced the opinion that journalists who can’t write the truth should stop writing and find other occupations. This man is obviously a subversive radical. If every Egyptian journalist had to go by Abrashi’s standard -- the government would have to shut down Al-Ahram and every other state-owned media outlet. Doesn’t Egypt already have enough people on the unemployment line?
Since the parliamentary elections, Mubarak’s regime has postponed municipal elections -- for two whole years. Ayman Nour is about to complete the first year of a five-year sentence. Many of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood now have cells in the same jail that houses the ex-presidential candidate. Promised constitutional reforms have yet to materialize.
Emergency laws that suspended constitutionally guaranteed civil rights are still in force. Esmat El- Sadat, a vocal opposition parliamentarian, was recently stripped of his immunity and sentenced to a year in prison. Ibrahim Issa, the editor of Al-Doustour, is facing a one-year prison sentence for “insulting the president.”
In his presidential campaign, Mubarak made a commitment to amend the press laws to prohibit the imprisonment of journalists for “publishing crimes.” Wael El-Abrashi can tell you this remains a pipe dream.
There is no mistaking the intent behind the regime’s post-election hyper activity. It’s part of the ruling party maneuvers to pave a path for Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father as the next president. The valley of the Nile is about to be converted into a hereditary dictatorship. End of story.
The trial of El-Abrashi has elicited little support in the western press, even though his paper represents the rare secular voice to be found in an Egyptian opposition movement dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Supporting El-Abrashi poses a problem for the mass media barons in the United States and Europe. For one thing, he is a pan-Arab nationalist who supports the Palestinian cause and stridently opposed the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. It didn’t help matters when Sawt-Al-Umma gave sympathetic coverage to the Lebanese resistance and vigorously condemned Israel’s vicious and devastating assault against Lebanon.
To his credit, El-Abrashi has not let his legal troubles get in the way of voicing his opinions about the regime -- smack on the front page of his paper. The best way we can honor this man is to read and translate some of the words that will probably put him in jail for committing “felony publishing offenses.”
What follows is a sample from his most recent editorial. It was published under a bold headline “Kill the Whole Country.” El-Abrashi wrote these lines as he and Hoda Abu Bakr were heading to court to be tried for the felonious intent of demanding an investigation of the judges who facilitated the fraudulent parliamentary elections.
The system is confronting the citizenry -- the students, the professors, the workers, the farmers, the despondent youth, the journalists, the reformist opposition, the professional syndicates and the judiciary. Now, it’s taking on the pharmacists. Every day, the system wins a new enemy and another opponent. Every day it adds to the balance already accrued in its hate account.
The best description to what is going on in Egypt -- is that the government is on one side of the fence and the rest of society is on the other side. And the people are whispering “it’s us or them.”
The regime’s battle cry is “kill the whole country.” Beat the students and their professors, get rid of the journalists and the opposition and the reformist judges, bury the young in unemployment and suffocate the weak and simple folk with unbearable poverty.
At the end of the day, freedom will emerge victorious because of the sacrifices we are willing to make. If some of us fall before the system falls, so be it.
-- Wael El-Abrashi, Sawt Al-Umma, November 20, 2006
You got to hand it to this Lion scribe.
He is roaring his defiance all the way to his jail cell.
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