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Egypt's opposition press strains at leash of newfound freedoms. Pushes to get freedoms guaranteed by law, not just presidential whim

In a bold move to expand and ensure press freedom granted by President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's newspapers have launched a campaign attacking the nation's tough interior minister. The Wafd newspaper, the organ of the opposition New Wafd Party, is leading the assault on the interior minister, Maj. Gen. Zaki Badr. Wafd editor Mustapha Sherdy criticizes the minister daily for his abrasive style and for practices such as the frequent use of emergency laws to detain political opponents.

State of emergency laws were placed in effect after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat and were renewed for a two-year period in April of 1986.

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Mr. Sherdy would like to oust General Badr and says at the very least he will sue the minister over a personal insult.

But much more is behind the crusade than that. Sherdy is using his paper and journalistic freedoms to campaign to have those freedoms protected by law, not just granted at a president's whim. Egypt's 1971 Constitution and current statutes do not guarantee civil liberties such as the right to publish, to strike, or to form political parties.

``In fact, we have a freedom we didn't have for 35 years,'' Sherdy says of the reigning atmosphere. ``We are trying to make that window of freedom larger. We believe it is our duty.''

``This is a result of democracy, of course,'' says an Interior Ministry spokesman. ``If the press had done this three or four years ago, they would have gone to prison.''

``Ministers were usually attacked only when they were out of office,'' says Tahsin Bashir, a government advisor and political analyst. ``This indicates that the press is getting more freedom.''

Anwar Sadat, Mr. Mubarak's predecessor, legalized several opposition parties and their newspapers. But in a 1981 crackdown against political opponents, Sadat shut them back down.

Mubarak has since revived the parties and their newspapers. During his seven years in office, he has repeatedly declared his commitment to democratic freedoms. As a result, it would be difficult for him to backslide.

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Today, the government allows virtually unbridled criticism - and frequent unreliable reporting - in the opposition press.

The Wafd, which began publishing in 1984 and went daily last March, sets the pace for the muckrakers. The newspaper is so chock full of allegations of official corruption and police scoops that it has become required reading for the politically attuned in Cairo. Its circulation has soared to 200,000 per day, placing it third in the country, even above one of the government-owned papers.

The other opposition newspapers have struggled to keep apace. Even the more firmly controlled government press gives greater play to stories on corruption, Sherdy says. The government press has become bolder ``within reason,'' says Mr. Bashir.

The rest of the opposition press, to some degree, has jumped on the bandwagon in attacking Badr. The three government-owned newspapers, which frequently ignore controversial subjects, have covered the dispute to an unprecedented extent.

The opposition press never liked Badr. But the vituperation has escalated in the last few weeks.

According to Sherdy, plainclothes policemen roughed up several of his reporters. Then, according to one newspaper, the minister accused a newsman of being a drug addict. The attacks on the minister in the opposition press intensified and Badr, in an apparent fit of pique, called one journalist a liar.

Opposition pressmen asked President Mubarak, by letter, to call his minister to task. Finally, Badr agreed to appear before Cairo's press syndicate.

``We were waiting for him to apologize,'' said Sherdy in an interview. ``But in the first sentence, he said he wouldn't and that he wouldn't stand for what the opposition is writing about him.''

The minister's hard line angered the journalists. And, as the battle stands today, Badr is on the retreat. The minister has agreed, as a first step, to allow opposition journalists to cover his ministry, a concession they have been seeking for some time. And, according to the Interior Ministry spokesman, Badr is seeking a reconciliation with his b^ete noire, Sherdy. ``We will offer him an interview with the minister,'' the spokesman says.

Analysts doubt Mubarak will bow to pressure to dismiss Badr. Nevertheless, the dispute highlights the enormous steps the press has taken during the Mubarak years.

``We can criticize many of the measures of the government which are undemocratic,'' according to Phillip Galab, secretary general of the Syndicate of Journalists, the government-sanctioned professional association. ``But to be fair, we must say we have freedom of the press.''

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