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Freedom of Expression Endangered in Egypt

US must not ignore harassment of journalists abroad while committed to their rights at home

ONCE again the Egyptian government is harassing newspaper editors and journalists for publishing news items it sees as damaging to its public reputation. Most recently, the government interrogated Mahmoud Al-Maraghi, the editor of the Nasserite newspaper Al-Arabi, for publishing an interview with an Islamist leader. Mr. Maraghi was deemed ``a promoter of terrorism'' for publishing the interview. However, this charge rings hollow in Egypt since it is common knowledge that the Islamists consider the Nasserite their enemy and that Gamal Abdel Nasser executed many Islamic Brotherhood leaders. Al-Maraghi apparently was establishing a dialogue between two opposition groups that the government long has played off one against the other.

Two months earlier, the Egyptian police arrested Helmi Murrad, a 72-year-old columnist for the opposition newspaper Al-Shaab, for writing a series of articles on government corruption. Dr. Murrad was detained for two nights with street criminals in spite of his age and poor health. He was later released on $5,000 bond, paid by the Egyptian Association of Lawyers, since Murrad himself did not have the funds. He and other Al-Shaab journalists, including the newspaper editor-in-chief Magdi Hussein, are now facing trial for defaming the gov- ernment. The sentence for this charge is three years in prison.

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These journalists are addressing vital issues that concern the Egyptian public, unlike many of the writers of the government-controlled newspapers. This is why Al-Shaab is sold out an hour after it appears on the newsstands. And not only Islamists read Al-Shaab; Egyptian Christians also are avid readers of this supposedly Islamist newspaper because for the last six months Al-Shaab has been covering the dissent within the Egyptian Coptic church. Christian priests who are dissatisfied with the ``dictatorial'' style of Al-Anba Shinuda, the patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic church, are now regular Al-Shaab columnists. In addition to their critical views of the Pope of the Coptic Egyptian church, dissident priests like Father Anistasi Shafeeq and Father Ibrahim Abdelsayed have engaged the Islamists and Egyptian society at large on vital issues such as the implications of an Islamic state for the Coptic minority of Egypt. A lively dialogue is currently taking place between Muslims who criticize the government and priests who criticize the church.

The result is a convergence of views between leading Islamists in Egypt and dissident priests that points to the complexity of the Egyptian situation and casts doubt on the simplistic formula that views the struggle in Egypt as between Islamists and President Hosni Mubarak's government. The Islamists now seem to be forming an alliance with dissident priests and their followers, which suggests a revolt of the disenfranchised against old establishments, be they the Egyptian Muslim ruling class or the privileged class in control of the Coptic church.

Ironically, all the arrests and interrogation of journalists have occured after a call by Egypt's president for a national dialogue with the opposition concerning the ruling party's handling of Egypt's internal strife. Yet when journalists and opposition leaders voiced their criticism, they were harassed and imprisoned. However different in the proportion of repression, Mr. Mubarak's style is reminiscent of that of Mao Zedong's 1957 ``Hundred Flowers'' campaign. Chairman Mao then asked Chinese intellectuals to voice their criticism of the communst party for the good of China; when intellectuals did so, he arrested them. The motive behind Mao's campaign wasn't love of pluralism. In Mao's words, it was to ``let the demons and hobgoblins come out in order to wipe them out better, and let the seeds sprout to make it more convenient to hoe them.''

There is a feeling in Egypt that Mubarak's call for national dialogue is aimed at identifying his critics in order to jail them. Accusations of promoting terrorism are leveled not only at journalists who interview Islamists. Some 20 lawyers who have defended Islamists have been imprisoned. The list of arrested lawyers includes Hassan Ghirbawi, who has been arrested 30 times; Muwad Yussef, 15 times; and Shabban Ibrahim, 10 times. Some of these lawyers have been in jail for five years without trial. The only crime they have committed is that they agreed to represent Islamist clients in court.

Despite the lively dialogue between Islamists, Christian intellectuals, and priests on the pages of Al-Shaab and between the Islamists and the Nasserites on the pages of Al-Arabi, Egypt's ruling party is unhappy about the critical tone of these debates and thus calls them ``a promotion of terrorism.''

If writing about Islamists is a promotion of terrorism then, by Mr. Mubarak's logic, the New York Times, CNN, and Time magazine should be shut down because they all have interviewed Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Ironically, Mr. Hussein and Mr. Murrad were responding to allegations of Egyptian government corruption that had already appeared in the American press.

Egypt is in grave violation of human rights, and Western media and Western governments should speak out against it. To uphold the principles of freedom of expression for writers who attack religions and regimes unpopular in the US but ignore these principles when regimes allied with the US silence their writers is hypocrisy. America must reassure an already cynical region that freedom of expression is an American ethic, not a slogan manipulated to serve US foreign policy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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