Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (520)
In 1933, Tawfiq Diab, owner of Al-Jihad newspaper, was found guilty of defaming the government over a bill to build a reservoir. Diab's sentence was relatively light: three months in prison and a LE50 fine. Nevertheless, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* , the ruling would have serious ramifications on the future of the Egyptian press
On 27 February 1933, the Court of Cassations found Tawfiq Diab, owner of the Al-Jihad newspaper, guilty of defaming two government bodies: parliament and the parliamentary committee formed to study the Gabal Al-Awliya' Reservoir bill. Judge Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, who was presiding over the case, sentenced Diab to three months in prison with hard labour and fined him LE50. It was a grim day, not only in the life of a prominent Egyptian journalist but also in the annals of the Egyptian press. To make matters worse for Diab, on 31 March 1932, he had been sentenced to six months in prison in the so-called "forged letters" case. Although the sentence had been suspended, it would now go into effect along with the more recent ruling against him.
The proceedings in the 1933 case revolved around two articles appearing in Al-Jihad on 26 and 27 April 1932. Commenting on the Gabal Al-Awliya' Reservoir project, the articles warned of a "thunderbolt" that was about to descend upon Egypt and the Egyptian people. They proclaimed that "credit for this catastrophe will go, firstly, to Prime Minister Sidqi Pasha and, then, to his parliament." The author then expressed his anger at the many parliamentary members "who cheer the looming crisis and whose devotion to kowtowing to the government prevents them from so much as lending an ear to the technical experts who oppose the project". In bitingly sarcastic tones, the writer continues, "After having clung with attentive ear, keen eye and eager heart upon every truth and falsity and fact and folly that were issued so eloquently from the lips of the champions of courting disaster, the majority of the members of the Sidqi parliamentary committee refused to grant so much as a dust speck's weight of their kind and noble consideration to the technicians' opposing arguments." Finally, he asks, "What kind of conscience is it that brings you to entrust Egypt's neck to the British sword on the sole basis of the presumption of British good intentions? What emotion compels you to turn the Gabal Al-Awliya' crisis into a political party game, a means to dupe your adversaries among your fellow citizens and a way to show favour to your allies among the usurpers?"
Immediately after the articles appeared, the government filed suit against Al-Jihad and its owner on grounds of slander, setting into motion a lengthy chain of litigation. The first phase of this process ended on 3 January 1933 when the Egyptian Criminal Court, reconvening after a lengthy judicial recess, declared Diab innocent of the charges against him. In justification of the verdict, the presiding judge, Yassin Ahmed, rejected the prosecution's claim that the word, "rash", used in one of the articles to refer to the parliamentary committee that was studying the reservoir project, constituted no form of defamation and slander. "The word is used to describe a confused person who is heedless of the consequences of his actions," the court stated. The same applied to "daredevil", which referred to "an individual who is fearless of death or inexperienced". The judge concluded, "As the foregoing demonstrates that the articles in question are devoid of implications of slander or defamation, and as the prosecution has been unable to furnish proof to the contrary, the court rules that the defendant is innocent, in accordance with Article 50 of the criminal code."
The second phase of litigation began a few weeks later when the public prosecutor filed an appeal with the Court of Cassations. This court was of the opposite opinion. Reporting on 28 February 1933, on events of the previous day in the courtroom, which it described as "packed with the public and representatives of the press", Al-Ahram relates that after heated debate with the defence counsel, led by the famous lawyer and secretary-general of the Wafd Party, Makram Ebeid, the court accepted the prosecution's plea and pronounced Diab guilty. Apart from the lengthy prison sentence and hefty fine imposed on Diab, this was the first time in a case involving the freedom of opinion that the prison sentence was compounded with a sentence to hard labour. In other words, the court was treating a prominent journalist as though he were a common criminal.
Al-Ahram goes on to recount the scene in the offices of Al- Jihad, which were filled with well-wishers from the press, members of the Wafd and members of the public. At 10.30am on 28 February, the Sayeda Zeinab police commissioner, "accompanied by a force of police", informed Tawfiq Diab that he had come to execute the sentence. "[Diab] rose, bid farewell to his visitors and staff, then went to his home, located adjacent to his newspaper's offices, in order to bid farewell to his family. He then accompanied the police to Sayeda Zeinab Station where he spent the night. The following day, he was transferred to Misr Prison where he will serve out his sentence a total of a full nine months. Throughout this period, Diab was dressed entirely in his own civilian clothes."
Public opinion was in an uproar. Because of the gravity of the precedent, Diab's fellow journalists set aside political differences and rivalries as they moved into action.
For its part, Al-Ahram, on 28 February, featured an editorial warning of the ramifications of the ruling on the future of the press. At the moment, however, it did not wish to discuss the ruling itself as much as "the treatment of journalists during the execution of sentences against them". It was profoundly disturbed that "a journalist and master of the pen, a man of ideas and a leader of public opinion, and a person of refinement and erudition could be treated as an inveterate thief, a bloodthirsty killer or a hardened criminal who cannot be deterred from perpetrating crime and evil".
The article reminded readers that several years earlier the Press Syndicate had asked the government to treat its members with compassion and forbearance, as their counterparts were treated in civilised countries. In response, then Minister of Interior Tawfiq Nasim had instructed the director of the Prison Authority to treat journalists serving sentences "in a manner appropriate to and comfortable for them". Imprisoned journalists were thus "given separate rooms in which they could bring their own bed and they were allowed to have food brought from their homes, to read the current press, to meet with family members and the managers of their newspapers whenever they desired, to take walks outside the prison compound and other such dispensations".
But Al-Ahram did more than just publish commentaries. Editor-in- Chief Dawoud Barakat, along with Hussein Heikal, took the trouble of meeting with the deputy minister of interior. They pointed out that the government had already acknowledged the need for a law governing the treatment of members of the press involved in press violations involving opinion and publication and that a bill had already been studied and approved by the relevant committees and only awaited ratification by parliament. They therefore hoped that the provisions of this law would apply in the case of Diab. They took the occasion to remind the deputy minister of the many times the government had issued instructions regarding special treatment for prisoners guilty of press and publications crimes as well as of the minister of interior's pledge to parliament in this regard. Finally, they pointed out that Diab had a medical condition that required special consideration. "The physicians who treated him for sciatica had submitted a report testifying that they feared he would suffer a relapse if he were not permitted to follow a special regime of food, drink and rest."
The meeting did not go as Barakat and Heikal had hoped. The deputy minister told them that the dispensations in the past had applied to detainees or those serving ordinary prison terms, rather than hard labour as was the case with Diab. As for Diab's medical treatment, he continued, prison authorities had been instructed to give him warm clothing and extra blankets and to report on any rheumatic pains he complained of.
Al-Ahram had long since attained the status of the oldest and widest circulating Egyptian newspaper. It was, therefore, of no small significance that on 4 March it should take the initiative to begin a daily column on "The question of both Diab and the press". It opened with the observation that Diab's was not merely the case of a single individual; it concerned the public at large. This was because he was suffering from a penal code that had been in effect for half a century. It appealed to the government, in the name of the press, to cease operating by this excessively severe law "that defies the spirit of civilisation of our times and that conflicts with the many modern laws Egypt has adopted".
A separate commentary in the newspaper echoed this opinion. The Diab case, its author wrote, represented "a question of law and consequently, a question involving society and the system with which it conducts its affairs. It is inappropriate to a society of this day and age that a person of opinion should be treated like anyone else who violated a provision of the law." The author appealed to parliament to introduce a small amendment to Article 72 of the penal code concerning the proper treatment of individuals found guilty of publications crimes. All he wanted was for legislators to ensure that this provision extended not only to those journalists sentenced to preventive or ordinary prison terms, but also to those sentenced to prison with labour. "Such a simple amendment can be discussed in a single day's session, then turned over to the judicial committee for study and then returned to parliament for approval." And why, he asks, should this be done? "Because the government is faced with a new situation: the sentencing of a journalist -- Tawfiq Diab -- to prison with labour. This had never happened before. Nor could the architects of the penal code have envisioned this when they drafted the code."
Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, a journalist of long standing with Al-Ahram, was also quick to come to Diab's defence. In his famous column, "Short but significant", he pleaded, " [Diab] is not a half, or even a quarter, of a god. He is a human being of flesh and blood. Writing is an activity that is wholly dependent upon the state of the writer's nerves when he takes up pen and sets words on paper. Moreover, there are writers who do not read over what they wrote, such as the writer of these lines and perhaps Tawfiq Diab, too."
Because this was an issue of concern to the entire press, it is not surprising that Al-Ahram chose to relay commentaries that appeared in other newspapers. Al-Siyasa vehemently denounced the treatment of Diab as a common criminal and expressed its surprise that Egyptians were not accorded the same treatment as those who were tried in the Mixed Courts for the same crimes. The mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party also decried the treatment of Diab. It could empathise somewhat with the plea voiced by some officials to the effect that promulgating a new penal code takes time. But it asks, "until that time comes, right and justice will be impaired if Tawfiq Diab is not accorded the necessary humanitarian treatment."
Kawkab Al-Sharq, another Wafdist mouthpiece, wondered about the discrimination between Al-Jihad and non-Wafdist newspapers, "which have taken slander and defamation to their depth". It continues, "We can not even bring ourselves to repeat how government newspapers used to describe the Leader of the Nation, Saad Zaghlul, and still describe his successor to the Wafd Party leadership. They have also subjected female members of the Wafd to the vilest insults, stopping at nothing in their attempts to impugn the dignity of respectable women."
Nor did Al-Ahram refrain from relaying commentary from Diab's newspaper, as though to demonstrate to the Sidqi government that Al-Jihad was not alone.
Al-Ahram's campaign reached its peak when on Sunday 5 March Dawoud Barakat convened a meeting in Al-Ahram offices of a large number of representatives from the Egyptian press. On hand were 12 journalists from Al-Ahram, 11 from Al-Jihad, five from Al-Muqattam, eight from Al-Balagh including its Editor-in-Chief Abdel-Qader Hamza, three from Kawkab Al-Sharq, two from Al-Siyasa and three from Al- Shaab -- the mouthpiece of Prime Minister Sidqi's party no less. Also present were many representatives of weekly and monthly periodicals and writers.
Participants in this historic meeting adopted two resolutions. The first was to demand that the government take rapid measures to pass a law on crimes of opinion. The bill had been drafted by Abdel-Qader Hamza and amended by a parliamentary committee in 1927. Until the law was passed, they would urge the government to ensure that Diab was treated in accordance with its provisions.
They resolved, secondly, to appeal to King Fouad to issue a pardon for the owner of Al-Jihad. Mahmoud Abdel-Razeq, Gabrail Taqla, Mohamed Allam, Ahmed Hafez Awad, Abdel- Qader Hamza and Faris Nimr -- all weighty figures in the press -- were chosen to draft the petition to be submitted to His Royal Majesty.
Meanwhile, as the days passed, it became clear that prison authorities were not going to make significant concessions for Diab, apart from allowing him to keep the lamp on so that he could read beyond the time when the lights were turned off and supplying him with some extra blankets. Diab, in response, resorted to what was then a revolutionary action, or to what Abbas El-Aqqad described as "a desperate form of protest". On 25 May 1933 the imprisoned journalist declared a hunger strike.
The action triggered another outburst of anger in the press. Al-Siyasa wanted to know what progress was being made on the bill to amend the penal code so as to permit the ministers of interior and justice to accord special treatment to all convicted of press and publications crimes. "The bill was under study and we were told that it was viewed favourably within current parliamentary circles," it wrote. "However, it seems that it has been put on the shelf. Does this mean that the government has advised its proponents to back down? Does this mean that the fact that a man of the stature of Tawfiq Diab is being treated like a common thief, confidence trickster or forger does not merit a modicum of concern or rapid action?"
Under the headline, "Why did the owner of Al-Jihad go on hunger strike?" Al-Ahram expressed its surprise and dismay that the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Authority had changed tack in their response to the efforts undertaken by a broad sector of the press on behalf of their colleague behind bars. "Initially these authorities availed themselves of whatever flexibility the law offered to ensure that our colleague received better treatment until the amendment was passed. The conscious of the press was thus reassured. Today, however, we have learned that Diab has declared a hunger strike in protest against his treatment in prison. We have the right to ask why his treatment has changed and why this treatment changed for the worse instead of for the better."
Echoing the sentiments of Al-Ahram, Al-Balagh stressed, "The question now goes beyond the legislation needed to differentiate between the common criminal and the political prisoner or the individual imprisoned for declaring his opinion, regardless of whether that opinion is right or wrong. We pray that Tawfiq Diab has inspired human compassion to see what steps must be taken to protect an honourable man who risks imprisonment for publicising his opinions."
The only newspaper to depart from the general consensus was Al-Muqattam, known for its pro-British outlook. It was perhaps only natural, therefore, that it lent itself as a forum for the government. It reported that it had learned through its contacts with officials that Diab was not on hunger strike at all. Moreover, the officials claimed that he had been given a room with access to an outside clinic, that he had a proper bed rather than a mattress on the floor and that he was given special meals prepared in accordance with the instructions of the prison physician. According to the newspaper's sources, "He is given tea and milk for breakfast, white meat two days a week, since his physician has prohibited red meat, and an orange after breakfast. In other words, he is not eating prison food."
Two days after this article appeared, officials at the Ministry of Interior issued a statement denying that Diab was on hunger strike and confirming that he was being given special meals in accordance with the instructions of the Prison Authority's medical department. "It is also untrue that there has occurred any departure from the treatment permitted under prison regulations to persons with established medical conditions."
The statement, regardless of its veracity, would not silence Diab's supporters. In the offices of Al-Jihad, where his absence was felt most acutely, those left in charge enlisted some of Diab's friends to fill the gap left in the newspaper where his column, "Morning talk", normally appeared. Prime among these were Mahmoud Azmi, who at the time was in London but who would wire in articles, and Abbas El-Aqqad who continued to remind readers of the hardships the newspaper's editor-in-chief was enduring in prison. Al-Jihad management also reprinted some of Diab's old articles, including some that had appeared in other newspapers, such as Al- Ahram and Al-Siyasa. Naturally, they selected those with bearing on the ramifications of Diab's case, such as "Life is a mission" and "You love Egypt, but how do you express it?"
Tawfiq Diab served out his full term and was released on 21 November 1933. At 9.45am that morning, "a large gathering of his family members, friends and fellow Wafd Party members" waited for him at the doors of Al-Khalifa Police Station. "When Diab appeared, those waiting to receive him let out a loud cheer and a big round of applause."
Al-Ahram relates that Diab was taken by car to the mausoleum of Saad Zaghlul where he delivered an impassioned speech. He then went to the "House of the Nation", as the late Zaghlul's home was called, in order to meet Safia Zaghlul, after which he went to the offices of his newspaper where the "Al-Jihad family" gave him a warm and enthusiastic welcome home. Shortly after his return to his office, senior Wafd Party officials arrived to greet him. Mustafa El-Nahhas, Makram Ebeid, Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi -- "each of these embraced him in turn. He then delivered a short but moving speech in which he said that his period of confinement only strengthened his faith in the principles of the Wafd." Even more well-wishers would arrive, for which purpose Al-Jihad set up a large marquee with many rows of chairs to accommodate them all. Among those who came were other Wafd Party rank-and-file, members of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party and Egyptian and foreign journalists.
There remained only for Tawfiq Diab to pen his account of the months he spent in prison. This appeared several days later in his newspaper under the headline, "The harms and benefits of my imprisonment". It was an emotional testimony that opened: "I tested my fingers yesterday as I left prison. I found that they were still as strong as ever to grasp a bold and free pen in the service of what it believes is the welfare of this country and as fearless as ever of the severest forms of pain."
With these words, another chapter closed in the relationship between the government and the press. Although this episode had been written by Tawfiq Diab, many other free-thinking journalists would also make their mark.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.