Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (533)
In the face of the growing boldness of the Egyptian press in exposing corruption, the 1933 government of Prime Minister Abdel-Fattah Yehia sought to muffle the newspapers. A bill to regulate the press was its solution. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* explains the new constraints and how the press fought back
"Political leaders paved the way for a new press law by criticising and admonishing the press. Among the charges was that the press was not fully performing its duty expressing the opinions of all segments of society, but instead voiced the personal opinions of newspaper owner. On 24 May 1960, the Law for the Regulation of the Press was passed by executive decree. Its most important provision called for the transfer of ownership of privately-owned newspapers to the National Union, thereby nationalising the newspapers produced by Al- Ahram, Al-Akhbar, Rose El-Youssef and Al-Hilal publishing houses. The new law also stipulated that anyone seeking to work for the press or wanting to publish a newspaper must obtain a licence for that purpose.
Mohamed Hussein Heikal
The preceding information, cited in Nagwa Kamel's seminal work, The Origins and Development of the Egyptian Press, would be familiar to most Egyptians today. Less well- known is that that expression -- "the regulation of the press" -- has a history of its own. It first came into prominence in 1934 but in an entirely different context and with a totally different concept.
That year marked the turning point between the Sidqi era and the reinstatement of the 1923 Constitution. After the collapse of Ismail Sidqi's premiership, Abdel-Fattah Yehia was asked to form a government. Lasting from September 1933 to November 1934, the Yehia government was conspicuously royalist, which meant that now the nationalist movement aimed its fire directly at the palace, whereas before it was Sidqi who had taken the heat. That year also brought the changing of the guard in Dubara Palace, the seat of the British high commissioner, and a consequent change in tack in Britain's management of Egyptian affairs. Until then, High Commissioner Percy Loraine had adopted a policy of neutrality in the conflict between the nationalist movement and the palace, although in effect the policy was to give King Fouad free rein to consolidate his power. Loraine's replacement, Sir Miles Lampson (Lord Killearn as of 1943), revived the customary British practice of giving advice that must be obeyed. Finally, in 1934, King Fouad's health took a sharp turn for the worse, giving palace officials the opportunity to assert themselves more forcefully in the affairs of government. Particularly notorious in this regard was Zaki El-Ibrashi, who made no bones about pretending he was Egypt's de facto ruler.
Against this background, the majority of the country's newspapers -- from independents such as Al-Ahram, Al- Muqattam and Al-Musawwar to political party newspapers such as the Wafdist Al-Jihad, Kawkab Al-Sharq, Rose El- Youssef and Akher Sa'a, and Al-Siyasa of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party -- opened fire on the government, while the mouthpieces of the two pro-government parties, Al-Shaab and Al-Ittihad, and of the palace, the French-language La Liberté, were unable to withstand the successive barrages.
To a large extent, the new boldness that infected the press stemmed from the loosening of Sidqi's iron grip over the country. For members of the Fourth Estate, that grip was embodied in the press law promulgated by the former prime minister on 19 June 1931 as part of his campaign to clamp down on the opposition. The law stipulated a range of moral and financial obligations. Persons wishing to found a newspaper had to be "of good character" -- a very nebulous term -- and not be a member of parliament. They had to pay a deposit of LE300 for every newspaper appearing at least three days a week and LE50 for other periodicals, and to found a separate printing press for each newspaper. Finally, any publication that "harmed the morals of youth by stimulating lustful desires or luring them into sinful behaviour" would be banned.
In that transitional period following the collapse of the Sidqi government, the press tested its newfound muscle on the many cases involving members of the press that were before the courts. In fact, on one day alone, three editors-in-chief were brought to trial, the news of which occupied nearly an entire page of Al-Ahram's 28 August issue.
The first, Mohamed Afifi, editor-in-chief of the recently founded Akher Sa'a, faced three charges. His magazine's first issue of 15 July was alleged to have publicly slandered and defamed the Shaab Party which it had represented in a cartoon on its cover as a defendant in the dock. Afifi was accused, secondly, of slandering and defaming nearly the entire government cabinet: Prime Minister Abdel-Fattah Yehia, Minister of Justice Ahmed Ali, Minister of Education Mohamed Helmi Eissa, Minister of Transport Ibrahim Fikri, Minister of Agriculture Ali El-Manzilawi, Minister of War Salib Sami, Minister of Public Works Abdel-Azim Rashed and Minister of Finance Hassan Sabri. On 5 and 12 August, Akher Sa'a lampooned these ministers' performance of their duties again by featuring them in cartoons "in disgraceful and demeaning situations". Finally, the magazine's fifth issue featured an article entitled "We confirm," which was described as "full of sarcasm and ridicule directed at His Excellency Helmi Eissa Pasha".
Ahmed Hussein, editor-in-chief of Rose El-Youssef, was similarly charged. Issue 338 of that magazine featured articles entitled, "Is there no end to this corruption?" and "The age of deceit and chaos in which we live." The prosecution alleged that these articles "publicly slandered and defamed a government body, thus exceeding the bounds of the right to permissible criticism".
The third, Fikri Abaza, editor-in-chief of Al-Musawwar, was accused of "exceeding the bounds of the right to permissible criticism". The prosecution claimed that his article, "Public opinion delivers its verdict," incited hatred and brought ridicule to the system of government in Egypt by portraying the prime minister, members of the cabinet and parliamentary representatives as defendants against whom the public issued a series of sentences. The article appeared in issue 510, on the cover of which appeared a picture of handcuffs.
However, the case that most preoccupied public opinion was that brought against Editor-in-Chief Hefni Mahmoud and Managing Editor Mohamed Hussein Heikal of Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalists. Under the banner, "The integrity of power," Al-Siyasa spearheaded a campaign against financial corruption in government. Specifically, it asked officials to explain why the government had granted a tender without bids to the Northcroft Company for over a LE4 million contract to construct tramway lines, and another tender, again without bids, to a construction firm for other public works. It also wanted to know why the government dealt with so few contracting firms and why the minister of agriculture was buying up the products of his ministry. The "integrity case", as it came to be known, lasted 16 months during which it seemed that the government, rather than Al-Siyasa, was on trial. The lawyers for the defence had taken every available opportunity to submit files from various ministries and government departments as evidence to substantiate the newspaper's credibility, with the result that the public was treated to more dirty laundry than would have been exposed had the newspaper not been brought to trial.
In the face of this assault, the Yehia government needed to find a way to muffle the press, and the law "to regulate the press" was its solution. Yet, while rumours on the proposed law were plentiful, solid knowledge about its substance was scant. Government officials would leak a bit of information here and confide another bit there, but they would not release the full text of the bill. One suspects this was a deliberate tactic intended to gauge public reaction as well as to test the government's ability to respond to those reactions.
Among the bits that were revealed was the provision prohibiting "criticism of former rulers and khedives and deceased ministers". Al-Siyasa was shocked. This provision, it maintained, "ordains that Egyptian history cannot be written by, or made accessible to, Egyptians. The reality is that the histories of all nations on earth are not accurate recordings of the considerations and events that governed the actions of those involved in those events. Frequently, the motives behind certain actions stem from psychological states or conditions of character that the historian is unable to record or may feel inappropriate to mention."
Al-Ahram, in its lead article on 1 September 1934, commented on the same subject. Under the headline, "On the Press Law bill: journalism and history," it argued that the journalist, by definition, must deal with history as a critic, a scholar and an inquirer into the wisdom and moral edification it has to offer. "In these capacities, he is not in breach of the duties incumbent upon him to the public he serves. It is his task to elucidate the connection between the past and the present and to draw the necessary moral and ethical conclusions ... Is it in the interest of the public welfare -- when the clarification of the truth is in the public's higher interests -- for journalists to be fettered in their treatment of history other than by the restrictions imposed by scholastic integrity? Were this to transpire, the heart of journalism would cease to function."
Under this article of the bill of law, journalists were to be restricted to citing historical events without commentary. This condition was absurd, in the opinion of the Al-Ahram commentator. "To list historical events in the press or in other publications without attempting to draw connections, infer the prime causes for general trends and extract the general lessons or wisdom from the past and apply them to the present is not history. Moreover, the very act of listing could be a form of commentary. The method of presentation and the selection of certain events to the exclusion of others could even be a more powerful way to express one's opinion than straightforward argumentation."
The writer concludes that the notion of imposing restrictions on the treatment of history "conflicts with the demands of scientific inquiry and is conducive to the distortion of truth to whatever extent we are able to discern it". He continues, "Where would it end? One ruler might restrict treatment of era. Then his successor could come along and lift that restriction and impose a ban on another era. At that point, you might as well say good-bye to academic freedom and one of the most glorious legacies mankind has bequeathed in his long struggle."
Mae Ziyada contributed another important commentary, which appeared in Al-Ahram of 10 September 1934. The suggestion of restricting journalists' treatment of history was ridiculous, the famed writer said. Certainly Britain had not attempted to muffle its press, "even though one finds there the likes of Sir Bumfield Fuller who spouts the greatest inanities about democracy. Democracy destroyed Athens, he tells us. But he seems to have forgotten that Sparta, Athens' rival and conqueror, had been a dictatorship throughout its history, yet it too fell, and resoundingly so... Our press would not allow these mistakes to pass and, in many lengthy articles, it took on Sir Fuller and refuted his claims."
The pro-government press, of course, had a different opinion. Al-Ahram and other opposition newspapers were only treating one side of an article of legislation that sought to prevent slander and defamation. Addressing the Wafdist newspapers, Al-Ittihad wrote, "Have you realised that this reform will compel you to act contrary to your nature by forcing you to hone your skills at decent language, sound logic and lofty thoughts? Were this reform to occur, what a mercy it would be for you to look at what you produce and realise how bankrupt it is, and what a godsend it would be for morals and ethics when you are no longer able call out to your friends, the Liberal Constitutionalists, shouting, 'Panderers!' and when you no longer can say that the mother of a Liberal Constitutionalist minister 'used to sell sugarcane next to the Assiout government building,' and when you can no longer whisper that the so-and-so's daughter did this and went there."
Al-Shaab echoed such charges of moral corruption against the Wafdist newspapers. It wrote, "The Wafdist newspapers have multiplied and diversified but they all are bent on a single aim, which is to poison the minds of the people and to tighten the blindfolds over their eyes so as to ensure that they never see the truth ... The proposed legislation about which we are reading in the news will safeguard the minds of the people against deceit and rescue them from delirious fancies."
Another provision of the forthcoming press law that was made public concerned the qualifications that would be required to become a journalist. One qualification, in particular, came under fire: the need to have graduated from a higher institute of education. And, no wonder. Many prominent Wafdist journalists did not possess such certificates, prime among them the famous philosopher, commentator and poet, Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad.
Voicing his objections to this provision, Tawfiq Diab of Al- Jihad asked of what possible use higher degrees could be without talent and experience to accompany them. He adds, "And how is that talent and experience to be gained by those youngsters who find themselves inclined to work in journalism?"
In his famous column, "Short but significant," Ahmed El- Sawi Mohamed of Al-Ahram expounds on the connection between the commercial aspects of journalism and the talents, experience and perspicacity of those who profess the occupation. "If that law that the government intends to promulgate had gone into effect 20 years ago, the Egyptian press would not have blossomed into our greatest popular university and foremost educator of the nation... Journalists working for the universally esteemed British press were not trained in universities but in the school of life. Of all the editors-in-chief of the major newspapers in London, only two are university graduates. The government must reconsider its plans so as to be fair to those who have worked for years in this noble profession."
Among the other leaked provisions of the proposed law to regulate the press was one prohibiting reporting on legislation pertaining to criminal investigations, and another prohibiting the publication of an article that disparages a judge, even if the article is not slanderous or defamatory and even if the purpose is solely to question a judge's competence. The latter provision had Al-Siyasa dumfounded. "What journalist could bring his pen to cast aspersions on the judiciary? What Egyptian newspaper has ever so much as contemplated writing anything that could be construed as an attempt to undermine the public's confidence in our judiciary? Or are we to understand from what they say that they want to criminalise legitimate criticism of judicial measures and rulings?"
In the face of the spectre of the new law, members of the Egyptian press could hardly have been expected to restrict themselves to commentaries and editorials. They needed to take some form of collective action that would keep even the members of the pro-government press from breaking ranks with their fellow journalists.
Thus it was that at 7pm on Tuesday, 14 August, Al-Ahram hosted a meeting of representatives of Egyptian daily and weekly newspapers. Among those present at the meeting were Mohamed El-Tabie (Akher Sa'a), Anton El-Gamil (Al- Ahram), Mahmoud Azmi (Al-Jihad), Rose El-Youssef (Rose El-Youssef), Mohamed Hussein Heikal (Al-Siyasa), Abdel- Azim Mahmoud (Al-Shaab), Abdel-Halim Mahmoud Ali (Al- Sarih), Abdel-Hamid Hamdi (Al-Dia'), Suleiman Fawzi (Al- Kashkoul), Ahmed Maher (Al-Kawkab), Ramzi Tadros (Misr), Fikri Abaza (Al-Musawwar), Khalil Thabet (Al-Muqattam) and Taha Hussein (Al-Wadi). After examining the available information on the proposed press law, the participants appointed a delegation "to travel to Alexandria in order to meet with their excellencies the ministers concerned with this subject". The delegation consisted of Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Anton El-Gamil and Mahmoud Azmi.
In its issue of the following day, Al-Ahram featured a large photograph of these prominent journalists that met to take action against the promulgation of the new press law. In the article accompanying the picture, the newspaper proclaimed, as though seeking to mobilise its readers: "The press has a dignity that must be upheld. The press has interests that must be defended. The press has a freedom that must be safeguarded. This dignity, these interests and this freedom are the dignity, interests and freedom of the readers. To debase the dignity of the press is to debase their dignity. To violate the interests of the press is to violate their interests. To curtail its freedom is to curtail their freedom. Our duty, in such a case, is to work together to defend this freedom and this dignity."
Referring to the subjects of the photograph, the newspaper declared, "Every day, these writers and journalists vie with one another in the arena of discussion and debate, each waging his campaign in the defence of those ideas he feels best serve public interests. Yet if they sense that their freedom is in jeopardy and that the rights of their profession are at risk, they will join forces and direct their energies at a single goal until they attain it."
The journalists' delegation which had travelled to Alexandria was unable to meet with the prime minister and ministers of justice and interior. Following the delegation's return to Cairo, the representatives of the country's newspapers held another meeting. It took place on 29 August again in the Al- Ahram building, and produced the following statement:
"The participants have unanimously determined the following:
"Firstly: There is no justification for the new legislation or for haste in its promulgation. In the event that the government does press ahead with it, those assembled here will regret that it had not deemed it necessary to consult the press on the matter of the legislation before its promulgation, and they will view this unwarranted course of action with great dismay.
"Secondly: His Excellency the Prime Minister has said that the purpose of the new legislation is to protect the honour and dignity of citizens. Those assembled here believe that the existing legislation already provides sufficient protection to the honour and private life of the individual, be that individual a government employee or otherwise. However, they do not object to additional protection of an individual's personal honour and privacy, as long as this does not prevent criticism, in word or image, of that person's public actions.
"Thirdly, those assembled here strongly object to any restriction upon the treatment of historical issues, whether in the press or in other writings. They would consider any restriction of this nature a violation of the general principles of the constitution and the freedom of opinion which it upholds, and of the principles of free scientific and scholastic inquiry. It would further set Egypt apart with a law unparalleled in any other civilised nation."
The silence with which the Yehia government greeted this onslaught led many to believe that it would shelve the project. Foremost among those of this opinion was Mae Ziyada who declared, in a front page article, "The new law for the regulation of the press cannot be issued!" After listing evidence to support her opinion, she wrote, "Gentlemen [of the government], please send me a copy of that law that will never be promulgated so that I can add it to my collection of fashion magazines. These magazines contain pictures of many articles of clothing designed by specialists. Unfortunately, they do not appeal to women's taste because they were neither attractive nor appropriate."
On 14 November 1934, the government of Abdel-Fattah Yehia fell and a new government was formed under Tawfiq Nassim. With this, the Sidqi era had officially drawn to a close, which proved occasion to bid a final farewell to the government-sponsored press law. In its issue of 3 December, Al- Ahram expressed the prevailing sentiments. Under the headline, "Extraordinary laws: an evil of the former era", it wrote: "The Egyptian press was a victim of the wrath of the foregoing era, when legislators increased sanctions and restrictions against the freedom of opinion... That era has come to an end and with it the era of extraordinary laws. However, we must not let the past end without drawing the edifying lessons it has to offer."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.