Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2007
Issue No. 865
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Shred of democracy

By Ammar Ali Hassan

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Ammar Ali Hassan

Of all the many things democracy stands for, Egypt had only one: freedom of the press. Now even that is under attack. For years there has been an implicit understanding between the government and the press. Journalists would write what they want and the government wouldn't pay heed. That worked out well for a while, mainly because journalists thought that their job was to inform the public, not to bring about democratic change.

Press freedom improved over the past decade or so, reaching heights unknown since 1952. But everything else in the country stayed the same. Power and wealth remained in the hands of the few. Political life remained largely symbolic. No real rotation of power took place. New parties still need to ask the government for permission before they form. And civil society is being kicked around.

The press was our only breath of fresh air. The independent press spearheaded public debate on corruption and the concentration of power. It embraced fledgling democratic movements such as Kefaya. And it offered the nation insight on a whole range of issues the official press was in the habit of ignoring.

For a while the future looked promising. Thanks to a nudge or two from abroad, authorities promised us a variety of reforms. But as soon as foreign pressure abated, the mood changed. The government suppressed the opposition, amended the constitution to allow for a smooth bequest of power, and decided to imprison five chief editors of the independent press in one go. Even by Egypt's standards, this was a brazen act.

This government made a promise to scrap prison sentences in publishing offences and failed to keep it. What is one to expect next, utter and unadulterated tyranny?

This week's Soapbox speaker is director of the Middle East Research and Studies Institute.

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