Terrible message, but who's the sender?
Can the state be resorting to gangster-style violence to silence "outspoken" journalists, asks Shaden Shehab
"It was bound to happen..." was a common reaction to the roughing up of Al-Arabi newspaper's executive chief editor last week. The weekly paper, which serves as the mouthpiece of the Nasserist Party, had been "bluntly embarrassing the government on a number of thorny issues" for quite some time now, according to one observer.
The editor -- Abdel-Halim Qandil -- told the strange story of his abduction and beating as follows: "I had been dropped off by a colleague at dawn, blocks away from my home in Haram, Giza, when a car suddenly sped towards me. Four well-built men, two in suits, got out of the vehicle and tied my hands and blindfolded me. I struggled and screamed, but they quickly put me in the car. The first thing they told me was, 'This is a lesson so you stop talking about your betters'. I was then pummelled from both sides, and a sharp knife was held against my neck. First my glasses, bag, and mobile phone were taken away from me, and then they began to take off my clothes. I was then dumped onto the Suez desert road. I had to walk -- naked and unable to see clearly without my glasses -- for about 300 metres until I found a military police checkpoint. They gave me clothes and stopped a car to take me home."
Qandil sustained minor injuries, including bleeding in one eye, as well as bruises on his shoulder, one of his arms, and his face.
A few hours later, accompanied by several of his colleagues, as well as a number of Press Syndicate council members, and lawyers, Qandil hand- delivered a complaint to the prosecutor-general officially accusing Interior Minister Habib El-Adli of complicity in the attack against him.
Qandil linked the incident to a 31 October Al-Arabi column he wrote positing that the real culprits of the Taba attacks were not the ones arrested and identified by the Interior Ministry. "You would have to eliminate your brain to believe the Interior Ministry's official story," he wrote, directing some of his harshest criticism to the "mass arrests" carried out by authorities as part of the investigation. "If they were the real culprits, why is the security apparatus still torturing and arresting unprecedented numbers of people in Sinai?"
A high-ranking Interior Ministry official, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on customary condition of anonymity, called Qandil's accusation "too naïve" to deserve an official comment. At the same time, he said, it was the ministry's job to find the alleged culprits. Although he said a thorough investigation was already underway, the official indicated that the ministry's investigations were not ruling out the possibility that Qandil's story was made up.
The Press Syndicate condemned the attack on Qandil. The syndicate's chairman, Galal Aref, and four of its council members are -- like Qandil -- Nasserists. Yehia Qallash, the syndicate's secretary, said that, "such a serious incident should not go unnoticed; it would be a tremendous shame if the culprits in this kind of crime were not found and penalised."
The syndicate -- which also connected the incident to Qandil's weekly "For the sake of the nation" column -- held a rally yesterday where journalists expressed their solidarity with Qandil. A two-hour sit-in last Thursday to protest against the assault did not generate much of a turnout, however.
Most international press agencies, meanwhile, picked up the story, and the global press freedom group Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned "the use of violence to intimidate journalists".
The group called on the authorities to carry out a full and thorough investigation.
"This kind of crude and violent intimidation of journalists should have no place in Egypt. The authorities' obligation to react firmly to such threats is all the greater since it involves a journalist known as a fierce critic of the government of President Hosni Mubarak."
Al-Arabi has -- over the past few months -- stepped up its campaign objecting to a possible fifth term in office for President Mubarak in 2005. It has also actively lobbied against Mubarak's son, Gamal, "inheriting" the presidency.
Qandil has been a frequent guest on Arab satellite TV channels, often bluntly expressing these views. He is also the spokesman for the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as Kifaya (Enough), a group that also opposes Mubarak's running for a fifth term and Gamal's succession.
"I don't hide my views, and if we do not speak up we should not be journalists," Qandil told the Weekly. "I will not compromise my position, or be weakened as a result to the assault," he said. "I have previously been subjected to much harassment, but it has never gone this far."
After the incident, the Nasserist Party issued a statement condemning what it called "a message of terror from the government to its opponents. This is a move that aims to silence all voices that call for reform and change." The statement said, further, that the party's campaign would not stop "until the presidential referendum".
Observers, and journalists in particular, fear that the culprits might never be exposed.
It would not be the first time. Many still wonder what really happened to Al-Ahram journalist Reda Hilal -- who vanished without a trace in August 2003.