Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Now you’re in, now you’re out

The surprise arrest and then release of the publisher of Al-Masry Al-Youm raises serious questions about the decision-making process in Egypt, writes Khaled Dawoud

salah Diab
salah Diab
Al-Ahram Weekly

On 10 November, prosecutors ordered that Salah Diab, businessman and publisher of the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, and his son should be detained for a further 15 days. Both face charges of possessing unlicenced weapons.

Less than 24 hours later, they were told they would be released on bail. Their release raises questions about why they were arrested in the first place and who took the decision to set them free.

On 6 November, Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek ordered the freezing not only of Diab’s assets but those of family members and ten other businessmen, including the father-in-law of Gamal Mubarak, son of the former president.

Sadek’s office issued a statement saying that the move was in response to a complaint accusing Diab and his associates of fraudulently acquiring pubic land earmarked for agricultural development and then building luxury housing complexes on it. The complaint was filed over four years ago, in mid-2011.

Acquiring state land reserved for reclamation at below-market prices and then using it for luxury residential developments was a lucrative scam under the Mubarak regime. Mubarak-era housing minister Ibrahim Suleiman was convicted for his involvement in several such deals that benefited a small group of senior government officials, army generals and businessmen. Suleiman is currently on the run after receiving a final sentence; his lawyers are trying to negotiate a financial settlement with prosecutors.

But when heavily armed and masked police raided Diab’s villa overlooking the Nile at 5am on 8 November they were not there to arrest him on corruption charges. The Interior Ministry said it had received information that Diab kept unlicenced weapons in his house. The police seized two automatic rifles and seven bullets.

The special police unit was accompanied by a photographer who took pictures of the 70-year-old Diab handcuffed and standing in front of the armored vehicle that transported him to prison. One of the photographs was later published on the popular news website Al-Youm Al-Sabie in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to humiliate Diab.

Diab was among the first Egyptian businessmen to benefit from the open-door policies adopted by former president Anwar Sadat. He signed deals with the US, and later Israeli companies, in the oil and agriculture sectors. He also launched a popular chain of shops that sells cakes and other desserts.

Diab came to even greater public prominence when, 11 years ago, he launched a daily newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm. At a time when daily newspapers in Egypt were tightly controlled by the regime, Al-Masry Al-Youm gained a wide readership simply by covering local news that didn’t revolve around praising the then-president Hosni Mubarak.

Critics claimed that the newspaper’s real agenda was to promote the interests of the business community and counter anti-Israeli and anti-US rhetoric in the local media.

Press freedom expanded following Mubarak’s removal in January 2011, only to contract when the army intervened on 3 July 2013 to remove Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, after widespread protests against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The current president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, appointed by Morsi as defence minister during his year in office, has repeatedly demanded that the media stand behind him in the ongoing fight against terrorism, warning that failure to do so could see Egypt descend into the civil and tribal wars now raging in Libya, Syria and Iraq.

Al-Masry Al-Youm largely complied with Al-Sisi’s demands. It has been extremely critical of the Muslim Brotherhood group, though in recent months it has published a growing number of opinion articles and interviews that criticise the policies being adopted by the regime.

The articles coincided with reports in the local press that the president is unhappy with the response from businessmen to his campaign calling for donations to the Long Live Egypt Fund, launched to help finance the mega-projects Al-Sisi is planning. Early estimates of the level of contributions expected were placed at LE100 billion ($12.5 billion). So far, less than 10 per cent of that amount has been pledged.

Farid Al-Deeb, Diab’s lawyer, argues that his client’s arrest is linked to the increasingly critical coverage carried by Al-Masry Al-Youm. The paper published a six-page special report on police violations and torture by the security forces, and recently ran an interview with Mubarak’s army chief of staff, Major General Hamdi Weheba, who characterized Al-Sisi as “an ordinary man” and was quoted saying that “there are other, more efficient, leaders in Egypt.”

Corruption, failure to donate enough money to the Long Live Egypt Fund, critical coverage of the regime in Al-Masry Al-Youm — whatever the reason for Diab’s arrest, the one thing commentators are sure of is that it had nothing to do with the official charge, possession of unlicenced weapons.

Tellingly, on 9 November, Al-Masry Al-Youm announced that Gamal Al-Gamal, one of Al-Sisi’s most persistent critics, would no longer be writing for the paper. Mohamed Al-Sayed, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s acting editor-in-chief, said the decision was taken within the context of “an overall review of our editorial policy.”

Businessmen, backed by the Egyptian Industries’ Federation, said they were shocked by the manner of Diab’s arrest. Journalists expressed concerns that the move was an attempt to close down what little space remains for criticism of the regime. Even staunch supporters of Al-Sisi, such as writer and talk show presenter Ibrahim Eissa, said Diab’s arrest had overstepped the mark.

“This is a return to the practices of January 24, 2011,” said Eissa. “The message being delivered is that the government, the regime, can humiliate anyone, even major businessmen such as Diab.”

Hani Sarieddine, former head of the stock market under Mubarak and an economic consultant for Al-Sisi, hinted that the president was not happy about Diab’s arrest. In an article in Al-Akhbar, printed under the headline “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister,” Sarieddine wrote that “some law enforcement officers”, who could not appreciate the consequences of their actions on the business community at a time when Egypt is in deep economic trouble, had done real harm to Al-Sisi.

Sarieddine went so far as to say that the damage caused by the way Diab was arrested would exceed the heavy losses sustained by the tourism industry following the Russian plane crash in Sinai three weeks ago.

A government source who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity said the president had intervened to secure Diab’s release.

Al-Sisi was in Saudi Arabia attending an Arab-Latin American summit when prosecutors ordered the 15-day extension to Diab’s detention. On his way back to Cairo, he stopped in Sharm El-Sheikh and told reporters that he “did not accept the humiliation or insult of any businessmen,” and asserted that “the rule of law prevails in Egypt.”

A few hours later, Diab was released on LE50,000 bail. The court investigating the outstanding corruption charges against him also changed its decision to freeze all his assets and those of his family, and instead restricted the freeze to the assets of the company that developed the residential compound on the contested land.

“It could be that it was Al-Sisi who demanded his release,” said one source. “But a lot of damage has been done, and everyone is now confused about who makes the final decisions in Egypt.”

Diab’s first public statement about his arrest and imprisonment came in a front-page editorial published by Al-Masry Al-Youm on 14 November. In it, he implied that the president may have had a role in his release. “As for President Al-Sisi, I appreciate this man, and I love him like millions of faithful Egyptians,” Diab wrote.

“The president had honored me due to his confidence in businessmen, and confidence in my feelings towards him. Did something happen to spoil this relation? Is it something I said? Perhaps.”

He continued, “My intentions were certainly good. Perhaps I expressed some views contrary to what he believes. But if this was the case, that remained to be an opinion that aimed to add, and not to criticise. There is no patriotic man in Egypt who would differ over Al-Sisi’s good intentions. And even if there were differences, it is over the means, while the goal remains the same for all: the interest of our nation.”

The confusion over who takes decisions that result in dire consequences, even if later reversed, was not limited Diab’s case. Several observers believe there are similar questions to be asked about the case of Hossam Bahgat, the prominent human rights activist and investigative journalist.

On 9 November, Bahgat was summoned by the military prosecutor for questioning over an article he wrote for the news website Mada Masr. He was later charged with spreading false news that harmed national interests, and the military prosecutor ordered his imprisonment for four days pending trial.

Bahgat’s arrest resulted in an international outcry, including statements of condemnation from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, the US and the European Union. Three days later, and without any further questioning, Bahgat was suddenly released.

Like Diab, it is not clear why was Bahgat arrested in the first place, and who ordered his immediate release.

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