Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 April 2002
Issue No.581
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (437)

Dr YunanWhen issue No 134 of the satirical weekly Rose El-Youssef was confiscated by police in 1928, the incident opened a new chapter in the history of Egyptian press freedom. The confiscation came after the magazine published an article on the attack by Prince Seifeddin against his brother-in-law Prince Fouad in 1898, thus reviving memories that Fouad, now king, had long sought to forget and hoped that others would forget as well. Issue 134 ballooned into a major court case which, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk*, pitted the "government of the iron grip" against the opposition press


Fight for press freedom


Fatma El-Youssef

"At 9.00am on Saturday 3 June 1928, Abdin police station chief, heading a number of security officers and policemen, raided the offices of Rose El-Youssef without a warrant, and confiscated some 20,000 copies of the periodical. They also confiscated the copperplate of a political figure appearing in issue 134 of the paper and bearing the caption 'For the premiership Egypt is crushed underfoot and its constitution violated.' The police confiscated these items over the objections of the owner of the publishing firm who protested that the magazine and the copperplate were her property and that the police had no legal right to enter the premises and take its possessions. Nevertheless, the police chief confiscated the items without clarifying the legal basis for such actions, which constitute a blatant violation of the law and the constitution."

The incident, described in the above news item which appeared in Al-Ahram of 3 July 1928, acquired widespread notoriety in view of its significance, not only to the magazine in question, which was only three years old at the time, but also to the history of the Egyptian press and the fight for press freedom.

In her memoirs, published in 1977, Fatma El-Youssef recalls this chapter in her magazine's history. She writes that when Mohamed Mahmoud became prime minister, "the magazine strongly defended the constitution, vehemently attacked the new cabinet and waged a campaign against the right of the king to dismiss cabinets. Issue 134 of Rose El-Youssef featured a cartoon of Mahmoud, trampling on the constitution as he ascended to the premiership."

The famed actress and journalist adds that after the issue was printed, "I received a phone call telling me that the building was surrounded and that the police had come to confiscate that edition of the magazine. I rushed to the publishing house where I saw with my own eyes the Abdin police chief, political security officers and two British constables knocking over to the ground copies of the magazine, which had been stacked high, and preventing them from being taken from the premises."

Fatma El-Youssef acted quickly. She went to former Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas to urge him to recover the confiscated copies of the magazine. Unfortunately, he said, he could not interfere in the work of the police but he did engage a couple of young lawyers, who were Wafd Party members, to file a lawsuit for the release of the magazines. The court rejected the case, after which El-Youssef sued for compensation, which the court agreed to, but for only LE200. "Evidently," she remarks in her memoirs, "the judge considered only the money that would have been made from the sale of 20,000 copies of the magazine, which sells for a piastre a copy. He did not take into account the money from advertisements, moral damage or any other consideration."

At the time of the police raid on the Rose El-Youssef offices, the Mahmoud government was barely a week old. The incident bode ill for the new government's relationship with the press. The initial target was the opposition press, which Rose El-Youssef, with its Wafdist sympathies and public onslaught against the government that succeeded El-Nahhas, obviously represented. Al-Ahram was aware that such repressive measures could extend to other newspapers. It, therefore, rose to the defence of the young magazine, not only in the interests of freedom of the press but also to safeguard the constitution that Mahmoud, with the backing of King Fouad, had suspended.

If Al-Ahram Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat felt it risky to side with Rose El-Youssef, it was probably a relatively safe risk. Apart from its long-established record for sobriety and impartiality, Al- Ahram was the oldest newspaper in the country -- then just over the half century mark -- and it had the largest circulation. According to figures cited in British Foreign Office archives, Al- Ahram had a daily circulation of 32,000, compared to 20,000 for Al- Muqattam, 10,000 for the Liberal Constitutionalist newspaper Al- Siyasa, 8,000 for Al-Balagh, the Wafd Party mouthpiece, 6,000 for Al-Akhbar, 4,000 for both Kawkab Al-Sharq and Wadi Al-Nil, and only 3,000 for Al-Ittihad, the mouthpiece of the pro-palace party.

But classified British documents of the period suggest another reason for the confiscation of issue 134 of Rose El-Youssef. In his report on the state of the Egyptian press from 26 June to 4 July 1928, the British high commissioner wrote:

"On the instructions of Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Mohamed Mahmoud, police confiscated the latest issue of the satirical weekly Rose El-Youssef. This issue contained a cartoon depicting the new prime minister giving the boot to the constitution, represented by a young girl, as John Bull, smoking his pipe, looks on with complete indifference." Up to this point, the report contains nothing to raise eyebrows. However, it goes on to observe, "The main reason for confiscating the magazine was that it contained an article concerning the attack by Prince Seifeddin against his brother-in-law Prince Fouad in 1898." Rose El-Youssef was reviving memories that Fouad, now king, had long sought to forget and hoped that others would forget as well.

It is doubtful that Al-Ahram suspected the connection between the confiscation of Rose El-Youssef issue No 134 and its airing of royal dirty laundry, the only overt reference to which appeared in the British archives. Still, the newspaper devoted its fullest attention to a blow-by-blow coverage of Fatma El-Youssef's court suits, to the legal ramifications of her case and to its ramifications for press freedom.

Time is of the essence in such cases, which is why, within hours of the raid on the Rose El-Youssef offices, El-Youssef's lawyer, Ragheb Iskandar, appeared before Al-Muski Primary Court with a deposition describing the police action and claiming that it constituted a violation of the sanctity of private property. "The press is free within the confines of the law," he argued, "and censorship of the press, and the cautioning, closure or abolishment of newspapers through administrative means are prohibited unless such measures are deemed vital to the preservation of public order. In addition, the freedom of opinion is guaranteed under the constitution, as is the people's right to express their ideas verbally, in writing, pictorially or by other means, within the limits of the law."

The deposition urged the court to issue a ruling releasing the confiscated magazines as soon as possible. "Political and moral interests dictate rapid publication and distribution, and this cannot be realised unless the court issues an urgent ruling to release the confiscated edition, for otherwise the appropriate date of publishing and distributing that issue will have lapsed."

That the Egyptian public sensed the significance of the case is evidenced by Al-Ahram's coverage of the court session on 4 July. The courtroom, the newspaper reports, was "packed with people representing all social classes. Indeed, it was already filled to capacity more than an hour before the session began."

The plan of the government's attorney, Youssef Qasis, was apparent from the outset: to stall until issue 134 of the magazine became outdated. Towards this end, Qasis argued that under the civil procedure code the magazine's suit did not fall under the jurisdiction of a summary court judge and secondly, that the court, in general, did not have the jurisdiction to interpret the meaning of an executive order, nor to stop its implementation. "Rather, the court is entitled solely to rule on all claims brought against the government." In support of the latter argument, which would inevitably come under the scrutiny of Al-Ahram and its readers, the government attorney cited the principle of "separation of powers," by which he meant that the courts had no right to intervene in the affairs of the executive branch. "French law, from which this article in our constitution is derived, is founded on the basis of the separation of powers, a principle which has become the heart of the constitutional systems that have emerged in France since 1790 and which considers the intervention of the courts in the affairs of the executive a capital offence."

On this basis, Qasis continued, the court had no right to issue orders to the executive or to meddle in any way in the conduct of the affairs that fall under the powers of the executive branch. As such, the court had no right to halt the implementation of an executive order, even should that order be contested, and it did not have the right to determine whether or not that order was appropriate.

Naturally, Rose El-Youssef's attorney had to take the opposite tack. The public was very familiar with Rose El-Youssef, "an illustrated satirical political magazine that appears once a week and of which 133 issues have already appeared." More than once the current government had tried to influence the magazine's editorial content, he claimed. "They kept pressing the owner, even going to the extent of waking her in the dead of night to ask her to meet some employee in the Ministry of Interior, requests which she refused."

Following this exposure, Ragheb Iskandar, El-Youssef's attorney, asserted that there were proper legal channels the government could have pursued against the magazine. For example, it could have filed a public suit against Fatma El-Youssef under the penal code, "provided it found evidence to support such a suit." But even then, he continued, "the public prosecutor would not have the right to order the confiscation of the copies in question, for such an order is solely the prerogative of the court."

By 1.00pm the lawyers had entered their pleas and the judges went into recess to deliberate. An hour later, the presiding magistrate Ahmed Fakhri emerged to pronounce the court's ruling to an audience that had been waiting on tenterhooks. Although the court rejected the government's first plea of jurisdiction, it accepted the second, and thus ruled that the plaintiff's case was not under the jurisdiction of the civil courts. It further ruled that Fatma El-Youssef was obliged to pay the expenses of the case.

The ruling gave little comfort to the public, and even less to the plaintiff, who resolved to pursue her cause to the bitter end. Within 24 hours, her attorney, Iskandar, filed a plea with the Court of Appeals on the grounds that the preliminary court's ruling was unfounded. He maintained that the court had misconstrued the intent of the article which stated that the court did not have the right to interpret the meaning of an executive order or to halt its implementation. In fact, that provision "means no more than that the powers vested in the executive upon which the judiciary cannot encroach are those powers vested in it by law or by virtue of royal decrees. Should this condition not prevail, then the judiciary has the right to rescind all measures the executive has taken."

Iskandar further held that the government attorney, in basing his argument on that article, was actually subverting the principle of separation of powers upon which he claimed that provision was founded. The government's actions against Rose El-Youssef constituted a flagrant breach of the constitutionally guarantee of rights to private property, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. "So long as the constitution stipulates that the executive does not have the right to censor, caution or abolish newspapers and so long as the press is subject to the jurisdiction of the judiciary, should a journalist commit a crime under the provisions of the penal code, the executive has no right whatsoever to take action in the matter." In short, he concluded, the judiciary is empowered to subject executive actions to scrutiny in the event that those actions cannot be substantiated by law or are prohibited under the constitution.

In the Court of Appeals session of 9 July the shoe was on the other foot. Now the government, on the defensive, sought to reject all evidence of a crime and throw the case out of court. Qasis told the court that while the appellant had sued to have the copies of Rose El-Youssef No 134 given to her, the copies, if indeed they were confiscated, were nowhere to be found and, "thus the suit has no legal foundation."

Iskandar was now joined by another of Egypt's prominent Wafd Party lawyers, Mohamed Sabri Abu Alam, and with their combined political standing and legal expertise they made a formidable offensive team. The first thing Abu Alam said as he rose to address the court was that he observed that the government lawyer had left without listening to the presentation of the plaintiff. His comment elicited loud cheers and applause, forcing the presiding magistrate to call the courtroom to order.

Following this prelude, the noted Wafd lawyer alleged that the government had destroyed the confiscated copies of the magazine in a deliberate act to thwart the judicial process. He then charged that the government had so far failed to produce to the court the "confiscation warrant." Of course, the reason behind this was very simple, he added; no such warrant existed in the first place. In his final argument he asserted the right of the judiciary to investigate the actions of the executive.

On 11 July, the Court of Appeals issued its ruling. Once again El-Youssef and her supporters were to be disappointed, for the court turned down the appeal. Nevertheless, the file on the confiscated Rose El-Youssef issue did not close here, as cases involving civil liberties must inevitably have repercussions. This case had three: an outcry in support of freedom of the press, in which Al-Ahram naturally took part; a reconsideration of the relationship between the three branches of government; and the government's escape from judicial censor led to its suppression of other opposition newspapers.

On 6 July, Al-Ahram devoted its editorial to a defence of the freedom of the press. The headline speaks volumes: "On the case of Rose El-Youssef -- Do not encroach on the freedom of the press for it is a source of national strength and a boon in adversity." The article opened with American President Thomas Jefferson's famous saying: "I would rather live in a country which has a press but no law than in a country that has law but no press." Egypt, the writer continues, was a country that was perhaps in greater need of a free press than others. "It has no military force to rely on in its struggle, education has yet to extend to all its citizens and its citizens are still deprived of the right to fully autonomous self-determination. As we have also long been deprived of a parliament with the unhampered right to monitor the affairs of government, the press is our only true, strong and free parliament."

The newspaper went on to comment on the primary court's ruling on the Rose El-Youssef case. The crux of the matter, it observed, was the right of the executive authorities to confiscate newspapers or otherwise impede the press at the merest whim. "Governments, in view of their partisan nature, are forever changing and the press that today is in the opposition, may well side with the government tomorrow, and the reverse is true. Have the powers that be not given heed to the dire consequences of using confiscation as a tool to impede the press? Have they not considered that the issue is one of principle and that the actions they take in individual cases may later be used by future governments with impunity?"

In a subsequent issue, under the headline "The Government and the Press," Al-Ahram criticised the government for failing to distinguish between two modes of journalistic discourse: narrative and opinion. The former, it explained, "is the factual account of an actual event the occurrence of which the public is likely to be fully aware of although the substance of which is not fully known and may be the subject of false rumours. A proper factual account, therefore, is of greater benefit to public opinion and, simultaneously, to the government."

The airing of opinion, on the other hand, needs closer inspection. It is this realm of discourse that may be harmful and may merit censorship. "Opinions are the property of those who propound them. They offer an insight into the psychological character of the writer and his ability to inflame public opinion or diagnose events in a deliberately misleading manner."

The article advises the government to bear in mind the distinction between narrative and opinion in its handling of the press. More significantly, however, the writer urges it to heed the principle, "established by social scientists," that the press is the nation's second forum for public opinion after parliament. It concludes with the warning: "It is unwise to deprive the nation of both its parliament and its press at the same time."

Not long afterwards, Al-Ahram published a lengthy study on "The principle of separation of powers: the courts and their authority to consider executive orders," which appeared over two issues -- 8 and 10 July. The contributor, an Al-Ahram reader by the name of El-Said Mohamed Abed, expressed the shock and dismay felt "in jurisprudential circles" over the encroachment upon the powers of the judiciary implied in the primary court's ruling. Were the principles established by the ruling to take hold, he maintained, "the freedom of opinion and an individual's rights regarding private property would be in grave jeopardy as they would be constantly vulnerable to abuse by the executive authorities."

The separation of powers, Abed continues, was established to safeguard the sovereignty of the people, a principle entrenched by the French revolution, and, moreover, to ensure that the executive authority remains dedicated to its constitutional pledge to advance the welfare of all citizens. He continues, "Although the principle of separation of powers was intended to serve the lofty goal of setting the nation squarely on the path of progress and development, today we find that the tyranny of the executive has turned this principle to the advantage of its political designs and transformed it into a weapon with which it can lash out against its adversaries at its merest whim."

Abed then turned to the application of the principle of separation of powers in the constitutions of France, Italy and Belgium, from which the Egyptian constitution was derived. Under these systems, he concludes, the actions of the executive are independent of the judiciary only insofar as they conform to the constitution and the law, a condition which did not apply in the Rose El-Youssef case.

As political commentators and legal scholars predicted, the courts' rulings on the Rose El-Youssef case gave the Mahmoud cabinet just the fodder it needed to extend its campaign to other newspapers that opposed the "government of the iron grip," whether or not they were Wafd Party newspapers. In the ensuing months, one story after the other appeared in Al-Ahram on the confiscation of newspaper issues, bans on publication for various periods of time and closures of newspaper offices. In September, for example, the government ordered the suspension of Al-Balagh and Rose El- Youssef, and less than two months later it revoked the licence of Wadi Al-Nil. The government's explanation for closing down Wadi Al-Nil illustrates the depth of its determination to clamp down on the opposition press. The official statement announcing this act read: "Whereas Wadi Al-Nil published an article entitled 'What was on the horizon last week?' the purpose of which was to spread rumours; and whereas the presentation of rumours as news has the impact of fact; and whereas the afore-mentioned article contains falsehoods, insinuations and allusions that constitute a serious affront to the stature of the king, it has been decided to halt the operation of this newspaper once and for all."

As is often the case when governments close the avenues to free expression, journalists and writers find other outlets. This was certainly the case with Fatma El-Youssef who writes in her memoirs that under the clamp-down unleashed by the government of the "iron grip," she continued to publish her magazine under different names: Al-Raqib, Sada Al-Haq and Al-Sharq Al-Adna. All were quickly suppressed after a few editions once the government learned that El- Youssef was behind them. The ultimate victory, however, went to her. The government of Mohamed Mahmoud fell in October 1929, after a relatively short 15 months in power, whereas Rose El-Youssef thrives until today, having celebrated its diamond jubilee two years ago. The lifespan of tyranny is generally short.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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