Egyptian columnists protest military censorship

October 5, 2011 - 8:15 AM
US Mideast Panetta

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta talks with Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi following a meeting at Tantawi's headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Win McNamee, Pool)

CAIRO (AP) — Three Egyptian columnists withheld their regular commentaries in an independent daily Wednesday to protest what they said was censorship by the country's military rulers.

The three columnists — Belal Fadl, Omer Taher and Nagla Bedir — left their columns blank, publishing only a few words explaining their decision.

"I withhold my writing today to protest the barring, impounding of newspapers and the presence there of military censorship," the three wrote in place of their columns.

The protest by the three coincides with growing criticism of the military's handling of Egypt during its transition period following the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and dissatisfaction over a timetable floated by the ruling generals for handing over power to a civilian government.

The timetable has proposed presidential elections for the end of 2012, meaning the generals would be in power for nearly two years before they step down, rather than the six months they had initially set as a deadline when they took over from Mubarak following an 18-day uprising.

The three writers publish their daily columns in the independent Al-Tahrir, a post-Mubarak publication edited by Ibrahim Eissa, who has long been one of Mubarak's most vocal critics. Eissa, like the three columnists, has been critical of some of the military's policies. The newspaper is named after the central Cairo plaza that saw the birth of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

Authorities last week stopped the publication in an independent weekly newspaper of an article critical of Egypt's intelligence service, which is traditionally led by a military officer. The newspaper's editor, Abdel-Halim Qandil, said officers of the intelligence service stopped the printing of the newspaper after the presses had begun running. Qandil said he replaced the offending article, but only after intelligence officers oversaw the destruction of some 100,000 copies.

The article was critical of the leadership of Mubarak's intelligence service under Omar Suleiman, a close confidant of the ousted president who was named vice president shortly before Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11. Suleiman is a career army officer.

Also last week, two other publications were subjected to censorship. One was ordered not to publish the second part of an investigative report claiming that Mubarak had instructed authorities to drop a case against an alleged Israeli spy. The second newspaper was ordered to remove a headline saying that Tahrir Square protesters wanted the current military ruler Hussein Tantawi removed.

Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years. Many youth groups that engineered the uprising have accused him of being slow in dismantling the legacy of his former patron's 29-year rule and of not doing enough to stop the torture of detainees by the military. They also accuse him of trying to steal credit for the uprising away from the hundreds of thousands of men and women who took to the streets across the nation during the Jan. 25-Feb. 11 revolt.

On Wednesday, Tantawi denied in comments carried by the official Middle East News Agency that the military intended to nominate one of its own for the president's job.

"These are rumors that are not worthy of stopping to consider, and neither should we spend time talking about them," said Tantawi. The marshal was televised walking about in downtown Cairo last week in civilian attire, giving rise to speculation that he might be considering a run for the country's top job.

The military has given Egypt all of its four presidents since young officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the country's monarchy. It has since been Egypt's most powerful and secretive institution.