In the 1980s I applied for a grant to study in the United States and one of the conditions was to pass the TOEFL examination (for non-native English speakers). I took the exam in the Ewart Hall at the American University in Cairo and the room was full of young doctors and engineers who, like me, were applying to go abroad to study. That day I asked everyone I met if they would like to stay in the United States if they had a chance, and the answer was a firm yes; in fact many of them wanted to leave Egypt and go to any other country they could. At the time I thought what a devastating loss this was to Egypt. The country desperately needed these doctors and engineers but as soon as they finished their education they were emigrating to other countries. That led me to another question: why did these young people want to escape from Egypt?
Poverty was not the reason because with a little patience and hard work they could work in Egypt for reasonable salaries, whereas in the West they would often have to do menial work well beneath their qualifications. The fundamental reason they were emigrating was frustration and a sense that the situation in Egypt was unfair and topsy-turvy: causes mostly do not lead to the right results, hard work is never a prerequisite for promotion and competence is not the criterion for obtaining a good job. In fact making a fortune usually has nothing to do with talent or effort. Everything one earns in democratic countries through hard work and merit can be obtained in Egypt through personal contacts and cunning. If you are talented in Egypt, you face a major problem and you would be better off if you were average or even a dim-witted failure.
The system is designed for average people and suffocates those with talent. Your future depends first and foremost on your relationships rather than your desserts. To have talent in Egypt is a burden because it gives rise to malice and envy, and many people will come forward to crush it. If you are talented in Egypt, you face three options: you can emigrate to a democratic country which respects talents and appreciates competence, where you can work hard day after day until you become like Ahmed Zewail, Mohamed ElBaradei, Magdi Yacoub and their like; or, you can offer your talents to the system of despotism, agreeing to be its servant and a tool for oppressing, abusing and cheating Egyptians; or, you can decide to preserve your honor, in which case you will meet the same fate as Ibrahim Eissa. Eissa is one of the most gifted, honest and courageous journalists in Egypt. With his dazzling talent and with almost no resources, he has managed to make el-Dostour newspaper into a distinctive landmark in the Egyptian and Arab press. At el-Dostour he introduced dozens of new names, all of whom came to him as young reporters.
Ibrahim Eissa did not oppose the government; he opposed the system. He did not launch attacks on those responsible for the sewerage system or the telephone network; he directed his critiques at the head of the regime personally. He called for real democratic change through free and fair elections and regular change at the top. He took a firm stand against any attempt to transfer power from father to son. Ibrahim Eissa managed to turn el-Dostour into an important training ground for journalists and an open house for all patriots. Any Egyptian with a just grievance would find el-Dostour on his side and any writer who had an article banned in any other newspaper could automatically have it published in el-Dostour. It has been a newspaper for all Egyptians, defending the truth without fear or favor. The regime tried to silence Ibrahim Eissa in every possible way. They tried to wear him down with absurd trials and frivolous lawsuits. They intimidated him and threatened to detain him because he dared to ask questions about President Mubarak’s health, then decided at the last minute to pardon him. They tried to buy him by commissioning him to host television programs which would bring him income. But Ibrahim Eissa held fast to the torch of truth, always saying what he believed and always doing what he said. As popular and international pressure for democratic change mounted in Egypt, the regime faced a predicament and grew nervous. Ibrahim Eissa had become more than the regime could tolerate.
A man named Sayed Badawi who was wealthy and owned the al-Hayat television channels, which suggests that he had the approval of senior regime officials, spent vast amounts of money to win leadership of the Wafd Party, and then spent more money to persuade the party to play the role of token opposition in the farce of the next rigged elections. Badawi bought el-Dostour and said from the first that the newspaper's political line would not change, and that his principle was always to keep management and editorial separate. Another owner appeared alongside Badawi, a man by the name of Reda Edward, someone who has never had anything to do with the press. On the very day ownership of el-Dostour was transferred officially to Badawi, his first decision was to dismiss Ibrahim Eissa arbitrarily and contemptuously. After that everything was carefully calculated. The young journalists, shocked to see Badawi mistreat their mentor, protested and staged a sit-in. Badawi gave them new contracts with good salaries to make them forget what happened.
The union of journalists found itself in a situation unprecedented in the Egyptian press. The union board had taken the matter seriously and demanded Ibrahim Eissa be reinstated because he was dismissed arbitrarily and illegally. At this point union leader Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a leading admirer of President Mubarak, came into the picture. Ahmed held lengthy meetings which concluded by advising Ibrahim Eissa to seek redress through the legal system (some effective union leadership!). It was plainly obvious that Badawi and Reda Edward were merely the latest model of regime men. The question is: why all these plots and maneuvers and millions of pounds wasted in order to get rid of a talented and honorable writer whose only assets are his ideas and his pen? Why didn't the regime devote all that effort to save millions of Egyptians from the misery they live in? The newspaper el-Dostour is finished but it has gone down in Egyptian history as a great national and journalistic experiment. And there is one thing that Sayed Badawi and those who drew up the plan with him did not reckon on: the Ibrahim Eissa who created el-Dostour can create dozens of other newspapers. The tide of change in Egypt will surely triumph because it is in defense of truth and justice, while supporters of the regime are defending injustice, oppression and evil. Egypt has risen and no one, whoever he may be, can stand between Egypt and the future.