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Samir Raafat
Jordan Star, April 30 1998

CAIRO - The timing couldn't have been better. Just as everyone was thinking of kharoof al-eid (sacrificial lamb) and how the family would spend the upcoming week-long holiday celebrating Moslem Eid al-Adha and Christian Easter, the government stealthily slipped in a dictate on March 31st forbidding the Cyprus press from printing its so-called 'made-for-Egypt issues' in Cairo's Free Zone.

What better time to make an announcement the administration doesn't want the public to notice? As though to assure the unwelcome measure's free passage, there was minimum coverage of the decree by the state controlled media except for editorials by the usual praise-writers who hail anything the government does.

Let me explain.

According to a post-1952 law, all media publications in Egypt must first obtain a license from the state's Supreme Press Council before going into business for themselves. Anyone will tell you this means growing old waiting for such a privilege. But for those in a hurry, there was a way to circumvent the prohibitive law. The government's revolving back door. First stop in your itinerary is Cyprus where you register your publication against a nominal fee. Next stop a lawyer's office followed by a visit to the nearest notary public. Once the acts of incorporation have been sealed and delivered, you return to Egypt and open shop. Your new magazine, newspaper or tabloid is henceforth treated as a foreign publication not unlike the Herald Tribune, Newsweek or Paris Match, subject to what was until recently a mild censorship.

Invariably this meant your stringers, cameramen and columnists are accredited with the Ministry of Information either as foreign correspondents or as Egyptian journalists working for a foreign publication. which also means they are not entitled to membership, benefits or protection from Big Brother, in other words, the all-powerful state controlled press syndicate.

As for producing the 'foreign' publication itself, meaning color separation, layout and printing, you have the choice between Cairo on the one hand and Lebanon, Cyprus or Greece on the other. Most chose NOT to print in Cairo in order to circumvent a hefty 36% tax levied on advertising revenue. This means the publication enters Egypt either as accompanied luggage or as freight. An increasingly popular alternative these last two years was to print in Cairo's Free Zone which offers first rate technology courtesy of two private companies (IPH and Sahara) PLUS the tax exemption. Over thirty publications went for that option.

So in fact, these foreign publications were produced in Egypt's free zone by a predominantly Egyptian staff for readers in Egypt. Sure enough the copy and subject matter was mostly about Egypt.

At first there was one, then two then thirty-two such publications collectively known as the Cyprus Press. They appeared in Arabic, English or both. They ranged from Satellite and TV guides to mother and babycare magazines. There were the teen and fitness periodicals along with weekly or monthly social glossies. There were even free supermarket rags and color catalogues. With advertisement on the rise in a newly privatized Egypt, there was enough to go around so that everyone made a tidy profit and didn't have to share it with the state coffers.

But there were the bad apples who spoiled it for everyone else. For among the above paraphernalia were some heavy hitters who made a career in lampooning everything good and bad about Egypt and its rulers. To some within the Mubarak administration, the situation had gotten out of hand. Censorship was not working fast enough creating an opportunity for those with ulterior motives to stir things to one's personal or sectarian advantage or to settle accounts with highly placed but undesirable politicos who do not want to leave.

Other heavies complained that after having invested (and skimmed) hundreds of millions of dollars in state-owned printing houses, the bulk of the lucrative business was going to private companies operating in the free zone.

As anti-government editorials and envy increased the insidious whispering campaign grew louder. The private publications, no longer regarded as covetous Cyprus publications, were increasingly described as yellow and gutter press. The frenzied government led accusations multiplied. Cries of how these publications were defaming Egypt's image abroad could be heard in some of the milder opposition press as well. "They are destabilizing the state's efforts to privatize" exclaimed the daily Wafd.

This and more even though many of the 'nasty' stories carried in the Cyprus press were actual reprints or translations from state-owned publications including the popular but often libelous Rose al-Youssef, Egypt's all-in-one answer to the National Inquirer, Private Eye and Punch.

And the decree's astute timing.

A few days before the General Authority for Investment & Free Zones' (GAFI) stealthy decree disallowing 'foreign' publications from printing in the Free Zone (which comes under GAFI's jurisdiction), the Arabic language weekly al-Dostour and the English-language biweekly Cairo Times were singled out for penalization by the state censor. The first was put out of business and the second had its knuckles rapped when its March 19 issue was summarily banned by the censors for having refused to play ball the previous issue which had elaborated on police brutality. In a separate incident, three journalists were arrested while a dozen others await investigation by the Press Council. The night of the long knives had started.

What now?

Some pundits describe the government's recent move as harassment and intimidation. "It is trying to bring the renegades into the fold" claims a conventional veteran journalist.

But others not on the state's payroll see it differently. "This is calculated step to reaffirm the supremacy of the old guard, an antique collection of self-serving state-appointed press barons who feel their public sector empires are under threat."

A political commentator whom one finds hard not to believe went on to state this move was long overdue. "An administration of a country which for the past 40 years woke up each morning to find every banner in each paper starting with the name of the leader feels uneasy with change. But I wouldn't worry. Either the state will back down or the Cyprus press will find another back door. The weak will drop out and the expunged nasties will return in sheep's clothing."

"It could be that what we have is a storm in a teacup." says a retired columnist. "When we had currency control the black market flourished. When it was forbidden to import cars, every last manual laborer returned from the Gulf states with a Mercedes paid for by local car dealers. When the incumbent minister of higher education banned several foreign universities from operating in Cairo, the decree was rescinded even before the ink had dried out. In this case, the state wants to share in the growing advertising revenue market so they came up with a knee-jerk solution: Flush the tax-dodging Cyprus publications out of the free-zone."

As the French proverb goes, 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme merde!'

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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