Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1990, Page 9

Security and Intelligence

The Fall of Zaki Badr: A Victory For Egypt's Opposition Press

By Michael Collins Dunn

The dismissal of Egyptian Interior Minister Zaki Badr in January was a case of an opposition newspaper bringing down a key security official in a Mideast country. As such it was a sign of just how far Egypt's experiment in opposition politics has come, and of the power which Egypt's sometimes outrageous opposition papers can wield.

The most hated man in President Hosni Mubarak's government because of his hard line against Islamic "fundamentalist" movements, Badr came to power in 1986 immediately after the interior ministry's own security police had rioted. For nearly four years he pursued a tough line on drug trafficking, black market currency speculation and extremism, and, his critics charged, a personal animus against Islamic movements. At one point last year an opposition deputy physically attacked the always outspoken Badr on the floor of Parliament, something unknown in Egyptian parliamentary history.

Egypt's opposition press has often been abrasive and outrageous, and there are signs that the victory over Badr may have given it new confidence.

Last December, when a small truck carrying blasting powder exploded not far from his motorcade, Badr proclaimed it an assassination attempt, though the truck driver suffered only minor injuries. Skeptics believed it was an accident, but Badr claimed that the Jihad organization was behind the plot and began rounding up fundamentalists.

In the wake of the December bombing, some observers reported Badr was close to a nervous breakdown. He began to criticize not only government opponents, but even government officials and pro-government editors. Among his targets was the man who was to succeed him, Police Major General Muhammad Abdel Halim Musa, governor of the troubled town of Asyut. Musa, who has sought a dialogue with Islamic groups, was criticized as too weak by Badr.

The opposition newspaper, al-Shaab, which is officially the organ of the Socialist Labor Party but is in fact editorially allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, obtained and published a tape of two discussions in the town of Benha, in which Badr denounced not only opposition figures but also government officials, editors and prominent writers and columnists. The transcribed comments showed Badr ranting coarsely about prominent Egyptian figures. Wild remarks, including one in which Badr said he wanted to kill about one percent of the Egyptian population, seemed to show a man out of control. Although Badr reportedly tried to seize the issue of al-Shaab, he was overruled.

Days after the al-Shaab revelations, President Hosni Mubarak replaced Badr with General Musa, who pledged that he would firmly enforce the laws. He vowed to release anyone held illegally, and began reviewing the cases of political detainees.

Egypt's opposition press has often been abrasive and outrageous, and there are signs that theal-Shaab victory over Badr may have given it new confidence. In a provocative editorial headlined "Change or Ceausescu," al-Shaab warned that the government must reform itself or face an Eastern European-style uprising. In response, prominent journalist Anis Mansur noted in the pro-government al-Ahram that no newspaper in Ceausescu's Rumania could have printed such a warning without being seized. Al-Shaab's success against Badr is as much a sign of how much freedom the government has allowed the press as it is evidence of the abuse of power by a security man.

Egypt is one of the few Middle Eastern countries in which the courts can overrule the internal security apparatus and order defendants released. While some troubles did follow the firing—including a riot in Asyut demanding that Badr be put on trial, in which at least one person was killed by police fire—Zaki Badr's fall was generally seen as a great step forward. Since Amnesty International and other international human rights groups have been increasingly critical of Zaki Badr's prisons, his firing also removed the one blot on the otherwise generally good international reputation of the Mubarak government.

Michael C. Dunn, Ph.D. is senior analyst of The International Estimate, Inc., a Washington-based consultancy, and Middle East editor of its biweekly newsletter, The Estimate.