Ibrahim Issa and Sahar Zaki are going to prison for a year for the crime of telling the truth about President Hosni Mubarak. That's because the truth is no defense when the Egyptian dictator finds it embarrassing or insulting.
Issa is the chief editor of Al-Dustour and Zaki a reporter on the opposition paper. Their accuracy wasn't refuted by the Mubarak regime; in fact, that may have made their offense more serious. According to the BBC, they reported the details of a legal case accusing Mubarak of misusing public funds during the privatization of state-owned companies. The journalists didn't make the charges or file the suit, but the guy who did was quickly sent to prison for insulting the dictator.
This isn't Issa's only offense. He's facing more jail time for reporting rumors about Mubarak's failing health and making the audacious — treasonous? — claim that "the public has (the right) to know" about the 79-year-old president's condition.
Two other journalists were jailed for criticizing the lack of justice in Egyptian courts.
When White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the United States was "deeply concerned" about the press crackdown and other rights abuses, a Mubarak spokesman told her to mind her own business and stop this "unacceptable interference."
This is the same government that in 2004 promised to stop sending journalists to jail for publishing news Mubarak didn't like. The following year, he promised to modernize and liberalize the Egyptian political system.
That never happened. It was all a sop to the Bush administration, which was noodging him for democratic reforms, but — as so often happens — lacked follow-through. Hosni Mubarak is a living testament to the failure of the Bush administration's crusade to spread its gospel of democracy to the Middle East.
Journalists like Ibrahim Issa took encouragement from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's inspiring call for democracy in Egypt during her 2005 visit.
But when they tested it, nothing had changed, and Washington, which had long ago lost interest, was useless.
Rice was essentially told to mind her own business, and criticism since then has been limited to such bold pronouncements as "it's disappointing."
Mubarak went on to nominate himself and then get re-elected in another rigged election to another six-year term and, for good measure, he tossed his hapless opponent in jail. Mubarak is an equal-opportunity dictator, cracking down on foes and critics across the spectrum.
But he's our dictator. U.S. taxpayers send him $2.2 billion a year, including top-of-the-line tanks, planes, missiles and other weapons to help solidify his brutal hold on power.
A big part of that baksheesh is a payoff for the peace treaty with Israel signed in 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has ruled since his predecessor's assassination in 1981, presiding over a cold peace and even refusing to visit Israel (he insists his trip to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral doesn't count).
Mubarak is grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him, but he is in no hurry to turn over the reins, despite his failing health. Most Egyptians are unaware of his health problems and his trips abroad for treatment of possible cardiovascular disease — and writing about them is likely to send Ibrahim Issa to prison.
The corruption and repression of Mubarak's regime have been a breeding ground for Muslim Brotherhood recruits — and for anti-American hostility.
Most Egyptians hate their increasingly brutal and autocratic government, and that animosity extends to the United States, according to well-known Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, because Washington is seen as helping keep Mubarak in power by sending him billions in aid and weapons every year.
With Mubarak in full retreat from any promise of liberalization and reform, the Bush administration looks weak and foolish when Rice's spokesman sees "a general trend towards greater political reform, greater political openness."
The strength of the Egyptian regime is also its weakness, and sending journalists like Ibrahim Issa to jail for writing the truth is another sign of the failure of the inept Bush crusade for Arab democracy.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.