CAIRO — The Egyptian authorities on Wednesday confiscated all the copies of one of the country’s largest private newspapers in order to censor an article, just days after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi vowed in an American television interview that there was “no limitation on freedom of expression in Egypt.”
In fact, the censorship is another example of constriction of news media freedom since the military takeover in July 2013 that brought Mr. Sisi to power. The article, in the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, was the latest installment in a serialized interview conducted with a senior spy before he died.
Although all the printed copies containing the article were seized, it was available through PressDisplay.com, an online newsstand, which evidently archived the edition before it could be confiscated. The headline quoted the former spy, Refaat Jibril, declaring that Egypt had never executed a single Israeli spy. “We used to return them to Israel in the context of deals to bring back our prisoners,” he said, according to the article, which may have undercut the intelligence agencies’ hard-line image.
Records indicate that Egypt has executed defendants convicted of spying for Israel as recently as the 1980s, with famous cases in 1954 and 1962, said Yossi Melman, co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon,” a history of the Israeli intelligence services.
Mr. Jibril, the former spy, was also quoted describing an expansive role for the intelligence agencies in domestic affairs, including “the economic, social and cultural.” An enemy might seek to “stir up unrest and gather information,” he said, claiming that he had once apprehended two Europeans who were working as spies for Israel by “passing leaflets randomly to people, inciting them to a revolution.”
Since the military takeover, the government has shut down the main opposition news media, the remaining private media are almost as supportive of the president as the state-run outlets, and the government has jailed several journalists. In June, a court sentenced three journalists for Al Jazeera’s English-language network to at least seven years in prison on charges of broadcasting false reports of civil unrest as part of a so-called Islamist conspiracy.
Al Masry Al Youm, too, is broadly supportive of Mr. Sisi and the military takeover. A senior editor responsible for the article said Wednesday that security officials had offered no explanation for the censorship. “They just said, ‘Remove this article,’ ” the editor, Ahmed Ragab, said. “The regime tries to protect its story about history, and we journalists try to search out new facts. It is the normal fight.”
In a recent interview with the broadcaster Charlie Rose in New York, Mr. Sisi insisted that the freedom of the Egyptian news media was now absolute. “There is no limitation and this is final,” he said. “Anybody can be criticized in the media, from the president to any state institution,” he added, saying, “We are very keen on ensuring that.”
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But longstanding Egyptian law requires journalists to obtain the permission of military intelligence before publishing any information relating to the spy agencies.
And the authorities used the law to block publication of certain articles in a similar fashion under Hosni Mubarak, the former president, although this appeared to be the first instance of such censorship since the uprising that removed him in 2011. (Al Masry Al Youm ultimately printed and sold Wednesday’s paper omitting the article.)
Negad el-Borai, a lawyer who often represents Egyptian news organizations, said the paper had broken the law by publishing without prior permission.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a former United States diplomat, said the censorship showed how little had changed after three years of upheaval. “Sisi is telling everybody in New York, ‘We have a free media,’ ” she said. “Well, what we actually have is the same darn system.”