The dividing line
What it takes to attain Middle East stability featured in the Arabic press this week, with Hizbullah's leader giving his take on recent events in an extensive interview, writes Aziza Sami
Two outlooks on Middle East "transformation" were expressed in the press this week. The first was in an interview conducted by editor-in-chief of the Egyptian national weekly Al-Musawwar, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen). In the interview, Abu Mazen delineated the issues the Palestinians believe need to be resolved in order to attain the "road" to Palestinian-Israeli peace. Abu Mazen also spoke of his close relationship with Palestinian National Authority (PNA) leader Yasser Arafat.
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Al-Hayat depicted the UN's lifting of sanctions on Iraq. Nagui in Al-Ahram drew Israeli PM Sharon promising to "first build settlements, then 'build' confidence with the Palestinian government." Al-Ahali took a jibe at governments which for 20 years have been "sleeping in their cave, and promising economic reform"
The second appeared in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al- Hayat, which published an article by US assistant secretary of state for the Near East, William Burns, exemplifying his government's position on "change" in the region. Burns argued that this could only be attained through a wider agenda of "democratisation" and "economic modernisation" emanating from the region but supported by the US. "Israeli-Palestinian peace" was an integral requirement of this "transformation".
In the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Wafd, lawyer Farid El-Deeb warned that "the credibility of the National Democratic Party's Policies' Committee is in the balance," analysing the NDP's latest initiative to "support human rights" by abolishing the state security courts and alleging that this could be "aborted" by vested interests.
The Arabic press also reported news of an impending visit by US President G W Bush to the Middle East to promote the roadmap and plans for an indefinite American presence in Iraq. Further threats to US and British interests in Saudi Arabia were also reported as well as close security cooperation between the Gulf States and the CIA. Reported as well were talks between Syria and the Europeans. On 26 May, the press reported the Israeli government's acceptance of the roadmap, along with its "reservations" and "opposition to the right of return". The Israeli decision was reported to have been met "with optimistic caution" by the Palestinians.
The Egyptian opposition daily Al-Arabi published the text of an interview with Hizbullah's Secretary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah conducted by veteran Egyptian television presenter Hamdi Qandil. Last week the newspaper referred to the interview, saying that it had been scheduled for Qandil's widely watched programme, "Editor-in-Chief", but that the programme had been suspended. In the interview, Nasrallah spoke of the meaning of the American "victory" in Iraq, the development of Hizbullah's "discourse", and what the "dividing line" was between legitimate resistance and terrorism.
The national Egyptian weekly newspaper Akhbar Al-Yom saw Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim Se'da launch an unprecedented attack on Minister of Education Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin. A prominent front-page cartoon by Mustafa Hussein portrayed the minister getting "zero" in the "education" exam.
MY WAY: Editor-in-chief of the Egyptian weekly magazine Al-Musawwar Makram Mohamed Ahmed conducted an extensive interview in the 21 May issue with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Accompanying headlines underscored Abu Mazen's statement that "the absence of a clear Israeli declaration of its acceptance of the roadmap will not allow us room for manoeuvre. Saeb Erekat has not been ousted from negotiations, because in my meeting with Sharon there were no negotiations." Abu Mazen said that "we do not aim to enter into a civil war, and we will work to calm the situation in my own way."
The Palestinian prime minister stressed that the Israelis would be "mistaken if they want me to work their way, according to their instructions and interests". He was critical of the Israeli occupation, which "leaves me no room to do anything as long as it besieges every village and controls every city". He said that he was "not committed to the 'reservations' that Sharon has presented to the Americans regarding the roadmap", demanding that "barriers must be lifted, and people given freedom of mobility if they are to stand by their government". Abu Mazen described Sharon's "insistence on annulling the Palestinians' right of return" as a move aiming at "deliberately making things impossible". The Palestinian government had "demanded that Sharon free Arafat and the major Palestinian leaders now in prison, such as Marwan El- Barghouthi, Yassin Khaled, and Abdel-Rehim Mulawwah".
Abu Mazen also said that because differences could arise in negotiations with the Israelis, "we accept the Quartet as a referee and supervisor". He refused to lay blame on PNA leader Yasser Arafat for any alleged shortcomings, saying that "if any mistakes have been committed by Arafat, then they were made by all of us because he speaks in our name." Arafat "is head of the PNA," he said, "and we do nothing that he does not approve of", adding that his communication with the Palestinian leader was "regular, and through daily visits" during which "all matters" were discussed.
Abu Mazen pointed out the difficulties of maintaining law and order in the Palestinian territories at a time when the PNA "has no forces in the West Bank and only 30 per cent of the police force in Gaza". He said that the head of Egyptian intelligence, Omar Suleiman, had informed him that Egypt might invite the Palestinian factions to convene "another session of dialogue to be held in Cairo". Abu Mazen stressed that "Egypt can support the Palestinian position in Washington because this is its integrated role." He described Syria's and Lebanon's desire to be "partners" in the roadmap as a "new and positive stance", adding that "when the Syrians say they accept what the Palestinians accept this may be taken to be a positive development on their part."
On the same day, 21 May, the London-based daily Al-Quds reported that "Abu Mazen promises Bush to stop the resistance and to replace the security officials appointed by Arafat.
On 20 May, Al-Hayat reported that the Lebanese Shi'ite leader Sayed Hussein Fadlallah had "prohibited the targeting of civilians and bombings such as those that took place in Morocco and Saudi Arabia". Al-Hayat said that Fadlallah had demanded that religious preachers "lead an awareness campaign against tactics adopting the guise of religion". On 21 May Al-Hayat reported the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi as denouncing the "executors of the bombings", describing them as "errant from Islam".
AS EVERYONE KNOWS: The US's outlook on democracy in the Middle East featured in a 20 May article published in Al-Hayat written by US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, entitled "Democratic change and American policy in the Middle East". Burns argued that there were "four points of special importance to be noted if we are to put the issue of democracy and American Middle East policy in their proper context".
These were: "first, the challenge of opening up political systems across the region, which should be given much greater priority on the American agenda than it has in the past; second, support for democratic change must become an inseparable component of a wider strategy aiming actively to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, build a stable, flourishing and democratic Iraq and modernise the region's economies; third, as everyone knows better than I, the transformation towards democracy means gradual, but also real and comprehensive change. This democracy is about more than merely conducting elections: it includes building proper institutions, the rule of law and vibrant civil communities. It is a painful, difficult, evolving and cumulative process, which is sometimes also hazardous; fourth, democratic change must be induced from within the region's societies because it cannot be sustainable if it is brought about through recipes and sermons from an external source. However, there is a lot that the US and other countries from the community of democratic states can do to assist reform which arises and flourishes locally."
Burns concluded that "we can support democratic change as part of the wider strategy for economic modernisation, Israeli-Palestinian peace and a flourishing Iraq." The article was juxtaposed with an opinion piece by leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Essam El-Eryan entitled "By my hand, not Uncle Sam's".
WERE IT NOT: On 21 May Al-Quds's headlines announced that "America raises the alert in fear of a major operation on its territory. Security barriers turn Riyadh into a military barracks." The newspaper's banner reported that "An impending attack on Saudi Arabia closes the embassies of the US and Britain." On 22 May, Al-Quds reported "the arrest of three Moroccans at Jeddah airport who had planned to hijack an aeroplane and fly it into oil installations". The banner read, "foiling an attack on Saudi Arabia, twin towers style". The Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on 25 May reported that "Morocco arrests four and chases four others and denies threats of new operations."
On 21 May, the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al- Siyasa gave prominence to news that the "CIA director meets with Sabah Al-Ahmed: A Kuwaiti-American plan to counter Terrorism". Meanwhile, the banner of the Syrian national daily Tishrin read that "President Al-Assad investigates turbulent regional conditions and bilateral ties with the Danish foreign minister: Al- Assad asserts that wars do not realise security and stability. Justice and peace are the only path for humanity." A smaller headline read that the "Syrian and Danish foreign ministers assert the importance of peace and the reinforcement of Syrian-European ties."
On the same day, the Qatari daily Al-Watan announced that "The emir and Cheney (in a telephone call) investigate ties and international affairs. US Congress lauds Qatari democratic reforms." Al-Watan also published news of the attack launched by former Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun on Maronite Bishop Nasrallah Safir for his acceptance of the Syrian presence in South Lebanon. According to Al-Watan, Aoun also attacked MP Walid Jumblatt, saying that "he had serious failings, and had it not been for the tolerance of Lebanese society he could not have continued in public life." Jumblatt is known for his pan-Arab and Islamist orientations.
ONLY IN NAME: Egyptian national daily Al- Ahram on 22 May published in its banner that "Mubarak looks into the establishment of a national council for human rights, and the abolition of the state security courts and life sentences with labour." Smaller headlines read that "the council aims at reinforcing human rights and their awareness and implementation. The president is keen to support the values of constitutional legitimacy and Egypt's acceding to its appropriate status. Parliament will discuss the two draft laws for human rights and [the state security] courts, to be ratified in the current session."
Al-Ahram's banner on 21 May reported that "Mubarak asserts that education is the corner- stone of national independence, and that our educational syllabuses are a beacon for countries in the region." A smaller headline stated that "The US has not demanded any change in the educational syllabuses in force in Egypt."
In the 20 May issue of the daily newspaper Al-Wafd, issued by the opposition Wafd Party, lawyer at the Cassations Court Farid El-Deeb wrote of "the credibility of the National Democratic Party's Policies' Committee [being] in the balance". El-Deeb argued that the cancellation of Law 105 of 1980, which had established the state security courts, had been met with public enthusiasm. However, since then there had been nothing but back-tracking, with reports that the courts, but not the law itself, would be abolished.
El-Deeb expressed his concern that even if Law 105 were to be cancelled, articles from it would be transferred to the existing penal code. His fears were based on the Ministry of Justice's draft law, he said, which "takes us back to square one". The draft gave "extra-judicial procedures to the public prosecutor", making change to the law "only in name". The prosecutor's wide jurisdiction, El-Deeb argued, was not limited to issues related to security and terrorism, but extended "to many other crimes not constituting a threat to the state". He concluded by saying that the government's proposed law was a form of "manoeuvring and [was] abortive of the NDP's initiative". He called on the party to "defend this initiative and to restrict the extraordinary powers given to the prosecution, making them applicable only in the strictest necessity".
NO LONGER DETERMINES: On 22 May, Al- Hayat's banner reported "the start of the international recognition of the occupation of Iraq: Moscow cooperates with the transitional government. Bremmer once again postpones the 'National Congress', saying that the opposition leaders do not represent all Iraqis."
The previous day, Al-Hayat reported that "Washington presents a modified plan that does not put in place a definite timetable for ending the occupation of Iraq." The paper said that the US had presented a plan to a closed session of the UN Security Council "which no longer determines the preliminary period of occupation as 12 months, to be renewed". Instead "the period", Al-Hayat wrote, "has now been left without definition". On 25 May, the newspaper's banner reported that leading Iraqi opposition figures "Al-Hakim and Bachachi accuse the occupation of procrastination in the establishment of a transitional government."
"Fighting in the Ain Al-Helwa [Refugee] Camp between Fatah and Islamists" was reported on 20 May in Al-Hayat, which referred to the latter as "the 'extremist groups' known as Jamaat Al-Nur and Usbat Al-Ansar which ... fear the control of the Fatah group led by Arafat over the camp and its liquidating the Islamist groups".
Al-Ahram on 22 May announced that "Bush looks into the possibility of visiting the Middle East next month to give impetus to the roadmap's implementation. The Israeli foreign minister announces his country's readiness to implement the roadmap." Al-Hayat reported on the same day that "Washington pressures Sharon and urges that he visit Washington soon: Bush may meet with him and with Abu Mazen in the region."
DEFINING TERRORISM: The Egyptian opposition weekly newspaper Al-Arabi, issued by the Nasserist Party, on 25 May published an interview with the secretary-general of Hizbullah, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, by Hamdi Qandil under the headline "Text of the banned television interview with Hizbullah's leader". In response to Qandil's question of "what the lesson is" from events in Iraq, Nasrallah said that "while the lesson intended by the US is that you must learn not to disobey what we demand of you, the actual lesson is that a regime that practises dictatorship, oppression and injustice to the point of criminality cannot stand steadfast in the face of invasion and occupation."
In response to the question of what course Hizbullah would take "after it has become, along with Syria and Lebanon, the butt of an onslaught by the US", Nasrallah said that Hizbullah, through constant self-evaluation and review, had been careful to steer clear of "demagoguery". He added that while the party was "committed to fundamental principles, one should be precise, flexible and discriminating in choosing the proper discourse, and the context, and acting accordingly". Nasrallah said that his party's presence in Southern Lebanon did not negate that of the Lebanese army, which is "positioned near the international borders, and a few kilometres away from the barbed wire", adding that "both the formal national army, and the Islamic Arab resistance with its guerrilla-type warfare" were operating and needed in the south. Neither was sufficient alone, he said, "since you know Israel's strength, which we do not underestimate".
Despite Hizbullah's involvement in Lebanese domestic politics since its entry to parliament in 2000, as well as its regional political role, Nasrallah said that his party did "not aspire" to become part of the Lebanese government. The reason was that Hizbullah did not approve of the government's domestic policies, adopted in 1991, "regarding social, administrative and economic issues, as well as those related to elections, public freedoms and those affecting the living standards of deprived and disadvantaged groups". On the other hand, Nasrallah said, the [Lebanese government's foreign policy] did not present "fundamental or acute differences" from the position of Hizbullah.
Hizbullah's secretary-general then went on to allude to the constant deferral of the convening of an "international conference on terrorism" that would "draw up a legal and international definition of 'terrorism' and 'resistance'" . He said that this procrastination had been because of "the US administration", which was behind the UN's "reluctance to agree to such a conference". Defining terrorism, he added, would provide a "margin of movement for resistance at a time when the US administration wants to say of anyone who carries arms in resistance, whether in the face of the US or in the face of Israel, anywhere in the world, that he is a terrorist. It is as if the very word 'resistance' has been obliterated from the dictionary. For us, resistance is primarily tied to occupation, such as when Israeli forces entered Lebanon. Taking up arms in this case is legitimate resistance, not terrorism."
Nasrallah condemned "military operations [that] target innocent people not connected to occupation, injustice or aggression", describing them as "terrorism". But he also alluded to "an area between resistance and terrorism that must be studied and more accurately defined, so that we can finally and decisively determine what the dividing line between the two is." He condemned the recent bombings against American targets in Riyadh, saying that "it is not sufficient for a movement that kills innocent people to be 'Islamic' for us to say that what they do is legitimate. Operations against innocent individuals of any religion or nationality are to be condemned, and it is from this perspective that we view the Riyadh bombings. But we must also look at the issues from another angle, which is that of the American policies that have been both unjust and supportive of Israel and of the conditions of tyranny in the region. These lead to such outcomes."
Nasrallah added that "when we diagnose, or condemn, a certain act, we must not ignore the circumstances in which it took place."
Al-Ahram on the same day reported the US ambassador to Cairo, David Welch, as saying that "violence and terrorism are not a result of American policy, but are attributable to those who commit them and the countries in which they take place." The ambassador was speaking at a round-table organised by the Al-Ahram publication Al-Dimoqratiya.
THE WHIP: On 24 May, Ibrahim Se'da, editor- in-chief of the Egyptian weekly newspaper Akhbar Al-Yom and renowned for his campaigns preceding the downfalls of government figures and others, launched a front-page attack on Minister of Education Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin. Reporting on a meeting held by President Mubarak with the cabinet, Se'da presented his readers with an extensive monologue over two pages alleged to have been uttered by the minister during the meeting. In these "confessions", as Se'da described them, Bahaaeddin is reported to have confirmed his responsibility of the deficiencies besetting the Egyptian educational system, though he has been in charge of it "for just two decades".
These deficiencies ranged from the inappropriate preparation of students for the job market, to the killing of individual initiative, the failure to teach students how to read and write, and the encouragement allegedly given to Islamic fundamentalist and extremist teachers of religion, who, Se'da reported, were alluded to affectionately by the minister as "my grand- children".
On 26 May Al-Ahram's banners read that "Mubarak announces Qaddafi's agreement to freeze Libya's request for withdrawal from the Arab League." The smaller headline read that "the president announces the preparation of a draft for modifying the League's Charter after his talks with the Libyan leader in Tripoli, to be presented to Arab Leaders."
Al-Hayat on the same day announced that "Sharon's government approves the roadmap, appended with reservations and guarantees and opposition to the right of return." The paper described this as "the first official Israeli agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state." It also reported that the news had been met with "optimistic caution" by the Palestinians, while Al-Ahram wrote that "the PNA considers conditional acceptance insufficient."
On 27 May the newspaper's banner reported that "Bush will meet with Mubarak, the Jordanian king, and Prince Abdullah at Sharm El- Sheikh, and with Sharon and Abu Mazen at Aqaba." The smaller headline relayed Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's statement that: "Israel cannot keep 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation forever."
Al-Hayat reported on 27 May that "Attacks on Americans in Iraq intensify: one dead, and several wounded, amidst threats of 'martyrdom operations'."