Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2003
Issue No. 665
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Eid without kahk

Again, the price hikes were the focus of the Egyptian press this week. Jailan Halawi examines how desperate the situation has become

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"What did he do?" "Are we going to wait until he does something?" Al-Arabi; In Al-Quds, a magnifying glass is needed to read the fine print of the new Geneva peace document.
Ramadan is almost over and preparations for the Eid Al-Fitr feast have begun. However, this year, with the deteriorating economic situation, it appears that the eid might take a different look. On its 17 November issue the daily national Al- Gomhuria wrote criticising the price hikes. The article had a red-colour banner headline reading that in the markets, people go only to watch, not buy. The article blamed the government for not keeping a close eye on the rocketing prices whether that was of food, services or clothes, now that we are approaching the end of the fasting month. In the absence of any supervision, "the public is now deprived of happiness" since they cannot afford to buy anything new for their kids or for themselves. The price of clothes according to the article had jumped by 30 per cent compared to last year.

Clothes were not the only thing that witnessed an increase in prices. The article noted that due to price rises in sugar, nuts, flour and butter, all used in the making of kahk, cookies made to mark the end of Ramadan, the selling of kahk had decreased by 50 per cent from last year since people preferred instead to bake the sweets at home in a bid to save some money for other necessities.

Tackling the same issue, the weekly independent newspaper Sawt Al-Umma wrote in its banner, "The government's gift for the nation in helping it have a happy eid is forcing new tariffs onto electricity bills." The article criticised the government's intention to pass a new law that calls for a 10 per cent surcharge to be added onto electricity bills. The money is to go to the maintenance of buildings but the article warned that the bill will be rejected by the people whose income had plunged badly following the latest financial crisis in the country.

Speaking of financial difficulties, Egypt revealed the arrest of a spy who approached the Israeli embassy offering his services in exchange for money. News of the Egyptian, Walid Ahmed Hashim, made headlines in all the daily Egyptian newspapers following Prosecutor General Maher Abdel-Wahid's announcement referring Hashim to a state security court. The daily Al-Ahram carried an article which included alleged confessions made by Hashim in which he said that he only thought of offering his services to the embassy because of his desperation to improve his financial situation. Wafd Party's mouthpiece Al-Wafd said in an article that the suspect had telephoned the Israeli Embassy in April and had faxed it various reports containing information about internal Egyptian affairs. Allegedly, Hashim said he had told officials at the embassy the he would provide more information in exchange for $2,500. Almost all press reports were certain that the motive behind Hashim's actions was his financial problems, with the exception of Al-Gomhuria which published an article claiming, after interviewing Hashim's neighbours, that he was well off and did not need to spy. More details are expected after Hashim's trial starts. No date has been set.

On the political level, the Egyptian press continued to tackle the so-called "Welch crisis". Al-Gomhuria spoke of the tension that was created last week by the US Ambassador to Cairo David Welch's recent remarks describing the suicide attack which took place in Haifa last month as an "act of martyrdom". In a speech at the American University in Cairo recently, Welch criticised the way the press covered suicide bombings which he considered "acts of terrorism" that should not be glorified. Welch's comments angered many Egyptians and especially the Press Syndicate which described his remarks as "interference in Egypt's internal affairs". The syndicate further issued a statement accusing the ambassador of attempting, by his critique, to "muzzle" the press because it does not support his administration's "aggressive" policies in the region.

Another statement was issued by the Press Syndicate urging Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher to summon Welch and notify him of the syndicate's protest.

The daily opposition Al-Ahrar published a message from Maher in response to the syndicate's statement entitled, "The US ambassador's attack on the Egyptian press is undemocratic." In his statement, Maher said the Egyptian press should be respected since it expresses its views with absolute freedom while being committed to all the binding ethics of the profession.

In his message to the syndicate's Chairman Galal Aref, Maher described Welch's comments about the Egyptian press as contradictory to the principle of democracy and freedom of expression.

In response to the syndicate's complaint that the US ambassador continuously insists on interfering in issues related to the Egyptian press, the minister said freedom of the press should be respected whether it was speaking in favour of or against regimes. Maher said: "while performing its job freely the Egyptian press expresses its views, sometimes attacking the government while agreeing with it at other times. In both cases the Egyptian government respects that since it [the state] respects freedom of expression and thought." The minister further stressed that upon hearing the news of the attack on the Egyptian press he immediately announced his full support for the independence and freedom of the press in Egypt.

On a similar note, Sawt Al-Umma's front page carried an article saying the US had spent $23 million on ways to "infiltrate the Egyptian press". The article covered a seminar held at the Press Syndicate last week in which Egypt's renowned writers and intellectuals discussed how the Egyptian press had become a target of the US as Washington sought to dominate the media by financing some businessmen to bring out newspapers that reflect American ideology. The speakers urged that all press cadres should be wary of the approaching threat of the US whose main aim is to "brainwash our population by infiltrating the media and spreading whatever ideas it pleases".

As an example of America's generosity and support to those who adopt its ideologies, Al-Arabi, the weekly mouthpiece of the Nasserist Party, published an article on its front page citing the case of sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim. The article said the US had granted Ibrahim $2 million from money that was allocated as part of extra economic aid to Egypt as a way of rewarding him for his efforts in supporting human rights. The reward, said the article, came shortly after President Bush's speech in which he advocated the "democratisation of the Arab world". Hence, the grant given to Ibrahim was the first brick in the administration's plan to support democracy in Egypt. Observers thereby believe that the bonus is a "message in code to all political and research centres and movements in Egypt that whoever will adopt the US stance will be rewarded." The article further described the grant as a way for Washington to reassure its allies of its support, be they individuals of governments.

Two years ago, Ibrahim's trial strained ties between Egypt and the United States. Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American who owns and directs the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Developmental Studies, was convicted in May 2001 by a state security court on charges of defaming Egypt, receiving foreign funds without the government's permission and embezzlement.

He appealed and was granted a retrial, also before a state security court, but was found guilty of the same charges and sentenced to seven years.

In response to Ibrahim's re- sentencing, Washington announced in August 2002 that it would withhold any extra aid to Egypt. Although the decision did not affect existing aid programmes to Egypt, which receives almost $2 billion a year in economic and military assistance, it prevented Cairo from receiving an extra $130 million it had been seeking after the US Congress voted to give Tel Aviv $200 million to fight terrorism. Egypt traditionally receives aid equalling two-thirds of any new aid the US gives Israel.

Earlier this year the Court of Cassation overruled the conviction and freed Ibrahim of all charges.

At the domestic level, once again Al- Arabi raised the issue of the jailed Jihad leader Abboud El-Zomor, including this time his cousin Tarek El-Zomor. The newspaper asked about the reasons for their detention despite having served their sentences. The article cited as an example the recent release of Karam Zohdi, the leader of Egypt's most militant group Al- Gama'a Al-Islamiya after serving 22 years for his role in the assassination of former President Anwar El-Sadat in 1980. Zohdi was known among other leaders for his ideological U-turn that led, almost six years ago, to the unilateral cease-fire adopted by his group.

Some observers thought the release was part of a deal struck between those who were freed and the government, a deal based on halting violence in exchange for leaving prison -- a suggestion that was strongly denied by both parties. For his part, the minister of interior said Zohdi and others were released after serving their terms and after proving that they had renounced their "deviant, violent" ideas and hence deserved a chance to reintegrate into society's mainstream. The minister's comments were the subject of criticism and were questioned by El-Zomor's lawyer and family who wondered why the same criteria does not apply to Abboud and Tarek who have both served their terms.

However, quoting a security official, the article hinted at the possibility that both defendants would be released soon as part of pardons the Ministry of Interior announces on special occasions like the upcoming Eid Al-Fitr.

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