The new liberal newspaper Nahdet Misr has been subjected to a wave of attacks claiming it is the first example of US "infiltration" of the Egyptian press. Shaden Shehab investigates
"Liberalism is our path to the future" is the slogan of the new independent weekly newspaper, Nahdet Misr. Whether or not there are any strings attached to that mantra is the question that has been dividing intellectuals and observers ever since the paper came onto the scene last month.
One camp, which includes the paper's founders, vehemently assure that the publication is a purely patriotic attempt to expose Egyptians to different viewpoints in order to propagate the concept of dialogue. The opposing camp questions the timing of the newspaper's establishment, warning that it might be part of an American plan to covertly finance local independent publications. By doing so, this camp believes, the US will be polishing its image in the region and brainwashing Arab minds, without people being aware of the connection.
The debate actually began even before Nahdet Misr hit the newsstands on 22 October. In early August, London-based daily Asharq Al- Awsat published a report stating that both the US Embassy in Cairo and USAID were putting the final touches on a plan to launch Arabic newspapers and satellite channels in cooperation with local Arab partners in an attempt to polish the US's image in the Arab world. Jointly financed by Arab partners and the US government, the project was supposed to include eight Arab countries. According to the report, the goal was for the US to take part in establishing newspapers that would not be influenced by Arab governments, so as to ensure greater independence in dealing with American-related issues. In this framework, the report said, five to 10 per cent of these papers' content would serve as US propaganda. The report also claimed that the project was part of US Secretary of State Colin Powell's $147 million "Middle East initiative", of which $23 million was earmarked for Arab media reform aimed at encouraging new American-style, democratic societies.
Prominent columnist Fahmi Howeidy was the first to highlight the report, which he did in his 12 August column in Al-Ahram. Challenging the concerned parties to prove the report false, Howeidy warned of "America's dangerous infiltration" of the press, the aim of which was to "reformulate Arab awareness". Equally dangerous, wrote Howeidy, was the audacity of doing so quite publicly.
The next day, prominent writer and Arab Journalists' Federation Secretary-General Salaheddin Hafez published a commentary -- also in Al-Ahram -- concurring with Howeidy. Hafez said the US was helping to establish what appear to be local newspapers, television and radio stations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The newspapers, said Hafez, will actually be partially financed by USAID, and run by American experts who will work with "American-oriented local media figures".
"Since 9/11, the US has realised the extent of people in this region's hatred towards them. The rapid remedy for this took shape in the American war in Iraq and Afghanistan," he wrote, along with "a media attack meant to complete the effect on the region's people, by controlling their minds, and influencing their ideas and viewpoints".
On 25 August, Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, replied to Howeidy and Hafez's allegations. Said argued that if this kind of "infiltration" was real, all political forces would have stood against it. He also said that it has become all too common for the Arab press to attack the US. Sarcastically, he wondered whether people wouldn't be happier if the US followed Egypt's model of development and prosperity instead.
The debate cooled down until the day before Nahdet Misr came out, when Howeidy penned another article about "infiltration". In just a few days, Howeidy said, newspapers will be established in Arab countries with American support, local capital and shiny liberal slogans. Although he did not specify names, Nahdet Misr was the only new newspaper that wore its liberal slogan on its sleeve.
The debate expanded, with more participants, and a focus on whether Nahdet Misr was the first example of "America's infiltration" of the Egyptian press.
Prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "I have my suspicions about the newspaper. Nahdet Misr should advocate liberalism in a broader manner. Liberalism should address issues that concern Egyptian citizens, like the national dialogue and citizenship rights. The world is not just America, and it should not be the newspaper's focal point." Salama said that since the founders were aware that a controversy existed, they should have clearly announced how the paper was being financed.
"The US has nothing to do with Nahdet Misr," said Phillip Frayne, the US Embassy in Cairo's press attache. Frayne told the Weekly, "that the US has nothing to hide. If we want to address the Arab world it will be no secret, like when Hi magazine was published. The US produced Hi magazine in July and a pop music station, Radio Sawa, in 2002, to address the Arab people." Both Hi and Sawa feature news from a US perspective aimed at countering what America perceives as Arab media biases.
Some journalists, however, told the Weekly that Frayne himself took part in recruiting the newspaper's staff, an allegation that Frayne categorically denied. "That never happened," he said.
Emadeddin Adeeb, Nahdet Misr's board chairman and editor-in-chief, told the Weekly that all the allegations against his newborn publication were "nonsense".
"I really don't care who says what," Adeeb said. "As an Egyptian intellectual and somebody working in the press, my main concern is to try to represent what I believe in." Adeeb is the founder of the financial daily, Al-Alam Al- Youm, family magazine Kolennas, and men's magazine Adam, as well as the chairman of the "Good News 4 Me" Web site, a partner in two private FM radio channels, and the host of a popular TV show on the Orbit satellite network. Nahdet Misr, which is published by Adeeb's "Good news" company, does not have an Egyptian licence, and is thus printed abroad.
According to Howeidy, Adeeb's involvement in a political newspaper raises questions, since throughout his long journalistic career he has been more interested in social affairs.
"I am not being treasonous to my Egyptian values," Adeeb said, "if I come out and advocate modernisation and enlightenment in order to help us get rid of our psychological complexes. We cannot stop thinking or coming up with real Egyptian initiatives for reform just because it coincides with what the West or what Americans or anybody else is saying."
Adeeb said the paper was "examining national causes, and serving the idea of reform. We believe in reform, we are calling for reform, and we find liberal ideas to be the right objective."
Does this include presenting pro-American and pro-Israeli ideas, especially regarding sensitive issues like the American occupation of Iraq and normalisation with Israel? "Everybody is welcome to offer his ideas," Adeeb said, "and we will talk to everyone and anyone. The issue is not who you are talking to, but what you are talking about, and how you are conducting your dialogue."
"Normalisation is not against any law. We have a peace treaty with Israel, and diplomatically, we have embassies. Common sense tells us that we have three possibilities: either they are our enemy; or we are neutral; or friends. In all three cases, you have to understand what they are doing. And understanding is not adopting views," said Adeeb.
Howeidy said such "liberal" ideas are "unacceptable". There are red lines that should not be crossed, he told the Weekly, and issues that should not be discussed because they are not beneficial to either the country or the region.
"For example," he said, "in our country we cannot advocate prostitution and drugs and say everybody is free to do as he pleases." And yet the neo-liberals "are trying to make people drop national causes, especially the Palestinian issue". Howeidy said the neo-liberals believe that the primacy of the Palestinian cause should be eliminated, and replaced by America's liberalism and modernity.
The truth, Howeidy said, is that "liberal slogans have become expressions of Americanisation and the trashing of basic national interests."
Adeeb said that intellectuals were choosing the easy way out. "They sit in their chairs, merely watching, insulting and laying blame. The right position is to come out and say, 'I am against what Israel is doing and against the Sharon government, the occupation, and the human rights violations, and I refuse to deal with such people. [At the same time] I am ready to encourage any voice of peace in order to defend Palestinian rights,'" he said.
Being patriotic, Adeeb said, is to work for peace and not war, and get the Palestinians their homeland. "It is high time to stop the hypocrisy. If you ask any of them [the other camp] whether they would be willing to send their sons to war, they would say no. Nobody wants to pay the price of war, nobody wants war, but at the same time, they don't want to do anything for peace." Angrily, Adeeb said that, "we need to throw a big stone in the still bog of Egypt's political thought." He said the country's main problem was "the lack of vision", something that could only be resolved via "enlightened rational dialogue that does not begin with who is right or wrong. It starts with people talking, and others listening. It is not about shouting at each other, but listening to each other."
Who is the newspaper targeting?
"Everyone who is ready to listen," said Adeeb. "We believe we represent a new look for more than 70 per cent of people under the age of 21, who deserve to have a better society. We don't want to convert people to our ideas. We are just stimulating minds."
Nahdet Misr is printed on glossy paper and costs LE2, expensive in comparison to other newspapers. "Any newspaper that is printed abroad has to cost a minimum of LE2," Adeeb said. "The newspaper is not a subsidised commodity," chuckled Adeeb, "and we are not paid by an embassy."
Media critics have said the new paper concentrates too much on opinion pieces rather than objective news reports. "This is a weekly magazine-like newspaper," Adeeb said. "I pick and choose what serves its value system and slogan. We start with opinion articles because we are an ideological rather than a service-based newspaper. We are creating dialogue and not news, and are not involved in a journalism competition."
According to several newsvendors, the paper has not been widely available, "because a very limited number of copies are distributed, probably in order to indicate that all the copies are instantly sold. But actually, not many people have been asking for it."