Egyptian columnists suggested that domestic affairs remain far from perfect, while finding little to lessen their criticism of the US, writes Aziza Sami
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"I'd like a book on Arab unity." "Look in the science fiction section." Wa'eil Essameddin in Al-Ahram
A grotesque Kafkaiesque world was revealed in an article written on Sunday by Adel Hammouda, editor-in-chief of the weekly independent newspaper Sawt Al-Umma . Headlines accompanying the article, "Corruption in Egypt!" said, "A police officer sells his credentials in the middle of a public square in Roxy" while that venerable institution of religious and scientific education, Al-Azhar, "stole patients' heart valves". For his part, a public official chose to steal (obviously with the aim of selling for personal profit) an old, rare copy of "The Book of Moses" ( Asfar Sayyidna Moussa ). In the newspaper, peppered with gossip tidbits and corruption scandals, Hammouda finally concludes that "corruption has become the strongest institution in Egypt which no-one can deny or confront."
In typical manner, Sawt Al-Umma combined political pedantry with sensationalism when it published photo spreads of a new and seductive young singer Ruby, the headline reading: "Kill her and Jerusalem will be freed". An accompanying article asked in pointed reference to fundamentalists, "What is it about this singer and others like her which provokes such criticism? It is as though those singers, and only they, have obstructed the Arabs from achieving victory!"
Giving his take on fundamentalism in an article whose topic was "some of the negative aspects of Arabic culture," literary critic and head of the Higher Council for Culture Gaber Asfour, who is of a secular liberal orientation, wrote in Al-Ahram on Monday, "There are groups [in the Arab world] who appear to distance themselves from fundamentalism, proclaiming their willingness to engage in dialogue at the very moment that their actual practices show a discrepancy between what they say and what they do. They are just like the Arab political systems whose media night and day talks of pluralism and democracy while in reality there is no pluralism, no democracy and no political or intellectual freedom -- except for slogans."
Asfour characterises fundamentalism as "the antithesis of any futuristic vision or change. Any departure from the model of the past is considered by fundamentalists to be an aberration. Because of this, they resist all change, either reverting to the past or maintaining the status quo." If the parallel is drawn to its conclusion, then that other side of the coin, "Arab regimes", must surely come to mind.
The newly formed National Council for Human Rights appeared to be gaining momentum with news that seven affiliated committees are in the "process of being formed". Al-Ahram on Monday reported that President Hosni Mubarak had received the council's head, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, who was designated to the position because of his international standing both as former UN secretary- general as well as head of the Francophone, the group of French-speaking nations. After the meeting, Ghali told reporters that he would coordinate the council's activities with the UN and non- governmental organisations working in the domain of human rights and that the formation of the council should "in no way detract from the great role played by Egyptian human rights organisations over the past years."
On Sunday, the managing editor of Al-Arabi , Abdel-Halim Qandil, had intimated that Ghali did not show much concern for human rights when, as Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs, he allegedly facilitated the sale of arms from an Arab country to Rwanda's then dictator, Juvenal Habyarimana, who was preparing for a large-scale massacre of Tutsis. Qandil based his story on the book A People Betrayed written by British author and journalist Linda Melvern which sets out to indict organisations and individuals whom the author deems could have played a role in preventing the Rwanda massacres but did not. The book has been translated into Arabic by the Egyptian General Books Organisation.
Qandil challenges Ghali to either "refute the story or leave leadership of the newly-formed National Council for Human Rights to someone else." But Qandil also admits that he, being a Nasserist, has a political axe to grind with Ghali because of "the active role [in promoting peace with Israel] which Ghali played during and after the Camp David peace accords."
On Sunday as well, Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama summed up the perception of the newly-disseminated American Arabic language satellite channel Al-Hurra. The writer has little confidence that the aim of Al-Hurra, to address Arab audiences and "win their hearts and minds", will have any impact.
"The faces and speakers who appear on Al-Hurra may be Arab in physiognomy but are American in heart and mind. They will do little to sway an audience which, because it is not at all naive, takes issue with US policies in the region." The best that one can hope for, writes Salama, "would be a dialogue held by the new American channel with its audience in which it will also listen to their views. Then, perhaps, the misunderstanding and obtuseness which mar the perceptions entertained by those responsible for Al-Hurra versus the Arab world might be dispelled. In that case, the vast sums of money spent to establish the new American channel might not all have gone in vain."
This week, the independent weekly Al-Osbou 's Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Bakri went into self- defensive mode, issuing his paper on Monday with a broad banner, "Do those who sold their nations and their conscience to foreign intelligence have the right to question the integrity of those who possess honour?" In a long and emotional article full of sound and fury, Bakri refers to a list, published in an Iraqi newspaper, of the names of a number of Arab journalists who allegedly received money from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Bakri does not name the source of the report directly but calls it "the portal of American colonialism", adding that its "undocumented accusations amount to moral assassination". The lengthy diatribe concludes with a demand that "press syndicates launch an investigation into the millions of dollars which it is said were directed by US, Western and suspect oil countries, to certain publications, individuals and research centres, all with the aim of promoting a Zionist-US agenda in the region."
It remains to be seen how such emotive rhetoric will promote Al-Osbou 's "steadfastness" in the face of insidious foreign agendas.