Words and deeds apart
The Egyptian press had little else to ponder save the fate of the Arab summit, writes Aziza Sami
Click to view caption|
In Egypt's weekly magazine Akher Saa, right, Mohamed Omar had a simple explanation as to why the Arab summit was called off: "Instead of meeting and disagreeing, they agreed not to meet."
Once again: bombastic declarations followed by complete disarray. The clinically dead Arab summit of Tunis gave much fodder to the press, the coverage of which underscored the total split between words and deeds which has become the (pathologically) chief characteristic of current Arab regimes. This time, however, there was a premonition that the invalid might be fatally ill and cannot be resuscitated despite last-ditch attempts.
Reported declarations by some Arab officials attending the summit to the tune that "there were no major differences" -- even after its cancellation was announced -- were not at all convincing. Such deliberate contradictions are not unusual, though, in a political milieu which has never deemed transparency a virtue. Over the week, however, reality reared its head as press headlines dwindled rapidly from optimistic reports of "agreement by the Arab foreign ministers to study reform initiatives, and the situation in Palestine and Iraq" as the national weekly newspaper Akhbar Al-Yom reported on Saturday, to "Mubarak expressing shock and surprise at Tunis's cancellation of the summit and its insistence that it be held on its territory" as was reported by the national daily Al-Ahram on Monday. Noteworthy in this connection is that apart from the declaration of the demise of Tunis as a venue was the priorities reported in the press. Reform, that broad, still mysterious concept which has become the political jargon of the day, had taken precedence in the political agenda of Arab rulers over the cataclysmic, peace-shattering cycle of events in Palestine and Iraq.
Such ostrich-like dodging of issues in Tunis must have constituted, to the Arab reader at least, an obvious political lapse. And so, perhaps to rectify the image of total obtuseness now emerging as characterising the Arab League's agenda, Al-Ahram chose to exercise obvious political discretion when it reversed the priorities to make its headlines read on Saturday, "Palestine and Iraq" followed by "Reform".
But it was the daily Al-Wafd, issued by the opposition Wafd Party which, in the candid words only an opposition daily is capable of, announced as early as Friday that the emperor was stripped of all clothes. The newspaper reported that the summit's final communiqué, being drafted at the time, was quite mute when it came to the assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an event which had purportedly changed the rules of the game in the Arab-Israeli conflict. According to Al-Wafd, what was being concocted in Tunis was "a weak draft statement which denounced human rights violations during the occupation of Kuwait!" Knowing that the message would not be lost on its jaded and by-now totally cynical readers, the editors chose to publish this without further comment. On Sunday, however, the paper announced an appeal by head of the Wafd Party Noman Gomaa to President Hosni Mubarak urging him "not to attend the Arab summit but postpone it and delegate Prime Minister Atef Ebeid to go instead."
When it was finally announced that the summit would not convene because Tunis had unilaterally decided to scrap the whole affair, reports of a rather sordid squabble (not a very good exercise in whitewashing) started to filter in the press. Reports had it that a now-petulant Tunisia was angry that Egypt, in an attempt to save the situation, was inviting the summit to convene in Cairo. But Tunisia now wanted the summit back. This was reported in Al-Ahram on Monday in a rather constrained manner, giving the impression that Cairo did not want to create yet another superfluous diplomatic scuffle. However, on Monday Al-Ahram and Al- Akhbar highlighted on their front pages, in the banners, the president's statement made via telephone to journalist Emad Adib on the Orbit satellite programme "On Air". The president was quoted as saying that as he was preparing to travel to attend the summit, "I was surprised by its postponement by Tunis." The president, wrote Al- Ahram, "asserted that there were no real problems justifying the postponement and that he will attend the summit anywhere. What is important is its convening."
The whole affair must have put a damper on all the columnists and writers who over the week had urged the participants in the summit to take "strong measures" to match current events. On Wednesday, Rifaat El-Said, the head of the leftist opposition Tagammu Party, in the party's weekly newspaper Al-Ahali, described Sheikh Yassin's assassination by the Israeli army as a "crossing of the red lines" which necessitated, at the very least, outright condemnation by the summit. The independent weekly Al-Osbou 's Editor-in-Chief Mustafa Bakri on Sunday published a "message to the summit" castigating Arab rulers for not being able, following Yassin's assassination, "to even submit a protest to an Israeli ambassador, let alone abrogate obsolete peace treaties [in reference to the Camp David peace accords whose 25th anniversary was to have been celebrated that week]. Giving voice to a now-prevalent prognosis, the habitual impotence of Arab regimes had been compounded further by US pressure intended to abort the summit." Al-Osbou' reported that US President George Bush had "warned the summit of the dangers of adopting a position which will reinforce what Washington calls the terrorism of groups operating on the Palestinian arena, or relinquishing peace and normalisation with Israel as the only choice, to attaining stability in the region." According to the newspaper, this was included in a letter directed by the American president to "several Arab leaders".
The week before, on Wednesday, capturing the mood of intense anger at the assassination of Yassin, Al-Musawwar 's Editor-in-Chief Makram Mohamed Ahmed wrote: "The history of terrorism has never seen an act as vile or as cowardly as the targeting of the frail and handicapped sheikh as he emerged from a mosque at dawn, paralysed with immobility, his barely audible voice giving expression, nevertheless, to a brave heart full of courage, faith and strength." Makram Mohamed presented the outlook, on which there is unanimous consensus in the Egyptian press, that Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist resistance group and Yassin a freedom fighter, positing the stark contrast of this view to that set forth by Israel and the US administration which is expediently working towards reducing the Palestinian armed resistance so that it becomes part and parcel of the "global terrorism" of Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qa'eda. Makram Mohamed, writing four days before the now-defunct Arab summit, thought it no harm to say that "if the Tunis summit is to issue any useful act, then this must be, at least, to clearly support the stance of the Palestinian people and refuse having their resistance considered terrorism. This should be done in a clear voice heard by the Americans."
Summits aside, full-blown announcements on reform and respect for human rights etc found little to validate them in a number of press reports published over the week. The weekly Sawt Al-Umma on Monday reported that the governor of Aswan had imperiously "slapped a tourist guide and humiliated him in public when the latter approached him to resolve a problem over a tour bus driver whose licence had apparently been arbitrarily revoked." Sawt Al-Umma described the incident as "not unusual since it emanates from an official representing a government proclaiming night and day to work for the well-being and rights of its citizens while doing exactly the opposite." Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama on Tuesday published a letter he received from Cairo University Professor Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed pointing out the irony and pointlessness of the government's preaching of democratic reform at conferences like the one it held recently at the Alexandria Library when it insists on consistently stifling "pluralistic expression". El-Sayed writes that he received "orders" from Cairo University's security apparatus to scrap an invitation already issued to popular veteran (and banned on Egyptian television) presenter Hamdi Qandil to speak at the university. Commenting on El-Sayed's letter, Salama writes, "Herein lies the real problem in the whole question of reform: the absence of a comprehensive vision and the contradiction between words and deeds."