Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 June 2004
Issue No. 695
Press review
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Not so different

While columnists in the national press rallied in defence of political stability, writers in the opposition papers sweat out smaller but no less important matters, writes Aziza Sami

In defence of the political status quo and "continuity", Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, editor-in-chief of the national weekly magazine Rose El-Youssef on Saturday resorted to the novel approach of combining divine theory with science. Under the headline, "Impending change and real change: how others create leaders while we kill them with friendly fire", Abdel-Moneim conceded that the public's concern with the question of domestic political change and reform was "healthy". He cautioned, however, that within Egyptian society "lurk certain negative and destructive elements with cockroach-like antennas who gauge people's concerns, then mobilise them in the service of their own destructive interests. There is no difference here between militant groups and the prominent academic of dual nationality (sociology professor Saadeddin Ibrahim) who came out on a brotherly Arab satellite channel (Al-Arabiya) to incite the Arab street. This he did, although he knows very well that in the country (the US) in whose nationality he seeks refuge, such incitement in the media can only be met with imprisonment."

As a culmination to the argument, Abdel- Moneim asserts that "God, as is ascertained in the new theories of anthropology, bestows upon every society a specific percentage of human beings -- no more than four per cent -- who are fit to lead society to progress and evolution. And so every society seeks to discover this blessed group of human beings and pushes them on to positions of responsibility. These in turn will lead society forth to a better life, etc etc."

Moving from generalities to specifics, Abdel- Moneim concludes, "it is within this context that we should understand why change in our case is taking so long and why it is so difficult. It is so when the decision-maker is President Mubarak, a man who is meticulous in his endeavours, careful about his country's future, and conscientious in dispensing the responsibility for which destiny has chosen him, which we, with our collective will, have sanctioned."

In a variation of the theme, Galal Dowidar, editor-in-chief of the national daily Al-Akhbar, wrote, "change is impending but with conditions." Referring to current attempts (by the opposition press and independent press -- who else?) to speculate on who might, for instance, become the new prime minister, Dowidar characterised these as being "a mistake". And so, combining pedantry with the evocation of ancient political theory (Plato's Republic ?) Dowidar describes to readers who the "ideal leader" is. "He" (or she if one is to be politically correct), writes Dowidar "should combine the ability to take matters into his own hands, enforcing authority and control upon those under his command, in a manner guaranteeing adherence to public policy and an agreed-upon strategy to serve the public good, based on mutual self-respect." (A benevolent despot?)

These arguments were being sounded out while the headlines of the week reported on the G-8 summit. On Thursday, the banners of the national daily Al-Ahram declared, "The G-8 adopts the US initiative for reform in the Middle East while rejecting the enforcing of change from outside". This might explain the self-complacency displayed by the above-mentioned editors. However, as usual, Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama sounded a different note. Cautioning against overly-smug attitudes, he wrote, "some Arab countries might consider the G-8's recommendations a victory for them. But the challenge for these countries will be not to thwart programmes of reform adopted by the G-8 but to make use of such programmes in order to attain the requisite political and economic reforms. It is not in the interest of the Arab world to find itself isolated from the world's progress and evolution."

Away from the "orderly" view of domestic politics adopted by national press pundits, coverages in the opposition and independent papers reflected a truer picture of variation and often dissonance.

Watani, the weekly newspaper issued by members of the Coptic community, also approached the question of political change through the writings of its editor-in-chief Youssef Sidhom. In defence of political and cultural liberalism, Sidhom's column on Sunday argued, "change is still difficult to implement." The writer is critical of "the regimes in our region, which are content to condemn demands for reform coming from outside though domestic remedies are available, clear and implementable. They just need courageous initiatives and time-tables for completion. Above all, a national dialogue is needed in which all will participate."

The newspaper's opinion pages reflected a variety of views, setting forth a secular view of politics and society, and giving voice to concerns of the Coptic community as to what their status will be "should the Muslim Brotherhood come to power". This was the headline of an article written by Emad Samir Awad, a resident of New Jersey.

Amr Ismail, a Muslim, argued that "religion is for God and the nation is for all", the headline evoking a long-standing motto adopted by Egyptian liberals in the first part of the 20th century. Watani was issued 46 years ago, resuming publication four years ago after a period of cessation. The newspaper has, despite its devotion to matters pertaining to Egypt's Coptic community, and its often candid expression of their concerns, been careful to present itself as a national forum for writers of different political and religious persuasions. This is attested to in its recent reaction to the writings of Islamist writer Mohamed Emara. In its 6 June issue, Watani published that "the Journalists' Syndicate, in response to a complaint presented by a group of journalists -- Muslims and Copts -- against the writings of professor Emara which malign Christianity, has decided to raise the issue formally with the Higher Council for Journalism."

The issues of pluralism and freedom of expression were also sounded out in Al-Arabi , the weekly newspaper issued by the Nasserist Party. On Sunday, the newspaper published an excerpt from Nawal El-Saadawi's novel The Fall of the Imam. The novel has been at the centre of controversy after Al-Azhar's Academy for Islamic Research decreed that it "derides Islam as a creed and law". A law issued in 1961 whose aim is to preserve the text of the Qur'an and the body of hadith, is now being evoked with the potential of it being used to censor the book, and with it, other writings deemed by Al-Azhar to be "against Islam".

The national weekly Akhbar Al-Youm on Saturday made this the main issue on its front page, lambasting in its headline, "Judicial controls exerted by men of religion". Both Al-Arabi and Akhbar Al-Youm were careful to refer to "an era in Egypt's intellectual and cultural life when one writer could write, 'Why I am an atheist' to be countered by another responding with, 'Why I am a believer'."

Akhbar Al-Youm quoted poet Ahmed Abdel- Moeti Hegazi as saying in comment, "never, during that era, was such debate deemed to be a threat to Egyptians' religious beliefs or to the foundations of Islam."

And, finally, that political repression does not discriminate between neither secularists, or fundamentalists, was apparent in the coverage of Al- Arabi as regards the case of detained Muslim Brotherhood members, one of whom, Akram Zuhairi, died under suspicion of torture. Al-Arabi devoted an article to the phenomenon of "Mysterious death in the Egyptian prison", citing steps by the Lawyers' Syndicate and members of the People's Assembly to investigate the death of Zuhairi who, his family alleges, died as a result of torture in Torah Prison.

However, from a different perspective, on Tuesday Al-Ahram reported, "Despite the plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to defame the regime by claiming that Zuhairi had been tortured, the minister of interior ordered that the gates of the prison be opened, for the first time in the history of Egyptian prisons, to a parliamentary delegation." Al-Ahram ends its report conclusively. "Three days ago, the Brotherhood issued a declaration that Zuhairi did not die as a result of torture but negligence."

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