Times cruel and cynical
The Sixth of October anniversary did not go unnoticed, while a niche was carved out for the Frankfurt Book Fair. But the big picture was reserved for the escalating violence in Gaza and Iraq, writes Gamal Nkrumah
"It is difficult to believe that 31 years have elapsed since the triumphant Sixth of October victory," wrote Abdel-Moeti Ahmed in the national daily Al-Ahram. The writer compared the forward-looking and resolute political climate of the 1970s with the uncertainties of today. Oil was shrewdly used as a weapon to advance Arab interests and defend Arab causes in the international arena. "In October 1973, Arabs occupied a prominent position in the world. Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal... the oil-rich Arab countries cut off oil supplies and the price of oil on the international market soared. The Arab nation was united and imbued with the spirit of self-sacrifice."
The writer lamented the current Arab predicament in Iraq, Palestine and Sudan. "We must restore the spirit of October," Ahmed concluded.
In much the same vein many newspapers saw the anniversary of the October 1973 War as an opportunity for taking stock. While the front page banners celebrated the event, the inside pages included the more analytical pieces. " [President Hosni] Mubarak officially opens the International Medical Centre of the Armed Forces on the anniversary of the October War," ran the front page headline of Al-Ahram.
In a poignant and thought-provoking piece in Tuesday's edition of Al-Ahram, columnist Fahmy Howeidy asked a most pertinent albeit rhetorical question: "Where exactly do Arabs now stand?" He went on to recount his utter shock and bewilderment at the current sorrowful state of Arab affairs. "I couldn't believe my eyes on the morning of 28 September when I read a statement from a certain Gulf Arab foreign minister in New York. The minister nonchalantly commented that it was perfectly natural for him to meet with his Israeli counterpart. At first, I assumed that it was a typographical error, but on further reading it became crystal clear that there was no such error." For four days, the writer hoped that a correction would be published, but he waited in vain. "Since when was speaking openly to and rubbing shoulders with Israeli foreign ministers the natural thing to do?" Howeidy mused.
The opposition weekly Al-Ahali issued by the left-wing Tagammu Party had no space for foreign policy issues and focussed instead on domestic concerns.
"Comprehensive plan to reduce subsidies on basic commodities", read the front page headline in last Wednesday's edition. The paper quoted a report released by the Washington- based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) which strongly advised Egypt to reduce subsidies on basic commodities. "The IFPRI and the World Food Programme determine the fate of subsidies and the beneficiaries."
In an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif conducted by Makram Mohamed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of Al-Musawwar magazine, the government's latest plans for the poor and needy were revealed. "The Egyptian economy will grow by five per cent this year," the minister assured. "The subsidisation of basic commodities is the ideal, but its implementation necessitates a new mechanism," Nazif explained.
Egypt's deep concern in resolving the conflict in south Sudan found expression in coverage which gave prominence to the visit to Egypt last week of the leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) John Garang. Al-Musawwar published an extensive interview with Garang in which the SPLA leader said that the Sudanese government would certainly be toppled in a matter of months if it failed to sign the Naivasha peace accords with the SPLA.
Not to be outdone, Al Ahram published an interview with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir conducted by Mahmoud Murad. Al- Bashir spoke of an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of Sudan and derail the Sudanese political reconciliation and peace processes.
The opposition daily Al-Wafd issued by the Wafd Party, extensively covered Sudanese affairs. An interview with former Sudanese prime minister and current opposition figure Sadig Al- Mahdi was published in the 6 October edition of Al-Wafd. "A united Arab stand is prerequisite for Sudanese salvation," the leader of Al-Umma Party declared. Al-Mahdi added, "Egypt was Sudan's best hope for working out a just resolution of the crisis in Darfur."
Nahdet Masr captured the essence of the current and hotly contested debates on the role of Al- Azhar as a venerable Muslim institution. Al- Azhar's interference in the cultural domain came under fire. "Al-Azhar and the [Coptic] Church are in confrontation with thought and creativity," Nahdet Masr insisted. A study undertaken by Negad El-Boraei, a lawyer with the court of cassations and director of the Committee for the Development of Democracy, was severely critical of what he said was the role of Al-Azhar in hampering cultural input in Egypt and restricting the freedom of expression. Al-Azhar's affiliate Academy for Islamic Research, as well as the Coptic Church, were singled out for retribution. "There is no legal basis for Al-Azhar's censorship on artistic and literary production," El- Boraei was quoted as saying. But he conceded that in 1994 the State Court issued a ruling that effectively granted Al-Azhar the jurisdiction to allow or ban works of art that deal with religious affairs. This was soon promulgated as a law, with harsh penalties imposed on those artists and writers who violated the law. El-Boraei questioned the legitimacy of the "conservative fatwas or religious edicts" issued by Al-Azhar.
The national weekly Rose El-Youssef launched a scathing attack on the Qatar-based Pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, asserting that an Israeli tycoon is currently negotiating a take-over in which he will secure ownership rights of the popular Pan-Arab station.
"Britain concedes to exporting mad cow- infected blood to Egypt," ran the front-page headline of the sensationalist independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma. The paper relegated controversial pseudo-religious subjects to its back page. An article on the pop star Sami Youssef whose albums have taken Egypt by storm, was packed with information and useful tidbits. The piece sang the praises of the young British Muslim performer whose melodious singing voice has attracted fans throughout the Arab world. He sings in both English and Arabic and his hit "Al-Mualim", or "The Teacher", which Sawt Al-Umma says is a reference to the Prophet Mohamed, has emerged as an all-time favourite with the country's youth. Youssef, Sawt Al- Umma noted, has an especially warm working relationship with Islamist preacher Amr Khaled. The two men will appear on a special Eid Al- Fitr TV show and will apparently appear again together on TV in Eid Al-Adha celebrations.
The article on Sami Youssef was accompanied by another piece on the pitfalls of cultural imperialism. In a scathing critique of the best-seller The Trouble With Islam and its controversial author the lesbian Canadian TV celebrity Irshad Manji, reporter Youssra Zahran lashed out at Muslim celebrities living in the West who denounce their cultural heritage. Manji's adulation of Salman Rushdie, her mentor, and her questioning of the legitimacy of non-Arab Muslims praying in the Arabic language, was seen as ample evidence of her heresy.