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did not need to go to the opposition and independent press to read harsh criticism of the government. The national press was more than enough
With so many economic and political developments in Egyptian-Israeli relations, including the signing of the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), the increasing security coordination and the possible upgrade of diplomatic relations, it was to be expected that Egyptian-Israeli relations would be the No. 1 issue for most Egyptian commentators this week in the opposition, independent as well as the "national" papers.
However, to get the true picture of the hot story of the thaw in Egyptian-Israeli relations, the reader would have to put news stories and the official statements that appeared in the national and, at times opposition and independent, papers, side by side with the opinion pieces of commentators in all the Egyptian dailies and weeklies that appeared throughout the past seven days in Cairo. The result is that for whatever pragmatic economic and political worth, the new economic deal that was signed Tuesday in Cairo between Egypt, Israel and the US under the title of QIZs was met with much resistance -- and that is a euphemism still -- in many quarters of Egyptian intellectuals.
Actually, the fact that both Al-Ahram and Al- Akhbar, which share open close rapport with the government, chose to run direct and uncompromising criticism of Egypt's decision to go for the QIZs and other political and economic dealings, could simply be read as a clear indication that the government is well aware that it is going against the tide of public opinion and that it wants its "friends" in Washington to know that it is really doing this in order that they demonstrate sufficient appreciation.
It was predictable to read the banner headline of the Nasserist Al-Arabi on Sunday: "Sectarian strife is taking a serious toll and the government is busy preparing its gifts to Israel." It was, however, far from predictable that the authoritative Al-Ahram would allow several of its regular commentators, including Fahmy Howeidy whose harsh criticism has been censored on previous occasions, to run articles criticising the government's decision on the QIZs. "They are selling us fantasies and promoting escapades [not thought through]" was the headline of Howeidy's Tuesday article in Al-Ahram. Typically, Howeidy's argument was direct and there was no mincing of words -- even when names were not being named. The government, Howeidy said in plain language, was trying to fool the people by suggesting that its warmer rapport with Israel had a sound rationale and will yield results. Howeidy accused certain media quarters, presumably senior writers of close association with the ruling regime, of playing straight into the hands of this scheme. But, as he rightly noted, the "impression of a positive turn in Egyptian-Israeli relations that some media tried to promote... does not hold water once one turns to the news on the inside pages" where one reads of Israel's decision to expand illegal settlements in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights or that the construction of the illegal separation wall on the occupied Palestinian territories has so far left 2,713 Palestinians homeless. "For all what we can see there are no indications that Israel is changing its policies or that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as some writers in the Egyptian press have tried to persuade us, was giving extra attention to Egyptian views" on the need to end aggressive policies.
If Howeidy is known for his clear stances against aggressive normalisation, other Al- Ahram commentators who cast scepticism over the wisdom of the QIZs deal and its timing, are not necessarily labelled the same way Howeidy is. Al-Ahram senior staff writer Abdel-Moati Ahmed does not at all subscribe to the same school of thought as Howeidy. Actually, often enough they categorically differ on many issues of foreign policy. This time, however, they agreed. In his weekly column on Monday, Ahmed rejected outright the government-promoted economic rationale for embracing the QIZs. Without being too subtle about it, Ahmed said that he is not convinced that securing an economic boom for Egypt required such a move. If Egypt is so impatient with its desire to export its goods then why "are we not working on increasing our exports to the European Union with which we have recently signed an association agreement? Or why are we not trying to increase our exports to the COMESA states? And is it true that these economic protocols (the QIZs) have no political implications?" Ahmed asked.
By leaving his questions unanswered, Ahmed gave his reply to the reader. It was indeed interesting that on the very same day, Al-Ahram ran another anti-QIZ piece. This time it was Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy chairman of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) that was presenting his queries and sharing his concerns with the readers. Having acknowledged the serious attempt to resume the role of the regional peace mediator as the reason behind Cairo's sudden warming up to Tel Aviv, Said warned that the price for the recent Egyptian diplomatic moves "might be too steep. This is a concern that cannot be overlooked. The recent Egyptian-Israeli understandings throw cold water on Egyptian and Arab public opinion that is furious with Israeli and American policies," Said warned.
And it was not just Al-Ahram. In the weekly magazine Al-Musawwar this week, the magazine's regular political commentator Salwa Abu Sida dedicated her article to warning about having too much faith in the promises coming from Tel Aviv about peace with Israel. "Sharon is talking peace in English but in Hebrew he is giving his orders for more occupation" was the headline and the message of Abu Sida's article.
Obviously, there were several articles in the "national" press that chose to praise the Egyptian move. In his editorial this week, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim, editor-in-chief of Rose El-Youssef sang the economic praises of the QIZs and dedicated four pages of his magazine to explain to the reader the economic benefits of the deal especially in relation to creating new job opportunities for the increasing unemployed volume of the Egyptian population. And as Abdel-Moneim noted, irrespective of its economic benefits the decision to go for closer economic cooperation with Israel is a strictly Egyptian prerogative that Cairo had the right to make if it deemed necessary for its interests especially that it went for a transparent deal and did not try to bluff its way around it.
And, it would have been odd for the dedicated reader of the chairman of the ACPSS Abdel- Moneim Said to find that this strong advocate of Egypt's closer rapport with both Tel Aviv and Washington missing the opportunity to praise the recent thaw in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Under the headline "Brave Egyptian moves" in Al-Ahram of Tuesday, Said noted that the recent Egyptian-Israeli rapport allowed Egypt to one more time affect a complete and swift change in regional political moves and to re-direct the Middle East from the track of confrontation to that of dialogue and possible peace deals. "This is certainly not the kind of moves that could be appreciated by those who are only too happy to see things standing still," he noted.