Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 February 2005
Issue No. 728
Press review
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egyptian press: A large grain of salt

Scepticism characterised the Egyptian press's take on the Iraqi elections, writes Dina Ezzat

It was a busy week for Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak made a rare visit to an African capital to head the country's delegation to the African summit. A high-level delegation bringing together Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and political hot shot Gamal Mubarak travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Mrs Suzanne Mubarak conducted her usual wide range of social and cultural activities. The Cairo Book Fair opened. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former chief inspector of the never-found weapons of mass destruction Hans Blix and IT star Bill Gates (in no particular order) were all in town. Still, none of these stories was the eye-catching item in the Egyptian press. Rather, Iraq was the dominating theme.

As Iraqis held their first post-Saddam Hussein elections under American occupation, dailies and weeklies dedicated countless news and opinion pieces on the significance of the electoral exercise that was held close to the second anniversary of the war on Iraq.

Interestingly, there was not that much speculation about who is going to win the elections. It seemed clear that Shia, who comprise the vast majority of the population, will get most of the seats on the National Assembly. The Kurds will come second.

The Egyptian press advised on the need for the assembly to accord sufficient seats to Sunnis who largely boycotted the elections to protest against the absence of a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Meanwhile, the headlines, like the opinion pieces, reflected an unmistakable sense of scepticism. They regreted the failure of the Iraqi government, and for that matter the American and British occupation, to address the crucial issue of national reconciliation and the problematic matter of sketching even a tentative timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.

Egyptian writers and commentators were sure to remind readers that as many as four Iraqi governorates were excluded from the elections after they were declared by the government and occupation alike "terrorists-run" areas. As novelist Youssef El-Qaeid noted in his column in the weekly Al-Osbou, "this is the first election in human history where neither the names of candidates nor the venues of the balloting stations were publicly announced [due to terrifying security concerns]. The whole situation is very complicated."

For many Egyptian commentators the election was not exactly an impressive show of democracy nor was it the beginning of rebuilding a safer and freer Iraq. Indeed, some warned that the elections would probably replace the autocratic regime of Saddam with an equally autocratic regime led by Iyad Allawi.

"A Shia state with an American flavour" was the headline of a news analysis published by Al-Osbou on the morning of the poll. This was perhaps one of the most direct expressions of concern. However, it was far from the only one.

Moreover, the Iraqi elections, the Egyptian press pronounced, was far from being a Western-style electoral exercise and, like the war on Iraq, carried no real promises of making Iraq -- not to mention the region or the world -- a safer place. After all, commentators warned, the vote was taken in the wake of threats made by the so-called Abu Mosaab Al-Zarqawi group and other militant organisations that the blood of voters would flood Iraq's streets. The Egyptian press, too, warned of a possible civil war.

"Many have become convinced during the past few months that the [current US-UK] occupation cannot be an alternative to the dictatorship and brutalities [of Saddam]... [unfortunately] some Iraqis have come to believe that militant extremism is the only way to confront [occupation]," wrote Nabil Zaki in Akhbar Al-Yom on the eve of the elections. For those, Zaki said, "there is no difference between Al-Zarqawi and the equally extremist neo-cons in the US."

The strongly-worded threats issued by Al- Zarqawi during the run-up to Sunday's elections were subject to commentary. Some dismissed the threats as nonsense, going on the assumption that Al-Zarqawi is a fictitious character created by the Americans. Others argued that the fact that such threats were being made in Iraq two years after the invasion and in the presence of the colossal might of US troops was an indication that Americans had failed to win the war and had turned Iraq into a hotbed of terrorism.

But in his article in Al-Wafd of Saturday, Salah Eissa made this observation: Al- Zarqawi's appeal to boycott the elections was addressed to Iraqi Sunnis. As such, Eissa wrote, Al-Zarqawi's call became "a purely sectarian plea that has nothing to do with politics or the interests, let alone the unity, of the Iraqi people."

The fear of playing Sunnis and Shias against one another in Iraq could not have been missed in the Egyptian press. Equally evident was a call for all Iraqis, be they Sunnis, Shias or Kurds, to put aside their sectarian differences and try and build a new, free and united Iraq from the ashes of the fires that Saddam stoked when he favoured the Sunnis, and the Americans' fake empathy with the Shias and Kurds. This, Egyptian commentators preached repeatedly, was the only way to head off the disintegration of Iraq.

"A state that is based on the dominance of the followers of a particular religion or ethnic sect has no right to complain about foreign conspiracies against its unity," wrote prominent Al-Ahram commentator Mohamed El- Sayed Said on Monday. "The imposed dominance of one group of people is simply an invitation for all imperialists to carry out their conspiracies. Embracing the concept of a state where all citizens are equal is the right reaction to all threats against the unity of Iraq."

Overall, scepticism abounded. And it was not just in the headlines and opinion articles but in interviews accorded to the Egyptian press by businessmen and politicians. In an interview in the daily Al-Masri Al-Yom on Friday, Egyptian multi-millionaire businessman Naguib Sawires, who makes no secret of his rejection of US policies in the region, described the situation in Iraq as "disastrous" and attributed the current mayhem to "the US misadministration of the situation" in the wake of toppling Saddam. The US, Sawires said, has offered the Iraqi people "neither democracy nor progress".

And in an interview with the weekly magazine Al-Mosawwar, British Ambassador to Egypt Sir Derek Bellamy said, "it is not at all easy to expect a timetable for an end to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq."

The most balanced tone was voiced by an Al-Ahram editorial on Tuesday. "The elections took place under abnormal circumstances... but it could be a turning point in the history of Iraq if it produces stability and adherence to national unity." However, on the other hand, Al-Ahram warned, if the exclusion of Sunnis from the elections evolves into a fact of daily political life in Iraq and extends to the drafting of the constitution, then the gates will be open to "further instability".

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