Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 March 2007
Issue No. 834
Press review
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Scandalous and superstitious

The past few days have been replete with shame and outrage, note Gamal Nkrumah and Mohamed El-Sayed

This week saw ignominious goings-on. Pundits put pen to paper and pointed accusing fingers at each other. Disgraceful occurrences that hint at a case of a democratisation process gone awry. Yellow journalism, the most jaundiced type imaginable, abounded.

According to press reports, the maverick novelist Nawal El-Saadawi apparently fled the country in fear for her life. She first scurried to the Belgian capital Brussels, presumably to brief European Union human rights groups, then flew across the Atlantic for a safe haven in the United States. She explained to reporters that she had received a death threat. Her detractors accused her of cowardice.

But the outspoken women's rights activist vehemently denied the charge. "I haven't escaped [from Egypt]. I work as a visiting professor in one of the American universities," El-Saadawi was quoted as saying in the daily independent Al-Masry Al-Youm.

El-Saadawi insisted she was fed up with the turn of events in the country that have impacted her professional production. "I have left Egypt because I feel that the cultural atmosphere in it has become disgusting. So, I accepted an invitation from one of the American universities to work as a visiting professor." The prolific feminist writer and social critic extrapolated, "The cultural elite is busy courting the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood."

She pointed out that her case was not unique. "Accusing me of infidelity will harm all [thinkers and writers]."

Meanwhile, in yet another blow to freedom of expression, a court sentenced a recalcitrant Egyptian blogger, Abdel-Karim Suleiman, to four years in prison on charges of slandering religions, the venerable institution of Al-Azhar and the president of the republic in mischievous articles he published on his blog.

"The real reason behind sentencing the Al-Azhar student [to four years in prison] is because he attacked the president [and not anything else]," warned Mohamed Younis in Sawt Al-Umma : "There is a new plan to oppress opposition [voices] by accusing them of slandering religion to rally public opinion against them... so that they cannot find anybody to show mercy upon them."

The press was awash with reports about Helwan University professor Gaber Abdel-Gawwad who dared to impress his students after apparently writing "In the Name of Great America" on the blackboard instead of "In the Name of Allah" during a class.

Abdel-Gawwad told his students that he was an agent for America, and that he wished he could be a slave in America, presumably rather than in Egypt. The apparently nutty professor was also reported to have said, "America is beautiful while Egypt is a dustbin." His students could not contain themselves, promptly attacking him physically, and accusing him of being an infidel, according to Sawt Al-Umma and Al-Masry Al-Youm.

What on earth is going on? Whatever happened to the concept of freedom of expression? Something very strange is happening to the collective national psyche. Lord have mercy, and may this societal madness end soon.

The press preoccupation with chat show hostess Hala Sarhan's opprobrium is symptomatic of the scandal craze. The independent weekly Al-Dustour published the content of the original videotapes of the TV show. Writer Mohamed El-Ghazali argued, "No viewer of the original videotapes of the programme could doubt they were fabricated as the authorities said... The programme ruffled their feathers because the [three] prostitutes said police officers helped them in their work."

Tarnishing the image of Egypt was another issue that made headlines in the aftermath of the Hala Sarhan case. Al-Dustour spread two pages to debate the issue.

"Curbing [public] freedoms... is what most tarnishes Egypt's image in the international arena. What the world is well aware of is that Egypt tortures [opposition] politicians systematically and that it occupies an advanced position among the countries in which corruption reigns supreme," explained Hafez Abu Saada, head of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation.

"The main thing that tarnishes our [Egypt's] reputation abroad is that we remain content with the deteriorating conditions inside the country. We have to move to put paid to corruption if we are really keen to protect Egypt's image," noted Nasserist writer Osama Anwar Okasha.

"Egyptians who live abroad, whether students or employees in embassies, should shoulder their responsibility in keeping the country's image intact," warned the celebrated columnist Mursi Saadeddin in the daily Al-Dustour.

In much the same vein, Nabil Abdel-Fattah of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, urged the authorities not to condemn Sarhan for supposedly tarnishing Egypt's image. He stressed that they have no public ordinance to do so. "Those who talk about Egypt's image [ie the authorities] are not entitled to, for the people have not given them a mandate to play this role," Abdel-Fattah stressed.

And, last but not least is the question of superstitions, the opium of the masses, as Marx rightly pointed out.

"Superstition reigns supreme in Egypt" ran the headline of an article on a tree in the Ismailia-Cairo desert road on which the names of Allah and Prophet Mohamed were mysteriously etched, and to which thousands of people flock daily to see what they deem a miracle. Mocked a cynical Nabil Sharafeddin of the independent weekly Al-Dustour : "Superstitions spread in societies in times of difficulty and distress, when problems afflict them and life becomes unbearable. Superstitions also spread when there is political and social oppression. People then seek refuge in superstitions which spread like an epidemic," Sharafeddin said tongue-in- cheek.

And, horror of all horrors, according to a study conducted by the National Social Research Centre, Egyptians spend about LE10 billion annually on fortune tellers and superstitious people, and that about 300,000 people work in this field. The writer depicts the scene at the site of the tree, and the debate about it.

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