Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 October 2009
Issue No. 966
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A normal furore

Hala Mustafa, editor of Al-Ahram's quarterly magazine Al-Dimoqratiya, will be questioned by the Press Syndicate following her controversial meeting with the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

On 10 October, editor of Al-Ahram's quarterly magazine Al-Dimoqratiya, Hala Mustafa, will be questioned by the Press Syndicate following allegations that she violated the 1983 decision of the syndicate's general assembly that effectively bans Egyptian journalists from meeting with Israelis or taking any other steps towards normalising relations.

Abdel-Mohsen Salama, the Al-Ahram journalist who heads the syndicate's investigative committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "the date was selected because, under syndicate regulations, Mustafa is entitled to a week's notice".

While the investigative committee is not empowered to recommend disciplinary action, it can refer cases to the syndicate's disciplinary council. Hussein Serageddin, deputy editor of the state-run weekly magazine October, is also due to be questioned after it emerged he had visited Israel several times in violation of syndicate resolutions.

The board of Al-Ahram, the publisher of Al-Dimoqratiya, has announced its intention to launch its own investigation into Mustafa's meeting with Shalom Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt. A board meeting on Saturday confirmed that Mustafa had received Cohen although she had been asked by Al-Ahram Chairman of the Board Abdel-Moneim Said not to do so.

Mustafa came under fire after news of her 14 September meeting with the Israeli ambassador, which took place in her office at Al-Ahram, was published by Al-Ahram Al-Masaai. In response, Al-Ahram's board decided not only to investigate Mustafa's actions but announced on Saturday that its journalists were banned from meeting with and interviewing Israelis, could not attend events or conferences at which Israelis were participating or undertake research in collaboration with Israeli academics and journalists. The board also issued a blanket ban on Israeli citizens being admitted to Al-Ahram premises.

Salama, who is also a member of the board of Al-Ahram, said "Al-Ahram's department of legal affairs would take charge of questioning Mustafa though no date has been set yet to begin the process".

Mustafa has expressed surprise at the virulence of the anger stirred by her meeting with Cohen.

"The most significant lesson to be gleaned from this rage is that it reveals a deep rift within Egyptian intellectual circles," she told the Weekly. "There is a group that believes in opening up to the outside world and in the value of dialogue with other cultures and that does not seek to politicise personal and intellectual differences. And then there are those who believe in boycotting other cultures because of political concerns and are happy to mix politics with more personal issues."

Mustafa emphasises that Cohen is the ambassador of a state with which Egypt has signed a peace treaty, pointing out that the Egyptian constitution does not forbid normalising relations with Israel and senior Egyptian officials regularly meet with their Israeli counterparts.

"When a syndicate vetoes normalising relations with Israel it acts against the constitution and the laws of Egypt," insists Mustafa. "Syndicates' first preoccupation should be with the conditions faced by members of the profession they serve. They should not be in the business of imposing political positions on their members."

Chairman of the Press Syndicate, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, believes Mustafa's meeting with Cohen clearly violates the boycott of Israelis adopted by the syndicate in 1983.

"The syndicate is an institution that acts independently of the state and as long as Mustafa is a member she is obliged to comply with the resolutions of its general assembly," says Ahmed.

"But there have been many exceptions," Mustafa says in her defence, noting that two years ago Ahmed himself faced accusations of normalising relations with Israel. Mustafa also insists that Said, Al-Ahram's chairman of the board, did not object to her meeting with Cohen. Said's secretary, however, says Said has rejected two previous requests to meet with Cohen and asked Mustafa not to receive him.

The fall out from the row continues to ripple, and not only in Egypt. The US-based Weekly Standard argued that the campaign against Mustafa provides ample evidence that the first country to enter into a peace treaty with Israel is no closer to normalisation than it was when Anwar El-Sadat signed the Camp David accords 30 years ago. It remarked that US President Obama's attempts to convince Arabs to normalise relations with Israel will be no easy task. Cohen earlier told the Saudi paper Asharq Al-Awsat that he does not feel isolated in Egypt and regularly meets with Egyptian journalists.

"Ambassador Cohen had a proposal to convene a symposium to discuss peace process prospects and asked me to participate."

Mustafa added her meeting with Cohen was personal and took place in coordination with the Foreign Ministry. "It has nothing at all to do with my being a journalist or a member of the ruling National Democratic Party."

"She knows perfectly well that the Press Syndicate decided in 1983 to impose a ban on all forms of normalisation with Israelis, including meetings in or outside Egypt and travelling to Israel, and as a member of the syndicate she had to fully respect this ban," says Salama.

Amr Elshobky, an analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly that while he opposed Cohen's meeting with Mustafa "the problem remains that there are no clear rules about normalisation with Israel, providing fertile ground for the exchange of accusations between Egyptian journalists and intellectuals".

(see In Focus p.14)

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