Letter From Cairo
Eleven years ago, the last time the United States fought a major war in the Muslim world, I was doing a year abroad at the American University in Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak sent Egyptian troops to fight alongside the Americans, for which the government received a $14 billion debt write-off from the United States and Saudi Arabia as an explicit quid pro quo. I remember a fair amount of antiwar sentiment on our campus, while at the less privileged but more politicized Cairo University across the Nile, students marched out onto the streets in defiance of martial law. Several were killed by police gunfire.
Going about the city, however, I was surprised to see how eager many Cairenes were to see Egyptian troops get to grips with the Iraqis. I was treated to endless rousing speeches about how Egypt and the United States together would beat Saddam. Palestinians, perceived as Iraqi sympathizers, were harassed and sometimes assaulted. Back then, the state media still had a monopoly on the airwaves, and they used it to cast Hussein as an untrustworthy tyrant ready to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East--admittedly not a difficult assignment.
Today, however, Egypt's political agenda is increasingly set by the wide-ranging viewpoints aired over Arab satellite media, in particular the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera. There's clearly much less enthusiasm here for America's new war than there was for the old. I have yet to hear anyone repeat the official Egyptian government line: that Osama bin Laden is to blame for the September 11 attacks and the United States has the right to retaliate against him. It's never easy to sample public opinion here, as people tend to be reticent in front of those who look like they might be connected with officialdom, and independent pollsters tend to get arrested. However, the recently released results of a survey by Cairo University's mass communications department conducted prior to the US bombing campaign (only 10 percent of respondents believed bin Laden had masterminded September 11, and 96 percent opposed an international military coalition against Afghanistan) seem to correlate pretty well with the opinions of my neighbors around downtown Cairo's Kasr Al Aini Street. "America creates its own terrorism," declares grocer Marwan Abdel Gawar. "It doesn't do anything about Israeli terrorism, but complains when it is hit by terrorists." He adds, "Anyway, where is the evidence?"
Jazeera, which went on the air only five years ago, claims some 35 million viewers worldwide. It is now almost certainly Egypt's most-watched satellite channel in prime time. Satellite penetration in Egypt is only 8 percent, but a few more points could be added for people who watch at friends' or relatives' homes and in coffee shops. The numbers understate Jazeera's influence, however, as journalists and other opinion-makers are almost sure to subscribe. Moreover, during the current crisis Jazeera has been providing other stations with much of their material. "They really feed the Arab world with the news," says American University mass communications professor Hussein Amin. "They are the main player."
Columnist Salama Ahmed Salama has termed Jazeera "a stone in the stagnant waters of the official and traditional media." A typical news broadcast from state-TV several years ago might have involved interminable shots of Arab leaders sipping coffee with one another while the presenter read from a state wire-service dispatch. Today, Jazeera camera teams go into the middle of whatever action zone they can find. A typical state TV talk show might feature a government-approved academic explaining that the problem of development has social, economic and political dimensions. Jazeera puts Egypt's feminist iconoclast Nawal Al Saadawi and the ultraconservative Sheik Yousef Al Badri on the same program and lets them go at each other.
Some critics say Jazeera's talk shows contain more shouting than substance. The hosts sometimes jump into the debate and harangue their guests; other times they stage rather silly stunts, like an infamous phone/Internet poll on whether Zionism is worse than Nazism (result: 84.6 percent say Zionism is worse). Jazeera journalists, however, boast that they don't close the doors to any opinion. If you want to watch a frank debate on polygamy, or hear what an Israeli sounds like, or a radical Islamist (or a moderate Islamist, for that matter), there aren't too many other places you can go.