Letter From Cairo

Letter From Cairo

Egypt's political agenda is increasingly set by the viewpoints aired on Al Jazeera.


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.

Jazeera's 500-odd staff is drawn from a reasonable cross-section of Arab political opinion, although given that the station hires people who have chosen not to work in the state media, there's certainly an anti-establishment overtone. The critics point out that Qatar, which subsidizes the station, gets let off the hook; so, to a lesser extent, does the emirate's powerful and temperamental neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Other Arab regimes, however, do not. As of last year, the Qatari foreign ministry had logged 400 official complaints about Jazeera's content.

Cairo gets particularly touchy when Jazeera challenges its claims regarding Israel and the protection of Arab rights, as when the channel highlighted how Egypt had blocked meaningful sanctions on Israel at the Arab summit last October or when it subsequently broadcast Palestinian demonstrators bearing an effigy of Egyptian President Mubarak as a donkey. The state press declared that Jazeera was a Mossad front whose goal was to run down Egypt's reputation, while the minister of information threatened to shut down a Jazeera studio outside Cairo. In the end, the Egyptian state limply expressed its discontent by kicking the brother of a Jazeera presenter out of the country.

Despite Jazeera's novelty, its ratings a few years ago still came in behind Lebanese satellite stations known mainly for their mix of dance videos and classic movies. That all changed with the outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada. Egyptian viewers experienced what the United States first did in the 1960s: a war brought into their living rooms. Regular Jazeera viewer Cherine Hussein describes the content: "Little kids getting beaten up by Israeli soldiers and throwing rocks, and their mothers crying about the children that died…. It's really emotional, and if you watch it long enough you get really pissed off."

In this atmosphere, Jazeera's videotaped speech of Osama bin Laden saying "America and those who live in America cannot dream of security before it becomes reality in Palestine" was pitched well to an audience that, night after night, has been watching Palestinians being brutalized on TV. Egypt's own bloody internecine conflict in the 1990s has soured the population on radical Islam, but analysts here say bin Laden's address resonates because he downplays the radicals' ideological battle with "infidel" Arab regimes and sticks to an area where the Arab world shares a consensus: US Middle East policy. Bin Laden is probably not a hero to most, or even many, but he's certainly a hero to a few.

I watched a clip of a Jazeera presenter arguing with a young student at a demonstration outside Cairo University. Bin Laden was no terrorist, the student insisted. But didn't he kill civilians? the presenter countered. No, she said, "they" killed civilians first.

Jazeera journalists bristle at the suggestion that they served bin Laden's agenda by airing his tape on the first day of the US bombing campaign. No journalist would refuse such a cadeau (gift), says Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdel Ghani. Jazeera has also not refused cadeaux from a growing list of Western policy-makers who've apparently taken the New York Times up on its suggestion to "shower Al Jazeera with offers of interviews" to woo Arab public opinion. This hasn't mollified critics. The British press has said that Jazeera showed its bias during the current crisis when interviewer Sami Haddad asked Prime Minister Tony Blair "harsh" questions about Iraq, Palestine and his own enthusiasm for war. Haddad countered that he just wanted to raise Arab viewers' concerns. As for more general accusations of bias, Jazeera's talk-show hosts are an opinionated lot, and its field reporters make little effort to spare viewers footage of intifada deaths or civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Whether that's bias or merely par for the course in TV journalism is open to debate.

Whatever effect Jazeera may have on public opinion, it is certainly no threat to Mubarak's government, at least in the short run. Egypt's fifty-year-old military regime is good at nothing if not staying in power. However, the state has lost one of its clear assets–the ability to rally citizens around the flag. Jazeera has seriously undercut Egypt's ability to pose as the protector of Palestinian and Arab rights; it has also rammed home to audiences the constraints of their current political system. For years, Egypt's regime could take potentially unpopular positions for the sake of its alliance with the United States; it may not be able to in the future.

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