15.04 - By Kamel Labidi, a Tunisian journalist based in Cairo
Egypt’s powerful state media structure was told by the government at the start of the war to avoid any coverage that might aggravate the feelings of an already inflamed public or harm the country’s "strategic" ties with the United States.
Annual US aid to Egypt, second only to US aid to Israel, is about $1.8 billion. Apart from this sum, which dates back to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Agreement, the US government, just before its invasion of Iraq, promised more financial aid to its allies in the region, including Egypt.
"Don’t present the war as an attack on the Iraqi people or killed civilians as martyrs and never forget to point out that Saddam Hussein is largely responsible for all the woes that have befallen Iraq," were some of the instructions to editors in the government-controlled and pro-government media, according to one editor.
Implementing these orders sparked strong reaction all over the country right from the start of the war. The government very quickly revised its communication strategy in the hope of narrowing the gap between it and a general public increasingly pro-Iraq and opposed to the US and its Arab allies.
One of the sharpest reactions to the government’s attitude to the war came from a mixed group of 28 prominent intellectuals, including several long-standing columnists for the semi-official daily Al-Ahram, such as Mohamed Sid Ahmed, Salama Ahmed Salama and the Islamist Fahmy Howeidi.
"This is a colonial attack," they said in response to President Hosni Mubarak’s charge on 19 March that the Iraqi leader had prepared the ground for the US intervention by his 1991 invasion of Kuwait.
It was the first time a group of intellectuals had publicly disagreed with the Egyptian leader since he came to power in 1981 but their stand, reported in the opposition paper Al-Arabi on 23 March, was not mentioned by most of the media.
Other criticism of the government came from a group of journalists on Al-Ahram, which despite being a semi-official paper sometimes prints a wider range of views than some opposition papers.
"The history of Al-Ahram is bigger than support for the United States," said the journalists in an angry letter to the head of the Al-Ahram media group, Ibrahim Nafie, who also leads the Egyptian journalists’ union and the Arab Journalists’ Federation, which is closer to the authorities than to journalists.
In the letter, printed in the opposition paper Al-Ahali on 26 March, they criticised Al-Ahram’s management for supporting "without any debate or discussion" the US position, which they said was the work of "Zionist and extreme rightwing hawks" in the United States.
Howeidi noted that it was usual for the government to ask Al-Ahram to say what it did not dare to say openly itself.
The weekly Cairo Times of 10 April quoted an unnamed source inside Al-Ahram who said journalists had been asked not to criticise President George Bush. The source said the government would not allow any direct criticism of Bush and wanted softer coverage of the war since the US was an ally of Egypt and indeed its master.
The attitude of Al-Ahram, which recently broke some kind of record for the number of interviews it published with US and British officials, contrasts with that of most Egyptian newspapers, some of which are openly anti-US and fiercely denounce Bush.
The growing hostility to the US and the Arab regimes expressed during almost daily street protests in a country that has been under a state of emergency for the past 22 years has obliged the government to close its eyes to this trenchant criticism of US and British leaders in the written press.
Even the broadcasting media, which carefully obeyed the government’s instructions at the start of the war, later tried to air some criticism of the US-British invasion. But it was not very successful.
"Compared with the other satellite networks, local TV and satellite station coverage was weak," said Cairo University journalism faculty teacher Safwat Al-Alem.
The popularity of Arab stations such as Al-Jazeera with Egyptian viewers has made things difficult for the Egyptian authorities and forced them to make small concessions concerning press freedom.
But the arrests of journalists and the beating of some by police during the recent anti-war protests shows how hostile the authorities still are to freedom of expression, even if they sometimes handle the media more intelligently than most of the region’s authoritarian regimes.