CAIRO — Thanks to the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Americans can get a much better sense of the message coming from the Arabic-language press throughout the Middle East. Their work helps combat those who would murmur messages of peace and tolerance to Western ears, and then incite hatred and extremism to their countrymen in their native tongue.
But a quick perusal of the English-language press on the streets of Cairo suggests that anti-American sentiment is far from hidden. In fact, the headlines, editorials, and columns often demonize the United States and its allies in fervent tones that would not be out of place at an antiwar rally organized by ANSWER.
And all of this anti-American rhetoric is in the papers because the Egyptian government wants it there. Under Egyptian law, all foreign-registered publications are subject to government censorship. According to the web edition of the Middle East Times
and several journalism associations, the government’s definition of “foreign registered” includes virtually all the English-language titles written, edited, and printed in Egypt. For Egypt-registered publications, such as the main Arabic dailies, and English-language papers published by government-controlled companies, such as the Egyptian Gazette
and Ahram Weekly
, there is no official censorship — but these publications censor themselves, avoiding issues that are taboo and heaping praise on Egyptian leaders, especially Hosni Mubarak. Even mild criticism is hard to find. According to the web edition of the Middle East Times
, “If they stray, they face government prosecution of offending staff under the unfriendly press law or outright closure.”
Based on what’s in these papers, it seems that the Egyptian government wants its public to get a steady diet of criticism against America and its policies.
The Egyptian Gazette’s unsigned house editorial for Wednesday, May 14, says that “realities on the ground” show that average Afghanis “have yet to feel a substantial improvement in their lives.” American forces on patrol in Baghdad are accused of “stirring up the locals’ anger due to a worrying rise in unjustified shootings at the Iraqis. . . . The U.S. is widely perceived inside Iraq and beyond as an occupying power, whose eyes are set on the country’s enormous oil wealth and strategic location to reshape the region’s landscape for its good and in the best interests of its pampered protégé, Israel.”
(The paper’s front-page story on the terrorist attacks in Riyadh is fairly free of anti-American sentiment, prominently featuring Mubarak’s denunciation of the attacks, but there’s no criticism of the bombing or al Qaeda anywhere else in the paper — nor are there any expressions of sympathy for the American, Saudi, Jordanian, Filipino, Lebanese, Australian, or Swiss victims.)
Next to the house editorial, Gazette columnist Samir Ragab writes about the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, concludes that the U.S. military action against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Iraq have been failures, and states: “There is no alternative but to reconsider President Mubarak’s initiative of a few years ago. The Egyptian leader called for an international conference under UN auspices on combating terrorism. . . . The outcome of the conference would surely tighten the noose around terrorists and force them to retreat and eventually disappear.”
Ragab turns his attention to Colin Powell’s recent visit and the roadmap for peace in the region. “Procrastination and delaying tactics by Israel only lead to more rage in the hearts and minds of the oppressed Palestinians, who have to continue their legitimate resistance against the land-grabbers and thugs that desecrated their holy sites and slammed the door in the faces of Palestinians who are asking for bread. . . . By declaring that he will not stop the building of Jewish settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as is his wont, ignored all values and principles. Therefore, the Americans and the Israelis should blame no one but themselves.”
The Gazette’s editorial page also runs selections from other Cairo papers. Eham Abul Fath, a columnist for Egypt’s government-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper, wrote “The Prophet’s birthday falls this year at a time when the Muslim world is pained deeply by the open wound in Iraq. . . . Today we recall the glorious days of our Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) and his Companions, and we lament the powerlessness of Muslims, who could do nothing but watch the destruction of Baghdad.” (Egyptian media also uses language you just wouldn’t see in any American newspaper. In a review of the movie Daredevil in the Gazette, the massive African-American actor Michael Clarke Duncan is described as “a hefty negro.”)
Last week’s edition of the Middle East Times offers up nonstop gloom-and-doom monotony, suggesting that nothing has gone right in Iraq since the fall of Hussein’s regime. Front-page stories include a report that the depleted uranium in American shells is likely to cause long-term health problems for Iraqis. The caption of a photo of boys swimming in a canal near Basra mentions an outbreak of cholera, and says that the city “faces problems with water supply and sewage disposal after the infrastructure was damaged or looted.”
The rest of the headlines give the sense that nothing ever goes right for Americans, in a manner that would do even the gloomiest gloomsayer at the New York Times proud: “Iraq Descends Deeper Into Turmoil,” “US Will Divide and Rule Iraq, While Five More Explosions Rock Central Baghdad,” “Pentagon Uses ‘Dubious’ Intelligence,” “Afghans Ignite Against US,” “Why Did a British Soldier Shoot an Iraqi Boy, 14?”
Some of the articles in the Cairo Times, a glossy weekly newsmagazine whose staff consists of a mix of local reporters and Western expatriates, reflect more than one side of an issue — but the time and space allocated to each side is revealing. Steve Negus, reporting from Baghdad, writes about the rumors spreading through the streets of the Iraqi city. Some Iraqis are upset by the allegation that night-vision goggles are being used to see through women’s clothing. Others whisper that the looting in Baghdad was carried out by Kuwaitis in revenge for the invasion of 1991. Still others claim that Americans are bringing in vacuum pumps to suck out every last drop of the country’s oil, to be transferred to strategic reserves in the U.S.
Two-thirds of the way into the story, Negus finally gets around to pointing out that none of the rumors are true. “This does not seem to be a reflection on the behavior of the troops,” he writes, describing how patrols of the 101st Airborne are cheered by children, and how most adults speak approvingly of the “very polite” soldiers. He concludes, “It is natural to think ill of foreign occupation, particularly one that has brought such hardship in its wake.”
The state-controlled, carefully-censored Egyptian Gazette even had the audacity to run an article worrying about press freedom in Iraq — and expressing worries that Americans may be censoring Iraqi’s freedom of press! Under the headline, “What are the Prospects for a Free Media in Iraq?” Sally Sami writes: “Since a free media is one of the main pillars of a democracy, the future of the Iraqi media has attracted a lot of attention from around the world.” The correspondent reports that an AlterNet.Org article is accusing the U.S. government’s Arabic language satellite TV news station of being “run by fundamentalist Christians who are rabidly pro-Israel,” was widely circulated at an Egyptian Press Syndicate conference in early May. Sami quotes a listener of the U.S.-run Sawa news and music radio station, who complains that “the news broadcasts are biased towards American policies.” Ibrahim Nawar, director of the Arab Press Freedom Watch, criticizes the U.S.-run radio station, telling the state-run Egyptian Gazette that “APFW is against any state-directed media and calls for an independent one, which reflects the truth.”
To borrow the Egyptian paper’s phrasing, that criticism “is likely to be perceived in the American region as a stunning display of chutzpah.”
Back home, mainstream media bias can be combated with alternative outlets: the Washington Times, the New York Post, Fox News, talk radio, NRO, etc. In Middle Eastern publications, there isn’t so much as a pro-U.S. letter to the editor. These outlets do not — indeed cannot — exist in many Middle Eastern countries. The nonstop anti-U.S. views in the local media appear to be a significant obstacle to the State Department’s $15 million public-diplomacy campaign and the efforts of the White House Office of Global Communications. Any successful effort to win over hearts and minds in the Arab world will have to pull back this newsprint curtain of propaganda, in which Uncle Sam always plays the villain.
— Jim Geraghty, an NRO contributor, is a reporter for States News Service.