The week in Egypt's media: Saudi row, Abbasiya clashes and presidential pursuits

Friday 4 May 2012

Egyptian media this week focused mainly on diplomatic tensions with Saudi Arabia, violent clashes outside the defence ministry, and this month's scheduled presidential contest

Newspaper vendor
A newspaper seller waits for customers in Tahrir Square. (Photo: AP)

Egyptian media this week dealt primarily with three main issues, namely, diplomatic tensions with Saudi Arabia; violent clashes outside Egypt's defence ministry headquarters; and looming presidential elections slated for later this month.

Egypt-Saudi relations

Early this week, most Egyptian newspapers focused on the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Saudi Arabia following the closure of the latter's Cairo embassy and the recall – temporary as it turned out – of the Saudi ambassador. The move came in retaliation for angry demonstrations held by Egyptian activists outside the Saudi embassy to demand the release of Egyptian lawyer Ahmed El-Gizawi, recently detained by Saudi authorities, and other Egyptian nationals held without charge in the kingdom's prisons.

"Extensive efforts underway to mend Egypt-Saudi relations," read the Sunday headline of independent daily Al-Shorouk. "Saudi Arabia recalls ambassador; [Field Marshal Hussein] Tantawi calls king Abdullah," flagship state daily Al-Ahram trumpeted on the same day.

In his weekly column on Monday in Al-Shorouk, prominent editorialist Salama Ahmed Salama blamed Egyptian protesters for "interfering" in what he called an "ordinary affair." Salama didn't use El-Gizawi's name once throughout the entire article, referring to him simply as "the Egyptian lawyer found in possession of drugs."

The writer went on to accuse both the Egyptian media and protesters of "rushing to unfounded conclusions" that El-Gizawi's arrest had been politically motivated. "We can sympathise with Egyptians detained without trial [in Saudi prisons], but we ignore the fact that Egyptian prisons aren't any better and that treatment of prisoners in Egypt – and all over the Arab world – is inhumane."

Salama also insinuated that he believed the Saudi version of events, namely, that El-Gizawi had been found in possession of illegal pharmaceutical drugs. He concluded by advising Egyptian media outlets to "check their facts" before spreading potentially harmful rumours.

Abbasiya clashes

Even though clashes first began in Cairo's Abbasiya district last Saturday, resulting in the death of a protester and dozens of injuries, most local media outlets ignored the ongoing sit-in outside defence ministry headquarters until Wednesday and Thursday, when more than seven sit-in protesters were killed and dozens injured by unknown assailants.

In his daily column on 30 April entitled "Abbasiya, the second crime," Al-Shorouk managing editor Wael Qandil wrote: "Egypt's ruling military council is responsible for the bloodshed in Abbasiya yesterday, exactly like the blood that was shed in the first Abbasiya battle."

"The mastermind behind the crime is the same," Qandil added, describing slain protesters as "martyrs" of the revolution. He refused to differentiate between Salafist and liberal activists, saying, "The same blood and same killer, using the same tactics."

In another Al-Ahram editorial, entitled "The worst-case scenario," writer Ashraf Ashri described the defence ministry sit-in as "a challenge to the country's stability." The writer linked the protests to the ongoing political crisis between Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament and the military-appointed government, concluding that Islamist forces were threatening Egypt's "democratic trajectory" in terms of both upcoming presidential elections and the constitution-drafting process.

"If the Islamist current loses the election to Amr Moussa, who is more likely and better suited to win, I fear chaos and strong opposition to the results," Ashri wrote, stressing that the year-long honeymoon between the ruling military council and the Brotherhood appeared to be over.

Presidential elections

Newspapers this week were also busy with the latest developments regarding Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary poll, slated for 23 and 24 May.

In an article entitled, "Does one elect a president or a presidential programme?" in Al-Shorouk on 1 May, writer Ziad Bahaaeddin opined that the upcoming elections would be determined by candidates' personalities rather than their respective electoral programmes. The writer noted that most candidate's programmes were indistinguishable for the most part, all of them promising a free economy with social justice; a revival of Egypt's leading role in the region; improvements in public education and health services; the fight against corruption; and the guarantee of minorities' rights.

"What's more, Egypt's next president doesn't know if his position will be executive or honorary – or a combination of both – because the constitution hasn't even been written yet," Bahaaeddin wrote. "Both the media and political forces are busy with the power struggle between parliament and government, and no one is discussing the people's everyday problems: security, energy and a deteriorating economy..."

Egyptian television channels also devoted most of their coverage to the looming presidential contest. Private satellite-television channels OnTV and Dream TV, in partnership with dailies Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk, had been scheduled to launch a presidential debate programme, the first episode of which had been slated to feature presidential hopefuls Amr Mousa and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh on Thursday. The pilot episode was postponed, however, due to the Abbasiya clashes.

Most television channels, in fact, were forced to put their elections coverage on hold to focus on the ongoing violence in Abbasiya. On Wednesday night, television hosts Reem Magued and Yousri Fouda – of popular shows Baladna bel Masri and Akher Kalaam respectively – both cancelled their programmes, choosing instead to present live coverage of unfolding events in Abbasiya.

Egypt's new statellite channel CBC's new three-hour programme entitled "Egypt elects the president," hosted by presenter Khairy Ramadan and journalist Magdi El-Galad, looks to be a hit. The first presidential candidate to be interviewed on the show was Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who was briefly disqualified from the race before being reinstated at the eleventh hour.

Shafiq maintained a steady temper throughout the programme. When asked if he could visit Israel, the presidential candidate said, "Yes, of course. I can go to hell if it's in Egypt's interest."

When asked what he would do as president if protesters hit the streets to demand the end of his regime, Shafiq said: "As long as they're in a park and not in the streets blocking traffic, they're free to express themselves – I'll even provide them with music." The statement was reminiscent of a comment he made as prime minister at the height of last year's revolution, when he famously said he would provide protesters arrayed in Cairo's Tahrir Square with candy. 

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