Arab Media Coverage of Al-Aqsa Intifada Calls Mubarak Government to Account

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Arab Media Coverage of Al-Aqsa Intifada Calls Mubarak Government to Account

By Andrew Hammond

Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.

Suddenly the Egyptian government had a public to answer to. One of the main theater of operations during the violent clashes between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli army has been the visual media. For not only did it bring the conflict into the living rooms of families around the globe--it brought it into the homes of families the length and breadth of the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq. The ability of the new Arab satellite media to affect sentiments throughout the region has been brought home dramatically, and it is beginning--slowly--to force Arab leaders to change their style. If the first intifada, which lasted six years, shocked the world with its images of brute force used to crush civilians under occupation, the second one has shocked the Arab world in particular.

Leading the pack has been the maverick Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera. With its CNN-style news coverage, endless talk shows, and phone-ins that allow sidelined opposition figures as well as the ordinary Arab on the street to say exactly what they think, it has led the media's frenzy to discuss the plight of Palestinians and their apparent lone battle to defend Jerusalem for Arabs and Muslims. Even state television channels are being forced to keep up the pace, and no less so in Egypt, whose citizens have been treated to the highly unusual spectacle of seeing their president harangued over his readiness to go to war. "I just can't afford to take us into a war," Hosni Mubarak pleaded, with alarming and disarming honesty.

Statements such as that sit alongside clearly populist moves aimed to appeal to popular opinion, such as the airing of the classic 1960s Arab film "Al Nasser Salaheddin," embedded in the mind of every Arab. In it actor Ahmed Mazhar mimics the Muslim conqueror Salaheddin Al Ayyoubi's reconquest of Jerusalem after 100 years of Crusader occupation. Egyptian state television showed the film the day of the Sharm el-Sheikh peace summit, where, under Mubarak's auspices, U.S. President Bill Clinton brought together Israel's Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in an attempt to end the fighting. Mubarak was under intense domestic criticism for having agreed to host the summit, which was seen in part as a deliberate American ploy to upstage the Arab summit due to take place in Cairo the following weekend.

"I just can't afford to take us into a war," Mubarak pleaded.

The government's irritation at the Arab media's role in fanning the flames of dissent at its policy of moderation showed through in its press commentary. In effect referring to Al Jazeera, editor Mamdouh Mahran wrote in the pro-government paper Al Naba, "We will not pay attention to those who wanted to destroy the efforts of President Mubarak to save the Palestinians, using the cannons of loud speeches on their suspicious television channels and rented radio stations."

Leading state-owned political magazine Rose Al Yousef ran a campaign against the Qatari channel, accusing it of being "in the service of Israel" because one talk show presenter suggested that Egypt was not fulfilling its leadership role in the region.

Following the Arab summit, the state media came out firing in all directions, claiming that Egypt skillfully had led the Arabs toward a strong stand that warned of further action if Israel continued its "brutal" repression of civilians, but left the door open to a peaceful resolution by refraining from severing all Arab diplomatic relations with Israel. Instead, the summit agreed that all forms of Arab-Israeli cooperation will cease, with individual countries reconsidering the current status of contacts with Israel.

The main move in this direction was Tunisia's decision to close its low-level diplomatic liaison office in Tel Aviv and Israel's office in Tunis. …