In Egypt, a New Outlet for Reform ; 'Egypt Today,' a Cairo Newspaper Launched This Week, Embodies Changes the US Seeks in the Middle East

By Dan Murphy writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

In Egypt, a New Outlet for Reform ; 'Egypt Today,' a Cairo Newspaper Launched This Week, Embodies Changes the US Seeks in the Middle East


Dan Murphy writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As President Bush and other world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Georgia, were crafting a compromise statement calling for political reform in the Middle East, a new independent newspaper was quietly rolling out in Cairo. epitomizing the sort of change the US wants to see sweep through the region.

Al-Mesri Al-Yom, or Egypt Today, started publishing on June 7 after months of wrangling over its press license. The stated goals of its publisher, Hisham Kassem, are right in line with US plans for a region where the media are typically muzzled, and the political opponents of existing regimes are often jailed.

"All I want to do is create a newspaper of record, with full and fair coverage, that will hopefully bring some pressure to bear on the government," says Mr. Kassem. "We may fail, but a few years ago I wouldn't have been allowed to try."

His paper joins another new offering, Egyptian Renaissance, which is officially incorporated in Cyprus but that the government has allowed to distribute.

Whether these new papers signal bigger changes to come or a minor cosmetic effort by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who spurned an invitation to the G-8 summit over complaints that US initiatives for change in the Middle East are too strident, remains to be seen.

Mr. Kassem says there are no legal or institutional guarantees of free speech and that, in theory, he could be shut down at any time.

"The laws haven't changed,'' says Karim Alrawi, head of Middle East programs for Internews, a nonprofit media-development group. "In Egypt, anyone who publishes information that doesn't come from an official source is breaking the law. It's not generally enforced, but it's held in reserve."

The release of the paper is one indicator of the small reforms that have been creeping across the region in recent months.

This week Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, approved the tiny Gulf emirate's first written constitution, which will leave his family in control of the country but creates an advisory role for a mostly elected Consultative Council. In Saudi Arabia last week, the government removed many of its restrictions on female employment and business ownership.

The changes are, at least in part, because of US pressure, but the growing pains of Egypt Today also show the dangers of the US government's outspoken advocacy for change.

Opponents of the paper have spread rumors in Cairo that the paper is actually a propaganda organ of the US state department. While Mr. Kassem says that the paper has no American ties and its backers are prominent Egyptian businessmen, rival newspapers have run hints that it's an American proxy.

"Sure he says it's backed with Egyptian money, but it's really running with $60 million given by the US government to undermine our government,'' says an official from the Ministry of Interior. "That paper's appearance is Egyptian, but its heart and soul is American. …

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