Opinion and Editorial

A perilous dance with the Arab Press

Mona Eltahawy
Filed on June 21, 2006

WRITING for an Arab newspaper is like playing hopscotch in a minefield. From January 2004 until early this year I played my game of hopscotch in a weekly column on the opinion pages of Asharq al-Awsat, the London-based, Saudi owned newspaper that is read across the Arab world.

And then I stepped on a mine. Without warning or notice, fewer and fewer of my columns made it into print. Then my articles stopped appearing altogether. I had been banned. Nobody tells you that you’re banned from an Arab paper —especially a paper that is supposedly the liberal home of writers banned from other papers, which is how Asharq al-Awsat portrays itself.

Sadly, my experience is not unique. When I told a veteran Egyptian journalist that I had not been officially notified of my ban, he reminded me that he found out about his removal as editor of a newspaper in Egypt when he read about it in another newspaper. Another Egyptian journalist told me he’d been "lucky": The editor of a newspaper he used to write for actually confessed to him that the Egyptian regime had called the Saudi prince who publishes the paper and requested that my friend be banned. That is probably what happened in my case. Since Egypt’s parliamentary elections last year, which left President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party in firm control of the legislature, the Egyptian regime has been settling scores with opponents, particularly those who support a small but vocal reform movement that has organised unprecedented street protests in Cairo.

I had moved back to Cairo from New York last year for four months to document and to take part in that reform movement, and devoted many of my weekly Asharq al-Awsat columns to it.

At the end of my stay, just before I left Egypt to return to New York, I was summoned to State Security because of an article I wrote criticising the fraud and violence in the parliamentary elections. The summons was intended as a "we are watching you" warning.

Over the past two months, the Egyptian regime has brutally cracked down against democracy activists and journalists, beating and imprisoning many of the men and women I wrote about. Several of the detainees have accused security forces of torturing them in jail. The trouble with Asharq al-Awsat, beyond its disturbing acquiescence to Arab regimes, is that it claimed a liberalism that was patently false.

Before my ban, Asharq al-Awsat launched a Web site in English. Designed to show Western readers how liberal it was, the site suffered from Yasser Arafat syndrome. Just as the late Palestinian leader’s statements in Arabic and in English were sometimes contradictory, the newspaper in Arabic would abide by the red lines that govern criticism of Arab leaders while in English it ran roughshod over those very same lines.

A column I wrote tearing into the Egyptian regime for allowing its security forces to beat peaceful protesters and to sexually assault female journalists and demonstrators was spiked from the Arabic newspaper and web site but appeared in its entirety on the English web site. Few newspapers in the Arab world are truly independent. Most are state-controlled or state-owned, or owned by persons very close to the state; Asharq al-Awsat is published by a nephew of the Saudi king.

The major red lines at Asharq al-Awsat could be quite simple —in descending order they were the Saudi royal family, Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Gulf (Qatar, a rival, was considered fair game) and then Saudi Arabia’s other Arab allies. Within such a hierarchy of red lines, the Egyptian regime can indeed pull rank and demand that Asharq al- Awsat silence a critic. So why did I even bother writing for Asharq al-Awsat? After I left news reporting and switched to opinion writing after the attacks of September 11, 2001, I didn’t want to address just a Western audience. When it comes to reform and the fight against militancy, the primary conversation must be among us Arabs and Muslims —hence the need to wade into the minefield that is the Arab press.

It is gratifying to know that Arab regimes and compliant newspapers consider some of us annoying enough to ban, but equally sad to consider the many gatekeepers that stand between us and our fellow Arabs.

Mona Eltahawy is a prominent Arab journalist.

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