21 September 2001 
Same old jibes and polemics


Arab papers see the present troubles as a new angle on the Palestine issue 

Reporting the biggest media event in a decade, the Arab media has been echoing its coverage of the Gulf War, but showing little more maturity or expertise than it did a decade ago. 
As in 1990, the link between the main issue of the day — this time terror attacks on America — and the Palestinian-Israeli dispute is the intellectual ink in which Arab commentators and cartoonists dip their quills. 

However, while the Gulf invasion witnessed a war of words between the pro-Kuwait/America and pro-Iraq sides of the divided Arab Fleet Street, confusion — and often unintentional comedy — colours the coverage by the 250-plus Arab dailies of the past fortnight. 

“During the Gulf War the target was clear and the aims well defined,” says Yousri Hussein, of Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily. “This time nothing is clear.” 

The confusion reached two peaks of absurdity this week with characters such as Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya using the Arab media to preach moderation to President Bush. Libyan papers — all with green mastheads, the favourite colour of “The Brother Leader” whose praise they sing in unison — called for moderation to “defeat terrorism by wise means”, quoting Gaddafi himself. 

Grinning down on readers of the Libyan-backed London daily Al-Arab, Saddam Hussein offered America the benefit of his thoughts: “Time the US tried wisdom before war”. Choosing a smiling photo of the President in a smart suit instead of his usual military fatigues and black beret, the radical nationalist Al-Arab highlighted Saddam’s advice to Bush not to let “the Zionists” lead him by the nose into an “unfortunate adventure”. Papers in every Arab nation led their front pages with the response and position of their president or leader on the crisis. The leading London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, whose cartoonist depicted the international media as a TV set-faced donkey ridden by the “Zionist lobby”, led with the headline: “President Bush beware, there are those who fish in murky water”, attributing the statement to Crown Prince Abdullah, who runs the affairs of the nation since the illness of his brother, King Fahd. 

“Big nations of the West cannot expect co-operation from small nations in fighting terrorism if the big ones give asylum to, and shelter, terrorists wanted in their Middle Eastern native countries,” wrote Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, the editor of Al-Sharq al-Awsat, predicting a collapse of the desired alliance against terrorism unless “agreements to benefit all sides are worked out in advance”. 

Few Arab papers have done a good job of investigating the alleged participation of some of their nationals in the terror mission. But Al-sharq-al-Awsat excelled in the past few days, tracing and interviewing Saudi nationals whose names appeared as “suicide bombers” in press reports when they are alive and well and haven’t left Saudi Arabia in months. 

So did Egyptian papers, both pro-Government (Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar) and opposition (Al-Ahly and Al-Ahrar), exposing gaps in the FBI and CIA investigations, which had, for instance, managed to give the impression that a large Egyptian town was in the United Arab Emirates. Such errors fired the imagination of the satirical columnists and cartoonists. 

President Bush’s unfortunate phrase “Crusade against terrorism”, which led the White House to apologise on Wednesday, caused a storm of angry responses from columnists, even in Kuwaiti papers that once sang the praises of his father. “Mr Bush’s Freudian slip says it all,” said a columnist for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan, “as (Bush) and other Westerners hold in their hearts the dream to replay the Crusades launched against Islam 800 years ago. But his ancestors were defeated then, so he had better watch out this time.” 

The pro-Islamic opposition newspaper Ashaab, banned in Egypt and now published on the Internet, joined communist newspapers such as Al-Ahly in warning Egypt that America might use the event to establish control over the region, which would benefit Israel. 

But both papers were harsh in their attack on the Taleban. AlIttihad, the semi-official daily of the United Arab Emirates, one of only three nations holding diplomatic ties with the discredited Taleban regime in Afghanistan, splashed the call of the UAE President, Sheikh Zaid, “to form an international coalition with two parallel missions: to solve the Middle East crisis and to uproot terrorism”. 

The paper believes that terrorism can be uprooted only by finding a just solution to the Palestinian problem and by putting an end to “Israeli terrorism against the Palestinians”. 

This theme featured in every Arab newspaper. 

No matter what the story is, the conflict with the Jewish state still remains the yardstick by which most Arab papers measure the distance between friend and foe.


The complicated relationship between the West and the Middle East 
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