Sunday, September 7, 2008

A tale of money, murder and spin

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - September 2008


The story's ingredients were a tabloid editors' wet dream, and the plot seemed to have been lifted straight out of one of the lurid soap operas that glue Egyptians to their TV sets every Ramadan. The sultry young pop star with a troubled past, the real-estate mogul with close links to the president, and a gruesome murder in a Dubai apartment – this was a drama of glamour, money and betrayal played out by synthetic people in a synthetic world, a million miles away from the lives of ordinary Egyptians.

But the brutal killing of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim and the subsequent arrest of Egyptian property tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa on murder charges was very real, and shockwaves are already being felt in the corridors of power. Moustafa is a high-ranking government insider, a member of the ruling National Democratic party's "supreme policies council" and a personal friend of President Hosni Mubarak, whose regime has become notorious for its close links with rich businessmen.

Tamim was a 30-year-old singer from Beirut who rose to fame after appearing on a Lebanese talent show in the mid-1990s. Renowned by many for her beauty and her voice – which could tackle modern pop and classical Arabic melodies with equal finesse – Tamim's star rose and then waned as troubles in her personal life escalated. A failed marriage to her manager led her to flee to Cairo and by last year she had faded completely from public view. The name of this once bright young talent was only hauled back from obscurity in June, when her body was found with multiple stab wounds at one of her homes in Dubai. The Arab world was quickly gripped by the murder and Tamim's face stared out of newspaper front pages for weeks on end – except in Egypt, where a judicial ban on media discussion of the case was imposed after a leading opposition paper claimed that a prominent business figure from the government's inner circle was being investigated for homicide.

The attempted information blackout finally collapsed this week when it emerged that Moustafa, said by local newspapers to be a former lover of Tamim's, had been arrested in Egypt in connection with the crime. Prosecutors allege that he paid a former police officer, Mohsen el-Sukkari, $2m to follow Tamim from Egypt to London and finally on to Dubai, where he tricked his way into her house and fatally attacked her. Both men could now face the death penalty.

The twists and turns of Tamim's demise are the subject of endless discussion on the streets of Cairo, but talk of this tragedy goes well beyond the sphere of celebrity gossip. Firstly, the domestic media ban on reporting details of the case proved to be the latest hamfisted attempt by the Egyptian government to control the increasingly vociferous independent newspaper sector. Like other attempts before it to apply stale methods of state censorship to a globalised media environment, the ban only served to heighten interest in what was going on. The previous week taping of a programme featuring democracy activists that was being recorded for American satellite channel al-Hurra was summarily cancelled by the authorities; the week before that, allegations of government deceit in the events surrounding the Egyptian parliament fire were prevented from hitting the streets when the government-owned printing presses halted production of an independent newspaper.

News emerged recently that internet cafes will soon be forced to log the personal details of all their users, whilst a draft law creating a new code of "media ethics" has been dismissed by human rights organisations as a naked bid to strangle the burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

The problem for the government is that after permitting a small degree of freedom into the previously monolithic state-dominated Egyptian media world, it is struggling to get the cat back into the bag as rising discontent at economic hardship and the lack of political reform finds a voice in the new wave of news outlets. The regime is resorting to old-fashioned legal bullying to try and manipulate the information reaching its citizens, but as the Tamim story shows they are doomed to failure. Even as al-Dostour, the paper that originally claimed an NDP bigwig was connected with the murder, was being pulled from newsstands, other pan-Arab newspapers featuring all the gory details – many printed as far afield as London - were flying in to Cairo. And while the staff of al-Dostour were being grilled by security officers, bloggers were spreading the identity of Tamim's alleged murderer on the web, along with detailed updates on al-Dostour's expurgation from the streets. Just like repressive regimes the world over, Egypt's political elite are finding it increasingly difficult to restrict the flow of facts they find uncomfortable.

Perhaps more importantly though, the really shocking detail to surface from Tamim's death wasn't that a prominent businessman had been linked to her murder, but that the government had actually arrested the man in question and even stripped him of his parliamentary immunity (Moustafa sat in the Shura council, the upper house of Egypt's parliament). I have written here before of the series of corruption scandals that have rocked the NDP and fuelled widespread scorn at the government's intimacy with the business world – a self-serving alliance strengthened by the current prime minister's aggressive neoliberal economic reforms, which have earned plaudits from the World Bank but sent inflation spiralling and widened the chasm between rich and poor in this vastly unequal society. The level of government protection afforded to the moneyed elite is so great that Egyptians have grown wearily familiar of the corruption bandwagon, which always seems to end in acquittal for the accused and the resumption of business as usual. "As long as businessmen remain the backbone of the NDP, these scandals will continue," insists the editor of Nasserist newspaper al-Arabi.

So what to make of Moustafa's very public arrest for Tamim's killing, which sent shares in his vast business empire, TMG Holdings, into freefall? Will there be the predictable rigged trial before the charges are dropped, or is the judicial energy expended on the case a sign that something fundamental has changed within this increasingly defensive governing clique? "Moustafa's indictment is clear evidence that the ruling party knows no cronyism and that nobody in Egypt is above the law", declared the NDP's secretary for media affairs grandly. The rapidity with which Moustafa was stripped of parliamentary immunity also took opposition politicians by surprise, with many acknowledging that the NDP seemed to be trying to improve its image.

But anybody who believes the government is really looking to shake off its reputation as the party of business is deluding themselves. Mubarak's coalition of political interests sustains itself through money, a ruling class that enjoys no popular legitimacy but survives by keeping the country's most powerful economic forces in its inner circle, spreading around to them the cash generated by privatisation, the sale of assets to foreign multinationals and the slow dismantling of the welfare state. Cronyism may make it unpopular on the streets, but regardless of what happens to Moustafa the government cannot afford to abandon its wealthy friends.

Amidst all of the political and economic pyrotechnics in the wake of Tamim's death, it would be easy to forget that this too was a very human tragedy. Tamim was not the first Arabic female pop star who ended up dead after suffering from abusive partners and a restless private life, and given the exploitative relationships which dominate the music industry here, she may not be the last.

For the government, however, the real drama lies in the public response to her murder and the growing cynicism on the streets at clumsy media manipulation and the legal sheltering of the president's business allies. It is a story set to be as equally dramatic as the sultry pop singer, the real-estate mogul, and the gruesome murder in a Dubai apartment.

1 comment:

Nabeel said...

you have turned a sordid event into a report full of drama, imagery, vivacity and - dare i say it - poetry