-Cairo - March 2010
Islamic advice websites aren't the first thing that spring to mind when talking of strikes, sit-ins and workers' occupations, but if there's any proof needed that Egypt's extraordinary wave of industrial action is reaching every corner of the nation, then today's drama at IslamOnline.net fits the bill.
With more than 120,000 hits a day and a global reach that extends through several languages, IslamOnline is one of the biggest and most influential Muslim websites in the world. From Baghdad to Basildon, Muslims use it as a key source of scholarly advice on everything from impotency to the insurgency in Iraq.
So the question of who owns and controls the site is a vitally important one. And that's the question being wrestled over today, after hundreds of staff walked out in protest over what they say is an attempt by conservatives in the Gulf to hijack the site and force it to pursue a more traditional and hardline agenda.
Tension had been simmering for months between the website's Cairo-based editorial offices and the managers in Doha, whose plan this week to fire many of the 350 employees in Egypt led to an all-night occupation of the company's offices, which was still continuing at the time of writing.
"We're all resigning," Fathi Abu Hatab, a former IslamOnline journalist and one of the strike leaders, told me over the phone from inside the building. "If we lose this battle then IslamOnline as we know it will be dead. We were an exception – in our professionalism, in our moderation, in our refusal to be bound by hidden agendas. And like all exceptions in the Arab World, we've come to the end of the line."
So what is the battle, exactly? There's not a lot of agreement on this point, with a host of competing explanations trickling out of the IslamOnline offices on to Twitter, Facebook and even a live online video stream that the workers set-up to show their grievances to the world. Some of the staff believe this is primarily a business dispute over pay, conditions and company management but others are reading more into it, placing the tussle over editorial control at IslamOnline into a wider political rivalry between Egypt and Qatar, and an even broader context of cultural warfare between Egypt and the Gulf.
As detailed in the news reports, there's certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that a new board of directors in Doha has been throwing its weight around in debates over the site's content. Analysts have argued that the site's relatively open and inclusive nature (where discussions over homosexuality sit side by side with the latest fatwas on vegetarianism, martyrdom and T-shirts) has unnerved some of IslamOnline's more conservative financial backers in the Gulf. At this stage it's hard to verify that one way or another, but if true it would only be the latest salvo in a long-running campaign by the Gulf to wrest cultural ascendancy in the Arab World away from Egypt.
In the often febrile Middle Eastern media market, domination of the cultural landscape has tended to go hand in hand with political ascendancy. Historically the biggest centres of cultural production were Beirut and Cairo; the latter's singers, film-makers, actors and writers were untouchable in the 1950s and 1960s.
Egypt's status as the capital of Arab culture mirrored its political fortunes under Gamal Abdel Nasser; Umm Kolthoum sang, Youssef Chahine directed, and Nasser was the all-singing, all-dancing leader of the "Arab street" who faced down western colonialism at Suez in 1956 and swaggered across the world stage.
Then came the oil explosion of the 1970s, and the Gulf states suddenly found themselves with a load of petro-dollars at their disposal. Over the next couple of decades, with Lebanon mired in civil war and Egypt rocked by the assassination of Sadat and the beginning of the moribund, bureaucratic rule of Mubarak, Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent the UAE) embarked on an ambitious and eye-wateringly expensive programme to force control of the region's culture away from their rivals.
The Arab culture wars are open on a number of different fronts, but all involve Egypt losing its grip on the Middle East's cultural tiller. On television, for example, Egyptian soaps and serials have long dominated prime-time schedules, but now the UAE is fighting back with multimillion dollar productions like Million's Poet, an insanely popular reality TV show that commands 70m viewers from across the Arab World, yet is based around an obscure form of Gulf Arabian poetry. The result has been a hitherto unknown appreciation for the Gulf dialect across the Middle East. "Ten years ago the only dialect you heard in the media was the Egyptian one, and later the Lebanese," Nashwa al-Ruwaini, an executive producer for the show told the New York Times. "With satellite TV, the people in Egypt now hear and understand what people in the Gulf say. And the Gulf has started going to the Egyptian market and the mainstream."
Garnering respect for Gulf culture isn't the random by-product of a successful private enterprise; it's a carefully-planned, government-backed strategy. The whole show is funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority of Culture and Heritage, and forms part of a much wider push to make Abu Dhabi the capital of culture in the Middle East, with local versions of the Louvre and Guggenheim under construction and globally-renowned architects like Zaha Hadid drafted in to help. Suddenly Egypt's pyramids feel a little dated by comparison; now wonder the government is building a brand new $550m museum at Giza to hit back, scheduled to open in 2013.
It's not just a matter of the Gulf producing new cultural products to rival Egypt's; investors are actively taking over Egyptian cultural institutions and reshaping them to reflect more conservative Gulf values. Egypt's film studios were managing to produce only about five or six films a year in the early 1990s; now, almost solely because of Saudi investment, they're churning out around 40, some of which now have to conform to the "35 rules" of piety laid down by the Saudi backers – a huge shift away from Egypt's traditionally more pluralistic Islamic values to the much more austere form of Wahhabi Islam prevalent in the Gulf.
And it's not only movies. Contracts for famous belly-dancers have been snapped up ("It's the Wahhabi investors," says Abir Sabri, one of Egypt's most celebrated dancers who was bought out by Saudis and now performs with her body and face covered-up, chanting Quranic verses. "Before, they invested in terrorism - and now they put their money in culture and the arts."). Hotels have been purchased (the Grand Hyatt in Cairo caused a storm a couple of years ago when its Saudi owner declared in a moment of religious devotion that alcohol was to be banned from the complex - up to $1m of champagne and spirits was emptied into the Nile as a result).
This "Saudisation" has left some Egyptians, such as the billionaire communications tycoon Naguib Sawiris, feeling like a foreigner in their own land. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the biggest problem in the Middle East right now," he says. "Egypt was always very liberal, very secular and very modern. Now ... I'm looking at my country, and it's not my country any longer. I feel like an alien here."
As the IslamOnline workers prepare themselves for a second night of occupation in an attempt to assert their editorial independence over those that bankroll them, a broader upheaval is under way in every corner of the Arab media world, one that could prove dangerous for cultural pluralism.
"There is an Egyptian taste to IslamOnline at the moment which is very discernible; if the site packs up and moves to Qatar the spirit and attitude of the site will change," says Khalil al-Anani, an expert on political Islam at Durham University.
"That would be a big loss to the Muslim community globally, because we are facing a wave of Salafist media at the moment – on the internet, on satellite TV, and elsewhere – and IslamOnline was one of the key outlets resisting that trend."