Friday, March 27, 2009

Newspaper newcomer hits the headlines

El-Shorouk, a daily newspaper launched two months ago in Egypt, has been making international headlines over the past days following what might be a major scoop about a possible US/Israeli air strike on Sudan in January. The newspaper is the latest addition to a newspaper market that has thrived over the past years, and where the independent press seems to have come to stay despite regular attacks from the government in the form of legal threats and security crackdowns. However, there are those who doubt whether El-Shorouk will make a difference to the Egyptian newspaper in terms of editorial quality and innovation.

-Cairo - March 2009
-Taken from the 'Arab Press Network'

Like any group of rowdy teenagers who are young, excitable and just getting their first taste of freedom, Egypt's independent press has been throwing a party in recent years. Flush with their success at breaking a series of major government scandals and gleeful at having carved out a fresh readership base with which to tackle the state-owned monoliths head on, the mood has been exuberant - at least it was until earlier this year, when a new kid came along to gatecrash festivities.

Enter El-Shorouk, the country's latest daily paper to hit the newsstands. This week the publication scored what could prove to be one of the biggest scoops of the year, breaking a story about alleged secret airstrikes on arms smuggling operations in Sudan. As well-funded as it is ambitious, the arrival of El-Shorouk is making headlines of its own accord, but the outlet is also having to face down skeptics who doubt it has the hunger, style or business model to succeed.

Launched by the Dar El Shorouk publishing house, a forty year old institution venerated for being one of the founding pillars of modern Egyptian publishing, the new paper is throwing itself into a crowded and sensitive market. Not only are the independent dailies encountering fierce competition for sales in an industry which is globally contracting, but they are also pulling off a tricky balancing act by trying to challenge the boundaries of the government's often-blurry red lines when it comes to press censorship, without going far enough to provoke a backlash from the regime.

The trials and tribulations of the independent media in Egypt have been well documented by APN since the sector began to really take off with the launch of Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2004 and the return of previously-banned Al-Dustour the following year. The question is why El-Shorouk would want to jump on a bandwagon that seems to offer little outlet for healthy profits and yet is regularly assailed by legal threats and security crackdowns.

One answer could lie in its relatively highbrow approach, which borrows more from the state-controlled media giant Al-Ahram than it does from its independent rivals. Not only is the paper's character less sensational than that of Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Dustour - helped in part by the recruitment of big name stars from Al-Ahram like Fahmy Howeidy and Salama Ahmad Salama - it also takes a less confrontational political stance on controversial topics.

Although this has attracted criticism from opposition activists, some commentators see it as an important step towards the independent media in Egypt gaining the maturity, and thus credibility, it requires to thrive. "Ibrahim El-Moalem [El-Shorouk's publisher], is not known as an opposition figure, or as someone who takes courageous stands against the government like Ibrahim Eissa [editor of Al-Dustour]" observed the Arabist, a prominent Egyptian blogger who has written extensively on the Egyptian media scene. "He's going at it with a more professional point of view and a less lurid tone and I think that's what's needed in this market, where the tendency is to provide relentlessly negative coverage of the government."

If El-Shorouk's target readership is those still clinging to Al-Ahram, it couldn't have entered the fray at a better time. Three-quarters of Egyptian media remain under government control, but state newspapers are a sinking ship: publications are believed to be collectively in debt to the tune of LE 5-6 billion ($887m to $1.06bn), and morale is at rock bottom in the underpaid, overstaffed newsrooms (Al-Ahram alone employs 1400 journalists) where the standard of stories is often low. El-Shorouk has the money behind it to snap up the best columnists and has even struck syndication deals with international papers like the New York Times enabling it translate and publish some of their content, a move which some believe could transform it into a genuine challenger to the pan-Arab dailies like Al-Quds Al-Arabi and Asharq al-Awsat, both currently published from London.

It remains to be seen though whether this attempt to expand the independent media market in a fresh direction will be enough to bring El-Shorouk long-term stability. For Hamdy Hassan, a media expert at the Al-Ahram institute, the problem with the new paper is not what it has done, but rather what it has failed to do. "At a time when the average newspaper reader is getting older, what we needed was a really new outlook, a new language for editing that would bring more young people to the medium," argues Dr Hassan. "I expected El-Shorouk to provide all of that and prove competitive, but I'm afraid it hasn't. In other parts of the world the newspaper industry is innovating - audience research projects in America, new tabloid and hybrid formats in Britain - but El-Shorouk has proved to be essentially a copy of what is already on offer, and as a business model that will never be successful."

With a relative dearth of objective research into readership habits, it's hard to pinpoint how and why Egypt's newspaper readers make their daily purchasing choices. The Arabist believes that the ultimate triumph or failure of El-Shorouk will depend on its ability to pull out the big scoops. "No one thought Al-Masry Al-Yom would last when it first launched, but it made its name by breaking stories no-one else had, especially around the time of parliamentary elections," he says. "We're not in an election period now but we do now have a 24 hour news cycle, where unlike before the independent press can break scandals and force the government to respond the same day. If El-Shorouk can become a part of that process then it will flourish; consistent, solid reporting will always create its own market."

Whilst the debates over the fate of Egypt's newest daily rage on, others are more animated by the fact it exists at all. To the surprise of many who have witnessed the Mubarak regime's thorny relationship with the independent press, El-Shorouk received a license to publish along with four other newspapers last June. "I think it's emblematic of the government's schizophrenic approach to the media that El-Shorouk have been allowed to come out at all," says Lawrence Pintak, director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism at the American University of Cairo and editor of Arab Media and Society. "The paper itself is clearly still trying to figure out its identity. But the fact that it's out there is a good sign for the future of Egypt's independent press."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Rapping for Allah: the new channel for the Muslim MTV generation

Egyptian channel 4Shbab aims to provide an Islamic take on music video culture for the world

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - March 2009

The thumping beat, baggy football tops and slick production values bear all the trademarks of a typical hip-hop music video. But instead of scantily-clad women dancing around a swimming pool, the main character in this song is a schoolmistress draped in an Islamic headscarf; in place of guns, drugs and money, the rappers talk of prayer, healing and Allah. Welcome to 4Shbab, (‘For Youth’) Egypt’s newest entry into the lucrative music TV market and a channel dedicated to bringing Muslim values to the MTV generation.

Swaying precariously on a boat moored off by the Nile, 4Shbab’s founder, Ahmed Abu Haiba, explained why the current set of music video networks dominating satellite television in the Arab world constitute a threat to Muslim identity. “These channels are strange to our culture,” he said. “There are young Muslim men today who’d like to have girlfriends, be part of a dating culture, and yet when they want to get married they look for a devout, religious wife. This is cultural schizophrenia ... and it’s these channels which are giving our young generation such misunderstandings and smashing their identities.”

To reverse the corruption of an entire generation through “lewd imagery” and “contradictory values” Abu Haiba travelled around Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries raising funds for a brand new TV channel – one which would appeal to the same audience as MTV and its Arab competitors, but be fully consistent with the teachings of Islam. Two years on and 4Shbab has finally arrived on TV sets throughout the Middle East and Europe, with plans to extend coverage to Asia and North America later this year.

But staying upright on the Nile waves is not the only balancing act Abu Haiba is having to pull off as he seeks to take 4Shbab global. Despite promising to ‘Encourage dialogue, deconstruct stereotypes and deepen understanding’, the channel – which boasts the tagline ‘Listen to the tune of Islam’ – is already being criticised on multiple fronts. On the one hand Abu Haiba has been accused of demeaning Islam by those who believe that all music is haram ( religiously forbidden). “We are already being attacked by fundamentalist Islamists on the net,” admits Abu Haiba, who says he’s “not a sheikh, but rather a media man on a mission.”

On the other side, his station has taken flak for the absence of women on the airwaves, who rarely feature either in its music videos or its game shows such as ‘Who wants to be an Islamic pop star?’. The entire network’s content is vetted by a committee of five men who decide whether videos conform to 4Shbab’s Muslim philosophy. “We don’t have a problem showing women, as long as it is according to Islamic standards,” insisted Abu Haiba, who previously worked with Amr Khaled, a blockbuster preacher who has revolutionised Islamic sermonising on TV. “But we must be careful in dealing with the issue of women on TV, and it’s not wise to smash all the walls straight away.”

The launch of 4Shbab is part of a wider trend in Egypt which has seen the traditionally liberal cultural landscape being bought up by Saudi investors promoting a more conservative ‘Salafist’ discourse, which advocates a literalist interpretation of the Quran. Flagging film studios have been revitalised by Saudi money but many now refuse to show even an empty bed for fear of it being suggestive, and some of Egypt’s most famous belly-dancers are now covering up as a result of investment from rich Arabs in the Gulf.

It’s a development which worries analysts like Khalil Al-Anani, an expert in Islamist movements at the Al Ahram Foundation. “They are trying to make society more cautious when it comes to dealing with ‘the other’, and that’s a dangerous path,” he says.

But Al-Anani also acknowledges that with music video stations currently securing 14% of the Arab television market, the launch of 4Shbab is a savvy business step. “There is a huge group of high-class, westernised youth who are looking to be more religious and it’s a very smart move to try and attract this customer base,” he argues. “Religion today in Egypt is like a supermarket, you can go and pick what you want, and there is competition for customers between the different discourses ... quite frankly, I think this venture will succeed.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Joshua Salaam, one of the baggy-shirted rappers featured in the video. Salaam is part of Native Deen, a three-man American Muslim hip hop outfit who are one of the first bands to be promoted on the new channel. “I think the launch of this channel is massively important, probably more so than a lot of scholars and parents realise because they haven’t been raised with music video in their lives,” explained the 35 year old. “But music and video set the tone of what culture is, what identity is, and for a Muslim to be able to watch this channel and see that they are also part of something bigger and they don’t have to separate their religion from their culture, that’s huge.”

Caught in the crossfire between his liberal and Islamist detractors, Abu Haiba remains confident that his new channel can take on not just the Middle East, but the world. Salaam is equally optimistic: “I think there is a demand for this sort of network in the West. The majority of American Muslim youth and their parents are pretty much fully assimilated into American culture and are not currently coming to the message,” he said. “If you want to reach them you have to go through the regular avenues that are out there in mainstream culture, and that’s what 4Shbab is doing.”

Dr Fadl rears his head

-Taken from 'The National' (extended version)
- Cairo - March 2009

As news of last Sunday’s deadly bomb blast in Cairo filtered down through local TV networks, one of the city’s 16 million residents had more reason than most to sit up and take notice. Over a year since he unleashed a stunning attack on the global jihadist leaders who once counted him amongst their number, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif – locked away in a prison cell just south of the Egyptian capital – was about to be propelled back into the limelight. In a week where the spectre of Islamic extremism returned to haunt Egypt, Imam’s status as the country’s most divisive former militant has thrust him once again into the heart of public debate.

Imam – better known by the nom de guerre ‘Dr Fadl’ – is not the first jihadist to turn on his former comrades, but he is one of the more colourful. Previously head of Islamic Jihad (EIJ), one of Egypt’s most notorious terror groups, Imam is also the author of two theoretical books on the concept of jihad which have been used by Al Qaeda’s top brass to justify violent tactics. “Imam is the ideological reference point for Islamic jihadists,” says Kamal Habib, one of the founding members of EIJ and now an expert on Islamist movements. “His words carry a lot of weight and his influence extends well beyond Egypt.” In the early 1990s Imam was a close associate of Ayman Zawahiri, now Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, and as late as 2001 he still maintained that terrorising the United States was a Muslim’s “duty”. As Nathan Field, a journalist who specialises in Islamic movements, observes, Imam is “a man with impeccable jihadist credentials”.

Imam’s revered place amongst the ideological titans of the jihadist movement in the 1980s and 1990s ensured that his surprise verbal assault on Al Qaeda in 2007 made headlines worldwide. Penned from Tora Prison, Imam’s home since 2004, Imam’s Revisions text subjected every aspect of Al Qaeda’s organisation and policy to withering criticism and pounded figures such as Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden with a series of personal insults. In it he argued that most forms of terrorism are illegal under Islamic Law and slammed those promoting violent jihad in the modern age. “Oh, you young people, do not be deceived by the heroes of the Internet, the leaders of the microphones, who are launching statements inciting the youth whilst living ... in a distant cave or under political asylum in an infidel country,” implored Imam in one passage. “They have thrown many others before you into the infernos, graves, and prisons.”

Although analysts were divided over the impact of Imam’s remarkable about-face on the subject of jihad, Zawahiri himself was sufficiently riled by Imam’s attacks to launch a 200-page riposte four months later. This in itself caused a stir; according to Diaa Rashwan, an analyst for the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, it marked the first time the Al Qaeda leadership had responded in such a public way to internal dissent. Several commentators even went as far as to predict an imminent implosion within the global jihadist community. According to Habib, the rhetorical tussling between Imam and Zawahiri, “was not an event only for Egypt, it was something that all Islamists and men of thought in the Arab and Muslim world had an interest in. Naturally it had great authority, and I think most members in the major terror networks were influenced by it.”

Amidst all the excitement over the Revisions, however, there were quiet voices of scepticism. Some offered a negative appraisal of Imam’s actual writings, most of which criticised violent jihad in tactical terms but not on principle. According to Field: “The Revisions simply represent a more conservative interpretation of what constitutes legitimate jihadist tactics: progress, to be sure, but hardly a radical turn.” Others took issue with the credibility of Imam himself, pointing out that he had much to gain by writing a text which would appease his jailers. And those voices rose in volume when Imam produced his long-awaited reply to Zawahiri last November, a hate-filled and intensely personal diatribe which laid the responsibility for “every drop of blood that was shed or is being shed in Afghanistan and Iraq” at the door of the Al Qaeda leadership. Far from being the serious work of Islamic scholarship that critics of violent jihad had been hoping for, Imam’s latest set of writings (known as The Exposure) was seen as a sloppy re-hashing of his previous text. Habib dismissed it as “embarrassing” for Imam, adding “I don’t think he realises what this does for his image.”

Of more concern than Imam’s image was the fear that his new work might delegitimize a campaign already long underway in Egypt aimed at getting former jihadists to renounce terror. That process of ‘revising’ jihadist views has seen another of the country’s largest terrorist networks, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, formally reject violent jihad in 2003 and led to the release of more than 1,000 of its members from Egyptian jails. According to Montazer al-Zayat, a lawyer who has worked as a middleman between jihadist groups and the Egyptian government, one of the aims of the process was to provide genuine and intellectual alternative sources for potential militants to turn to when trying to explore the question of whether violent jihad can be justified. As the author of works which originally provided the ideological basis for violent jihad, Imam appeared to be in an ideal position to provide such new sources; instead, however, The Exposure was viewed by many to be a disgrace, one which al-Zayat believes had “tainted” the entire ‘Revisions’ operation.

It was in this context that Imam’s name began cropping up in the aftermath of this week’s explosions in Cairo’s Midan Husayn, which is flanked by the bustling Khan el-Khalili tourist bazaar. The attack left a French teenager dead and injured 24 others, and was the first time foreigners had been successfully targeted in Egypt in almost three years. Unsurprisingly it prompted domestic soul searching over whether the ‘Revisions’ process has floundered. Most commentators interpreted the amateur nature of the bombing as evidence that the dismantling of Egypt’s major terrorist networks had succeeded, as it appeared to have been planned by individuals with little organisational support. But the role Imam has played in this process remains contentious.

“The Husayn bomb was a small, individual incident, which just shows how much the mainstream Islamist movement has been influenced both by Imam’s Revisions and the steps taken by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya,” says Habib. “Nobody should imagine that violence will ever cease to exist completely, but what’s left in Egypt only comes from isolated sources and the Revisions have played a part in this development.” Others, however, think the bombing indicates the limited nature of Imam’s appeal within the jihadist movement. “We must not exaggerate the impact of Imam on the new generation of young jihadists,” argues Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “His message is targeted at those who believe in the path of violence, namely the Salafi jihadists, but the kind of people who carried out the Husayn attack are clearly still taking his earlier works to heart, not his ideas expressed in the Revisions.”

As Khan el-Khalili’s traders return back to work and Midan Husayn once again fills up with tourists, the one point of consensus amongst those following the saga of Sayyid Imam al-Sharif is that the Revisions on their own are not enough to stem the tide of violence. “Today Imam has very little credibility, importance or influence,” declared Abu el-Ela, who formed the breakaway party ‘Al Wasat’ out of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. His point is echoed by al-Anani, who believes that government repression of moderate Islamist movements is forming a vacuum which is being filled by a new generation of jihadists for whom Imam has little relevance. “I think the bombers were Egyptian Salafists and there have been warnings about the Salafists before,” says al-Anani. “Not all of them are extremists and some could be persuaded away from violence. Yet at the same time we have the government attacking the moderates; if it wants to fight the Salafist line of thinking it has to allow those moderates some legitimate space. They are not going to be able to fight terrorism without it.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Galloway's Gaza mission runs into protests

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - March 2009

George Galloway's high-profile mission to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza has run into controversy, just as his convoy reaches the final leg of its 5,000 mile journey.

Egyptian activists who had been planning to welcome Galloway's Viva Palestina trucks as they cross from Libya into Egypt today will instead be staying at home, after allegations surfaced that Galloway was planning to take part in official receptions with the unpopular Egyptian government, despite having recently called for it to be overthrown.

Rumours that Galloway had agreed to meet Ahmed Ezz, a steel magnate who is a close associate of President Hosni Mubarak and has been caught up in several corruption scandals, caused an outcry among groups opposed to a president Galloway has dismissed as a tyrant.

The mile-long convoy of 110 vehicles left England on 14 February and travelled through Europe and North Africa. Egyptian opposition groups had been preparing a "red carpet" welcome for Galloway and his caravan, impressed at the British MP's forceful denunciations of Mubarak's stance on the Gaza crisis. The Egyptian government largely refused to open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza during Israel's recent 22-day military assault on the area, prompting Galloway to declare that the "dictatorship" of Mubarak was "jointly responsible for the murder of every Palestinian who has died these last two years".

Earlier this week, Saad el-Katany, an MP for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said Galloway's arrival and the issue of aid for Gaza had united Egypt's fragmented opposition movement. "Egyptians across the political spectrum welcome the European convoy," Katany said in a statement. The sentiment was echoed by Abdel Gelil Moustafa, a co-ordinator for Kefaya, the country's largest secular opposition force, who promised public receptions for the convoy at each of its stops in Egypt.

But yesterday the opposition mood soured after accusations that Galloway had planned to co-ordinate with the ruling NDP party and take part in a welcoming ceremony featuring Ezz. In a statement on its website, the Egyptian Popular Committee for the Support of the Palestinian People - an umbrella organisation of opposition groups - said it was cancelling its plan to receive Galloway's convoy.

Some activists are claiming that Galloway was allowing the aid convoy to be used as a propaganda stunt by a repressive government. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent opposition blogger, labelled Viva Palestina an "ass-kissing carnival" and expressed his contempt at Galloway for being “more than happy to hug and embrace the worst elements of this Mubarak dictatorship.”

Speaking from the Libyan desert last night, where the convoy was making the final 150km drive towards the Egyptian border, one of the organisers of ‘Viva Palestina’ told The Guardian that any suggestion of Galloway ingratiating himself with the Mubarak regime was untrue. “We are totally not involved in the domestic politics of any of the countries we go through, particularly not Egypt,” said Sabah el-Mokhtar, a British lawyer. “Of course there is co-ordination with the authorities to get the necessary permissions to enter Egypt ... this is a sovereign state and with sovereign states you deal with them as they require, whether you like them or hate them.” He denied any arrangement had been made with Ahmed Ezz, insisting that “none of us have spoken to or co-ordinated with this gentleman on anything.”

Back in Egypt though, few appear to have been won round by el-Mokhtar’s response. “Arguably, coordinating with the regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt is probably the only way to have such a caravan pass through the North African countries, and to ensure its entry into Gaza from Egypt,” said Per Bjorkland, an Swedish activist and journalist based in Cairo. “But if Galloway hadn't designed this campaign in order to ensure the maximum possible media attention for himself, he could have considered other ways to support Palestine – without becoming a propaganda tool for authoritarian regimes.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Property Prospectus: El-Korba

-Taken from 'Monocle'
-Cairo - March 2009

The best quality of life in Cairo is not to be found in its glitzy but homogeneous satellite towns but in the old-fashioned charm of El Korba. Founded early last century by a Belgian baron, it combines Islamic and Art-Deco architecture with good local shops and a strong sense of community.

... Founded as a separate town by enlightened Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain at the turn of the 20th century, Heliopolis would be considered one of the gems of the Mediterranean in its own right had it not been enveloped by the capital. Empain set out to build a utopia in the desert, as evidenced in the stunning neo-Moorish architecture, sleek tramlines and cosmopolitan buzz of El Korba ...

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