Sunday, January 14, 2007

Egypt detains Al Jazeera journalist

In what can best be described as a battle of Arab powers, Egypt has detained an Al Jazeera journalist they believe is fabricating evidence. The Egyptian Interior Ministry said they stopped Huweida Taha Metwalli on her way to Qatar and found 50 video tapes in her luggage. Egypt claims that some of the material in the tapes is “tarnishing Egypt's reputation and harming Egyptian national interests.”

The debate framed by Mubarak’s Egypt and his pharoahs-in-waiting is an effort to combat Al Jazeera’s growing power in the region as well as hide embarrassment at some of the country’s rougher tactics in maintaining power. It will be a fascinating battle of wills to see how this story unfolds. Egypt is a massive symbolic power both in the Arab world and the world beyond.

Egypt is geographically powerful. Mis’r is the name of Egypt in Arabic, the language spoken by Egyptians and Qataris alike. Mis’r. The name is old, slow and miserly like Egypt herself. Egypt has always been precious. It is where the world’s largest river reaches the sea. It helped formed the Mediterranean. The Nile’s slow warm current fed gentleness into the sea all the way to Gibraltar. It may even cause the Med to dam up.

Egypt was always politically powerful. Luxor is still the largest temple in the world. Egyptian paws and papyrus are all over the bible. The Jews lived for four hundred years under the Egyptian yoke. As the Greeks did to the hated Turkish Ottomans, the Jews picked up the culture of their conquerors. Joseph and Moses spend their formative years learning bad Egyptian habits which they took abroad. Though diminished by Roman times, Egypt retains that era’s most potent sex symbol – Cleopatra. But Egypt’s ultimate tragedy was not Biblical plague or Roman snake. Instead it was mostly likely a fire that burned books. No one can agree when the legendary destruction of Alexandria’s library occurred. Romans, Christians and Muslims have all copped the blame at one point or another. But whenever it happened, it was the consequential loss of its compendium of human knowledge led to the inexorable decline of the dream city named for one of the earliest Greats. Alexandria.

Modern Egypt is justly proudly of its ancient evenings. But Muslim Egypt and its 80 million people remain geographical and politically vital at a point on the Earth where three continental plates collide. It has Suez and Sinai. Britain and France duked out for it in Napoleon’s day. It has the magical Cairo. Australian troops got trained, drunk and laid there prior to Gallipoli. By 1956 those old imperial rivals Britain and France had so successfully patched up their differences to pal up with Israel and snatch the Suez Canal back from Nasser who nationalised it. But they were defeated by a rare strategic alliance of the two superpowers, the US and the USSR. The UN managed it until the Israelis parted the Red Sea once more in 1967. Egypt didn’t get it back until Carter wanted a pin-up moment to define his presidency. He brought Begin and Sadat together at Camp David in a move that proved fatal to all three. But Sadat’s replacement Hosni Mubarak has now been in power for over 25 years. That makes him one of the world’s statesmen despite the obvious lack of democracy that facilitated his long stint in power.

Mubarak has “won” re-election four times and critics say his latest victory in 2005 was tarnished by fraud, vote-rigging, police brutality and violence. Al Jazeera represents a new challenge to Mubarak’s authority with its apparent willingness to report on such matters. Al Jazeera has not been so forthcoming with the democratic challenges faced by their host country Qatar.

The capital Doha is a modern technological powerhouse on the Persian Gulf and home of Al Jazeera, Arabic for “The island”. Qatar is on the mainland of the Arabic Gulf but its capital Doha is an island in the desert. 80% of Qatar’s almost a million inhabitants live there. Unlike the ancient history of Egypt, Qatar is a new emirate. It was a useful stopping point for the sea-journey to India.

The British were here, like everywhere else. But the sun had set on the Empire, by the time Qatar struck oil. The end of World War II pumped up demand for new uses of petroleum. Newly independent Qatar got an increasing share of the profits of oil. After OPEC defeated the West in the oil crisis of 1973-1974, the country became seriously wealthy. Qataris are now a minority in their own country but still control most of the land. Doha, like Dubai, is moving away from the petrodollar and but not into tourism like Dubai. Instead it is spending big on education, infrastructure and sport. Doha is likely to bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Like Egypt, Qatar has a long-term leader. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani has ruled Qatar since 1995. Al Jazeera was launched with his support a year later from the shells of a failed BBC experiment to broadcast an Arabic news channel. The BBC pulled out after Saudi Arabia objected to BBC coverage of a beheading. Most of the journalists ended up at Qatar’s new alternative. Now Al Jazeera is an international brand playing the BBC and CNN at their own game and beating them in many countries. But it is not yet a money-making organisation. Al Jazeera’s budget is still topped up with the Emirs hard-earneds.

Qatar does not have democracy, and Al Jazeera is not likely to bite the hand that feeds it. Its foray into Egyptian politics may well be seen as a personal insult to Mubarak from the Emir. There is bad blood between the two countries that date back to Qatar's 1998 accusation that the Egyptian government contributed to a failed coup attempt in Qatar at the end of 1996. Bad blood indeed. Watch this space.

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