The President’s Man
It is not often that MENASSAT gives a platform to those who call Egyptian bloggers ungrateful backstabbers who should thank God for the freedom President Hosni Mubarak has granted them. But the interview that Swedish radio, together with MENASSAT, recently conducted with Osama Saraya, editor in chief of Egypt”s leading government-owned daily, Al Ahram, offers a unique glimpse into the mindset of a dictatorship that sees itself as society”s only defense against Islamic radicalism. Saraya”s is a very cynical world view but anyone attempting to predict Egypt”s future would probably do well to pay attention to his words.
[Editor”s note: As a website defending the freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the Arab world, we find ourselves most of the time talking about and to people whose rights have been curtailed: bloggers who”ve been thrown in jail, journalists who”ve been censored, independent editors in chief who are prosecuted for speaking their mind. We don”t often present the government point of view because there is no need to – they already control most of the media message.
So it was most almost refreshing to read the blunt and unapologetic views of Osama Saraya, the editor in chief of Egypt”s leading governement-owned newspaper, Al-Ahram. In Saraya”s view, President Hosni Mubarak granted the people of Egypt freedom of speech, and like ungrateful children, they have used this freedom to criticize their leader. He literally says that they should “thank God for the amount of freedom they have been granted.” Tell it to Kareem Amer, the blogger who has been in jail for two years, or Ibrahim Issa, the editor in chief of the independent daily Ad-Dostour, who has been in and out of court for having questioned the health of the President.
But Saraya does make a few interesting – if frightening – points. He blames the West for listening to people like Issa and the bloggers. He says they don”t understand Egypt or Mubarak, who in his mind is the West”s only defense against Islamic radicals. There is a hardly veiled threat when he says, “I can say one morning: “If you find white people walking in the street, they are spies for Israel and are Americans…” and the people will go after them capture them, throw them in prison and kill them.”
Scary stuff, but Egypt-watchers would probably do well to pay attention to Saraya”s words – they appear to come straight from President Mubarak”s mouth.]
CAIRO, November 17, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Visiting Osama Saraya”s office overlooking Cairo”s busy Al-Galaa street is a bit like traveling to a different reality. A quick peak out the giant panoramic window that surrounds the Al Ahram editor”s office allows you a full view of the bustling street life below. Street vendors are selling all kinds of paraphernalia, micro-bus drivers are honking angrily at donkey vegetable carts. It is essential Cairo: always on the brink of disaster but somehow still functioning.
Silence and calm prevail inside Saraya”s only office a few meters up, where a large framed black and white portrait of a young President Hosni Mubarak welcomes you. On the floor beneath the oak desk and chairs and well-stacked book shelves are fine Persian carpets.
And as I turn my head towards the numerous awards, diplomas, and medals Saraya has on display, a sign with the blue and yellow Swedish flag on it catches my attention. It was issued by the Swedish organization Spiritus Mundi.
As a Swede myself, I became curious to find out what Saraya had done to merit a diploma from Sweden. After all, Saraya is the editor in chief of the leading government-own newspaper in a country that Reporters without Borders listed as 146th out of 173 on its 2008 Press Freedom Index.
And the more Saraya talked, lecturing us on how persecuted Egyptian political activists like Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim are “extremists,” how bloggers are backstabbers, and how Egypt enjoys a great deal of press freedom, the more confusing I found the award.
Henrik Melius, the Director of Spiritus Mundi, told MENASSAT in a conversation on Facebook that the award had been given to Saraya for “cultural awareness,” saying that Al-Ahram had published a series of articles that “urged peaceful consideration and reactions by Muslims during the cartoon crisis” in 2006.
But the well-known Egyptian blogger and anti-torture activist Wael Abbas, who has been attacked several times by the state-run media for his activism, was less than thrilled over the fact that Saraya being awarded a prize for anything.
“I met the person from Spiritus Mundi who gave him the award, and we had a fight,” Abbas told MENASSAT. “I told him some of the lies Al-Ahram tells about bloggers and about the opposition. They should study Egypt better and give awards to those who deserve them.”
We will allow you to judge for yourselves by publishing excerpts from the Swedish radio transcript (translated from the Arabic.)
OSAMA SARAYA: “First of all, I want to explain something important to you. Most Westerners who come to Egypt – whether they are American, European or other –, they go meet those newcomers who are new to the political arena and who benefited from the freedom granted in Egypt over the last few years.
“Usually the person who has benefited from freedom is in the frame of mind that desires more freedom, but his ability to understand or comprehend the freedom granted to him and how he got it remains limited. So the vision that he presents to the Western mind about freedom in Egypt is wrong.
“A very limited number [of people] have the political depth and understanding of matters in a society like ours, which is developing towards freedom, understand how it is developing and can tell you the exact degree of freedom in Egypt. Even our intellectuals who speak out in the press – the bloggers, the owners of the independent media and their friends… – they should thank God. They should be grateful for the large amount of freedom that they have at this point.
“When for example, President Mubarak allows democracy and freedom without pressure, [and yet] I focus my hostility towards President Mubarak who created [this] democracy… This sends a message to everyone dealing with democracy that whoever does that [grant democracy & freedom]… we will punish him. So anyone else, won”t do that [grant democracy & freedom.] For example, President Sadat allowed the religious groups to exist in democracy. The religious groups killed him. The same experience is being repeated. President Mubarak allowed people a democracy, so the democracy kills him.”
Would you say that the bloggers and the independent press have taken democracy a step backwards in Egypt?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Exactly. Because the powers that manage democracy in Egypt are aware of the importance of creating a civic society and opening the doors for a real civic society, but their strategic battle is with the religious trend, or the people who bargain with religious [extremists] or with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al Masry Al Youm (a prominent independent Egyptian daily) is with the Muslim Brotherhood?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Without being aware of it. Because without political awareness, one finds oneself suddenly supporting that route. One can assist a political movement without knowing what one is doing.
“For example, I need to build a political movement. What do I do? I join a political movement. I does not want to join the National Democratic Party [the government party] and I have failed to create a political movement, so I go with the underground movement, which is the Muslim Brotherhood, without realizing it. And suddenly, I find that our interests are mutual. Ibrahim Issa was like that. Issa started out as a democrat and is now Muslim Brotherhood. He now assists the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious movement in a strategic manner.
“Building a democratic culture is a very difficult process. It is not easy; it”s a long development process. It requires a lot of internal work and a lot of funding. It requires a lot of change in the institutions.
“At the same time it requires a supporting environment both regionally and internationally. [But] neither the international nor the regional environments are supportive. All this supports an environment of radicalism. So we cannot develop locally within this environment. So the control of powerful institutions remains. When there is talk about democracy, a country like Egypt will have to say, No, I won”t do that. Because then I”m paving the way for the religious movement. No, let”s keep the movement that has at least given me the opportunity to speak. When we learn to organize, mobilize and develop, then we can see [about democracy]. Today, I have freedom of expression.
“As for the free ones and the newcomers, they are fools to imagine that they”re widening the road to freedom. They are actually pushing towards dictatorship.”
When would you say that press freedom was introduced in Egypt? You said that Mubarak gave them this freedom; the independent press is basically 5 years old, but was this a choice President Mubarak made? A lot of people say it was under pressure from the US. How did it come about?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Egypt is above foreign intervention. The political system in Egypt can say something one morning and the people would support it. I can say one morning: “If you find white people walking in the street, they are spies for Israel and are Americans…” and the people will go after them capture them, throw them in prison and kill them. People have a lot of fears from Americans and from Israel. More than you can imagine.
“This political system is working with democratic thought. Because it says, I want to cooperate with the West. I want peace. I want to create a democracy, I want to create a political system… So when you accuse this political system [of giving in to foreign pressure], that”s a false accusation and it is unfair. The political system is a hundred times more civilized than the street. The street is much more radical than the political system. So don”t believe the words of those idiots… they are idiots… those who say that we are interacting with the West this way, the pressure, that we”re afraid [of the West]… Why should I be afraid of the West? The West doesn”t feed me. I have food here. If I close off Egypt, there”s a lot of food. We don”t have a food problem… Our people don”t like food, they like beans.
“No one is aware of 80 pct. or 90 pct. of people in the street. Don”t believe those who sit in cafés and forums and work with the West. Don”t believe that they know Egypt. They don”t know anything. Hosni Mubarak knows Egypt better than them. He has the army, he has a very strong army, he has a security apparatus that manages the whole of Egypt, he has the ministry of education and health and all of this is his… So why would he be afraid of the West? The West is afraid of Hosni Mubarak. I”m serious, I’m being frank. The West is afraid of Hosni Mubarak. Why? Because Hosni Mubarak is useful to the West.
“You cannot believe these young people you talk to… no. These are simple people, they don”t understand. They don”t understand the status of the ruling institution in Egypt. This is an institution that is 7000 years old. An institution inherited since years. You have to believe that this institution is elected, but elected in a different way than what you know. Because this election is “natural selection.” I call it the “general average.” When civil society is weakened, the stronger powers with a larger impact represent it.
“Those few bloggers and independents and those people can”t change your mind and convince you that we don”t have freedom. Because we have freedom (…) And I want you to understand that so that we don”t both lose. Because this conflict is in the interest of the extremists.”
Would you say that the increased press freedom with the independent papers and the bloggers is too much? Is it dangerous for Egypt?
OSAMA SARAYA: “No.”
It can be handled… And would you say that there’s complete press freedom in Egypt?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Of course. Even our newspaper here, Al Ahram, a government paper, has a percentage of opposition [writers] no less than 40 pct., 45 pct., even 50%. That”s in all the papers and we publish every word. And whoever has a problem anywhere, we publish it on our front page… Electricity, water…
“But because we have a better understanding, we are trying to keep this margin of freedom for a longer time. Because I want him [whoever decides to grant this freedom] to walk with me, not me to follow. We went to explain the problem to them, we want them to understand the degree of freedom and help, because deepening a culture of freedom is the way to build. Besides the economic reform that is increasing in Egypt, education, more schools, private universities, diversity of cultures inside the society, this will create structure. This process needs organization from civil society, needs time and needs that God keeps the President healthy so that he remains strong.
How is [President Mubarak”s] health?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Fine. Excellent.”
Do you see him often? Do you meet him?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Yes. Of course. We see him regularly. He is strong, very active and effective. Thank God. This leads to stability in Egypt for a long time. But what”s important is the West. May God keep [the West] and its problems away from us. The Americans and administrations like Mccain’s and Bush and these people… God help us.
OSAMA SARAYA: “I don”t know. We still don”t know. The Americans… Any American winds are not good. The American winds are strong and not good. But I imagine that the West, the Europeans will understand. And if the Europeans get out of the state of negativity which they”re in and talk to the Americans a little, then maybe there can be an adjustment in the Middle East. And then if they resolve the Palestinian problem and not let it go… It is a danger in the area.
But when you meet the president do you talk to him about the future, what will happen after he resigns?
OSAMA SARAYA: “The president is very open, very democratic and very merciful, despite the fact that he”s a military man. He understands security more than anything else. But he allowed for a margin of freedom in Egypt never before seen in our history. And it never happened in the Middle East. And he convinced all the security, military and powerful institutions of the [importance of granting] freedom.
“Hosni Mubarak sponsored peace at a critical moment. A moment of extremism. Hosni Mubarak fought a battle with the extremists for 20 years without asking for anyone”s help. Hosni Mubarak saw for the first time the President of Egypt being assassinated. The pharaoh of Egypt, the strongest man in Egypt being shot by extremism, by his own army. And he left this battle victorious. Hosni Mubarak… he”s a genius politically and a hero. He largely built Egypt politically, economically and socially.
“I am surprised when the bloggers, the independents and people in civil society don”t encourage Hosni Mubarak. I am personally amazed. I see them as “andal” [translates as “ungrateful, sell-outs, untrustworthy, back stabbers.”] Someone gave me freedom, someone opened the door and the society at his own will. I should return the favor so that it grows, so that he continues down that road and people continue in this path. Instead of the bitterness of the bloggers and these people. But, of course, I know that the society and those people are very few and without effect.
You’re talking about the Islamists, the extremists as a danger to the future of Egypt, but there are so many people like Ayman Nour, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who are not Islamists, but are opposed to the government and they are… one in jail and one in exile.
OSAMA SARAYA: “I”ll give you an example. Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim are like Haider in Austria. The one who died. In politics, those are called extremists, political climbers and opportunists too. Saad Eddin Ibrahim has ties with organizations that give him money. So he tries to speak their language. So instead of explaining to you [the West or donor organizations] that the Middle East is so and so… I terrorize the political system. Either give me the government so that I can explain to the West, or I become your enemy and I take money. The second one, Haider, or the second extremist wants to ride the Muslim Brotherhood to reach the White House. And this won”t happen in Egypt. He”s an idiot. He”s naïve. He takes lousy Western thoughts and wants to implement them on a different society. … And if you look closely at their political history, you will find it corrupt. He wants to reach power, but wants to ride any horse to get him to power using democracy.”
But not even Jorg Haider was put in prison…. I mean is it necessary to put Ayman Nour and Saad Eddin Ibrahim in prison?
OSAMA SARAYA: “That”s what they were thinking. Ayman ran as candidate against the president. And Saad Eddin Ibrahim wanted to be like that guy from the Solidarity…Lech Walesa, of Poland. They are trying to be similar, Saad Eddin Ibrahim wanted to be Walesa. He even said so. He imagined that there was a church in Egypt, and an America in Egypt and something like that in Egypt. He could be the unionist, from the sociologists union, he creates a movement…
When you talk about press freedom, is it possible to write about everything in Al Ahram? Is there anything that is… are there any limits? Can you write about the army openly for example?
OSAMA SARAYA: “Of course we monitor what is published, that goes without saying. And [we publish] within the limits that protect freedom of expression and protect the newspaper. And we are convinced of this. With all these guarantees, we protect freedom of expression. We don”t provoke Christians, we don”t provoke even Jews, we don”t provoke religious figures, we don”t provoke rural versus urban. We maintain the stability between the rural and urban areas. We don”t provoke governorates against each other, we don”t provoke institutions against each other. You asked about the military institution, we try to keep the strong institutions strong. We call these the spinal cord of the country. If the country disintegrates and has no spinal cord, we would fear for our children to walk the streets. We have to protect the society from the institutions you talk about.
“At the same time, we are maintaining and developing new thoughts. We are trying to stress the importance of good bookkeeping, a good tax law, a fair customs law, modern institutions, modern universities, developed institutions… We try to give all movements the right of expression, so that these debates exist inside our society. We try to present new elements in every topic, angles that are not seen by the government, we try to clarify them. We deal with the problems of everyone in the newspapers as is evident by our credibility. We earn credibility, we are like the calculated average of the country.
“In Egypt, in Al Ahram, we are 55 pct. of the market. If everyone produced 100 papers, we get 55 of all the papers; national, opposition, private and independent. That”s proof that people are satisfied with us. We get 80 pct. of all advertising in the market. So people approve of us. So we have to protect, because we enter every household, so we have to protect stability. At the same time we have to emphasize [stability] because it is in our interest that the society moves forward. It is in our interest that the society modernizes. We don”t try and build radical thoughts or even populist thoughts.
“This is a difficult opinion, it”s not easy to write, but we must understand and pick how to write. It”s very difficult. But for Ibrahim Issa and the bloggers, it”s easy to write and easy to publish. They have chosen the easy road, so it doesn”t need a lot of intellectual analysis, to study the history, study the climate and how to see the panorama of everything. It needs Egyptians who are living [here] to understand the history and the characters. It”s very difficult.”