Why is Egypt airing insurgent TV from Iraq?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Al Zawraa television station, the face of Iraq's Sunni insurgency, shows roadside bombs blowing up American tanks, dead and bloody Iraqi children, and insurgent snipers taking aim and firing.

And all this blatant anti-Americanism is broadcasting 24/7 on an Egyptian government-controlled satellite provider from one of Washington's closest allies. Even though Iraq and the US have asked Egypt to pull the plug, the station remains on the air.

The question is, why? While Nilesat, which broadcasts Al Zawraa, argues that it's airing the channel for purely commercial reasons, analysts point to the political benefits for Egypt.

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Some say the country's reluctance to shut down the channel shows that Egypt, predominantly Sunni, may be taking a stand against what it sees as the unjust aggressiveness of Iraq's Shiite-led government and the dangers of Iran's influence there.

"With Iran flexing its muscles in Iraq and Lebanon and talking about becoming a nuclear power, all of this puts the Sunni Arab regimes – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan – on the defensive," says Lawrence Pintak, director of American University in Cairo's television journalism program and author of "Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam, & the War of Ideas."

Mr. Pintak says Egypt's decision to keep Al Zawraa on the air plays into the Sunni-Shiite cold war that has descended on the region, caused largely by sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and Iran's nuclear ambitions. In essence, he says, it's a show of support for fellow Sunnis.

American officials have reportedly called the station "utterly offensive," saying that closing it down is a priority.

But one Egyptian government official, who asked to remain anonymous, reiterated Nilesat's stand that the station remains on air purely for commercial reasons. "We're merely a carrier of this station. We're not producing it. This is a straightforward business deal," he says, adding that, "none of us would reject the principle of freedom of speech and broadcasting for everyone."

Egypt has a history, though, of arresting bloggers and journalists and violently dispersing protests critical of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government. On Saturday, Egyptian authorities detained an Al Jazeera journalist for allegedly fabricating scenes of torture in Egyptian police stations. The journalist was later released.

If Nilesat should buckle under US pressure, however, Al Zawraa will soon have other venues.

Station owner Mishan al-Jabouri says he's just signed contracts with Paris-based satellite provider Hot Bird and Emirates-based Arabsat. He also hopes to sign a contract soon with an American satellite company, which he didn't want to name, and to open new studios in Paris. American subtitles, too, are in the offing, he says.

"I want to show people everywhere what the Americans are doing to my country," says Mr. Jabouri, a former member of Iraq's parliament, now based in Damascus, "what American democracy has done to Iraq, how it has killed children, what has happened in the prisons, how the Americans gave Iraq to Iran."

While many see Nilesat as Al Zawraa's staunch supporter, Jabouri complains that the satellite provider is already reacting to US pressure by raising technical obstacles that prevent him from sending new footage from the field, forcing him to loop already-broadcast material.

Al Zawraa began two years ago as an above-ground, hard-line Sunni TV station, based in Iraq, until the Iraqi government closed it down last November, around the time Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death. Today, it's an underground station with brutal, no-holds-barred content, often amateur, shaky footage showing American soldiers crumpling to the ground after being shoot, and alleged American atrocities against Iraqi civilians. The station's anchors wear military fatigues and rail against the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

The Iranian flag is superimposed over Iraq's Shiite leaders shown on air and news crawls call on viewers "to liberate Iraq from occupying US and Iranian forces" and say that "the mafia" of Moqtada al-Sadr are all "criminals and thieves."

The station closely resembles Islamic extremist websites, with even religious chanting backing up some footage, although Jabouri emphasizes that his station has no ties to Al Qaeda.

The business deal between Al Zawraa and Nilesat is all the more curious, commentators say, since Islamic extremism remains a threat in Egypt and Al Zawraa appears the perfect militant recruiting tool. But, it seems Egypt is more concerned about reasserting its leadership in the Sunni Arab world than it is in gagging a possible militant mouthpiece, analysts say.

This is also a sign that Egypt may be further distancing itself from Washington. Recently, it defiantly announced a nuclear energy program of its own and criticized Mr. Hussein's execution last month.

However, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Egyptian officials Monday to shore up this country's support for American efforts in Iraq. Ms. Rice is traveling through the Middle East on a trip intended largely to bolster support for President Bush's new plan to stabilize Iraq and to reassure the US's Arab allies of its commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Arab states are anxious for Washington to renew efforts to find a solution to the historical conflict, which they say is the underlying cause of the region's political problems.

In Egypt, Ms. Rice said, "We share risk and we share responsibility, because this is an area of the world which will very much be affected by how Iraq turns out."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, a frequent critic, was ready to give Mr. Bush's plan the benefit of the doubt. "We are supportive of that plan because we are hopeful that the plan would lead ensure the stability, the unity, and the cohesion of the Iraqi government."

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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