Arab Gadfly Keeps Buzzing Despite 14 Letter Bombs


When the Beirut headquarters of Al-Hayat was the target of death threats, bombings, and the assassination of its editor, the Arabic-language newspaper knew who its enemies were. Pro-Soviet Arab nationalists gunned down editor Kamel Mrowa for his pro-Western stance.

But that was 30 years ago. Today the Arab world is much more complex and the influential Al-Hayat isn't sure which group is responsible for the 14 letter bombs it received recently.

But because it is one of the few unrestrained media voices in the Middle East, its potential enemies are legion.

"We've been extremely critical of Islamic fundamentalists in the Arab world, in Egypt, in Algeria," says current editor Jihad Khazen, as he makes his morning surf through the web sites of major world newspapers and browses through sympathy e-mail from readers. "But we've been doing that for the past five or six years. Why now? Why us? I'm really mystified."

The paper, founded in Beirut in 1946, has relocated to London. The letter-bombing campaign targeted its offices in Washington, at the United Nations, and here. This time, no one has claimed responsibility.

Lacking evidence, Mr. Khazen says he doesn't want to point a finger at anyone. But this being an extension of the Middle East, there is no shortage of theories about the culprits.

The first of the usual suspects includes the disciples of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian Muslim cleric serving a life sentence in the US. Earlier this month, three letter bombs were also intercepted before reaching parole officers at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, which houses several Rahman followers convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Like the bombs sent to Al-Hayat offices, these parcels bore the postmark of Alexandria, Egypt.

But sources at the newspaper say that's no guarantee the bombs came from Egypt, where Muslim extremists want to overthrow the government. Some say it could be other Islamists, including the Saudi Arabian opposition, since Saudi Prince Khalid Ibn Sultan owns the paper.

Irking many regimes

Kamran Karadaghi, who covers Iraq for the paper, thinks his beat may be at the root of the bombings. "We offended Iraq very strongly," he says.

He points to the way he covered a recent assassination attempt on Saddam's powerful son, Uday Hussein. "More than any other paper, we revealed the extent to which the family deals in corruption, and in rivalries inside the clan," says Mr. Karadaghi.

"This isn't to say we don't have other enemies," he adds. "We've talked about Iran's involvement in terrorism."

Putting out Al-Hayat - which means "life" in Arabic - has never been easy. In 1976, Al-Hayat closed down when the Lebanese civil war made publishing impossible. After relaunching in London in 1988, it regained its voice as an independent paper - with the exception of its Saudi Arabia coverage, which is significantly less critical.

Arab world's biggest voice

A circulation that hovers around 200,000 belies its reputation as perhaps the most important paper in the Arab world. Any foreign government with an interest in the Middle East reads translations of it every day. Presidents, kings, and other heads of state give interviews to the paper to send messages to each other, to float ideas, and see how they will be received.

Such interviews, however, have often thrust Al-Hayat into the spotlight. In 1992, Al-Hayat became the first non-Egyptian Arab paper to interview an Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. Al-Hayat became the subject of scathing criticism, says Ruba Husari, who did the interview. "Some people accused us of normalizing relations with Israel," she says.

A diversity of voices in the paper, however has been Khazen's goal, one he gleaned from American journalism while a student at Georgetown University in Washington. But he wonders if the paper is suffering the consequences of its editorial judgements.

An editor's job is never easy, especially when it comes to publishing a paper for a readership predominantly from countries without a free press. Often the paper is banned in various countries, either barred from distribution or subject to having the paper clipped of the front-page story.

Writers say their attempts to get the story out won't be muffled by bombs.

Youssef Kazem, the paper's East Africa editor, says he was "astonished" when he joined Al-Hayat in 1988 under the leadership of the assassinated editor's son, Jamil. Don't run news wires, Jamil told them. Get on a plane, and report it yourself. No reprints of government press releases.

"No one ever told us, 'Write what ever you want.' No one ever did that in the Arab media. That's how we established our credibility."

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