In Egypt, a new outlet for reform

'Egypt Today,' a Cairo newspaper launched this week, embodies changes the US seeks in the Middle East.

As President Bush and other world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Georgia, were crafting a compromise statement calling for political reform in the Middle East, a new independent newspaper was quietly rolling out in Cairo. epitomizing the sort of change the US wants to see sweep through the region.

Al-Mesri Al-Yom, or Egypt Today, started publishing on June 7 after months of wrangling over its press license. The stated goals of its publisher, Hisham Kassem, are right in line with US plans for a region where the media are typically muzzled, and the political opponents of existing regimes are often jailed.

"All I want to do is create a newspaper of record, with full and fair coverage, that will hopefully bring some pressure to bear on the government," says Mr. Kassem. "We may fail, but a few years ago I wouldn't have been allowed to try."

His paper joins another new offering, Egyptian Renaissance, which is officially incorporated in Cyprus but that the government has allowed to distribute.

Whether these new papers signal bigger changes to come or a minor cosmetic effort by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who spurned an invitation to the G-8 summit over complaints that US initiatives for change in the Middle East are too strident, remains to be seen.

Mr. Kassem says there are no legal or institutional guarantees of free speech and that, in theory, he could be shut down at any time.

"The laws haven't changed,'' says Karim Alrawi, head of Middle East programs for Internews, a nonprofit media-development group. "In Egypt, anyone who publishes information that doesn't come from an official source is breaking the law. It's not generally enforced, but it's held in reserve."

The release of the paper is one indicator of the small reforms that have been creeping across the region in recent months.

This week Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, approved the tiny Gulf emirate's first written constitution, which will leave his family in control of the country but creates an advisory role for a mostly elected Consultative Council. In Saudi Arabia last week, the government removed many of its restrictions on female employment and business ownership.

The changes are, at least in part, because of US pressure, but the growing pains of Egypt Today also show the dangers of the US government's outspoken advocacy for change.

Opponents of the paper have spread rumors in Cairo that the paper is actually a propaganda organ of the US state department. While Mr. Kassem says that the paper has no American ties and its backers are prominent Egyptian businessmen, rival newspapers have run hints that it's an American proxy.

"Sure he says it's backed with Egyptian money, but it's really running with $60 million given by the US government to undermine our government,'' says an official from the Ministry of Interior. "That paper's appearance is Egyptian, but its heart and soul is American."

At the G-8 summit, the Bush administration agreed to a statement on Middle Eastern reform that softened earlier demands for change, seeking to reassure Arab government's that their fate is in their own hands. "Successful reform depends on the countries in the region, and change should not and can not be imposed from outside," the statement read.

There are reasons why Egypt Today is seen as potentially threatening to the sitting government.

"The time is right in Egypt to inform public opinion and change this stagnant political situation,'' says editor in chief Anwar al-Hawary, who says he took a big pay cut to work at the venture. "Most of our newspapers are machines of propaganda."

While Kassem says his overwhelming goal is simply to build a professional and profitable paper that focuses on Egypt's domestic problems, he hopes one of its byproducts will be to broaden the space for dialogue inside a country where the ruling National Democratic Party of Mr. Mubarak severely restricts the freedom of opposition parties and can count on fawning coverage from the nation's major dailies.

Kassem says his backers have become fed up with a stagnant economy and nonexistent financial and political reforms, and see the paper as a potential agent of change. "These guys have been waiting for a bank to be privatized since 1991, and after a certain point you get tired of waiting," he says.

The June 9 issues of Egypt Today and Al-Ahram, the major government-owned daily, show the differences. The front page of Egypt Today had stories on government tax increases for new-car purchases, a polio outbreak in Upper Egypt, complaints from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that members are being tortured in Egyptian jails, a reduction in fertilizer subsidies for farmers, and two international stories - one each on Iraq and Israel.

Meanwhile, Al-Ahram had two stories on Mubarak - one on his positive role in Africa and the other about his wife Suzanne's desire for an "international peace culture" to emerge, and five international stories on Iraq, Israel, and the US.

"I can promise you that you'll never see a headline in our paper blaring 'Ariel Sharon is a Pig,' '' says Kassem, referring to the tendency of some Arab papers to demonize the Israeli prime minister. "This paper isn't going to be anti-American, or anti-Israel. No editorializing. I just want straight news."

Mr. Alrawi of Internews says he doubts the new paper will have much impact in a country where Al-Ahram sells nearly a million copies and where more and more people get the news from the region's satellite channels. "This could be an interesting venture - anything that Hisham is involved in will have some integrity,'' says Alrawi. "But it's so hard to make a success of a newspaper."

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