Egypt’s prominent newspapers and magazines had a somewhat tepid response to recent statements made by al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Media commentary did not support statements made by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, but was critical of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. Al-Qaeda’s statements were duly reported, but did not receive wide coverage. Reporting focused on the efforts and response of the U.S. to those statements, rather than the statements themselves. Some reports speculated on a possible rift between al-Qaeda’s top leaders.
Many commentators argued that the surfacing of al-Zawahiri’s tape so soon after the U.S. airstrike in Pakistan aiming to kill him demonstrated the ineffectiveness of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. Bin Laden’s recent declaration clearly indicated that he was still alive, and many reports noted that bin Laden was still able to communicate to the outside world and incite radicals to violent action despite the five-year effort by the U.S. to decapitate al-Qaeda.
Prominent Egyptian columnist Salama Salama, in an opinion piece entitled “Bin Laden is Back,” written for Egypt’s leading daily al-Ahram, used the opportunity presented by bin Laden’s call for a truce to criticize the U.S. war on terrorism. His commentary accuses the U.S. of actually supporting terrorism through its counter-terrorism policies. By using torture and rendition, killing innocents in air raids and supporting Israel, Salama concludes that “The U.S. Middle East policy is spreading the kind of hatred terrorists need to advance their careers” (al-Ahram, January 26).
Referencing his recent official visit to Egypt, Salama accuses Vice President Dick Cheney of being “contemptuous of everything the people of the region cherish.” He proceeds to say that the U.S. has no right to accuse others of terrorism in light of the recent attack on a Pakistani village that allegedly killed 13 innocents.
Salama concludes that U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the undermining of Palestinian factions, its attempts to deprive Iran of nuclear technology, and pressuring the Syrian government, were really carried out so that Israel can dominate the region.
A commentary in another major Egyptian newspaper, al-Akhbar, echoes these sentiments but puts the onus more on al-Qaeda. Referring to al-Zawahiri’s tape, the commentary states that the continued threats by al-Qaeda leaders provided the justification for U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas in the region (BBC News, January 19).
Hard reporting was equally as focused on the U.S. response, rather than the content of the tapes themselves—although the Egyptian press did speculate on a possible rift between bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Al-Wafd, for instance, ran an article entitled, “Disputes Between bin Laden and al Zawahiri.” Stating that “It seems that bin Laden is no longer the sole leader for the organization as he was before,” al-Wafd reported that there was a divergence between bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, but did not exactly elaborate on what they disagreed (al-Wafd, January 20-21).
The article also focused on statements by the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Turki al-Faisal. Covering his statements after the tapes surfaced, the article underscored that the failure of U.S. officials to kill or capture bin Laden has increased the impression that al-Qaeda is unbeatable. Unlike other articles that dismissed the notion that bin Laden’s capture would seriously disrupt al-Qaeda, this article reported that there needed to be increased efforts to kill or capture not only bin Laden, but al-Zawahiri as well.
Another al-Wafd piece focused on the U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan targeting al-Zawahiri and focused on his subsequent videotape. Despite its title, “DNA: Will It Help the United States to Capture al-Zawahiri?” the article was the only one to focus on al-Zawahiri’s statement and its radical, assertive tone, in contrast to bin Laden’s more measured statements.
Citing a former U.S. counter-terrorism official, the article stated that al-Qaeda’s Egyptian wing, led by al-Zawahiri, is the most radical and capable of al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The article also judged that al-Zawahiri, despite his prominent position in the al-Qaeda organization, was not qualified to lead al-Qaeda in place of bin Laden. Referencing the comments of U.S. counter-terrorism officials, the article reckoned that although al-Zawahiri is a competent strategist and an intelligent, fiery spokesperson for al-Qaeda, his irascibility isolated many al-Qaeda members. Al-Wafd’s report concluded that, like bin Laden, al-Zawahiri’s killing or capture would not stop al-Qaeda inspired terrorism (al-Wafd, January 20-21).
An article that ran in al-Gomhuriya, “Responding to bin Laden’s Tape,” deduced otherwise. The article emphasized the U.S. response to the tapes, quoting U.S. officials as categorically stating that there is no negotiation with al-Qaeda. This article concluded that killing bin Laden, let alone negotiating with him, would not stop al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities (al-Gomhuriya, January 21).
Although there was no clear consensus in the reporting about the consequence or significance that the death or capture of the two top al-Qaeda officials would have on the terrorist organization, the reporting emphasized the U.S. response and largely quoted from U.S. sources.
The Egyptian media’s response to the tapes can be gauged not only from what was reported but also from what was not covered. It was noticeable that there was only cursory analysis of bin Laden’s offer of a long-term truce if the U.S. were to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Egyptian press, unlike the Western media, did not delve into possible motivations for his truce offer. Most Egyptian media reports did not include analysis on the differences in tone and message between bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s statements.
Analysts who have considered the Arab media’s response to the latest al-Qaeda statements conclude that al-Qaeda’s recent proclamations received “short shrift” in the Arab press. Noting that bin Laden’s statements received little air time or newspaper coverage in the Arab world, including Egypt, reports speculated that the region’s press is increasingly unwilling to be used as a vehicle for bin Laden (BBC News, January 19).
In Egypt, however, the press seems to be more critical of U.S. counter-terrorism policy while remaining mostly silent on al-Qaeda’s actions and message. The focus in the Egyptian press regarding the statements by al-Qaeda’s top officials was very much on the U.S. and how its officials responded to the statements.
The Egyptian press also studiously avoided mention of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s criticism of Egypt. Al-Zawahiri’s and bin Laden’s past statements emphasized the responsibility of Arab governments, often mentioning Egypt directly. Yet the Egyptian press made no mention of the role of their own government in spurring terrorism. There was only one article, run in al-Wafd, which acknowledged al-Zawahiri’s radicalization and hatred of the U.S. as stemming from his time in Egyptian jails.
What can Egyptian press reporting tell us about the state of al-Qaeda’s public relations? On the one hand, reporting was cursory and focused on the U.S. response more than on al-Qaeda’s message. On the other, it may not have received wide coverage due to the competing news of Hamas’ political victory. The statements also spurred commentators to reiterate their criticism of U.S. counter-terrorism policies. Egypt’s news coverage showed that, while it may be tiring of al-Qaeda’s press statements, it remains critical of the U.S. and its policy in the Middle East.