Sunni-Shia power politics and U.S.-Egyptian relations are at the center of a dispute over a satellite television station that is the latest weapon in the arsenal of Iraq’s insurgents.
Al-Zawraa, an Iraq-based television version of the jihadi Web sites, is being broadcast across the Arab world by Nilesat, a satellite provider answerable to the Egyptian government. Al-Zawraa features non-stop footage of U.S. troops being picked off by snipers, blown up by roadside bombs and targeted by missiles. “We find the channel utterly offensive,” said one U.S. diplomat in Cairo. Getting the Egyptians to pull the plug is “at the top of our agenda.”
But the Egyptian government insists it’s all just business. “For us, it means nothing,” the Egyptian Information Minister, Anas el-Fiki, told me. “It is a channel that reserved an allocation on Nilesat. They had a contract, paid the fees. There is nothing political for Nilesat. It’s pure business. We have no concern what the channel is doing.”
But, as is often the case in the Middle East, much more is going on beneath the surface. The diplomatic tug-of-war over the station comes as Sunni Arab governments in the region, increasingly worried about a resurgent Iran, are more overtly lining up behind Iraq’s Sunni minority. A little over a month ago, Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would take steps “to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”
Those militias have something in common with the U.S. and Iraqi governments — they, too, want the Egyptians to pull the plug on Al-Zawraa, which laces its anti-American programming with attacks on the Shiites. In one montage, the Iranian flag is superimposed over the faces of Iraqi Shiite leaders — including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Graphic crawls at the bottom of the screen contain such messages as, “The natural place for criminals and thieves is with the mafia of Muqtada Al Sadr,” the militant Shiite militia leader.
El-Fiki says Egypt received “a warning from certain Iraqis” that if it doesn’t stop broadcasting Al-Zawraa, the Egyptian diplomatic mission in Baghdad will be attacked. “We don’t accept this type of warning,” El-Fiki insists.
I asked the information minister if that meant that his government wouldn’t shut the channel down, even it wanted to, because it would look like it was backing down in the face of a threat.
“Exactly,” he said.
Despite Egyptian protestations that there is nothing political about its involvement, Cairo is doing more than just re-transmitting Al-Zawraa’s signal. In early November, around the time Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, the station shifted from simply pushing a hard-line Sunni political message to airing non-stop jihadi videos supplied by the Islamic Army of Iraq, said to be dominated by former Baathists. Using a mobile transmitter, it began playing a cat-and-mouse game with Iraqi and U.S. military authorities, which apparently ended in mid-December when, according to Salah Hamza, who runs Nilesat, the transmission from Iraq went dead. “It seems, at last, they’ve stopped them completely,” he said.
Up to that point, the Egyptian satellite company had been uplinking the television signal from Iraq to the Nilesat satellite, so it could be seen across the region. Since the signal went dead, Hamza explained, Nilesat has had no signal to uplink, so it has been re-running the same few hours of tape at the request of Al-Zawraa officials. “They asked us, please when we don’t send, loop for us what you have.” Technically, this means that rather than just up-linking a signal originating in Iraq, Nilesat is actually transmitting Al-Zawraa from Cairo.
It’s a subtle, but very important distinction: An arm of the anti-American Iraqi insurgency transmitting from the capital of one of America’s strongest Arab allies. The implications are not lost on Hamza. Asked whether Nilesat would uplink new tapes if Al-Zawraa officials delivered them in Cairo, the Nilesat chief replied, “Yes and no,” indicating that it depends on how one interprets the contract provision that calls for Nilesat to transmit material “from Iraq.”
The failure of U.S. officials to get the Egyptians to pull the plug on Al-Zawraa underlines the complicated nature of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship and the limits of American influence in the new regional equation. It is also another example of the emerging cold war between Iran and Sunni Arab powers in the region.
The Egyptian information minister has appointed a team to monitor the channel and provide him with a report, but, he says, the government can only take action if the channel has violated “the major codes of ethics of the pan-Arab media” and it receives a formal request from the Arab League, which, not incidentally, is seen by Iran as a tool of Sunni Arab power.
Having failed to convince the Egyptians to act — el-Fiki claims he was approached “in a friendly way” by the U.S. ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, but has received no formal request — the Americans had hoped Iraqi President Jalal Talabani would raise the issue with President Hosni Mubarak, but the Iraqi leader’s December visit was cancelled. However, the man said to be the station’s founder, Mishan al-Jabouri, a former member of Iraq’s parliament, was recently in Cairo.
So for now, the insurgents have their televised voice and the Middle East has yet another of its countless contradictions: The U.S., which is demanding freedom and democracy in the Arab world, wants a TV station muzzled; while Egypt, whose prisons are crowded with home-grown Islamists and whose own media is tightly controlled, is defending the insurgents’ right to their electronic pulpit.
Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.
Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo and author of Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.