Which Egyptian bombing did you hear about?

A bomb exploded February 22 in the Khan El-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, a popular tourist area, killing four people and injuring 17, but details surrounding the bombing have been slow to emerge because of the heavy-handed tactics of the Egyptian government. As a result, the Egyptian independent media has been locked in a fierce battle with pro-regime media outlets that are giving wildly different accounts of the bombing and its aftermath.
egypt hussein.jpg
Egyptian security services near the February 22 bombsite in Cairo. © AFP

CAIRO, March 4, 2009 (MENASSAT) – In the moments immediately following the February 22 bombing that killed four and injured 17 in the Khan El-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, the Egyptian security forces put a clamp down on the scene.

Most media was barred from entering the bombsite which is near the sacred Al-Hussein mosque - pro-regime news outlets were some of the few allowed in to report.

In the days since, local media reporting of the bombings aftermath has been confusing at best.

The controversy

On buses throughout Cairo, daily newspapers give wildly different accounts.

One February 23 headline in the daily Al-Goumhouriya (The Republic) read: “PM Nadhif follows the repercussions of Al-Hussein mosque bombing minute by minute and says, ‘The security measures are enough.’”

Compare this to the headline in Egyptian independent daily Al Doustour (The Constitution): “The cameras planted by the Interior Ministry in the Al-Hussein area failed to uncover the perpetrators of Sunday’s terrorist attack.”

The headlines, printed on the same day, illustrate a huge divergence in the focus of coverage for pro-regime and independent press, a fact Maguy Al-Halwani, former dean at the Egyptian University's Faculty of Communication says is indicative of the new media reality in Egypt.

“In front of the different newspaper stands, spread on the sidewalks throughout Cairo, you read all kinds of red and black headlines. And it’s normal that they would be different in terms of content, but not contradictory – as they appear today. Coverage changes with the attitude of the regime,” Al-Halwani told MENASSAT.

The official record

As for coverage in pro-regime dailies, the three main players Al-Goumhouriah (The Republic), Al-Akhbar (The news) and Al-Ahram (The Pyramids), each defended state security measures before and after the event.

They all reported the incident was not part of a larger trend of bombing that followed the 2005 and 2006 Al Queda-linked bombings in Sharm El-Sheikh that killed more than 100 people.
All three papers instead made sure to note that the bombing had no effect on Cairo’s tourism and assured the general public – particularly foreign tourists, that the area near the El-Hussein mosque and the touristy Khan El-Khalili bazaar was safe to visit.

On the day following the bombing, Al-Goumhouriya opened its front page with the headline, “Blood on the steps of Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo.”  The sub-headlines read, “The General Prosecutor visiting (the bomb site)” and “PM Nadhif follows the repercussions of al-Hussein mosque bombing minute by minute and says “the security measures are enough.”

The fact that the bombing happened near Al-Hussein mosque was played up for the religious readers as well with the headlines, “Sheikh al-Azhar: the incident is a crime and a treason to the religion and the nation”, while another said “Dar al-Fatwa: corruption behind the incident.”

Pro-business Al-Masri Al-Youm (the Egyptian today) didn’t launch an attack on the Egyptian government, but stressed in its headlines during the three days that followed the bombing that the tourism rates dropped harshly under the main title “Al-Hussein a martyr” with a picture of a tourist holding his bags while preparing to leave Egypt.

The rest of Al-Masri Al-Youm's coverage focused on the bombing itself. The headlines on the first day read, “A tourist attack in the 'heart' of Cairo: death of a French tourist and injuries of 18 different nationalities in al-Hussein bombing.”

The next day, the daily wrote, “Dropouts in the touristic numbers in the region" which was contrasted by the pro-regime paper Al-Akhbar that reported, “Tourism not affected in Al-Hussein."

The opposition

On the other end of the press landscape was Al-Doustour (constitution) and Al-Badil (alternative) - both opposition papers.

Left-leaning Al-Badil blamed the government and Egyptian security services for the bombing, with headlines on February 23 that read, “Police bans the people’s deputies from getting to Al-Hussein," and "MP: Pharmacists, Lawyers and Transportation Drivers’ Strikes behind the explosion”.

In another sub-story entitled “Security Forces Surround Al-Hussein Hospital banning journalists, attacking photographers and confiscating the camera of a French TV cameraman," Al-Badil criticized the security measures which prevented Egyptian media outlets from "practicing their jobs."

Al-Badil also published a story that warned of a greater tightening of civil liberties "under the guise" of security measures with its headline: “Politicians: the regime will use the incident to stretch the emergency law or pass the counter-terrorism law.”

Al-Doustour, one of the biggest opposition newspapers whose editor-in-chief Ibrahim Issa won the International Press Association award for 2008, mirrored Al-Badil's criticism of the Egyptian government, using even more caustic headlines.

The main headline after the February 22 bombing read, "The cameras planted by the Interior Ministry in Al-Hussein area failed to uncover the perpetrators of Sunday’s terrorist attack.”

It criticized the ministry’s failure to protect the tourist sites, wasting huge amounts of money on muzzling the opposition while leaving the touristic areas without the proper security measures.

Al-Doustour continued its attacks on the interior ministry with a headline stressing it was incapable of dealing with terrorism in Egypt. It read, “Security officials: this issue is still in the beginning and we didn’t reach anything. It’s useful to say anything.

Another headline in Al-Doustour read, “the Interior Minister fails to uncover the perpetrators.”

Healthy media environment

Meanwhile, Akram Al-Qassas, head of the media page at the independent Al-Qahira (Cairo) newspaper, sees nothing to worry about with the Egyptian coverage of the February 22 bombing. “It’s a sign of political diversity in the (Egyptian) press.”

Al-Qassas says the divergent coverage is typical of the two directions the media in Egypt is taking. “One falling in the lap of the regime with the nationalist newspapers which have opted to defend the state and its officials even before clarifying the facts surrounding the bombing. The other (independent press) blames the government by indicting the security services and accusing them of negligence.”

But, he says, strong newspaper editorial lines indicate a thriving media market where political factions are funding their own newspapers to express their ideas and opinions.

“Some newspapers tried to remain in a middle ground – covering the bombing events with professionalism and impartiality,” he said without specifying which ones.