Friday’s papers: Over 1200 rescued at sea, but role of Egyptian military questioned

Friday's newspapers cover the fire-fighting and rescue operation in the Red Sea that saved over 1200 passengers from a raging inferno aboard a ferry; the controversy surrounding the deputy prime minister's draft for supra-constitutional principles; and a metro workers' strike that slowed transportation across Greater Cairo. Also making headlines are the military prosecution's extended detention of activist Alaa Abd El Fattah and plans for nationwide demonstrations on 18 November to protest the ongoing referral of civilians to military trials.

“God is merciful to Egyptians," reads the main headline on the front page of state-owned Al-Gomhurriya, in reference to the many lives spared when a ferry caught fire Thursday off the coast of Nuweiba. The paper mentions that Egyptian aircraft and Navy vessels rushed to the rescue of 1240 passengers ― this number has varied a bit between different media reports ― aboard the Pella, saving them from the fire and from drowning. The state-owned paper reports that the rescue was a joint effort between the Egyptian and Jordanian navies.

The liberal Al-Wafd daily runs the headline, "1250 passengers rescued from death in the Red Sea." Sub-headlines announce that "the [Egyptian] armed forces led the rescue operation." Focusing on Egypt's efforts, the paper mentions that 60 ambulances rushed the injured to nearby hospitals in the South Sinai, Red Sea and Suez governorates, while a state of emergency was declared in hospitals there due to the number of people requiring medical attention. Al-Wafd reports that 22 Egyptians were admitted to hospitals, while one Jordanian citizen is reported to have died as he leapt into the sea to escape the smoke and flames emerging from the burning ferry.

In the independent Al-Tahrir newspaper, a different headline raises questions as to the actual role of Egypt's armed forces in the rescue operation: "Jordan denies that Egypt intervened; [Egyptian] armed forces reply: Six navy vessels joined in the operation." Jordanian officials claim that their forces single-handedly led the rescue operation, Al-Tahrir reports. Yet Egyptian sources claim that Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi ordered a swift rescue operation which saved the day ― along with the lives of the 1230 passengers aboard the ferry, 947 of whom were Egyptian.

Elsewhere in the news, another fire was also extinguished ― the fire of controversy surrounding the role of the armed forces spelled out in the supra-constitutional principles for the new constitution currently being proposed by the cabinet. “[Deputy Prime Minister Ali] al-Selmy extinguishes a political fire by amending the supra-constitutional document," reads a headline in Al-Wafd. The independent Al-Dostour runs the headline: "Muslim Brotherhood argues [supra-]constitutional declaration will serve to recreate the Mubarak regime."

An Al-Gomhurriya headline reads: "Selmy: Amendment of controversial articles 9 and 10 of the [supra-]constitutional declaration of principles." Al-Tahrir describes how the deputy prime minister is currently revoking Article 9 of the declaration, which he had helped to draft, in light of its rejection by virtually all of Egypt's political parties, forces and coalitions.

Article 9 of the draft allows the armed forces to withhold or conceal information pertaining to the national budget ― as well as information concerning funds allocated to the Defense Ministry. Article 10 allows Egypt's military rulers to override any political decisions pertaining to the functions or authority of the armed forces, and to censor or withhold any information pertaining to its workings or finances. In light of all the political criticism Selmy is facing, Al-Tahrir quotes the deputy prime Minister as saying, "This draft declaration is non-binding."

Also making headlines are the metro workers' protests and their slow-down strike which took place across Greater Cairo on Thursday. "Cairo's heart stops functioning," reads a chief headline in Al-Dostour. Sub-headlines explain: "Paralysis in metro system due to workers' strike … Transport minister detained in Shohadaa (Martyrs) Station." The paper reports that angry metro train drivers and ticket sellers went on a slow-down strike to protest the resignation of Mohamed al-Sheimy, president of the Egyptian Company for Metro Management and Operation.

Sheimy reportedly handed in his resignation to Transport Minister Ali Zine al-Abidine on Wednesday, alleging that the minister has refused to pay metro workers their annual salaries. The workers subsequently went on strike to support Sheimy and demand their salaries. Angry workers are said to have kidnapped the transport minister during his visit to Shohadaa Station (formerly Hosni Mubarak Station), where he had attempted to defuse the situation.

The minister was reportedly pelted with empty water bottles as his bodyguards attempted to separate him from the angry workers. Privately run Al-Shorouk runs the headline: "Rage in the metro after Sheimy's resignation." Al-Shorouk clarifies that Thursday's strike was not a no-work strike, but rather a slow-down strike. Metro drivers drove at speeds of 30 kilometers per hour (kph), as opposed to the normal 120 kph; moreover, drivers stopped for 10 minutes at each station, causing hordes of passengers to pile up at each station. The strike was called off after the metro workers were promised some concessions. The actual concessions, however, are not mentioned in the report.

Al-Shorouk also reports, "Release of [activist] Alaa Abd El Fattah rejected" by the military prosecution. The article reports that an appeal against the detention of the youth activist was rejected by military prosecutors on Thursday. Abd El Fattah, a prominent blogger, has been detained for 15 days for investigation.

Military prosecutors accuse Abd El Fattah of inciting protests against the armed forces on 9 October, when the military brutally cracked down on a Coptic Christian-led protest, leaving 27 protesters and one military soldier dead. Abd El Fattah's defense lawyers argue that their client is being used either as a scapegoat for the violence or as a means to divert attention away from the Army's culpability.

Al-Shorouk runs a related story: "Organizational preparations for [nationwide protests dubbed] 'Friday of the Unified Demand.'" The article says that political groups ― from the far right to the far left ― are planning protests and occupations on 18 November across Egypt. This hoped-for million-strong protest will apparently demand that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) provide a clear timetable of when they will hand over power to a civilian authority. Political forces are demanding that the SCAF step down following presidential elections in 2012; the military junta has recently hinted that they may not hand over power until 2013.

Egypt's papers:

Al-Ahram: Daily, state-run, largest distribution in Egypt

Al-Akhbar: Daily, state-run, second to Al-Ahram in institutional size

Al-Gomhurriya: Daily, state-run

Rose al-Youssef: Daily, state-run

Al-Dostour: Daily, privately owned

Al-Shorouk: Daily, privately owned

Al-Wafd: Daily, published by the liberal Wafd Party

Youm7: Daily, privately owned

Al-Tahrir: Daily, privately owned

Sawt al-Umma: Weekly, privately owned

Al-Arabi: Weekly, published by the Nasserist Party

Freedom and Justice: Daily, published by the Freedom and Justice Party

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