Major state-owned newspapers on Sunday stress the regime’s unease with the US State Department annual report released last week on international religious freedom. The report voiced harsh criticism against the atmosphere of religious liberty in Egypt.
Both Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar on their front pages highlight the Egyptian Foreign Ministry response to the report's release. Hossam Zaki, ministry spokesperson, dismissed the study, calling the US monitoring of religious freedom an attempt to impose “guardianship” on sovereign nations.
“Egypt is only concerned with what is issued by UN bodies in this respect,” Al-Ahram quotes Zaki as saying. The report stressed “religious discrimination and sectarian tension”, “anti-Semitism” in the Egyptian press, and restrictions on conversions from Islam.
It seems the Foreign Ministry has a lot on its plate as of late. The Al-Ahram crime page emphasizes the trial of veteran journalist Hamdi Qandil who was referred to a criminal court in September on charges of libeling Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. “Hot hearings on Abul Geit versus Qandil: Foregin minister’s lawyers demand 20 million Egyptian pounds in compensation,” reads the headline.
According to Al-Ahram, Qandil showed up at court with 15 lawyers and a number of prominent opposition figures. In May, Qandil published an opinion piece in the privately-owned daily Al-Shorouk where he wrote, "words usually drop from his (Abul Gheit's) mouth like garbage from a perforated rubbish bag." Qandil is known for his scathing criticism of government officials. In recent months, he joined Mohamed ElBaradei’s reform campaign, becoming an outspoken voice of political demands.
With only one week left before the parliamentary poll kicks off, privately-owned Al-Dostour on its front page highlights a set of controversial statements by one of the ruling regime’s prominent stalwarts. The daily leads with the following headline: “[Mofeed] Shehab: the acquisition of the Muslim Brotherhood of 88 seats in the [outgoing] parliament is a mistake that will not be repeated and the reason behind it was people’s hate of the government and the National Democratic party.”
Al-Dostour then quotes Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Shehab as saying the Muslim Brotherhood has no popularity and all its seats will be taken by opposition parties in the upcoming poll.
Away from the elections, Shehab made another crucial statement by announcing a new page in the Egyptian-Qatari relations. Last week, Shehab appeared on the famous and controversial Qatari Al-Jazeera satellite channels after years of Egyptian boycotts. With its inflammatory coverage of Egypt’s politics, Al-Jazeera has antagonized Egypt’s ruling regime for years. According to Al-Dostour, Shehab thinks this animosity has already been reversed after the channel let go of its Cairo Bureau Chief Hussein Abdel Ghani. Yet, it remains to be seen if Al-Jazeera will adopt a more lenient stance with its coverage.
In other news, Al-Ahram quotes Egyptian sources as denying allegations that an Egyptian-Iranian bank was helping Iran circumvent economic sanctions. The charge was leveled by American magazine The Atlantic. Such accusations aim at “ruining the bank’s reputation,” Al-Ahram quotes a Misr Iran Development Bank source. Amr Tantawy, MIDB general manager told Al-Ahram his bank “has nothing to do with Iranian practices. All the bank activities whether deposits, investments or loans operate within the Egyptian market.”
Last week, The Atlantic ran an incendiary article under the headline “How Egypt Is Helping Iran to Circumvent Sanctions." The writer said that despite tensions that have marred Egyptian-Iranian relations since the 1979 Islamic revolution, bilateral ties are not “as black-and-white as they may seem.”
“Egypt is expanding its financial ties with Iran through a jointly owned financial institution: the Misr Iran Development Bank," the article posited. "Today, the MIDB may have become a vehicle for Iran to circumvent economic sanctions with extensive help from Egypt, one of America's closest allies in the region.”