Egypt versus the New York Times


          The full repercussions of US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have yet to be felt.  One rather strange little by-product does not seem to have grabbed the world’s attention as yet.  It is a story capable of a number of interpretations, not all of them complimentary to the principal players.

          The facts are these.  On January 6, 2018 the New York Times published an exclusive news item based on four audio recordings that it said it had obtained.  The Times report did not vouchsafe precisely how they had come into its possession.
          These recordings, it said, took place shortly after Trump had startled the world by announcing that the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and would move its embassy there from Tel Aviv.  They were, it said, recordings of telephone conversations between an officer in Egypt’s Intelligence Service, Captain Ashraf al-Kholi, and four very well-known Egyptian media personalities, three of them hosts of influential talk shows. The TV hosts were Azmy Megahed, Mofid Fawzy, and Saeed Hassaseen. The fourth person contacted by al-Kholi was Egyptian movie star Yousra.
          Captain al-Kholi told the four people he phoned that Egypt, “like all our Arab brothers,” would denounce Trump’s decision in public, but that conflict with Israel was not in Egypt’s national interest. He suggested that instead of condemning Trump’s decision, these media personalities should persuade their viewers to accept it.  In its report, the New York Times included the interesting information that TV chat show host Azmi Megahed had confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, and had described al-KhoIi as a longtime acquaintance.
          The Times article, which was immediately published on-line, raised a torrent of furious commentary in Egypt’s pro-government media and in parliament, where it was denounced as part of an international conspiracy to embarrass Egypt.       This accusation was partly confirmed when the very same audio recordings were broadcast by an Istanbul-based television network linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The suggestion of a connection with the Brotherhood, which Egypt has banned as a terrorist group, added to the outrage from supporters of the Egyptian government.
          Once in the public domain, an allegation that Egyptian intelligence had secretly attempted to sway public opinion in favor of accepting Trump’s decision on Jerusalem could not go unanswered.  Four days later Egypt’s prosecutor general, Nabil Sadek. ordered a criminal investigation. The New York Times article, he maintained, “undermines Egypt’s security and public peace, and harms the country’s public interest.”
          The next developments were as one might have expected.  Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) released a statement denying the accuracy of the Times report on almost every count.  No one named Ashraf al-Kholi, it maintained, worked for the intelligence service.  Fawzi had not presented any TV programs for years, and Hassaseen’s show had ended weeks before Trump’s declaration, and he was not currently presenting any program on air. As for Yousra, SIS said that she was a movie actress totally unconnected with TV talk shows.
          Much of this may be true, but it has little relevance to the high profile enjoyed by those particular individuals among the Egyptian public.  And it seems clear that SIS, and perhaps other organs of the state, subsequently subjected them to intense political pressure.  It was not long before Megahed publicly retracted his original statement authenticating the recordings and claiming that he was an old acquaintance of Kholi.  In an Egyptian television interview Megahed said that the New York Times had misquoted him. “This is the first time I’ve heard of this Kholi man,” he said.
          Next, actress Yousra and the other TV anchors denied knowing anyone named al-Kholi or participating in telephone conversations with him. Yousra claimed not to have been in Egypt at the time they were reported to have taken place.  The clear implication is that the recordings were faked.  Not unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories followed.  Pro-government television anchors called on the Times to explain how the recordings ended up with the Brotherhood-affiliated TV channel, and suggested that the newspaper was secretly in cahoots with Qatar. Egypt is one of four Arab nations that imposed a punishing boycott on Qatar last June, accusing it of financing Islamist terrorism and sheltering Brotherhood leaders.
          The speaker of parliament, Ali Abdel Aal, went along with this, and said the article proved that the Times was allied with the Brotherhood and with Qatar, and was stoking controversy in advance of Egypt’s forthcoming presidential elections. Finally all the SIS could do was issue a statement asserting that Egypt had repeatedly declared its “inalienable position on Jerusalem,” side-stepping the fact that, in doing so, it was confirming what al-Kholi had said would be the official stance.
          A stout riposte was provided by Michael Slackman, the Times’s international editor.  “Our story was a deeply reported, consequential piece of journalism,” he said, “and we stand fully behind it. The audio recordings were provided to the Times by an intermediary supportive of the Palestinian cause, but we had no agenda other than giving our readers the facts they needed to know.”
          This whole episode, true or false, comes at a delicate time for Egypt politically. The first round of new presidential elections is scheduled for March 26. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is running for re-election, faces only a weak rival since his principal challenger, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, pulled out of the race (Shafik’s lawyers claimed that officials had pressed him to quit on the threat of corruption prosecutions).  All the same, the Egyptian public is unlikely to look kindly on a government-inspired endorsement – even a covert one – of Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.  The last thing Sisi wants, come March, is a poor turnout in his presidential poll.  The result of the prosecutor general’s criminal investigation into the New York Times report is bound to make interesting reading.       

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.  His latest book is: “The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016”.  He blogs at: