Al Jazeera Surrenders to the Dictates of Saudi Arabia and Egypt

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Egyptians in Tahrir Square in Cairo, watching Al Jazeera, in 2011.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi finally earned the title he deserves: The Al Jazeera media network has started referring to him as “his Excellency the President,” instead of the less flattering titles it used before the recent reconciliation between Egypt and Qatar.

If anyone is looking for a sign of the turnaround in relations between the two countries, they can find it in the ties between Al Jazeera, owned by the ruling family of Qatar, and the Egyptian regime. Indeed, it is as if the network was authorized to sign a “peace treaty” with Cairo.

A week ago – just two days after the meeting between the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani and Sissi – the “Al Jazeera peace initiative" received an exceptional stamp of approval. The network announced it was closing its Al Jazeera Direct From Egypt (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) station “until the conditions exist to reopen it.”

That station was founded in 2011 in order to report on the events of the revolution in Egypt, but within a short time it became clear that its mission was actually to support the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary and presidential elections. With such an agenda, the station succeeded in angering all the liberal movements, and the Egyptian Army also saw it as hazardous voice that must be silenced.

This was not the first time Al Jazeera was seen in Egypt as an enemy entity. In 1999, when former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited the network’s headquarters in Qatar, he expressed shock that “all this noise comes out of this match box.”

The “noise" later included broadcasts of video clips in which Palestinians could be seen burning Egyptian flags during the second intifada; criticism of Egypt during Operation Cast Lead, because Egypt did not allow Palestinians to flee into Egypt; supportive coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood; and attacks on Sissi after he ousted former President Mohammed Morsi.

Sissi arranged for the arrest of journalists from Al Jazeera, three of whom – including an Australian journalist – were sentenced to many years in prison for incitement and broadcasting “false information about Egypt.”

If Qatar was once considered by some to be an enemy nation, after depositing billions of dollars in Egyptian banks to aid the Morsi regime – Al Jazeera was viewed as the spearhead of the enemy. The venomous criticism published in the Egyptian press against Al Jazeera reminded one of the similar texts published about Israel before the signing of the peace treaty between Jerusalem and Cairo.

But Al Jazeera and its owners never stopped their attacks on the Egyptian regime and mostly against Sissi. The Mubasher Misr station was the only place in Egypt where it was possible to see footage of demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood: The rest of the media in the country adopted the government’s dictate, which declared the movement a terrorist organization.

Al Jazeera has succeeded, since its founding in 1996, in antagonizing others in addition to Egypt: Over 450 diplomatic complaints have been submitted against the network to Qatar, mostly by Arab nations. For one reason they complained because Qatar violated the unwritten rule of not attacking Arab leaders.

So it was that the network's programming was one of the reasons last March behind the severing of relations between the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia in particular, and Qatar.

Some parts of the reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Qatar, which was signed last month, were never released in full, but based on leaks from Riyadh, Qatar agreed to moderate the coverage of Al Jazeera as part of its agreement to halt “interference in the internal affairs of Arab nations.” In the next stage Saudi Arabia promoted the rapprochement between Egypt and Qatar, an agreement whose main thrust was Egypt’s demand to change Al Jazeera’s coverage. That is how it came about that the parent network of Al Jazeera agreed to close down the station which broadcast live from Egypt.

In more than a coincidence, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm al-Saba’a also stopped covering Al Jazeera’s attacks on Egypt in a regular column. In it the newspaper cited statements from the station that were considered to be incitement against Cairo.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, the closure of the television station is a harsh propaganda blow, since the very existence of Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr encouraged the activists of the extremist group to continue to hold protests, which received broad coverage on the station.

For now, the stage it lost on Al Jazeera will be replaced for the Muslim Brotherhood on Turkish TV stations, including Rabaa (the same name as the square where the Muslim Brotherhood held its protests), which has started airing shows under the headline (similar to the name of the now-closed Al Jazeera station): Live from Egypt.

Turkey, which since the Muslim Brotherhood government was ousted in Egypt and was declared a terrorist organization, has turned into a refuge for members of the movement, will most likely allow the establishment of another Brotherhood-friendly TV station.

All that is left for now is to wait and see whether the Egyptians view the closing of the Al Jazeera station in Egypt as the denouement to the fierce rivalry between the two nations.

What is clear is that Al Jazeera suffered a severe blow that seriously damaged the journalistic ideology that has been part of the network since its founding, as expressed in the slogan: “The opinion and the other opinion.”

The network that gave birth to the media revolution in the Middle East has suddenly found itself surrendering to the dictates of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, after decades in which it enjoyed the status of an independent, professional media network that does not give in to outside pressure.

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