Mona Eltahawy is a fairly well known Arab liberal columnist. Her weekly column in the Saudi-owned Arab paper al-Sharq al-Awsat condemned Islamist violence and Arab state repression (especially in her native Egypt). Those columns often ended up being rewritten for American newspapers like the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune, and others (her greatest claim to fame, of course, was sharing a stage with Abu Aardvark in Doha - hard to top that!).
Doha Debate, January 31, 2006
Mona's last article, a moving tribute to the murdered Atwar Bahjat, appeared in al-Sharq al-Awsat on February 28. What happened? Turns out that she's evidently been banned from publishing in al-Sharq al-Awsat. It isn't clear why - perhaps Egyptian pressure? Perhaps she offended the wrong Saudi? She wasn't officially told she was banned nor given any reason, but there you go. She's just gone.
Why do I bring this up? Not because writers getting banned from Arab newspapers is unusual - quite the opposite. Not because I agree with everything she writes - I don't. Not just because she's a friendly acquaintance of mine and an Abu Aardvark reader (okay, maybe a little because of that, but only a little). And not because this ban will prevent her from writing - in fact, she's already started a weekly column at maktoob.com which blasts the Egyptian regime yet again for its repressive ways.
I bring it up because it highlights one of the big concerns that I, and many others, have about the putatively "liberal" Saudi media. Al-Sharq al-Awsat used Mona to present itself as the liberal (and pro-American) Arab daily, especially to English-speaking audiences. When al-Sharq al-Awsat launched its English-language edition last year, her columns were almost always chosen for translation (along with former editor Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed and current editor Tareq Alhomayed and a very carefully selected handful of others). But Mona's dismissal sharply highlights the superficiality and the potential transience of this "liberalism." Offend the wrong constituency, and you're gone.
Same thing in the television arena. Al-Sharq al-Awsat's television twin al-Arabiya similarly presents itself as the liberal (and pro-American) alternative to al-Jazeera, and is rewarded with frequent appearances by American officials and by Arab leaders alike (see here for a refresher on the Saudi role in al-Arabiya). But anyone who remembers the deathly dull, politically controlled, largely Saudi-owned Arab media of the days before al-Jazeera will recognize the danger signs. A genuinely liberal media would be a great benefit to the Arab world... but moves like Mona's dismissal, combined with a long, long history of Saudi control of the Arab media, make it difficult to trust Saudi Arabia to be its custodian. That's one of the reasons why al-Jazeera, for all its flaws, is such a vital force: it allows debates and coverage of issues the Saudis don't want touched.