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WAR WITH IRAQ | DISPATCH FROM CAIRO

For This Arab Family, State-Run TV Shaping Views

Like many others trying to understand the war, an Egyptian taxi driver's household can turn only to controlled TV news.

March 30, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — For eight hours, Sayed Swidan had been cruising Cairo's hotels -- from the Four Seasons to the Nile Hilton to the Marriott -- in the taxi he owns and drives. He'd found only one fare, a $1.60 ride. So at dusk, he turned for home, out by the Pyramids of Giza, where canyons of low-rent apartments stretch block after block into the desert.

"There are no tourists in Cairo, no money for people like me," he said. "The war has scared them all away. Yesterday was as bad as today."

Swidan's 9-year-old son, Rahman, was peering out the window of the family's apartment, and when he saw the taxi pull into the parking lot, he scampered down eight flights of stairs with his parakeet in a cage. He took his father's hand. They walked up the steps and into a sparsely furnished living room filled with the aroma of simmering chicken, beans and rice.

"No TV before dinner," said Swidan's wife of 22 years, Sanaa, a heavy-set woman with a generous smile and a shawl that covered her hair and shoulders. "I'm tired of all this war news and all this killing." Swidan nodded, his move to flick on Nile News, a state-run network, aborted.

The meal finished, Swidan, Sanaa and their four children, ranging in age from 9 to 20, gathered, as they do every evening, on a sofa and two chairs in front of a 17-inch TV. The 9 o'clock news on Channel 9 flickered into focus, with large red letters announcing DAY SEVEN OF WAR and prerecorded gunshots in the background.

"On this, day seven, 1,000 Iraqis were killed, officials in Baghdad say," reported the female anchor. "At least eight died when a missile slammed into a residential neighborhood in the Iraq capital. And the death toll from Friday's bombing by U.S.-led forces on a Baghdad market has reached 50.

"Now we're taking you live to Washington where Defense Minister Rumsfeld is briefing reporters on the war." As Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke, the screen split, and on the left a montage of images of civilian casualties, burning buildings and crowded hospital wards rolled by. Sanaa winced at the sight of bloodied, torn bodies and turned away.

The family sat silent and somber, ignoring their cups of tea and glasses of warm Pepsi. Finally, Hatem, a 20-year-old chemistry major at Cairo University, said, "People with families could not do this to other people. Don't Americans have families, don't they see what they're doing? Why are they doing this?"

"Because we're Arabs," said his brother, Tamer, 19. "It's not about Saddam Hussein. It's about oil and taking over the Middle East so Israel can be safe from Arabs."

Swidan turned to the American visitor and asked, more beseeching than angry, "Why? Just tell me why. Why did you start this terrible war? Couldn't you have stayed with the U.N.? Couldn't you have given Mr. Kofi Annan the 30 days he wanted for the inspectors? Thirty days! Maybe if you'd just waited 30 days this killing wouldn't have happened."

The Swidans were unlikely to get a satisfactory answer from their visitor -- or from the Egyptian TV station that shapes their impressions of the war. But clearly they are in the eye of a secondary battle of the war: the battle for public opinion.

Qatar-based satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, with an estimated daily audience of 45 million, or one in eight Arabs, is often mentioned as the region's prime opinion-shaper.

But most Arabs, like Swidan, cannot afford $700 or so for a satellite dish. For them, the news of war is delivered by scores of local television stations across the Arab world.

These stations, such as Nile News, are run by governments that tightly control their media. Their content is apt to be more inflammatory and anti-U.S. than the independently run Al Jazeera as governments cater to popular antiwar sentiments in an attempt to distance themselves from perceptions that they support the U.S. in the war.

After reporting on antiwar demonstrations the other evening, Nile News showed images of Israelis firing on Palestinians, saying that "a lull in Iraq" had led to increased fighting in the Gaza Strip. The implication was clear: The two wars involving Arabs were linked and the United States was responsible for both.

"The first time I saw Mr. Bush on television, I thought, 'What a wonderful man. He has a good face,' " Sanaa said. "I was wrong. He is a bad man who must have no children of his own. But whenever I see pictures of bodies on the news, Americans or Iraqis, I still cry. Any mother would."

"Let me ask you this," Hatem said. "Do Americans support this war? Why are you hard on Iraq and soft on North Korea? Why do you care about Iraq's bombs but not Israel's? I know you are scared after 9/11, but does that give you the right to do anything you want?"

Swidan, who likes Americans but not American policy, said state television so often repeats the theme that "Iraq is good, America is bad, pretty soon boys like this" -- he put his hand on Rahman's head -- "swallow it as truth.

"Just ask him. Rahman, do you think America is good or bad?" the father asked. "Bad," the boy replied.

"And what about Mr. David? Do you think he is good or bad?" the father said, pointing to the visitor on the sofa. "Good," the boy said.

"But see, you say America is bad and Mr. David is good. Do you know he is an American?" The boy shook his head, and the father said, "You have to learn every country -- Egypt, Iraq, America -- even Israel has good people and bad people. When you get older you'll find it's easy to tell the difference."

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