With no single catastrophe dominating the news, the Middle East press was a house of many mansions on this the last day of 2003.
Most papers produced the customary end-of-year reviews. Beirut's Al-Nahar offered a handsome supplement with a cover featuring a Babylonian frieze over a hole produced by a tank shell. The title said it all: "After the Earthquake," in reference to the American invasion of Iraq. To ensure everyone got it, the newspaper's owner, Ghassan Tueni, topped his piece with this ironic opening: "This was Iraq's year; so happy new year Oh Arabs!" In the year-end supplement of Cairo's English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, Managing Editor Hani Shukrallah also had Iraq on his mind: "Year one of the 'new American century' seemed to end on a propitious note. Saddam Hussein, embodiment of history's first truly global empire's demonic other, was captured and, in the best imperial traditions, put on public display. … [H]e was the star of the televised medical examination that was made to substitute for the parade of manacled barbarian chieftains and booty that once drew the crowds." In an unsigned editorial, the Saudi English-language Arab News hit all the regional bases, including Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the kingdom's own fight against domestic terrorism. Saudi priorities were in evidence: "[Iraq] so consumed Washington's attention that many will argue that the real war against the enemy, represented by Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, has been sidetracked."
The Israeli press seemed more concerned with Syria than Iraq. A Jerusalem Post story indicated that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom differed over how to handle a recent Syrian offer (issued by President Bashar Assad in a New York Times interview) to resume peace negotiations with Israel. The paper noted that whereas Sharon "doesn't want to throw a 'life raft' to the Syrians, currently in a weak position internationally," Shalom believes "that, with Syria increasingly isolated, with its relations with the US getting worse … this is the time to negotiate." The ambient agreement on Syrian vulnerability was also in Ha'aretz, which quoted a senior Israeli officer as saying, "[T]he next time Syria and Israel clash in a war, the [Israeli army] will reach Damascus with the same lightning speed American troops made it to Baghdad last spring."
The Lebanese press focused on the country's latest national tragedy, the crash of a passenger airplane in Benin last week, which killed some 130 people, most of them Lebanese expatriates living in Africa. According to the new Beirut daily Al-Balad, the aircraft may have been the same one that disappeared, or was stolen, in Angola last May. The paper based its information on a story in Tuesday's London-based Saudi Al-Sharq al-Awsat. According to that paper, the disappearance of the aircraft alarmed the FBI, which feared it might be used in a terrorist attack against the United States. Whatever the details, a consensus is emerging that the airline was extremely lax in its safety standards: Survivors reported some passengers were made to sit on stools in the overloaded cabin.
What would Dec. 31 be like without splendid excess to usher in the New Year? According to Beirut's Daily Star, the two offspring of wealthy Lebanese grandees came up with solution: a 400-person party "by invitation only," with part of the proceeds donated to charity. Said one of the earnest organizers, referring to the many Lebanese expats on the guest list: "The fact that we live in Lebanon, our mix of cultures, makes us different from, say, Americans. It makes us lose our identity, and the war didn't help either. Lebanese living abroad want to feel that they have roots at a special place inside Lebanon." No doubt participants will swiftly rediscover that identity through the party's theme: Everyone must show up as a James Bond character. Sometimes the world is not enough.