Arab media coverage of Egypt’s first democratic elections reflected nervousness over a historic vote that could raise pressure for more reforms and bring to power Islamists who could change traditional foreign policies.
Arab rulers watched in dismay as popular uprisings seemed to come from nowhere this year to topple friend and ally leaders who ran Egypt and Tunisia with an iron fist with the approval of the United States.
Gulf rulers scrambled to stop the revolutionary movement spreading to the most conservative area of the Middle East, where all governments are controlled by ruling dynasties and only Kuwait has a parliament with real powers.
Qatar seized the initiative in backing rebels in Libya who eventually succeeded in ousting Muammar Gaddafi with the help of NATO air bombardments.
But its Al Jazeera television channel also ignored a pro-democracy protest movement in Bahrain that Gulf media presented as being driven by Shi’ite sectarianism and fomented by Shi’ite power Iran.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have led efforts at the Arab League to impose economic sanctions on the Syrian government, sensing the potential fall of a key Arab ally of Iran.
Gulf state media focussed attention on Syria more than Egypt on Monday.
Newspapers in Bahrain ran stories trumpeting Syrian sanctions, attacking opposition parties and accusing Iran of interference in the Gulf.
The independent al-Wasat ran three stories on the vote though, including one on protesters boycotting the polls.
“It’s good that elections took place in Egypt, we need these changes in the region,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, Saudi politics professor. “But the Arab League decision on Syria is historic. It’s one of the worst Arab regimes we ever had. It is not willing to listen to anybody.”
What coverage there was expressed backing for military rulers who have governed in Hosni Mubarak’s place since February and faced calls from mass protests in Tahrir Square in the past week to delay the vote until power is transferred to civilians.
Egypt’s interim military council headed by Hussein Tantawi rejected those calls and insisted on going ahead with the vote and transfer power on the military’s terms.
“The Arab League launches sanctions … and the killing in Syria continues,” the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat said in its main headline. A story below on Egypt cited the military council leader Hussein Tantawi: “Egypt: Tantawi warns against failure, and religious edicts urge peole to vote.”
Saudi Arabia has maintained close ties with the military council and is wary of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with affiliates throughout the region such as the Ennahda party that won Tunisian elections last month.
“In the Gulf, Saudi Arabia in particular has fear of what Egyptian elections are going to bring,” Moghazy al-Badrawy, an Egyptian columnist at the Dubai daily al-Bayan, told Reuters. “If Islamists come to power it will have big repercussions.”
A win by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party could embolden Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia who are keen for a shift to democracy.
A popularly elected Egyptian government is also likely to shift away from Washington-friendly policies on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, presenting a challenge to Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia jailed Islamist activist Saud Mukhtar al-Hashemi and 16 others this month on charges of attempting to seize power and financing terrorism.
“The more Arab governments delay responding to the demands of the people, the higher the ceiling of demands rises, to the point of no return,” Saudi Islamist lawyer Bassim Alim, who defended the men, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia’s leading pan-Arab TV outlet Al Arabiya carried heavy coverage of the Egyptian vote, emphasising that it had been a success.
Its Qatari rival Al Jazeera, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, also carried heavy coverage but gave space to activists continuing to protest at Tahrir and reported their concerns about military rule into next year.
One activist told the channel that he would cast a vote with the words “void until the military council falls” written on it.
The Brotherhood helped set off this month’s surge in protests in Egypt, which led to 42 deaths as security forces battled with activists, with its opposition to a document by the military council that sought to ensure it retained privelages and control once a civilian government is installed.
But the group ultimately supported holding the elections this week because it expects to win nevertheless.
Despite the machinations of Arab governments, comments on Twitter indicated the excitement throughout the region for what people sense to be a new era for everyone sooner or later.
“Before the Arab revolutions there were only populations in the Arab countries. Now they are becoming people,” wrote Faisal Alkasim, a Syrian who presents a popular show on Al Jazeera.
“It has always been a big mistake to call Arab people citizens. They have always been mere subjects. But soon they will be real citizens.”