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`I am a crow, a rabid dog and a nobody'

If its response to evidence of human rights violations is simply abuse, what does that tell us of the Arab world, asks Robert Fisk?
OVER 20 years in the Middle East, I have been shot at, bombed, shelled and threatened with pistols by unpleasant gunmen of both the Arab and Israeli variety. But never before have I been portrayed by Arab journalists and censors as a "black crow", a rabid dog and a nobody, all in the space of 10 weeks. Crows are elegant creatures and, despite owning a friendly moggie cat in Beirut, I have nothing against dogs. But it all seems quite a price to pay for writing in the Independent on Sunday.

It started with Dr Abdul Aziz Ramadan, who took exception to a long profile of President Mubarak which I wrote a few days after the Egyptian leader won a vote of Saddam-like proportions in flawed parliamentary elections - elections which followed the arrest and imprisonment of several opposition candidates. I bemoaned the increased use of torture and rape of prisoners by the Egyptian State Security Police, and quoted a non-violent Islamist newspaper editor - since sentenced to several years of hard labour for accusing the government of corruption - to the effect that Mr Mubarak was becoming egocentric. I suggested that the abuse of human rights in Egypt was now a cause for international concern, not least because 17 Islamists had died in custody in the previous seven months.

Dr Ramadan's response in the Cairo daily Al Ahram - once the fiefdom of that fine Egyptian editor, Mohamed Heikal - was very revealing. Robert Fisk, he told his readers, was guilty of "spreading lies and deceit", a "black crow" that pecked at Egypt's body, a "discredited" and "spiteful" liar, a "fake", an ignorant "slanderer", "a stupid British writer . . . only interested in vilification, defamation and offensiveness." Fisk - later in the article I mysteriously became "Peter Fisk" - was "a journalist for hire" who lacked "an ideological vision" (sic).

Leaving aside the abuse, the most extraordinary element in his diatribe was a total failure to discuss the lack of human rights in Egypt. Merely to raise the issue, he wrote, was to repeat the lies of "the blackened ... dregs of the opposition", to relay "the language and logic of terrorists". Without the largely secret military trials of armed Islamists and opposition politicians, Dr Ramadan went on, "all the executed terrorists would have set up states while in jail, and would have ruled Egypt from their prisons". My ignorance of Egypt was shown when I "cast doubt on the results of the 1987 and 1993 referenda in which Mubarak gained 97.1 per cent and 96 per cent of the votes". The trouble with opposition parties in Egypt, he concluded - in a disturbing paragraph that deserves to be put in the archives - was that "they are untried and unknown to the people, who therefore cannot give them their vote".

Enough, I cried. And so I thought it was until the cartoonist of Bahrain's daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej took issue with a series of articles I wrote last month on the imprisonment of 2,000 Bahraini Shia Muslims who oppose the Emir's undemocratic regime and, in particular, the role of a former British policeman, Ian Henderson, who controls the torturers of the island's state security police.

Last week the Bahraini paper hit back, not with any defence of human rights abuses in the emirate, but with a drawing that depicted me - along with Christopher Walker of The Times and Simon Ingram of the BBC - as rabid dogs, straining at a "Murdoch-Maxwell" (sic) leash in our effort to get our teeth into bags of cash.

Just who was supposed to be throwing us all this money was not explained; nor was it clear why Mr Murdoch and the late Mr Maxwell - himself very keen on other people's cash - should allow us to get our teeth into it. The cartoon was not intended to be humorous. In the Arab world, to call a person a dog is to say that he is filthy, unclean, unworthy of being regarded as a human being.

And so to Jordan, whose human rights record was called into question in the Independent on Sunday two weeks ago. I interviewed Laith Shubailat, an Islamist opposition politician on trial for slandering King Hussein and Queen Noor, and quoted him in a dispatch from Amman. He had criticised the queen for weeping at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral but expressing no sorrow to the widow of the assassinated leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement a few days earlier.Mr Shubailat's real crime, in the eyes of many Jordanians, is his opposition to the collapsing Middle East "peace process". But Jordan knew how to deal with my article. They banned the Independent on Sunday from the kingdom's news-stands. No doubt the same government officials - if they keep their eyes open and spot this article - will censor this issue too.

Now, if the above were the worst that could happen to a reporter in the Arab world, we Middle East scribes would be happy enough. The real question is why my articles received these reactions. All three nations are supposedly friends of the West, counted as "peacemakers" at last week's "anti-terrorism" summit; two of them, Egypt and Jordan, have peace treaties with Israel and receive massive subsidies from the United States. Yet rather than address evidence of gross human rights violations, the response from them was abuse, slander and censorship. What, I wonder, does this tell us about the Arab world?