Egypt's press mirrors a generation's atrophy

By Maria Golia
The Daily Star
August 05, 2005

Egypt's state-owned newspapers are part of an immense publication and advertising enterprise employing tens of thousands, and like many government businesses, this particular enterprise has atrophied.

When aging chief editors and board chairmen were recently replaced with "fresh blood," the move was hailed as a major shake-up, a sign of reform, even the first step towards privatization.
Closer examination reveals otherwise. Executive positions in the state press are understandably reserved for reliable members of the regime. It seems unlikely in an election year that this should change. Loyalty - and not necessarily to the truth - is the main qualification for these choice postings; it is also an elusive concept for those anxious to act in the interests of their employers. In this, the Egyptian press may differ little from some of its Western counterparts, but in matters of style and content it is matchless.

Arabic is a poetic language, it can't help itself. Journalists, however, might be expected to show a little restraint. A sampling from articles published on the occasion of President Hosni Mubarak's 20th year in office in 2001, suggested that the closer to power the columnist, the greater the temptation to extemporize.

For example, former Al-Akhbar editor Galal Dweidar described Mubarak's career as a "river of sacrifice [that] has never stopped flowing, and a stream of achievements [that] continues endlessly." The former editor-in-chief of Al-Ghomhouriyya, Samir Ragab, addressed Mubarak directly saying that "the people give you love in exchange for your love." Mumtaz al-Qot, former Cabinet correspondent for Akhbar al-Yom and its newly appointed editor-in-chief, referred to the president as "a melting pot which has collected all hopes, aspirations, and problems ... the symbol [of] truth [for] 66 million Egyptians."

As a result of the shake-up, Dweidar was bumped upstairs to the Higher Press Council, along with his fellow pensioners, former chief editors and board chairmen Ibrahim Saeda of Akhbar al-Yom and Ibrahim Nafie of Al-Ahram. The tone of Nafie's farewell article after more than two decades in the saddle was fairly predictable. His ode to the administration began, "So long as my heart beats ..." and one couldn't help thinking: We know already, we know.

Likewise, the new editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, Osama Saraya, wasted no time in offering "an oath of loyalty to President Hosni Mubarak who has been giving so endlessly." No wonder readership of these publications has fallen in recent years. People have stopped caring when all this endlessness will end.

Among the sacked editors was Hani Shukrallah, a jovial and often biting social and political columnist, and respected editor-in chief of the English language Al-Ahram Weekly established in 1991. Although only 55, Shukrallah was given the boot along with his elders without warning or the promise of another appointment. "I read it in the press along with everyone else," he said.

Al-Ahram Weekly may have its detractors, but it boasts intelligent reporters fluent in English and Arabic, who don't mind detailing corruption scandals and policy shortcomings. Moreover, its domestic readership of 25,000 is larger than many Arabic publications, and its well-maintained, searchable Web site receives between 7,000 and 30,000 international hits per day. Although Shukrallah was given no explanation for his firing, the reasons were fairly obvious. With all the talk of democratization lately, Egypt is attracting foreign attention and wants to put its most sanitized foot forward.

While Shukrallah joined Al-Ahram Weekly early on and was eventually promoted to chief editor, his replacement, Assem al-Kirsh, is a transplant like most of the other recent appointees. The tactic of grafting individuals onto new organizations may seem managerially unsound, but the Egyptian authorities move in mysterious ways. In fact, no one really knows how or by whom the new appointees were selected. Although Kirsh worked the foreign desk of the daily Al-Ahram and headed the London bureau for under a year, by his own admission his English is not terrific.

According to one Al-Ahram Weekly staff member, when Shukrallah magnanimously introduced Kirsh to the office, the new editor began his greeting with "In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate," and proceeded to reassure his staff in Arabic that he could write English better than he spoke it.

It's worth recalling that in 1878, 27 newspapers were published in Cairo, including nine in French, seven in Arabic, five in Italian, three in Greek and one in Turkish. That cosmopolitanism belongs to a bygone world. Anyone who still thinks that Egypt's press is headed for revival should consider the recently ratified Article 48 of the new political rights law. Al-Ahram Weekly reported its terms as follows: "[A]ny journalist who publishes information that could negatively affect election results, referendums or candidates is subject to six months' imprisonment and a fine of up to LE5000." In fact, journalists now face a minimum of six months and a maximum of three years imprisonment. This is actually one year more than previously stated in the penal code as punishment for libel and slander.

On July 28, six weeks short of the September 7 presidential election date, Mubarak finally announced his candidacy, having "listened to individuals" who argued it was essential he run for a fifth term. Why all this coyness, you might ask, especially when the only vaguely viable contender, opposition politician Ayman Nour, has a prison sentence hanging over his head?
To understand this and a great deal more, we must endeavor to restore Egypt's leaders to their human context. Like most individuals, they are unwilling or unable to recognize their flaws, however tragically abundant the evidence. Take the secretary general of the ruling National Democratic Party, Safwat Sherif, for example, who insisted that Mubarak's delaying his candidacy announcement "was good for political life ... [I]t helps all candidates compete on an equal footing in a campaign that will be marked by integrity and transparency." Can this man hear himself? Probably not.

Egypt's "old guard" can truthfully say - and does so with pride - that much has changed since it took power. However, the importance of critiquing that change escapes them. While there is nothing wrong with mature individuals pursuing a career so long as their performance is valid and subject to review, Egypt's elite has given old age a bad name. Having held the reins for so long, they not only feel entitled to act on their own behalf, but also that this is owed them for having devoted their lives to their country. Indeed, the line between personal interests and those of the Egyptian people is one they seem increasingly unable to distinguish.

Maria Golia, a long-time resident of Egypt, is the author of a book on Cairo titled "City of Sand." She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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