The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged al ahram
State paper slanders ElBaradei

Regular readers of the blog know I am mildly obsessed with Egyptian state media at the moment--largely because I'm convinced it has a pivotal role to play in whether a real democratic transition takes place here or not. 

I've written about the role state media played in distorting the revolution and about the calls for change at state newspaper conglomerate Al Ahram after Mubarak's resignation. When I visited the State Radio and TV building last week I also found a lively protest there--behind the barbed wire and lines of soldiers protecting this very strategic asset, employees had plastered the building in signs and were calling for the resignation of senior officials.

Anas Al Fikki, the Minister of Information and head of state TV and radio lost his job when the Ministry itself was abolished (although this development isn't as promising at it sounds--the new head of state TV and radio has been given ministerial powers). 

But incredibly, almost none of the heads of state media have been fired. And that's why things are not really changing, as the indefatigable Zeinobia proves, pointing to articles in Al Masaa' newspaper and the state-owned flagship Al Ahram which claim that the attack on Mohamed ElBaradei during the referendum happened (according to anonymous eye-witnesses) because "he tried to bribe voters to vote no" and to cut in line. 

It is a source of constant wonder to me that the editor of Al Ahram and its CEO, Osama Saraya and Abdel-Moneim Said, still have their jobs. When I interviewed them a few weeks ago, Saraya wrote that: "We are victims of the system, we worked under its shadow and we aren't criminals who can be accused of any charges whether it is from our colleagues or from other paper. The responsibility is collective [...]." 

Pick your poisonSaid said he wanted to resign but simply couldn't because no one had been selected to replace him (does this remind anyone else of an argument used by...Hosni Mubarak?). "I don't know who to give it [Al Ahram] to," he said. "This job is not the pinnacle of my career," he also pointed out, adding: "I am a thinker of the ranking of Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria."
Asked about the murky finances of Al Ahram, he told me: "Under my reign [sic], there is an increase in Al Ahram's incomes." But he said some figures had to be kept confidential and that "no one has ever asked for the budget." He told me the total value of Al Ahram was LE100 billion (an astounding figure; a senior financial reporter at his own paper told me estimates hovered around LE3 billion).

Abdel-Moneim Said was a member of the NDP's Policy Secretariat and a mentor of Gamal Mubarak. Because he paid lip service to the need for democratic reforms and was a supporter of peace with Israel, he was a popular guest on Western newspapers' op-ed pages and international symposia (I interviewed him several times myself). He is a Senior Fellow at The Crown Center For Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

When I asked Said if  he had ever called on President Mubarak to step down, he said he did so "privately...many times"-- a claim that given what we all saw of Mubarak's reluctance to yield power is extraordinary (can you picture Said telling the rayyis he should step down and surviving one more hour in his own job?)

If you look at Said's record you see that -- especially after he became CEO of Al Ahram -- he was a stolid regime supporter (if a more sophisticated and articulate one that many of his underlings).

Here is Said after the scandalously fraudulent parliamentary elections in Fall 2010 (which were one of the factors that precipitated the revolution): 

The NDP had begun to prepare for this campaign five years ago, applying a minutely calibrated scientific approach that involved thorough studies of all the electoral constituencies. [...] There was one party that had a meticulously designed platform that detailed targets, costs and timeframes. That was the NDP. [...] The other parties, as a whole, presented a pitiful sight. They were weak and confused and seemed to have stumbled into the elections by accident. Most likely the intense anger of these parties and the fervent media outcry against electoral "fraud" is a way to cover up the flagrant mistakes that these parties and their leaders committed.

And on the Tunisian revolution:

In fact, there are many reasons why the Tunisian scenario cannot be repeated in Egypt. [...] Egyptian planners should not let such fallout from the Tunisian uprising needlessly complicate their task, which is to steer Egypt to change and to avoid the pitfalls of stagnation. [...] This will not happen until we remedy the adverse side effects of the uprising, most of which were the product of media sensationalism. Therefore, there will have to be serious discussion with the various media over how to handle news coverage, which should be based on accurate and properly corroborated information, facts and statistics, as opposed to wishful thinking and sloppiness. In like manner, it will be important to deal with the concrete political, economic and social realities in a particular country, instead of relying on generalisations. There will also be a need to seriously address the problem of those Western think tanks and study centres that have fallen prey to "group think" and the obsessions this mode of behaviour produces, of the sort that gives rise to those pernicious portraits that surface in the Egyptian press in particular of alleged chaos and an impending eruption of suppressed popular fury. 

And today? He is busy arguing that the revolution has gone too far...

Society has returned to its original state, which is only natural, since the ills that infect it can not be remedied by demonstrations in Tahrir Square, even by conjuring up the bogeyman that goes by the name of "the remnants of the NDP and State Security" [...] Equally surprising to see a kind of free-for-all in tearing down the material and moral capacities of our national security services when it is obvious to anyone with a rational mind that in order to put an end to crime and gang violence we will have to rebuild the Ministry of Interior agencies, including the State Security Intelligence agency, so that it can perform its original tasks of fighting terrorism and espionage [...]The romantic phase of the revolution has reached an end. The age of innocence should lead to a new age of maturity and robustness, which begins by dealing with the facts as they are, not as we would like them to be, and with the realities as they are, not as we imagine them to be.

But as the revolutionaries campaigned and pushed further, they were blind to see the cracks that were beginning to fissure the Egyptian state and that needed to be mended. Instead, they saw another opportunity to lash out against the old regime, which certainly is to be faulted, at the very least for perpetuating itself in power for so long. Yet, hurling blame does not stop rifts or forestall collapse.

Forgive my skepticism, but even though he says he'd be "happy" to resign, I get the sense people like Said are clinging to their positions for dear life. I suspect it's because if they go, the very system goes, and changes will occur that may prevent them from ever coming close to power and influence again. ElBaradei has said that all heads of state media are obviously counter-revolutionary and should be fired. No wonder they have it in for him. 

Revolution in the newsroom

Readers of the blog know I've been following Egyptian state media for some time now, and am particularly interested in how much it will be "revolutionized" and the role it will play in political developments here now. The impact of the media will be very important in the coming year--perhaps even more so as the system opens up and there is real political competition. I also think the bloated and compromised state media is a good test case to see how much institutional reform will take place in the new Egypt. Anyway, I have a piece in Newsweek looking at what's going on at flagship state newspaper Al Ahram: 

These days, the labyrinthine hallways are abuzz. “Have you heard…?” reporters whisper to each other. They aren’t just discussing the news outside—the wave of appointments, prosecutions, protests, and clashes that is sweeping Egypt. It’s the battle raging over the future of Al-Ahramitself that has everyone riveted.

“There used to be a ceiling to our freedom,” says editor Ahmed Amer, seated at a circular table in one of the paper’s many conference rooms, its walls decorated with faded old maps. On this day, he is working on a story about an illegal land deal involving the former speaker of Parliament. The latest edition of the paper carries a headline that announces “the fall” of the country’s dreaded State Security Investigative Service, whose offices have been ransacked by protesters.

Like other papers in Egypt, Al-Ahram is now printing stories that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago. But some say the paper’s makeover is just that: a makeover.

“It’s not smart to change your editorial policy 180 degrees in one day,” says Sabah Hamamou, one of the journalists leading a small insurgency at Al-Ahram. “You can be more objective. But you shouldn’t just be pro-revolution when one day earlier you were pro-Mubarak.”

Calls for change at Al Ahram

One of the most interesting (and hard to follow) phenomena of the moment in Egypt is the proliferation of demands for reform at the level of institutions and workplaces. At all sort of different organizations, workers are demanding the resignation of top officials and the institutions of more equitable pay scales. 

I just did a piece looking at this for the radio show The World. One of the people I spoke is my old friend Sabah Hamamou, who is one of the leaders of an effort to reform state newspapers. She and 300 other journalists wrote a letter of apology to readers for Al Ahram's coverage of the protests. The editors refused to print it so they called a press conferences and read it out loud. They have also created a Facebook group called The Front to Save Al Ahram (there is another Facebook group calling for a boycott of the paper until its management changes). And for an account of an editorial meeting right after Mubarak's resignation in which Hamamou confronted the newly, suddenly "revolutionary" management, listen to the piece. 

Hamamou is now being targeted within Al Ahram (someone circulated an anonymous letter about her and another colleague who criticized management, accusing them of being phonies and of various financial improprieties).

I am partly interested in what is happening in Egyptian media out of professional interest. I was also scandalized by the complete disregard for truth of "journalists" at state TV and newspapers. And I think if there is going to be any sort of real reform and vaguely even playing field in upcoming elections, state media needs to be radically reformed (the other institution that really needs to be overhauled is the Ministry of Interior, obviously). People like Abdel-Moneim Said -- the formerly cogent regime apologist turned Al Ahram CEO and shameless regime propagandist -- need to be held responsible.