The Brotherhood vs. the Free Press
Egypt's new rulers are determined to tighten their grip on the media scene in Cairo. I should know -- they had me fired.
CAIRO — Ahram Online came to life on Nov. 26, 2010. A tiny editorial team, made up of myself and two marvelous colleagues, had been setting it up for months. We had started from scratch: When we began, there was no office space or computers, and extremely inadequate technical backup.
We were the newest addition to the plethora of media products published by the country’s largest state-owned media organization — some 18 newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the flagship daily, Al-Ahram. As such, we warranted minimal resources — we were just a speck amid the mega-organization’s bloated bureaucracy, which even now employs nearly 2,000 journalists and thousands of administrators and workers. Even the enthusiastic support of the then newly appointed chairman of the al-Ahram organization — a modernizer who hailed from a scholarly background — could do little to overcome the hurdles of ineptitude and wastefulness that had solidified over decades.
But despite it all, we had a deadline to meet. Parliamentary elections were at hand, and I resolved that Ahram’s new English-language news portal would begin with a bang. At the time, this was as exciting as Egypt’s dreary political life got: I was convinced the vote would be disastrous, and I was soon proved right. Hosni Mubarak’s ruling clique had decided that the Muslim Brotherhood, which had won an unprecedented 88 seats in the 2005 elections, had overstayed its welcome, and manipulated the constitution to muscle the Islamist group out of the next parliament.
My editorial team was skeptical — we were by no means ready to launch yet. The site still had more bugs than you’d find in a cheap hotel in the dingier parts of town, a number of the newly installed computers in our tiny newsroom were already malfunctioning, and — well, you get the picture.
Those challenges aside, we did start with a bang — both in the Egyptian media landscape and within Ahram itself. Launching what would become an established tradition in our coverage of major events, we drew on our own journalists and a network of Ahram reporters throughout the country to provide our readers with a live, "blow-by-blow" account of election day, which featured vote-rigging by the ruling party’s bigwigs. Ahram management got into a tizzy. I received phone calls from high up in the organization asking me to "tone down" and to "balance" our coverage.
At one point, the editor of the flagship Arabic daily, al-Ahram, appeared at the door of our newsroom, asking to see me. "I just had [then Interior Minister, Habib] El-Adly on the phone with me, complaining that Ahram Online is making a scandal of the elections, and that foreign correspondents are tagging behind Ahram Online and rushing to polling stations where you report violence or irregularities," he told me.
The censure by management went so far as to objecting to the words "blow-by-blow" on our live blog, which they saw as implying violence. I made a half-hearted attempt to explain the English idiom, but was happy to concede the point, changing the words to "minute-by-minute." Otherwise, I told my editorial team — which was becoming growingly nervous about the management’s hullabaloo — to go on doing exactly what we’d been doing, and leave it to me to deal with management.
And herein lies the secret of my intermittent survival in Ahram, as managing editor and then chief editor of the English-language al-Ahram Weekly (from 1991 to 2005) and Ahram Online (from January 2010 to January 2013): I rarely take political differences personally. And I never interested myself in bureaucratic politics. My response to management pressure invariably followed a basic template that included politely, even affably, defending our professional standards, milking the English-language nature of whichever of the two media products I was in charge of for all it’s worth ("our readers are used to a different style of journalism!"), conceding irrelevant points (such as "blow-by-blow"), promising to "tone down" certain language, and then turning around and doing exactly what I, and my staff, had been doing all along. The philosophy behind this attitude was simple: "Let the axe fall when it will."
The axe fell — twice. The first time was under Mubarak when, in July 2005, I was abruptly removed from my post as chief editor of Al-Ahram Weekly. The second time was after the revolution, under the new, Muslim Brotherhood-appointed management, which — having taken over the reins of the organization soon after the election of President Mohamed Morsy — decided to send me into retirement in December 2013.
My precarious status in the state-owned media organization was a function not just of my editorial stance, but of apparently deep mistrust toward me on the part of the body that counts most in all state-media appointments: the State Security police. I’d come from a politically active background, and while my ideas have doubtlessly evolved considerably since my student days, I never "saw the light" of the ostensibly reformist trend of Gamal Mubarak and his faction.
"Why do they hate you so much?" a senior member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, an old friend of the family, asked me a couple of months after I had been abruptly removed as chief editor of Al-Ahram Weekly. "They," of course, were State Security. "I don’t really know, but it’s mutual," I replied, chuckling. My hatreds are for the most part abstract — not so in the case of torturers.
There is another aspect to it, however. Senior positions in the state-owned media in Egypt have traditionally been spoils to be divided among the more zealous agents of the state. Not only does the ruling party and its police and intelligence bodies want their loyalists in such positions, these loyalists naturally expect rewards for services rendered. As such, success — which I believe I can legitimately claim for both Al-Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online — became a liability for people like me who manage to stay immune to the seductive pull of power.
Such immunity, I might add, is not merely a function of personal integrity, professional ethics, or political conviction. Rather, it is due to a skeptical mind, a sense of humor, and the ability to see the clowns who wield power for what they are — clownish.
The Egyptian revolution promised to change all this. But, stalled and hijacked, it failed to live up to its promise — here as everywhere else. The Press Syndicate, after exhaustively studying models of public media ownership in democratic countries, prepared a detailed set of constitutional, legislative, and institutional proposals aimed at preserving the independence of the state-owned media. But neither the military nor the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies paid these proposals the least heed.
Instead, Egypt’s new rulers moved to tighten their grip over state media, just as the Mubarak clique had before them. They kept in place the Shura Council, an absurd and expensive institution that Egyptians have never bothered to show up to vote for — turnout in the 2012 elections hovered around 10 percent. The council, while only wielding consultative powers on most legislation, was designed for the express purpose of controlling the media: It acts as the nominal owner of the state-owned media organizations and possesses the authority of licensing, barring, or banning the privately-owned press.
The post-revolution Shura Council elections were swept by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and its Salafi allies. The president appoints the remaining third of the council’s members — and as soon as he came to power, President Morsy packed it with his supporters.
The council — now for all practical purposes a Muslim Brotherhood-Salafi club — then immediately set about dealing out the spoils. Across the board, new chairmen of state-owned media organizations were put in place, as well as editors of all the main state-owned newspapers. A similar power grab took place in the broadcast media. Meanwhile, enormous pressure was brought to bear on the privately owned print, broadcast, and online media.
Speaking in the name of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood kept in place each and every authoritarian institutional, legal, and extralegal instrument developed by Mubarak to control the media, subvert its independence, and muzzle free speech. If anything, Egypt’s new rulers are proving even more intolerant of freedom of expression than their predecessors. So glaring has been their intolerance of criticism that U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson recently abandoned the United States’ reticence to criticize the Brotherhood’s authoritarian bent, urging them to develop "thicker skins."
As for my own small part in this larger drama, it was not a matter of if I would be forced out, but when. Ahram Online had become too successful and too prominent for an administration that is particularly sensitive to its image abroad. My own editorial writing had, in past months, put me squarely in the sights of what is widely known in Egypt as the Brotherhood’s e-militia — a group of Internet-savvy workers whose job is to launch massive barrages of attacks and threats against any and all who dare criticize the group’s rule.
The end came quickly. As chief editor, I was supposed to retire at 65 — but a decision to retire me was taken by the new board in December, three years too early. I was the only chief editor in the organization to whom the decision was applied, though it affected several other over-60 employees who’d been serving in various capacities, some outstandingly, throughout Ahram.
To be absolutely fair, the new chairman insisted the decision was applied across the board, and that he had the utmost respect for me and my role in Ahram. He was kind enough to call me to inform me in person of the decision to retire me. I have no conclusive material evidence to support my conclusion that my second and final ouster from the organization was as politically motivated as the first had been, but I believe there is substantial circumstantial evidence to support such a conclusion.
Lately, a fairly prominent Ahram journalist — a former member of Gamal Mubarak’s powerful Policies Committee who was well known for his intimate connection to State Security — has been going around explaining how he’d discovered that, at heart, he’d always been a Muslim Brother. Given the Brotherhood’s adoption of the tactics of the previous regime, it’s not as big a leap of faith as it might seem at first glance.