A senior Egyptian reporter recalls recent phases of freedom and repression at his daily, Egypt's largest.
I was very hesitatant to write about my experience in journalism. I thought about not doing it. How can we write about the behind-the-scenes stage of writing, about what happens before texts are published on websites and magazines, about the profession’s secrets which we are keen to keep from readers? How can we reveal our personal history? Does anyone even want to know it?
The point is that we do not pay much attention to the importance of the profession’s workings and secrets because we are overwhelmed by its superficialities. Journalism leaks into peoples’ lives like water. People do not feel its existence as they grow accustomed to it. Readers sometimes make metaphors out of it. They extract exciting and condensed information and ideas which they cite in their private sittings or online chats.
Despite its importance and role in transferring information, verifying knowledge and analyzing data, journalism still acts as a mere catalyst or helping tool. We demand advantages to facilitate our work but no one cares. Our profession’s materials and tales are of no interest; neither to readers, nor to us journalists.
The following lines are about me; the life of a journalist who studied at the Akhbar Al-Youm Academy and has been working, from before he graduated, at the Akhbar Al-Adab daily since 2004. He has moved from one experience to the other, yet based on his professional card he is still just a journalist.
This might be my first opportunity to express my passion for journalism because I am normally occupied with searching for new perspectives on my subject matter rather paying much attention to the methods. Journalists are not interested in their feelings. They focus on presenting their ideas in clear ways.
Remembering a pioneer
When the late Jamal El-Ghitani (1946-2015), who founded this newspaper on July 18, 1993, wanted to tackle an important incident, he used to become very anxious and absorbed by it. He would say: “We will do it our way.”
El-Ghitani added a new dimension to the literary newspaper. He allowed views which were once rejected by the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is issued by the state-owned Akhbar Al-Youm Corporation. (The ownership issue is a bit complicated. The newspaper and the corporation it belongs should be typically under the umbrella of the Journalism and Media Authority - an entity which is yet to be established.)
Since its establishment, the Akhbar Al-Adab daily has been a platform which reflects the opinions of cultured people who oppose the current state policies. It presents conservative opposition and accepted criticism, without attracting too many enemies.
The concept of criticism in a quiet, cultural column requires explanation. Needless to say, tackling events from a different perspective is every newspaper’s aim. In every situation, there is a new perspective to be focused on. However, the famous novelist and editor-in-chief for 17 years always persisted on reaching already specified conclusions in investigations which looked into public issues without being concerned about politics, or only with some degree of opposition.
Honeymoon, books and sit-ins
When El-Ghitani left the newspaper, a month prior to the January 25 Revolution, each editor faced a real challenge concerning their relationship with the newspaper. The appointment of a new editor-in-chief coincided with the outbreak of the revolution and my marriage to my wife Mona. We were following the arrival of protesters to Tahrir Square, when I received a phone call from my newspaper. I was to attend a seminar by the Kuwaiti writer So’ad Al-Subah as a part of the Cairo International Book Fair, which was already cancelled, two days after the start of my honeymoon.
We have been through an exciting transitional period. We expressed revolutionary attitudes and rejected the continuity of the editor-in-chief who did not keep up with the moment. As the events developed, we chose the editorial staff and imposed this choice on the establishment and the ruling Military Council at the time by staging a two-month strike. The editor-in-chief who was appointed before the revolution was replaced by Abla Roweini and thus we started a new experience.
The revolution had a major impact on the state-owned newspapers’ editorial policies. New writers, who were banned from editing and publishing on pages which were monopolized by writers affiliated with the dissolved National Party, soon emerged. The newspaper expressed a new spirit, a new political approach, which developed “our methods” without supporting the fine-tuning with the transitional leaders’ performance. That spirit, however, did not match the momentum of change needed at the time.
End of ephemeral era
While the revolution was attempting to establish civil rule to challenge the military council’s will and its terrible way of running the country, we were witnessing the end of the transitional period of this vital example of journalism.
We gradually figured out how fragile that experience was. Roweini was replaced by Majdi Afifi who soon started to flatter the new authority which was being formed. He was similar to the editor-in-chiefs of the Palace governments in Naguib Mahfouz’s political novels. He put the pictures of Hassan Al-Banna, Khairat El-Shater and Mohamed Morsi on the newspaper’s cover. At the time, discussions were not possible. It was a battle of resistance.
The newspaper’s editors fought long battles to protect its editorial policies but to no avail; the wave of the Muslim Brotherhood’s favoritism was on the rise. After the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood - figuring out the fragility of our experience - we faced a grim reality. The new authority sought to control the public sphere through wrong practices which shackled the public domain and suffocated freedoms and rights.
We were victims of this twice in August: the first time was in 2014 when our colleague Ahmed Naji and the Editorial Director Mohamed Sha’eer were subject to an internal investigation after the former published a chapter of his novel The Use of Life in the newspaper. The result was Ahmed was banned from working for a month. Both the editorial director and the editor-in-chief had their salaries cut too. The second time was in August 2015 when an investigation was conducted into the same issue by the Bolak Abu Al-Ola Prosecution.
The trial of Ahmed Naji and Tarek Al-Taher started in December 2015. These events posed a big question: “How can we talk about literature when a literary work by our colleague led to imprisoning him for two years?” Since that infamous incident, the newspaper is living a nightmare, weighed down by the guilt of not defending our colleague.
Now when I reflect on the nature of my work in this place, I become hesitant and don't know what to do. Should I seek some kind of protection? Working here will not change anything. I think about this conservative spirit in Egypt which prevents anything from completion: whether they be huge things like revolutions or simple ones, like some harmless words in a work of art in a weekly newspaper.
ED: According to media reports, an appeals court ordered on Sunday that Ahmed Naji be temporarily released to face trial again.