Egypt’s National Press: Fuloul With Twist of Brotherhood
By: Mohammed Kheir
Published Monday, July 16, 2012
Egyptian state-controlled newspapers al-Ahram, al-Akhbar and al-Gomhuria are locked in a battle over choosing their new editors by a Shura Council that is dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party and Salafis.
In the film The Newspaper Vendor (1963) by Hassan al-Imam, the three female stars Magida, Naima Akef and Sanaa Mazhar sing a song to grab their neighbor Rushdie Abaza’s attention. In keeping with the film’s title and story, they shout – between one scene and another – the most recognizable newspaper vendors’ chant in 20th Century Egypt: “Ahram! Akhbar! Gomhuria!”
Of the three famous newspapers, the first, al-Ahram, was established at the end of the 19th century. The second, al-Akhbar (no relation to Beirut’s Al-Akhbar), was established at the end of the first half of the 20th Century. While al-Gomhuria was established by the officers of the 1952 July Revolution. But the three newspaper shared a largely similar fate.
The Egyptian state, under Gamal Abdul-Nasser, nationalized al-Ahram and al-Akhbar which joined al-Gomhuria and a long list of newspapers and magazines, creating what came to be known as the “national press” that is today on the verge of changing its “identity.”
It is hard for people today to remember the song by the three beautiful actresses from the film in light of the Islamists dominance of the Egyptian political landscape. The national press, meanwhile, is locked today in a battle over choosing new editors by the Egyptian Shura Council, which in turn is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis.
There has been multiple protests on the famous stairs of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate either in support of or against the new criteria set for choosing the new occupants of the top positions in the national press.
The national press is state-run but it is not state-owned. It is “public” but not independent. It consists of quasi-governmental and quasi-public institutions that pay taxes or are supposed to. It is heavily indebted and weighed down by losses and includes an army of journalists, staff and workers that number 31,000. Its journalists dominate the membership of the Press Syndicate.
To sum up, the national press consists of institutions that are independent in theory, but that were always subject to indirect control by the state through one method or another. The last of these methods was the appointment of its top echelon for 30 years by the Shura Council. But even this appointment was a facade because the Shura Council, like the parliament, was subject to the control of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) which means that appointments came from the president.
Today the situation is still the same. The only difference is that the NDP is gone and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood - has replaced it. Due to its parliamentary majority, the FJP will name the figures that will be in charge of the national newspapers in the coming period.
The fact that a committee formed by the Shura Council, in an unprecedented move, put together a list of criteria for choosing editors does not change this reality.
These criteria require, for example, that the editor be less than 60 years old and to have spent the last 10 years doing work connected to the same institution. There are also political criteria such as “not being an advocate of normalization with the Zionist entity.”
Some journalists considered the criteria “offensive” and “degrading to journalists and to the profession.” So they sued to stop the Shura Council committee from playing a role, demanding instead that the leaders of the media institutions be chosen through their general assemblies.
Protests and lawsuits notwithstanding, more than 80 journalists have applied through the Shura Council for the leadership positions in the institutions of the national press. Even though the Press Syndicate council unanimously rejected the measures taken by the Shura Council, the head of the syndicate, Mamdouh al-Wali, who won the election with the support of the Brotherhood, rejected the decisions of the syndicate council.
The only demand he had of the Shura Council was to include in the committee that chooses editors more journalists, because as it stands, the committee has only four journalists out of 14 members.
Meanwhile, parliamentarians say that “the journalists who are remnants of the old regime are resisting change.” The journalists say that “the Islamists want to kidnap the national press.” In reality, both claims are partly true and partly political propaganda but the basic problem remains legal/administrative.
Regardless of the dominant political identity of the new leadership, the laws organizing institutions do not permit real independence which would allow them to get rid of their debt and perhaps be able to really compete – without government support – with private press which is on the rise.
It is hard to imagine that this gargantuan bureaucratic body (eight national institutions that issue 55 publications) would be able to continue without direct patronage by the state as was the case under the previous regime which subsidized the institutions’ debt to guarantee political loyalty.
The new regime should let go of some of these institutions, otherwise the national press will remain as another copy of that of the old regime but with an Islamist twist.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.