To this day I remember my first visit to the newsroom of al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo 31 years ago. I was standing there in the luxurious lobby as if I was dreaming. The security officers were nervously taking down my personal details, rubbing their eyes with confusion as they were writing down – for the first time in their life – “from Israel,” and alarmingly calling the editor-in-chief’s office.
Al-Ahram, which got its name from the pyramids, is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and will soon celebrate its 134th birthday. Here there are no signs of the impending death of the printed press. This is one of the world’s most popular newspapers: A million copies are printed on weekdays, and 1.2 million on weekends; three editions, and more than 1,000 employees.
The director and editor-in-chief are loyalists of the president and members of the ruling party. And so, anyone who wishes to know precisely what Cairo’s political leadership thinks and what hides behind the decision-making process only needs to review al-Ahram’s website or purchase a newspaper at a symbolic price.
Settling the score
At the beginning of the week, al-Ahram published an official announcement that declares a total boycott on Israelis, unequivocally forbids them from entering the building, warns employees to stay away from anything that even remotely relates to Israel, and imposes a veto on participation in joint symposiums, conventions etc. Copies of the announcement were sent to the office of President Mubarak, to the journalists’ association, and to the speaker of the lower house of parliament.
Meanwhile, the journalists’ association decided to create blacklists of media personnel who dared visit Israel, interview Israeli politicians, or merely converse with Israeli colleagues. Whoever makes it to the list may be kicked out of the association and lose their job; nobody will employ them again.
And so, we went back 31 years. Over the weekend, Egypt’s Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, who lost the race for UNESCO’s leadership (not only because of us!), vowed to settle the score. Now, it’s starting.
This ugly drama is wholly incommensurate in my mind with the character of al-Ahram Director, Dr. Abdul Mun'im Sa'id. During our lengthy acquaintance he appeared to be a brave and consistent intellectual who welcomed peace, as well as the dozens of his Israeli friends. Yet disappointingly, he has fallen silent and has not enlisted to the cause of putting out the flames.