Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist
By Sabah Hamamou
On the afternoon of February 11, 2011, I watched a presenter from Egyptian state television extend his microphone carefully through the barbed wire barricade that had been erected around the iconic Radio and TV Building on the banks of the Nile in central Cairo. Hundreds of protesters had been gathered outside since the previous evening — following Hosni Mubarak’s announcement that he would not, as everyone anticipated, be stepping down — and the presenter, with affable condescension, asked them what “mistakes” they might like their publicly financed broadcasters to correct.
Egyptian state television had spent the last eighteen days spreading incendiary, highly exaggerated, and at times even staged reports about the by-then vast protests. (One such report featured a “protester,” her features obscured, confessing to having received training from sundry nefarious foreign organizations. She turned out to be a journalist at a state newspaper.) The message of the gathered citizens to the government’s mouthpiece was straightforward: stop lying. The strange exchange — state television suddenly allowing for live discussion of its own shortcomings — strongly indicated that the end might just be near.
It also should have been a warning as to how superficial and speedy a volte-face Egypt’s state media was about to take. The next day, the flagship national newspaper, Al-Ahram (which on the first day of protests ran a front-page story about political unrest in… Lebanon), splashed a huge picture of rejoicing protesters across its top fold, accompanied by the misty headline: “The People Brought Down the Regime.”
In the nearly two years since the Egyptian uprising set off on January 25, 2011, Egypt’s publicly subsidized media has shed a few compromised top editors, offered a few lukewarm mea culpas, and rushed to declare itself “reformed.” There is certainly more real news published in the pages of Al-Ahram today than there has been in decades, at least in part because so much more is happening; because some journalists there have taken advantage of new energy and openings; and because public criticism and competition from private news outlets has curbed the state media’s worst tendencies.
And yet, amid the chaos, political power plays, and continuing protests that have followed Mubarak’s ouster, state media has struggled to find its editorial line, not unlike a shaky sailboat looking to settle into the prevailing wind. Employees stormed the offices of editors-in-chief. For months, at the state TV building itself, protesters made the lobby ring with songs and chants and papered the hallways with revolutionary fliers and indictments of higher-ups. And yet, these groups calling for change tended to be a miserable minority, and the army generals who took over after Mubarak were not at all interested in media reform. Today, it is clear that the fundamental ethos of outlets like Al-Ahram remains identification with the state and with whoever might be in power. The national media, for example, never criticized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or reported with any honesty on the breathtaking army abuses against protesters. They never printed or broadcast the images that swept the internet and defined, for many, military rule: the bodies of protesters being dragged to the curb like so much trash, the “girl in the blue bra,” half stripped and dragged on the ground as a soldier delivered a formidable series of kicks to her solar plexus.
In the dog days following Mubarak’s ouster, hundreds of journalists at Al-Ahram signed a petition apologizing for the manner in which the newspaper covered the eighteen days of protest; the paper’s senior management refused to publish it. The petition’s fate is just one of the many incidents covered in a new book by Sabah Hamamou, an Al-Ahram business reporter who started out nearly twenty years ago as an idealistic teenage intern but has emerged, post-revolution, as an impassioned critic and would-be reformer (full disclosure: Hamamou is also an old friend of this writer). The self-published Yawmeyat suhafeya fil Ahram (Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist) is a rare glimpse into the dizzying dysfunction of Egypt’s historic national newspaper, but also the government’s hulking and recalcitrant institutions generally.
Before the revolution, state media’s most endearing quality may have been its ability to inspire a joke. (An old one went: “Eh el akhbar?” — meaning “What’s the news?” but also riffing on the name of state daily Al Akhbar. “Zey el ahram,” was the answer — “Like Al-Ahram” — government papers’ propaganda being indistinguishable). During the uprising, it was a scandal; the abolition of the Ministry of Information quickly became a top item on the protesters’ list of demands. Now it is a widely recognized problem, but one that no one has the guts, vision, or principle to tackle.
To be fair, the task is daunting. The Al-Ahram headquarters sit on the apocalyptically busy Galaa Street in downtown Cairo, two massive office towers connected by a suspended walkway, with their warehouses and printing presses extending in the alleys behind them — “a state within a state,” as Hamamou calls them. With their maze of seemingly endless corridors and offices, their own fleet of cars, subsidized cafeteria and pharmacy, they are bastions of nepotism and sluggish self-interest.
Judging from Hamamou’s book, the biggest problem with Al-Ahram today (and one suspects, with most public institutions in Egypt) is the people who staff it. The newspaper reportedly has about nine-hundred journalists and, as Hamamou helpfully points out, the vast majority of them have been hired due to family connections or political loyalties. The children of Al-Ahram journalists are more or less guaranteed jobs at the paper: jobs in foreign-language supplements, although they don’t speak the languages in question; jobs to which they show up five hours a week; jobs that come with measly official salaries but sizable monthly bonuses. The once venerable newspaper is calcified by decades of nepotistic accretion and squatted by various familial, regional, and political tribes who view it as their own personal preserve.
It is a small wonder that Hamamou’s escalating public criticism has been met with indignation and anger by many of her colleagues who accuse her of betraying and embarrassing the paper. “You’re taking the food from people’s mouths,” and “Does anyone respectable take their home’s problems outside?” are some of the remarks she faced — even before her book’s appearance — for exposing corrupt practices at the paper and pushing for reform. (This is to say nothing of a scurrilous campaign featuring anonymous notes accusing her of illicit financial gains under Mubarak.) Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist was given a small, studiously neutral mention in Al-Ahram itself. Hamamou considers her career at the newspaper more or less over; she says she is on an unsolicited “sabbatical” at the moment.
Meanwhile, through anecdote-rich chapters that move both chronologically (through her career) and geographically (through the offices of the newspaper), Hamamou vividly conveys just how inefficient and devastatingly out-of-touch the overstaffed paper is, so much so that she compares entering its main editorial room to time-traveling, albeit always to the same point in time. “I’ve been absent from the editorial room at wide intervals,” she writes, “because of travel or illness or other reasons, but the nice thing about the editorial room is that no matter how long you leave it when you return you find the fragrance of history and the old, eternal, continuing problems” — television screens “hanging on the right side in darkness and silence, for I have never seen one of them on since the day I set foot in the room in 2004,” and “the piles of dust settled on the keyboards as they were, or a little increased.”
When this reviewer visited the room described above in the months after Mubarak’s ouster, she saw brand-new Apple desktop computers (some still in their wrapping) but was shocked to realize that the aging errand boys carrying sheets of paper to ancient dumbwaiters were delivering copy to the main editorial desk. The paper is still laid out — and most of its articles are still written — by hand.
As recently as 2008, Hamamou writes, there were two computers for the forty journalists in her department. Most of them brought their own laptops to work, which raised another set of challenges, since the offices weren’t set up to allow journalists to connect to the Internet or to print their work. (This, while senior editors and managers made millions of pounds, particularly care of the paper’s extensive advertising department).
Hamamou dedicates an entire chapter to a fruitless attempt to print a one-page article. When she finally is able to obtain a printer cable from one office and the permission to use the printer in another, she is unable to find a blank sheet of paper. Her odyssey is strikingly reminiscent of a scene in Sonallah Ibrahim’s masterful skewering of the moral collapse of Egyptian society, Zaat, in which a simple bureaucratic errand also devolves into nightmarish existential farce. In fact there are quite a few figures in Hamamou’s exposé who would make great minor characters in a literary satire, such as the politically connected advertising executive who gets transferred to an editorial position, crafts his own title (“assistant to the editor of Al-Ahram”) and spends his days perusing the obituaries while on the phone with his wife, discussing to whom it might be useful to send a telegram of condolences.
It’s the details that help us understand the at-once bland and dizzying complexity of bureaucracies. According to Hamamou, at Egypt’s premier state newspaper there is no internal phone registry and many still do not use email regularly. Reporters work for years, sometimes decades, for a pittance before finally achieving their much-sought-after “appointment,” a lifelong perch in the public bureaucracy. Meanwhile, employees are trained not to rock the boat. There are no clear editorial guidelines (just a mission statement that lists as the paper’s first goal protecting “national security”). Conflicts of interest are ignored; plum assignments are handed out to favorites; articles are suppressed and bylines dropped according to opaque and unchallengeable codes. One imagines that years of these carrot-and-stick routines must inculcate a craven hive mentality into all but the most stubborn reporters.
Penned in a confidential, colloquial style, Hamamou’s book is part of a wave of recent writing by new voices, often those of younger women, on subjects that are personal and traditionally circumscribed (such as Ghada Abdel Aal’s hit I Want to Get Married, about the indignities of the marriage market). It is also reminiscent of bureaucratic exposés such as Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Diary of a Country Prosecutor or renegade feminist Nawwal El-Saadawy’s early work. But the fact that Hamamou couldn’t secure a publisher, and that her book hasn’t received the attention one might expect given its topicality, may point to a discomfort, which extends well beyond the state media, with real muckraking.
While there is much comedy in Memoirs of an Al-Ahram Journalist, it is generally dark. The genuine frustration and disgust of an ambitious reporter, who knows that something is awry and that her chance at a meaningful career is slipping by her, is never far from the surface. In a climactic scene late in the book, Hamamou describes a violent argument that breaks out between younger journalists and their senior editors on February 12. Hamamou found herself yelling at the paper’s well-known columnists and senior managers, who were coolly running an editorial meeting, that they should make room for those who participated in the revolution. She writes that she felt “as if I was delivering the revolt of a whole generation against an old generation that silenced us for long years and occupied all the spots and podiums and words and stuck us in the deep freezer, just as they stuck articles not fit to print in the drawer.”
At Al-Ahram and elsewhere, gerontocracy rules. But that hasn’t always been the case. Hamamou points out that the paper was founded, in 1857, by two Lebanese brothers in their twenties. The famous Nasser-era journalist Mohammed Hassanein Heikal was only thirty-four when he became an editor there. This is inconceivable today, when reporters in their forties are still classified as shabaab (”kids”) and told they’ll get their own columns only “when they get some white hairs.”
Hamamou’s own story — her frustration, her “disloyalty,” the blog she set up a month before the January 25 revolution, her tell-all book — are all part of a new cultural and media landscape in which some younger journalists refuse to play by the Mubarak-era rules and where online news and the many new private newspapers and satellite channels threaten to render the old state media obsolete.
Many journalists there know this, yet attempts to propose and implement reforms have foundered. In the heady days of February 2011, Hamamou attended a meeting of dissatisfied journalists. The meeting, she writes, was “charged, full of years of silence about many incorrect practices, full of accusations and attempts to push in many directions. It ended with few results, in a general atmosphere of frustration, because the attendees couldn’t agree on a clear mechanism to organize their activity. Everyone wanted to talk, everyone wanted to complain and propose ideas, or draw attention to an issue he or she considered important, while absolutely no one suggested a mechanism for work, maybe because the whole country was looking for a way. So they unburdened themselves, threw their frustration at the room’s ceiling and left.”
The cycle of patronage and sycophancy can be broken only by undoing the existing system — creating an independent board to oversee state media, setting clear standards for appointments and hires, crafting editorial policies that guarantee papers’ independence, and passing new laws that protect journalists’ freedom of speech. None of that looks likely to happen anytime soon. Despite railing against the official media for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has made its own appointments to the state newspapers. Papers that were distinctly anti-Brotherhood during the presidential elections have already changed their tune. The pandering, state-owned magazine October, known for its lurid covers, led the charge with a memorable cover featuring President Mohamed Morsi as a jockey riding a leaping horse and the title “The Revolution Takes Off.”