The mood is turbulent on Al-Galaa Street in Cairo, especially in the skyscraper that is home to the government’s flagship newspaper, Al-Ahram. Fierce controversy erupted on Wednesday when the committee selecting new editors for the government media decided to appoint Abdel Nasser Salama as the newspaper’s new editor-in-chief.
The appointment received President Mohammed Morsi’s blessing and some of the paper’s journalists welcomed the new editor, but dozens of others began a sit-in strike on Thursday protesting the move. The protesters say that the highly experienced Salama, who wrote against the revolution in its early days, actually represents the old regime; he is no more than a “pen for hire” and will fail to revive the government press.
Al-Ahram journalists aren’t the only ones concerned about the move. Last Wednesday’s decision to appoint 53 new editors angered the current editors, members of the Supreme Press Council, the 7,000-member journalists’ union and protest activists. They view the decision as another step in the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to take over the press, following the appointment of Brotherhood activist Salah Abdel Maqsoud as the country’s new information minister.
The new appointees are not solely Brotherhood-supporting journalists; as a matter of fact, most of them are rather veteran and relatively unknown journalists. Still, all of the new editors will undoubtedly be indebted to those who appointed them, even if they themselves aren’t Brotherhood supporters.
The five large publishing houses, which print dozens of newspapers and periodicals, were nationalized in 1960, as part of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s drive to dictate the public discourse and set the limits of information the public is allowed to get. President Anwar Sadat continued this policy, but allowed the publication of party newspapers when he allowed new parties to become openly active. Print journalism enjoyed a renaissance of sorts under Mubarak, when dozens of new newspapers, mostly unregistered, flooded the streets and breached censorship rules.
When the revolution first took to the streets in January 2011, and even before, when the Internet and social media became the most reliable source of information, the regime continued to follow a deliberately vague policy. On the one hand, the unregistered newspapers continued to thrive, and on the other, the regime adhered to the severe press laws that allowed it to arrest, punish and even jail journalists at will.
The revolution posed a serious dilemma for the government papers. For the first two weeks, they continued to toe the official line, which described the demonstrators as lawless hoodlums and gangs bent on destroying Egypt. Then, when Mubarak decided to resign, all the papers, almost overnight, changed their editorial line; from a stubborn defense of the regime, they suddenly went on the offensive. Photos of the martyrs made the front pages, headlines spoke of the corruption of the president and his family, and editorials went out of their way to praise the “heroes of the revolution.”
Some of the editors-in-chief were replaced within months, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appointed new editors. Still, among intellectuals and among all opposition parties, including the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice party, it was clear that these changes were temporary and that the government press would have to undergo a revolution. This meant that not only would editors have to leave, but the entire character of journalism would have to change.
Nonetheless, this change could not be realized as long as the emergency laws were still in effect and as long as the press laws that inhibit freedom of expression were not changed. Many hoped that when the new parliament convened, new laws would be formulated and the press that formerly served the regime would begin to serve the public.
When parliament was dissolved in June by the constitutional court, once again questions arose about whether the press could wait until new elections and the formulation of a new constitution, or whether the newspapers themselves should undergo immediate change. The Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, which controls the Supreme Press Council, opted for immediate change. It appointed a committee to select new editors that supposedly represented the various media outlets, but in reality, most of its members where Justice and Freedom Party supporters and activists.
Soon enough it turned out that the committee was a cover for the Brotherhood to foment an ideological revolution in the newspapers. Salah Montaser, one of Egypt’s most prominent journalists, resigned from the committee; in his long and detailed resignation letter, he complained, among other things, of the criteria set by the editor selection committee, which determined that every candidate must submit his resume, his “career portfolio” and his plans for reform of his newspaper. The committee determined how many points each section was worth, and the candidate was judged according the points he accumulated.
Montaser was especially livid that well-known veteran journalists were forced to be lumped together with junior journalists and present their portfolio or propose reforms. He pointed out that Muslim Brotherhood committee members did not bother to show up at meetings, raising the suspicion that the whole process was preordained.
Other journalists joined Montaser’s criticism and some of them submitted a judicial appeal against the new appointments. One argument raised in the appeal was that several of the new editors were tainted by their ties with Israel, either by visiting Israel or writing pieces that could be interpreted as supporting normalization with Israel.
Supporting normalization with Israel is forbidden under journalists’ union regulations and it is inconceivable that someone who breached the union’s rules could serve as editor of a national newspaper, the appeal contended. Furthermore, the Shura Council is, as yet, still unauthorized to appoint editors, since it is still unclear if the new elections will also include elections to the Shura Council, it said.
The struggle against the new appointments is not personal. Rather, it is the beginning of a battle to shape the public discourse and the manner in which the Muslim Brotherhood will attempt to promote its agenda.
Still, considering the new media reality in Egypt (which is being fully exploited by the Brotherhood) in which the media dominate the determination of the public agenda and satellite television stations are capable of imposing political decisions, the battle for the control of the government press will be of major importance only in shaping the “intellectual elites.”
In the era of Mubarak and his predecessors, these elites played a central role, since with the support of the “regime’s intellectuals,” the president could claim civil legitimacy. The status of these intellectuals, including senior writers and pundits, could now be diminished as the government press is taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.