Kim Badawi

Editorial Assignments: WSJ: Egyptians Take On 'Mini-Mubaraks'

Egyptians Take On 'Mini-Mubaraks' - Wall Street Journal

Reportage by MATT BRADLEY And DAVID LUHNOW

CAIRO—Under the tutelage of editor-in-chief Osama Soraya, Egypt's government-run Al Ahram, one of the Arab world's oldest newspapers, became a dependable mouthpiece for President Hosni Mubarak's regime. On Jan. 26, for example, the day after protests erupted that eventually forced Mr. Mubarak from office, the paper's banner headline was about a protest—in Lebanon.

Now, with Mr. Mubarak gone, the newspaper's staff is in open revolt, denouncing Mr. Soraya and demanding investigations into his personal finances. Reporters have tried to block their boss from entering the building. One young reporter slept in Mr. Soraya's office to make sure the editor didn't remove any incriminating documents.

Similar dramas have been playing out all across Egypt in the weeks after Mr. Mubarak's 30-year rule ended. The success of the revolution that toppled the president has spawned many smaller revolutions. Their targets are the "mini-Mubaraks" who populate the top ranks of many Egyptian institutions—people who allegedly got their jobs based on their loyalty to the president.

Many of them now face the kind of reckoning that follows every revolution. Already, three editors of state newspapers have resigned. One stepped down after he was punched by reporters. Another was escorted out of his office building by security guards. The octogenarian head of the press union, hand-picked by the regime, was roughed up by journalists during a staff-wide gathering. At yet another publication, employees told their editor to take a hike but to leave the keys to the company car.

Egypt's government-run Al Ahram newspaper became a reliable mouthpiece of Mr. Mubarak under its current editor, but now staffers are in revolt, denouncing their boss and demanding investigations.

Employees at Egypt's largest state-run bank are on strike, calling for the ouster of their chairman. Members of the leading doctors' union stormed the offices of their government-backed leader last week, chanting "leave, leave." Hundreds of imams protested last week against the top sheikh at Al Azhar University, the largest religious learning center for the world's one billion Sunni Muslims, saying he stood by Mr. Mubarak until the last hours of the regime.

It isn't clear how big an opening the movement against Mr. Mubarak's appointees will provide to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

The upheaval has even spread to the sports world. Some fans are calling for the resignation of Hassan Shehata, the coach of Egypt's national soccer team, the Pharaohs, who came out in support of Mr. Mubarak during the protests. The director of Cairo's Zamalek SC soccer team, Ibrahim Hassan, also faces calls for his ouster after he took part in a pro-Mubarak demonstration.

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Pyramid

Associated Press

Last September, Al Ahram ran a doctored photo of Mr. Mubarak and other heads of state, moving the Egyptian president to the front of the pack. The digitally altered photo is pictured above.

Pyramid

Pyramid

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Pyramid

Getty Images

The original photo of Mr. Mubarak and other heads of state.

Pyramid

Pyramid

"It is very hard for the youth to make peace with these men," read an editorial last week on Aiwakora, a leading sports website. Messrs. Shehata and Hassan have vowed to stay on in their posts.

Like the revolution against Mr. Mubarak himself, the smaller revolts are part of a sea change in a society known since the time of the pharaohs for its submission to authority. Ordinary, often apolitical individuals have begun to defy symbols of power.

Mr. Soraya, Al Ahram's embattled editor-in-chief, now says he supports the revolution and that he always championed gradual change within the existing system.

"If you want me to take the blame for all the mistakes of this paper, I will," he said in a recent interview. He still admires Mr. Mubarak, whom he considers "like a father," he said. "I have no regrets. I was happy to work with a great president who had great mistakes and great accomplishments."

Mr. Soraya says that those who condemn him are also culpable: They flogged the regime's line with the same enthusiasm as he did.

It remains to be seen how many of Mr. Mubarak's appointees will survive the shakeout. Egypt's upper house of parliament, which was dissolved by the military last month, is empowered by law to pick the editor of Al Ahram, so Mr. Soraya's future may depend in part on parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year. He says he intends to stay on as editor.

Al Ahram—The Pyramids, in Arabic—was founded in Alexandria in 1875 by two Lebanese brothers. Its pages hosted some of the Arab world's finest journalists, and their writing energized a region emerging from colonialism.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of Egypt's first presidents, nationalized the country's media in 1960, and Al Ahram became the flagship state publication. Nasser picked Mohammed Hassanein Heikel, one of the Arab world's most celebrated journalists, to edit the daily. One of its writers was Naguib Mafouz, subsequent winner of a Nobel Prize.

When Mr. Mubarak appointed Mr. Soraya editor-in-chief in 2005, the newspaper was Egypt's most widely read. According to Ibrahim Nafaa, Al Ahram's previous editor-in-chief, Mr. Soraya made the newspaper into a tribute to Mr. Mubarak and, increasingly, Mr. Mubarak's politically ascendant son, Gamal.

Mr. Soraya says there was no bias toward Mr. Mubarak at the paper. The newspaper, he says, "has no point of view." He says he had a close relationship with Mr. Mubarak, but that the president never directly interfered with the paper.

Many staffers say Mr. Soraya was sycophantic toward the president. In a 2008 editorial marking the president's 80th birthday, he wrote that May 4, 1928, was the "day Egypt was born."

Around the same time, Nassar Al Kafas, editor of Al Ahram's regional editions, penned a column praising then U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama. Mr. Al Kafas says Mr. Soraya was convinced that Mr. Mubarak did not like the candidate because he had visited cities in Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but had spurned Egypt, so he killed the piece. Mr. Soraya says he doesn't remember that happening.

Last September, during renewed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Al Ahram ran a doctored front-page photo of Mr. Mubarak leading Middle Eastern heads of state and President Obama down a White House red carpet to greet reporters. The unaltered photo showed Mr. Obama slightly ahead of the others.

After a blogger revealed the alteration, Mr. Soraya called the photo an "expressionist" rendering of Mr. Mubarak's "unique role" as a regional leader.

Some of Al Ahram's best writers defected to new opposition-oriented newspapers such as Al Masry Al Yawm and Al Sharouq. Al Ahram alumni are now reporting for BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera.

Al Ahram doesn't disclose circulation figures. Some editors say the paper is now in fifth place in the newspaper market, but Mr. Soraya says the paper remains No. 1 in circulation.

Al Ahram's high-rise office building is only a few blocks from Tahrir Square, the main gathering point for antigovernment protesters. On Jan. 26, the morning after the square first filled with protesters, Al Ahram readers woke to a headline about protests in Lebanon. Below the fold, the paper carried a story about Egyptians offering flowers and candy to police.

Some of the paper's journalists, sensing history in the making, were angry. About 60 reporters and editors drafted a statement calling for Mr. Soraya and chairman Abdel Moneim Said to step down, according to Osama Al Rehami, the paper's culture editor. It was a potentially risky step, given that some reporters at the paper were believed to be informants to the country's feared security services.

As protests continued, tension grew. Emad El Erian, the foreign editor, was the first top official to break ranks. Several editors say they overheard Mr. El Erian loudly objecting to the past days' coverage while demanding the paper return to at least a "minimum level of objectivity." Mr. El Erian couldn't be reached for comment.

By Jan. 28, the newspaper could no longer ignore the protests. Hundreds of thousands of protesters spilled out of mosques that Friday afternoon, clashing with police. Protesters also gathered outside Al Ahram, denouncing the paper's support for the teetering regime. Reporters heard shots on the streets below. Tear gas wafted into the fourth-floor newsroom.

Several young reporters—Mr. Al Rehami, the culture editor, refers to them as the "silent army"—put down their pens and joined the protesters in the street. Others threw in their lot with the police, volunteering to help fight off the mob.

Some young journalists helped bring dozens of wounded protesters into the newspaper's offices for treatment by doctors. Gamal Ismail, the newspaper's vice president, says Mr. Soraya appeared and wanted the injured protesters to leave. Mr. Ismail says he prevailed on Mr. Soraya to let them stay until they were treated. Mr. Soraya says he was motivated by concern that the paper would be held responsible for any harm to the protesters.

That Friday was a turning point for the country. The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was set on fire, military vehicles appeared on Cairo's streets, and the population of the Arab world's largest nation began taking stock and taking sides.

"In a sense, the editing room was an example of what was going on in Egypt," says Mr. Al Rehami. "For the first time in the editing room, I saw the fear and panic in place of arrogance in the eyes of Al Ahram's leaders."

In the days that followed, Mr. Soraya appeared agitated, skipping some news meetings altogether, according to some colleagues. But his editorial support for Mr. Mubarak continued. On Feb. 3, the day after pro-regime thugs marauded through Tahrir Square on camels and horses, Al Ahram's headline read: "Millions Come Out to Support Mubarak."

Mr. Soraya appeared as a guest on satellite news channels, describing the protesters variously as traitors, radical Islamists or misled youth.

But his stance was beginning to shift. A few days before Mr. Mubarak resigned, Mr. Soraya allowed the paper to begin publishing a four-page insert called "Youth of Tahrir," which carried positive coverage of the protesters.

On Feb. 11, almost three weeks after the protests began and the day Mr. Mubarak resigned, more than 500 journalists from several Al Ahram publications gathered to consider what to do next, says Sabah Hamamou, the deputy editor of the Business section who helped organize the meeting. Mr. Soraya and several other senior editors were absent.

The reporters decided to print a statement to Al Ahram's readers apologizing for the slanted coverage of the prior few weeks. But the paper's upper management, led by Mr. Soraya, refused to print the apology, even after Mr. Mubarak announced his resignation the following day, according to Ms. Hamamou and Karem Yehia, another reporter.

"We are a national newspaper," says Mr. Soraya. "We can't put out an apology."

Ms. Hamamou used Facebook to convene a press conference at the newspaper's offices on Feb. 16, where she read the statement to local and foreign media.

One week after Mr. Mubarak's exit, late on a weekend evening, Ms. Hamamou was marking the milestone with thousands of others in Tahrir Square when she received a phone call from a colleague. Three boxes were being removed from the editor-in-chief's office.

Ms. Hamamou rushed to Al Ahram to find Mr. Soraya's office manager arguing with security guards who had blocked his path. Ms. Hamamou and a colleague took the boxes back upstairs. She phoned dozens of colleagues. Together, they formed an ad hoc "committee" and stayed at the Al Ahram offices until 4 a.m. combing through the boxes.

They found a Feb. 15 letter from Mr. Soraya and a few other state-run newspaper editors to former President Mubarak, according to Ms. Hamamou and Mr. Yehia. In the letter, the editors urged the president to prevent state-run companies from advertising in two private newspapers to help muffle opposition coverage of the uprising, according to Ms. Hamamou and Mr. Yehia, who saw the letter.

Mr. Soraya denies that the boxes contained any letters or documents.

Some of the paper's reporters say they want Mr. Soraya investigated. They suspect that, like managers of other pro-regime businesses, he received an outsize paycheck due of his support for Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Soraya says he makes about 720,000 Egyptian pounds per year, or about $122,000.

Some Al Ahram reporters and editors say they haven't seen much of Mr. Soraya since Mr. Mubarak's departure. Mr. Soraya says he has given senior editors more of a say, but is still involved in the paper's editorial direction.

"Many of those around the president couldn't grasp the meaning of what was coming, even us," Mr. Soraya says of himself and his top editors.

Some of Mr. Soraya's top lieutenants now want to see the newspaper run democratically, with an editor elected by the paper's staff. Any major decisions on the newspaper's future will likely have to wait until a new government is elected in six month's time.

"Al Ahram once again has the potential to become the best newspaper in the country," says Assem Al Kirsh, the chief editor of Al Ahram's English-language sister publication, Al Ahram Weekly. "A practical apology is to be a good journalist: Report what's going on and don't take sides."