Journalists from Egyptian state media are turning against their bosses. What it means for Mubarak's chances for survival.
By Benjamin Barthe
CAIRO - Held in the lobby of the Egyptian Journalists' Union office, the meeting Monday was meant to be a time for mourning. Members of the institution, a regime stronghold, had planned to honor Ahmed Mahmoud, who'd worked for the Al-Ahram group, a government mouthpiece, who was killed during the recent crackdown of the Egyptian popular uprising. But the meeting quickly turned into an attempted coup.
When Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the Union leader came to pay his respects to the victim's family, he was booed. It was a sign that even regime strongholds are starting to totter. "The governmental press has started its own revolution," says Samer Soliman, a political analyst who also worked for the Al-Ahram group. "In all these institutions, the powers of change are mobilizing. Regime strongmen in the press will fall eventually. We won't have to wait for the elections."
Mahmoud worked for a general news publication called Ta'aoun (Cooperation). According to his widow, on January 29, the 39-year-old was on his office balcony, using his cell-phone to film the clashes taking place in front of the Interior Ministry, when a sniper shot him. "He was shot once in the head," says Ines Abdel Halim, another reporter.
The same day, union members, including many Al-Ahram reporters were effectively becoming dissidents by publishing a statement in support of the protesters' demands. The statement was also a direct attempt to undermine Union leader Ahmed, a prominent figure of the ruling National Democratic Party and Hosni Mubarak's biggest champion, whose loyalty had earned a seat at the Majlis As-Shoura, the Egyptian Senate.
"Since the beginning of the uprising, Makram (Mohammed Ahmed) has de facto closed the union," says Karim Yehya, who signed the statement. "There are no more meetings, no cafeteria, no Internet. The union didn't even say something when foreign reporters were attacked."
Unlike Ibrahim Nafie, Al-Ahram's former boss, who led the union for a while with persisting rumors of corruption, Ahmed, who is also a columnist for the daily newspaper, is regarded as a relatively good journalist. "In the government style, he's the most respectable," says an Al-Ahram reporter, who spoke under condition of anonymity.
But his professionalism stops at the doorsteps of Arab leader's palaces. In April 2010, he was attending a conference organized by the Union of Arab Journalists as the organization's secretary general. At the conference, Tunisia's since deposed President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was awarded a prize for his role in defending freedom of the press.
When the Egyptian revolution started, he showed signs of understanding the youth's demands, but refused to question the President. On February 1, just minutes before Mubarak announced he wouldn't be running for a new term, Ahmed publicly said: "the right thing to do is defend the President."
But the era of automatic obedience is over. Defections are increasingly common. Manal Agrama, a reporter at a culture magazine tied to the Interior Ministry, left her job to join the Tahrir square protesters. "Two weeks off and my boss never dared to call me," she says proud of her audacity. Pressured by the competition, Al-Ahram is revisiting its vocabulary: the word "looter" has disappeared and replaced by the word "revolution".
In the broadcast media, even more prone to pro-regime reports than their print counterparts, anger is also rising. Shahira Amin, deputy chief editor for the national TV, resigned, fed up with the gap between reality and her channel's reports.
"Before getting hired by the state media, reporters must get the OK from the secret services. The Union transformed them into the Mubarak clan's personal PR firm!" says Khaled Daoud, who used to work at Al-Ahram and is now in New York as a correspondent for an Arabic Channel.
When the elevator opened in the journalists' union building and Ahmed came out, the slogans were the same as those heard on Tahrir square: "Erhal!" (Get out!), "Battel!" (Void!), "Barra!" (Out!). "We will get his resignation, like Mubarak's resignation," says Karim Yehya. "All the leaders of the state media will be brought to trial."
After five long minutes of shoving and booing, a very angry Ahmed had to retreat back to his office. Later, the journalists' march for Ahmed Mahmoud, the Egyptian press' martyr, took place in the streets of Cairo. It was the first time in memory that the police hadn't guarded one of their marches. In journalism, like in politics, victory may still be far away, but things will never be the same.