Egypt crisis: Al-Ahram's own revolution in Cairo

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Cairo

Image caption,
Once a monolith, al-Ahram is now an organisation at war with itself

It may not look like it from the outside, but a concrete tower block in central Cairo - rising above one of the city's congested flyovers - houses one of most venerable institutions in the Arab world.

Not quite as old as the pyramids from which its name is derived, al-Ahram was founded in 1875 and has, over time, become a newspaper, publishing house, think-tank and cultural centre.

But it is also owned by the government and so, in the wake of Egypt's recent tumultuous events, it has become an organisation at war with itself.

Some are calling it al-Ahram's own revolution.


Passions ran high at a recent meeting of journalists rebelling against a management appointed by the state and loyal to President Hosni Mubarak. Until his departure.

Sabah Hamamou is one of the rebels. She has worked at the paper for 18 years and is currently deputy business editor. She is fiercely loyal to a place she calls home - but eager for change.

"I think al-Ahram is in danger," she says. "If some editors really care about al-Ahram as part of Egypt, they should take honourable stand and resign."

Inspired by the events of recent weeks, Ms Hamamou thinks the paper should follow suit.

"As Egypt has been reborn on the 11 February, I believe al-Ahram will take a chance and we are able to do that," she insists.

At a press conference on Wednesday, journalists demanded changes that mirror some of the country's recent political developments, including a new board of directors and editorial council for a transitional period, followed by democratic elections for both bodies.

Earlier in the week, the paper issued an apology to its readers, confessing to what it called "unprofessional and unethical coverage" of the uprising.

"We failed to hear the thundering message of change," it said.

'Tough question'

Charges of unethical behaviour were already raised last September, when the paper ran a doctored version of an official White House photo.

Image caption,
The 6 April movement marked the changes made by al-Ahram with blue arrows

In the original, Barack Obama was depicted leading a group of Middle Eastern leaders down the red carpet to a press conference, with President Mubarak trailing last.

Al-Ahram decided to place the Egyptian leader at the front of the group.

In the corridor outside the newsroom, the man responsible for that controversial decision, editor-in-chief Osama Saraya, is pictured having a tete-a-tete with the former president.

During an interview with the BBC's Arabic Service, Mr Saraya responds angrily to questions about calls for him to resign.

"You are inciting against me. Is that what you're trying to do?" he says. "I reject incitement from the BBC or any Arab or foreign channel."

In language reminiscent of Mr Mubarak's final television appearances, Mr Saraya accuses the interviewer of trying to undermine stability at al-Ahram.

"This is a dangerous moment in Egypt's political history," he says, before throwing his microphone to the floor.

Change of tone

With events moving so fast in Egypt, al-Ahram has altered the tone of its coverage dramatically, but the calls for change at the top of the paper are not going away.

"This is our house. This is ours," says Ms Hamamou. "This is not the current editor's. This is not the government's."

And who is going to win this in-house revolution?

"It's a very tough question," she says, after a little thought. "But who won in Tahrir Square?"

A raucous debate about the future of the paper continues, typical of discussions taking place up and down the land as Egyptians grapple with the possibilities, and the limitations, of their fledgling revolution.

And it seems no institution, however venerable, is immune.

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