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Thursday, 20 September 2018

Al-Ahram Weekly’s silver jubilee

As Al-Ahram Weekly celebrates 25 years since its first edition rolled off the presses in February 1991, the paper’s Editor-in-Chief looks back on a quarter of a century of its history

Galal Nassar , Saturday 27 Feb 2016
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One afternoon in the spring of 1990, I was on the editing floor of Al-Ahram daily. I was a trainee, moving from one department to another at Al-Ahram, one of the oldest media organisations in the world (Al-Ahram itself will turn 140 this coming August).

The then deputy editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language daily approached me and asked me to come to his office. He told me that Al-Ahram was starting an English-language weekly newspaper and that my name had been put forward, among those of several other young men and women, to help found the newspaper and carry it into the future.

The first issue of the Al-Ahram Weekly appeared on Thursday 28 February 1991. The edition you are reading now appears a quarter of a century later on the Weekly’s silver jubilee. Over these years, the Weekly has observed and chronicled events in Egypt, the Middle East and the world, making its mark in the history of the regional and international press. It hopes to continue to do so for many more years to come.

In February 1991, anxiety and uncertainty hovered over the region and the world because of events in the Gulf, where all eyes were riveted on Operation Desert Storm. On that Thursday 25 years ago, Iraq announced its acceptance of all the UN resolutions concerning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

After then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of neighbouring Kuwait on 2 August 1990, an international coalition, led by the US, was forged to liberate the country. Among its 34 members were many Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Syria, Morocco and Bahrain. Jordan and Yemen opposed the operation, and Algeria, Tunisia, the PLO, Mauritania, Sudan and Libya voiced reservations.

The Arab League secretary-general at the time, the Tunisian Chedli Klibi, tendered his resignation during the build-up to the war against Iraq. These extremely fraught moments ushered in the beginning of the end of the already frail edifice of the Arab order, which afterwards continued to fissure and crumble.

Operation Desert Storm not only drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, but it also led to the destruction of the Iraqi army and Republican Guard, previously one of the strongest armies in the region and the world. Iraq itself was subjected to a 13-year international blockade. The period also saw the first Iraqi Scud missiles fired in the directions of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, though they made no military or strategic impact.

Perhaps the two most important outcomes of the war, apart from the collapse of the Iraqi army and the blockade of Iraq, were the permanent presence of foreign military forces in the Gulf region, based primarily in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, and the Madrid Conference that opened on 30 October 1991 and hosted bilateral peace talks between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and multilateral talks on questions that required cooperation among all the parties concerned.

Convened in response to an initiative by the then US president, George Bush Sr, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, the conference was held under the patronage of the US and the former USSR following agreement that it would be held on the basis of the principle of “land for peace” and UN Security Council Resolutions 242, 338 and 425.

The Jordanian and Palestinian delegations attended separately, while Syria and Lebanon attended jointly to maintain unified positions on what they insisted was a single negotiating track. Numerous rounds of negotiations, backpedalling, concessions, reversals and the like led to the Oslo 1, Oslo 2, Wye River and Taba meetings, the Hamas coup in Gaza, and the current Palestinian schism we see today.

In 1991, Cairo University, where I was studying at the time, was also the scene of daily demonstrations against the Gulf War. Students and large portions of the Egyptian public from across the political spectrum took part in the protests, as was the case elsewhere in the Arab world, which was divided between Desert Storm supporters, opponents and sceptics.

On the one hand, it looked as if the Arabs’ first and most important cause, the Palestinian cause, was being sidelined. On the other, the weave between domestic and regional threads and political and religious dynamics suggested that a new order and new domestic and regional forces were being primed to take up a role that would serve as an alternative to the existing systems and regimes.

Seething anger and all the ingredients for revolution were present. They just needed to be kept on a slow and steady simmer until the right moment came, when it would be possible to take advantage of the failure of the Arab nationalist projects and the feebleness of the political and ideological alternatives to leverage religion and the religious forces and make them the sole vehicle for the Arab order and the Arab peoples for decades to come.

The Weekly’s role

The history of the press tells us that the newspapers that leave the largest imprint and play the greatest role in the history of the profession are those that have responded to the needs of readers and their societies and nations. Perhaps the abovementioned features of the then-existing regional political scene were what stimulated the need for a new newspaper and a new type of journalism.

At that time, Al-Ahram, together with many among the political and intellectual elites in Egypt, realised the need for an English-language newspaper that would have the skills and capacity to address English-speaking audiences in the West and elsewhere in the world and add the Egyptian narrative to the many others being disseminated about developments in our country and the region.

A professional and balanced Egyptian perspective, voiced in a written English that would be as eloquent as any in the US or British press, would fill a significant gap in the Western and international media coverage of Egypt and the region, all the more so as much of this lacked precision, in-depth knowledge or objectivity. In addition, most other countries in the region, including Israel, Turkey, Iran, Jordan and the Gulf countries, already had English-language newspapers to voice their interests, regardless of whether or not these were officially linked to their regimes.

It was thus decided to create the Al-Ahram Weekly. The task was handed to the astute and dynamic Hosni Guindi, the newspaper’s first editor-in-chief, who formed the first working team that established the new paper’s editorial policies, organisational structures and operational methods. The founding team consisted of Samir Sobhi, Mahmoud Murad, Mohamed Salmawy, Morsi Saad Al-Din, Hassan Fouad, Bahgat Badie, Mona Anis, Jill Kamel, Sofi Tharwat, Fayza Hassan, Wadie Kyrillos, Mamdouh Al-Gohari and, subsequently, Hani Shukrallah, Mamdouh Al-Dakhakhni and Maurice Guindi. They were joined by recent university graduates and foreign professionals of various nationalities.

Guindi and his team also arranged for regular contributions from such prominent intellectuals, scholars and writers as Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Naguib Mahfouz, Mohamed Sayed Ahmed, Edward Said, Iqbal Ahmed, Salama Ahmed Salama, Mohamed Al-Sayed Said, Abdel-Wahab Al-Messiri, Anwar Abdel-Malik, Nayef Hawatmeh, Azmi Bishara and Hamid Dabashi.

From day one, and as the team began to prepare the paper’s pilot edition, the newspaper was guided by an Egyptian national perspective, as opposed to the perspective of the political regime. It was founded to represent as diverse an array of political, cultural and social outlooks as possible, together with the views of the various institutions of government, political parties, social forces and civil society entities.

The newspaper sought to serve as a forum where the facts could be given as objectively as possible. It would not be our job to paint a false picture, varnish the truth or disseminate fictions that flew in the face of reality, jeopardising the credibility of the nascent newspaper. Instead, our job was to put into practice the values and principles embodied in the person of the founding editor-in-chief and handed on from generation to generation of our staff.

Because of our commitment to this editorial policy, the Weekly swiftly acquired a unique character in both form and substance among Egyptian newspapers, including the Arabic-language ones. It is noteworthy, for example, that it was the only newspaper that did not alter its editorial policy following the 25 January and 30 June revolutions. The simple reason for this was that it was never an arm of the former Mubarak regime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that assumed power after the 25 January Revolution, or the Muslim Brotherhood regime. In like manner, the Weekly is not an arm of the current regime led by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

The Weekly had to fight several face-to-face, as well as indirect, battles to safeguard this independence. Editorial independence is something that is not simply granted, but is rather won by means of an unswerving commitment to professionalism and objectivity. It was this commitment that earned the newspaper its prestige, built its reputation for evenhandedness, and helped to serve Egyptian and Arab interests.

It is sufficient to note that the Weekly has become one of the most frequently cited sources for studies on Egypt and the Middle East conducted by Western and international research centres and think tanks, and that the names of the Weekly’s prominent editors, reporters, columnists and contributors instantly pop up on Internet searches of their websites.

When the Weekly set off on its journey, its course was largely shaped by the socio-political environment described above: the beginning of the decline of the Arab order in 1991, the collapse of its chief actors one after another, the erosion of the constitutional legitimacies of a large number of ruling regimes due to the cumulative effects of a large array of problems, including rampant corruption, injustice and the lack of the rule of law.

It was a period when hope evaporated while mounting frustration and anger fuelled protests, strikes and, in a still more dramatic development, a wave of revolutions, followed by intensive polarisation, fragmentation and the disintegration and chaos we see across the region today. Egypt, however, has managed to weather the tumultuous storms that have swept the country and the region, standing firm among the vestiges of states that have slid over the precipice and collapsed, as though inexorably drawn to their fate.

The Weekly’s jubilee

It is at this juncture, on 28 February 2016, a quarter of a century after the Weekly was launched, that we need to search ever more intensively for a way out of the crisis and review the role and aims of a newspaper that was itself born in the midst of crisis. There is a need to build on the paper’s mission to chronicle, discuss and accumulate the vast and constantly growing store of knowledge in the English language on Egypt, the region and the world.

I started out as a junior editor on the paper a quarter of a century ago and became editor-in-chief four years ago. I feel it is my duty, as we celebrate the newspaper’s silver jubilee, to offer recommendations that I believe will help the Weekly remain on course and progress over the years and decades to come.

It is time for the Weekly to become a daily newspaper, supplying up-to-the-minute news and information while adding a day-to-day Egyptian narrative to the hundreds that are now published on Egypt and the region. This daily print edition should be supplemented by an electronic edition that operates 24/7, in collaboration with Al-Ahram’s existing English-language website, Ahram Online.

It is time that the Weekly was printed and distributed in major cities around the world, including London, New York, Washington, Tokyo, Dubai, Ottawa and Sydney. It would thus play the role of connecting together the generations of Egyptian and Arab immigrants abroad, on the condition that it was made available in the places where they congregate, such as churches, Islamic centres, and Egyptian and Arab community centres and associations.

The appropriate level of logistical support should be provided through the state distribution services, the State Information Service and Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad to ensure that the Weekly always arrives on time at research centres, university libraries and other academic institutions concerned with the Middle East, as well as at major international organisations and bodies abroad, such as UN organisations, the European Parliament, the US Congress, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finally, Al-Ahram Weekly, together with Egypt’s other international media outlets, should be allowed to operate in a manner that buffers it from the financial problems that have plagued the national press. This requires a guaranteed budget, sound management and freedom from shortsighted calculations of profit and loss, especially since no high-quality international communications outlet that was conceived in large part as a public service has ever been expected to make a profit.

*This article was published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper on Thursday 25 February.

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