This week Al-Ahram bid farewell to former editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly Assem El-Kersh, who lost the battle against the coronavirus at the age of 66.
A career journalist with a degree from the Cairo University Faculty of Mass Communications, El-Kersh served in Al-Ahram newsroom from the mid-1970s onwards. He started his career at the foreign desk before being assigned the presidential beat.
He contributed to the coverage of major news stories, including the re-launch of Egyptian-American relations, the dramatic announcement by former president Anwar Al-Sadat of his intention to visit Israel to negotiate a peace deal, the subsequent Camp David talks, the fall of the shah in the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and 10 years later the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union.
El-Kersh later joined the editorial teams of leading Arab and international newspapers and news agencies, where he covered Egyptian politics both at home and abroad. He was appointed head of the Al-Ahram bureau in London before coming back to work in the newsroom of Al-Ahram to follow developing international and regional dynamics, including the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the rising regional roles of Turkey and Iran.
In 2005, El-Kersh was appointed editor-in-chief of the Weekly, replacing its then acting editor-in-chief and founding senior staff member Hany Shukrallah. The appointment took place at a confused political moment, when the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak seemed to be set on grooming the president’s son Gamal Mubarak for a larger political role. Neither the significance of his predecessor at the paper nor the nature of the political moment made El-Kersh’s job an easy one.
But he was determined to do the best he could, though he acknowledged that the requirements of his new job at the head of the country’s leading state-run English-language newspaper at a moment of changing political dynamics was a sensitive one. He was also aware that the mood in the newsroom yearned for a measure of greater freedom in covering what seemed to be a unique moment of political activism.
In the seven years that he led the Weekly from 2005 until 2012, El-Kersh had to make decisions on covering major home political events, including the launch of socio-economic protests, the introduction of the 6 April Movement, and the growing unease with Mubarak’s rule and the grooming of his son. There were also disturbing human-rights violations, the entry of opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei onto the political scene, the growing appeal of Political Islam in some sectors of the population, and the declining health of Mubarak himself.
El-Kersh held that the Weekly’s coverage had to be sustainable and to avoid collisions that could eliminate margins of freedom. He was not, however, unaware of the political unease. In early 2010, while asking for a few lines to be edited out of what he called a very good article on the growing public protests against the Mubarak regime’s socio-economic policies, El-Kersh said that “we don’t want to implicitly forecast an end to Mubarak similar to that of [Nicolae] Ceausescu [the last Communist president of Romania].”
During the early days of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, El-Kersh had to face difficult editorial decisions, not just because the Weekly staff for the most part felt that the revolution was unstoppable, but also because he himself was not sure whether or not Mubarak would do what it took to accommodate the protests before things were too late.
Towards the end of 2011, in a moment of national hope for democracy and greater freedom of the press, El-Kersh saw new rules being introduced to newsrooms across the country. It was a new phase that was to bring in new faces. He knew that his journey with the Weekly was nearing its end.
El-Kersh was back in the Al-Ahram newsroom in 2012, again in a leading capacity. He started a series of articles in Al-Ahram in which he tried to re-read the last years of Mubarak’s rule, both at home and abroad. For some, the articles seemed to have been written by a journalist with special insight, given his access to the corridors of political power and especially to the former National Democratic Party that had been the ruling party during Mubarak’s rule. For others, however, they read as an attempt to disassociate himself from the cliques around the former president.
Perhaps the articles were neither, and were in fact more El-Kersh’s way of sharing his notes, something that a former presidential correspondent would naturally want to do.
El-Kersh had no regrets about his choices, and in a later conversation he said that his conscience from the Mubarak years was clear and that his years in journalism, including his seven years at the head of the Weekly, would be judged by the stories he had produced and the issues of the paper that had come out when he was editor-in-chief. Nothing had gone uncovered, even if some things had not been reported in full.
He was married to Nagwa Abdel-Hamid, with whom he had two children, Hisham and Yasmine. The Weekly editors and staff joined his family and friends to bid him farewell last Friday at noon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly