New head of Book Organisation defends his reputation, plans for future

Sayed Mahmoud and Mary Mourad, Tuesday 5 Apr 2011

The new head of the Egyptian General Book Organisation Ahmed Megahed responds to complaints and talks of his plans for the future

After three years as head of the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, Ahmed Megahed was greeted with a demonstration outside his office on his first day as head of the Egyptian General Book Organisation.

The demonstrators were calling for his removal from the new post, following his poor reputation heading the Cultural Palaces. After a talk with the minister of culture Emad Abou-Ghazi, the crowd finally dispersed and allowed Megahed to pass inside.

Megahed started his long career in the late1980s with Fosul, a culture magazine. He was then assigned to the Supreme Council for Culture where he was chief of publications, before heading the Cultural Section at the Organisation for Cultural Palaces and the National Centre for Children’s Culture.

He speaks to Ahram Online on the challenges of his old post and his aspirations for his new one.

Ahram Online (AO): Your work in the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces has disappointed many. It has been reported in the press that ‘you were received with a huge welcome, but left with little regret’. What is the reason behind that?

Ahmed Megahed (AM): That is not necessarily true. The performance of the Cultural Palaces during my tenure was not disappointing at all.

One only has to look at what has been achieved;  Cultural Palaces have been erected in Hurghada, Banha and Guiza after nearly three decades of promises, the design for the new building for the Organisation, the theatre was revived with over 200 productions, many of which won prizes in competitions, and many exhibitions took place.

 A change has taken place in publishing activities, with a large number of publications reaching 25 different series and publications per month, 80 per cent were out of print and many had to be re-printed, such as “A Thousand and One Nights” which caused a stir. I personally believe that once this rush of complaints is over, everyone will be grateful for all I did and accomplished.

AO: Where did the concerns originate?

AM:   They were already there but people were afraid to speak up before the revolution. Now it is the ‘era of complaining’. There were corrupt heads of sections, but people who knew about them did not complain until now, when all the press is open and everyone is complaining of everything. This has taught me a big lesson, never to delegate but to keep a close eye on everything.

But we have to face the facts that money was scarce. Employees are right to complain that their incentives were small.  They believed that senior staff were grabbing the biggest share, while in fact the total budget for incentives wasn’t enough to give them the minimum demanded if each took an equal share, not including performance drives.

AO: Why are activities so limited at the Cultural Palaces, your previous post?

AM: The budget doesn’t allow the establishment of proper safety procedures in all of the palaces. Following the incident at Beni Sweif (a fire started during a performance, exits were locked so no one was able to escape and everyone died), we needed to fix the safety conditions in all the Palaces, and that could not be done at once.

Also the limited budget did not allow for the palaces to open every day, despite the money given by the governorates.

AO: There are complaints that many magazines are of low quality and money is used to publish them, such as El-Mahroussa Online?

AM: The online magazine costs us nothing but the editor-in-chief’s meagre salary (he was the only journalist who would work for such a small wage), but the online setup is done internally at absolutely no cost.  It is used to spread the news of activities and performances and gives a platform for writers from all over Egypt – in fact it is the only one.

AO: What do you have to say about the complaint from Ibrahim Aslan that you censored some of the publications?

AM: That is not the case. There was only one incidence involving Aslan when there was other interference, and I personally sided with him.

There’s no better testimony to our publishing freedom as the case of “A Thousand and One Nights”. The Selefists demanded that we  be punished for the ‘obscene’ content of the book, but we insisted on its publication as part of our heritage.

AO: So you’re happy overall with what has been done in the Cultural Palaces?

AM: I cannot claim that I’ve been the best in this post nor the worst.

There was a golden age for this organisation when it was first established. The cultural policies were dictatorial, the managers had seventeen palaces to operate, and they had a specific mission to accomplish. In today’s world that is not possible. The overall cultural policies are vague and we cannot dictate culture.

But I believe my accomplishments will outlast the rumours.

AO: Looking to the future, what are your plans for the Book Organisation as the official publishers associated with the government of Egypt?

AM: First of all, I was shocked to realise there’s no publishing strategy! There’s no clarity on what should get published. The organisation focused mainly on selecting from the books submitted, without pre-determining what subjects or fields require focus.

I will start by setting up a plan and asking certain writers to contribute. 

In 2008 there were 520 books published, in 2009 there were 488 books, and 2012 books in 2010. This includes the “Reading for All” book project (re-printing famous works in cheap editions to enable access to everyone), so the original publications in 2010 was only 105! That is even less than the Cultural Palaces.

In addition, the quality of books produced was far below the standard appropriate. I have asked a famous painter to design the covers for Salah Jaheen’s complete works, which is something I started in the Cultural Palaces with his cartoons.

It is important to present a suitable book in order to attract the reader. While we were selling a book for LE5, another publisher was selling the same in better quality for LE50 and had much better sales.

Then there will be a renewed focus on outlets. The Organisation has 27 outlets all over Egypt, which require maintenance and space to host events and book signings. In addition, the outlets will be allowed to have books from other publishers.

When we participate in international exhibitions, we will also display books from other publishers to promote all Egyptian books.

AO: What will happen with the ‘Reading for All’ project’, which was sponsored by Mrs Mubarak, the ex-president’s wife?

AM: The project will definitely continue as it allows access to some wonderful material.  Some modifications will have to be made to remove references to the old regime. In the end, the selection of books and the decision to publish had nothing to do with the regime and the project had other major contributions.

AO: Was there any requests to get rid of the photograph of Mrs Mubarak from the covers of previous publications?

AM: This would be a big waste of money. The printing costs around LE2 per book so scrapping the old covers, printing new ones and rebinding them will cost twice as much. We will just let them stay in the sales outlets until they run out.

AO: What about the book fair? There was a statement that compensation will be made to publishers for lost profits.

AM:  Compensation is not my responsibility.  It is handled by the ministry of finance which only asked for the amount for the floor display from publishers and will reimburse accordingly. Although this means that a lot of money will go to international publishers.


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