Employees At Egypt's 'Al-Ahram' Demand Changes

The most widely circulated newspaper in Egypt Al-Ahram was state-run until Hosni Mubarak's regime fell last month. Now the media organization is facing an internal struggle over independent reporting.

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In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak may be out of power, but institutions that supported his regime remain in place. The state controls many corporations, including the media conglomerate that runs Egypt's most venerable newspaper and its chief executive still has his job. This week Steve Inskeep is reporting from Cairo.

STEVE INSKEEP: The other day we walked into the stone-walled lobby of the newspaper Al-Ahram.

Pleased to meet you, I am Steve.

Ms. SABAH HAMAMOU (Deputy Business Editor, Al-Ahram Newspaper): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: We had an appointment with deputy business editor Sabah Hamamou.

Ms. HAMAMOU: Lets have a seat over there and we can...

INSKEEP: ...talk a little bit?

Ms. HAMAMOU: Yeah.

INSKEEP: OK. Im sorry there will be a stand-in in a few minutes?

Ms. HAMAMOU: Right, yes, in this lobby.

INSKEEP: Really, of employees of Al-Ahram?

Ms. HAMAMOU: Yes, yes.

INSKEEP: The stand-in fizzled, but that was OK, since it gave us a chance to talk. Sabah Hamamou is part of a group of employees demanding change at the newspaper. Its coverage of the revolution embarrassed them. Editors minimized the sea of protesters, and inflated the size of crowds supporting Mubarak.

Ms. HAMAMOU: Third of February, Thursday - third of February the headline was that millions of millions in the street, asking for Mubarak. And this was a shame day for me and so many people in the newspaper, but this title has been put by the current editor.

INSKEEP: Even before the protests, there was an awkward incident last year when President Obama hosted leaders including Hosni Mubarak. Al-Ahram doctored a photo to make it seem that Mubarak was walking in front of the American president. Employee Khaled Dawood says the government rewarded people who praised Mubarak or his son.

Mr. KHALED DAWOOD (Employee, Al-Ahram): You got privileges, and that's what's causing a lot of the trouble. You get privileges like an apartment here or some position there. I mean, it was the way that things were run. If you wanted to become an editor, if you wanted to become a managing editor you have to have good relations with the state security. You have to have good relations with the ruling National Democratic Party. And I think that's what were rebelling against.

INSKEEP: Now, employees are sending around emails from what they call the Al-Ahram Salvation Movement. Theyre demanding everything from changes in work rules to changes in their leadership. Sabah Hamamou says she used to be proud of this newspaper, which is more than a century old.

Did you grow up reading this paper and your family?

Ms. HAMAMOU: Oh, definitely. And not only my family, I mean I was listening to one colleague of mine who was saying Al-Ahram was like the morning coffee. You cannot go to your work without your coffee. I mean, this is part of this country's history.

INSKEEP: But the rise of independent media in the last few years exposed just how much the newspaper slanted its stories in favor of the state. During Egypt's uprising last month, hundreds of newspaper employees confronted the head of the conglomerate. Today, that executive, Abdel Moneim Said, admits something went wrong. [

Did the revolution cost Al-Ahram some of its credibility with readers in the public?

Mr. ABDEL MONEIM SAID: Well, the revolution initially, I guess, we were on the wrong side of history at that time.

INSKEEP: Said met us in an elaborately decorated Cairo apartment with mustard-colored walls. He was an academic and writer before becoming an executive. He would almost surely not have been promoted without Hosni Mubarak's support.

Mr. SAID: Thats a man who kept the country in peace for 30 years and that was not a small achievement.

INSKEEP: And though Mubarak is gone, Adbel Menem Said and his management team remain in place. He turned aside demands for his resignation, unless the government wants to replace him. Said contends he's the one who wants to reform the companys business practices, and eventually put it on the free market. Hes likely to still be in charge when Egypt holds a constitutional referendum in the coming days.

INSKEEP: Do you think that your company is in a position to cover the upcoming elections fairly?

Mr. SAID: Greatly, yes. I think there is a big transformation happening now, and I they think they will do it well.

INSKEEP: An independent newspaper noted, last week, that news headlines in the state-owned press increasingly resemble those in the independent press. That said, Al-Ahrams publisher Abdel Menem Said remains wary of the change in his country.

Mr. SAID: Im a reformist, not a revolutionary in any sense. I have a conservative view of revolutions.

INSKEEP: He says neither the French nor the Russian revolutions turned out well in the end. On the same day that we met Abdel Menem Said, the head of state-owned Al-Ahram, he published a column in the newspaper. Said suggested that change came too slowly under President Hosni Mubarak. But he went on to suggest that change is coming too swiftly now.

Steve Inskeep, NPR News, Cairo.

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