• 10:23
  • Monday ,10 September 2012

Back to the future

by Hani Shukrallah



Monday ,10 September 2012

Back to the future

It's been something over seven years since I last wrote for Al-Ahram Weekly. I do so today upon the request of my old friend and colleague Galal Nasser, who has just taken over as the Weekly's Editor-in-Chief. 

I do so, however, not as a staffer but as an outside contributor, taking over the space that until recently, and since the founding of the Weekly, had been occupied by the late Salama Ahmed Salama, whose recent passing has lost Egyptian journalism its most outstanding columnist, and one of the noblest and most honourable representatives of the profession.

Looking back at the issue of 5 May 2005 I find my Ahram Weekly swan song in the form of two pieces: a front-page "comment" occasioned by rather wretched twin terrorist attacks in down-town Cairo earlier in the week, and the second, my usual op-ed column, published for many years on the opinion page under the generic heading, "reflections".

With the benefit of post-revolutionary hindsight, the two pieces had some interesting things to say.  

Take for instance, the front-page comment, titled – upon the suggestion of my friend and colleague Mona Anis – "Swage Street Story", in reference to the fact that one of the young hapless terrorists lived on a slum street popularly known by that distasteful name.

Focusing on the apparent paradox of terror attacks being launched even as the country's political space seemed to be seething with new life and dynamism, I tried to draw attention to the almost total absence of a social element in the political battles of 2005, which Egypt's political elite had rather appallingly tagged "the year of political mobility".

I wrote: "Busy squabbling over the terms and scope of political reform has anyone given a thought to the people who live on Sewage Street? … Is anyone interested in helping them find their own way onto the political stage?

"That groups of fanatical, desperate and poorly-educated adolescents can hold a nation's future hostage is outrageous. But they can, and will continue to sprout like so many mushrooms as long as we have security bodies that roundup and torture people in their thousands, and an intellectual and political class that is unwilling to ponder, let alone accommodate, the lives of millions of Egyptians, or to perceive them as anything more than objects of manipulation."

Similarly, in my op-ed article titled "Big trouble, small acres", I wrote: "A political system the most remarkable feature of which has been its longevity is finally giving up the ghost, or to use a more accurate metaphor, crumbling under its own weight…

"Where it will lead depends on how and when the Egyptian people finally enter the fray. Enter it they must, that at least is clear. A decades-old high dam made up of fear, intimidation and resignation is fracturing by the day; the waters of pent-up dissatisfaction will inevitably pour through."

A couple of months later, in July 2005, I was given the boot.

Five years later the dam came down, the waters poured through; the Egyptian people gloriously entered the fray.

I had wished it, even came near to predicting it, but had not really expected to see it, at least not in my life time. 25 January 2011, I admit, took me totally by surprise.

My expulsion from the Weekly had also come as a surprise, though I cannot today fathom why. My brother's Thursday morning phone call, upon reading my column, almost invariably began with the question: "Have they fired you yet." 

It was nevertheless relatively mild punishment for years of consistent resolve on the part not just of myself but of our editorial team and much of our staff to "push the envelope" as far as we possibly can.

"Why do they hate you so much?" a senior member of the then ruling NDP's Policies Committee and an old friend of the family asked me some time later. "They" were the State Security Intelligence, who had been the principal actors in my deletion from the Weekly. I had no answer save that the feeling was mutual.

It was a paltry price to pay for what ultimately was little more than holding onto the minimum of personal and professional integrity necessary for one to be worthy of the label, journalist.

A mere month before, on 2 June, a remarkably like-minded friend, Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir was assassinated in front of his home in Beirut. That was his punishment for expressing in writing – elegantly, intelligently and compellingly – what he believed to be true, the very definition of what a true journalist is.

I remarked on this in an article in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat a few months later, citing it as indicative of the relatively mild nature of Egyptian authoritarianism when compared to its Levantine, in this case Syrian, counterpart. This observation, needless to say, has been made horrifyingly glaring in the course of the past months.

Yet, the story of the anomaly that was the state-owned Al-Ahram Weekly is still to be told, and it is, I believe, an interesting story, revealing aspects of the life, vitality and, indeed, subversion that seethed beneath the stagnant, putrescent waters of Mubarak's Egypt.

This being said, I feel bound to conclude my first contribution to the Weekly in seven years, by remembering – lovingly and with immense gratitude for having known, befriended and worked with them – a group of remarkable people, both staffers and contributors, who amazingly collected under the Weekly's rather humble ramshackle roof, redefining it as something so much larger than just one of 17 publications issued by the state-owned Al-Ahram.

Al-Ahram Weekly would not have been what it was if it were not for: the saintly, boundless courage of founding chief editor Hosny Guindy, the scholarly genius of Edward Said and Iqbal Ahmad, the brilliant intellectual audacity of Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, ever dauntlessly leaping where angels fear to tread and the nobility and integrity of Salama Ahmed Salama.

It was however the newspaper's most popular columnist, among our readers as indeed among ourselves: Fayza Hassan, whose incisive intelligence, insatiable thirst for knowledge and razor-sharp wit provided the very spice that – for many years – gave the Weekly its unique taste.

My relationship to Al-Ahram Weekly, turbulent as it had been, leaves me with no regrets. Save one: when Fayza died in August 2009 it had been several years since I had last seen her.