28 Jan. - 3 Feb. 1999
Issue No. 414
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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photo: Randa Shaath
Makram Mohamed Ahmed:
Cold facts, burning inkProfile by Aziza Sami
Down the echoing halls of Dar Al-Hilal, footsteps sound: quick, irreverent, hurried. There's news to be told
The light filtered through the closed shutters of the tall windows. In the spacious office once used by Dar Al-Hilal's founders, the Zeidans, Makram Mohamed Ahmed sat at the almost empty desk. Only a cup of Turkish coffee steamed before him. A burly man with greying hair, he wore an air of preoccupation, a serious intensity.
He spoke more slowly than usual, the Rs rolled slightly, as if to himself. The magnificent building, with its splendid halls and awesome flight of steps "was built after the Second World War, from the proceeds collected by the Zeidans from printing propaganda posters for the Allies. You can see how beautiful it is, how big; but in the end, only very little of it is actually used, a corridor with rooms at the side."
When he became Dar Al-Hilal's chairman and editor-in-chief of the publishing house's weekly magazine, Al-Musawwar, in 1981, he vowed to return the veteran publishing house to its former place at the heart of political and cultural life. For the first 10 years, he breathed life into it. He is widely recognised as one of the best journalists in the business.
His professional competence causes expectations to run high. He has headed the Journalists' Syndicate three times, serving from 1989 to 1991, from 1991 to 1993, and from 1997 until now. He is expected to run again in the coming elections in March. Yet he has faced criticism that the syndicate, weathering the administrative and legal controls set by the government, has been tamed since the 1970s, when, stronger and more confrontationalist, it raised issues of democracy and journalists' rights and was generally more vocal.
"I don't agree," he says softly. "The syndicate has always played a very important role in upholding freedom of expression, as well as journalists' rights, materially and professionally, and this is what it is still doing. To say that this role is now being frustrated by the government: I don't think so at all. When there was reason for it, when the issues were hot, there were strikes and protests, as in the case of Law 93 four years ago."
For the whole hour, he did not stop fidgeting with his keys. He was a heavy smoker, once, but he stopped for health reasons. One imagines he quit cold turkey: no hesitation. Still, something of the forceful presence is tempered. Is this the man some describe as capable of being aggressive?
"By the way, I was a board member of this strong syndicate you are referring to." Ah, here is an echo of the quick temper... During his three terms as head of the syndicate, he worked to put the opposition party newspapers on an equal footing with the national press, materially and professionally. He advocated a private-sector press, and took care that channels with different political groups be kept open.
Although not head of the syndicate at the time, he was very active in the committee that organised protests against Law 93/1995, notorious for stipulating prison terms for journalists found guilty of slander and defamation.
Now, he is both the elected head of the syndicate and the government-appointed chairman of a national press institution. How does he represent the interests of journalists in the face of the government?
He operates, as have others before him, in the paradoxical role of the go-between -- a role symptomatic of current political realities.
"I see no contradiction, really, I do not think this situation has compromised the syndicate's role. The proof was the stance on Law 93. The syndicate is still defending the freedom of expression, and journalists' material rights, in addition to setting professional criteria." He believes that conditions have greatly improved due to the existence of opposition and private-sector newspapers: the competition they provide, he asserts, has nudged the state-controlled press out of its complacency. "This means that the national press no longer has a monopoly on the news. If they do not publish news, others will. Also, with Mubarak there is an awareness that freedom of the press is part of the system's legitimacy."
But legislation affecting the press has yet to be addressed, he agrees. "The prison terms to which journalists were condemned recently were legal sentences, not administrative decrees. And so we still have to address the legislature and ask for abrogation of the law prescribing imprisonment as a penalty for publication crimes, and have it replaced with a financial fines." The secretary came in with a sheaf of paper. Makram signed quickly. After that, there were no interruptions.
"In the end, this is a domain where one must have a clear position on things. This is why we will ask the fourth congress of journalists to convene in February."
He had come from his home at the end of Higaz Street in Heliopolis, that Friday evening in late December. Mercurial yet accessible, not standing much on ceremony, he sat at the desk, at ease in the splendid office.
The work of contemporary Egyptian artists contrasted strangely with the expansive walls, on lease from the artists, a tradition Makram took care to have introduced to Dar Al-Hilal. "We cannot afford to buy them as other press institutions have. But it is a good tradition, the artists are happy to have their works shown, and we in turn feel we are contributing something."
Surroundings matter. In a corner of the office were a rattan sofa and armchairs, part of the original furnishings placed there by the Zeidans. He has had another set made, in the same style.
He spoke of Dar Al-Hilal's centennial celebrations, held seven years ago. "I remember President Mubarak came and spent the day here. He saw the memorial editions which Al-Hilal used to publish on royal occasions. They were magnificent: the binding, the quality of paper used. It tells you something about the standards of the Egyptian press." He was speaking, clearly, of something he cherished personally. Yet some say he lost his enthusiasm for developing Al-Hilal, and that, save for his own articles, not much has been done to push it into new domains.
"I believe the opposite is true," he said, calmly but assertively. "I believe Al-Hilal, with its publications, its books, its specialised magazines for children, plays an important role in the cultural life of this country."
FRONT PAGE: receiving an award from President Mubarak;
..Ibrahim Nafie expressing his support at the syndicate elections;
..in northern Iraq with the late Kurdish resistance leader Mustafa Barzani;
..with Yasser Arafat;
..speaking at the Shura Council;
..as a fledgling journalist
Born in Menoufiya in 1935, he studied philosophy at Cairo University. He started work as a reporter on the crime and features pages at Al-Ahram in 1958. He was a correspondent in Syria, and covered the war in Yemen, the Somali-Ethiopian war and the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq.
He became Al-Ahram's managing editor in 1973 -- one of the best, is the general consensus. His presence in the vast editorial hall on the fourth floor was electrifying, galvanising others into action. Quick-paced, keeping up with events, not a moment wasted. His external bluster would set colleagues off balance, but inside he was focused, knowing what he wanted to do. Down in the printing press, on a small piece of paper held up against the wall, he would scribble new headlines. These frequently turned the paper upside down.
A scoop: he announced news of the Camp David Accords in 1978, earning a reprimand from Sadat for having done so. On the eve of the signing, he issued six editions of the newspaper for the first time in the history of Al-Ahram, publishing the full text of the accords. These pushed circulation up to a then record-breaking million copies. Little concerned with the consequences, he had also been the first to reveal that the Egyptian army was about to withdraw from Yemen in the early '60s. His obsession with breaking news landed him in a military prison for having published state secrets. The news, nevertheless, was out. That, to Makram, was all that mattered.
Theorising: not for him. Adrenaline runs with the events.
In the early '60s, he wrote of rural development, of the effect of the Suez Canal on the economy after its nationalisation. He wrote of the Palestinian resistance -- one of the first journalists to do so; of the Egyptian labour force and its structure; of the educational system and the need to revolutionise it. He covered the first multi-party elections held under Sadat, when the Arab Socialist Union was dismantled; he ran a poll in 1978 on Egypt's peace initiative with Israel.
He had supported Sadat's visit to Israel and was fired at in 1987, perhaps because of his political position, or because of his stance as a writer considered secular by Islamist groups.
"One Hundred Years of Enlightenment": that was the motto for the centennial celebrations of Dar Al-Hilal, a tribute to the values of rationality, and a commemoration of Egypt's prolific intellectual, political and literary life during the first half of the 20th century. "We had writers from the Maghreb, from Lebanon and Syria... Egypt hosted the Iraqi poet Al-Jawahri." He rejoiced at the contact renewed with Arab intellectuals after the period of isolation that followed the Camp David peace accords.
At Al-Hilal, up and down the corridors he goes, hardly staying in his office for a minute. He meets with his staff twice a week in one of the spacious rooms with the long table at the side, overlooking Mubtadayan Street.
Today, many things irk him: "The lack of scientific management of newspapers, the financial losses they incur, the use of advertisements as editorial material, and, more than anything else, the archaic manner in which journalists operate.
"It is unthinkable that a reporter, in this day and age, should be writing with pen and paper, that his database be old files filled with scraps of yellowing and torn paper. Less than a handful of reporters in Egypt own personal computers or have access to the Internet."
He is proud that the syndicate has organised Internet courses and provided grants assisting young reporters to purchase personal computers. Such a development, he thinks, will ultimately revolutionise the press.
He was a prominent advocate of private-sector newspapers, but he disagrees with those who advocate privatising the national press. "Until there are deep-rooted and strong political parties and institutions which allow for real checks and balances, then we cannot say that the national press should undergo a change. When we have strong, independent private press institutions, the national press will find itself induced to change."
Behind him, a row of books on the shelf. He is an avid reader, a writer who has mastered powerful style and cool logic. His editorials in Al-Musawwar, even when reflecting the government's stance, are written with a mind to reach those critical of its policies. Last week, he grilled the minister of irrigation on reservations raised against the Toshki project, accepting no less than the hardest facts in reply to his probing questions. He takes care that bridges be thrown to the other side of the political fence and knows that his credibility lies in this.
Beneath the gruff exterior, he is kind, timid even, and loyal to his friends, many of whom are considered anti-establishment.
His wife studied philosophy with him at university. After more than 30 years of marriage, children and grandchildren, she loves him and defends him with loyalty, and speaks of him with an almost romantic attachment. More than anyone else, she feels how deeply his concerns run. Some give him credit for not having being sufficiently pragmatic. The quintessential journalist, not the consummate politician?
He looked squarely at the desk. "There is no spilt milk to cry over, you know, nothing to regret." He feels he has the profession to fall back upon. "If I were to leave this post today, I would still be a reporter, anytime, anywhere."
The pièces de résistance of Al-Musawwar, the main magazine published by Al-Hilal, are his interviews with officials and politicians, big spreads with photos. The guest sits on one side of a long table, Makram, along with his editorial staff, on the other. He is a part and parcel of the whole, never aloof from those he works with. He corners, induces and accepts nothing at face value. Then, he is in his element.