13 - 19 January 2000
Issue No. 464
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Back to lifeProfile by Shaden Shehab
He is traditional and rebellious, critical and conciliatory, whimsical with a note of sadness
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I had heard about Salaheddin Hafez before I met him several years ago. "He is a very nice man. He is one of the best writers at Al-Ahram. He is an advocate of press freedom." This was some of the praise I heard, mostly from fellow journalists.
When I first interviewed him on matters concerning the press, I felt he was all of these things.
Hafez, 60, is the managing editor of Al-Ahram and in charge of Al-Ahram's international edition. Making his way up to where he is today was not a piece of cake, especially since his views were not necessarily in harmony with those of the various governments he has outlived.
It all started during his second year at university. He was studying journalism at Cairo University. Mustafa Amin -- one of the duo that founded Akhbar Al-Youm, and one of Hafez's professors -- chose him to train at Akhbar Al-Youm. For a year, he worked mornings at Akher Sa'a magazine, one of Akhbar Al-Youm's publications, and nights at the newspaper, making LE5 a month.
Then he worked with the now defunct Al-Shaab newspaper, for LE12. "I learned the true meaning of journalism there and met many prominent chief editors who were also pioneering journalists," Hafez says proudly. When Al-Shaab was shut down, Hafez lost his job. Some of his colleagues were dismissed; others went to work at Al-Gomhouriya. It was the first time he had been forced to leave a job. "I was only 19, and had not yet graduated."
He worked briefly at Al-Ta'awun before moving to Al-Ahram in 1968. He served as the Press Syndicate's secretary-general between 1967 and 1971, and again between 1973 and 1977.
After one of the Press Syndicate council meetings, Ali El-Gammal -- managing editor of Al-Ahram at the time -- asked him if he was interested in working for the newspaper. "It was a great surprise. I told him, 'I don't know what to say'," Hafez recalls. "After a couple of days he telephoned me and I told him I would love the job. It was an honour for any young journalist." El-Gammal introduced him to Mamdouh Taha, head of the home desk at the time, who let him start working as sub-editor. "Then I suddenly came face to face to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal [renowned journalist and then editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram] for the first time. I was scared, full of admiration and contradictory emotions," Hafez says, eyes sparkling.
From to bottom: with President Mubarak on Media Day; interview with Amr Moussa; with Pope Shenouda III; as the first Egyptian journalist to visit Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion; right: caricature by Sherif Eleish
Heikal asked him: "Why are you being such a trouble maker at the syndicate?"
"A trouble maker, but one with a point of view," Hafez retorted.
Heikal then asked him what his conditions were. Would he accept to work at Al-Ahram?
"My conditions?," Hafez asked in astonishment.
"I will never forget that conversation. It made a huge difference in my life," Hafez remembers today.
But he did not work happily ever after: he was fired twice for political reasons. In 1971, he was dismissed and transferred to the State Information Service, "because President Sadat thought I was one of his opponents." At the time, the Press Syndicate and the Bar Association were the most vocal and influential professional institutions in the country.
The second time was in September 1981, when Sadat rounded up many of those he considered his detractors. Sixty-seven journalists and 62 university professors were fired, and about 1,500 people arrested. "That was when I realised why people start talking to themselves," Hafez jokes.
So he decided to leave the country. "The pressure was too great," he said. He accepted an offer from Qatar, where he established Al-Raya, a daily newspaper "of which I am very proud".
Although his experiences of dismissal affected him psychologically, they did not diminish his enthusiasm. "I believe that a person who chooses to be a journalist with an opinion must expect such things to happen if he really believes and stands by his views," he affirms.
It is obvious that Hafez hates measures that restrict freedom. For years, maybe inspired by his own experience, he wrote and fought against such measures, especially legal provisions. He believes that the crises between press and government that arise from time to time result from a mutual misunderstanding. "This situation has resulted in the inability to define the relationship between the press and the government for nearly two centuries. This relationship has been marred by conflict -- a conflict between a press that seeks independence and a government that wants to control the press."
Freedom of expression should be a right, Hafez strongly feels. "A journalist should not be assigned to another job against his will or imprisoned in the same cell as murderers, thieves, and rapists," he says.
Such restrictive measures are incompatible with the margin of democracy the press enjoys today, he believes. But he agrees that the press has more freedom than in the past, and suffers from fewer restrictions than those imposed in many neighbouring countries. "I believe that change will not come through anger and strikes, but through dialogue -- which is what the syndicate is doing now," he asserts.
Hafez is a member of the board of trustees of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, as well as the International Journalism Institute for Defending the Freedom of Press and Expression. He has written a number of books on politics and freedom.
But does Al-Ahram publish all his articles? What about the ones that can be considered critical of government policies?
A gentlemen's agreement on that matter was concluded long ago with Ibrahim Nafie, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, Hafez admits. "This agreement makes Nafie the only judge of whether or not an article I write should be published. He has a liberal personality, and understands quite well what it means to lift a writer's article. If he is convinced that my article cannot be published, then he has the right to remove it," Hafez explains. But "barely two weeks will pass without one of us trying to convince the other of his point of view," he says with a grin.
Hafez believes Al-Ahram played a pioneering role in publishing different views and trends. This is what the role of national newspapers should be, he argues. "I am one of those who benefit from the existing margin of freedom. I express my views, and they do not necessarily coincide with the official perspective, but that does not mean I am the government's opponent."
He is proud to be in charge of the international edition of Al-Ahram and believes that it competes well with other Arabic newspapers distributed abroad, "but what is important here is that information technology broke all the rules for the media. Those who can adjust quickly to the new technology will be the ones who will be able to compete," Hafez warns. "Modernisation does not mean buying up-to-date machines, constructing vast buildings and publishing colour photos. Real modernisation means that I benefit from the new technologies to develop my work and the profession in general," he explains.
Nor does he believe that technology will replace proper professional training for young journalists. "Unfortunately, I cannot see real concern for training new generations of professionals. When I started out, I found people to instruct me." He learned from the late Ahmed Bahaaeddin, a highly respected journalist, how to organise his thoughts, and the importance of reading. From Heikal, he learned accuracy, analytical thinking, and the need to stay up-to-date with developments in current events. From Galal El-Hamamsi, a pioneer journalist, he learned "the profession itself".
He passed his secondary school final exams with the highest marks in the southern governorate of Al-Minya, where he was born. His father had plans for Hafez: he wanted the young man to enroll in the Police Academy. Hafez had always wanted to go to Cairo University's Faculty of Arts. For his father's sake, however, he took the acceptance examinations and passed. But the day before he was to enroll, he spent the night at his aunt's house. He left her house at 7.00am and, instead of heading to the academy, he went to the cinema, watched the 9.00am movie and missed the test.
"There was a crisis. My father wanted me to enter the Faculty of Law, but I resisted. My father did not speak to me for a long time. This is why every time I was fired he always said 'I told you so'."
Hafez cherishes his childhood years, although his mother died when he was seven, leaving him and two siblings -- both brothers, one older and one younger -- behind. He regrets the fact that he does not have a sister.
His father never remarried. "To me, he was my mother and father until he died in 1981." Hafez's father was a big landowner and a village mayor for 42 years. Two of his female cousins helped him bring the children up.
"I am very proud of my family," Hafez continues. "It includes a strange variety of rich and poor members, literates and illiterates, politicians and non-politicians."
To describe his father's family, Hafez explains their pragmatic attitude toward politics. In the pre-1952 years, there were many parties. The one in power always appointed its supporters to good government posts; when another party rose to power, it did the same. His family, understanding this process, was spread across the political spectrum. The majority were Wafdists, while the others were Saadists, Liberal Constitutionalists, and Muslim Brothers. This was to guarantee that at least a few members would be appointed to high positions with every new government.
"The obvious interpretation is that they were opportunists. But their thinking -- a kind of spontaneous intelligence -- was that representation would allow them to defend the family's interests," he remarks.
When the July Revolution broke out, Hafez was a student. He remembers well that the family gathered at his grandfather's house. His favourite aunt was crying, "they've removed the king." "That was when I discovered the meaning of the revolution. Later, when I had read more and was educated, I understood its complexities," Hafez smiles.
His wife is a university professor. They have a son and a daughter. Their daughter works for an international computer company; their son, Ihab, is Al-Ahram's UN correspondent at the New York bureau.
"I did not want him to work in journalism, but he insisted. Actually, I forced him to work in a bank, where he made a lot of money. I did not want him to suffer the way I did, but he is convinced that this is what he wants to do." Does he see the irony? Probably.
He misses Al-Minya and tries to pass on the traditions to his children, like love of the land and strong family ties. "I always tell my son to go and see the land he owns, but he is not interested. He does not know what the land means. And this generation doesn't know the meaning of family ties."
He still lives in the apartment his father rented for him more than 30 years ago in Mohandessin.
He has been through "two major crises" in a year and a half. "They were the hardest and most painful times of my life, worse than the times I was dismissed from my job. One of them is personal and I do not want to go into it. The other is my illness."
After they passed, he discovered that "nothing is worth it. Nothing means much: struggle, fame, money are of no value. In the end, inhaling is life and exhaling is death."
He believes he is alive today because of his will to live, and people's support. "My doctor in the United States told me I had the choice: live or die. If I wanted to live then I had to fight it. So I chose." The crisis also showed him how important it is to have "honest and good relations, because many people were beside me and gave me support".
He still has a checkup and follow-up chemotherapy every six months. He underwent the main treatment in 1998, for five and a half months. "It was terrifying."
Today, Hafez feels he has been reborn. "I consider having survived as a return to life, not just a continuation."
photos: Randa Shaath