Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (584)
Under the Ali Maher government of 1936, the Egyptian press flourished. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk explains why and how
At crucial junctures in Egyptian history, the press was truly an "imperial majesty". If so dubbed by some journalists keen to emulate their Western counterparts while unwittingly or deliberately blind to the arsenal of laws that encumbered their freedom, the lures of power and money that swayed their views or the directives from party leaders that dictated their ideological line, there were occasions when it did indeed live up to the title.
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Owners of Dar Al-Hilal publishing house, brothers Shukri and Emil Zeidan stand left and right alongside President Mohamed Naguib (in uniform) and Helmi Sallam, managing editor of Al-Mussawwar magazine
One of these occasions presented itself with the first Ali Maher government, which lasted just over three months (30 January--9 May 1936) during which time the press enjoyed unprecedented sway. Many reasons accounted for this. Maher headed an interim government that was to hold parliamentary elections which were certain to bring in a Wafdist government. Nevertheless, Maher was intelligent and ambitious enough to know that this government would not be his last, which gave him powerful incentive to curry favour with the press. Simultaneously, due to the combined stresses of the recent student uprising, British intervention and deteriorating health, the talons with which King Fouad had once lashed out at the press had been severely clipped. Add to this was that journalists themselves were thirsting to stretch their wings again after the clampdowns and repression they suffered under the Sidqi government which had come to power in 1930.
Maher's courtship of the press began less than two months after he formed his government. On 25 March 1936 Al-Ahram recounts, "The audience in the Royal Geographical Society auditorium yesterday bore witness to an event of great moment, signifying that the Egyptian press has bid adieu to a passing era. There is no doubt that history will record this moment in association with the memory of His Excellency Ali Maher Pasha." The reason for this exultation, in the words of Al-Ahram, was that "for the first time in the history of the press, a prime minister has invited Egyptian journalists to a reception in their honour and in which he declared to them that the government cannot perform its duties to the nation unless it has the support of the press behind it."
Many prominent members of the press at the reception were elated by the prime minister's overture. Abdel-Qader Hamza, who was the owner of Al-Balagh, remarked, "although the press has been performing its duty for 40 years or more, it has had little encouragement from successive governments." Hafez Awad, another famous journalist of the time, wrote, "to me this reception marks the first recognition and tribute by an incumbent government of the press and the people of the press. This comes as a great joy after a long period in which doubt, suspicion, lack of appreciation and disrespect characterised the government's attitude towards journalists who have dedicated their careers to the service of their nation and who were rewarded by maltreatment, indeed continued persecution that touched upon every aspect of their lives and well-being."
Ali Maher's appeal and tribute to the press was only the beginning of his courtship. Soon afterwards, his government officially recognised the Journalists Syndicate, which until then was a loose collection of professionals with no legal standing. The text of the royal decree establishing the Journalists Association appeared in Al-Ahram on 21 April 1936. It stated firstly the association's aims, which were "to strive to elevate the prestige of the press and safeguard its dignity, to seek the recognition for the rights of the press and journalists and to realise the privileges to which they are due, to develop the spirit of brotherhood and cooperation between journalists and to settle any disputes pertaining to their profession that arise among them, and to regulate the relationship between the press and journalists, the government and the public."
To qualify for membership, one had to be Egyptian, at least 21 years old, without a criminal record and of good character. In addition, candidates had to have graduated from a higher level educational institute in Egypt or abroad, to have a level of erudition appropriate to the profession, and to be an owner or representative of a newspaper, or a professional journalist. The admission fee was LE2 and the annual due for working members was another LE2.
The decree stipulated, thirdly, that the association would be administered by a 12-member board of directors, elected to a two-year term by the general assembly in secret ballot. Of the 12 board members, six would be newspaper owners or representatives. Every year, the members of the board would elect a three-member arbitration committee. The terms of the board members were renewable.
Perhaps more important to Maher's relationship with the press was a series of lectures he organised on the Egyptian press: past and present. The first, presented on Monday 30 March by the "eminent professor Abdel-Qader Hamza" in the Royal Geographical Society was entitled, "The Egyptian Press: a historical and analytical overview." Although Hamza opened with the Pharaonic era, he quickly moved to the arrival of the French Expedition in 1798 and its publication of Le Courier d'Egypte followed a month later by La Decade Egyptienne. Following the exodus of the French, Mohamed Ali established the official Al- Waqaai Al-Misriya (The Egyptian Gazette) which, Hamza said, failed to quench Egyptians' growing thirst for a privately- owned national newspaper. This thirst would ultimately be quenched -- and plentifully -- in the second half of the 19th century, beginning with the era of the Khedive Ismail. With the encouragement of that famous ruler, there emerged Al-Yaasoub, Wadi Al-Nil, Nuzhat Al-Afkar, Rodat Al-Madaris, Kawkab Al- Sharq and Al-Ahram.
In its initial phase, Hamza noted, articles, whether editorials or otherwise, appeared without headlines. "Consequently, the reader was obliged to read an article in order to discover what it was about." In those early days, foreign news occupied three- fourths of the space in the newspaper, leaving only a fourth for domestic news. This was because the former could be relayed from foreign newspapers while the latter required reporters and writers, of which there was a considerable shortage. Also, he noted that in an attempt to project a sophisticated image, some newspapers resorted to rhymed prose, for which reason there would arise certain expressions and turns of phrase "which compel us to smile when we read them today".
Hamza then proceeded to address the relationship between the proliferation of newspapers and the spread of education. "The first newspapers proved successful when literacy was limited to 17-20 per cent of the population or at times less than 10 per cent. With the spread of education, the number of newspaper readers increased enormously, and with this came the newspapers' ability to thrive and prosper."
Hamza ended his lecture with an appeal to found an institute for journalism. But if such an institute were to be established on sound foundations, he added, "the government must rid itself of the idea of suspending newspapers. Students will not enroll in an institute when they know that the future to which that institute leads is employment with newspapers that appear for a while and then are suspended by the government or the courts for a longer while."
On 8 April in the same lecture hall, Mahmoud Azmi delivered a lecture on "the mission of the press". The owner of Al-Shabab (Youth) magazine objected to the notion propounded by some that journalism was a craft rather than a mission. "They look at news reportage, especially in the US, and complain that their object is to publish the most startling reports with little concern for veracity. They see opinion journals as an arena for fanaticism. And they point to the major international periodicals and unearth behind each of them the backing of industrial, financial or sectarian interests which often conflict with general national interests. What is more, they listen to those that claim inside knowledge and learn from these that such and such a newspaper is in touch with foreign embassies and is working to promote the point of view of that agency. As proof of this contention they cite Betrayal by those who Know, a book which appeared in France in 1929 and which accuses writers, journalists and other intellectuals of having abandoned their mission and placing their services in the hands of the lords of finance and industry."
In response to these critics, Azmi looked to history which testified to the fact that the French and British press were the vanguards in the social mission that the press performed. This held true even if the two arose under entirely different circumstances. The French press, he said, had its beginnings with the Gazette de France, produced in 1631 at the initiative of Richelieu and in which Louis XIII wrote. The British press, on the other hand, emerged from the class stratifications in British society, whereby The Times was founded in 1785 "to stand guard over established tradition and morals embodied in the enlightened aristocracy, while The Daily Telegraph, founded in 1855, became the mouthpiece of the middle class. The Daily Herald was founded to defend the interests of the working classes. "However, these differences in incentive do not belie the fact that it was the desire for liberation from the bonds of despotism and for freedom from the fetters of corrupt traditions that inspired the idea to create newspapers in order to channel that desire to the benefit of the state in the case of France and to regulate the class conflict in the case of Britain."
The Egyptian press, Azmi continues, is guided by this spirit. It keeps a daily vigil over public projects, the behaviour of government, and the actions of parliament and the courts. "The long and busy days that journalists spend are, in themselves, testimony to this fact. But if the press is the fourth branch of authority that checks the powers of the other three and works with them for the benefit of all, it has another mission that is of no less significance. This resides in the model of self- sacrifice that the journalist sets silently day after day and in every moment in which his example is a call for dedication to the welfare of the nation."
The third lecture was given two days later by Emil Zeidan, editor-in-chief of Al-Hilal. Entitled "The directions of modern newspapers", it begins: "The difference between newspapers published decades ago and those published today is equivalent to the difference between a horse-drawn carriage and an automobile." The modern press dated from the publication of The Daily Mail in Britain in 1896. This newspaper was different in many ways to its predecessors. At half a pence, it sold for half the price of other newspapers. It was smaller than them, containing only eight pages. More importantly, it offered a condensed version of what appeared in other papers, and this "molded into an attractive format with bold headlines and an eye-pleasing layout." Because it restricted itself to "the pith that concerned the average person, or the man of the street, it became the most widely distributed newspaper within a few years, with sales totalling half a million copies a day."
The modern newspaper, Zeidan continues, is founded upon three cornerstones: financial administration, advertisements and printing. Although he insists that the newspaper business is not a purely commercial enterprise, it nevertheless could not perform its function unless it had a solid financial base. Indeed, it was this that gave it the autonomy it needed to air its opinions, level criticisms boldly and advise the public with regard to what best served the general welfare. Advertisements formed the backbone of a modern newspaper's profits, as the price for which it is sold on the stands does not come anywhere near covering the costs of publication. Printing now was more efficient and faster than ever before, and while this enabled newspapers to reach an increasingly wider audience it also intensified competition between them.
Newspapers thus vied with one another in collecting information as rapidly as possible and presenting it in a stimulating and enjoyable manner. At the same time, however, Zeidan reminds journalists not to forget the readers they are addressing and the fact that "the reader might be more interested in a fight that broke out between youths on the street where he lives than in a coup d'etat in some remote country." Good journalists, therefore, were judged by standards different from those that applied to literary or scholastic writers, among them speed and initiative.
After the information was collected, the process of presenting it in an eye-catching way began. "Headlines are crucial in this respect. Experts have calculated that headlines in American newspapers, for example, take up more space than the news items themselves." The articles themselves must be written in a simple, straightforward style in order to make the subject matter easily accessible to readers, for "the average reader loathes exertion".
The Al-Hilal editor concludes with a caution against the "yellow press". This type of journalism appeared in varying degrees. "Some of its practitioners have not the slightest compunction at resorting to the most heinous forms of scaremongering, fabrication and deception to achieve their ends." In fact, one notorious practitioner of this craft boasted, "the best type of news items are lies because they are the monopoly of the newspaper that publishes them and therefore it risks no competition from other newspapers in the lies it creates, and, secondly, because that newspaper can be the first to issue a denial."
Al-Ahram 's Anton El-Gamil was the author of the fourth in the newspaper's lecture series on the development of the modern press. Appearing on 16 April it was on "Newspaper makers" whom the Al-Ahram editor-in-chief divided into those "standing" and "sitting".
Foremost among the former were reporters who "swarm like bees around government departments, official receptions and associations, picking up news and ascertaining its veracity. The successful reporter is the one who is the first to hunt down a major scoop." Waxing lyrical, El-Gamil adds: "How similar are the journalists of our times to the poets of yesteryear who recorded events and testimony in their poems, which people then transmitted in their fashion." Also among the "standing" were the correspondents who transmitted events that took place in the provinces at home or in other countries abroad.
The "sitters" were many. If editors were foremost among them, the category also included translators, volunteer amateurs, technical editors, collators, proofreaders and layout editors. As a whole, editors were those who wrote the leads, identified subjects for commentary or criticism, and wrote the commentaries. The work of translators was obvious: "They have a much more important role to play in our Arabic newspapers than they do in foreign newspapers, because all the news that reaches us from foreign sources is in a foreign language." Volunteers were those members of the public who contributed articles to the newspaper, "and there is no overstating the extent to which our press is indebted to many of these for their exhaustive research and highly valuable findings." The remaining occupations under "sitters" were all those responsible for the form the substance takes on the page.
Of course, El-Gamil could not end his lecture without mention of the tasks required of him. As editor-in-chief, he revises the articles, "removing words here and adding others there, and otherwise trimming and refining the text." He, too, is the one who "determines the articles to be published and those that are to be consigned to the wastepaper basket." In addition, "he is the one who receives the complaints and reproaches for failure to cover an event, mistakes in reports and the selection of articles, not to mention having to receive all visitors and listen to their requests."
In his lecture, Suleiman Fawzi, editor-in-chief of Al-Kashkul, gave a brief history of the comic newspaper in Egypt, of which his was the most famous at the time. According to Fawzi, Yaqoub Sannu, nicknamed Abu Naddara, pioneered this type of journalism in Egypt. A government school teacher and an actor, Abu Naddara founded Egypt's first cartoon broadsheet, Abu Naddara, at the end of the era of the Khedive Ismail. Sannu spared no one, including the khedive himself. Eventually, he was forced to flee to Paris "where he continued publication of his newspaper, as well as other newspapers and magazines which were banned from entry into Egypt but which were sometimes smuggled in."
Soon afterwards, other comic periodicals appeared such as Abdel-Hamid Zaki's weekly newspaper, printed in colour in Rome and distributed in Cairo. Others were Khalil Zeneih's Le Petit Parisien, Abdel-Meguid Kamel's Al-Baba Ghallo Al-Misri and Abu Nuwwas and Abu Zeid founded by Mohamed El- Muweilhi, whom Fawzi described as the Egyptian press's greatest loss.
It was only naturally that Fawzi took the occasion to plug his own newspaper, which had begun featuring cartoons in 1921. When it first appeared, Al-Kashkul published four cartoons a week by different artists, setting in motion a lengthy history of official harassment and trials. The most famous of these occurred in 1924. Prosecuted on the charge of defaming parliament, Fawzi was not only found innocent, but also the court declared in its ruling that cartoons were a fine art and that newspapers that relied on this art had to be given some leeway because the function of a cartoon is to criticise the actions of public officials by means of visual exaggeration.
Lecture six was delivered by Fouad Sarrouf, editor-in-chief of Al-Muqtataf. As this was a scientific periodical, it is not surprising that he should have chosen as his subject, "Modern inventions in the press." Sarrouf takes us on an exhaustive tour of what must then have seemed miraculous, but which today stock the museums of technology. The most important machine was the rotary press, in which letters were affixed to a cardboard surface, which was then pressed into a semi-cylindrical shape and covered with a metallic solution to harden it. This plate was then mounted on large cylinders. While jets of ink kept the surface of the plates constantly and uniformly inked, the cylinders would rotate against the paper that was fed into the machine. "Standing at the opening where the product comes out leaves one agape, for the printed copies are spewed out at such a speed as to defy one's ability to count them." Sarrouf adds that to speed up the printing process, newsprint was not produced in rolls but in pre-cut sheets.
More important, however, were the new machines for typesetting, most notably the Linotype machine, on which "professional operators can set more than 100 words a minute". Developments were also proceeding apace in news communications systems. Now, wire and wireless devices could be used not only to transmit news but also photographs and other material.
Evidently, the only area of the newspaper industry that had not undergone significant changes was distribution. Trucks, trains and sometimes airplanes were still the major means of transporting them to the consumer. The Al-Muqtataf editor-in- chief would be dumbstruck today at how a newspaper, such as Al-Ahram, could appear in different countries around the globe on the same day.
"The development of the weekly" was the subject of the last in this lecture series. Delivered on 7 May, its author, Hussein Shafiq El-Masri, attributes the development of this type of periodical to sheer determination and courage. However, he notes, that "as it grew more elegant in style, it deteriorated morally." He explains: "Each of these newspapers has a history that would make the devil blush, because their very survival depended upon attacking people's honour and impugning their reputations. Were it not for this fact, these accursed newspapers would have been a source of pride."
One of the noteworthy pioneers of the weekly was Mohamed Tawfiq, founder of Himarat Munyati (The Donkey of my Desire), who El-Masri describes as "a man of letters who writes prose and poetry and whose verses would make a newly widowed woman laugh". Compared to him the other weekly newspaper founders were illiterate and depended upon ghostwriters.
Tawfiq acquired a reputation for his one-liners. One of his characters was a wealthy merchant, Youssef El-Gamal, noted for his extreme obesity. When summoning a cab, the driver told him to get on quickly "before the cows see you." On another occasion, El-Gamal wanted to have a suit tailored and was told to fetch an engineer from the survey department. Another of his characters was a rural notable. A notorious braggart, the notable boasted of having a carpet with a garden depicted on it so realistically that his children could pluck off the oranges and eat them. He also claimed to have a kitchen so large that it had to be equipped with a railroad so that the cook could travel back and forth between the pots and pans.
It is curious that El-Masri gave no more than passing mention to the serious weekly periodicals that were in circulation at the time, such as Al-Musawwar, Rose El-Youssef and Akher Saa. Perhaps his focus on the satirical weeklies stemmed from the fact that he became editor-in-chief of one such newspaper in 1914. Al-Seif (The Sword) was, as he described it, a political and literary newspaper whose purpose was "to steer the attack away from private individuals and turn it towards the government and the occupiers". So popular had Al-Seif become under El-Masri's helm that he had to publish 40,000 copies a week. But as he concludes in his lecture, he makes no claim to have rid the weeklies of their afflictions.