Farida El-Naqqash: The importance of being earnest
The challenges are formidable: a left that has been on the retreat for years, a decades-old party press in tatters even as a new wave of privately-owned newspapers come onto the scene and flourish. But Farida El-Naqash is no newcomer to the seemingly impossible; she has spent a lifetime championing the causes of the left, social justice, women's rights and enlightenment.
Interview by Fatemah Farag
Which brings us to her being earnest: her defining seriousness and persistent dedication; they never seem to be shaken by upheaval; and they are qualities that clearly contribute to her being the best choice for a party divided and a paper in tatters. It is no secret that the distribution of the Tagammu Party's weekly Al-Ahali, after enjoying a golden age in the early eighties, when its circulation topped 100,000 copies, has dramatically dropped. Further, El-Naqash was chosen in the context of an inter-party conflict over the editorial policy of Al-Ahali perceived by many to have shifted under the editorship of Nabil Zaki, reflecting a pro- government position especially in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Walking into her office at 9am sharp, El-Naqqash is sure-footed -- after all she has traversed the hallways of Al-Ahali and the Taga mm u for as long as they have existed: a good 25 years. No sooner do we sit down than the telephone starts ringing: a possible scoop, what should one of the columnists write about this week. But she finds time to autograph a copy of her new book for me, The travails of modernisation ; it's all in a day's work.
She is very aware of the circumstances that have brought her into the seat at the helm: "The first agenda point of my tenure is how to insure that the editorial policy of the paper reflects the views of the party. By this I mean the institutions and literature of the party and not the views of individuals. Of course those are reflected openly in the opinion sections of the paper. This goes hand in hand with improved professional standards of the copy itself."
A party woman par excellence, her appointment to the position of chief editor of Al-Ahali two months ago makes El-Naqash the first woman to assume such a post since Rose El-Yusuf, founder and chief editor of Ros El-Yusuf. She follows in the footstep of the many luminary chief editors who have graced the history of Al-Ahali, namely Philip Gallab, Hussein Abdel-Razeq -- with Salah Eissa -- and Mahmoud El-Maraghi.
But back to the business of today. "There is conflict within the party and a constant debate with regard to its position vis-à-vis both the state and the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood). I abide by the official position of the party: the government is a large parasitic bourgeoisie entity and we are against any alliances with it and as far as the Muslim Brotherhood go, they are often to the right of the state and a force of regression that must be confronted."
These two positions define for El-Naqash the role of Al-Ahali, and Al-Tagammu, now. "We must become society's third alternative, an alternative to the state and to the Ikwan. This means we need to provide a vision for renewing society."
Which brings us to another reason why she is considered the best person for the job. Her critics have pointed out that El-Naqash to date has headed cultural publications: as editor of the culture pages in Al-Ahali and chief editor of the monthly literary magazine Adab we naqd. But she is quick to emphasise "that if anything this [my cultural background] is a positive point. We [the left] are not just a political programme, we are a project aimed at changing the world. There can't be real politics without a profound, comprehensive intellectual background. Otherwise we become as clueless as the blind. This is why I will be very concerned as chief editor of Al-Ahali with culture, art and literature."
It is a philosophy El-Naqash embodies. "I learned Marxism through literature. I read The Mother by Gorky and was profoundly affected and won over to socialist thought. To be a leftist activist means you have to have a comprehensive vision of the world. Politics comes as the harvest of that vision."
These are no doubt worthy sentiments, but the question that has hurled itself back at the Egyptian left, time and time again, is how to formulate such ideas in a format palatable to a general public. After all, a chief editor who talks about an editorial policy that describes the government as a "large parasitic bourgeoisie" has her work cut out for her. "The language we use is one of the left's constant challenges," acquiesces El-Naqash. "We need to simplify without dumbing down. We are working on a new layout and a new conceptualisation. Of course people [those who work at and with Al-Ahali ] will not change overnight, but I am betting on teamwork and have adopted a system of work that brings everyone in as an effective member."
It is no secret that one of the major impediments that faces upgrading the professional standards of Al-Ahali is lack of funds. "We are working on improving salaries. Some of the best people in the opposition and privately owned press came from Al-Ahali. They left simply because we could not pay a reasonable salary. We are starting with an attempt to increase our advertisement base..." she trails off -- after all that talk of world visions, the hard rock of newspaper management looms unfavourably.
In 1976, President Anwar El-Sadat allowed the creation of three platforms: one for the left, one for the right and one for the centre. El-Naqash joined the left from the very beginning and between 1976 and 1978 participated in the production of the party leaflet Al-Taqadom (literally "progress"). "It was really a very good little paper and rather influential. We used to print it on a very primitive and rickety machine built for us by an old communist comrade, Amm Buruq. We fondly called the contraption 'Aziza'. Anyway, orders were given for the confiscation of our press and the officers stormed our headquarters to take possession of the machinery -- only to find Aziza. They looked rather embarrassed as they walked away with her under her arms! "
Al-Ahali first appeared in 1978, a few months after the establishment of the Tagammu Party in 1977. It ran for eight months before Sadat had it shut down. After his assassination and in 1982, the paper was allowed to re- appear under the editorship of Hussein Abdel-Razeq; at this point a few family connections need to be spelled out. Abdel-Razeq is currently the secretary-general of the Tagammu and El-Naqash's husband. He issued Al-Ahali in close collaboration with Salah Eissa -- renowned columnist and currently the chief editor of Al-Qahira newspaper published by the Ministry of Culture and the husband of Farida's sister Amina, also a long-standing Tagammu activist and Al-Ahali senior member and columnist.
During the editorship of Abdel-Razeq, widely recognised as the golden age of the paper, the two couples were known as the "Gang of Four". El-Naqash laughs: "I have often been asked the question if my position within the party is a form of inheritance of power. I will tell you what I once told a colleague here: 'What was I doing before Hussein brought me to the paper? Was I a seamstress? No. I was a journalist of ten years and a political activist in my own right and that is all there is to it.' I think that the days when we were called the Gang of Four are over and that people have accepted that we are independent activists, worthy in our own right and irrespective of personal ties."
She is also eager to disassociate her tenure at Al-Ahali from that of her husband's. "No two experiences are alike," she says, pointing out, "Between 1982 and 1984 there was no competition for Al-Ahali. We were the only opposition paper and Al-Wafd only came out in 1984. Of course the paper then was like a shout in the dark. It innovated the banner comprised of a cartoon and [cartoonist Ahmed] Hegazi's work just jumped out at you. And there were no political compromises."
El-Naqash explains the fate of Al-Ahali in terms of party dynamics and their relationship to a waning socialist movement. "The failure of the party in the 1986 elections was blamed on Al-Ahali 's outspokenness and a change happened within the party after the general assembly of 1988 which reflected itself in the newspaper. The reason we did not do well --and I was running in Mansura and party to what happened -- was of course that there were widespread violations. A wave of social activity had paralleled the beginning of Mubaraks' presidency and his talk of an end to corruption and his motto of change -- which soon turned into stability -- but in any case the hopeful social mood that characterised the first half of the eighties was starting to break down and people changed. Apolitical behavior is not just reflected in people not going to the polls. They also stop reading. They figure 'and then what' and just focus on getting their day's bread."
And yet the paper did see a revival under the editorship of Phillip Gallab. "Gallab was a master of sarcasm and the paper opened up to this type of journalism which was very popular. He also opened up the opinion pages of Al-Ahali to views from outside the party which gave it a dynamic diversity; it's an experience I hope to emulate."
Will it all be enough to turn around the fate of the paper? Today Al-Ahali does face formidable competition, namely an increasingly popular and dynamic privately-owned press. "I think we can compete if we are a truly leftist paper and by the power of our ideas." But perhaps more importantly are the positive signs El-Naqash already sees on the horizon. "As a party paper we need to consider our immediate audience which is the members. It is indicative that most party members were not happy with the paper and we feel this is about to change as the paper will be more reflective of party positions." The second level is the wider audience and once again El-Naqash is hopeful, "the paper can profit from a change in popular mood. I can perceive a change in society and I see indications of this in the latest workers movements for example. This is what I am counting on."