This great challenge
Media in the service of the nation is the core mission of Al-Ahram and the watchword to safeguard in an era founded on constant change, writes Abdel-Moneim Said, Al-Ahram's new chairman of the board
I've written countless commentaries, essays and studies and published quite a few books in my career. Yet, for the first time in 40 years I feel at a loss for the right words to express my profound gratitude to all my friends and colleagues from every shade of political opinion for the overwhelming warmth and affection with which they have offered me their congratulations, support and wishes for my success in the task of leading this venerable institution. My family and I were deeply moved by the kind sentiments and expressions of esteem that do me more credit than I deserve and that ultimately drove home to me the magnitude of the responsibility with which the Shura Council has entrusted me and to which I pray I can do justice.
As all my well-wishers are aware, the success of my mission can only be determined after we have identified areas that require focus, drawn up appropriate plans, and implemented them as efficiently and as cost effectively as possible. The ultimate objective is to create a healthier and more robust Al-Ahram, an Al-Ahram poised for even greater achievement. This is an enormous challenge. I am undoubtedly fortunate, not only for having inherited the great legacy, bequeathed by my predecessors, of our organisation's wealth of human potential and talent, but also for being greeted with an even budgetary keel, as Mursi Atallah described last Thursday beneath the headline, "Before handing over the banner". To him and other leaders of Al-Ahram I convey my great esteem and gratitude for their accomplishments and their dedication to our institution throughout its long history.
But fortune is measured not only by what we already have; it is shaped by the magnitude of the job that lies ahead. This job comes with challenges as awesome as scaling the Himalayas because they entail no less the task of shaping Egyptian consciousness and winning the battle for the hearts and minds that will steer our thoughts, emotions, energies and souls towards the peak that Egypt should occupy among the nations of the world. Certainly, this is not the mission of Al-Ahram alone. It is one that inherently engages the nation's cultural, intellectual and political elites who, since the turn of the 19th century, have wielded all the instruments of modernisation -- the press, the radio, the telegraph, the television, the telephone and, more recently, the computer and the Internet -- in the drive to modernise Egypt and lead it to progress and prosperity. Yet, Al-Ahram has an important part to play in this process, not only by contributing all the intellectual energies and material weight it can muster, but also by maintaining contact with the many noble-spirited modern-minded parties that can also rally behind the realisation of these ends.
Now, let us speak more frankly. We all agree that there is a huge gap between where Egypt currently stands and where we would like it to stand among the summits of the developed world. President Hosni Mubarak's recent article in the Wall Street Journal indicates how long that road is. Yet, while politics and government policy are indisputably crucial to enabling Egypt to forge its way, as intellectuals, writers and analysts, we must acknowledge that no nation on earth has ever progressed without a socio-political force to propel it and a socio-political culture to set its compass.
Unfortunately, in Egypt the cultural and political elites have never been able to reach a consensus on either. While some held that an alliance of the urban and rural proletariat should lead the mission, others countered that the capitalist entrepreneurial class was more capable of producing the necessary transformations. Naturally, there were plenty who believed that the machinery of government had a miraculous ability to ensure social justice. Opinion on socio-political culture was just as divided. Proponents of sustaining the traditions of centralised autocracy locked horns with advocates of decentralisation and democracy, and these two camps faced a third that sought to move in completely the opposite direction, towards theocracy and rule by fatwa. Such divisions eventually led to the equilibrium that characterises Egypt as a country aspiring to progress but not getting there, or at least not at the desired pace. They have also produced more ominous shouting matches, diatribes and mutual recriminations between political and intellectual elites, and the general evasion of the need to probe the roots and essence of our country's problems.
Al-Ahram 's job, in this regard, is not so much to resolve political and ideological differences as it is to contribute to the creation of a critical mass in thought and culture of the sort that lifted Egypt from the dark ages of Ottoman rule to the modern era, and from foreign occupation to independence, that led its rudimentary Bedouin and conventional agrarian societies to the threshold of an industrial and scientific society, and that transformed it from an isolated political entity to a nation that is in constant touch with the rest of the world through every conceivable technological means. In the pursuit of this task of building Egypt's progress, in which Al-Ahram hopes to work together with the people of this nation, we have three major assets to draw on.
First, we have Egypt, liberated from all foreign taint. This condition might seem perfectly normal to us today, but it was not the case for the greater part of Egyptian history that brought invaders and conquerors of every stripe from all directions. Egypt, today, occupies more or less the same contours it inherited from its Pharaonic ancestors. Its people have shown an astounding tenacity under duress, especially during two recent centuries of occupation, until their leaders liberated it from all forms of foreign rule, since which time it has stayed all attempts to ensnare or seduce it into various schemes that would undermine its sovereignty. In short, Egypt now belongs to the Egyptian people and the question is what will the Egyptians do for Egypt?
Second, Egypt itself has changed. Habitation is no longer confined to that narrow strip of land along the banks and in the delta of the life-giving Nile. Egyptian towns and cities have proliferated along the shores of the Red Sea and Mediterranean and in the hills and valleys and on the coasts of the Sinai. Egyptians may differ over the wisdom of the Toshka project, but the inescapable fact is that they have set up home there too, and have since spread to Uweinat, even as minds turned to the development of Halayeb and Shalatin. Also, for the first time in the modern history of Egypt, the oases in the Western Desert are no longer "exiles" for those who have incurred the wrath of their superiors; they are part of the dream of the "New Valley". Contrary to the commonly held belief, geography is not one of history's immutable constants. Areas and distances have grown or shrunk, in tandem with the technologies of transportation and communication and the processes of economic development and progress. Simply put, Egypt is no longer the same as it was, and ideas that only yesterday had been in the realm of dreams can now be placed on the drawing board and turned into concrete realities. Once we grasp this fact we realise that we have a country of boundless wealth and resources, waiting for someone to turn them into a source of welfare and prosperity for our millions of Egyptian poor.
Third, Egyptians have also changed or, to be precise, a critical mass of Egyptians has changed. I can already hear some snicker and say that the change has been for the worse. They will point to the ubiquitous mobile phone and a collective annual bill of LE34 billion for gossip and other "undesirable" chatter. But consider the following. If we think of 95 per cent of the 46 million mobile lines -- plus 13 million landlines -- as assets that may have some positive bearing on work, production, consumption and other important aspects of the constructive life cycle, then the phenomenon can be seen in a different light. After all, the average Egyptian who is concerned for the welfare of his family and the proper education of his children will not squander money on an asset with a depleting value. Critics might then point to low levels of private savings in Egypt in comparison to Asian countries. In fact, however, private and family savings are relatively high. Private savings in Egyptian bank accounts now top LE800 billion and investments in postal bonds, the limited-income person's way of setting money aside for a rainy day, come to LE68 billion.
More significantly, the mobile phone could never have proliferated so widely and so rapidly had it not been for the enormous progress made in standards of education. I could not agree more with many of the harsher criticisms of the quality of our educational system. But the fact remains that 72 per cent of Egyptians have received at least a primary education. With this ratio of educated persons -- unheard of here since the dawn of the first pyramids -- we can truly speak of an unprecedented critical mass of awareness at the disposal of Egypt and its cultural and political elites. This mass, moreover, is expanding in quantity and quality by the day. Whereas in 2000 there were only some 650,000 Egyptian Internet users, by the beginning of 2009 they surpassed 13 million, of which there are some 230,000 weblogs, or 30.7 per cent of weblogs in Arabic. What this tells us is that Egypt's soft power is increasing at tremendous pace.
Egypt's growing critical mass of intellect interacts with 21 daily newspapers and 523 periodicals, and with 597 radio and television stations of which there are 24 public Egyptian stations and 11 private ones. Such media are also accumulating and multiplying at dizzying speeds. Media circles are aware of this proliferation of newspapers, radio and television stations, and of modern communications and information technologies that can open people's minds and sometimes play with people's minds, yet that always makes the question of public awareness an urgent and ever-present one.
These are not games. They are part of far-reaching developments in technology and production. Some may fear the adverse consequences of these developments; others laud its benefits. Some might moan that Egypt has become a market economy; others might moan that an Egyptian market economy is still a long way off and cite international reports to back up their viewpoint. But no one can dispute that Egypt now has a market in which currencies have only one rate, in which prices rise and fall, and which faces the same problems that other nations have to contend with, from cartels to ways to redistribute wealth and power. Granted there are perfectly legitimate grounds for complaint that Egypt has not come as far as other countries. But Egypt has changed and the Egyptian people have changed.
Al-Ahram's task, which should be undertaken by all political, cultural and intellectual elites with their own means and instruments, is to take a fresh look at Egypt, to find that critical mass of Egyptians whose centre of gravity I believe is to be found in the young or the keener and more dynamic sectors of the young, and to guide them and help them take us to where we should be. If we are to attain our aspirations for progress, democracy and happiness we must take stock of what we actually have, rationally and objectively. I would wager that the Egypt we describe without ornamentation and embellishment would not be the Egypt we customarily depict as though it were from another world, immune to the laws of science and history. The universe is in constant flux and its laws do not stop at our borders.
Yet Al-Ahram, itself, must be prepared for this task. In order to rise to the high expectations pinned on it for the sake of the nation, it must be equipped to compete with the technology that enables news to reach us before the papers go to press, that has made the split second the language of the age, that has made sound and image an integral part of the transmission of the human drama in all its tragic and comical facets into our homes with lightning speed. Man, today, can see history unfolding before his very eyes. This has profoundly changed the nature of the game. For many years, because of its excellence and because of its connections to government as a national newspaper, Al-Ahram remained miles ahead of its rivals. Today, it enters the field as one of a growing number of intellectual and cultural players, all competing to place their skills and talents at the service of the good of the nation.
In the past few years, Al-Ahram 's leadership had to contend with a host of problems that had accumulated over several decades. Today, it must work to safeguard what has been achieved and focus more strenuously on its original mission, which is to join forces with an increasingly informed, influential and talented elite in order to shape Egyptian consciousness. This will require many changes, in approach, style and orientation, while continuing to uphold our fundamental principles of the right to differ, employee rights, and Al-Ahram 's cherished and long-established tradition of working as a single family to serve its readers.