Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2011
Issue No. 1047
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Literature on strike

Egypt's principal literary newspaper in crisis: Hala Salah Eldin Hussein of Albawtaka Review takes stock

Click to view caption
A protest outside the headquarters of Akhbar Al-Adab

Of all the dismal numbers to have emerged from the world of literary newspapers in Egypt -- sharp plunges in circulation, dizzying fall-off in revenues, burgeoning debt, mounting losses -- none seems as sobering as the protests of strikers. The question lingers, Do journalists have the right to choose their editors? In a country still staggering after toppling its 30-year-old regime, ousting the corrupt defenders of the past has become the touchstone of a successful revolution, but so far literature does not seem to be a priority.

Sustained by the presence of novelists Gamal El-Ghitany (its founding editor), and , Akhbar Aladab -- which was founded in Cairo in 1993 as part of Akhbar Al-Yom -- has long gone beyond its local and generic boundaries to become the mouthpiece of fine culture in the . Over the years, it has also been a relentless opponent of former minister of culture Farouk Hosni. On 6 March, following clashes with the editor in chief who had replaced El-Ghitany just before the revolution, a group of ten journalists -- some 95 percent of the staff -- went on strike to protest the policies and performance of Abdullah, seeking the right to be rid of the current editor. The group makes up over half of the journalists who had for nearly two decades regularly analysed cultural affairs and sought to root out the corruption prevalent in the Ministry of Culture and write as well as covering literature and the visual arts.

The journalists have been on strike for 67 days at the time of writing

Abdullah also marginalised the role of the editorial board -- and it shows. Regular readers of Akhbar Al-Adab have been stunned by the lack of talent and coherence in issues published after the strike; sales have plunged dramatically, and one reason for the strike -- so say the 10 staffers -- is a last-resort attempt to save the newspaper, saving it from ideas and practises that might make it party to twisting the aspirations of the revolution and tarnish its name for good.

the revolution "is an Israeli-Iranian conspiracy". The report was never been written. Abdullah, who has since wholeheartedly adopted the priniciples of the revolution, had initially refused to let Akhbar Al-Adab staffers champion the revolution in their reports. "This," he told Mohamed Shoair, one of the strikers and twice the winner of Dubai's "will shut the us down, and then you will all be out of a job."That he is subject to an attack by the counterrevolution, as Abdullah told Oman newspaper, is patently false since (as El-Toukhy puts it) the strikers had been part of the revolution from day one, their presence is documented in photos and videos, while Abdullah never set foot on Tahrir Square or announced that he backed the revolution. Abdullah was even planning a folio in honour of , one of Gaddafi's first-hand men -- even as Gaddafi's kata'ib were showering civilians with bombs -- and that was the last straw; the folio came out, but it was not written by the staffers. In an act of unprecedented absurdity, Abdullah has since accused the strikers of inciting Libyan rebels to "assassinate" him.

When the strikers organised an independent election which Shoair won as editor in chief -- they also suggested, alternatively, that the critic Abla El-Reweny, a cultural editor at Akhbar Al-Yom, should hold this post -- Abdullah accused the retired founding editor of Akhbar Al-Adab El-Ghitany of orchestrating a conspiracy against him. It was thanks to El-Ghitany's connections, he added, that the newspaper won Dubai's be As fragile as literary periodicals are, a press release signed by 120 journalists and thinkers around the Arab world has been issued to boycott the journal. That ratchets up pressure on its editor and might drive the cabinet to consider the strikers' demands, even though it is evidently evidently reluctant to set a precedent of journalists choosing their own editors. This is obviously more risky when it comes to general-interest as opposed to literary and cultural newspapers.

And Akhbar Al-Adab journalists are not alone in calling for reform. Within Akhbar Al-Yom, they have been joined by 14 strikers from Akhbar Al-Nugoum demanding the removal of their editor. Elsewhere the story is the same: some journalists in Al-Mussawwar have filed complaints against their editor; 40 journalists from the Radio and Television magazine have accused their editor -- also appointed by a Turah Prison resident -- is using his post for personal benefits. They too have gone on strike and staged a sit-in. Akhbar Aladab journalists are hailing their strike as a sign of the triumph of the revolution first, journalism second. There has been talk of launching a makeshift online Akhbar Aladab, but no action has been taken for fear that this might freeze the situation. Journalists still hope to salvage the one literary journal in Egypt from the claws of opportunism. In a state of post-revolution uncertainty, they are actually stirring a mini revolution over journalistic standards in the country. If ever removed, Abdullah will be the first editor in Egypt kicked out of his post by the will of the journalists working with him; this would entirely redefine the editor-journalist relations, making staffers their editors' equals and possibly restructuring the limits of what can be said -- perhaps actively engaging in politics. Just maybe, an entirely new press scene will be born. It is only to be expected that the cabinet, brought forth by the will of people, to protect the revolution and wage a widespread campaign to cleanse national institutions.

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