Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 July 2012
Issue No. 1107
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama Ahmed Salama (1932-2012)

By Aziza Sami

Click to view caption
From left: Hosny Guindy, founder and former editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, Salama, Hassan Hamdi, head of the Al-Ahram Advertisment Department and Abdel-Moneim Said, former director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

The death of Salama Ahmed Salama on 11 July signals, for readers as well as those working in the media, the end of an era in the Egyptian press, a time when prestigious commentators etched a special niche in the world of the journalism.

A skilful writer who adopted a non-partisan, rational and non-ideological approach, Salama, who amongst other disciplines studied philosophy, cast a critical eye on the pressing political and social issues of our time.

A low key, private man, his seeming aloofness concealed an outgoing personality. At Al-Ahram, the newspaper where he spend the greater part of his career, he was regarded by his younger colleagues -- as one reporter put it -- as "a refuge, the person who would tell you if you were heading in the right direction".

Salama's career in journalism spanned more than 40 years. He began as a foreign correspondent based in Europe for the national daily Akhbar Al-Youm. In his later years he produced a regular column, Close Up, which appeared first in Al-Ahram then, from 2008 onwards, in then privately owned daily Al-Shorouk.

Salama became Al-Ahram's managing editor in 1980. A steadfast champion of press freedom, he displayed a singular ability to juggle the newspaper's editorial and political priorities without allowing them to encroach upon what he perceived to be basic, professional standards. He often designated himself as being "of the establishment, yet not bound by its political priorities". It was a difficult balancing act, and ended with his departure from Al-Ahram in 2008.

Salama's break with Al-Ahram followed repeated censoring of his editorial columns which were critical of the Mubarak regime's repression and its continued domination of the press. He moved from the state-owned flagship to become head of the editorial board of the new daily Al-Shorouk.

Salama's departure from Al-Ahram was symptomatic of an increasingly intolerant political atmosphere no longer able to countenance the fine balancing act that Salama had mastered. There was less and less space within state-owned media for measured and well-expounded criticism of the regime.

Salama was born in Cairo in 1932. His father, an Arabic language teacher, was from Sharqiya in the Nile Delta. Salama obtained his BA in philosophy in 1953, followed by a scholarship to pursue his higher studies in Germany. It was while studying in Europe that he became a correspondent for Akhbar Al-Youm. He remained in Germany for four years, and on his return to Egypt in 1964 became Akhbar Al-Youm's diplomatic editor.

He soon left Egypt again, this time for the United States, where he obtained a master's in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He returned to Cairo in 1967 and a year later joined Al-Ahram, which sent him once again to Europe, as a foreign correspondent.

Salama recalled his years spent in Germany in the late 1950s and 60s as among the highlights of his career. It was there he met his wife, Julianne, a vivacious woman who, over the course of their more than 50-year marriage, remained proud of the respect that her husband commanded in his chosen profession.

Interviewing Salama in 1998 for a profile in Al-Ahram Weekly, he told me that it was in Germany he formed a "vision of what it is to be a journalist, and what it means to have a press that is strong, independent and respected".

His concern with the conditions facing journalists led, for a short time, to his membership of the board of the Press Syndicate. He opted to serve a single term.

"In most cases elections revolve around bonuses, pensions and housing for journalists, not issues important to the profession. I could not lobby the government for rewards which are a disguised form of bribery in return for journalists to compromise their right to an independent and free press."

On the only occasion he did stand, without an election campaign, he won a landslide victory -- a testimony to the strength of Salama's reputation.

The titles of his three published books, Grey Areas, The New Middle East and Journalism on a Hot Tin Roof, reflect his concerns, which remained centred on Egypt's future in the new global order, democracy and human rights.

More than any other Egyptian journalist of his generation he addressed urban planning, the environment and the appalling human rights records of Arab governments, always underscoring the necessity of freeing non-governmental organisations from the political and administrative obstacles which hamper their work.

Over the course of his career he defended freedom of thought and expression, adopting unequivocal stances against the censoring of books on the premise that they violate religious beliefs.

In 1998, when the independent daily Al-Dostour, home to a new brand of fiercely critical journalism, was closed by the authorities Salama went against the grain of the Mubarak regime, strongly championing the independent media in his column.

"Al-Dostour, and similar publications, are making use of the freedom that is afforded them," he wrote at the time. "They are the mirror of a younger generation: a reflection of the changes happening in society."

He remained keenly aware of the lack of mobility within the national press and its hierarchical structures which offered young journalists few opportunities to truly develop. "If you look at the international press, every 10 years at most there is a revolution from within, a change in vision, style and leadership."

Working at Al-Ahram in the late 1970s and, prior to that, at Akhbar Al-Youm, Salama was exposed to two schools of journalism often posited as political and professional antitheses. Al-Ahram in the socialist 1960s afforded its journalists "protection and inclusion, but little freedom" he said. Akhbar Al-Youm, where he started his career in 1967 was, on the other hand, free, competitive and often sensationalist. Salama, typically, was partial to neither. He never ceased to emphasise the need for a radical overhaul of the Egyptian press and its liberation from what he called "the sickness that has resulted from state dominance and the government's insistence, despite changing circumstances, on running it with the mentality of the socialist 1960s".

He underscored the contradiction inherent in a politically repressive system that willingly liberalised the economy while retaining complete control of the press.

"The state is ready to give up its control of banks and telecommunications, but will not relinquish its control of the press because a free and independent press will bring up issues the state wants to keep under the carpet."

In his final columns Salama returned repeatedly to the perpetuation of patterns of authoritarianism in the ongoing struggle between the press corps and the Shura Council (Upper House) over the appointing of editors-in-chief of state-owned newspapers.

Long before 25 January 2011 Salama predicted in his writings the crisis that would befall ruling elites in the Arab world as they attempted to hang ever more tenaciously to power.

"If you look at the experience of Morocco and Jordan, where the ruling elite allowed the opposition to share power after 40 years, you will find it is a commendable experience. The government here must realise that people can make the right choices. But we learn only when it is too late, and when anything is done it is always too little."

During the last 10 years of Hosni Mubarak's rule Salama's message was unwavering: there must be far greater respect for the individual and a change in political, social and educational patterns that have for too long stifled people. A revolution of minds is needed, not of material things, he once wrote.

Salama loved to read. His home in Mohandessin was filled with books and paintings. He would sit in his favourite armchair near shelves full of books, in sight of the plants waving in boxes beyond the bay window. There were novels by John Le Carr³©, a 1961 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Kant and Kierkegaarde alongside Bertrand Russel and Gamal Hamdan.

In the den were works of Arabic literature, especially poetry, which he loved. In his columns his evocative descriptions of Siwa Oasis and the Red Sea acted on the reader's imagination, making of them a powerful argument for the protection of the environment. He headed the Arab Association of Environmental Writers, yet remained sceptical of associations which turn into vehicles of self-promotion.

There were artefacts collected on his many travels. In the sitting room Maori, Native American and Japanese masks looked down from the walls.

A true liberal, Salama remained at odds with what he termed "archaic thinking that alienates young people". His concerns always focussed on those elements beyond politics which affect the life and progress of individuals.

He harboured no sympathy with what he described as chauvinistic or xenophobic currents, rejecting "self-defensive attitudes" that endlessly posited that "the outside world is either with or against us".

Clear in his perception of right and wrong, the student of philosophy remained intellectually open, acknowledging the grey areas and shadows from which truths gradually emerge.

He saw the 25 January Revolution as the Egyptian people's inevitable revolt against a political system that had for too long disregarded their concerns and denied them basic political, social and human rights.

Eighteen months after the onset of the revolution and increasingly ill, the tone of Salama's last column was weary. It was a denunciation of the "use of violence to enforce religion", a final commentary on the killing of a young man in Ismailia for allegedly violating public morals by walking in a public park with his fianc³©e.

For Salama Ahmed Salama, protection of human rights, of the environment and of individual freedoms, are the cornerstones by which societies are not only to be judged, but which will determine whether or not they survive.

"On all three counts," he said on that afternoon when I visited him, "we are still at the very beginning."

Salama is survived by his wife Julianne and two sons, Tarek and Karim.

photo: Sherif Sonbol

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