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One of the elevators in the lobby of the enormous Al-Ahram press group building in Cairo is out of order. But the dozens of employees waiting to enter the elevators do not need a sign to know which one to avoid. They all know the secret - the elevator has been out of order for years. An apologetic wave of the hand directs visitors to a working elevator. The secret of the defective elevator was exposed a few weeks ago and with it many more were revealed representing a total value of several billion Egyptian pounds.

Until last July, Ibrahim Nafie was editor in chief of Al-Ahram, a highly respected publication which celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. Nafie entered the position in 1978, eight years after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser and a few years after legendary editor in chief, (Mohamed) Hassanein Heikal, left the newspaper. In 1979, Nafie, until then a struggling intellectual, embarked on a campaign to build up Al-Ahram: The press group now includes 29 publications, dailies, weeklies, and monthlies all distributed by the same institution that operates the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a major publishing house.

In the 27 years that he was at the helm, Nafie was a close constituent and a ubiquitous figure in the offices of Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak; he faithfully transmitted their policies. As chairman of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, an organization with nearly 4,000 members, Nafie also controlled and shaped Egypt's propaganda policy and defined the boundaries of self-censorship by the press.

Until last summer, Egypt's information troika, led by President Mubarak, seemed more stable than ever. Former Minister of Information Safwat al-Sharif, who completed his term last year and was appointed Chairman of the Shoura Council, sat at Mubarak's side with Nafie, who is also a member of the Shoura Council. They decided what Egyptian citizens were entitled to know and how to present the regime to them. All of this was accomplished in collaboration with the editors of Egypt's five other major government newspapers, who, despite their lofty status as journalists, never attained Nafie's power.

A spendthrift's birthday

The ensemble of senior editors, all loyal to the government and fully aware of their obligations and their places, was convenient for all concerned. The arrangement was so accommodating that, years after reaching retirement age and despite laws requiring them to relinquish their positions, Nafie and his colleagues continued to serve in their positions with the permission of the president.

But all good things must come to an end. Last year, Mubarak decided to replace the leadership of all government newspapers and their subsidiaries. Salah El-Ghamri became chairman of the board and Osama Saraya became editor in chief of Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, the paper's Arabic weekly. Thus, Nafie's position was divided and the Gordian knot between management and editorial board was severed in the context of Mubarak's efforts to reform the press. "This is not a case of corruption in the editorial board but one of reform," explained Mohamed Abd El-Mounem, a former editor of the Roz al-Yousef weekly magazine who also lost his job in the round of firings.

But corruption existed to an astounding extent. Journalists and government officials had been hearing descriptions of Nafie's lavish displays for years. For example, all Al-Ahram employees knew that Nafie spent millions of Egyptian pounds each year to celebrate his own birthday. They also knew that his son, Omar, was the partner of businessman Ahmed al-Jarhi, whose company controlled most of the contracts to operate equipment used by Al-Ahram, including air conditioning, diesel engines used in the printing press and elevators - including the infamous elevator which worked for only a week before it gave up the ghost. Another of Nafie's sons is a partner in the "Cartier" Company of Dubai (not a branch of the international Cartier company), which sold Al-Ahram gifts for employees and guests valued at about 55 million Egyptian pounds (LE) annually. Both sons were also partners in the Art-Group company that won an exclusive tender to supply Al-Ahram with office equipment in a breach of Egyptian law; Egyptian law does not permit relatives of the management of a company to compete for tenders.

These are the least severe transgressions cited in a series of revelations published by the opposition weekly, Al-Osboa, edited by Mustafa Bakri. As a result of this exposure, Nafie, 75, may stand trial if the Shoura Council decides to rescind his immunity.

Millions and more millions

Al-Osboa estimates that, during his period as editor in chief, Nafie pocketed about 3 billion LE (a sum equivalent to $600 million), while Al-Ahram owed hundreds of millions of dollars to the government and banks.

Nafie received $15, from suppliers, for every ton of paper delivered to Al-Ahram. Al-Ahram uses about 100,000 tons of paper every year - thus, the alleged annual income from paper suppliers was $1.5 million. He allocated $1,500 to himself for every day that he was abroad and Nafie was frequently abroad - 80-100 days each year. He also charged a "commission" of 1.5 percent for every advertisement and for marketing profits, and received a salary from each of Al-Ahram's subsidiaries and secondary publications, in addition to his salary for serving as editor in chief and chairman of the board. The total of all these earnings approached 3 million LE a month, about $500,000.

Nafie opened Al-Ahram offices abroad and placed his relatives in leadership positions. The cost of maintaining these offices reached about 50 million LE per annum. Meanwhile, Al-Ahram was drowning in debt to an extent that caused Nafie to issue an order to borrow another 400 million LE from the bank only a short time before leaving his position.

The editor of Al-Osboa estimates that Nafie received an annual salary of 63 million LE in recent years. In reports to his readers and the Shoura Council, Bakri revealed that one of Egypt's most important, senior publicists, Anis Mansour, complained to Nafie that his monthly salary was only 4,000 LE. Nafie was not moved and Mansour, according to Bakri, took advantage of an opportunity to appeal to President Mubarak to persuade Nafie to increase his salary. Mansour did receive a raise of only a few hundred LE. According to Bakri, all of this took place while untalented journalists, who were Nafie's constituents, earned hundreds of thousands of LE monthly and Nafie was swimming in millions.

But Nafie's interests were not limited to liquid cash. He also engaged in real estate, purchased villas and sold houses. It came as no surprise that he avoided criticizing former-Minister of Agriculture Yousef Wali as, according to reports, he purchased agricultural land from the ministry and sold it as land slated for construction.

Files documenting all of these indiscretions were carefully stored in a safe in the office of the new chairman of the board El-Ghamri. But they were stolen. According to El-Ghamri, he was sitting in the Concord Hotel in Cairo, while attending the wedding of the daughter of the manager of Al-Ahram's printing presses, when his mobile phone rang. When he looked at the mobile phone display, he realized that someone was calling him from his own office. Apparently, Nafie still had keys to the office, raising suspicions that he or someone close to him stole the files. El-Ghamri ordered security personnel to forbid Nafie from entering the building and drastically reduced Nafie's pension but Nafie is still permitted to write for the paper.

Egypt is now waiting to see how the Shoura Council will act. The council already rejected one proposal to rescind Nafie's immunity and will begin new deliberations now that Nafie has been given the opportunity to address the council on his own behalf.

The fear is that Nafie is not the only corrupt figure in this case. Investigations of other editors are to be expected. It is interesting to note that none of the reports, in Al-Osboa or other newspapers, mentioned the names of those who appointed these editors: President Mubarak, Safwat al-Sharif and members of Egypt's Higher Press Council, who are still considered good friends of Ibrahim Nafie.