Of Pens and Swords in Egypt

Media tycoons will likely be calling the economic shots after a new president is elected in Cairo. Meanwhile, a surprising episode involving a known journalist.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egyptian soldiers stands guard outside the election commission office in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, April 19, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

They work at the same Egyptian newspaper, Al-Shorouk. One of them, Imad al-Din Hussein, is the editor. The other, Fahmi Huwaidi — one of the most important publicists in Egypt — writes a daily column there. Al-Shorouk belongs to Ahmed Heikal, an Egyptian businessman who controls the daily by means of a large corporation called Citadel Capital, whose global investments are estimated at more than $8 billion.

Heikal’s father is Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a prominent journalist who criticized President Anwar Sadat both because of his role in forging the peace treaty with Israel and his policy of economic openness, which flooded Egypt with a wave of corruption in the 1970s.

But the rivalry between Heikal and Sadat did not stop their sons from forming a highly profitable business partnership, a giant holding company named EFG-Hermes.

When the partnership dissolved because of disagreements between the partners, Ahmed Heikal established his own holding company. The establishment of a newspaper was not on his agenda at all. He entered the media field only after his father urged him to buy the Al-Shorouk publishing company, one of the leading publishers in Egypt, and to start a newspaper.

Al-Shorouk is not the only newspaper in the country to be controlled by a tycoon. Others are Alyoum Alsabea, owned by media and real-estate tycoon Alaa El-Kahky; Al-Masry Al-Youm, in which billionaire Naguib Sawiris — owner of Orascom Telecom Holding — is a partner; and Al Watan, which is owned by media mogul Mohamed El-Amin.

Each of these men has his own political agenda and, thanks to their control of newspapers and other important media outlets — in addition to their ability to contribute something to Egypt’s economy, which is in crisis – they will likely be the pillars on which the next president, most likely Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, will base his economic policy.

But the dependence is mutual. Since these tycoons make most of their money thanks to government tenders, and receive benefits worth milliions of dollars from the regime, they know they'd better show it some respect.

Now for the story of the journalist who had Al-Shorouk in an uproar last week.

On April 24, Fahmi Huwaidi published an article in the daily entitled “The cry from behind bars.” He wrote that he had received a list of people who have been arrested by the army, and that the list contained, for the first time, statistics about their gender, age and profession.

For example, among the 20,000 people detained, there are 1,232 physicians, 2,574 engineers, 124 university lecturers, 689 children and 704 women.

The report is essentially a scathing indictment of the army. Huwaidi is not a supporter of the military per se, and although he is described as an “Islamist journalist,” he is still far from being a fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was even imprisoned as a young man (he is 77 today) and his many writings on religious subjects have made him a prominent expert.

Indeed, because of Huwaidi's status his article caused a huge uproar among supporters of the army and close associates of Sissi. Ahmed Heikal, the newspaper’s owner, is a supporter of the general, who has said: “There’s a 99-percent chance that I will give Sissi my vote.”

Imad al-Din Hussein, editor-in-chief of Al-Shorouk, wrote in an article published in the same newspaper a few days later that when he received Huwaidi’s article, he wanted to speak with him about those statistics, but Huwaidi did not return his call and the article was run as is.

“Since the atmosphere of polarization has reached a peak in Egypt, I decided to write a letter to all the reporters at the newspaper, including Fahmi Huwaidi, asking them, in the politest language, to check the statistics in their articles very well, to make sure that they are correct,” Hussein wrote. He added that after sending his letter, he received a call from the head of an independent authority that deals with data-collection and fact-checking, which was founded by government order.

According to Hussein, the caller said he had no confirmation of the facts that Huwaidi had cited in his report. Hussein referred the call to Huwaidi, who meanwhile told his boss that the letter he had sent to journalists was “insulting and unacceptable,” and that he was going to write about it in his column.

Huwaidi kept his word. The next day, he published a column entitled “Writing in a time of fear.” In it, he divided the newspaper editors into four categories: “Those who stand strong and insist on adhering to the principles of the profession; those who are intimidated and hasten to placate the government; those who are ambitious, who stretch the limits of cooperation to the sky; and the fourth group: representatives of the security agencies, or devotees of security.”

Of course, editor-in-chief Hussein, who approved the article for publication, understood that Huwaidi did not include him in the first category.

“How was I supposed to respond to that article?” he asked in his own piece in the paper. “I could have ignored it and assumed that most of the readers did not know whom or what it was referring to.”

But Hussein decided to respond and explain that a newspaper has the right to ask its writers to check the statistics they publish. “It is also true that we are writing in a time of fear, but we do not want to add more suffering to this suffering – writing in a time of terror.”

Of course, terror is what the Muslim Brotherhood does, and those who support the movement – which is to say Huweidi – are abetting terrorism.

There followed a great and dramatic development: Huwaidi, who was once a senior writer at Al-Ahram, had to leave because he annoyed his editors and the Mubarak regime. He also left the Saudi Arabian newspaper Asharq Al Awsat for the same reasons.

But now he is writing articles against Egypt's military regime at a newspaper whose editors support the army, and he has even published, without fear, articles against his own editors as well.