Neighbors / The Mighty Pen

A real war has been underway on al-Galaa Street in central Cairo. The opulent white building housing the editorial offices of the 128-year-old Egyptian daily Al-Ahram has become the focus of stormy protests over the past two weeks between supporters of the paper's chairman of the board and some of its journalists.

The dispute started when the paper's chairman, Morsi Atallah, one of Egypt's best-known columnists and a supporter of the ruling party, published an unequivocal statement prohibiting the paper's journalists from writing for any other newspaper.

Atallah was appointed to his senior post after a government shake-up of the state-run press about four years ago, in which all the editors-in-chief of the five pro-government papers were replaced. He sought to clean out the corrupt stables of the newspaper's leadership, headed by Ibrahim Nafi, who left the government and suppliers holding millions of dollars in debt while amassing a personal fortune estimated at about $3 billion - the result of years of calling in favors from every business that worked with the paper, from an alleged commission on paper purchases to alleged bribes from the winners of a tender for installing an elevator in the editorial offices.

One of Atallah's first steps was to order the paper's Persian Gulf state offices closed after it was found out that the lavish amounts of money being spent were not justified in terms of journalistic returns. He decided to employ journalists working from home rather than offices, and who would submit receipts for every expense.

That was the first bout of bad news for the workers. Then came the order to the paper's journalists to devote all their time to working for Al-Ahram. In a short time, he managed to wipe out a good deal of the paper's debts, with the help of friends in the government.

But the financial remedies did nothing to improve the status of the paper, which represents the government's positions more steadfastly than any other publication. Sales plummeted from some 2 million copies a day to 250,000, with a good many of those going to subscribers in government offices, who are required to buy the paper.

Private, opposition newspapers like the pirate media outlets Al-Dustour, Al-Badil and Almasry Alyoum are taking a huge bite out of Al-Ahram's distribution and those of the other government papers. Working out of small apartments, some manage to sell between 50,000 and 150,000 copies a day. More serious from the government's point of view, these papers are creating earth-shattering political and economic scandals that are determining the agenda more than are the government media outlets.

But now Atallah has run up against a problem to which he believed he was immune. A group of journalists at Al-Ahram decided to fight back and get him fired. First, they published his salary, reportedly $250,000 a month, and the salary of the editor in chief, Osama Saraya, which is reportedly about $200,000 a month.

"Someone who makes such a salary, while the journalists make about $200 a month, cannot demand that the journalists work nowhere else," said a protester in front of the editorial offices.

Then, they reported that Atallah had plagiarized entire articles about Jerusalem from a book on the history of Palestine by the scholar Mohsin Mohammad Salah.

Such plagiarism, they said, should mean Atallah's removal from the journalists' association and from the profession altogether.

These contentions and large-scale protests against Atallah have made clear to the government that appointed him that he has become a problem. As if it were not enough that the government mouthpiece was already suffering from a lack of credibility, now the chairman of the board is suspected of plagiarism.

The ruling party's policy forum, headed by Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak's son, took advantage of the crisis at Al-Ahram to make a major series of appointments at government newspapers last week. In one day, eight new editors-in-chief were appointed, with one major task: preparing public opinion for the parliamentary elections slated for next year, and the presidential elections scheduled for 2011.

An editor of one of the recently established opposition media outlets told Haaretz, "This is using the media to pave the road for Gamal Mubarak to the presidency. They have finally begun to realize that newspapers in particular, and the media in general, are no longer under the exclusive control of the state, and now they are preparing for a presidential campaign."

As for Atallah, he will continue in his job until July, and then will retire to write. The official reason given for his departure is that he has passed retirement age.

Erdogan courts the Kurdish vote

Municipal elections are to be held next week in Turkey, and surveys predict a majority for the Justice and Development Party led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The question is what the "size" of that majority will be - a little over 50 percent, or 60-65 percent, as some polls have forecast?

Although they are local elections, their outcome is seen as testimony to continued public support for the ruling party, thus approving the government's determination to pass a few more amendments to the constitution. To ensure the widest possible margin of victory, Erdogan is working hard to win the Kurdish vote - some 14 million citizens.

He recently visited the southeastern Turkey's Kurdish regions to greet them in honor of the Kurdish holiday of Newroz, and last week the government announced that it would be initiating a translation of the Koran into Kurdish.

That would be a first-ever government-sponsored publication in Kurdish, the use of which is still outlawed in public and in government correspondence.