Despite this tarnished heritage, Al Ahram is also not one-dimensional. Journalists recall with pride the storied national figures who walked the halls of the headquarters. For over a century the newspaper’s name has been synonymous with Egypt, its news and views read throughout Egypt and the Arab world. And there are journalists there who have a genuine interest in professionalism. Several led a failed push for institutional reform during the revolution.
Al Ahram 2.0?
Al Bawaba launched on October 6, 2010. Al Ahram editors chose this date to coincide with commemoration of the 1973 October War. Omar Samy, chairman of the Al Ahram board, attributed Al Bawaba’s birth to shifting priorities: The leadership wanted more local content—the print edition had only two pages—and a website for breaking and 24-hour news.
It was a big change for a place where many journalists still wrote their stories by hand and working computers with internet access were relatively rare. Abdel Monem Said Aly, a former chairman of the Al Ahram board, was a main force behind the digital initiative. He envisioned Al Bawaba as part of a larger transformation of Al Ahram into an integrated media company where a central newsroom fed content to a network of mobile, radio, video, print, and online platforms.
Dubbed the Al Ahram development project, under Said’s leadership Al Ahram spent millions of Egyptian pounds to digitize its archives and create several niche sites, including Al Ahram Online, a 24-hour English-language news site.
The project struggled from the start. Many journalists had little digital experience or interest, and the website’s faulty design led to technological glitches. Said says further digital developments were planned for Al Ahram—and deferred when the revolution came.
But for Sabah Hamamou, Al Bawaba’s first multimedia editor, management’s claims that it was sincere about the project were insufficient. “Nobody had a sincere vision of where we wanted to take Al Ahram,” she says, calling the reforms cosmetic. Hamamou, a 2009-10 Knight-Wallace fellow in the United States, brought a passion for multimedia storytelling to Al Bawaba. She was soon frustrated with the lack of resources—a stark contrast to management’s grand spending on things that didn’t really benefit the journalists. She recalled a constant shortage of working computers, internet connections, camera cards, and even drinking water in the office. “In the beginning there was really good hopes that we are developing this tiny spot, and that it will spread to other parts of the institution,” she says. But instead of rewarding journalistic merit or empowering the website to do the kind of reporting that was envisioned, cronyism and a lack of vision from management was typical, she says.
A political calculation
There also was a political motivation behind the creation of Al Bawaba. With blogging, online journalism, and competing private newspapers on the rise in Egypt, the government-controlled version of events was increasingly hard to sell to readers and viewers. Both Samy and Said described their work with Al Bawaba as an attempt to bypass Al Ahram’s entrenched professional limitations that were deemed too large to address head on. They acknowledged the institution’s outdated coverage, but despite their leadership positions they also distanced themselves from responsibility. “We felt that the editorial content in the print paper did not express what the people wanted,” says Samy. “Al Bawaba could give more freedom. There aren’t the same restrictions as in the print paper.”
Tarek Atia, a former training manager for the US Agency for International Development-backed Media Development Program, worked with Al Ahram on its digital development. “I saw so many ambitious young college graduates come into Al Ahram with the passion to do good journalism, and very soon they hit brick walls,” says Atia, a former editor of Al Ahram Weekly who now runs a commercial training business.
In comparison, he felt a streak of independence developing among Al Bawaba journalists. In this new media space, the borders were still negotiable. “The [Al Ahram] newsroom was functioning as it always does,” says Atia. “Meanwhile, there was this much smaller newsroom that seemed to be really fast moving.” Al Bawaba hired journalists from other private papers who had digital training. In particular, many came from Al Badeel, an opposition paper that abruptly closed in 2009.
From the beginning, the site’s relative independence manifested in a more liberal use of certain phrases. In the print newspaper, for example, under Mubarak the Muslim Brotherhood had to be referred to as the “banned group.” At Al Bawaba the rule did not apply.