Al Bawaba Managing Editor Samy El Kamhawy attributed this relative openness to a generation gap: The older ruling men at first dismissed the importance of online readers. He says that he and Abdallah Abdel-Salam, the site’s editor in chief, made Al Bawaba’s editorial policy and style guide largely independent of print-side policies. Like at other Egyptian newspapers, such guides are not codified in writing. “We know it between ourselves,” Kamhawy says, “and we teach it to anyone new through practice.”
Atia suggested Al Ahram’s decision to not integrate the digital side was another way for management to mediate between continuity and change—a common approach to reform in Egypt. “The idea of doing a kind of parallel process perhaps tries to avoid some of the conflicts that may emerge if you try to change an already existing thing,” Atia says. “But that creates other problems, because there is a kind of inefficiency to it. You are spending double the resources, and with only limited reform you are going to face resistance.”
Reform, and revolution, interrupted
When protestors took to the streets on January 25, 2011, Al Ahram purposively chose not to cover them. On January 26 the front page dealt with protests, but in Lebanon. Al Bawaba, meanwhile, covered the protests from the start. “Peaceful marches of hundreds of citizens in the streets of Cairo and Giza,” read the first headline on January 25. As thousands continued to gather in cities across Egypt, Al Bawaba posted updates, providing visibility for protesters outside the Cairo-centric news cycle.
But when the police brutality began later that day, Al Bawaba’s coverage reflected its Al Ahram loyalties. Posts cited ministers and anonymous “security sources” accusing protestors of starting the fight. The police’s response of tear gas, water canons, arrests, and worse, the news narrative went, was necessary to restore order. A story published later in the day a story, citing only an “official security force,” accused the Muslim Brotherhood and “hidden hands” of instigating the violence.
From the start, then, coverage of the revolution embodied the entrenched duality of Al Ahram’s digital space. This became even more apparent after the July coup that ousted President Morsi. In a flash, the military largely reverted to Mubarak-era tactics, repressing Islamist-affiliated media and arresting opposition voices. Journalists from state and private media alike quickly aligned with the military, too, either by will or out of a sense of professional necessity. Al Bawaba’s approach continues to be distinct from the rest of Al Ahram, but the differences are more subtle, at least for now.
The shooting death of Al Ahram journalist Tamer Abdel Raouf at a military checkpoint on August 19 is a case in point. Al Bawaba posted its first report of the killing shortly after it occurred: “Al Ahram Bureau Chief Martyred in Beheira . . . and Hamed El Barbary from Al Gomhoreya injured.”
The story quoted El Barbary saying that Abdel Raouf was killed when soldiers at the checkpoint opened fire on his approaching vehicle. The incident occurred just after 7pm, the start of the military curfew—which, the article reminded readers, excluded journalists.
Forty-five minutes later, Al Bawaba had another short post quoting Khaled Al Balshy, an opposition journalist newly elected to the Egyptian Journalist Syndicate, demanding an immediate investigation. This was not the first incident, El Balshy said, in which the military clashed with journalists past curfew.
At midnight, Al Bawaba posted the military’s response: “Armed Forces mourn the Al Ahram Bureau Chief . . . And stresses: We did not know his identity and we dealt with it as a breach of the curfew.” The story claimed, contrary to El Barbary’s statements, that Abdel Raouf posed a threat: He was driving fast and didn’t follow checkpoint protocol. In the days that followed, the site continued to cover the case’s development.
When the Al Ahram print edition finally weighed on August 21, two days after the shooting, the page-four story had a different tone: “In our country’s troubled time . . . ,” it began, then provided only the military account and a bit of praise for Abdel Raouf. A second story, printed on the same page, had this headline: “The Military Forces express their condolences to the journalists.” The article quoted the military, via its Facebook page, and delivered the military version that was nearly verbatim to Al Bawaba’s account—but without comment from union leaders or El Barbary.