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.
In its first three years, Al Bawaba journalists have had to contend with both political and digital revolutions while trying to carve out their own professional space. Abdel Said and Omar Samy describe Al Bawaba as an Al Ahram success story. In 2012, Forbes Middle East named the Al Ahram websites, including Al Bawaba, the most popular online news outlets in the region. But the success is tempered by the conflicting realities that confront the journalists who work there. “After the revolution I was afraid to say I was from Al Ahram,” recalls Ahmed Hafez, a reporter for Al Bawaba. Like other journalists I interviewed for this piece, Hafez says he would often hide his Al Ahram affiliation while interviewing in the streets. “If I had said I was from Al Ahram, I would have been beaten,” he says. “It affects your work.”
That’s the day-to-day reality on the ground. Sabah Hamamou, though, sees a more existential threat to Al Bawaba in the resurgence of the old Al Ahram shackles since the July coup—especially as freedom of the press, once among the revolution’s demands, continues to face entrenched barriers, no matter who is in power. “If you want to reform one spot, and it does not spread to other spots,” Hamamou says, “it’s very hard to keep that part reformed.”