Sunday 20 January 2013

On Hani Shukrallah

Today I received news that Egyptian Journalism, as well as the Egyptian and world public at large, were being forcibly denied of a giant.  The great Hani Shukrallah was being pushed out of his position as the Editor In Chief of the English portal for the state-owned Ahram.

This was the Facebook post by Hani yesterday morning in which he made his announcement:

“In 2005 State Security had me chucked out as chief editor of Al-Ahram Weekly; on 1 Jan. 2013 new management, under new MB administration, decided to "retire" me as chief editor of Ahram Online, three years too early. Like the last time, I'm supposed to stay on in the Ahram Organisation in some capacity and under new terms, of which I'm yet to be informed. Have written Chairman urging that Ahram Online's fantastic managing editor, Fouad Mansour, take over as chief editor, and that I'll be happy to work with him in any capacity. [...] In any event, and just like last time, no regrets, and no bitterness. I've made my choices and am happy to live with the results.”


I first began to read Al-Ahram weekly more than a decade ago. Compared to how the Arabic version of Al-Ahram was nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Mubarak regime, the Weekly was a true newspaper that truly provided professional and world-class journalism. I remember I used to read through it and often ask “how did they write that in Al-Ahram? How did they let them be so critical?!”

The answer to that question was twofold. The first part of the answer was that the regime felt that an English-speaking paper would have little impact on local public opinion, and the quality of journalism and relative freedom the paper featured would make the world believe Egypt was not as bad or restrictive as it seemed. The second, and most important part, was the what I later discovered to be the epic tenacity, genuine integrity and the famed courage of its (at the time) editor in chief: Hani Shukrallah.

The same thing largely happened when I first came across Ahram Online. At first I expected to come across “careful” journalism, but what I found instead was a fiery, honest, patriotic, professional and world-class news operation that often dared to say what some opposition-oriented media was timid about. The reason, I later found out, was a familiar editor in chief: Hani Shukrallah.


I began writing for Ahram Online shortly after the revolution. When my first article there was published, it changed many things for me on a personal level. My writings and my analysis were henceforth approached with greater seriousness and attentiveness than before, as well as by a wider audience. Ahram Online had built great respect for itself despite the name of "Ahram" being attached to it, and I - a writer who was still trying to have a voice amongst so many others out there - truly benefitted from being associated with such a respected news operation and institution. Since then, tremendous opportunities have come my way, and many wonderful things have happened to me as a writer and as (gasp, I'll say it) an activist. And thus, I truly believe that every successive achievement that I made and make as a writer is in part due to the early graciousness and support of the great people of Ahram Online who gave me a real push, namely Fouad Mansour (a superhero journalist to say the least, an incredible man, and as well as one of the best journalists and people I have ever met), and: Hani Shukrallah.


My real life meetings with the man have yet been too few for my hopes. The first time I met Hani was some time ago during an event we were both attending in Cairo. I had already been publishing in Ahram Online for some time now, and I spoken to him online several times, and found him to be an incredibly supportive and gracious person. In real life however, I met an impossibly modest man despite his towering credentials, a person of incredible intelligence and infinite knowledge, and possibly one of the most likable personalities I have ever come across in my life. I introduced myself and he recognised me, and he gave me an immensely warm and friendly welcome, true heartfelt encouragement as a writer still building an audience for himself, and a remarkable and genuine humaneness was overflowing from him.

The next time I met him was when I was attending an editorial meeting for the first time ever at Ahram Online. Shortly before I entered, someone had spilt tea all over my clothes. My attire had a fantastic range of unintended colours as a consequence, but that is another story. This was the first time I saw the man at work. He leads effortlessly, isn’t above asking questions when needed (though there is almost nothing he doesn’t know), knows how to be passionate and analytical at the same time, loves what he does and shines while he does it, and is brimming with superhuman energy. Most remarkably, he directly inspires an honest dedication from everyone. 


Since the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi took power, state-owned media (led by an MB Information Minister) have largely began reproducing the same material from the days of Mubarak while putting the name of Morsi instead. Al-Ahram’s Arabic paper is becoming increasingly ridiculous again, even more so given we theoretically had a revolution, and has effectively become a mouthpiece for the MB/Morsi administration. State TV, which once seemed as if it was going to stand up for its independence, now appears to be more and more under the influence of the ruling administration.  Part of it is due to having Brotherhood loyalists in place, but the other part is due to the problem-averse and slave-like mentalities that many in state media have developed over decades. Meanwhile, independent media remains under serious threat. The sidelining of Hani Shukrallah is a profound assault on the freedom of media and journalism, an assault on the right of Egyptians and the world public to have honest, professional and powerful journalism, and an indication of the Brotherhood's extent of actual commitment to free media.


I hope Ahram Online continues to be free and strong, and I have all the faith in its team. I am eternally thankful to Hani Shukrallah for everything he has done - and will do - for Egyptian and Arab journalism, and for all the support and encouragement he has given me. It is people like him who make my country and the region a bit better everyday. I only hope that whatever his next move is, that it would be something that would allow him to continue to change Egypt to the better, one typed-and-published letter at a time.


Note: Hani was promoted to editor in chief of Ahram Weekly in 2003, before he was forcibly removed in 2005. (Thanks A.H. for the detail)

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