Not quite the President's Man?

Last November, Makram Mohamed Ahmed was elected head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate. His is not an enviable job, to negotiate with a regime known to jail and torture journalists, while fending off criticism that he is the President's Man.
By Yolla Ahmad
Egypt, Makram Mohamed Ahmed. ©  Al-Ahram Weekly
Makram Mohamed Ahmed. © Al-Ahram Weekly

BEIRUT/CAIRO, Dec. 27, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) – "I don’t like being thrown into a volcano with my eyes shut," Makram Mohamed Ahmed said after his election as the head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in November 2007.

The volcano in this case is the notorious treatment of journalists critical of president’s Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt – a regime that has created a sense of insecurity among the reporter ranks, not least because of the numerous cases alleging the jailing and tortureof journalists at the hands of Egypt's security services.

The Egyptian Journalists Syndicate (EJS) has been one of the fiercest critics of the Egyptian government. Ahmed knows that the recent court rulings against some of his colleagues are good reason to give a man in his position pause.

As the head of the EJS, Ahmed is charged with enhancing press freedoms in Egypt. That is no small feat, and given the harsh reality he is facing, it is no surprise that Ahmed's favorite preferred approach is dialogue rather than confrontation.

In fact, Ahmed says his policy has always been to use protest only as a last resort in cases where going through official channels in the government have been exhausted, especially when the freedom of the press is involved.

In a recent article, Ahmed boldly suggested to the government opening a channel of negotiation with the employees of the department of taxes who, at the time, were staging a protest in front of the Council of Ministers.

"Accepting negotiations doesn’t imply weakness or power," Ahmed wrote, "It doesn’t encourage protest, or else protest would be the only way for people to get their rights."

'An election bribe'?

Ahmed has chosen to be a mediator between the government and Egypt’s journalist corps, negotiating the often diverging views and opinions.

His platform in the run-up to the ESJ elections was ambitious. He said he would first negotiate a raise in the minimum wage, then move on to improving medical services and organizing training workshops. Finally, he said he would help provide assistance with living accommodations, transportation, and clothes – all offered at discount prices by the Syndication.

To some, Ahmed’s first accomplishment was a declaration he made before his election. In accordance with a decree from prime minister Ahmed Nazif, a 200 Egyptian guinea raise was offered to journalists, on top of a monthly provision for training and technology purposes.

Critics of Ahmed’s election have said that he is a government sympathizer. They point to the convenient timing of the prime minister’s announcement, and called it "an election bribe," meant to raise Ahmed's chances of being elected to the post.

Ahmed is well aware that his political position is  controversial. On the TV talk-show 90 Minutes, broadcast by the Al-Mehwar channel, he defended himself saying, "I write what I can and I criticize the regime when I can." In Egypt, Ahmed said, "there are no sacred things, no sacred politics, no sacred persons, no sacred thoughts."

Nevertheless, this opinion hasn’t satisfied his critics who maintain that he is nothing more than a talking head for the president – the "President’s Man."

Indeed, some journalists have described his electoral win – he received almost 70 percent of the vote – as "a return to the House of Obedience (Bayt al Taa, the regime),” whereas the outgoing head of the Syndicate, Jalal Aref, had represented the opposition.

It is only normal for Ahmed to deny this accusation.

"At my age", - Ahmed is seventy -, "I have nothing to fear or to hide or to conceal," he said, adding with obvious pride that his writings were “not smooth. My words are moral, but they are also cutting and powerful.” 

By his own recollection, Ahmed has tried to show impartiality and fluidity in dealing with the journalists despite his reputed bad temper.

He is a firm man, and his eyes, hidden behind thick eyeglasses, are intense. He moves his thumbs nervously and uses his hands like an orchestral conductor when he stresses or dismisses a specific idea. It certainly indicates Ahmed is confident in his beliefs.

People who meet him for the first time have to recognize that Ahmed is an experienced journalist. And Ahmed is known to challenge journalists who interview him, always ready to throw in a controversial sentence or two that is sure to attract enough attention to command a title for the article.

And yes, he admits to losing his temper , "on occasion," when responding negatively to a question, or when he is explaining an idea, trying to present his opinion or answer to some criticism he was subjected to.

Ahmed has spent more than 40 years as a reporter. He started out as an editor at Al-Akhbar newspaper, before winning the position of director at Al-Ahram’s regional office in Damascus between 1959 and 1960.

Ahmed progressed until being appointed chairman of the board of Dar al-Hilal and editor-in-chief at Al-Moussawer. In addition to that, he was Chief of the Journalists Syndicatie twice before, from 1989-1991 and from 1991-1993.

Taking on the 'Ladder'

In a career as long as Ahmed’s, it should come as no surprise that he has often faced great danger in doing his work.

He has faced immense criticism for his past positions about the normalization of Egypt's relations with with Israel, and he was accused by his detractors of supporting this controversial trend.

He was almost killed in 1987 after an assassination attempt from fanatics who took offense to a series of articles in which he spoke out against against terrorism. Despite all this, he hasn’t given up on his criticism of terrorism. Years after the assassination, he again attempted to open channels of communication with some of the Sunni Islamic leaders in Al-Aqrab prison, pointing out the religious mistakes he feels they had made in a book they authored under the title, Conspiracy or Review.

Since his re-election to the head of the EJS, a new crisis has emerged because of his criticism of what has been dubbed the "Syndication Ladder," a group of protesters of different political currents who are calling for more social and political rights.

Ahmed complained about the apparent lack of discipline within the Ladder movement, and he refused to rent out three empty floors in the EJS building to the organization, fearing that the Syndicate's work would be jeopardized by the Ladder's continuous protests and demonstrations.

In the end, Ahmed decided to organize the movement without stopping it, as many of his supporters had feared he might do.

True to his sense of dialogue, he fortunately realized the symbolic importance of the Ladder.  But he didn't concede without a word of warning to his colleagues: "The Ladder for the journalists is for professional purposes only. But, and I say it loudly, if the lawsuits against our colleagues are not settled quickly, I will be the first journalist joining the Syndication Ladder!"