On Easter Sunday, 2010, Al Ahram published a photo on its front page, that shows ElBaradei, ex-IAEA Chief and a possible candidate for Egypt's 2011 Presidential Race, sitting next to Margaret Scobey, U.S. Ambassador in Egypt, attending Easter Mass at the Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassia, Cairo.
ElBaradei news and photos have scarcely made it to the paper, let alone its front page, since his announcement that he "might" consider running for presidency, except in the context of ridicule or defamation. ElBaradei is not even sure to run; he set forth tough a number of conditions for his candidacy including amending the constitution and changing election system. But this published photo was not to be missed by the newspaper. The events inside the Cathedral surrounding the photo shoot are no less intriguing. First, ElBaradei was led to this seat in the front row in the Easter Sermon celebration in the main Cathedral of Christian Orthodox in Egypt and beyond, so that this photo is taken. Then he was later driven away to the end of the row, away from Ambassador Scobey, possibly so that the connection is not made permanent!
To add insult to injury, the paper put a caption under the photo with only Ambassador's Scobey's name. The message intended by this photo is multi-faceted. First, it is an attempt to say that El Baradei, ex-Chief of IAEA, represents U.S. interests in Egypt. Second, it is an attempt to alienate Muslim conservatives by showing ElBardaei and Scobey participating in this Christian ceremony.
Using and fueling sectarian sentiments is a wicked strategy which the regime often employs. A sort of "divide and conquer" strategy targeted not at the enemies of Egypt, but against the Country itself and the unity of its people. If ElBaradei is seen to like Christians, then some Muslims would hesitate to support him, damaging his political popularity, or so the regime hopes.
Al Ahram, which had been as an independent newspaper since 1875 when it was first published by Salim and Bechara Takla, was "nationalized", i.e., confiscated by the regime after the 1952 "revolution". Since then, the paper has served as a relentless and shameless propaganda mouthpiece in the hands of the regime.
This meant that only those loyal to the regime, rather than to their readers, could go places and get to the seats of influence and power in the paper. That singing the praises of the president and the government is more important than journalistic professionalism and integrity. That government approval, conditioning and "retouching" of the news and even photos is more important than the urgency of publishing the latest updates and fresh stories on time. It is all part of the corrupt value system which thrives in today's Egypt. Corrupt values which are seen as shameful elsewhere, are celebrated and rewarded in this corrupt setting.
Over the years, Al Ahram gradually became much more than a paper. The propaganda machine started to acquire arms, legs, brains and additional voices. Al Ahram today is a sprawling empire with over 30 papers, magazines and publications. The multi-billion dollar empire also operates a wide network of print houses, an extensive distribution apparatus, advertising and media agencies, book publishers, a university, a computing center, a strategic research center and think tank, and the list goes on.
Despite all of these "commercial" enterprises, many of which are monopolies protected, guarded and nourished by the state, Al Ahram loses a great deal of money each year. A few years ago it was revealed that Al Ahram owed the public treasury several billion pounds in unpaid taxes. Al Ahram papers and publications are sold at relatively lower price levels than independent competing publications. It does not matter if Al Ahram makes or loses money. The bill will always be paid from public funds. This meant that independent papers cannot commercially survive in this monopolistic setting. Independent papers, had to make peace with the regime if they wished to survive. Only then would government advertisements be placed in these papers to save them from bankruptcy. As a result, it has been almost impossible for truly independent media to survive for long in Egypt.
The 1960's saw the establishment of the "Ministry of National Guidance", an equivalent to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's masterpiece, 1984. The main function of Al Ahram, as well as that of all other state-owned and state-manipulated media outlets, was to shape public opinion of the Egyptian people in a manner which will sustain and support the regime's policies and figures. National guidance really meant brain-washing and mind control, polluting Egyptian conciseness into accepting dictatorial practices, corrupt settings, abuse of power and the resulting failures and humiliating defeats; as necessary or inevitable, often portrayed as the product of grand conspiracies against Egypt by foreign powers, thus absolving the regime and its leaders from any responsibility to such failures. With no accountability or consequences, failures continued to mount and Egypt's health, wealth and influence were gradually drained.
But when the regime becomes responsible for appointing its own critics, the public eye which should watch, observe and report malpractices, flaws and shortcomings; how can we expect the media and the press to perform these vital functions? And while ElBaradei demands focus on amending the constitutions and sanitizing the election system, true reform can only happen when these media empires are restructured and made independent. Ownership of these institutions and the rights to hire, fire and shape policies must be transferred to independent Boards of Trustees immune from government control.