Saturday, June 9, 2012

In the Press Archives: The Last Newest President

At the used book market, I found a bunch of old newspapers from  the last major political transition in Egypt, the last time a President was ousted (by a bullet, not protests) and another took his place through an election, in October 1981. It felt like the right moment to look through them, as Egyptian journalists deal with how to cover the election and the rise of a new leader. This is, cynicism aside, the first time journalists are confronting a mystery about who will become the next leader of Egypt. In 1981,  there was no mystery at all. 

Whenever you look for a famous event in history in the newspaper, you look for the day after, because of course that's when it became news and not just something that 'happened.' This might seem obvious, but it still feels strange to look at a date that has absolutely no historical importance, the 7th of October for example, the 12th of September, the 8th of December. It makes the steady tap of modern time feel all the more cold and unflinching, and makes you realize just how much news is made by newspapers.

On the 7th of October, if you paid the 3 'irsh (less than a cent today) to purchase the state-owned Al Gumhoria,  you would have seen these words above the fold:

 "Sadat martyred on the day of his victory. Treacherous and evil shots. Assassinated between soldiers and heroes. Hosni Mubarak mourns the hero: He died a hero of war…and a hero of peace. Egypt stands in a united, cohesive front on her continuing journey with resolve and determination."

If you opened up the paper, you'd see pictures of the chaos that followed the assassination. Underneath, the editors (who had once been lead by Sadat when he was Editor in Chief) had selected two photographs of order as well. Against the chaos on top, you saw a young, unknown military man named Hosni Mubarak calmly leading a group of National Democratic Party leaders through one meeting and a table of cabinet ministers through another. 

On page 3, you saw memorials to the fallen president, framed with black bows. You turn the page again. Now Mubarak is on the top of the fold. He looks firm and calm (and so young!), his jaw jutting out slightly in the fashion of Sadat's predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. Next to his face is written, “The people of Sharqeya [a governorate in Egypt], with all of its leadership, popular and political, executive and secretarial, pledge their allegiance absolutely in choosing the path of confidence in the hero Mohamed Hosni Mubarak for President of the Republic.”

Three days later, another state-owned newspaper called Akhbar El-Yom published a full page illustration by the famous cartoonist Mostafa Hussein depicting, with a great deal of artistic license, Sadat’s funeral. Sadat's ink-shaded face looks straight ahead over a procession of hundreds, wheeling his flag-draped coffin through the street where he was killed, in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which would now be his tomb as well.

When you look closer, you see that Hussein has decided to make each member of the crowd a little anonymous Sadat. It’s like the scene from Being John Malkovich where everyone has Malkovich's head. The goal here was a sort of cult-of-personality meets a man-of-the-people message of “We are all Sadat.” The meaning is double: he's one of us, and the assassins have targeted all Egyptians, our security, our stability, our chance at national dignity.

The many Sadats
Then on the back, a strange and cartoonish image of Sadat standing firm in the face of the gunman, under the words 'The leader's courage.' Along with the army of Sadats, it was an echo of October 26th, 1954, when a Muslim Brotherhood member shot eight stray bullets at Nasser. He didn't flinch and then he started shouting, "Let them kill Nasser. What is Nasser but one among many? My fellow countrymen, stay where you are. I am not dead, I am alive, and even if I die all of you are Gamal Abdel Nasser!" 

It was a subtle reference, but the newspapers were fitting Sadat's death into a long national narrative, with motifs of Nasser's near-death and a calm continuity flowing towards Mubarak. Although the events had been shocking, the press response felt like a knee-jerk reaction: assuage the public, prevent chaos, hand the reigns off gracefully. 

Sadat stands firm as he's shot

In the early 1970’s, Sadat eased restrictions on journalists as part of his general strategy of shifting his foreign policy agenda from Russia to the U.S. In order to send the journalists a message that this new freedom shouldn't be abused, he suspended a large group of them for a period of months. When he reinstated them he said, “I meant and still mean to give a warning. It has not been my aim nor is it my nature to harm any person in his work, profession or livelihood…I want freedom of the press. At the same time I want it to be a dedicated press.” 

It worked for a while. Then in September 1981, two months before his assassination, Sadat ordered the arrests of more than 1500 opposition figures, many of whom were journalists.

On October 13th, the day after Sadat’s funeral coverage and Mostafa Hussein’s drawing of the many Sadats, Al Akhbar told its Egyptian readers that they now had a great choice to make. Or, rather, the choice was made and they needed to approve it because that was the patriotic thing to do. Mubarak appeared on the front page, again looking firm and calm and youthful and nothing like the old, bitter dictator you see on TV these days. A handful of journalists and others who were alive at the time told me that Mubarak, until that point, was not well known to the Egyptian public. “The things that he did publicly seemed to suggest that he was more pluralistic than Sadat,” said editor Rania Al Malky, who was ten years old. “There were great expectations.”

The headline on Al Akhbar read, “Yes to stability…yes to democracy and prosperity.” In slightly smaller type, it continued, “The people declare their support for Hosni Mubarak as President of the Republic to complete Sadat's journey. Thousands of telegrams from the governorates and official bodies and trade unions and citizens back Mubarak.”

“Millions of supporters agree: the referendum is a symbol of the Egypt's unity…and Egypt's strength. The election ensures stability and safety.”

The sense of optimism lasted long into Mubarak’s rule. In 1983, the International Press Institute declared that the Egyptian press under Mubarak was the most free it had been since Nasser came to power in 1952. 

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