The past two weeks brought Akhbar al-Adab, Egypt’s foremost Arabic literary journal, back under the spotlight with the publication of two new issues: “Salvation” and “Against Fascism.” The editorial team has also proposed a collective management approach that sidelines current Editor-in-Chief Magdi Afifi, against whom they’ve been protesting for months.
“Salvation” came out on July 21 with an editorial that read: “This issue was released without a chief editor. It’s an experiment in collaborative management, with all editors being part of the editing and selection processes, as well as contacting writers.”
Published by the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm since 1993, Akhbar al-Adab has a history of sharp institutional critique, developing a strong following across the region with its coverage linking cultural policy to the broader political context in Egypt and the Arab world. For the past three years, its writers and editors have been fighting to ensure the publication’s editorial independence from the state, with the ongoing protests against Afifi being the most recent in a long struggle.
Shortly after the 18 days of January 2011, the staff protested to remove then-Editor-in-Chief Mostafa Abdallah due to his close affiliations with the Mubarak regime. Abla al-Roweiny was appointed to the post in his place, becoming the first female chief editor to be chosen by the editors of a state-owned paper. However, she was dismissed from office in August 2012 when the Islamist-dominated Shura Council (lower house of parliament) appointed new editors to key state-owned publications.
Afifi’s appointment to Akhbar al-Adab was seen as part of a larger attempt to control all state media outlets. The editorial team believes he toes the Muslim Brotherhood’s line, and lacks technical expertise in the field.
“We showed willingness to cooperate [in the beginning],” says Yasser Abdel Hafez, an editor at the journal, but claims Afifi then went on to marginalize the editorial team, steering Akhbar al-Adab to promote the Brotherhood and its affiliates.
In November of last year, the editors began a strike against his management, and also filed a complaint to Akhbar al-Youm’s Board of Directors. The actions obliged Afifi to form an elected editorial board to co-manage the journal, but the editors felt that he still didn’t actually change his policies so they continued with their strike, Abdel Hafez explains.
This forced Afifi to rely on other contributors with mostly Islamist leanings, says Nael al-Toukhy, a novelist and editor at the journal.
However, Afifi denies being affiliated with specific political groups, claiming that such affiliations could “stifle a journalist’s creativity and isolate him.” He explains that his goals as he managed the past 50 issues of Akhbar al-Adab were to maintain its high standards, develop its content to reach higher distribution numbers and give voice to all groups. Afifi claims those editors striking against him were only a small group that considers itself “the only true representatives to the Akhbar al-Adab school.”
Although most of the editorial team protested in front of Akhbar al-Youm’s headquarters earlier this month carrying placards that read: “Down with all the Supreme Guide’s dogs” and “Down with MB journalist Magdi Afifi,” they argue that much of their objection to Afifi stems from his lack of competence and expertise in the field of literary journalism, not just his ties to the Brotherhood.
“His last experience in culture journalism was working as an editor in Akhbar Al-Youm’s culture page some 20 years ago,” alleges Mohamed al-Wardani, a novelist and former contributor to Akhbar al-Adab.
Wardani feels that the journal deteriorated significantly under Afifi’s leadership, citing by way of example several issues that included some four or five articles written by Afifi. “This is unprecedented,” he claims, adding that “Afifi wasn’t representing his own views during his administration, but rather a certain [Islamist] trend.”
Wardani also notes an issue that triggered a wave of criticism on social media. It was the first part of a special focus series that compared the cultural programs of political parties in Egypt. For that edition, Afifi featured a photograph of MB businessman Khairat al-Shater on the front page, with the headline: “Khairat al-Shater … Will he restore the spirit of Egypt’s culture through the Brotherhood’s electoral program?” And in his article titled “Businessmen, politics, and restoring Egypt’s cultural spirit,” Afifi wrote in defense of Shater, who was accused at the time of trying to rent out some of Egypt’s key heritage sites, including the Giza pyramids, to pay for the state’s budget deficit. The chief editor defended Shater as one of “Egypt’s loving men like all of us,” and compared the media attack on the Islamist to that of some “unknown journalists” who criticized national leader Saad Zaghloul at the turn of the 20th century.
With the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the striking editors of Akhbar al-Adab decided to “take their demands to the next level,” explains Abdel Hafez. An open sit-in was set up in front of Akhbar Al-Youm’s headquarters. As attempts for reconciliation led by the Board of Directors failed, Afifi announced that he would go on a two-week vacation to focus on his research about the works of the late Youssef Idris.
The editorial team then produced the journal’s “Salvation” issue. The politically focused content covered mostly Muslim Brotherhood-related topics, such as a piece on the Brotherhood’s seven cardinal sins by historian Khaled Fahmy, an analysis of the Brotherhood’s rapid downfall by historian Sherif Younis, a collection of interviews with housewives titled “The country was too big for them [the MB],” as well as a number of articles by the editors. The theme was slightly broken by a dialogue on civil war, violence and political exclusion between Lebanese and Egyptian novelists Hilal Chouman and Mohamed Rabie, as well as a few snippets of the history of Ramadan-related songs and TV dramas.
Wardani describes the issue as “an important and historical issue for Egyptian culture,” although he believes it to be somewhat dry and too theoretical. To him, it’s the collaborative editorial experiment that is most inspiring about the journal’s new approach. Akhbar al-Adab editors have sent letters to the Board of Directors, the general assembly and the Journalists Syndicate demanding that Afifi be removed from office, and allowing them to collectively manage the weekly journal.
Afifi said that he would return to work when his extended vacation ends, although he wouldn’t “mind handing it down to whoever follows him in case the Supreme Press Council orders it.”
But Abdel Hafez disagrees: “There’s no coming back for him. If he makes an attempt, we’ll stop him from going into or out of his office.”