During the crises that periodically roil the Middle East, attentive readers may notice a familiar phrase popping up in the American press. It is "The authoritative Al-Ahram said today ..." and it means that, as usual, Middle East correspondents are leaning on what is usually the most reliable source—and often the only one—of dependable information on what is happening in and around Cairo: Al-Ahram, the Middle East's largest daily newspaper.
The "authoritative" part of the cliche stems largely from the unshakable conviction of readers that Chief Editor Mohammed Hassanein Haykal, former friend and confidant of the late President Gamal Abd al-Nasser, is the semi-official voice of the Egyptian Government, a belief that editors at Al-Ahram themselves scorn. "We have no more access to the Foreign Minister than a foreign correspondent has," says Foreign Editor Mohammed Hakki. "When our Cairo-based reporters want to visit the Suez area, they must apply for permission just as all journalists do. And we have the same military censorship."
Managing Editor Ali Hamdy Gamal is just as emphatic. The paper's reputation for accuracy and quality goes back a full century, he says, and the reason it's "authoritative" is because a first-rate staff consistently beats out the competition and because it is printed in a spanking new computerized press center which has been called the world's most modern.
That may well be, but not many readers or observers believe it. And it's still a fact that Haykal and Al-Ahram go hand in hand. The editor's columns and editorials are watched closely not only in the Arab worltl but in Europe and America as well. His words are frequently picked up by international wire services and they are always carefully scrutinized by foreign diplomats. At home, his weekend editorial, "Frankly," largely accounts for the Friday jump of 250,000 over the daily press run of 500,000. And even those who insist that Al-Ahram is not the voice of the Egyptian Government acknowledge that the loss of Haykal would cut into circulation. "He has a unique style of writing and a knowledge of internal politics no one else has," his fans say.
Haykal came to Al-Ahram late in the paper's history. The oldest Arabic-language newspaper in Egypt, Al-Ahram was first published in Alexandria in 1876 as a weekly. In 1886 its Lebanese owners, Salim and Bishara Takla, turned it into a Cairo daily. For years it had a consistently solid reputation, but between 1946 and 1956 the newspaper lost almost $3 million and Haykal, previously a reporter for the daily Al-Akhbar and later editor of the magazine Akhir Sa'ah, was asked to take over. Realizing that his contemporary and informal writing style was not that of the conservative Al-Ahram, Haykal at first refused, but later changed his mind and, despite rumors that he is about to quit and write a book about Nasser, he was still at the helm early this summer.
At his first staff meeting, in August 1957, 33-year-old Haykal was appalled that none of the tarboosh-wearing reporters, who were mostly in their fifties, joked or smiled. He was also surprised when, a month later, he wrote a report to the board of directors in his best Arabic—and discovered the old-time board members knew only French.
Today Haykal commands 150 reporters, 40 of whom are women, and most of whom regard him as a human and generous boss. The story is told, for example, of a rookie reporter who accompanied Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the Benghazi Conference in 1970 and, by tipping the errand boy, learned before anyone the name and composition of the new Federation of Arab Republics. Although no one in Cairo, even in government circles, knew of the proposed union, Haykal ran the scoop and rewarded the astounded reporter with $1,150—more than a year's salary.
Haykal is also respected as an administrator. Dr. Fouad Ibrahim, general manager of Al-Ahram Enterprises, says Haykal gives total independence to the employees, along with free medical care, interest-free loans, and a profit-sharing plan which can be very lucrative.
Symbolic of Haykal's success is the impressive $10-million, 12-story, glass-and-concrete company headquarters in Boulaq, a run-down section of Cairo long known as the center of the city's iron and secondhand trade. Almost 2,700 people work in this building, which takes up 130,680 square feet, has its own mosque and a 200-item art collection, including a $7,000 tapestry from Horraniyyah. Some people call it the most modern newspaper plant in the world, but even that is inadequate since the plant also houses the rest of Al-Ahram Enterprises: book and magazine publishing, advertising, computer services and research.
In theory, Al-Ahram, like every other paper in Egypt, has belonged since 1961 to the Arab Socialist Union, the country's only political party. But what effect this has on the paper is hard to assess. Following the June 1967 war, the ASU did assign political advisers to all newspapers, but Haykal, it is reported, refused to accept his. Hearing of this protest President Nasser said he would be Al-Ahram's adviser.
The daily paper, which because of newsprint restrictions, averages a slim 10 pages, is the result of three successive editorial meetings. Stories are determined and assigned at 10 a.m., worked into the dummy copy and advertising layout at noon, and front-page stories are decided at 5 p.m. Special articles in the Friday edition are selected by Haykal personally.
Western newsprint is used for the outside pages of each issue, but inside pages are printed on cheaper Russian or East German paper. Restrictions on the use of hard currency dictated the less expensive newsprint and limit the number of pages in each issue, much to the distress of Al-Ahram's editors who, before 1967, put out a 16-page issue everyday.
Unless they are one of the five foreign correspondents accredited to London, Bonn, Moscow, Beirut and the United Nations, reporters generally do not have by-lines. The lead story is often written by Haykal, whose distinctive style would make a by-line superfluous. General international news appears on the second page, one or two features on the third, legal news on the fourth, and editorials and opinions, including Ali Gamal's "Talk to the People," on the fifth. Sports and classifieds cover the sixth page and obituaries the final two inside sheets. The last page, and the best-read, gives news on Egyptology, sociology, the arts and the comings and goings of Egyptian movie, political and society personalities. It is edited by Kamal Mallakh, one of four journalists Haykal brought with him from Al-Akhbar.
The slightly larger Friday issue carries Haykal's editorial on the front page, a section on contemporary art, the theater and cinema and a literary section of short stories and criticism edited by the noted professor and critic, Louis Awad. Since few of Al-Ahram's journalists type Arabic, copy is almost always handwritten. One specialist alone interprets Haykal's script to the computer.
Al-Ahram subscribes to all major wire and news services ranging from those of Tass to the New York Times. Foreign radio broadcasts, including transmissions from Israel, are monitored and translated. Re porters have access to a microfilm library and a general library containing 14,000 volumes in Arabic, French and English.
Inside the noiseless newsroom (noiseless because of the absence of typewriters, and the fact that telephones light up rather than ring), an electronic board indicates which pages are completed or going to press. And a computer sets late bulletins in type. This computer, designed by Al-Ahram and built by IBM, is programmed in Arabic. It can handle 6,000 lines per hour and the "mad" tape, once fed to the computer, goes through an electronic Linotype at a rate of 1000 lines per hour, compared to 80 lines by a manual Linotype machine. Arabic-script headlines can be completed mechanically in five minutes instead of the three hours typical of other papers. In the press room, 20 British rotary presses turn out 360,000 copies an hour, and while competitors still fold editions manually, Al-Ahram's system of counting, binding and moving the issues to vans is entirely automated.
Computerization, additional Linotypes and automated distribution enable Al-Ahram to shorten deadline time to a half hour before going to press. Competing papers like Al-Gumhuriyah and Al-Akhbar may need as much as two or three hours for type setting before press time. One edition each of Al-Ahram goes by train to Upper Egypt and the Delta region and a third is distributed by truck throughout Cairo.
Advertising accounts for 40 percent of the space in a typical edition of Al-Ahram and brings in $6.9 million in annual revenue. One-third of these receipts are in hard currency, which Al-Ahram is permitted to deposit in Beirut's Bank Misr. Al-Ahram and its affiliate, Pyramid Advertising Agency, reap 60-70 percent of the total advertising expenditures in all Egyptian media. Pyramid is the agent of Egyptian and other Arab advertising in foreign media, as well as for advertising on Egyptian television and Middle East radio. A full-page ad in the weekend Al-Ahram costs the equivalent of $5,194, and $3,450 in the daily edition. A 10-second prime-time TV commercial in Egypt costs $67.20. According to an assistant advertising manager, Safwat Salib, watches, perfumes and cigarettes (including principally American brands) have traditionally been the biggest advertisers.
Among its other publishing ventures Al-Ahram Enterprises produces Al-Iqtissadi (The Economist), an economics/world-affairs review circulating 8,000 copies every other month in the Arab world; Al-Siyassah al-Dawliyyah (International Politics), a quarterly modeled on Foreign Affairs, which distributes 10,000 copies; and Al-Taliah (The Vanguard), a monthly representing socialist ideology, which sells 12,000 issues. Edited by Abu Seif Yusuf, former secretary of the Egyptian Communist Party, Al-Taliah has been described by one Al-Ahram editor as "the greatest concept in any Third World country: to include the Communists and let them air their views. However," continued the editor, only half in jest, "never have so many bright, interesting people been able to produce so dull a magazine."
In addition to these three publications, each of which supposedly has editorial autonomy, Al-Ahram Enterprises represents 75 foreign publishers distributing some 400 magazines in Egypt. Although censorship has, at one time or another, barred such magazines as Time and The Economist for periods from Cairo newsstands, Al-Ahram is still the agent for a wide range of American publications from House and Gardens to science journals.
Al-Ahram Enterprises also owns Egypt's biggest book publishing house, Dar al-Ma'aref, and publishes there about 30 Egyptian novels a year, including the works of Tawfik el-Hakim, a popular Egyptian playwright. Dar al-Kitab al-Jadid, Ahram's smaller publishing concern, translates and publishes some 52 paperback books of foreign origin annually, mostly light novels and mysteries. It also issues a science and a children's series as well as old books on Arabic and Islamic history. Finally, the enterprise acts as a wholesaler for local and foreign books. At the annual Cairo Book Fair, where crowds make browsing through publisher's pavilions almost impossible, Al-Ahram Enterprises made $345,000 in 10 days on its imported books.
Al-Ahram's four-year-old Electronic Data Processing Center handles all the parent company's paper work. After being used seven hours daily by the newspaper, the multi-purpose computer, one of three of this type in Egypt, earns $34,500 a month for its owners through rentals to other companies 17 hours a day. As part of the package, an IBM-trained staff instructs clients in computer technology.
In addition to publishing and data processing, the enterprise maintains several research centers. ARAC (Arabic Research and Counsellors) operates throughout the Arab world as a management consultant and survey group. The Center for Journalism Studies and Research trains new reporters for three months in Al-Ahram's style. In addition, the center's daily evaluation of the morning paper is discussed at the midday editorial meeting.
The Center for Documents and Historical Research provides information on 19th-century Egypt and on Palestinian and Zionist studies. Headed by Nasser's son-in-law, Hatim Sady, the latter project involves translations into Arabic of all Zionist congresses and Israeli Knesset meetings. Another research center, for economic and political studies, looks into public-sector economies. The results of its investigations, after first being published in Al-Ahram, are re-issued in book form.
All the research efforts, data processing, advertising and book publishing have come since Haykal arrived on the scene. Al-Ahram Enterprises has been allowed to spend hard currency from its Bank Misr account with few restraints, unlike most Egyptian companies, which must request official permission to use hard currency. While such conveniences go toward making its business managers happy, Al-Ahram personnel on the editorial side tend to fret about their daily product.
"We should strengthen our reporting of Arab, not just Egyptian affairs," asserts Clovis Maksoud, Al-Ahram's resident expert on Palestinian affairs. "Of course newsprint is the biggest problem, but we also need to diversify the paper. We need more opinion and analysis. I would welcome a letters-to-the-editor column, for example."
Restrictions on the use of newsprint, of which Al-Ahram still imports 13,000 tons a year, are also berated by Gamal, but he sees another problem—the need to train a second line of men in every department to carry on. "We've been here 14 years and I don't think we've succeeded yet."
If that's so, it must be the only area where Al-Ahram has not succeeded. In other areas—circulation and influence—it has not only succeeded but excelled. In circulation, up tenfold in 10 years, Al-Ahram leads its nearest competitor by some 300,000 copies a day, and in influence it is unrivaled, as a comment by AH Hamdy Gamal suggests: "We say here, that anyone whose obituary has not appeared in Al-Ahram is not dead yet."
Nancy B. Turck, who now lives in Washington, has free-lanced from Cairo for such papers as the Philadelphia-Bulletin and the Washington Evening Star.