CAIRO — Ahram Online came to life on Nov. 26, 2010. A tiny editorial team, made up of myself and two marvelous colleagues, had been setting it up for months. We had started from scratch: When we began, there was no office space or computers, and extremely inadequate technical backup.
We were the newest addition to the plethora of media products published by the country's largest state-owned media organization -- some 18 newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the flagship daily, Al-Ahram. As such, we warranted minimal resources -- we were just a speck amid the mega-organization's bloated bureaucracy, which even now employs nearly 2,000 journalists and thousands of administrators and workers. Even the enthusiastic support of the then newly appointed chairman of the al-Ahram organization -- a modernizer who hailed from a scholarly background -- could do little to overcome the hurdles of ineptitude and wastefulness that had solidified over decades.
But despite it all, we had a deadline to meet. Parliamentary elections were at hand, and I resolved that Ahram's new English-language news portal would begin with a bang. At the time, this was as exciting as Egypt's dreary political life got: I was convinced the vote would be disastrous, and I was soon proved right. Hosni Mubarak's ruling clique had decided that the Muslim Brotherhood, which had won an unprecedented 88 seats in the 2005 elections, had overstayed its welcome, and manipulated the constitution to muscle the Islamist group out of the next parliament.
My editorial team was skeptical -- we were by no means ready to launch yet. The site still had more bugs than you'd find in a cheap hotel in the dingier parts of town, a number of the newly installed computers in our tiny newsroom were already malfunctioning, and -- well, you get the picture.
Those challenges aside, we did start with a bang -- both in the Egyptian media landscape and within Ahram itself. Launching what would become an established tradition in our coverage of major events, we drew on our own journalists and a network of Ahram reporters throughout the country to provide our readers with a live, "blow-by-blow" account of election day, which featured vote-rigging by the ruling party's bigwigs. Ahram management got into a tizzy. I received phone calls from high up in the organization asking me to "tone down" and to "balance" our coverage.
At one point, the editor of the flagship Arabic daily, al-Ahram, appeared at the door of our newsroom, asking to see me. "I just had [then Interior Minister, Habib] El-Adly on the phone with me, complaining that Ahram Online is making a scandal of the elections, and that foreign correspondents are tagging behind Ahram Online and rushing to polling stations where you report violence or irregularities," he told me.
The censure by management went so far as to objecting to the words "blow-by-blow" on our live blog, which they saw as implying violence. I made a half-hearted attempt to explain the English idiom, but was happy to concede the point, changing the words to "minute-by-minute." Otherwise, I told my editorial team -- which was becoming growingly nervous about the management's hullabaloo -- to go on doing exactly what we'd been doing, and leave it to me to deal with management.
And herein lies the secret of my intermittent survival in Ahram, as managing editor and then chief editor of the English-language al-Ahram Weekly (from 1991 to 2005) and Ahram Online (from January 2010 to January 2013): I rarely take political differences personally. And I never interested myself in bureaucratic politics. My response to management pressure invariably followed a basic template that included politely, even affably, defending our professional standards, milking the English-language nature of whichever of the two media products I was in charge of for all it's worth ("our readers are used to a different style of journalism!"), conceding irrelevant points (such as "blow-by-blow"), promising to "tone down" certain language, and then turning around and doing exactly what I, and my staff, had been doing all along. The philosophy behind this attitude was simple: "Let the axe fall when it will."
The axe fell -- twice. The first time was under Mubarak when, in July 2005, I was abruptly removed from my post as chief editor of Al-Ahram Weekly. The second time was after the revolution, under the new, Muslim Brotherhood-appointed management, which -- having taken over the reins of the organization soon after the election of President Mohamed Morsy -- decided to send me into retirement in December 2013.