Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mubarak loyalists change stripes to fit into the new Egypt

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 6:57 PM

CAIRO - For now, Osama Saraya is still editor in chief of Al Ahram, the state-run Egyptian newspaper that has long been a deferential mouthpiece for the president and its ruling party.

But his main preoccupation seems to be reinvention.

Portraits of Hosni Mubarak no longer adorn his office walls. (One is stashed under the television, others behind a curtain.) Photographs of Saraya with top government officials have been turned upside down.

It was only last week that Saraya was denouncing the chaos caused by pro-democracy demonstrators. His editorial in Al Ahram on Sunday carried a very different tune.

"A salutation to the revolution and respect to its youth," Saraya wrote. "The corrupt in Egypt were only a few that led to the destruction of the country and their era is gone now.''

With Mubarak out of office and the National Democratic Party in shambles, Saraya is hardly alone among prominent Egyptians in trying to remake his image as quickly as he can.

Among them is Tamer Hosny, a well-groomed Egyptian pop star, who has released a song to honor the Jan. 25 revolution, with a video featuring portraits of the martyrs who were killed during demonstrations. He earlier had spoken on state television and pleaded with protesters to go home and end the crisis in Egypt. When he switched sides and went to Tahrir Square, demonstrators kicked him out.

Others are named on "Lists of the Shameful'' being circulated on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, which identify Egyptians said to have opposed the demonstrations or sought to suppress them. Those targeted include symbols of Egypt's movie and music industry and officials of the ministry of information, who tried to demonize protesters as hoodlums and Islamists.

At Al Ahram, reporters and editors met for four hours Sunday to discuss whether Saraya, who was appointed in 2005 because of his membership in the ruling party, should continue in his post, journalists and board members said.

Under his leadership, the paper often read like a compilation of government news releases. Last September, Saraya defended his decision to publish a photograph that had been deliberately doctored to elevate Mubarak to the head of the pack among Middle Eastern leaders walking with President Obama at the White House.

In the early days of the protests, Saraya appeared on Arabic news channels to dismiss the protesters as amounting to no more than a handful of people. In a Jan. 28 column, he warned that the demonstrations were being hijacked by Islamists and people with nefarious foreign agendas.

"He's a very obedient servant," said Ahmed el Naggar, an economics researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Last month, Naggar said, Saraya refused to allow him to write about the overthrow of Tunisia's leader because he was worried about the implications for Mubarak's iron-fisted regime.

"When he changed his views in the last few days, it was again a desperate effort to keep his position," said Naggar, who is a member of the Al Ahram board. "I regard him as a catastrophe that has befallen the position of editor in chief."

Another senior journalist said he had asked Saraya last year to begin distancing the paper from the state to maintain credibility. Circulation was dropping and people were turning to independent dailies for real news, said the journalist, who asked not to be named because Saraya is still in his position.

"I understand, but no one can touch this man," Saraya replied, according to the journalist. He said Saraya had pointed to a portrait of Mubarak behind his desk, and said: "I love him.''

"His transformation is a big joke," the journalist said. "He's part of that type. They have very close ties to the security bodies in the government. They are willing to sell their souls to whoever is in power."

Saraya did not show up for a scheduled interview Sunday. His secretary said he was in a meeting in the next room and later said he was not in the office. When asked why the boxes were packed, she said he was moving to a new office.

The only picture still displayed in the room showed him with King Abdullah of Jordan. Inside an open notebook on the table was writing that praised Mubarak as a powerful "eagle" and "the living legend."

Late Sunday, Saraya answered his telephone, but then rushed off the line. "There are big problems between me and my colleagues at Al Ahram,'' he said. Special correspondent Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.


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