They say one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; but hey, if you were lucky enough to have been alive to witness the Arab Spring unfold last year; then how could you possibly resist reading a book which: a) has a title like: Tahrir: The Last 18 Days of Mubarak, and b) is written as an insider account by a media professional who last served as the President of the News Sector for Egypt’s State TV until the last moments of the former regime’s 30-year-reign.
The author is Abdel Latif El-Menawy; a veteran Egyptian journalist who between April 2005 and April 2011 decided to take on the responsibility of overseeing all news content at Egypt’s Radio and Television Union (ERTU).
Of course, little did El-Menawy know that by accepting this role, he would eventually oversee Egypt’s State Television coverage of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and all the challenges that came with it.
Perks and Perils
Although the job certainly came with a great deal of authority, it was also quite restricting. Throughout his tenure, El-Menawy reported directly to the country’s Minister of Information. Anas El-Fekky (who is currently serving time in prison as a result of a post-revolution court hearing).
As the head of the news division at ERTU, El-Menway also had access to Egypt’s leading figures and key decision makers. He had personally interviewed President Mubarak and managed Egyptian Television’s coverage of major events which took place during his tenure.
He credits himself with changing many of things which were said to have been set in stone in state media; such as making it possible for news bulletins NOT to necessarily start with presidential news.
Now, many could argue that El-Menawy’s couldn’t have been completely independent considering that he was a member of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and that ERTU has long been regarded as a mere extension of the country’s Ministry of Information.
On the other hand, there are those who recall that El-Menawy is veteran journalist who didn’t come to this managerial post from “within the establishment”. In fact, he made his name working with the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), the Saudi-owned regional media power-house. He has served in many positions and worked for many SRMG titles in the 1980s and 1990s.
He claims that some of his coverage in the past has caused the Egyptian government to confiscate several issues of Al-Majalla, the SRMG magazine he used to be the Cairo Bureau-Chief for.
However, when it came to the 2011 Egypt’s State TV’s coverage of the
#Jan25 Revolution, El-Menawy was criticised on various occasions. He is said to have marginalised the Tahrir Square protesters, focused on calmer areas and allowed the spread of rumours and allegations.
Through his book, El-Menawy accepts and provides justification for some of these criticisms; however, he also completely denies some of the stories which are said to have happened.
For instance, he says that for the first few days of the revolution, he was under direct orders from El-Fekky not to feature any of the protesters or interview them on air. On the other hand, he completely denies that the state television or even the Presidential Palace sought to insult the protesters or portray them as thugs.
Three Competing Camps
The book focuses and reveals several elements which were going on behind-the-scenes; First and foremost, an escalating tension which was secretly going on during the revolution between the Presidential Palace (a camp keen on passing on the presidency to Mubarak’s son, Gamal), the country’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi and Egypt’s Intelligence Service.
As a result, El-Menawy had to deal with a number of contradicting media requests and restrictions imposed by these different competing camps. He tells me that happened eventually was that “Two of these camps, the Army and the Intelligence, became allies. However, this alliance wasn’t to overthrow the regime or the President, but to prevent (Mubarak’s son) Gamal from assuming presidency”.
Now, as far as the flow of the book goes, it does come across like the author is justifying (or sometimes even defending) a number of the former regime’s practices and actions; albeit, he does it by stating facts and providing enough context for his readers to decide which version of the story they prefer to believe.
For instance, when it came to the infamous YouTube videos of the Egyptian police van brutally running over and hitting protesters, El-Menawy suggests that this was not intentional saying that “far more likely, these police drivers were actually inept at driving their vans” and that many protesters spray painted the windscreens of police vehicles which resulted the drivers “terrified and poorly trained, slammed on the accelerator to get away from the protesters”.
However, he was equally critical to a number of decisions and choices that Team Mubarak took during their final 18 days in power, repeatedly insinuating that the former president was kept in the dark and that he was surrounded by a clique of stubborn, selfish and out-of-touch group of advisers which included his own son, Gamal.
The book goes on to suggest that as the situation grew more complicated in Egypt, El-Menawy found himself having to rebel against all three camps and insisting that nobody interferes in his editorial decisions; such as when he allowed the broadcast of the army’s “Statement Number 1” without going back to the”Palace”.
Abdel Latif El-Menawy resigned from his post at Egypti’s Radio and Television Union on 2 April 2011. He admits that he couldn’t achieve everything he had hoped for and fears that Egypt is now facing serious issues which may possibly lead to a collapse that he can’t prevent.
He is currently based in London and is working on a new Egyptian-Arab media project which he says will seek to maintain the “civility of the state”.
(Faisal J. Abbas is a London-based journalist, blogger and social commentator. An extended version of this article was first published on the Huffington Post on April 16, 2012.You can follow him on Twitter on @FaisalJAbbas or email on email@example.com )