Death By Obituary

In March 2010, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was in Berlin talking to Chancellor Angela Merkel about Middle East peace prospects, bilateral relations, and so on. The meetings seemed perfectly unremarkable. But shortly after a joint press conference on Thursday, March 4, Mubarak took an unscheduled trip to Heidelberg, and on Friday Egyptians received the really interesting news out of Germany: Mubarak, aged eighty-two, would be going into emergency surgery the following morning. As stunning as the news itself was the fact that it was reported at all.

Only two years earlier, journalist Ibrahim Eissa had been jailed for questioning Mubarak’s health. Although Eissa was eventually pardoned, the message was clear: anyone who called attention to the fading health of the leader would be punished. But now state television was issuing regular briefings about Mubarak’s gallbladder surgery and recovery, and although the tone was the same — Mubarak’s surgery was a success! His recovery is remarkable! — the plot had changed. The president remained out of sight, and social networking sites lit up with speculations. Journalists and activists wondered whether the malady might be something more serious, and the wondering sounded an awful lot like hoping. Was this sudden slip in Mubarak’s health actually a sign of the end of his thirty-year regime?

As if to quell this notion, images of Mubarak joking with his doctors in Heidelberg were released ten days after his operation. But the photos only quieted the rumor mill momentarily; the taboo against discussing Mubarak’s health was broken, and with it the fear of discussing a post-Mubarak Egypt. Egyptians obsessed over the leader’s deepening wrinkles, his shoe-polish-black hair, his frequent getaways to Sharm el Sheikh. The conversations about health were really coded conversations about politics. And they were productive — less than one year after Mubarak’s surgery, mass demonstrations forced him to resign.

In the ten long months between Heidelberg and Tahrir, the sudden reminder of the leader’s mortality presented an interesting challenge to the country’s journalists. What could be said in the ever-likelier event of Mubarak’s death? How accurate could the reports be, considering the then-inevitability that Mubarak’s son Gamal would take office? How do you write a biography when reporting the facts is a crime? At Al-Masry Al-Youm, the independent daily newspaper where I worked from June 2010 until June 2011, thinking about Mubarak’s obituary posed nearly insoluble difficulties. Saif Nasrawi, co-managing editor of the paper’s English edition, recalled the taboos that remained in place even after the president’s health became fair game: “His wealth, his wife, and corruption.” Reporters on every beat were asked to bring up the question of Mubarak’s legacy with whomever they might happen to interview, in hopes of obtaining suitable copy. The frustrations were manifold. In late 2010, at a staff meeting dedicated to discussing the right tone for the putative obituary, someone posted a headline — “Mubarak Dies” — and a giant frowny face. But weeks later, with reports of Mubarak’s health positive and his regime seemingly intact, motivation wilted. Most believed the leader was indeed healthy. “His father lived to be 103,” Nasrawi noted.

Since leaving office, Mubarak’s health has precipitously declined — or reports of his health have caught up to the facts. He is said to have suffered a heart attack, a stroke, severe depression, the return of long-rumored colon cancer, and periodic bouts of coma. Al-Masry Al-Youm again began work on an obituary. Although the details have yet to be finalized, the column announcing Mubarak’s death will begin with the death of his regime. “It will begin with the revolution,” Nasrawi said.

The Daily News had been forced to respect the same red lines, editor in chief Rania Al Malky admitted to me. But even before the revolution, she had looked forward to publishing Mubarak’s obituary, and anticipated flooding it with censored information. “Once he dies, khalas, he’s gone,” she said. “The red lines die with him. The obituary would have talked about everything. Corruption, money, his tight grip on the media, as well as his plans to hand over the presidency to his son.” She still spoke about the eventual publication of the obituary, which her staff had been preparing for over a year, the way one might speak about lancing an especially painful, engorged boil. She insisted that she had never feared the prospect of the younger Mubarak taking power: “I always expected that if Gamal was made president after Hosni died, there would be a revolution right away.”

I was most interested to learn about the fate of Mubarak’s obituary in state-owned Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading Arabic-language newspaper, which over the years had perfected a kind of grandiose eulogistic style in its death notices. An official organ of the state, Al-Ahram itself bore scars from the revolution, including a plethora of fired editors and a marked shift in tone. Surely their Mubarak obituary would be the best illustration of how much has changed since February 11. But when I visited the paper’s downtown offices one afternoon in April, the scene was largely the same. Reporters and editors still milled purposefully around the massive building’s fourth-floor newsroom, shouting into phones or typing at computer screens. Elevators dinged constantly, announcing the comings and goings of the newspaper’s thousands of employees. The walls of the winding hallway remained a who’s who of Egyptian power and influence, not excluding the recently ousted dictator. Framed in wood, a series of photographs: Mubarak shaking the hand of a dignitary, Mubarak waving to an unseen crowd, Mubarak looking grim but devoted. For Al-Ahram, what must have once felt like a wall of family portraits seems now a shrine to its censored past. But irony goes largely unobserved, here.

No Egyptian newspaper came under more scrutiny for its sycophantic coverage of the Mubarak regime than Al-Ahram. The novelist Ibrahim Farghali, who worked as an editor at Al-Ahram, bluntly described the esprit of the old regime. The paper treated Mubarak “like a holy person,” he said, “like someone who cannot die.” For an idea of what a pre-revolution obituary at Al-Ahram would have looked like, he suggested, consider “what was written about Mubarak on his birthday. He was a national hero and a symbol of the wisdom and stability of the country, seen as developing the country and the freedom of expression. And other lies.”

During the revolution, as the newspaper toed the party line, employees quit in protest. But when Mubarak left, the contents of the newspaper seemed to shed its pacified bias as abruptly as if a chain had been cut. The shift not only allowed the newspaper to cover the revolution — it was itself a revolution. Nasrawi, the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, had a framed copy of the front page of the February 11 Al-Ahram hanging in his office. The headline reads: “The People Have Toppled the Regime.”

From a small office whose only window, which overlooks the crowded newsroom, has its blinds drawn, Al-Ahram managing editor Abdel-Azeem Darwish overseas the operations of the paper’s busy offices. “Before the revolution we had to be very careful when writing about Mubarak’s health,” Darwish said. “Now we can write about him as though he was a common citizen. An accused citizen.” It’s easy to see how Darwish has managed to hold onto his job; he maintains his friendliness despite an onslaught of phone calls and visitors, and there are odd moments of genuine goofiness, as when he lights his Kent cigarettes with a clownishly large orange lighter that takes two hands to operate. It’s also easy to see that Darwish still feels some sympathy for Mubarak — perhaps a habit left over from years of conducting a large newsroom while eating out of the dictator’s hand. “Since the revolution, Mubarak has been very depressed,” Darwish said. “But who wouldn’t be?”

According to Darwish, Al-Ahram’s obituary will now be “both with and against Mubarak. Not for balance, but to tell the truth. It would go back to his childhood, and trace his life as a pilot and a fighter for Egypt.” As an example of this middle ground, he provides me with a 2002 article he’d written criticizing the country’s infrastructure problems. But the language of the piece suggests less even-handedness than the coded language of a frustrated journalist: “Many people have died under Mubarak in traffic accidents.”

None of the editors and journalists I spoke to planned to publish the kind of punishing obituaries one might have expected. Perhaps the facts are punishment enough, and writing them after decades of censorship vindication aplenty. But perhaps also the goal has changed. A medical examiner has deemed the former president too ill to be moved from the hospital to Tora prison on the outskirts of Cairo where he would join his sons Gamal and Alaa and wait for trial. And a trial, not a death, now dominates the conversation in Egypt. Talking about Mubarak’s health is still a way of talking about politics, but the ambition is reversed. Instead of illness and the end of his regime, there is hope for recovery, that he might be held accountable for a very, very long and, by most accounts, quite unhealthy presidency.