Everyone waited expectantly for the Pope to speak, his word being the final in the series of speeches at Watani’s Jubilee celebration. Pope Shenouda III lived up to his reputation; his famed wisdom and sense of humour enraptured the audience and drew cheerful laughter and wide applause. He praised Watani as a successful newspaper that, against all odds, managed to survive and thrive for 50 full years, a feat which places it among a few suchlike on the Egyptian press field. His Holiness expressed admiration of the wide and objective coverage of women’s issues in Watani and remarked that the paper’s female journalists outnumbered their male counterparts. He said he appreciated the fact that Watani printed a special corner for children.
The worst harm
The Pope commented on Mr Sidhom’s editorials, especially the “Problems on hold”, advising prompt follow-up of these problems. Talking of problems on hold, he said, swiftly brings to mind the building of churches and all the obstacles involved. “People tend to think the problem is in the Hamayouni Edict which dates back since the Ottoman period and places in the ruler’s hand alone the approval of building places of worship for non-Muslims,” the Pope explained. “But the worst harm is not done by the edict,” he said, “but the notorious Ten Conditions of al-Ezabi Pasha, the deputy to the Interior Minister in 1934. These are ten rules for the approval of the building of any church; the least that can be said of them is that they are unjust and oppressive. Despite incessant Coptic demand to reconsider these rules, they were never altered. “One of these conditions stipulates that no church may be erected in the vicinity of a mosque,” he said. “Yet in Egypt, every church has a mosque as its neighbour. When we commented to officials that mosques are being built next to the churches they said ‘but this is a show of fraternity!’ Obviously, fraternity goes in one direction where the Ten Conditions are concerned.”
Youssef Sidhom began by thanking the Pope, bishops, officials, and all public figures present, as well as the founders of and contributors to Watani . He strongly reminded that Watani was no mere paper; it was a mission. “I was no journalist,” he said, “I am an architect by profession. I took an interest in Watani , as a paper founded and run by my father, because I realised it was there to fulfil a certain mission, to call for a cause I firmly believed in. But I must own that I absolutely enjoyed the work, joined the Journalists’ Syndicate, and carried on after my father.”
At home in Watani
Watani managing editor Safwat Abdel-Halim warmly welcomed Pope Shenouda III, noting His Holiness’ wide culture and typically Egyptian sense of humour.
Mr Abdel-Halim stressed that Watani ’s success was the outcome of 50 years of hard work, so that the paper today attracts the best fresh graduates. The training and experience they gain at Watani qualifies them to be the targets of head-hunters, as best in the field. Even though their departure is a loss to us, Mr Abdel-Halim said, it is also a source of pride. He talked about Youssef Sidhom and how firm he was with his subordinates, yet humane and sensitive. “One of our reporters would come to me with the news that he or she had been offered a position in another paper for a salary that would be four or five times as much as their Watani paycheck. I would refer them to Mr Sidhom, secretly cherishing the hope that he would refuse to simply let them go so that others would reap the fruit of our labour. But they would come back to me, happy that Mr Sidhom had sincerely wished them to pursue their career wherever it was more lucrative, and assured them they can come back ‘home’ if they were not happy with their new positions.”
My father; my baby
Samia Sidhom spoke of Watani International. Very softly, she divulged her experience as head of the eight-year-old English supplement which she described as her baby, and how it relied and still relies on the fifty-year-old Arabic language Watani .
Ms Sidhom reminded of how Watani International was born in response to the pressing demand of expatriate Copts whose children and grandchildren knew no Arabic. The idea was to help them connect with their roots, and it was their request to keep them posted on what was currently going on in Egypt rather than to focus on history or civilisation, information on what was easily accessible on the Internet for instance. Hence the diversity that runs through our pages, she said. Part of the material comes from our editors abroad, so that the English supplement would act as a two-way street carrying perspectives from and to expatriate Egyptians.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my work at Watani , and am truly grateful for everyone in Watani for that. If the English supplement is my baby,” she said “ Watani is my father.”
Laura Hakim , managing editor of Watani Francophone, said that it was her dream to join Watani since as far back as she could remember, yet it was only when she married Victor Salama that she found herself there; hitherto she had been a teacher.
Ms Hakim talked of how much Watani Francophone meant to her, and the encouragement she received from Mr Sidhom. She stressed the humanitarian side of the editor-in-chief and his protective feelings towards all who work in the paper. When her son Michael, a young reporter in the paper, had to travel to Zagazig to cover an assignment which dragged on till he realised he’d be behind schedule, he phoned the editor to apologise for the delay and promise to nevertheless hand the assignment on time. But Mr Sidhom, Ms Hakim said, wasted no time in stressing: “Just come back safely; the assignment will be managed anyway,” he said.