I’ve been horseback riding instinctively ever since I was a little girl. A year-and-a-half ago I decided to learn how to do it properly. One important thing I’ve learned is
that a relationship forms between horse and rider where there is a constant push-and-pull between the two; each trying to convince the other who is really in charge. While training, the half-ton horses have bucked, run wildly, and tried to throw me off. My role is then to show the horse that no matter what it does, I can hold on; I need to prove I’m a strong rider. Not only that, I need to bite back by pulling hard on one side of the reins and hurting the horse in the mouth to exert my control, otherwise it will continue trying to prove it’s boss.
After following the crisis at IslamOnline closely for the past 12 days, I think something similar to this analogy is happening between Cairo and Doha. I do not think it’s a battle between moderate and conservative Islam, as some would have us think. I do not think there’s a huge CIA conspiracy to eliminate moderate representations of Islam because “it is in the CIA’s best interests that Muslims continue to be seen as terrorists”; one possible explanation of what is happening at IslamOnline given by a worker on strike in the 6th of October building in Egypt.
From what I’ve seen, I think it’s a simple battle of one side showing the other who is in control; the sides being the Doha management at Al-Balagh Cultural Society – the legal owner of IslamOnline.net – and the Cairo editorial management of the IslamOnline website – the brains behind the content since day one.
The problem with this is that something in the range of 350 employees are caught in the middle.
I must be clear before I continue. I do not have any inside information on the current crisis beyond what everyone has already heard and read in the media. I have spoken with many of my former colleagues at IslamOnline and heard the sequence of events from them. I’ve also spoken on the phone with one of the Qatari board members involved in the current dispute. Nothing I have heard differs from what has already been said in the media.
I do, however, have the advantage of the perspective of someone who worked within the organization for eight years. During those eight years, I came to closely know everyone at the higher levels of the Cairo administration. They are like family to me. I also had the pleasure of meeting many of the Qataris; former and current board members of Al-Balagh Cultural Society.
As far as I am aware, none of the Qataris involved have over-conservative Islamic tendencies.
So What Is Happening?
One thing we’ve heard repeated by the Qatari side in the media is that IslamOnline has diverted from what it was originally intended to be.
A mistake the Qataris have repeatedly made is not explaining what they mean by this. And this leaves us to guess.
In my opinion and based on my experience with the organization, they could mean one or both of the following:
- In the website’s infancy, there were long discussions about whether IslamOnline was a da`wah website (preaching the teachings of Islam) or a media organization. The deputy head of the Qatari board at the time and co-founder of the website, Dr Hamed Al-Ansary, was of the opinion that IslamOnline was for da`wah. Eventually, however, the media aspect took over. How this happened and whether this was accepted by all parties involved, I do not know. I can only assume it was.
- IslamOnline started as an English and an Arabic website. Other sister projects then evolved, such as BiblioIslam, directed towards academics producing research papers related to Islam, and 20at, a website targeting Arab youth. In the past year or so, a rapid expansion of projects occurred. A satellite television station, ANA, was founded that focused on self-development issues. The Arabic website of IslamOnline also created several spin-offs; a website that focused solely on Islamic movements, another that provided academic analyses of events and issues in the Islamic world, and others that were about to launch such as a website focusing on development issues. Although this expansion seemed commendable from the outside, there were staff members, myself included, who felt that the expansion was happening too rapidly and in a way that was negatively impacting the original project: IslamOnline’s Arabic and English websites. One issue, for example, was that freelancers writing for the websites in 2008 were receiving the same amount of payment for articles as they had in 2000. When payment was increased, this happened only in a very minor way in 2009. Also, although IslamOnline started relatively early in the Internet revolution in the Arab world (in 1999) and it was one-of-a-kind at the time, it continued using almost the same technology base it had up until 2010. The result was that by 2010, IslamOnline was way behind the IT revolution compared to other media organizations in the Arab and Islamic worlds that moved onto the Internet. So although more funds were clearly pouring into the organization as a whole, they seemed to be spread thinly.
Understanding the Context
The Qataris have also publicly complained that the organization was accumulating unneeded human resources.
Let me stop here and explain this a bit.
IslamOnline wasn’t run the way any ol’ company is run. IslamOnliners, what we’ve had a tendency to call people working there, are family. And the organization is very family friendly. Women who finished their three-month maternity leave, for example, were allowed to bring their babies to work and keep them at their sides. Some of those babies grew, walked and ran in front of my eyes. When IslamOnline moved to a new building in 6th of October in Egypt, it made sure to create a nursery for mothers with young children so that there was a way to stay close to their children and work at the same time. In Ramadan, many impromptu and pre-organized iftars brought employees and their families together. There were also many impromptu and pre-organized outings that included employees and their families. When IslamOnline moved to the 6th of October City, many employees moved their residences as well to be nearby. It’s as if many of those employees felt they would continue to work within the organization till the end of time; so where it moved they moved with it.
The loyalty to the organization went both ways. Just as employees were loyal to their employer, their employer was loyal to them. I can hardly remember any cases in which an employee was fired at IslamOnline. If that ever happened, it was rare. Of course, many employees left on their own accord for a variety of reasons. But this mainly happened at the lower and mid-management levels. In upper-mid management and upper management, staff has remained quite stable in the past years. Sometimes it has appeared as if management has done whatever it can to keep some people on board even when they are not entirely sure where to put them. Other staff remained in certain positions even though it was clear they were not cut out for those positions. My understanding of why this happened in some cases is that management was loyal to employees who stuck with them for so long. They also did not want to be the cause of a loyal employee being unemployed. So they did their best to keep “homes open”, as we Arabs say.
It’s also important to mention that to many IslamOnliners, IslamOnline is not a job; it’s a message. This has also added to the loyalty many employees show to the organization and the upper management. They aren’t all in it necessarily for the stable salary or the comfortable working environment. They are in it because they strongly believe in the role IslamOnline is playing in portraying a moderate Islam.
This helps explain the position of many workers currently on strike. They are not only defending their jobs; they are defending the message.
Let me summarize how I see things happening:
A power struggle is happening between Doha and Cairo managements. Doha believes changes need to be made in Cairo. These changes probably mean some employees –
maybe even many – losing their jobs and some projects being cut back or removed to refocus efforts on the original projects: IslamOnline English and Arabic websites. Cairo is full against these changes, especially those related to staff losing jobs in this difficult economic climate. The power struggle between the two administrations got out of hand and became personalized, with each party strongly believing the “truth” was on their side. An out of hand power struggle turned to an ugly power struggle, with both parties probably in the wrong.
And the employees got caught in the middle.
I was last at IslamOnline on Thursday, the tenth day of the strike. Employees were placed in a very difficult situation. They had to decide whether to accept severance packages from the Qatari administration and leave for good, or stay and defend the building for a potential future project. They were told that there were efforts to get funding – the funding even existed – for a project that had a message similar to that of IslamOnline. They were told by the management in Cairo that if they stayed and continued to strike, they would be given priority in this project. No further information was given; not that I am aware of, at least.
This logic concerns me. To me it appears to be a continuation of the previous management style that I do not believe was entirely successful: if you stay with me, we’ll find you a job one way or another in a project we’re still figuring out even if your skill sets and your numbers do not exactly fit our needs.
At the same time, Qatari management is continuing to fight back to exert its control over the situation: we’ll show you who is boss. The more you fight us, the more we’ll fight back.
The result is that some 350 employees at Islamonline are concerned about receiving their March salaries. They have no clear idea what to expect if they stayed for a potential future project with the current Cairo administration. The alternative is to start looking for a new job when this prospect was so far from many of their minds.
In the meantime:
- Qatari management continues to “negotiate” the employees’ severance packages with no real end in sight,
- Cairo management continues to talk about a potential future project with no real form or structure and a questionable management approach,
- and 350 employees do not know what tomorrow will bring.