The 120,000 daily visitors to IslamOnline.net must have wondered what had happened to their favourite website. Day after day, they found the same news and the same error message: "Please try again later." The entire 350-strong workforce has been on a sit-in in the office building to the west of Cairo since March 15.
The owners of IOL, the Al Balagh Cultural Society, based in Qatar, had, apparently for financial reasons, decided to transfer to a smaller, but also slower server, and changed the passwords. It became a case of "access denied" for the Cairo editorial staff, who found themselves shut out from their own newspaper. They would, some employees asserted, have been very happy to have gone on reporting, "particularly about the Israeli bomb attack on Gaza that was going on at that time." At the same time, of course, they would have kept us informed about their own cause.
As it was, they had to switch to Twitter, YouTube, live streams and their own specially created blog, a tactic no less successful in terms of media coverage. The Arab media gave extensive coverage to the strike and the reasons behind it.
Red roses and moral decline
The hardware lockout is symbolic of the conflict between the editorial staff in Cairo and the financiers in Qatar. There is a clash of ideologies involved. The editorial staff claim that they want to continue to present a pluralistic and moderate Islam, while in Qatar it is an ultra-conservative approach that is desired. The gulf is best illustrated by the initial incident that led to the quarrel.
Interference with editorial autonomy: the power struggle between the owners and those who run IslamOnline was sparked off by an article about Valentine's Day, which is regarded as "immoral" by conservative Muslims | After Qatar carried out a reshuffle of the board of the Egyptian company in January, a series of quarrels broke out with the editorial staff over the content of articles. "It was the first time," said Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla, the South African-born head of Radio IOL, "that the board had interfered in editorial decisions."
In February, IOL editors wanted to use a text about St Valentines Day on February 14, which had appeared in a local Egyptian newspaper, recalls Abu Hattab, one of the editors. "The board, however, rejected this point blank."
An action that may well not seem strange to traditionalist Muslims. The day dedicated to love in the West is immoral in their eyes. The sale of red roses for Valentine's Day is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest places and, should you get your hands on one of the "immoral" plants in the first place, it is likely to be seized by the religious police.
A timely excuse
When the IOL editors decided to stand their ground, the response from Qatar was to announce the termination of all contracts in Cairo on March 31. The employees were promised that they would receive a severance payment of six months salary, plus an additional payment based on length of service.
The Valentine's Day protest, IOL editor Abu Hattab believes, was simply a timely excuse as far as Qatar was concerned. "They wanted to get rid of all of us and would have been glad to see all 300 of the staff leaving." He is sure of one thing, the Qatar move was intended to give the website over to a traditionalist religious agenda.
In the meantime, something like normal service has been resumed at IslamOnline.net, with recent developments from the likes of Indonesia, Pakistan and Jerusalem being reported on. But there are certain topic areas where error messages are still encountered, this being particularly the case in what were previously the most popular sections of the online magazine. In "Ask the Scholar" or "Cyber Counselor" no new questions have been published since late February. Normally, questions and answers are exchanged on a daily basis.
Modern jihad, modern aspirations
Controversial TV cleric: the Al Balagh Cultural Society opted to remove its own chairman, Youssef al-Qaradawi, from office over the website dispute | Meanwhile, the editors received the backing of Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, host of the Al Jazeera TV programme "Sharia and Life". The Egyptian cleric was one of the founders of IOL in 1997. With financial support from Sheika Mozah, wife of the Emir of Qatar, the Al Balagh Cultural Society took over a university student computer project which would eventually grow into the website.
"This project is neither nationalistic nor one aiming at a grouping," said the Islamic scholar at the time. "It is a project for the entire Islamic community. It is the jihad of our era." In other words, a contemporary advert for Islam.
From this notion of the mission, however, there grew a relatively undogmatic website that was interested in exchange of opinions and not afraid of taking up taboo topics such as pornography or homosexuality, rather unusual within the conservative mainstream context.
Showing who is boss
Youssef al-Qaradawi's support was not enough, however. He wanted to negotiate a solution with the IOL employees, but, shortly before his departure for Cairo, found himself unceremoniously removed from his position as chairman of the Al Balagh Cultural Society.
It was a clear affront to the 84-year-old, who, despite his often controversial statements and fatwas, is one of the most influential of Islamic scholars, with over 80 books to his credit. It was Qatar's way of making absolutely clear who is boss. With little effect however.
The IOL workers decided to continue their fight by going on with the sit-ins. Resistance to authority and civil disobedience are not the sort of thing that tend to happen much in most Arab countries – least of all in the Gulf, the region of emirs and kings.
Resistance and legal protest
The initial offer of full severance pay for all was later withdrawn by Qatar, it was then later contractually agreed upon, but so far this has not been honoured. It is an emotional roller coaster for the 350 or so IOL employees who are fighting for their livelihoods. In Qatar, it seems, they believe that money is a more powerful argument than solidarity.
"But this is not about money," IOL editor Sharia and Lifeclaims. "It is about editorial independence and media ethics. We won't give in. They are trying to grab IOL from us, but we are putting up a fight!"
Lawyer for the staff, Yasser Fathi, filed a complaint with the International Labour Organisation of the UNO last week. The managers from Qatar who administer IOL funds in Egypt had broken the law and violated the rights of the workers, he claimed.
A report was submitted to the public prosecutor's office in Cairo and legal action instigated. The negotiated contract on severance pay had not been honoured. The administration owes 12 million Egyptian pounds (1.6 million euros) to the more than 270 IOL employees. The money is supposed to be paid out soon, but with the events of the past four weeks in mind, it would be foolhardy to think that the matter is done and dusted just yet.