Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ahmad Mansour, a Famous but Controversial Journalist

Ahmad Mansour. Photo Corbis

The detention of Egyptian journalist Ahmad Mansour in Berlin in mid-June 2015 has been a turning point in his career, as the incident made him one of the most famous Arab TV hosts and deepened controversy over his media style.

Mansour is a famous talk-show host on the Qatari Al Jazeera TV channel. He is known for a permanent smile on his face, his Islamist leanings, and for asking his guests questions that are provocative and sometimes cross the boundaries of professionalism. Mansour is not an anonymous personality or an amateur media worker: he shot to fame in the Arab world when he covered the battle of Fallujah, in Iraq, in 2004, following the US invasion, and Arab viewers know Mansour as the host of weekly talk shows on Al Jazeera TV.

Mansour, who is in his fifties, was born in the Egyptian city of Samanoud, in Dakahlia Province. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Mansoura University. He began his career as a correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan between 1987 and 1999, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1994, and the US war in Iraq in 2004. His field experience has contributed to his ability to prepare and host innovative programmes on Al Jazeera TV. Two of his main talk shows, “Without Bounds” and “Witness to the Age,” received a large viewership. Tens of millions of Arab viewers watch the two programmes, particularly “Without Bounds,” thanks to Mansour’s talent and experience in addressing in-depth questions to his guests and his skillful ability to obtain exclusive information.

Mansour’s access to powerful or controversial personalities made him a famous journalist, but his recent political views expressed in the media have distinguished him from other renowned journalists who keep quieter about their political leanings. He is known for advocating the Muslim Brotherhood and is even said to be a member, according to Egyptian state-run media. He strongly attacked Egyptian President Abdulfattah al-Sisi’s regime and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates. Since the ouster of former president Mohammad Morsi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mansour sought relentlessly to depict al-Sisi’s government as a dictatorship.

Such views are not uncommon, as some Egyptian journalists believe that the current Egyptian regime, in collaboration with the military, judicial powers, and the media, unjustly ousted Morsi, who was elected president.

In two of his articles, however, Mansour adopted a new position that is critical of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. In one article, dated 7 January 2015, Mansour referred to what he called “the tyranny and totalitarianism” of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, demanding changes to the leadership and accusing it of contributing to slackness within the Muslim Brotherhood, as the group’s obsolete administrative regulations have been in place for decades and failed to hold its leaders accountable for their mistakes. In his second article, published on 22 March 2015, Mansour attacked the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying it had been infiltrated and calling for dissolving or freezing it because it had failed to achieve anything tangible since its establishment thirty years ago. He emphasized that the lack of accountability and transparency within the Muslim Brotherhood, its dominance by its old guard, and giving too much trust to other members have had a destructive impact on the group.

Nobody would dare make statements so critical of the Muslim Brotherhood unless the second- and third-tier leaders in the group felt that the situation had become unbearable. Mansour’s views expressed in the media have two possible interpretations—either that he has inside information about the Muslim Brotherhood or that he is himself a leading figure in the group. The second assumption may be more accurate, because only a few members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which handles its affairs in great secrecy, have access to the group’s classified information.

Ahmed Mansour was in the spotlight again and faced strong criticism by social-media users when he interviewed Mohammad al-Julani, leader of al-Nusrah Front, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate operating mainly in northern Syria and is thus designated by most countries in the world as a major terrorist organization. Interestingly, Mansour presented al-Julani as a freedom-fighter in Syria, and Mansour’s questions seemed to justify al-Julani’s combat activities in the country. Al-Nusra Front is known to be less radical than the Islamic State, but most of the Arab audience and Arab society strongly condemned Mansour’s justification of al-Nusrah Front’s activities and his downplaying of its radicalism and hosting its leader al-Julani, whose group is associated with takfiri (holding Muslims with whom they disagree as infidels) and terrorist ideology.

Mansour conducted another controversial interview, with a Syrian pilot held captive by al-Nusrah. The question arose, how can a prisoner speak freely to the media? Also, some of Mansour’s questions to the prisoner apparently incriminated him for his loyalty to the Syrian regime and for being an Alawite (Shiite). Observers can see that most of the questions focused on security, such as the types of weapons used and the tasks assigned to the pilots. Arab social-media users raised the question whether or not Ahmad Mansour is a professional media worker.

The above begs some questions. Who is Ahmad Mansour? Does he represent the media that defy the arrogant regimes in Syria and Egypt? Is he more a politician than an independent journalist?

In mid-June 2015, Mansour was detained at Tegel Airport in Berlin on an arrest warrant issued by the Egyptian public prosecutor and transmitted to Interpol, which in turn refrained from executing the arrest warrant. This development drew unprecedented media attention in Germany, Europe, America, and the Arab media. The legal status of Mansour embarrassed the German government, which acted in harmony with the policy of the Egyptian regime that is experiencing serious political and security unrest. The German public prosecutor decided on the issue in less than three days, ordering the release of Mansour, whose detention triggered legal, political, and media clamour. The German and British journalism associations and the International Federation of Journalists hurried to issue statements condemning Mansour’s detention. World political leaders, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and senior members of the leading German political parties (the Christian Democratic Union and the Party of Democratic Socialism), in addition to opposition parties, denounced Mansour’s detention and considered it an insult to German democracy.

Because of his detention and subsequent release in Germany, Mansour became, at least temporarily, one of the most famous journalists in the world. The detention has, however, had two long-lasting negative effects. First, the incident tested the Egyptian government’s credibility, as it was accused of fabricating criminal charges against opposition politicians and media workers. Second, it hurt the image of the German judiciary, which the German media has already criticized and questioned with respect to its integrity.

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