Going Off-line

The standoff between more than 300 employees of the influential Islamic news site Islam Online and the site’s Qatar-based managers appears to be heading for an endgame—one which ensures the site as we know it will be no more.

Several striking employees said Tuesday afternoon they had come to a severance agreement with representatives of the website’s parent organization, the Islamic Message Society. The deal includes 6 months pay, plus one month for every year of service.

One striking employee said if the agreement goes through, he expects almost all of his colleagues to accept it and tender their resignations.

“By Sunday, there probably won’t be an Islam Online. It will be an empty building,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agreement won’t formally be ratified until Sunday at the earliest. Strikers said they intend to continue their protest vigil outside the main office in 6th of October City through the weekend.

Months of growing tension between the site’s Cairo-based newsroom and the Islamic Message Society culminated in Monday’s mass walk-out and street protest by employees.

Strikers claimed the society’s new board (formed after a recent shakeup) had sought to heavily alter the site’s signature moderate tone and coverage of wide-ranging social issues—eliminating lifestyle and youth sections and imposing what one striker called a “Salafist” ideology.

Efforts by Al-Masry Al-Youm to contact the Islamic Message Society in Qatar or the website’s local administrators were unsuccessful.

After widespread newsroom resistance to the editorial changes, administrators informed employees Monday that the Cairo contracts would end on March 31, prompting Monday’s walkout. The Doha-based management also, according to one striker, revoked site administration powers "remov[ing] Cairo’s ability to update the website."

One striking employee said the new board seemed determined to purge the entire Cairo operation. “They don’t want anyone to stay. They’re fine if all 315 or so employees walk out,” he said.

He expected all employees to resign and take the guaranteed severance package rather than risk an uncertain future under the new management.

“And besides, anyone who stays would become their slaves,” he said.

In what might be a regional first, the strike has played out in real-time online, through regular tweets from the strikers and an online video feed. On Tuesday, a somber-looking young man who identified himself as Abdallah Shami, sat before the camera and gave a sad, slightly rambling personal testimony about how much working there has meant to him.

“Even if we continued, it wouldn’t be like before,” Shami said.

The apparent collapse of the 10-year-old website has left many employees in mourning, with several saying they viewed the site’s (comparatively) moderate tone and willingness to frankly discuss sensitive issues as part of a labor of love.

One striker, tweeting under the name @bb_aisha, sent out this sentiment Tuesday: “Yesterday people were hopeful; today they’re resigned. It’s still a surreal feeling. Is it really over?”

Throughout the standoff, the position of prominent Qatar-based Egyptian cleric Youssef el-Qaradawy has remained a mystery. El-Qaradwy helped found the site and serves as the public face of the Islamic Message Society. Strikers said that one of the site’s senior editors had personally spoken to el-Qaradawy on Monday and appealed for his help, but was told that the popular television imam was still considering how to respond.

Strikers also can’t count on assistance from the local Journalists’ Syndicate, which doesn’t allow electronic journalists to become members.

“Unfortunately the legal guidelines of the syndicate date back to a time before electronic media,” said Gamal Fahmy, a member of the syndicate board.

Fahmy said he planned to lobby his fellow board members to issue a statement in support of the strikers.

“Their position is very just,” he said.

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