NA IMPRENSA INTERNACIONAL >
The Death of ‘Egypt Independent’
In 2010, I moved to Cairo to try something new. I had taken a job with an education N.G.O., and saw the work—which I knew from friends to be frustrating but fulfilling—as a fresh start. Development, I thought, was useful; I wasn’t sure I could say that about journalism. It took about a week in Cairo for me to change my opinion. I quit the N.G.O.
For the next year, and through months of the revolution in Tahrir Square, I was on the staff of Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition, the online-only version of a local Arabic-language newspaper. The papers shared a name and the same management, but they didn’t have a lot else in common. The staffers of the English edition were young—mostly under thirty—and around a quarter of them were foreign; their paper was both a platform for news and a protest against the journalistic old guard. They saw the established Egyptian media as rife with flaws—a rigid hierarchy, sexism, laziness, nepotism, and self-censorship among them—which impeded the free society they wanted to live in.
What the journalists at the English Edition lacked in mentors, they made up for with camaraderie, determination, and optimism. Earlier this month, when the management of Al-Masry Al-Youm announced that the English Edition (now called Egypt Independent, and weekly in print) was closing, they derided that optimism as naïveté.
Egypt Independent’s bosses cited a lack of resources—a believable claim, given the business situation for most newsrooms today. But there was more to it. A letter signed the “Al Masry Al Youm Institution” (the media company, Al-Masry Al-Youm, owns both the Arabic paper of the same name and Egypt Independent) and posted on Egypt Independent’s Web site reads “…the false hopes that the print version of ‘The Egypt Independent’ will create the desired impact on the Egyptian society were nothing but a huge waste of financial resources, labor, and time.”
For the young journalists, it was a blow. Since January, they had been learning to keep themselves afloat. They raised money, courted investors and advertisers, and canvassed for subscribers. The management “disregarded everything we’d done and completely killed the operation,” said the editor Lina Attalah, when I reached her on Monday via Skype. “The facade is financial, but there are politics in economic moves.” Attalah was tired; she had spent the day arguing for severance pay for the staff. (Al-Masry Al-Youm maintains that the decision is purely financial, and plans to publish English translations of their Arabic content online under the name Egypt Independent.)
Egypt Independent isn’t just a newspaper in English; it’s a crucial, local voice at a time when Egypt needs trustworthy representatives. An article intended for the last issue of Egypt Independent, by Dina K. Hussein and Dalia Rabie, explains the value of “allowing Egyptian journalists to tell Egypt’s story to the world, not as fixers who might or might not get their due credit, but as primary storytellers.” They speak the language and know the customs; they have sources. Perhaps most important, they truly—not just intellectually—care. When one of these news sources closes, it’s not only Egyptian society that rocks off balance. Independent, reliable news on Egypt will be harder for English-speakers in the rest of the world to find.
When I first arrived at Al-Masry Al-Youm, before the revolution, there seemed to be about eight stories in the Egyptian news, written over and over again. Editors had to strain for new angles. “Stability” was the national goal, and news was curated by the government or conservative newspaper owners. Little seemed to have changed since I had lived in Cairo as a teen-ager in the nineties. Back then, a well-meaning high school teacher, in an attempt to instill a devotion to current events, would quiz us daily on the contents of Egyptian newspapers. I learned a lot from stories about the Mubaraks that year—who Hosni lunched with, what women’s empowerment group Suzanne had founded, how much both were loved the world over—but nothing about Egypt.
In late 2010, a popular story in Egypt was a shark attack off the Sinai Peninsula. We did not write about Mubarak’s lunches, but there was a lot of Mubarak coverage. Private media outlets like Al-Masry Al-Youm were supposed to have rescued Egypt from the state’s monopoly, but they had each fallen into their own patterns, inside clear red lines. “When the media is polarized between state media and privately owned, information becomes a casualty,” Attalah told me.
There was a new generation in the newsrooms, but in this staid environment they had yet to be tested. On January 23, 2011, Attalah ran our weekly editorial meeting. Editors pitched stories; reporters filled in their calendars. We may have snacked on a marbled pound cake baked by a reporter’s mother. The big story that week was the protest planned for Wednesday the twenty-fifth, and Cairo was divvied up neighborhood by neighborhood. No one looked forward to the assignments. Protests were common and usually led to nothing; sitting in traffic to Mohandessin hardly seemed like a good use of time. By Friday, we would be sleeping on the floor of a downtown hotel and filing stories from Tahrir Square.
The revolution lifted the newspaper out of its lethargy, and the usefulness of journalism—until then a topic of theoretical debate—seemed manifest. Staffers wrestled with the choice between reporting on the protests and participating in them. Some reporters quit because, in the climate of revolution, they didn’t find the paper progressive enough. One copy editor stormed out over the use of the word “allegedly” in a story about sexual harassment. A reporter was arrested, another beaten up. There were debates about what, exactly, constituted being “anti-revolutionary,” since that had become the insult of the day. Other staffers worried quietly—they had family or friends employed by the Mubarak regime. And every story was weighed down by one big question: Did the newspaper matter?
It did matter, of course, and still does. Balanced journalism had long separated these young reporters from their older counterparts, and when the revolution began, it also, crucially, held them apart from more strident young writers. Objectivity was a challenge, but it was what the Egyptian public wanted. Protests in front of the Maspero building—state media headquarters—were as fervent as those anywhere in Cairo. Protesters objected to the assumption that they were gullible and voiceless, and today state media remains largely disassembled.
To say that I was lucky to work at the newspaper when I did is vastly inadequate; I was lucky in a way that makes me think I may have used up all my life’s good charm in that one instance, and I’m fine with that. It’s not just that I got to witness a revolution or work among friends, it’s that those friends had maintained such an enviable idealism and commitment to journalism that some rubbed off on me. I came to understand the value of local journalism, and I got to know Cairo in a way I hadn’t before and couldn’t have at a desk job. A local newspaper is a magnifying glass, and no one has better insight on a city than a reporter assigned a few meager square blocks.
Two years after the revolution, even without a dominant state media, the pre-revolution voice lives on. Those old curators of half-stories and omissions just hopped in greater numbers to private publications like Al-Masry Al-Youm. They flourished amid the distraction of elections and, recently, wide dissatisfaction with Morsi. Al-Masry Al-Youm, it became clear, wanted to be more mainstream, which meant being less outspoken—and shucking its more progressive English-language branch. As of January, Abdel Moneim Said, a former Mubarak loyalist and chairman of Al-Ahram, a newspaper controlled by the state, became the chairman of Al-Masry Al-Youm.
But if there is a sense that Egyptian journalism still belongs to the Mubarak generation, there is also a conviction that it won’t forever. Not everything is reversible; although the political revolution was not precisely the “youth revolt” it was described as being, the media revolution is.
“I feel defiant,” Attalah told me. “Honestly, I’m relieved to be out of Al-Masry Al-Youm. There was a limit to how critical we could be of the institution and still remain a part of it.” She added, “Obviously it is a luxury to be saying this. There are forty people left wondering how to pay next month’s rent.”
She had learned that the paper was closing in a letter Said sent her close to midnight after she had sent the final issue to press, in which she was told to think first of the main print edition. “There is a lack of trust in what young people can do,” Attalah said. “He was basically telling me that in order to save the mother he has to kill the child. I had to tell him, ‘Al-Masry Al-Youm is not really my mother.’ ”