By Romesh Ratnesar
Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, is showing Egyptians what a free press looks like. More than social media, that may be the key to the nation’s future
“We prayed the revolution would succeed,” says Magdy El Galad, the editor-in-chief of Al-Masry Al-Youm, the largest independent newspaper in Egypt. “Because if it failed, we would have been assassinated.” A wry smile crosses his face. He’s joking, sort of.
It’s Saturday afternoon, a working day in Cairo, and El Galad—who is 47 and reed-thin, with a sallow countenance and jet-black mustache that make him look a little like the old Saturday Night Live character Father Guido Sarducci—is seated at a table in his dimly lit office, sipping tea. He keeps three cell phones and a pack of cigarettes close at hand as he marks up pages about to go to press. The early edition of the Sunday paper goes on sale at 9 p.m., and El Galad has a little more than two hours to decide what to put on the front page.
He became the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm (which translates to “The Daily Egyptian”) in 2005, the year after it started publishing. Since then the paper’s circulation has jumped from 10,000 to over 500,000, more than double the largest state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram (“Pyramids”), which means that what was once the scrappy voice of opposition is now Egypt’s largest daily. During the anti-government revolt earlier this year, allies of the embattled president, Hosni Mubarak, vowed to shut down the paper after order was restored. It turned out that it was the Mubarak regime that got shut down, and Al-Masry’s early support for the revolution cemented its place as Egypt’s most objective, important, and influential newspaper. It also placed the paper squarely in the middle of the ongoing struggle for the country’s future. Al-Masry Al-Youm may not have figured out how to turn a profit publishing on newsprint, but it is showing Egyptian society something about what a free press looks like—and why the revolution’s outcome hinges, in part, on preserving it.
One of El Galad’s assistants hands him a cell phone. It’s the Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf. El Galad grabs the nearest blank sheet of paper and starts scribbling. He had heard that Sharaf’s upcoming trip to the Gulf was canceled; he asks about it during their five-minute interview. “The Prime Minister says that Saudi Arabia is an important stop for him. They’re trying to work something out,” El Galad says after he hangs up the phone. “We’ll see what will happen in a couple hours.” When Sharaf’s office informs him that the trip is back on, Al-Masry touts the exclusive on the front page. This kind of access was unthinkable under Mubarak. “Because of the revolution,” El Galad says, lighting another cigarette, “people in Egypt have realized the influence of the press.”
The demonstrations that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule have become known as “The Facebook Revolution,” but the uprising had old-media roots. Over the last decade, the emergence of independent media organizations like Al-Masry Al-Youm provided Egyptians with a picture of the corruption, venality, and fecklessness of the Mubarak regime. When pro-democracy activists began converging on Tahrir Square in January, millions of fed-up Egyptians were primed to join them. “The social media obviously played a very important role,” says Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, “but the more traditional media played a vital role, too—maybe not in triggering the revolution but in preparing the way for it.”
And yet four months later, the revolution’s momentum has stalled and the press is again walking a delicate line—albeit one painted by a different authority. The comity that prevailed during the 18-day uprising has given way to spasms of violence on Cairo’s streets. Leaders of the Tahrir Square revolution charge that the country’s caretaker government, which is being run by the military until elections this fall, has been too lenient toward Mubarak, his sons, and their cronies. (Stung by the criticism, the military council announced on May 23 that Mubarak will be tried for the deaths of protestors.) With Egypt and much of the Middle East on the edge of political chaos, there’s a growing possibility that conservative religious groups, such as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, may end up seizing power.
If that happens, the consequences for Egypt’s nascent independent press could be dire. The media industry in Egypt is expected to grow to $1 billion in revenues by 2013, with newspaper advertising accounting for half of it, according to a 2010 study sponsored by the Dubai Press Club. Daily newspaper circulation in Egypt stands at more than 4.3 million, by far the highest in the Arab world.
Occupying the fourth floor of a high-rise building in Cairo’s Garden City district, buzzing with youthful, nicotine-fueled energy, Al-Masry Al-Youm embodies the spirit of the idealized new Egypt. The newsroom is populated by more than 100 reporters and Web producers, many in their twenties, wearing jeans and collaborating freely with members of the opposite sex. Editors meet around a circular conference table in the middle of the scrum to emphasize the paper’s commitment to transparency.
The two-week revolution was a professional crucible for Al-Masry’s young journalists. Clashes between protestors and the police raged so close to the paper’s offices that reporters had to dodge rubber bullets and outrun tear gas. Editorial meetings were interrupted by the rattle of gunfire and explosions. As security deteriorated in Cairo, El Galad instructed female employees to stay home, so they wouldn’t be on the streets at night. Many women opted instead to sleep in the office, as did virtually all of the paper’s male staff.
The fact that a newspaper like Al-Masry Al-Youm existed to report on the revolution is almost as improbable as the event itself. Al-Ahram, Egypt’s first daily newspaper, was founded in 1875, while Egypt was under British rule, and in the first half of the 20th century, it, along with other Egyptian press outlets, helped shape the middle class. But the revolution of 1952, which toppled the monarchy and catapulted Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, signaled the start of the Egyptian media’s decline. Nasser nationalized the country’s most prominent publications. Newspapers like Al-Ahram didn’t exactly become mouthpieces of the state, but they were far from objective.
After Mubarak became President in 1981, state control of the media tightened. For the next two decades, nearly all Egyptian broadcast and print outlets were owned and controlled by the Mubarak government or the ruling National Democratic Party. State-run dailies, like Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar, ballooned into public bureaucracies. Their top editors were appointed by the regime, and in return for favorable coverage of Mubarak and his family, they received massive subsidies to hire thousands of reporters, offset production costs, and maintain low newsstand prices—keeping potential private competitors out of the market.
In 2002, Salah Diab, the founder of an oil-and-gas conglomerate called Pico Energy and grandson of a newspaper publisher from the pre-Nasser era, decided to launch an independent daily. “The business proposition was simple,” says Sherif Wadood, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s current chief executive officer. “There was no good paper in Egypt.” Diab hired Hisham Kassem, a prominent publisher and intellectual, to run the paper, and convinced three other Egyptian executives to invest in it. Launched with $10 million, Al-Masry Al-Youm’s first edition hit the streets on June 7, 2004. “We had 50 editors and reporters working out of one room,” says Alaa AlGhatrifi, now the paper’s chief investigative editor. “We had to go outside and use public pay phones to call sources.”
In Egypt’s arid media landscape, Al-Masry’s oversized banner, large display photos, and color advertisements stood out. It covered long-neglected social issues like crime, pollution, and the status of women. In 2005, Al-Masry published a front-page article by Noha al-Zeini, a high-ranking female judge, calling the results of that fall’s parliamentary elections—won overwhelmingly by Mubarak’s party—a fraud. The article put Al-Masry on the cultural radar, and within two years the paper’s readership had quintupled. It also spawned imitators.
Mubarak didn’t allow the moment to last. State prosecutors twice detained El Galad for publishing articles deemed embarrassing to Mubarak and his allies. Investors behind Al-Masry Al-Youm found themselves cut out of government contracts. At one point the paper’s owners rebuffed an attempt by Ahmed Ezz, a billionaire with close ties to Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to buy a controlling stake in Al-Masry. A June 2010 Ministry of Information document, which was leaked after the revolution, detailed the government’s plans to impose curbs on the media in the “coming period”—starting with the November 2010 parliamentary elections and continuing through the scheduled 2011 presidential vote, which most Egyptians believed would be rigged in favor of Gamal Mubarak. A columnist for one state-owned magazine reported that once Gamal became President, he would dismantle Al-Masry Al-Youm for good.
In the fall of 2010, at a White House summit attended by the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, photographers captured President Barack Obama walking toward a podium in the East Room, with the four others trailing behind him. Al-Ahram ran the photo on its front page—Photoshopped so that Mubarak appeared to be leading the procession. The episode made Al-Ahram the object of ridicule and revealed the lengths to which the regime would go to protect Mubarak’s image.
In the last months of 2010, the President’s men began to move further on the independent media, forcing unsympathetic TV hosts off the air, strong-arming newspaper editors to fire their best reporters, even seizing financial control of some pro-reform publications. The overthrow of Tunisia’s longtime strongman, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, on Jan. 14, 2011, only heightened Mubarak’s paranoia. Al-Masry Al-Youm braced for the crackdown to come.
On the morning of Jan. 25, more than 100,000 Egyptians converged on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and thousands more poured onto the streets of Alexandria, Suez, and other cities across the country. That evening, the police responded with force.
Inside Al-Masry’s newsroom, less than a mile from the heart of the action, El Galad and his team debated how to handle the story, the biggest ever public demonstration against Mubarak’s rule. Throughout the day the paper had posted eyewitness reports and videos of the scene in Tahrir on its website. “Our reporters were calling back and telling us this was different from anything they’d seen before,” says El Galad. “There were completely different faces there, people who you would never have seen at demonstrations.” That afternoon the head of the Ministry of Information called El Galad and warned him that the website’s coverage of the protests might pose a threat to national security. He suggested the paper reconsider how it played things in its more influential print edition later that night.
El Galad wanted to mark the significance of the day’s events without giving them a categorical endorsement. Ahmed Mahmoud, the art director, designed a front page with the top half taken up by a single aerial image of the crowd in Tahrir Square, illuminated by street lights. Above it was a two-word, siren-red headline: The Warning. “The thought that ran through my head was, newspapers are made in these moments,” says Al-Masry CEO Wadood.
Hours after the Jan. 26 edition went on sale, people in Tahrir started grabbing copies of the front page and raising it above their heads. Al-Masry Al-Youm’s coverage was all the more conspicuous because on the same morning, Al-Ahram, the largest state-run daily, chose not to mention the protests at all.
On the afternoon of Jan. 26, El Galad received a call from the same minister who had admonished him the day before. “Since when does the President receive warnings from the media?” the minister demanded. He vowed that the protests would be crushed and that Mubarak would “punish the paper himself.” After that, “our contact with the regime was cut off entirely,” El Galad says. “We decided we couldn’t yield,” he continues. “We thought we were fighting for the rights of the protestors, but we were actually fighting for ourselves.”
On Jan. 28 the regime shut down local Internet and cell-phone service. Kismet El-Sayed, the head of Al-Masry’s digital operations, posed as a foreign guest and talked her way into a room at the Inter-Continental Cairo hotel, which still had a connection to a server outside the country. Twenty staffers moved in and managed the paper’s website from there. That afternoon, an Al-Masry video reporter shot footage from the room of a crowd of thousands leaving Friday prayers and attempting to cross a bridge leading into Tahrir Square, only to be repulsed by government tanks outfitted with water cannons. After Al-Masry posted the footage on its website, it was picked up and replayed by foreign networks like CNN and BBC, which the Egyptian authorities had prevented from broadcasting live images of the protests. Al-Masry was also the first publication to run individual photos of protesters killed by the police. The “Martyrs of the Revolution” feature became an icon, as demonstrators in Tahrir Square started pinning the page to their T-shirts.
On Feb. 11, one day after Mubarak provoked more outrage by refusing to announce his resignation in an address to the nation, Egypt’s military leadership finally intervened. At 6 p.m., Mubarak’s deputy, Omar Suleiman, announced that the President had resigned. The front page of Al-Masry Al-Youm, published that night, featured an arc of head shots of the revolution’s martyrs, framing the words, “I’m going to die so my country can live,” a lyric from a famous Egyptian pop song. A glowing photo of the celebrations in Tahrir Square, fireworks exploding overhead, covered more than half the page. Beneath it was a two-word headline, again in red: The Beginning.
Though happy to see Mubarak gone, many revolutionaries are suspicious of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed control on Feb. 11 and will run the country until a new government is elected. Activists say that since the revolution, scores of demonstrators have been mistreated by members of the army—in one instance, protestors were allegedly detained and tortured inside the Egyptian National Museum—but the media has refused to investigate those claims. “We’ve gone to journalists and shown them the evidence,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The reporters file the stories, and then the editors kill them. We’re not sure if it’s self-censorship or if they’re acting under instructions from the army.”
I met Bahgat at an outdoor cafe near his office in Cairo, where he was drinking tea and smoking a hookah pipe. He shared a letter sent by General Ismail Etman, a member of the ruling military council, to all working journalists, warning them against publishing without the military’s permission “any articles/news/press releases/complaints/advertising/pictures concerning the armed forces or the leadership of the armed forces.” Bahgat sighed. “My concern is that [the media] is too willing to accept these kinds of orders,” he said.
The editors at Al-Masry Al-Youm say that the army occupies a unique place in Egyptian society and is the “red line” that most journalists refuse to cross. That reticence has become more pronounced in the last three months, in part because many Egyptians view the military as the only line of defense against the rising prevalence of crime, sectarian violence, and religious extremism. “What I’d say to the people criticizing us is, give me an example of any media outlet that is publishing stories about the military council the way you would like,” says Ehab Zalaky, Al-Masry’s managing editor. “You have different concerns when you’re on the outside of the situation than you do when you’re in the middle of it, like us.”
The biggest concern of all may be the growing assertiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been strengthened by the failure of the revolutionaries to form a cohesive political movement. When I met El Galad in late April, his anxiety about the prospect of an Islamist takeover in Egypt was palpable. “If the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds in winning a lot of political power,” he said, “they will be a big threat to freedom of the press in Egypt.”
And yet it’s hard to imagine the Egyptian media ever reverting to Potemkin, state-sponsored journalism. Egyptian readers simply won’t stand for it. Perhaps the most enduring contribution of Al-Masry Al-Youm to Egyptian life has been to reestablish what qualifies as real news—and help make its competitors better in the process. In the last three months, the newsrooms at Al-Ahram and the other state-owned publications have undergone their own revolutions, turfing out the executives and editors who had allowed them to become extensions of the Mubarak regime. Yehia Ghanem, a longtime writer and editor at Al-Ahram, says, “The emergence of independent newspapers encouraged more people here to transgress forbidden ground. We owe that to them.” And thanks to a recent easing of licensing restrictions, the country is in the midst of a publishing land rush, with at least a half-dozen new independent dailies preparing to launch by the end of the year.
Far more than its competitors, Al-Masry has expanded its presence on other platforms, creating a video-heavy, interactive website, an iPad app, and an online English-language edition whose reporting is often more aggressive than that of the newspaper itself. A weekly print version of the paper’s English-language edition is set to launch this month, and Wadood has ambitions to develop a nightly television program featuring Al-Masry’s editors and reporters. Egypt’s future is full of uncertainty, but as every savvy newsman knows, crises are also opportunities. “There’s a lot of news in Egypt these days,” Wadood says. Al-Masry Al-Youm still wants to make some of its own.
Ratnesar is deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek.