Hisham Kassem crunches over mortar and dust, passes along rough brick walls and steps into his unfinished newsroom, which, if the investors come through, will soon house 100 journalists Twittering and typing out longer tales on the troubled state of the nation.
It is a curious time to be starting an independent newspaper in Egypt. The government and politically connected businessmen are pressuring editors, silencing columnists and booting talk show hosts from their perches in the weeks winding down to November’s parliamentary elections.
The country — viewed by many as a police state percolating through a democracy — is in tumult these days. Inflation is enraging the public, the ruling National Democratic Party is widely disparaged, and there is growing apprehension over who will eventually succeed President Hosni Mubarak. There’s a lot of bad news, and if you’re in the ruling elite, thumbing through newspapers or glimpsing opposition-run Facebook pages, you’ll probably burst into fits of rage at the messenger.
Though authorities are moving against traditional media, Egypt, like many countries across the Middle East, is finding it difficult to silence the increasing numbers of elusive protest voices playing out on emerging technologies.
“The resolve of the government to gag the media has not changed, but they’re not in a position to do it like they once were,” said Kassem, recalling a time years ago when he printed a newspaper in Cyprus and flew copies into Cairo to skirt Egypt’s media laws. “Circulation for newspapers and magazines is 1 million a day. But there are 60 million cellphones in Egypt that can send SMS. To the government this is a very dangerous thing. It’s a lost battle.”
For the last three decades, the Mubarak government has alternately threatened and tolerated independent media outlets. The unspoken rule in recent years was that publications could write about nearly anything, with the exception of military exposes and personal attacks on the president and his family.
But pressure on the media has intensified since February, when Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt to head an opposition movement as newspapers continued to highlight corruption, labor strikes and police brutality.
Mubarak warned the opposition in a May speech not to tip the country into civil unrest. His words were also viewed as a rebuke of the independent media. The NDP, which considers the press an annoyance but not a challenge to its hold on power, is sensitive that Egypt’s image is suffering internationally, especially at a time when Washington, which gives Cairo more than $1 billion in annual aid, is pressing for improved human rights.
“NDP officials started blaming the press for the country looking so dark,” said Hamdi Kandil, a columnist and former talk show host who was sued in May by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit over an unflattering newspaper article. “It’s really that they don’t want noise in the international press. They’re not in danger at home. They don’t face real opposition and these parliamentary elections aren’t the first that they’ll have locked up.”
State-owned publications are creating their own brands of reality. The country’s largest daily, Al Ahram, doctored a photograph taken at the White House of Mubarak, President Obama, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In the original, Mubarak, 82, is trailing the other leaders down a red carpet. But in Al Ahram’s version Mubarak was moved to the front of the pack to, as the newspaper explained after its sleight of hand was quickly detected, symbolize Egypt’s regional stature.
Meanwhile, businessmen connected and sympathetic to the regime have bought newspapers and TV stations in attempts to muffle anti-government voices. One of the loudest and most eloquent critics is Ibrahim Issa, editor of the independent Al Dustour, who was fired this month after two businessmen, one of whom Issa claims has financial connections to NDP interests, purchased the newspaper.
The new owners — Sayed Badawi and Reda Edward — lead a moderate opposition party that seldom criticizes the government. They have not commented on the motivation behind the takeover or explained why they dismissed Issa. The former editor, who has embarrassed party officials and lampooned the president’s son Gamal as unfit to follow his father, said: “In Al Dustour’s case, it was the regime who loaded the gun and Edward and Badawi who pulled the trigger.”
Issa’s firing came as the government shut down 17 mainly religious TV channels on charges of inciting hatred and violating leases. The state pulled the plug on Cairo Today, a popular talk show that frequently criticized corruption and election fraud. Pressure on columnist Kandil to soften his attacks on the government led to several newspapers dropping his pieces over fears they couldn’t afford fines and court cases.
The government suggests to the editor “to lower the tone,” said Kandil. “Then a state inspector comes and fines you, saying, ‘Your fire alarms aren’t working properly and you have nine instead of 12 fire extinguishers.’ This creates anxiety and self-censorship, which is even more restricting. You feel you cannot breathe.”
That is old guard intimidation. Walking through his unfinished newsroom, Kassem said Twitter, mobile phone uploads, websites and texting are gradually outflanking such pressure. The regime, he said, is unable to keep pace with emerging technology and frustrated that the blunt methods of the past do not always work. The playing field has shifted.
“The state is losing its grip on the media and passing it on to its cronies in the business world,” he said. “We could end up like Russia after the Cold War with five or six oligarchs controlling opinion. It’s already happening. That why I’m only allowing my shareholders no more than a 10% stake.”
Hassan is a special correspondent.