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Letter from Cairo: the struggle for a free press


Now that Egypt is in revolution mode, Cairo is attracting more than its usual large share of artists, journalists, academics, analysts and spooks. People are getting out more, throwing parties. Friends you haven’t seen in ages are back in touch, and new alliances formed over coffee and beers. In this convivial atmosphere, people are sharing their hopes – and fears. Will the fundamentalists take over? The economy fail? Lawlessness prevail? The regime make a come-back? I ran into an old colleague who reminded me of conditions preceding the uprising, and how, in the hearts of many individuals, something ineluctable yet vital had changed.

I met Hisham Kassem in the 1990s, at a time when the state had loosened its monopolistic grip on the press and opened somewhat to independent publishers. This was in keeping with both the regime’s programme of economic liberalization and the US wish that its strategic ally could at least pretend to appear more democratic. Several entrepreneurs entered the fray, some focusing on the Arabic-language news market, others on fashion/society glossies targeting the niche market of high-end consumers. Only Hisham had the idea of doing an English-language news weekly. At that time Egypt’s existing English newspapers belonged to the state-owed Al Ahram franchise; one tried to disguise its bias, the other was frankly sycophantic.

The red lines were still there – the president and his security apparatus brooked no criticism – but the new Cairo Times challenged them with critical coverage of political, environmental and social developments, emphasizing human rights abuses and corruption-related scandals. I was one of several columnists given the freedom to write pretty much what I pleased. The paper soon acquired a small but influential following in Egypt and abroad. It even ran a decent profit thanks to the support of advertisers who identified its readership as their target audience (middle/upper class Egyptian youth and young adults, foreign residents and Egypt watchers). Several now influential journalists, bloggers, commentators and activists (Egyptian and foreign), got their start at the Cairo Times, even though as matters progressed it became more and more difficult to get paid.

In response to his efforts, Hisham, the paper’s editor-in-chief, was hauled in for questioning by state security on more than one occasion, the surest of all signs that journalistically, he was doing something right. Then several issues of the paper were banned by state censors, creating a sense of uncertainty among advertisers. Although the Cairo Times offered low ad prices and reached the right audience, it was having trouble reaching the streets. Advertisers were further dismayed by phone calls from the Ministry of Information suggesting that state-owned papers had a much larger readership and their ads would be most welcome there.

In the ensuing years the regime waged a tug-of-war with the independent press, employing a variety of intimidation tactics. The Cairo Times was one of the publications that lamentably went under. It took a while, but Hisham eventually emerged from bankruptcy and helped start the Masry al-Youm, an independent Arabic daily that today boasts one of Egypt’s largest readerships and English and Arabic websites that attract a half-million hits per day combined.

I bumped into Hisham at a party, and learned that his mother passed away last year, a sad loss, not least since she was his most stalwart supporter. Hisham came from an upper-class family and was meant to be a banker, lawyer or diplomat, positions he eschewed, much to his father’s disappointment. But his mother understood that he wanted a hand in something meaningful, like restoring freedom of the press to Egypt, and was rightly proud.

Hisham said that despite her death he continued to feel her presence until, returning to their home one day after the uprising, it seemed gone. He equated this with the fact that he’d finally seen his work of speaking truth to power reflected on the streets of Egypt, where millions gathered in defiance of an oppressive state. For the first time since he began his press career, he no longer felt afraid of harassment, financial blackmail, arrest or worse. The balance of power had shifted: the independent press he’d helped establish had gained enough strength to protect him. His mother’s watchful eye, however loving, was no longer needed. Everyone, somehow, was free to move on.

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