Egypt Independent is strangled in its crib

Egypt Independent, the country’s widely respected source for local reporting in English, abruptly closed last week when its 50th print issue was held at the presses by the new management of its parent company — a Scribd version of that edition is available online here.  This is a huge loss for anyone who follows Egypt closely (especially those, like me, who do so from afar) and was accompanied by eulogies from friends and former staffers in the New Yorker, The Arabist and elsewhere.  Indeed, the only thing keeping me from despair is that I am hopeful that the best of its writers and editors will soon form a new and truly independent publication and return to their mission of checking the worst excesses of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Egypt Independent began as the online English-language version of Al-Masry Al-Youm — also, once, a uniquely independent source for news in Arabic — before starting a weekly print edition and its demise can be attributed, variously, to the tough economic realities of the news business or the brutal political realities of Egypt thirty months on from the revolution.  Egypt has a long tradition of quality minority-language journalism that began, in its modern incarnation, with the Cairo Times (for whom I wrote a column in the late-1990s, examples of which can be seen here and here; other alums include Issandr El Amrani of the Arabist and Max Rodenbeck who is the Economist’s Middle East correspondent) that, on its demise, was reborn as Cairo.  The publisher of the Cairo Times, Hisham Kassem, was one of the people who launched Al-Masry Al-Youm; he left in 2006 but in a very real sense it is this DNA of independent journalism that was carried into the revolution in 2011.

Some of the economic challenges of the news business are well known and universal: they did in all of Egypt Independent‘s immediate predecessors and nearly did in the New York Times a few years ago.  But as I saw firsthand at the Cairo Times, in Egypt there are ostensibly economic challenges whose origins are actually political; specifically, censorship allowed issues to be banned (a huge economic hit, as well as a free speech violation) and the vast archipelago of state-owned companies and their allies could withhold advertising from untamed publications, slowly strangling any ad-dependent business.  Some of this, no doubt, hastened the end of Egypt Independent.

But there is more at work than that.  It is a credit to Egypt Independent that, in February of this year, it played the news of Abdel Moneim Said’s appointment as chairman of Al-Masry Al-Youm pretty straight because Said, despite his academic garb, is a Mubarak party hack of long standing and the staffers must surely have known then that their paper was in for a struggle.  I met Abdel Moneim Said fifteen or so years ago when he was president of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which sounds like a policy think-tank of some respectability but was, in fact, the official trial balloon launcher for first Hosni and then Gamal Mubarak when they wanted to test public response to prospective policy changes.  Said and I got into a discussion about economic reform that escalated, through its sheer senselessness, into something like an argument as I found myself staring into the jaws of a living dinosaur.  He was 15 years younger then; today, he comes to Al-Masry Al-Youm from his position as chairman of the board of the state-owned Al-Ahram, which not long ago dispensed with the wonderfully troublesome and respected editor Hani Shukrallah.  Ursula Lindsey has helpfully dug up this column by Abdel Moneim Said defending the disputed parliamentary elections in 2010 but the sum of it is this: Said serves those in power, which is just about as unwelcome a quality in a newspaper chairman as can possibly be conceived.

We have to hope that the Egypt Independent staffers, once they found their new publication, will be back at work reporting on how it is, exactly, that a regime can change so much yet remain profoundly the same.  In the meantime, some philanthropist should be thinking about how to support an independent newspaper in Egypt so that it can be made financially bulletproof because the ad model — crumbling everywhere these days — leaves quality journalists in Egypt uniquely vulnerable.


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