Still Pushing the Boundaries: Egypt's New, Free Press

Tahrir, a new newspaper for a new Egypt

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Tahrir editor Ibrahim Eissa (seated right) approving the next day's front-page cartoon / Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- On the fourth day of publication, Ibrahim Eissa bounds into the newsroom of Tahrir newspaper, his latest anti-establishment venture and quite literally the offspring of Egypt's January uprising. It's midday, and he's ready to plough through the day's diet of news stories, opinion columns, and satirical cartoons that seem poised to make this tabloid the paper of record for the demographic known here simply as "the youth of the revolution."

He's wearing his trademark brown suspenders, and his trapezoidal mustache twitches as he hails the receptionist, the foreign news editor, and the managing editor.

"I'm the oldest person here," proclaims Eissa, who appears also to be the most energetic. He later explains that youthfulness is a point of pride in Egypt's gerontocracy, where the octogenarian president appointed septuagenarian deputies to run his police state. Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, Egypt's current leader, is 75.

Tahrir launched at the beginning of July after months of planning. The paper is determined to challenge authoritarianism and corruption, and to cross whatever red lines Egypt's rulers try to draw around a free press.

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Click to expand. By Thanassis Cambanis

"Before, Mubarak was the red line," Eissa says as he discusses the paper in his narrow corner office, as editors parade through. "Now the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has replaced Mubarak. They don't want anyone to criticize them directly."

Eissa still tends the most boisterous patch of Egypt's still-tender garden of free expression. At 45, the veteran editor might boast the toughest hide of any Egyptian journalist. During the long tenure of President Hosni Mubarak, Eissa was fired from nearly a dozen jobs and dashed all the regime's taboos. In 2007, he was sentenced to a year in prison for writing about Mubarak's failing health, which was treated as a state secret. (The sentence later was overturned on appeal, but the case successfully muzzled the Egyptian press.) For five years, he ran the liveliest paper in Egypt, Al Dostour ("The Constitution"), building it into enough of a threat that in October 2010 Mubarak had a crony buy the paper and fire Eissa the next day.

Mubarak's gone, but the system of media control and censorship through which he ruled and stifled dissent is not. Newsprint is subsided and all papers are printed by two state presses. Daily papers sell for 1 Egyptian pound, or about 17 cents. To this day, state media still takes its marching orders from the ruling generals, ignoring stories about torture and judicial collusion while frequently publishing unsubstantiated or patently false stories about revolutionary activists.

Bloggers and reporters for mainstream newspapers and television channels have been summoned for questioning in recent months after publishing stories that displeased Egypt's ruling generals. At least two bloggers have been arrested by the military; Maikel Nabil was sentence to three years in prison in April for criticizing the military online, while blogger Loai Nagaty was arrested at the end of June and faced the prospect of a military trial until he was released yesterday.

Critical journalists are pushing back. Another daily, Youm 7, has launched since the January uprising, along with an unrelated independent television network also called Tahrir.

Against this backdrop, Eissa is aiming his new publication at the vanguard of the Egyptian revolution. "There are 1 million Facebook users and half a million people on Twitter in Egypt," he said. "They are my target audience. This paper is sarcastic and cynical -- it's not really concerned with the old generation."

He's gotten the financial backing of Egypt's media magnate Ibrahim El Moellam, and has assembled a staff of 150 reporters, average age 30. "Half of these reporters were in Tahrir Square during the revolution," Eissa says.

The first issue debuted on Sunday, with a press run of 120,000. The website will go live in a few weeks, but editors post most of the stories to the paper's Facebook page. Early editions have been packed with scathing reportage about the state's mishandling of prosecutions of former regime officials, and the June 28 clashes with riot police in which more than 1,000 protesters were wounded, the worst violence since Mubarak resigned.

The masthead features elegant traditional Arabic calligraphy and skyboxes for essays by well-known intellectuals. The rest of the front page mixes Egyptian humor with the bouncy aesthetic of an iPhone screen. News articles and sports scores jostle with a large color cartoon and two features that showcase Tweets and Facebook posts. Some features are overtly political, like the cartoon that shows shadowy secret police bosses spurning Superman and Batman in Egypt's hour of need, choosing instead a hired thug to solve the country's problems.

Others appeal to another national pastime: jokes. One, taken from a reader on Facebook goes like this: "Liar 1: When I was born, rainbows still were black and white. Liar 2: Oh yeah? When I was born, the Dead Sea was still just sick."

The Tahrir newsroom fills two floors of a simple office building in a mostly residential quarter of Dokki, a middle-class Cairo neighborhood. All the office walls are glass, including Eissa's, and not a single stretch of desk space goes unused. Central air conditioning keeps it frigid even on a punishing summer's day, and in a shocking departure from local custom, there's no smoking anywhere.

Khaled Dawoud, a senior editor at the state-run English-language Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper, is borrowing a corner of the conference room to write a book review. Although the Arabic daily Ahram is a largely moribund regime mouthpiece, many of its employees, like Dawoud, sympathize with the revolution and moonlight for critical outlets like Tahrir.

"The state-run outlets still consider themselves mouthpieces, not watchdogs," Dawoud said. "For this to be a real revolution, there will have to be more of a break with the past."

For now, Eissa says after conferring with his chief cartoonist, the same people who were willing to speak out against Mubarak remain the vanguard of critical political speech. Ultimately, he said, a small minority of vocal Egyptians toppled Mubarak; and it is this constituency that might succeed at overturning the still-pervasive system he created.

Tahrir, he hopes, will be its chronicler and on occasion its muse. The one thing that's been proven so far, he says with a touch of satisfaction, is that Mubarak's state media behemoth, no matter how labyrinthine and pervasive, failed to monopolize the imagination of its audience, the citizenry of Egypt.

"The official papers and agencies have no effect. If they had, January 25 never would have happened," Eissa says. "The totalitarian idea that the huge state media has real influence, the myth of Big Brother, belongs in a museum."