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Journalism in Egypt: A Very Quick Guide

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January 25th 2012, the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprisings that brought down Mubarak, is approaching quickly. When it comes, the news will arrive fast and fragmented from Tahrir, as it has every time big numbers return to the square. The ruling military council has called for an anniversary celebration just as activists are calling for renewed protests to demand that they leave power.

One of the most interesting questions will be how the events, whatever they turn out to be, are covered by the local press. On January 25th, it is likely that two narratives will be presented. One will focus on stability, celebrating the revolution and the role played by the military council, and the other will focus on the demands of the revolutionary movements, connected with the injustices of the military council.

We will not see a simple divide between pro-regime, state-owned outlets and anti-regime, independent outlets, but certainly that is one place to start. Sarah El Sirgany, managing editor at the independent Daily News Egypt, explained to me one afternoon some of these issues, and in particular what she faces working outside of the state-owned press. "As an independent journalist you're cornered," she told me. "You're classified as anti-regime right away, no matter how objective you are -- If you're not with us you're against us."

"There is a thin line between being an activist and a journalist," Business Editor Amira Salah-Ahmed echoed. "When you're under an autocratic regime, highlighting the truth in any form is a form of activism... I think its obvious that a lot of the independent media supported the revolution."

The term 'independent journalist' here usually refers to reporters for a news source other than those owned by the state or political parties, though this does not necessarily mean they are free of outside interests. Publisher Hisham Kassem, who used to run the independent Al Masry Al Youm, quit his position over worries that his newspaper was owned by big business interests and would become compromised in its reporting as a result. "If you look now there isn't a single paper or TV station that's not owned by an individual," he told a group of students recently. "My big fear now is that the media is going to be owned by the oligarchs here in Egypt."

Nevertheless, journalists at independent newspapers spend a lot of time bashing their state-owned counterparts. In 1960, Egypt's first Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Egyptian press and saw it as a means to mobilize his recently colonized countrymen towards his anti-imperial vision of Egyptian self-determination. The most-read articles of the time were by Mohamed Heikal, a close friend of Nasser and Editor-in-Chief of Al Ahram, whose Friday columns were believed to be a direct communication from Nasser to Egypt and the world, and were translated immediately every week into English and French for foreign diplomats. Heikal wrote at the time of nationalization that "the press is an authority whose function is to guide people and actively participate in building their society exactly as does the People's Assembly."

Fifty years later, many independent Egyptian journalists, and nearly all of the English-language reporters, study at the American University in Cairo, and have taken to the American school of journalism, with its emphasis on neutral, sharp factual accounts. Pick out any article on politics in The Daily News Egypt, where Amira and Sarah edit, and it reads a lot like a just-the-facts-ma'am Associated Press brief. This emphasis on the American style puts journalists like Sarah into an institutional culture clash with state journalists, who are more akin to other state employees and whose function is to communicate the ruling powers' goals for the country. In this clash of institutional cultures, one person's "guidance" and "active participation" is another's sycophantic self-censorship.

On October 9th, 2011, violence broke out in front of the headquarters of state-television in Cairo, leading to the deaths of over twenty protests after what had began as a peaceful protest of Coptic Christians. For days, authorities, journalists, activists, and others debated what exactly happened. The forensic details were obscured by counter-claims between the protesters (who blamed the military) and the military (who blamed the protesters, foreign agents, and/or anonymous 'thugs').

But part of the confusion was also that the state-owned press had a stake in believing the military council, while much (though not all) of the independent press tended towards anti-regime conclusions, and many anti-regime journalists spoke about the events in a way that blurred their relationship to the activists. In November, when articles in the Western press started to describe a "Silent Majority" throughout the rest of Egypt that was not in support of the Tahrir protesters, it was impossible to deny that part of their distance from the protesters could be attributed to the state-owned press, which has a much higher circulation than any independent paper. The protesters, reading newspapers that tended to reinforce their positions, couldn't understand why they were being blamed for the instability. They were like readers of Mother Jones wondering why people who watch Fox News disagreed with them.

What will happen on January 25th is anyone's guess. There may be sit-in's, which authorities attempt to disperse by force, leading to the kind of violence that flared in November and December. But whatever happens, it will be necessarily affected by its coverage, which will lead different sectors of Egyptians, depending on what they read, to side with one side or another, with big political consequences.