Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Death of Deference

Thursday’s sentencing and fining of four independent newspaper editors is not particularly new or surprising. And neither is the impending trial of Ibrahim Eissa for allegedly spreading rumours about Mubarak’s health. First, the editors have all been hauled off to court before and have either been fined, sentenced, or had their cases settled out of court. Second, the two incidents do not herald an impending crackdown on the press, for the simple reason that Mubarak’s regime has been continuously cracking down on and intimidating independent journalists, from at least the early 1990s to the present. So I would caution against spinning these cases as unprecedented curbs on the freedom of the press. What’s more interesting to me about these recent events is what they reveal about the development of an adversarial press in Egypt.

Last year, I argued that one domestic effect of Israel’s assault on Lebanon was the further emboldening of the independent press in its campaign of diminishing the president through rubbishing his foreign policy. The suit against the four editors which was filed last year was one response to the seemingly unstoppable irreverence and vitality of the independent press. Another was the activation of the government Supreme Press Council to issue critical reports of independent newspapers for allegedly violating the journalistic code of ethics with their trenchant criticism of the president. A third was behind-the-scenes lobbying and pressure to remove Abdel Halim Qandil from the editorship of al-Karama. When that failed, government officials succeeded in drying up ad funds to the newspaper, leading to staff cuts, reduced salaries, and a general sense of besiegement. This compelled Qandil to leave the newspaper this summer, to ensure its survival.

With Qandil finally robbed of a platform, the authorities have now turned their attention to that other dogged muckraker, Ibrahim Eissa, the one-man journalistic phenomenon who has been enlivening Egyptian journalism since 1995 with al-Dustour (and a brief stint on Dream TV before being chased out of that venue). And for good measure, the government is also going after the post-Qandil Karama and the new leftist daily al-Badeel, edited by Dr. Mohamed El-Sayed Said. Last week, the Supreme Press Council fingered al-Dustour, al-Karama, and al-Badeel for alleged violations of journalistic ethics in their coverage of the Mubarak health rumours, and has called on their editors to appear before an investigative committee.

The Changing Print Media Market

To put today’s developments in context, it makes sense to review the press scene in the Mubarak years. The Egyptian press does have a rich tradition of challenging and lampooning public officials, especially during the 1920s (I’m thinking of al-Kashkul), 1948-1954, and the final years of Sadat’s tenure. But in none of these eras was the press as systematically aggressive as it is today, nor as diverse. And if we look at just the Mubarak years, there’s a marked shift in the character of the independent print media at the beginning and at the end of Mubarak’s tenure. Compare the style and content of the leading opposition paper in the early years of Mubarak’s rule (al-Ahali under the editorship of Hussein Abdel Razeq) to today’s al-Dustour and al-Karama. Today’s papers are not only stylistically bolder, using more explicit, even hostile prose and directly targeting the president and his family rather than his cronies and appointees, but the range of issues on which they castigate the president is far broader, encompassing domestic policies, foreign policies, and the open discussion of the regime’s own survival strategies, most especially succession. What caused this dramatic shift?

A slew of factors are at work. First are the eclipse of opposition parties and the partisan press. The decline of opposition parties in the 1990s also meant the decline of their mouthpieces, as the dysfunctional internal workings of these parties inevitably infected their newspaper teams; who reads al-Ahali now or even al-Wafd beyond a core group of partisans? Two prominent exceptions are al-Araby and al-Sha’b, both outlets that managed to carve out a space between party dynamics and the management of the newspaper, until the government shut down al-Sha’b and the Labour party in 2000-01. The decline of opposition parties and their mouthpieces left the field open to a new brand of journalism.

A second cause is structural shifts in how newspapers are produced. The broader economic trend of privatisation has influenced the press, where enterprising independent businessmen and journalists sought to enter the print market, using foreign licenses while still being subject to the state censor (the Cyprus press). This is how journalists like Ibrahim Eissa made their mark with al-Dustour (est. 1995), but the private press also includes shadier characters who produce sensationalist rags such as al-Naba’ and al-Khamis, and assorted businessmen who publish vanity newspapers to promote their wares and undermine their rivals.

A third cause is generational and stylistic: the tone of Egyptian journalism is more biting today than at any time since the 1920s because a new generation of journalists is at the helm. There’s no uniformity among these journalists and they come from starkly different schools and backgrounds, but together they’re a different breed from both the tame fare offered up by the old opposition press and the agitprop of the government newspapers. The new boldness in style is maintained by the mimicry and competition among the new papers: competition for readers, competition for ads, and competition for the social prestige that comes with being a bold regime critic and a good wordsmith.

The dense field of print media now includes a whole range of actors motivated by varying interests. There are high-end government outlets such as al-Qahira, ostensibly independent weeklies with informal ties to state agencies such as al-Usbu, liberal dailies such as Nahdet Masr, independent weeklies of indeterminate political ideology such as al-Fagr and Sawt al-Umma, partisan weeklies such as al-Karama, al-Ghad, and al-Araby, the independent non-partisan daily al-Masry al-Yawm (which deserves a separate study examining how it managed to supplant al-Ahram as the daily newspaper of record), and the most recent addition of al-Badeel, a leftist daily that aspires to buck the sensationalist trend by offering readers concrete policy alternatives and quality investigative reporting.

It’s important to remember that the current government has not “allowed” this press diversity so much as tried to alternately contain and control it. It has done this by making sure that administrative regulations to establish newspapers are as cumbersome as possible, that penal provisions jailing journalists and shutting down newspapers remain on the books, and by attempting to enter the lively print media market with newspapers of its own, such as the NDP’s new al-Watany al-Yawm and the Rose al-Yusuf newspaper (it’s interesting how this latter rag has appropriated the name of the doyen of contentious journalism in Egyptian history). When the tenor of criticisms against Mubarak reached a fever pitch last summer, the government activated the Supreme Press Council to assert its claim as the standard-setter for journalistic ethics and professionalism, accusing independent newspapers of violating professional codes with their criticism of the president. Last but not least, the government also resorts to threats and brute force with particularly intrepid journalists, as when Abdel Halim Qandil was kidnapped in November 2004, beaten and stripped naked, and warned to stop writing about his “masters.”

The Architects of the Adversarial Press

The two editors who more than any of their peers have created and promoted the contemporary adversarial model of Egyptian journalism are Abdel Halim Qandil and Ibrahim Eissa (though I must also recall the pioneering role of Magdi and Adil Hussein in the early 1990s). Both are consciously engaged in a systematic project of accusing, belittling, and criticising public officials, from the most hapless minister to the most powerful public official, the normally untouchable president. In light of the weakness of parliament and the fragmentation of citizen watchdog groups, both see journalism as a useful tool to extract a modicum of responsiveness from an unaccountable, unchecked imperial presidency. And both aspire to make a profound impact on the wider political culture, replacing existing norms of deference and decorum when addressing the powerful with a style marked by irreverence, profound scepticism, and a blunt, salty style. But though they’re fellow travellers in many ways, Eissa and Qandil come from very different backgrounds and are motivated by different impulses.

Ibrahim Eissa is a consummate newspaperman raised on the plucky, lively style of the Rose al-Yusuf school. Read his articles in that magazine from the early 1990s and you’ll recognise the pungency of his prose, the trademark brash style, and an aimless critical thrust that would be harnessed to much better use years later. Apprenticed by Adel Hammouda, Eissa soon outshone his mentor: he is sharper, more daring, and more adept at successfully managing a newspaper team. Journalism is his passion and life’s work. In 1995, at the age of 30, he launched al-Dustour, an entirely new experiment that proved wildly popular and successful, achieving a circulation of 150,000 and creating a new genre of journalism that spawned many knockoffs and imitators. Shut down by the government in February 1998, the newspaper resumed publication in 2005 and then went daily earlier this year.

Eissa’s success is a potent combination of writerly skill, political commitment, and strategic vision. He may be the first editor to put in newsprint how ordinary people talk and gripe about politics. His own writing is warm, playful, and conversational, drawing in the reader and eliciting hearty chuckles. His personal political commitment to social democracy is supplemented by truly catholic tastes that have earned him the admiration and respect of every ideological camp in the country, and have opened the pages of al-Dustour to writers of every conceivable persuasion. And he’s driven by the long-term goal of transforming the press from a passive chronicler to an active participant in the political development of the country. Eissa’s methodical, unrelenting pursuit of the president in print has done nothing less than create a new genre in Egyptian journalism that is likely to outlive its creator.

Abdel Halim Qandil is an old-timer (and hardliner) in Nasserist circles but a newcomer to the world of journalism. A physician by training, he became a household name when he and Abdallah al-Sennawi assumed joint editorship of the Nasserist party’s moribund al-Araby in the early 2000s. Their principled opposition to Mubarak energised the editorial team and transformed al-Araby from a pallid partisan rag to a must-read and sold-out item every Sunday. Unlike Eissa’s folksy writing style, Qandil’s prose is shorn and clinical, composed of short, dagger-like sentences that aim straight for the highest echelons of political power. And though it lacks the humour that leavens Eissa’s writing, Qandil’s prose more than makes up for it with a sense of purpose and precision that for me is a joy to read.

Qandil’s salty columns at al-Araby vilifying Mubarak, his policies, his family, and his foreign patrons (collated in the book Against the President and reviewed here) earned him the admiration of many readers and fellow activists and the undying hatred of the powers that be, hence the 2004 kidnapping and the pressure to eject him from al-Karama. But many were also put off by Qandil’s columns, calling them repetitive, shrill, insolent, and extreme. They turn up their noses in distaste at the violation of norms of decorum. I don’t share this view. I find Qandil’s targeted anger and relentless dressing down of the president (both the person of Mubarak and the office of the presidency) to be a refreshing, healthy alternative to the stultifying deference and enforced politesse of our political discourse, especially when it comes to public officials. In an authoritarian system like ours where public officials lord it over citizens, loot public resources, and muzzle those who dare protest, it is nothing short of indispensable to bring them down to size, embarrass them, perturb them, and compel them to justify their actions in the court of public opinion. If this is done in a shrill, repetitive manner, then so be it.

The Impact of the Adversarial Press

Eissa and Qandil set out to demystify and demythologize powerholders, and judging by the responses of the latter, they have succeeded marvellously. I find this photograph of Hosni Mubarak making a public appearance on 4 September quite revealing for his handlers’ attempt to assert presidential health and power in the face of an increasingly sceptical and irreverent public. See also Suzanne Mubarak’s recent interview in Egypt Today, where she elaborates on her hostility to what she calls “the media” and gushes about her pet projects. The interview is a stunning exemplar of stomach-churning deference; the interviewer shares with readers his opinion that Suzanne Mubarak is “the woman Princess Diana might have resembled in her autumnal years had God granted her the chance.” Quite. And last but not least, read Mufid Fawzi’s paean to the president in Saturday’s al-Ahram; in its desperate attempt to salvage the president’s “stature” and rubbish the new breed of adversarial journalists, it is the best indication of just how influential and effective this new genre has become.

A final word about what the new adversarial journalism and its architects have not achieved. They have not made an appreciable contribution to raising the quality of newsgathering and transmission. They have not worked to create a tradition of solid and hard-hitting investigative reporting, an urgent task that still eludes virtually all Egyptian newspapers. And they have not devoted any space or time to sensitive human interest stories, stories that would illuminate some of the many untapped dimensions of the contemporary Egyptian condition. But I don’t see these as fatal failures. An antagonistic press that disturbs the sleep of venal public officials is a considerable achievement and a real public service. It’s a very risky, overtime job that people like Eissa and Qandil have turned into a calling. I hope it is an enduring achievement, and I’m happy to wait for the other genres to follow suit.