Why Al Masri Al Youm matters

Very good of Knight Ridder's Hannah Allam to have picked up on one of the most talked about aspects of Egypt's new political landscape: the presence of Al Masri Al Youm, an independent liberal daily newspaper. She writes:

Even as the traditional, state-backed papers try to liven up coverage to compete, the upstart dailies still stand out. One day this week, for example, al Ahram, the largest and most venerable of the old-guard papers, ran front-page items on a soccer match, a new government hot line for bird-flu cases, Mubarak meeting with his Cabinet, and Mubarak's wife announcing the theme of her annual motherhood conference.

Al Misri al Youm, by contrast, ran a front page full of local news about a political party in disarray, judges fighting for more independence, Islamists suggesting donations to the cash-strapped Palestinian militant group Hamas, and an exclusive investigation into corruption at the agriculture ministry. The price? About 17 cents a copy.
The really important thing that Al Masri Al Youm has done is set the agenda for domestic politics, much like an important story in the NYT or WaPo might in the US. With its single-minded obsession in covering all domestic issues, both in the regime and in the opposition, it has become the must-read of the political class. (I remember an Israeli diplomat assuring me that its page three is a daily requirement if you have to follow local politics.) It has also made the state press' continuing chronicle of presidential minutia even more ridiculous. I would add this anecdote from my recent MERIP piece as an illustration of how crucial Al Masri Al Youm's existence was to the way the parliamentary elections were perceived:

Although independent newspapers, particularly al-Masri al-Yawm, were reporting daily on violations ignored by the state media, it was one account that finally blew the lid off the official story. In its November 24 edition, al-Masri al-Yawm carried a front-page article by Noha al-Zeiny, a legal officer who supervised the Damanhour election. Zeiny told of the many procedural and other violations carried out by the NDP and security forces. According to Hisham Kassem, the newspaper’s publisher, her article had to be reprinted for three consecutive days because issues were selling out so quickly. The paper subsequently increased its print run and received many letters by other whistleblowers wanting to give their testimony. The article also prompted a statement, signed by 120 judges, attesting that the violations described by Zeiny were common in other constituencies.

Although the third-round runoff on December 8, during which at least eight people were reported killed in altercations with security forces, would prove that a climate of violence and intimidation had taken over the elections, Zeiny’s whistleblower article was the tipping point in public opinion. Magdi Mehanna, the liberal columnist in al-Masri al-Yawm, concluded that “whatever the result of the parliamentary elections, it is now clear that the violence and bias of the security forces have seriously dampened political reform in Egypt.”
Prior to Al Masri Al Youm, this would have been picked up by one of the weeklies -- probably the Nasserist Al Arabi, which comes out on Sundays. That means as many as six days might elapse between an event and the time it is reported, a crucial difference if you consider that outrage has its own limited political life-cycle.

My former boss Hisham Kassem deserves the accolade he gets in Hannah's article. But it's also worth mentioning the late, lamented Cairo Times, which in many ways was an English-language precursor of Al Masri Al Youm.

By the way, Al Masri Al Youm's website is currently on a trial run. It's not certain yet whether it will give full access -- that might challenge copy sales -- but it is sure to be a boon to bloggers and Egypt-watchers abroad when it launches.

Correction: Actually it looks like it's already online, at least partially, here.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.