More on al Masri al Youm

There's a profile of Hisham Kassem, the CEO of the independent Egyptian daily al Masri al Youm, in Business Today this month. Unfortunately the article stays clear from politics and therefore fails to explain why al Masri is a critically important newspaper in Egypt's current political environment. Without al Masri al Youm, chances are the way Egyptian newspapers perceive recent events such as the parliamentary elections and the judges' rebellion in a very different way. At times taking a rather exaggerated interest in the intricacies of domestic politics (compare their coverage of the judges to that of the Dahab bombings, for instance), al Masri had pretty much set the agenda for the weekly opinion press and for political activists. And it has done so without becoming too partisan, even if its liberal, pro-human rights sympathies and contempt for the government are often felt. Its editorialists have rivaled the best in the state and other press, and claimed some firsts in going after specific members of the president's entourage, and at times the president himself. Yet, I also believe it's the first independent newspaper that was granted an interview with Mubarak. It's not so much that al Masri is perfect -- it is far from that -- but it represents such as qualitative leap for the Egyptian press that I would argue that its impact on politics as well as the profession as revolutionary.

Politics are also absent from Kassem's description in the article -- he is, after all, not only a long-standing human rights activist (he's been chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights for something like a decade now), but also a political partisan. In 2004, he joined Ayman Nour's nascent Al Ghad party and campaigned alongside him during the presidential election. He had previously run for parliament, and lost, in 2000 and contemplated a run in 2005. He is also perhaps one of the favorite talking heads of the foreign press corps, since he speaks perfect idiomatic English and is, more generally, quite charming. (David Remnick of the New Yorker called him an Egyptian neo-con.) The Washington Post's campaign on Egypt over the past two years is in no small part to the briefings given by the likes of Kassem, whether in Egypt or in DC. He's also someone with access to top diplomats in Cairo and who receives leading foreign dignitaries -- I don't think Condi Rice has come to town without seeing him (along a few other representatives of Egyptian civil society.)

And there could have been more details about the unlikely business success that al Masri has proved to be, although that's also covered. I might return to that soon as I have been doing some work on that recently myself.

In short, Hisham Kassem -- whether you agree with his politics or not -- is a very interesting and if not important, at least influential, man in contemporary Egyptian politics. His achievement with al Masri as a business is important, but it would have been nice to hear about some of the other stuff.
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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.