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It’s the people, not the paper

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

In another country, at another time, writing about the Egypt Independent might be considered writing about the competition. After all, there are only a few English-language dailies in Egypt – and fewer that are not reliant on state funding. But writing about the Egypt Independent is not writing about a competitor – it’s writing about a newspaper that I wrote for, a newspaper I read on a regular basis, and a newspaper I will miss. Egyptian media, and Egypt itself, is the lesser for it.

The Egypt Independent officially announced it was closing down on 25 April 2013. Many of us had heard about it before, because many of us had tried hard to support its continued existence through different means and methods. The support campaign for the paper was a bit bizarre – because participating in the campaign was, in itself, an achievement. It was something to be proud of – it was laudable to put yourself forward to help save this voice of an Egypt that was inclusive, revolutionary, and stubbornly progressive. That the paper now no longer exists, as the result of a decision made by the mother company, Al Masry Al Youm, reflects badly not on the team behind the Egypt Independent – but on the management of the parent organisation, which would not even allow the 50th and final issue to be printed for posterity, if nothing else.

I did not always like what I saw in the pages of the paper – sometimes I disagreed, as is to be expected with any paper. Yet, they continually broke ground – while others in the Egyptian media preferred to be tabloid-like and sensationalist, the Egypt Independent provided a voice on subjects that few others bothered to investigate. It was in the pages of this paper that not only the melodramatic would make the headlines, but the stories of people on the margins of society, where we would not otherwise read anything about them. For that alone, the paper was a worthwhile read.

But it was not that alone. It was also a paper of criticism – criticism of pretty much everyone. Perhaps there were famous personalities that the editorial team supported privately – but I couldn’t find any evidence of that in their pages. What I did find was pretty much widespread critique of Egypt’s entire political establishment – and rightfully so. If it was supportive of any particular political force, I did not see it. Again – for that kind of multi-layered criticism, I appreciated Egypt Independent.

Finally, though, was something that was entirely not about journalism – but about Egypt. That was the paper’s defiant, committed, and sustained support for the revolution of the 25th of January 2011. In that regard, I’m not referring to the uprising itself – although, of course, it would be hard to conclude that Egypt Independent was anything but utterly supportive of the protests that led to the departure of Hosni Mubarak. I’m noting the paper’s support of the revolution – a revolution that continues in Egypt, and which the paper signified many times. When the paper changed its name from ‘Al Masry Al Youm: English edition’ to ‘Egypt Independent’, they probably could have renamed it ‘#Jan25’, and it would have been as recognisable.

They took that commitment far beyond the political struggle to create a pluralistic political system, and a state that would serve its citizens, rather than thrive off them. The commitment I saw in the pages of the paper wasn’t simply about that – it was a way of thinking as well. Some of the points of that proto-philosophy were listed in the final pages of the paper as 50 aphorisms:

-          Revolution is not just protests

-          Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter

-          Despair is betrayal

-          It’s the people, not the place

-          Pressure makes diamonds

This is actually a historic and very Egyptian practice – the writing of hikam, or wisdoms (although more appropriately translated as ‘aphorisms’). The famed Sufi adept, Ibn Ata’illah of Alexandria, is well known for his own hikam (Al-Hikam Al-Ata’iyya), and there are tomes upon tomes written by people as commentaries (shuruh) upon his work. I wouldn’t dream to write a sharh of my own on Al-Hikam Al-EgyptIndependentiyya, but I would comment on two of them, in light of their publication.

Despair is betrayal – because ‘despair’ is a betrayal of the spirit of this generation of Egyptians that refused to give in. Giving in to ‘despair’ in this regard, as far as the team of Egypt Independent were concerned, was to give up – and that was a betrayal of the sacrifices Egyptians have made. It was a betrayal that the team refused to engage in – because they firmly believed, and continue to believe, that the struggle continues, regardless of how difficult it might be. They deserve admiration for their refusal to give in.

On that last point of ‘it’s the people, not the place’, I would say: it is the people, not the paper. Egypt’s media is the lesser without the newspaper – but Egypt would be the lesser if the people that made up that paper decided to retreat, leave or simply fade away. I do not think they will. I think they will resurface, in another shape or form, and bring pride to the rebirth of truly independent Egyptian media. The likes of this team are a testament to this country – and I am sure they will continue to make their mark, and marks, for many moons and years to come.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .

  • Barbara Ibrahim

    Hisham, thanks for a great piece that says something new and meaningful about this sad event. There is a financial side to the story, however, that no one has yet explored. When I tried to intercede with a board member on behalf of the Independent, the response was a shocking figure, if true, about its monthly cost to write and produce.

    This suggests a couple of things to me: the need for more transparent budgets so that all of the employees and potential benefactors could work together to trim costs without sacrificing quality (or livelihoods). The second is that Egypt is desperately in need of ‘revolutionary philanthropists’ — wealthy individuals or groups of more ordinary folk who are ready to dig into their pockets for civic projects like a newspaper that can really make a difference.

    I don’t have numbers, but its pretty clear that nearly all of the decent business leaders who were ready to support public causes have fled with their philanthropic money, or have taken a very low profile. That leaves it to the rest of us — hard pressed as we are in this economy — to pull together and collectively fund good works.

    My team are thinking about the kinds of mechanisms needed to make this easier and more reliable. One idea is a sort of incubator for worthy start-ups that qualify as ‘social enterprises’ with a clear public purpose. That would allow financial investors with a high tolerance for risk as well as cash benefactors to join forces. It’s up to everyone who can in Egypt now to practice a new form of civic giving if we want to see real social change.


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