'Loud and clear'
With independent media mushrooming by the day, Magda El-Ghitany speaks to two of the genre's pioneers -- the controversial Ibrahim Eissa, chief editor of two weeklies, and Adel Hamouda, a veteran launching a new venture
Beginning this Sunday, the ever-controversial Ibrahim Eissa will become the chief editor of popular independent weekly Sawt Al-Umma (Voice of the Nation), taking over from the paper's current chief editor, Adel Hamouda, who is starting his own new weekly, called Al-Fagr (Dawn). Eissa will have his hands full, considering that he also plans to maintain his chief editor's post at the equally popular weekly Al-Dostour (The Constitution).
It may seem a bit strange that Eissa -- long considered a troublemaker by the regime -- would now be at the helm of not just one, but two, scathingly critical publications. In the late 1990s, the government shut down Eissa's Al- Dostour for being too controversial. Since then, nearly every other attempt Eissa has made to start a paper ended in "absolute failure", he said. Earlier this year, the Al-Ghad Party dropped him from the editor's seat of its mouthpiece just a few weeks before the paper went to print, after it became clear that "security bodies were against" him.
Eissa said the government's current lack of resistance to his being on the helm of two independent papers probably reflected the "new, emerging political climate that is the direct result of increasing domestic calls for democracy, change and reform". Allowing Eissa such media prominence is "part of the government's current attempt to show the world that it is democratic, that it allows opposition voices to be heard in abundance. It's like the government has had plastic surgery to improve the way it looks to the outside world," Eissa told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Unlike its relationship with state-affiliated newspapers, the government does not have the power to assign and remove chief editors of independent publications -- but it does control their licensing process, and possesses an arsenal of vague laws that allow it to interfere in any publication's affairs. When Eissa established Al- Dostour as one of the country's first successful, high-circulation independent newspapers in 1995, he quickly became notorious for breaking religious, social, and -- most importantly -- political taboos. That editorial policy got him and the paper into all sorts of trouble; three issues were confiscated, and in February 1998, after publishing an alleged Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya communiqué that contained death threats against Coptic businessmen, it was totally banned.
Today, Eissa sees that initial Al-Dostour experience as a "unique, rebellious media experience -- a successful attempt at transforming a stagnant pond into a renewable, active one". He denies the "sensationalist" label that independent newspapers like Al-Dostour are so often given. And while the short-lived run of the original Al-Dostour spawned dozens of imitators (with many a publisher trying to emulate the paper's circulation figures, which went as high as 150,000 copies per week at its peak), Eissa is convinced that the new Al-Dostour -- publishing its ninth issue this week -- is "even stronger, and more popular, than the previous 116 issues" were. That has a lot to do with the current political climate; 10 years ago, "we were the only voice screaming out for political transparency and democracy," he said. Today, the chorus has expanded, and Eissa likes to think Al-Dostour's liberal experiment had a lot to do with that "revolutionary shift".
Eissa attributes the paper's popularity to its use of language that connects to its largest target audience -- young people. He said headlines are carefully constructed to mimic the way young people talk to each other via e-mail and SMS. That way, "we stay on the same wave length with future generations, building bridges of hope for a better tomorrow." Extreme sarcasm and biting political caricatures are also effective tools; Eissa said sarcasm, in particular, was "the most effective way to critique and alarm officials".
The top-selling Sawt Al-Umma -- which has been around since 2000 -- has always depended on a heady mix of hot headlines that break political, social, religious, and sexual taboos. That's not surprising, considering that its editor, Adel Hamouda, took Rose El-Youssef magazine to circulation heights with a similar formula when he was chief editor there. Both Eissa and Hamouda emerged out of the state-affiliated Rose El-Youssef school of journalism; the papers they now run -- at least until Hamouda sets out on his own later this month -- are owned by the same private sector publisher, Essam Ismail Fahmi.
Once he takes over as Sawt Al-Umma 's chief editor, Eissa plans to introduce several "major, albeit non-revolutionary" changes. He does not plan on turning the paper into Al-Dostour 's twin, but does want to diversify its platform for different political ideologies by expanding its columnist's base to writers from an array of political trends, whether "Islamist, liberal, right, or left". Abdel-Wahab El-Messiri, Galal Amin, Hussein Ahmed Amin, and Gehad Ouda will be among these new contributors. He also wants to add a global element to the paper's content.
Eissa said the main reason he agreed to take on both editors' posts at the same time was his eagerness to redefine Sawt Al-Umma 's "message to the public at a very critical phase in Egypt's history".
Hamouda, meanwhile, appeared to be closing a successful phase of his press career by leaving the high-circulation paper he's been running for four years to start something different. He told the Weekly that his new venture, Al-Fagr, would aim to tell "the humanitarian, developmental part of the story -- the part that has always gotten the least attention in the press". Hamouda plans to train a whole generation of young journalists in that new ethic, moving away from the over-the-top style Sawt Al-Umma has become famous for. Al-Fagr (which still has no launch date) would depend more on reporting -- on gathering credible sources and information for features and news stories -- than on weekly columns by famous writers, Hamouda said.
Admitting that the nation's newsstands have become increasingly filled with mountains of new independent papers, Hamouda said Al-Fagr would distinguish itself from the pack through the "quality of the work, and the way sensitive topics are handled. Those will be the elements that highlight the difference between credible and non-credible papers."
Eissa said much of what is being published in the independent press today had no clear message. Most papers were like "airplanes trying to avoid being detected by the [government's] radar system". He described Al-Dostour, on the other hand, and Sawt Al-Umma, as "airplanes that want the radar, and everyone else, to hear their signal, their message of transparency and democracy, loud and clear".