Cairo’s Correspondents

Egypt’s 2011 revolution gave immense power and influence to a new generation of journalists. Then, just as swiftly, it was taken away

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Cairo’s Correspondents
An Egyptian journalist holds up a sign and his camera during a demonstration in front of the Journalists Syndicate against the arrest of journalists in Cairo, Egypt/Ahmed Ismail/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Sarah Radwan, a 32-year-old Egyptian journalist working for a privately owned daily newspaper over the last decade, took a sip of her cold coffee while catching up with me during my last visit to Cairo. “No more public sphere in the city; neither political seminars nor cut-and-thrust debates. Nowadays we only get together for a meal in restaurants.”

Radwan, who yearned for the old days of post-revolutionary Cairo after the 2011 uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power, was describing the changing face of Egypt’s capital since I left the country four years earlier. Cairo is a city I used to call my hometown by choice, but I barely recognize it now.

Far away from Cairo, I met Ahmed Ragab at a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg, one of Berlin’s most charismatic residential neighborhoods. The former editorial manager at Al-Masry Al-Youm, a leading, privately owned, daily newspaper in Egypt, and former producer of a hit TV talk show, is part of a newly formed group of Egyptian expatriates that consists of growing numbers of activists, artists, journalists, and academics who live in exile after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power and then was elected president in 2014.

Among this group of Egyptian expatriates, dozens are journalists and media professionals who dispersed to Berlin, London, Istanbul, and New York as the Egyptian authorities tightened control over privately owned media in recent years. While independent media implies editorial independence, this variety of privately owned media tends to conform with government directives, possibly because of close links between media ownership and the government. Others fled the country in the aftermath of the August 2013 Rabaa massacre, when Egyptian security forces crushed the protest camps of thousands of supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the deposed president and high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Ragab belongs to a generation of journalists who were early career professionals when the uprisings broke out in 2011 and were suddenly promoted to senior positions in Egyptian media, owing to their close connections with the revolutionary movements and activists at the time.

During the transformative period of post-revolutionary Egypt, journalism held authority in the public sphere, shaping both popular opinion and the careers of top politicians. The 37-year-old journalist recalled:

“In the aftermath of the revolution, our TV show, Akhir Kalam (The Last Word), led to the resignation of the prime minister immediately after we had interviewed him. Our show resulted in the resignation of many officials. Those who were in charge, when we dealt with them in a professional manner by asking them the hard questions, eventually they had to quit their job. Indeed, that was a responsibility. Such a huge one.”

Al-Sisi stripped these journalists of their power, and, over the past few years, they found themselves shut out of the Egyptian media market and had to leave the country.

“Currently, there is no public sphere in Egypt because all legitimate channels for civil rights are completely blocked. If you write an article or even publish a post or an image on Facebook, you will be at risk of arrest in Egypt,” Amr Magdy, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me.

“Those who were not willing to risk their lives decided to leave the country and work abroad,” Magdy added.

Ever since, those journalists have formed a loose group of exiles whose stories highlight the change that came over Egyptian media, first after 2011 and then again after 2013.

Ten years ago, when hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo and marched to Tahrir Square, it was a defining moment for a younger generation of journalists who were able to take leading roles in privately owned media, in what some of them hoped would be a revolution in Egyptian journalism.

Ragab, who was just an aspiring investigative reporter for Egypt’s top daily newspaper when the uprisings began, considered the afternoon of Jan. 25 a “game changer,” both for his career and an entire generation of journalists.

There was an old guard of journalists in charge of editorial desks who were used to doing journalism through official sources. But since they couldn’t get hold of their sources because of the speed with which the protests unfolded, they had to search for alternative sources to narrate that historical moment.

Ragab remembered when, as a reporter, he sat in a faraway corner of the vast newsroom, and an editorial manager yelled at Ragab “to explain the background story, who these protesters are, what is taking place in the streets?”

Those senior editors, unlike Ragab, had no connections to the revolutionary groups including bloggers, political activists, and human rights defenders that made up the grassroots movement. This paved the way for the emergence of a new generation of journalists in Egypt who were thought of as agents of change.

“A new country came to exist after the revolution; new political arrangements and dynamics among revolutionary actors took place,” Ragab said. “Those senior journalists couldn’t get a grasp on it. We did. Hence, it was quite normal that we dominated the scene.”

Ragab went from being a reporter to a manager of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s investigations unit in the years after the revolution. Before he left Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2016, he became an editorial manager and oversaw the website. He was also a producer for Akhir Kalam, one of the most-watched TV talk shows in post-2011 Egypt that aired on the privately owned ONTV Network.

“At one moment we felt so powerful that we could touch the sky,” Ragab said of his work experience between 2011 and 2013.

The rise of Ragab’s generation came to an end as soon as the military ousted Mohammed Morsi, the first democratically elected head of state in Egypt’s modern history, on July 3, 2013.

A study on the shifting roles of journalists during that period, conducted by Fatima el Issawi and Bart Cammaerts from the London School of Economics and Political Science, concluded that “Egyptian journalists working in privately owned media thus demonized their political adversaries, mainly the Islamists, transforming this political ‘other’ into the ultimate enemy.”

Meanwhile, “the new military regime was being revered and celebrated,” the media scholars added.

It was only a matter of time before Ragab completely lost his say on the editorial policy of his newspaper in favor of the old guard of journalists who supported the military figure, al-Sisi, then Egypt’s minister of defense.

Ragab was shocked by the new reality in his newsroom where “a police officer who was screening our news called our editor-in-chief demanding to delete a news story.”

“I believe that we as a group of journalists who worked during that period all suffer from trauma. … What happened was quite harsh on us. We had to go through many fights (in the newsroom). We went through psychological phases of denial, then anger, and so on. We went through all these stages,” said Ragab, who settled in Berlin in 2016.

For other journalists, the relapse was quicker and even more dramatic, especially for those who had strong connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Eman Abdul Monaem, a stay-at-home mom who has been living in self-imposed exile in London with her daughter and husband since 2017, recalled that summer of 2013 when her successful professional life was so shaken that she was forced to leave Cairo, heading to Doha by September.

“I was an Anadolu Agency (Turkey’s state-run news agency) reporter covering the affairs of the presidential palace, the cabinet, the parliament, and the Arab league until July 2013 when I was dismissed all at once by the State Information Service. That was the first nail in the coffin of my professional relationships with these official sources,” she told me.

Abdul Monaem said she paid a high price because of her affiliation with Turkish state media. At that time, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party had strongly denounced Mohammed Morsi’s ouster and subsequent attacks on Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Later, many Brotherhood members and supporters fled to Turkey as the government cracked down on the movement in 2013.

“There was a dramatic change in my work as the communication channels with my sources were shrinking, as well as any space for practicing journalism,” she said.

Abdul Monaem left journalism after moving to London. Her husband’s media company had a policy not to hire relatives of employees, so she has been out of a job with few options.

Some of Egypt’s diaspora journalists, such as Ragab, have access to their home country. Others, however, cannot travel back because they fear arrest on arrival at the airport. This is the case for Abdul Monaem, who could not leave exile in London to attend her parents’ funerals in Egypt.

Still, both groups suffer a sense of forced displacement because they feel they had no choice but to leave Egypt under the rule of al-Sisi. A few years earlier, the prospect of living and working abroad would have never crossed their minds; at that time, they felt a “moral obligation” toward Egyptians who needed free and critical press in post-2011 Egypt.

“It never occurred to me that I would leave Egypt. I believed that it was our time; we should stay in our country,” said Ahmed Soliman, a 31-year-old who was a TV producer for popular talk shows on Egypt’s privately owned TV channels between 2009 and 2014.

Soliman, now a TV producer in Berlin, who was part of Akhir Kalam’s production team, one of the few remaining critical voices of al-Sisi’s regime in the post-2013 environment, witnessed a heartbreaking moment for his generation when the popular talk show presenter and former BBC and Al-Jazeera reporter, Yosri Fouda, tweeted abruptly and without explanation that his show was coming to an end in September 2014. But in the background, the talk show crew was experiencing declining press freedom and growing self-censorship since Egypt’s former defense minister became the de facto state leader in July 2013.

According to Soliman, press freedom evolved from self-censorship to increased state control over the media: “In post-2011 Egypt, we witnessed the worst status of press freedom between 2013 and 2014. For a long period, we were not censored, and no one was interfering in our topics of discussion on our TV show,” the 31-year-old TV producer added. “However, we encountered many questions about our content that we did not bother to answer. As we were so stubborn, the TV show was all of sudden shut down in 2014.”

That year, some of the few remaining watchdog journalists in Egypt quit their TV shows on Egyptian privately owned TV stations, such as Egyptian satirist and television host Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart. He announced that his show, the most popular political satirical show in the Arab world, would no longer air on Egyptian TV, saying, “I’m tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family.”

“Egypt’s regime makes the cost of professional journalism practice in Egypt today quite high; the country has competed for the world’s worst offenders against press freedom since 2015,” Magdy, of Human Rights Watch, told me.

“The space for free media has completely shrunk in Egypt, except for a few journalists struggling to produce independent journalism,” Magdy added.

Shutting down Akhir Kalam was by far the lowest point for Soliman and Ragab, who worked together with their former boss Fouda. The closure hit before both realized that the military-backed regime would block their generation from job opportunities in Egypt’s media market.

In Egypt today, there is no place for critical voices in established media outlets. “All the mainstream media platforms are owned by Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate or state-supported businesspeople. They managed to demolish any alternative media platform,” Magdy said.

Hence, Soliman and Ragab’s resumes were “stained with their stand with the revolution.” For Soliman, shutting down their TV show left him feeling despair. “Our TV show was the last critical voice to the regime since they had forced much of our group to stay at home,” he explained. He mourned the sudden end to the kind of journalism that came to exist in the context of the revolution, saying, “there were several Egyptian journalists doing their best to lead independent journalism projects, where they could cooperate, such as Al-Masry Al-Youm and ONTV.”

Soliman was unemployed for three months, as he received fewer and fewer job offers. Finally, he got a job offer in an Arab country, but as a media trainer. Still, Soliman described the opportunity as “a gift from heaven that enabled me to move forward.”

Ragab explained how his career changed: “After I had to quit my editorial manager position in Al-Masry Al-Youm because of state pressure the owner had to deal with, I signed a new contract with (another) TV station in Egypt; however, they canceled the contract after two weeks. They told me informally that the state objected to my hiring.” Ragab stressed that immigration to Europe was never his own choice.

In 2016, Ragab was left with one option: He accepted an offer by his former boss, Fouda, who started a TV show for Deutsche Welle Arabic, Germany’s international broadcaster. Soliman joined the team and was excited at the prospect of reporting on Egyptian affairs once more, but this time from Berlin where he and Ragab immigrated.

Soliman considers himself and others who left the country “the luckiest” among his generation, compared to those who “lost their jobs or got depressed,” thanks to the dramatic contraction of both the public sphere and media landscape in Egypt.

On the other hand, Ragab has had a hard time coping with the dispersion of his peers to different parts of the world.

“I don’t know how to handle it, which I am not happy about. But it is not about stepping out of my comfort zone. In my opinion, there was a network of journalists — I don’t talk only about my own friends but about journalists in all the newspapers that had a vital and important role in developing journalism in Egypt between 2010 and 2013,” Ragab said.

There is a palpable sense of loss for the community of journalists that emerged in the post-2011 revolutionary period in Egypt. As Ragab said: “Every one of us is just trying to survive at his new place.”

Having been uprooted from their homeland, some Egyptian journalists face obstacles to establish a career in a foreign-speaking country. Integration into the job market of a non-Arabic-speaking country has been a challenge for most of Egypt’s new diaspora of journalists. Job opportunities for Egyptian journalists in host-country media houses are limited unless they master the native language of the host country, such as German or English.

“Within our media organization there is an opportunity for growth, but there is none beyond that place,” Soliman reflected on his four-year work experience as a TV producer within the Arabic-speaking media landscape in Germany.

For the Egyptian journalists who have been fortunate to secure a job in media and journalism, they may find themselves covering topics differently and not always with a focus on Egypt’s affairs. For Abdul Monaem, such a change worsened her sense of alienation in exile in which she was reporting on foreign affairs for the Turkish Anadolu state news agency at the Istanbul office.

“Although my managers were happy with my work, I was not satisfied with my job; I could not find myself covering foreign affairs. I missed reporting on Egypt that was read by an Egyptian audience,” the 38-year-old former journalist said of her brief work experience in Turkey before moving to the United Kingdom.

Her sentiments resonate with Soliman.

“On a personal level, I have nostalgia for reporting on Egypt’s affairs,” he said. “Once I am assigned to write a story on Egypt, I would feel alive again because this is the revolution’s effect on our generation. A journalist’s duty is to give a voice to the voiceless.”

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