There also was a political motivation behind the creation of Al Bawaba. With blogging, online journalism, and competing private newspapers on the rise in Egypt, the government-controlled version of events was increasingly hard to sell to readers and viewers. Both Samy and Said described their work with Al Bawaba as an attempt to bypass Al Ahram’s entrenched professional limitations that were deemed too large to address head on. They acknowledged the institution’s outdated coverage, but despite their leadership positions they also distanced themselves from responsibility. “We felt that the editorial content in the print paper did not express what the people wanted,” says Samy. “Al Bawaba could give more freedom. There aren’t the same restrictions as in the print paper.”
Tarek Atia, a former training manager for the US Agency for International Development-backed Media Development Program, worked with Al Ahram on its digital development. “I saw so many ambitious young college graduates come into Al Ahram with the passion to do good journalism, and very soon they hit brick walls,” says Atia, a former editor of Al Ahram Weekly who now runs a commercial training business.
In comparison, he felt a streak of independence developing among Al Bawaba journalists. In this new media space, the borders were still negotiable. “The [Al Ahram] newsroom was functioning as it always does,” says Atia. “Meanwhile, there was this much smaller newsroom that seemed to be really fast moving.” Al Bawaba hired journalists from other private papers who had digital training. In particular, many came from Al Badeel, an opposition paper that abruptly closed in 2009.
From the beginning, the site’s relative independence manifested in a more liberal use of certain phrases. In the print newspaper, for example, under Mubarak the Muslim Brotherhood had to be referred to as the “banned group.” At Al Bawaba the rule did not apply.
Al Bawaba Managing Editor Samy El Kamhawy attributed this relative openness to a generation gap: The older ruling men at first dismissed the importance of online readers. He says that he and Abdallah Abdel-Salam, the site’s editor in chief, made Al Bawaba’s editorial policy and style guide largely independent of print-side policies. Like at other Egyptian newspapers, such guides are not codified in writing. “We know it between ourselves,” Kamhawy says, “and we teach it to anyone new through practice.”
Atia suggested Al Ahram’s decision to not integrate the digital side was another way for management to mediate between continuity and change—a common approach to reform in Egypt. “The idea of doing a kind of parallel process perhaps tries to avoid some of the conflicts that may emerge if you try to change an already existing thing,” Atia says. “But that creates other problems, because there is a kind of inefficiency to it. You are spending double the resources, and with only limited reform you are going to face resistance.”
Reform, and revolution, interrupted
When protestors took to the streets on January 25, 2011, Al Ahram purposively chose not to cover them. On January 26 the front page dealt with protests, but in Lebanon. Al Bawaba, meanwhile, covered the protests from the start. “Peaceful marches of hundreds of citizens in the streets of Cairo and Giza,” read the first headline on January 25. As thousands continued to gather in cities across Egypt, Al Bawaba posted updates, providing visibility for protesters outside the Cairo-centric news cycle.
But when the police brutality began later that day, Al Bawaba’s coverage reflected its Al Ahram loyalties. Posts cited ministers and anonymous “security sources” accusing protestors of starting the fight. The police’s response of tear gas, water canons, arrests, and worse, the news narrative went, was necessary to restore order. A story published later in the day a story, citing only an “official security force,” accused the Muslim Brotherhood and “hidden hands” of instigating the violence.