Sandmonkey was determined to quit his blog. Sniping away at life and politics in Egypt had become too risky, he said, even under the cover of his anonymous online moniker. Too much of a chance the government thugs would hurt him or someone close to him, or smash his computer equipment. He wasn’t alone in his worry. The dozen or so bloggers who had gathered in the offices of a fledgling Cairo newspaper were freaked out by the four-year prison term given to a twenty-two-year-old former law school student for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and for “religious incitement.” The blogger had called Mubarak “the symbol of tyranny” and said Muslims who attacked a Coptic Christian church had “revealed their true ugly face.” He had blasted Al-Azhar University, a revered center of Islamic learning, as “the other face of the coin of al Qaeda.” Some of the bloggers in the room disagreed with what he had written, but they didn’t expect a prison term. The muscular guy in a black T-shirt sitting beside me said that the authorities had already done all they can do to him, so he wasn’t worried. He said he would keep blogging, writing what he wants, showing up at dissident rallies. I was tempted to ask for specifics about what he had endured, but decided it was best that I didn’t.
I was in Cairo on a Knight fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, on leave from the Chicago Tribune, where I cover labor after years of roaming back and forth to the Middle East. I earned my first Middle Eastern credentials covering the Lebanon war in 1982, and my Arabic is still pretty good. The Washington-based center sends people like me around the world to help independent-minded journalists make a difference in their countries. But shortly after I arrived in Cairo in late February 2007, the two main projects that I had planned to work with were swept aside in a swirl of dead-handed bureaucracy and delayed decisions. No surprise; it’s the Middle East. But with just over four months remaining in my fellowship, I needed to find another way to contribute. It felt like I was back forty years in the Peace Corps in Turkey—things don’t work out, so you move on.
I began calling newspaper friends who suggested people and organizations I might be able to assist, and right away an Egyptian reporter who was struggling to establish an independent news network connected me with the bloggers. I found them at an existential moment. They are testing the limits of their freedom in a time of great intellectual, economic, and political ferment in Egypt. Some Egyptian journalists told me with absolute certainty that change is coming for their news media, and that it can’t be stopped. It is true that small newspapers are bubbling up to challenge the state-run media; satellite TV from the wider Arab world has forced Egyptian TV to get real and copy Al Jazeera’s model; Egyptian journalists are talking to other Arab journalists about what binds them and about strategies for the future; government newspapers, in the face of declining circulation, finally seem to realize that they must compete; and the Internet—as it has in repressive societies everywhere—has opened the world to Egyptians and given them the power to speak out.
Until only a few years ago, the major players in Egypt’s print media were the government press, which mostly behaves like the regime’s loudspeaker, and the opposition press, for which facts are often considered fungible. Then in 2004, Al Masry al Youm entered the arena with investigative articles and rigorous, fact-driven reporting. Egypt had never seen anything like this aggressive, privately funded newspaper, and it took off financially and critically, particularly among young, middle-income Egyptians who welcomed its strong voice and appreciated the relevant information it delivers. The success of Al Masry al Youm emboldened others to launch independent media projects. In response, not surprisingly, the government and its supporters cracked down, hassling print, broadcast, and digital media operations with legal challenges and mindless secrecy, fostering the self-crippling fear that you will get slapped by the government—or even your boss—if you cross any red lines.