But Craig and I agreed to do it, figuring we could at least nurture the more moderate tendencies in their newsroom. Over the next few weeks, I met separately with the English- and Arabic-language staffs. I tackled the issue of the site’s news values indirectly, stressing that in order for Islam Online to grow, its product had to be professional. That meant intellectual honesty, a sense of fairness, details, and solid sourcing. This would help readers to trust them, I said. Nobody disagreed. Soon, I began to notice that much of the time they agreed when I said certain articles needed more background, more sources, and to be more even-handed.
Still, their stories had an Arab-world slant and conservative Islamic spin. Stories about anti-Muslim prejudice in the West got prominent play. So, too, did any news about Saudi Arabia. The peg was often the Arab world on the defensive. That’s their right, of course, but it doesn’t always produce the honest journalism that the Arab world needs. Islam Online’s editors will have to decide what they want, ultimately. I hope the tug of competition will gradually convince them that good journalism—not journalism in service of a cause—is their best bet, both commercially and in terms of helping their society.
On the top floor of a soot-covered Art Deco era building in downtown Cairo, where the elevators only sometimes work, El Badeel (The Alternative) was being born. Like other newspapers, it needed a license; the government had stalled that for months, and the delay was draining away the money raised for this new newspaper. But the editors were not giving up. With less financial support than Al Masry al Youm, El Badeel wanted to do the same kind of work but from a left-of-center perspective. The plan was for analysis, people-oriented features, and consumer and investigative reporting.
Mohammed Sayed Said, a longtime source and friend, accepted my offer to work with his staff, and I came to El Badeel in March, four months before its first issue was published. After years of writing for Al Ahram, the government’s principal newspaper, Mohammed had taken the job of El Badeel’s editor only a few months earlier—no small risk in a country where career mistakes can be terminal. Soft-spoken, middle-aged, and professorial, Mohammed is a particular kind of Egyptian intellectual. When he speaks in classical Arabic, the language sparkles. Egyptians like him are democratic reformers, believers in the need, and the ability, to reinvigorate their politically moribund society. They don’t carry the baggage of the Nasserites or other outdated Arab nationalist ideologies. They float on their own, borrowing what they like from East and West.
Most of El Badeel’s reporters were young and inexperienced. I had to explain to the business reporters what a stock market is. I reminded the feature writers that not all stories should be heartbreaking tales of oppression. Life has its joys, too, I suggested. But the investigative reporters stunned me. For every reporting scenario I offered, they had strategies for getting the necessary information. Basic facts are as guarded there as Egypt’s ancient treasures, yet that didn’t dissuade them. I wondered where this drive came from. A few had attended investigative workshops put on by Western journalists, some have read about investigative reporting online, and some, I decided, were just eager to learn.
Other opportunities to teach cropped up and I was busy, but the bloggers remained my obsession. Their potential to open up the streams of news is great, not just in Egypt, but across the Arab world. I attended their meetings at various locations around Cairo, where they train one another on the latest technology but mostly fret about the government’s growing dislike of them. I had not forgotten Wael Abbas’s comment that first day about wanting to “know how journalists work,” and, after my time training all these journalists around Cairo, it was clear what I could do for Wael and the other bloggers: write a guide, with their help, that began to set some standards and best practices for online journalism in the Arab world.
It was April 2007 when I began searching for people in Cairo who were interested in advancing online journalism and found Gamal Eid, an overworked lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the only human-rights group in the Arab world dedicated to freedom of expression. His office, which he shares with a handful of co-workers, is a string of modest rooms in a Cairo suburb. Eid’s resources are few, but his ambition is great, and he liked my idea of creating a bloggers’ guide. We made a deal. Once I’d cooked up the guide, he would provide a translator for the final draft and help disseminate it.