[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight distinct voices primarily in and from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.]
Jadaliyya (J): Slightly over a month ago, Egypt Independent was shut down by its corporate management, claiming the newspaper was unprofitable. What damage has the corporate control and shutdown of Egypt Independent and Egypt-based news production more generally done to the quality of news coverage in Egypt at this time? What are you and others from Egypt Independent doing to address the situation at this time, and what in-roads have you made? What challenges remain?
Lina Attalah (LA): When Egypt Independent closed, it did not take us much thinking to realize we need to start our own venture to both address the failures that led to the death of Egypt Independent as we know it, but also continue the journalism practices we started there. The birth of a new outlet became inevitable in a context of heightened media concentration that reflects the limited pool of media ownership and the lack of diversity in the coverage. I decided that our new project, Mada Masr, should start publishing on 30 June, the day Egypt braced for mass protests demanding the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi after a year of deep political failures. I was motivated by two broad factors. One is that many people have written to me following our departure from Egypt Independent saying that they feel there is a gap in the narrative coming out of Egypt. They especially state that much of the pre-30 June coverage and analysis subscribed to pre-established ideologies or interests. Another factor is that media owners` managerial failures and incongruent political motivations interrupted the practice of the talented team of journalists with whom I work. This practice is simply about reporting with honesty on events as they unfold and actively placing them within contexts that can help us raise critical questions, particularly at times when those in authority actively try to stifle this criticality.
So 30 June promised to be an important turning point to Egypt’s revolutionary condition and it was important for me that this group of journalists would be out there covering this moment and making sense out of it. The weeks following 30 June proved that we had the right intuition of launching Mada Masr around that time. The shattered journalistic autonomy of most media outlets, be they state-run or privately-owned, deepened our raison d’etre, but also reinstated the problem we faced with Egypt Independent and the media crisis in Egypt in general. Media are reduced to power props in the hands of their ownership. Today, this ownership finds its interest in countering the Muslim Brotherhood and aligning with the military. Accordingly, this interest has completely tainted the coverage, leading to the active masking of the truth. That is why it was comforting to be completely and fully independent at this critical juncture. Only now can we freely report about the multiple layers of the current moment through which Egypt is going. But of course, the challenge lies ahead. How can one remain autonomous and sustainable, to survive, grow and show that there is an alternative possible journalism? This is what we are grappling with right now and I hope we will have some good answers.
J: In your view, has the climate of political and corporate restriction on journalism in Egypt improved? Has it gotten worse?
LA: I think the current moment in Egypt represents one of the gravest junctures of corporate restriction on journalism. This is manifested in the way all privately-owned media unified their messages in their quest to align with the military consolidation of its position in politics, as part of media entrepreneurs’ own conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. So, we have seen how much of this media turned a blind eye on the excessive use of violence by the state against Muslim Brotherhood supporters. We have seen uncontested relaying of the military’s narrative, including reporting imaginary facts as part of the military;`s quest to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood. I am not sure how these media outlets can ever think of regaining some sort of autonomy after the military-Brotherhood crisis, now that they have totally branded themselves as military clients. Even though privately owned media in the early 2000s presented a new breed of journalism that often stood against the regime at the time, I think their performance nowadays is shattering this legacy and prompting the need for alternative structures.
J: You recently visited Gaza`s PalFest. What was your impression of the situation in Gaza, and in what ways do you think events like PalFest are effective in promoting solidarity with Palestine? On a related note, you were once detained by Israeli forces for attempting to sail to Gaza in 2011. Do you believe that Gaza`s ability to defy the circumstances of Israel`s blockade have improved since then?
LA: PalFest gave me the chance to visit Gaza for the first time, which is paradoxically a few hours drive from Cairo and yet extremely inaccessible to Egyptians, whether activists or journalists or just regular visitors. PalFest also gave me the chance to experience Gaza outside the scope of emergency. In other words, Gaza is often talked about in the context of crisis and conflict. It was great to experience it through the completely different lens of a literary festival, where cultural production and intellectual conversations were driving the interaction. This is not to say that everything is normal in Gaza and it is great to experience it as a normal place, but to rather tap into how people, particularly youth, are negotiating with crisis, or rather multiple crises. For example, I had a gathering with youth activists who work with different political groups and parties and we had a candid conversation about political organizing and traditional political work as manifested in Palestinian parties and factions. We talked about their ambitions and criticisms of their leadership`s functioning, and how the context of occupation is naturally dictating how political engagement works. We also talked about how Arab revolutions acted as sites of inspirations to the youth at some points, but as sites of disappointments at others, when the Palestinian cause seemed to be at best marginal. I thought this interaction was priceless because our governments are actively working toward halting it. It revealed various commonalities and potential for joint work, at least at the thinking level.
I took part in one of the Freedom Flotilla campaigns in 2011 believing that Egyptians and Arabs in general should figure more prominently on the map of global Palestine activism. I am not sure of the extent to which this flotilla or the others have contributed to easing the blockade on the ground, but these actions function best as attention raisers to the Gaza situation, which can be easily forgotten as people have normalized the fact that it is an open-air prison. These actions also bring to the fore the level of intransigence exhibited by the Israeli state, which went through the trouble of deploying a whole maritime operation to board our boats in international waters, which can simply be labeled as state piracy. While we would have only symbolically broken the siege if our boat safely reached Gaza’s port, Israel does not even want to let this sheer symbolism unfold.
J: You have been a prominent advocate for Palestinian rights in Egypt. While signs of solidarity with Palestine seemed prominent during the 2011 revolution, they are not as prominent in Egypt now. Do you agree with this summation? In what ways would you say Egypt-based Palestine solidarity activism has improved or declined in Egypt? For what reasons?
LA: It is complicated to talk in a totalizing manner about the Egyptian people’s sentiment toward the Palestinian cause. But I can safely say that as an Egyptian, I was born and raised around an innate solidarity with the Palestinian cause. And I would safely argue that the cause lies somewhere in most people’s multiple layers of subconscious. Now, with the current state-engineered nationalist propaganda, you find the coining of Palestine in general and Hamas in particular in the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. We cannot deny that this discourse has some resonance among some Egyptians, but to what extent they mean it and to what extent would they espouse it autonomously and without state intervention? I am not sure. But I think anti-Palestine sentiments are often engineered by the state, and are currently directed by the military, which is using it as a tool in its power struggle with the Brotherhood. Much of the media, which have become large machines of public relations to the military elites, have completed this mission by further fueling anti-Palestine sentiments. This is very similar to the post-70s state campaign to marginalize the Palestine question as part of a quest to produce new breeds of local nationalism (i.e. Egypt first). But remember that the state does this because Palestine solidarity in the Arab World becomes an act of contentious politics against your local government by default. So the post-70s active spreading of anti-Palestine sentiments was a normal reaction to the unfolding anti-peace accords and anti-normalization activism that threatened the government back then. By the same token, the military that is spreading anti-Palestine propaganda today is the same institution that stood to benefit the most from the 1979 peace accords. Through these accords, the military institution basically traded its role to preserve a safe regional environment for Israel with extensive economic benefits.
I think Palestine activism sits at the depth of activism in general in Egypt. At least as far as my generation is concerned, our experience with contentious and street politics started with the 2000 intifada protests. It is through our rejection of the occupation in Palestine that we opposed our government for normalizing with this condition. This is how we eventually stepped up our opposition to our government by demanding the overall ouster of Hosni Mubarak and his clan. I must say however, that once our confrontation with the Mubarak regime heightened and continued, even past the 2011 revolution, we are making less conscious efforts to pursue Palestine activism. This activism could and should take different forms in the current post-revolution moment. For example, we should have a more firm stand toward Egypt’s role in the Gaza blockade now, just as we should have also been playing a role in demystifying the idea that the crossing was unconditionally open during President Mohamed Morsi’s time when there were critical limitations to the freedom of movement. Also, we should be more active in seeking interactions with Palestinian youth, which is an important aspect of the politics of Palestine activism and solidarity. Palestine activism has been centered almost around an abstraction of the cause, while being defined and redefined through the struggle inside.
J: Do you see hope for political progress in Egypt through the tamarod campaign? Why or why not?
LA: I think tamarod served its function when it turned a simple act of political opposition, namely collecting signatures to demand President Mohamed Morsi’s resignation, into a viral act that became popularly appropriated. So it was fascinating to see people autonomously taking the lead in collecting the forms, gathering signatures and sending them back to tamarod’s volunteers. In this particular moment, tamarod has informed political practice by showing the potential of horizontal movements and the limitations of traditional party politics. There have been a lot of inspiring junctures back then, from the poetic strength of the campaign’s name (“rebel”), to the idea of political volunteering, to the accessibility and engagement that the act of signing bears. Beyond that point, I do not see much in terms of tamarod’s political contribution after Morsi’s ouster, and that is judging from its most recent position. I am of course quite critical of their unconditional support of the military at a time when we should all be weary about what position the military should have in politics if we are to adhere to the 2011 revolution’s principles of freedom, dignity and social justice.
J: One of your pieces on elections in Iran was just published in the Guardian, commenting on the frustration many Iranians feel over the Islamist takeover of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and a lack of confidence in any sort of repeat of the Iranian protests of 2009. Do you believe that Egypt`s future will be similar? Are there lessons from Iran that Egyptian revolutionaries can use in their struggle against the issues currently plaguing Egypt?
LA: Actually, the Islamist takeover of the 1979 Iranian revolution is no news and it certainly does bring to mind the current Egyptian debacle. But that is not really the main takeaway from my week of conversations with Iranian activists, cultural producers and academics. The main inspiration was actually the Iranians` holding on to the political process as part of a deep sense of citizenship and accordingly, entitlement, despite active attempts by the leadership to trivialize politics and strip the political space of its meaning. It is easy to be in despair in Egypt these days if you belong to a progressive camp. But what Iranians have to teach us is that over three decades later, you cannot really afford to live with despair. Hence, you have to be in a constant state of negotiation through audacious cultural production, bold intellectual intervention, or even compromise by subscribing to reformist politics, in spite of reformist politics being understood to be part of the autocratic establishment. I think negotiation as a form of resistance becomes incredibly inspiring for those of us who know that they will probably continue to live and function inside our countries, regardless of our political fate.
[Lina Attalah tweets at @Linaattalah and is chief editor of Mada Masr.]