Last week was hard on the Egyptian press. Detained photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid (popularly known as Shawkan) was referred to criminal court on undisclosed charges related to the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in; the privately owned Al-Tahrir newspaper folded; and the privately owned Al-Masryoun and Al-Sabah newspapers had several issues pulled from circulation.
Al-Tahrir CEO Akmal Kortam — a high-profile investor and president of the Mohafezeen Party — said earlier this week that his newspaper was closing after losing LE55 million, largely due to printing costs and salaries, the state-owned Al-Mal newspaper reported. While Al-Tahrir will keep some staff to man its online edition, several others will be laid off. Some observers are skeptical of these claims of financial ruin, however, given that Kortam recently started up a newspaper for his political party, and speculate that political motives might be afoot.
Then on Saturday, the state-owned Al-Ahram print house pulled that day’s issue of the privately owned Al-Sabah upon the request of unknown “monitoring state bodies.” The trigger was an article by columnist Ahmed Refaat that criticized the head of the Mostakbal Watan Party, Mohamed Badran — who is purportedly close to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. This marked the first time that state authorities recalled a newspaper due to an unflattering portrait of a party leader — censors are usually focused on pieces addressing security authorities, state institutions or the president.
In the article, “How to be the child of a president in nine steps,” Refaat ruminates as to how Badran, who previously led the Student Union, rose to prominence so quickly as the youngest leader of a political party in Egypt. The journalist also notes that Badran was the only person accompanying Sisi on the presidential yacht during the New Suez Canal inauguration.
In a similar incident, an issue of the Islamist Al-Masryoun was pulled for its article by editor-in-chief Gamal Sultan, “Why doesn’t Sisi stop playing the role of an Islamic thinker?” In the same issue, Al-Masryoun also ran a report claiming that the president risks arrest if he visits the United Kingdom. Earlier in August, reports circulated that Sisi turned down an invitation to London for bilateral talks after human rights lawyers there filed lawsuits against his government for orchestrating the fatal dispersal of the 2013 Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in.
Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat says nothing in Egyptian law gives authorities the right to confiscate a publication. He explains that the procedures are not legal and depend on internal and managerial understandings.
These three incidents occur as the Egyptian press is sinking into a financial quagmire, largely due to dwindling advertising revenues — or advertisers who halt payments altogether. High-profile businessman Naguib Sawiris’ company Promo Media, which is the leading advertising agency for Egyptian press, for instance, suddenly stopped paying fees in recent months to several newspapers and television channels, triggering a precarious financial slump for the affected media outlets.
Al-Tahrir: Foundering funds, political pressures
The story of Al-Tahrir is one of a project killed by mixing business with politics.
The roots of the problem reach back to before the 2011 revolution. At the time, most Al-Tahrir staffers were working for Ibrahim Eissa’s newspaper, Al-Dostour — then one of the most vocal platforms against former President Hosni Mubarak’s administration. That ambitious experiment ended when Eissa sold the paper to Sayed al-Badawy in 2010, under whom several of the publication’s founders and journalists were fired, and Al-Dostour’s editorial line rapidly swerved to become pro-Mubarak. After the 2011 revolution, Eissa established Al-Tahrir newspaper, where most of Al-Dostour’s former employees were hired. The newspaper was sold once again to Ibrahim al-Moallem, founder of the privately owned daily Al-Shorouk — and he then promptly sold it to Kortam.
Mohamed al-Garhy, who works at Al-Tahrir, says that the paper had been improving both editorially and in terms of content, asserting that “Al-Tahrir has recently opened several closed doors, and published unique articles and reports.” But he also hints at possible attempts to silence certain voices in the team following the newspaper’s recent vocal coverage and the change of its editorial staff who adopt generally revolutionary lines.
“Anyone following the Egyptian press will know that newspapers are all pro-state except for a few,” Gahry recently wrote on his personal Facebook account. “It pleases me to see attempts outside the herd, daring reports or pieces of news worth covering, because our country needs a free press and true media. The Interior Ministry disliked a report on deaths among inmates, and we were accused of not being in-sync with the state. No way, what kind of journalism is that?!”
Another source from Al-Tahrir believes that Kortam gave up on the project due to internal mismanagement. Al-Tahrir is mired in debt partly because some reporters receive salaries as high as LE20,000 per month, the source claims, and revenues can’t cover those expenses. The website, however, has attracted millions of pounds in advertising with the efforts of its energetic youth staff, which prompted management to turn its energies toward the online operation. The source also added that anti-regime content in the newspaper may have added more pressure on the shoulders of the already overwhelmed owners.
Mohamed Fawzy, head of Al-Tahrir’s online edition, believes the paper failed primarily for economic reasons, surmising that the financial burden was more than the owners could bear. For him, political pressures could come at the very end of the list of problems.
Attracting advertising was the main struggle, says Fawzy. Without advertising revenue, the paper can’t cover print costs, salaries or the overhead on its new headquarters.
And that shortfall is due to poor planning, Fawzy argues.
“Founders do not think of the future — newspaper owners don’t know where they’ll be in 10 years. There’s no strategic planning or means of alternative financing,” he contends.
“Most newspaper owners seek political power to protect their investments, or to advertise for their political parties. That on its own isn’t the problem — it’s natural for politics to mobilize investment in media,” he says. “But it shouldn’t be the only mobilizer. We can’t say we have a real press industry without investment.”
There’s little room for media outlets to maneuver between the state’s monopoly on publishing and distribution, and business executives’ politicized leverage of sorely needed advertising revenues.
The collapse of the private Al-Badil newspaper in 2011 is a case in point.
Sabry Fawzy, a former Al-Badil board member, says that two real estate executives offered to sign an advertising contract if, in exchange, editors would cancel a series of investigative reports on lands that the men had unlawfully obtained from the state. Management refused the deal.
Fawzy clarifies that “the aim of the series of articles wasn’t to blackmail the businessmen, but to unveil the truth. And of course, they had the right to respond.”
“Advertisers in Egypt can control the editorial policies of newspapers,” he argues, pointing to another incident where a corporate representative canceled an advertising contract with Al-Badil after it ran an article exposing his family’s role in manipulating the stock market.
The state’s monopoly on print, distribution
Hardly a month passes these days without so-called “sovereign entities” pulling an issue of a newspaper from circulation because unknown higher-ups took issue with an article.
Aside from Al-Masryoun and Al-Sabah, an issue of the privately owned Sout al-Omma was also pulled last week, due to an article titled “The sorrows of the president.” Sout al-Omma’s editor-in-chief and regime supporter Abdel Halim Qandil said in an interview with Al-Bedaya newspaper that he was shocked by the move — the article simply described the president’s concern for his ill mother, Qandil said, and his visit to her in Galaa Hospital two days before her condition worsened.
Al-Masryoun editor-in-chief Gamal Sultan says that an unknown censorship apparatus “manages the state’s matters from behind the curtain.” There are no clear guidelines as to what kind of content is permissible to publish, and there are no known entities involved in this kind of censorship that the media can directly accuse or confront, he says.
Sultan thinks the state’s control over printing is the heart of the problem, as most publications can’t print and distribute independently and thus are forced to use Al-Ahram’s services. The privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm is the only local newspaper that prints and distributes through its own print house, but that facility is limited and only prints a relatively small number of daily issues.
But even if the issue of independent printing was solved, Sultan explains, distribution is such a challenging task that it’s almost impossible for newspapers to break free of Al-Ahram.
“The state cannot bear the political repercussions of the closure of publications, so it depends on a censor that draws the lines and imposes regulations,” concludes Sultan.
Back to the struggles of Al-Badil, Fawzy explains other challenges the newspaper faced inside the state printing house.
Al-Badil struggled with its distributors. Fawzy claims that the print house wouldn’t release their papers until after midnight, hours after other publications had already been sent into the streets. He also alleges that security forces spurred newspaper vendors to deliberately place copies of Al-Badil so that they were hard to see in the stands.
“The end result was that no one knew the publication, and readership was limited,” Fawzy says. “Only those who already knew it bought it.”
The paper finally folded after four years due to an insurmountable budget deficit.
Former Al-Masry Al-Youm board member Hesham Qassem agrees with Fawzy that the Egyptian press is effectively under state control, and that private journalistic institutions are at the mercy of external entities for advertising, printing and distribution.
“During my time at Al-Masry Al-Youm, I did a feasibility study for a distribution company equipped with cars and warehouses so that we could distribute the paper ourselves, for a budget of LE6 million. And LE6 million more, the company could have even distributed for other publications,” he says. “But the idea was never implemented.”
Although Al-Masry Al-Youm owns a small print house, it also prints at Al-Ahram. The newspaper was forced to trash thousands of papers on two separate occasions when issues were pulled from circulation. The first time was in 2010, and the second in 2014, when Al-Masry Al-Youm refused to allow government figures to review an interview with an intelligence agent prior to publication. Officials then confiscated the issues that featured the interview from the Al-Ahram printing offices.
And that shows that even owning a print house isn’t enough for a newspaper to operate autonomously, Qassem says. “We still live in the post-July  revolution state, where security manages everything, and the intelligence has a representative that supervises what’s being published.”