Magazine article New Internationalist

On Winds of Change

Magazine article New Internationalist

On Winds of Change

Article excerpt

Now that Egypt is in revolution mode, Cairo is attracting more than its usual large share of artists, journalists, academics, analysts and spooks. People are getting out more, throwing parties. Friends you haven't seen in ages are back in touch, and new alliances formed over coffee and beers. In this convivial atmosphere, people are sharing their hopes - and fears. Will the fundamentalists take over? The economy fail? Lawlessness prevail? The regime make a come-back? I ran into an old colleague who reminded me of conditions preceding the uprising, and how, in the hearts of many individuals, something ineluctable yet vital had changed.

I met Hisham Kassem in the 1990s, at a time when the state had loosened its monopolistic grip on the press and opened somewhat to independent publishers. This was in keeping with both the regime's programme of economic liberalization and the US wish that its strategic ally could at least pretend to appear more democratic. Several entrepreneurs entered the fray, some focusing on the Arabiclanguage news market, others on fashion/society glossies targeting the niche market of high-end consumers. Only Hisham had the idea of doing an English-language news weekly. At that time Egypt's existing English newspapers belonged to the stateowed AlAhram franchise; one tried to disguise its bias, the other was frankly sycophantic.

The red lines were still there - the president and his security apparatus brooked no criticism - but the new Cairo Times challenged them with critical coverage of political, environmental and social developments, emphasizing human rights abuses and corruptionrelated scandals. I was one of several columnists given the freedom to write pretty much what I pleased. The paper soon acquired a small but influential following in Egypt and abroad. It even ran a decent profit thanks to the support of advertisers who identified its readership as their target audience (middle/upper class Egyptian youth and young adults, foreign residents and Egypt watchers). Several now influential journalists, bloggers, commentators and activists (Egyptian and foreign), got their start at the Cairo Times, even though as matters progressed it became more and more difficult to get paid.

In response to his efforts, Hisham, the paper's editor-in-chief, was hauled in for questioning by state security on more than one occasion, the surest of all signs that journalistically, he was doing something right. …

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