How liberal are the nations two new liberal daily newspapers? And what does an Egyptian liberal believe in, anyway?

Yasmin Moll
Egypt Today

AL-MASRY AL-YOUM joined the ranks of the countrys emerging liberal press when it hit newsstands on June 7. The brainchild of a group of prominent businessmen including multimillionaire tycoons Salah Diab and Ahmed Bahgat and billionaire telecoms magnate Naguib Sawiris Al-Masry Al-Youm is the second private newspaper that has been launched in recent months.

he other is media mogul Emad Adibs Nahdet Misr (Egyptian Renaissance) which debuted on October 22, 2003 as a weekly and transformed itself into a daily this past May.

The first independent dailies to appear in 60-some years, both newspapers have declared themselves unabashedly liberal in their political outlook. This, coupled with the application of nascent liberal party Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) for recognition by the Peoples Assemblys political parties committee, has encouraged some observers to herald the beginnings of a liberal resurgence in Egypt.

Academic and veteran political activist Mona Makram-Ebeid, slotted to be the first secretary-general of Al-Ghad if authorities approve the party, opined in a party position paper that a powerful wave of nostalgia in Egypt has emerged for the liberal moment in the countrys politics.

Whether or not thats the case, both Nahdet and Al-Masry claim to fill an important gap in the Egyptian mass media as independent liberal papers that offer balanced news-coverage unmarred by hidden political agendas and sensationalistic headlines.

The press has been seriously damaged in Egypt, says Hisham Kassem, Al-Masrys publishing director. On one hand you have the state-owned press, which has basically been feeding people lies for 40 years, and then you have the opposition press, which is basically there to not even support the party, but merely the individual who heads the party.

As a result, Kassem claims, readership levels have gone down dramatically over the past few decades. If you give people bad coffee for forty years, people will stop drinking coffee, he quips. You have a whole generation that never got into the habit of reading the paper.

For Muhammad El-Alfi, Nahdets acting editor-in-chief, independent journalism is the future of the media in the entire Middle East. Everything else has lost credibility.

The liberal orientation of these two newspapers calls for dramatic reforms in Egypts economic and political system. Indeed, a liberal is first and foremost a reformer, explains Hala Mustafa, editor of Al-Ahram Foundations quarterly journal Democracy Review and a prominent liberal political analyst.

You cant talk about democratization and economic and social progress without talking about liberalism, says Mustafa. Liberalism is a political ideology and philosophy that has at its core the belief in individual freedom. Liberalism is the intellectual child of some of Western civilizations greatest thinkers Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Hume, to start who refined and shaped a political philosophy that had at its heart the inalienable right of a rational individual to simply be free. In the modern era, liberalism is most closely identified with Western democracies, where the rule of law, political pluralism, constitutionally protected civil liberties and free market capitalism are the order of the day.

(For our Western readers: Egyptian liberalism is the liberalism of the 19th century, not the more modern socialist-leaning liberalism made popular in Britain by the Labour Party and popularized in Sweden and Canada.)

At home, liberal ideas began gaining ground among the educated elite during the late 19th century as Egyptian thinkers came into closer contact with European philosophy. The decades directly preceding the revolution of 1952, however, were the heydays of Egyptian liberalism, with historians pointing to 1923 as a landmark that saw the birth of Egypts first constitution, albeit under British colonial tutelage.

Al-Wafd party of nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul epitomized liberal politics at the time, and renowned figures like Lutfi Sayed, Taha Hussein, Qassim Amin and Mohamed Hussein Heikal gave liberalism a distinctively Egyptian voice. In fact, Mona Makram Ebeids grandfather Makram Ebeid Pasha was a hero of the great liberal age of the 1930s.

Egypts so-called liberal moment was suspended, however, with the revolution of 1952. After 1952, priorities began to change and the government adopted a socialist-leaning agenda in economics as well as a single-party state as opposed to the multi-party state of a liberal democracy, explains Mustafa.

For Al-Masry and Nahdet, Egypts future its renaissance lies in a return to this more liberal past.

We see this as the only way to revitalize society, says Kassem, who describes Al-Masrys editorial position in the political spectrum as right of center. For him, and no doubt the newspapers businessmen investors, liberalism means, above all, less government meddling, making them the intellectual cousins of Reagan or Clinton Democrats, not of Franklin Delano Roosevelts New Deal or Lyndon Johnsons Great Society.

We think the private and non-governmental sectors should be the ones taking on the issue of development, he explains. If we see a government company buying into a private company, we have a problem with that. If we see the state investing in failed projects like Toskha again, we have a problem with that.

As a liberal, centrist paper, we are trying to present a contemporary vision of reform aimed at freeing Egypt from the shackles of the past on the political, social and economic plane, adds Magdy Galaad, managing editor of Al-Masry. We want to stir the stagnant waters of the Egyptian press by saying things no one else wants to say.

Nahdet editor El-Alfi also waxes eloquent as he expands on his papers conception of liberalism: Liberalism is what the individual was created for. Liberalism is above all freedom freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of political choice and freedom of economics that allows for easy social mobility.

Basically, he sums up, we are critical of everything that inhibits the development of Egypt in a positive way.

Both papers have indeed come out swinging, publishing hard-hitting editorials that dont mince words in criticizing both the status quo and the powers that maintain it.

In the June 13 edition of Al-Masry, for example, editor in chief Anwar El-Hawary issued a scathing indictment of powerful Minister of Information Safwat El-Sherif, calling his media apparatus the biggest contemporary machine devoted to manufacturing stupidity in large quantities and generously distributing it among citizens 24 hours a day In fact, [El Sherifs] apparatus produces and distributes enough stupidity to not only cover domestic consumption several times over, but also have enough left over for export to the four corners of the world.

But for all the fire on the editorial pages, many seasoned Cairo journalists say neither Al-Masry nor Nahdet offer anything new in the way of journalism: no scoops, few investigative pieces and a standard of journalism that still falls short of the expat dailys Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, both of which are published in London.

Analysts caution that the strength of the liberal trend in Egypt no matter how vocal or in the limelight recently should not be exaggerated. While aspiring political parties like Al-Ghad, spearheaded by former Wafdist MP Ayman Nour, seek to attract supporters on a liberal platform calling for the rule of law, Third Way capitalism and womens empowerment may give the liberals a much-needed shot in the arm. However, liberalism is still far from being a movement in any real sense of the term.

The liberal trend is not strong enough [in Egypt], says Mustafa. It lacks a real political platform. You can describe individuals as liberals, but it is hard to describe a whole organized group as liberal.

Mustafa adds that she believes Nahdet Misr isnt even a real liberal paper, but only masquerading as one. Nahdet Misr is not a genuine contribution to liberalism. It lacks real liberal figures among its founders and its content is more populist than anything else. It is not offering anything new press-wise.

Mustafa declined to comment on Al-Masry, saying she hadnt had the chance to read it.

But Mohammed El-Shamaa, a journalist with the national daily Al-Akhbar who has had a chance to study both new offerings, says he doesnt see what all the fuss is about.

I dont see it as offering anything the national dailies dont already offer, he says. For [Al-Masry] to win readers over from the more established papers, it will have to write from a more radical viewpoint.

Hussein Abdel Raziq, secretary-general of leftist party Tagammu and former editor of the partys paper, also feels that liberalism is weak as a political trend, although he adds that no trend in Egypt right now has deep societal popularity.

But this is only because the current system doesnt allow these trends to develop a real mass base, he expands. As a result, there is no real political life in Egypt.

But while the liberal press may so far be little more than a lonely voice for a largely orphaned cause, it has already provided rich fodder for commentators trying to convince the public that the idea of an American infiltration of Arab media is more than just paranoia.

Respected Al-Ahram columnist Fahmi Howeidi is one of the most outspoken critics of Nahdet Misr, claiming that it clandestinely funded by the US State Department as part of an effort to improve Americas image in the Arab world.

Its all a series of attempts stemming from [Powells] announcement that the US would launch media platforms in eight Arab countries, Howeidi told Egypt Today in an earlier interview (see Paper Tigers, February 2003, page 48), It is infuriating to any Arab to have a publication that is funded by the United States, especially in a country like Egypt where such actions were familiar during the British occupation.

Al-Masry has also been accused of having an American paymaster, with the respected US daily The Christian Science Monitor quoting in a recent article an official from the Ministry of Interior as saying that Al-Masry is running with $60 million given by the US government to undermine our government. That papers appearance is Egyptian, but its heart and soul is American.

Part of the problem, analysts say, is that Nahdet and Al Masrys liberal platform of democracy, human rights and free markets resonates too closely with the Bush administrations recent (and much-maligned) initiatives for regional reform. But Egyptian liberals counter that theirs is an authentic national effort with no ties to American policy.

We possess all the values of freedom and participation in our own history, says Nahdets El-Alfi. We are not waiting for a neo-conservative cabal sitting in the White House to tell us what to do. Liberalism doesnt possess a national passport; it is not an American invention.

Liberal politician Makram-Ebeid agrees, writing that Liberal voices are not a response to American initiatives on democracy. They are a homegrown answer to a decadent political order and they are riding a powerful historical current.

For political analyst Mustafa, those trying to characterize liberalization as merely Americanization mean to discredit well-intentioned efforts at political and economic reform. The accusation of Americanization is a weapon being brandished by the anti-liberals who see that the liberal trend is beginning to make a comeback, she claims.

Journalist Saeed Darwish feels the polemical attacks on the new publications speak volumes about the sad state of the Arab worlds self-image.

We have lost confidence in ourselves, laments Darwish, who heads the Egypt bureau of Internews, a global free media advocacy group. We dont believe we can initiate anything new and automatically assume external forces must be behind it. To my knowledge, there is not a shred of evidence against either of these two newspapers that prove they are being financed by the Americans.

Conspiracy theories aside, its anyones guess at the moment whether Egypts rookie independent newspapers will have the staying power of the nations much older state-owned and opposition dailies.

But for now, it seems the countrys liberal moment just got a new lease on life.