Downtown Cairo newspaper revolutionises community journalism

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 10 Jun 2015

Since 2013, Mantiqti has tackled hyperlocal issues from dilapidated pavements and sexual harassment to street vendors and the bureaucratic maze of the mugamma

A two-year-old local newspaper covering downtown Cairo is about to expand to other neighborhoods, pr
A two-year-old local newspaper covering downtown Cairo is about to expand to other neighborhoods, promising to revolutionize local journalism in Egypt (Photo by: Gamal Essam)

Community journalism in Egypt has steadily been growing over the last decade, with multiple attempts in English and Arabic to produce media covering different neighbourhoods in Egypt's two largest cities of Cairo and Alexandria, as well as other attempts around the country. 

This phenomenon, mostly driven by local advertisers, has mainly benefitted  residents of upper-class Cairo neighbourhoods like Heliopolis and Maadi.

But while many of these attempts have either been short-lived, amateurish, or more like community groups on social networks such as Facebook, one of the most serious players in this emerging field, from both a mainstream media and business perspective, is clearly Mantiqti Wust El-Balad (My Neighbourhood Downtown Cairo), a monthly publication that launched in April 2013. In the two years since, Mantiqti has been devoted to providing in-depth coverage of happenings at the heart of central Cairo, serving this vibrant downtown community in a new and exciting way. 

“It’s pretty crazy that a major city like Cairo did not have a local media outlet,” said Mantiqti founder and publisher Tarek Atia, a veteran journalist and media development expert, “especially considering the fact that downtown Cairo is the throbbing heart of Egypt's capital, and the home to so many of the Arab world's trend-setting politics, society and culture.” 

Mantiqti’s headquarters are in the heart of downtown, steps away from Tahrir Square, surrounded by the city core’s many coffee shops, bookstores, galleries, think tanks and performance spaces. 

"Mantiqti is not a political newspaper,” Atia says. “It’s an attempt to practice local media the way it was intended: as a vehicle for a community to participate in telling its own story.” 

In this case, that community is located within the geographical perimeters of the paper’s coverage area: "a sort of triangle between three main squares: Tahrir in the south, Attaba in the east, and Ramses in the north," according to Atia. “We serve the people who live here, work here, or visit.” 

Yahya Wagdi, the paper’s editor-in-chief, said they were not trying to re-invent the wheel.

“If you go to the downtown area of any major capital city, you’ll find a plethora of free community newspapers on every corner. That’s exactly what we are doing: providing high quality information to people in this neighbourhood, so that they know what’s going on, and can be a part of the conversation.” 

The paper’s senior editorial advisor Ehab Abdel-Hamid describes the paper as “an invaluable source to both residents and government, which has actually played a positive role in much of the rapid changes that the neighbourhood has seen over the past two years.” 

The paper dedicates a special section in each issue to an in-depth investigation of a hot topic.

The May issue, for instance, featured a plethora of information about the ambitious downtown revival project currently being carried out by the Cairo governorate under the title "Al-Qahira Al-Khidiwiya" (or Khedivial Cairo), with maps, infographics and interviews with experts and ordinary people, thus creating a platform for dialogue about a process that has clearly been going on in real time, but without any real media scrutiny other than from Mantiqti.

Khedivial Cairo refers to the period between 1869 and 1914 when the three khedives (or rulers in Persian) Ismail, Tawfik and Abbas Helmi the Second developed downtown Cairo according to European architectural style. 

While Wagdi proudly compares the paper’s coverage to something like “a constantly updated encyclopedia about Cairo”, Abdel-Hamid says future plans include bringing together some of these special sections that have been published over the years into a single publication that would be “an indispensible guide to downtown Cairo.” 

According to Atia, not being political does not mean that Mantiqti is not critical.

"As a result of our coverage, local officials are beginning to realise that someone is watching. That’s something new.” 

Atia says local officials are not used to having to inform their constituencies of anything they are doing.

In his publisher’s letter in the May issue, Atia leveled this exact critique at Cairo Governor Galal Al-Said, accusing him of not having done enough to inform the downtown community – including residents, workers, business interests, experts and civil societies -- of the detailed plans in store for the area’s development.

“So we did it for him.”

In fact, the paper provided its readers with details about the plan, as well as nicely designed infographics detailing which buildings were being renovated, and what the new traffic regulations meant. 

The paper has seen multiple examples of its impact on the ground as a result of such kinds of coverage. 

According to Cairo governorate spokesman Khaled Mostafa, a multi-page photo essay published by Mantiqti in its February issue exposed some of the shoddy work that had taken place on downtown’s pavements over the years. As a result of this in-depth coverage of an issue that was too local for most national outlets to dedicate space to, the governor intervened and ordered the sidewalks to be fixed. 

"Mantiqti has become a major source of independent information for the governorate and an essential forum for exploring the viewpoints of downtown residents and visitors about central Cairo," Mostafa agrees. 

Atia says Mantiqti’s watchdog role on the performance of local authorities in downtown Cairo is “one of the main concepts of community journalism,” but not the only one: Mantiqti also serves to provide basic information about the neighbourhood to its residents.

The publisher proudly recounts the story of how Mantiqti dedicated one of its in-depth sections last year to providing readers with a first-ever detailed guide to the bureaucratic behemoth of government services called the Mogamma building in Tahrir Square. 

“The information-rich and carefully-produced infograph led to the officials in that building deciding to use it as the main visitor map to that confusing building,” Atia says. “It has been enlarged to poster size and framed and now proudly guides the thousands who use that building every day to where they need to go!” 

With only 24 pages, Mantiqti packs a lot of coverage into its compact form. The content is accompanied by advertisements from local business, which is how the paper makes it money. The editors said that some of its most popular sections include a listing of essential phone numbers for various government services. “Again, this is basic information that just wasn’t being provided before.” 

Abdel-Hamid also points to the monthly cultural calendar, which he calls, "an indispensable guide to downtown Cairo's cultural events.”

One special section currently being prepared is a comprehensive guide to the lively downtown bookstore scene. 

"Mantiqti" has managed to provide a platform for civil society organisations to highlight their efforts to help the community," Abdel-Hamid also says.

One example was in a special section dedicated to women’s right to a harassment-free downtown.

“With the help of Harassmap, an NGO working on issues of sexual harassment, we created a unique map to the main downtown streets, indicating the various levels of harassment a woman might be exposed to on each.” 

According to Abdel-Hamid, the paper’s in-depth and highly visual coverage of the street vendor problem in downtown Cairo last year may have also had a real impact on the eventual removal of the vendors.

“We published a detailed map showing where the vendors were, and what they were selling. We also suggested places where they should be relocated, and really opened up our pages to become a forum for finding a solution to a truly untenable situation.” 

Readers and government officials have also appreciated similar in-depth reports on parking in downtown Cairo, as well as the installation of traffic lights and closed circuit cameras, the paper’s editors say. 

Wagdi, the paper’s editor, thinks that the tide is about to turn for local journalism in Egypt, after decades of “most national, private and party-based newspapers in Egypt merely ignoring local journalism".

"Nowadays I am seeing a lot more people in the media industry making, or wanting to make, the shift to local,” he says. 

Current press laws in Egypt comprise a formidable obstacle in the proliferation of local journalism outlets, Wagdi explains, and Mantiqti was only able to obtain a licence as a non-periodical publication owned by the Media Production Company.

"The investment law gives this kind of company the right to issue non-periodical publications," he says. 

Wagdi, however, has high hopes that the new constitution will give a boost to local journalism in Egypt.

"Article 70 of the National Charter grants citizens the right to issue all forms of publications upon notice," says Wagdi. "The law regulating this right is being finalised by the Press Syndicate and the Higher Press Council."

Wagdi also hopes that the law will pave the way for the proliferation of "community radios."

"We hope to have a Mantiqti radio with signals covering downtown Cairo only," said Wagdi. 

It’s certainly good news to Atia, who is actively pursuing an expansion plan to take Mantiqti to four other Cairo neighbourhoods over the next two years.

Along with the larger scale and reach of having five community papers, the Mantiqti team is also actively working on a digital version to offer increased interactivity with its readers.

“For now, though, you can find up-to-date news on downtown on the Mantiqti Facebook page,” he says.

It's where Mantiqti recently took the lead in reporting on the future of downtown’s famous historic Café Riche after its owner recently passed away, and saw their online posts go viral, being shared by the thousands.

“It was only natural for us to be on top of that story and every other story in downtown, because we are the only ones who are right in the heart of the neighborhood every day and in every way."

"And that’s exactly what we want to do in so many neighborhoods, because we have seen the positive impact it’s having here.”

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