Egyptian press: From papyrus to blogs

Samir Sobhi , Tuesday 4 Sep 2018

Samir Sobhi looks at transformations in the Egyptian press and makes some predictions for its future

From newspapers to blogs
(L) the cover of Lataef (Delights) newspaper, which promoted the Orabi Revolution.

The press has a long story to tell and is responsible for shaping public opinion, which is a touchstone of democracy. The ancient Egyptians published on papyrus and water hyacinth leaves, as recorded on a papyrus at the Louvre Museum in Paris that confirms that Egyptians have had a press for thousands of years.

One document dated 1750 BCE shows that publication took place on behalf of the government, while other papyri show that there was even an opposition press criticising the actions of the Pharaoh Ramses III.

The modern period began with the French Expedition in the late 18th century, when the French brought over printing presses and modern journalism to Egypt, publishing the Courrier de l’Egypte in French.

Two years later, French General Jacques-François Menou published Al-Tanbih (The Alert), the first Arabic-language newspaper in Egypt. Naturally, this was the mouthpiece of the French forces at the time, but Menou put Sheikh Sayed Ismail Al-Khashab, an Al-Azhar graduate and a renowned scholar, in charge of the publication.

The well-known historian of the time Abdel-Rahman Al-Gabarti read these publications and was even influenced by the French manner of writing.

He later advised Egypt’s ruler Mohamed Ali to publish the first Egyptian newspaper Al-Waqae Al-Masriya (Egyptian Events) in 1829.

A factory was built to make newspaper paper from recycled fabric to cut down on the cost of imported materials.

Newspapers then gradually evolved and began publishing wider forms of news, something which angered Mohamed Ali who demanded that news items be read before publication, making him the first press censor in Egypt.

In 1857, the first popular newspaper, Al-Saltanah (The Sultanate), was published during the reign of Said Pasha and was owned by a Turk called Iskandar Shahloub who criticised Said Pasha in print.

This was followed by an avalanche of other newspapers, most notably Wadi Al-Nil (Nile Valley) published by Abdallah Abul-Seoud in 1866 during the reign of the khedive Ismail, the same year that parliament was born along with the Al-Ahram newspaper.

These popular newspapers showcased Egypt and the new classes that were emerging at the time. They used criticism and satire, uncommon tools in this newly emerging Egyptian society.

Among the writers was the poet Abdallah Al-Nadeem, who published three newspapers, opening another when one shut down, and including titles such as Al-Tankeet wal-Tabkeet (Jokes and Reproaches) and Lataef (Delights) promoting the Orabi Revolution and Al-Ustaz (The Master) calling for social reform.

Under the khedive Tawfik, Egyptian society entered another phase. The European colonialists were at the door, the khedive was weak, the army was in revolt, the press was unrestrained, and there was a clear power struggle among the new class of agricultural landowners created after the distributions by Said Pasha to senior figures of the time.

The government began muzzling the popular newspapers, and as the British occupation neared a Publications Law issued in 1881 included nine stipulations curbing the role and activities of the press.

Life changed with the Orabi Revolution, the British occupation, and the khedive Tawfik’s complacency.

People were unable to express themselves while toiling to earn a living, and the colonial authorities after 1883 decided to allow some freedom of the press, especially if that press focused on non-political issues.

The British helped to establish various small newspapers, and every week there seemed to be a new magazine created by a Syrian or Lebanese national coming to Cairo. At the time, it was said that journalism was “the profession of anyone without a profession”.

The serious nationalist press began with Ahmed Lotfi Al-Sayed who took Swiss nationality to publish Al-Garidah (The Newspaper) so he could be prosecuted if need be in the mixed courts for foreigners and not the Egyptian courts, thus taking advantage of the privileges given foreigners in Egypt. Al-Garidah was the first political newspaper after Wadi Al-Nil and was the first popular political newspaper in Egypt.

The Egyptian press also continued to defend the Arabic language and Egyptian identity as separate from the Ottoman one. It asserted the need for freedom of the press and for other public freedoms.

The Nationalist Press

The nationalist leaders Mustafa Kamel and Sheikh Ali Youssef played key roles in supporting the nationalist press at the time.

After the 1919 Revolution, the Egyptians were keen to take back their country, seek knowledge, and succeed through the spoken and written word. The press in the 1930s expressed these ideas, and the press of the 1940s confirmed and cemented the Egyptian character.

People understood that there was a need for new policies to restore and raise the Egyptian nation, beginning with the Egyptian citizen.

This could not happen without knowledge, belief in oneself, a sense of dignity and a sense of the Egyptian character, as well as the need to protect it from centuries of woe under foreign rulers, however.

The great press historian Abdel-Latif Hamza called the 1919 Revolution the “press component of the nationalist movement”, and many historians view the period after the Revolution as the golden age of the Egyptian press because it was able to awaken thought, enlighten the mind, diffuse culture and correct government.

A strong public opinion is the only way to reform corruption and influence peddling, and people were encouraged to develop a critical outlook.

It would be a mistake to think that restrictive press laws discouraged newspapers or journalists, even if they tried.

The British ambassador in Egypt Lord Cromer made a publishing misdemeanour into a felony and prohibited publication of news about the killing of foreign monarchs, no matter how it was written.

The Ottoman sultan stipulated that news about the sultan’s good health, the condition of crops, and advances in trade and industry would be allowed, but articles on morals or literary or scientific articles using the phrase “to be continued” were banned because he found it annoying.

Despite such rules and regulations, the press became more critical and persistent, publishing criticisms in the shape of newspaper cartoons. In fact, one cartoon shut down one magazine at the time for good.

On 7 August 1930, journalist Mustafa Amin published on the cover of Raghaeb (Desires) a cartoon depicting Tawfik Nessim Pasha, the head of the Royal Court, sitting on the throne with his foot crushing Egypt. Standing to the right was prime minister Ismail Sidki Pasha dressed as an executioner holding a sword dripping with blood, and standing to the left was war minister Tawfik Rifaat Pasha holding a rifle.

Instead of a crown, a skull and crossbones rested on Nessim’s head. The caption read “how the retrograde want to rule”. The prime minister banned the magazine immediately and for good.

Sidki also frequently suspended the Rose Al-Youssef magazine when Mohamed Al-Tabei was editor. In fact, every magazine that Al-Tabei worked on was confiscated, until twins Mustafa and Ali Amin published his fourth in one month.

The first issue of Sada Al-Sharq (Echoes of the East) carried the headline “those who have shame…” referring to the saying that “those who have shame are dead.” Underneath the headline was the sentence “this magazine is published in place of Rose Al-Youssef.”

Sidki once again banned the publication on 7 October 1930, and the saga became the talk of the town.

Deception also had a place in the battle between the press and power. One reporter at the Masr newspaper wrote unsigned articles demanding reforms for Christians in Egypt.

These were greatly admired by Coptic Christian readers because of their pointed arguments, and everyone wanted to know who this heroic writer was who was defending their rights with such passion.

A priest went to the newspaper and met Tawfik Habib, whose pen name was Al-Agooz (the old man) and begged him for the name of the writer. Habib pointed to Haneen Shafik Al-Masry, and the priest embraced him, saying “bless you in Christ.” Al-Agooz laughed and told him that Al-Masri was Muslim.

There were many ups and downs for the press between the 1919 and 1952 revolutions. Pressing issues including expelling the British from Egypt, the rule of Egypt from the outside (by the Ottoman Empire or Britain), and from the inside (by the khedive or sultan or king and the parliament or cabinet).

All the country’s political constituencies had their own press, journalists, supporters and opponents, as did the people who loved cartoons, satire, and limericks as a soothing balm in the avalanche of events.

Media Stars

Egyptian humour can be the loudest form of protest and free expression in the darkest of times, and in the first few decades of the last century the press was searching for something more than the nationalist cause. Nonetheless, some writers continued the quest and some journalism stars shot to the top.

Al-Tabei (1903-1977) was one of the most famous of his time and was labelled “the gentleman of the Egyptian press” for his pains.

He left his job after graduating from Law School in 1933 and became editor of the magazine Rose Al-Youssef in 1938.

He founded the Akher Saa (Last Hour) magazine one year later and participated in the publication of Al-Masry (The Egyptian) newspaper in 1936. In 1946, he sold Akher Saa to the Amin brothers.

Al-Tabei began a revolution in the Egyptian press in terms of style, captions, cartoons and layout. He was the master of contemporary journalism, just as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Um Kolthoum reigned over song at the time.

His preferred haunt was the Art Café opposite the Ramses Theatre in Cairo, which later became the Al-Rihani Theatre, when he worked as the art critic of the Al-Ahram newspaper.

The café was his office, and he became a renowned critic and later a political analyst by using similar language and idioms when critiquing art or politics and used favourite nicknames. Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous

He called the pashas by their names without using their titles, and he had a salon in his Zamalek home where political and art luminaries gathered, including Ahmed Hassanein Pasha, Makram Ebeid Pasha, and the singers Asmahan and Abdel-Wahab.

Yet, before the 1952 Revolution Egypt boasted of many other distinguished journalists, including author Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous who wrote a series of articles about faulty weapons being used by the Egyptian army that triggered outrage and student demonstrations.

Everything was now out in the open in the press, often in an atmosphere of stinging satire.

It was a climate of unprecedented political maturity. When the Cairo Fire took place in early 1952, and there was a subsequent military movement against the previous regime, the Egyptians began to look for an “alternative leader”, which was the headline Ali Amin published in Akher Saa at the time, as if he had been waiting for the army to appear on the political stage.

It was also a difficult and anxious time. A new law was discussed penalising journalists criticising the regime, and there was also the “political suspicion” law, of which Al-Masry Effendi said that one could be convicted simply for thinking.

A lèse-majesté law was passed, and secret funds were given to some journalists by the government, with the possibility that these would be distributed through the Press Syndicate.

There was also a draft law banning the publication of royal news without the permission of the palace.

On 27 September 1950, Akhbar Al-Youm published an article demanding the comprehensive overhaul of the law, but the issue was confiscated under the pretext that it was inciting the overthrow of the regime.

On 2 January 1952, Akher Saa published a feature about the Officers Club elections of that year, and it is noteworthy that most of those who were in it were later Free Officers and leaders of the 1952 Revolution. 

Press Freedom

The Wafd Party was in power in the early 1950s, and it opened the floodgates for press freedom.

New newspapers such as Al-Liwaa Al-Gadeed (The New Brigade) and Al-Kateb wal-Malayeen (The Writer and the Millions) were very busy between 1950 and 1952.

It was a pivotal era in the history of the Egyptian press, confronting king Farouk himself to the extent that he demanded a lèse-majesté clause in the constitution. Egypt’s press never had such freedoms again until before the 25 January Revolution.

In 1950 and 1952, Abdel-Qoddous wrote a memorable article entitled “Who’s in Charge of Egypt?” The talented cartoonist Abdel-Samei Abdallah in Rose Al-Youssef created a monster in the shape of the king and called it “corruption”.

Heikal published a famous interview with ambassador Mohamed Fawzi entitled “Before the Smoke Chokes Us”.

The headlines of the paper of Ahmed Hussein’s Socialist Party declared “Revolution” and “the people triumph and overthrow the rule of bandits and thugs.”

The press greeted the July Revolution in its own way. Abdel-Qoddous wrote of the “armed gang that rules Egypt”, while Ahmed Bahaaeddin asked “when will the secret military society come out into the open” since the Revolutionary Council had not announced the names of the Free Officers.

Hussein Abol-Fotouh asked, “where is the constitution?” Abul-Kheir Naguib demanded, “return to your barracks.” Fikri Abaza declared that “I’m happy with the new regime,” while Ahmed Al-Sawi Mohamed, editor of Al-Ahram, described a visit by Mohamed Naguib to a poultry farm. “As soon as the chickens saw president Mohamed Naguib, they shook with fear (or jumped for joy) at the president’s approach.”

The press and democracy are two sides of the same coin, or so the experts say. A key role of the press is erasing political illiteracy.

Yet, the press of the 21st century will likely differ greatly from that of the past. We have already gone to the farthest boundaries of cyber-journalism and satellite television.

The question remains about the informational role of the press and how to manage the relationship between the ruler and the ruled.

How similar this is to earlier times when Al-Gabarti was astonished at what Napoleon Bonaparte had brought to Egypt. We too are astonished at progress in outer space. The powers have spent more than $60 billion over the past 20 years weaponising outer space, but do their satellites protect global stability or expose the world and its secrets?

Just as Al-Gabarti was stunned 200 years ago, we too are amazed by the capabilities of today’s nanotechnology. It is the greatest scientific revolution in the world today, and there will likely be many lifestyle changes due to it. Countries are racing to claim these new technologies and use their incredible capabilities for industry.

It is ironic that in 1992 there were calls to prosecute Bill Gates for allegedly monopolising the software market through his company Microsoft. He will remain one of the top 10 global citizens who had given us the keys to the future of science. We should also remember Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type, since Gutenberg was accused of atheism and peopled wanted him killed for doing the “devil’s work”.

What will newspapers look like in the future? What news will people want to know? Will society be prepared to receive the future, and will there still be demands to “stop muzzling the press”? Will the Internet spread democracy in its new form, encourage innovation, freedom of thought, and develop cyberspace? Is it farewell to the traditional press?

Some modern formats that pose a threat to the print press are weblogs. If there is a child born every three seconds, there is a blog born every one second, according to recent surveys.

Weblogs are web-based daily journals that first began as personal blogs on which mainly young people would write about their lives and interests.

Later, they evolved into fora for opinion and dialogue until the Gulf War broke out in 1991, and the media expanded to cover such news quickly. There was a quantum leap around the world, making blogs a new form of contemporary e-news.

New readers sought out this format, and fresh news appeared that was uncensored and took the form of real-time coverage from multiple perspectives.

Blogs attracted new readers and pulled the rug out from beneath traditional journalism, whether print, television or radio.

The freedom of the blogs broke all boundaries and eliminated the power of censors. They were important during the US-led invasion of Iraq, as Iraqis took to their keyboards writing about the last days of former president Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Bloggers transformed themselves into reporters and war correspondents, and thus popular journalism or street media emerged. Here, the reader is the editor, deciding what he will read, and this new form of journalism became popular very quickly.

Blogs in Egypt gained momentum after the 25 January Revolution with the rise in political activism and an explosion in the number of political parties.

There were activists, poets, entertainers and satirists aplenty, and there was commentary on events surrounding the parliamentary elections, violence during the elections, clashes between the police and Sudanese refugees, the attack on Moharram Bek Church in Alexandria and sexual harassment.

There was also real-time video footage that embarrassed the traditional press because it was always outpaced.

Heikal even said in a television interview that he was keener on reading these blogs than any journalist in any newspaper. Egyptian blogs typically focus on political and personal journalism, rejecting the status quo through humour.

They reveal details of what the bloggers feel are reformist ideas not only for Egypt but also for anyone who reads Arabic.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: From papyrus to blogs 

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