He’s the fearless journalist who’s spent the last seven years heading up one of the most powerful, influential, and controversial newspapers in Egypt. He’s fought the authorities – for his paper, his profession and occasionally his life – and come out on top. Magdy El Gallad, the Editor-in-Chief of one of Egypt’s biggest selling papers, Al Masry Al Youm, and one of the toughest men in the business talks exclusively to eniGma’s Samia Farid Shihata about his hopes and dreams for his newspaper and ultimately, for Egypt.
In a media market that seems to be witnessing a new entrant every other week, Al Masry Al Youm now stands out as the older, more popular, kid on the block of independent daily Egyptian newspapers. With its readership more than doubling to 500,000 since this year’s January 25th revolution, it is now the most influential newspaper in Egypt. At the helm of this groundbreaking paper is its enigmatic Editor-in-Chief, Magdy El Gallad. El Gallad is unassuming and soft-spoken, but beneath the calm demeanor is an indefatigable defender of freedom of speech, who does not shy away from the challenges that come his way.
Forty seven year-old El Gallad came to Al Masry El Youm from the staid Al Ahram state newspaper, nationalised by Gamal Abdel Nasser following his overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. Yet El Gallad represents a new breed of professional journalists determined to raise the level of their profession and bring it up to par with the best in the world. In the process they are restoring Egypt’s standing as the regional leader in the newspaper business and as the home of the most influential Arab opinion makers. Read on to find out more about this fascinating, enigmatic media personality…
Al Masry Al Youm was launched in 2004. How did it start and when did you join?
I worked at Al Ahram newspaper until 2004. Engineer Salah Diab had dreamt of launching the first private independent daily newspaper in Egypt. He wanted it to be liberal, credible, and reflective of the views of the Egyptian people. And he wanted it to follow western standards of journalism. Initially, Al Masry Al Youm had a trial period with the late Magdy Mehana, as Editor-in-Chief. Unfortunately, after a year, the paper had still not launched. So the whole team was changed and Anwar El Hawary was tapped to become Editor-in-Chief and I was to become Managing Editor. We had to work quickly to form a team and make up the time lost in that initial year. We published the first issue on June 7th 2004, and at first printed only 3,000 or 4,000 copies. About a year later on January 1st, 2005 I became the Editor-in-Chief.
Did you face any trouble with the government when you first started?
Of course! Neither governmental culture nor the mentality of the regime (or any of its organs) was capable of absorbing the idea of a private daily newspaper, published outside their control. The government, the national security apparatus (Amn El Dawla) and the National Democratic Party were controlling all the media in Egypt. Even the opposition parties’ newspapers were under government control – there were understandings and accommodations reached with the opposition parties who were always ready to maneuver with the regime. We faced constant pressure and threats by the government. The owners of the newspaper were also directly harmed in their investments and businesses. So the newspaper was involved in many struggles. But our Board of Directors always stood firm despite the pressures and direct harm inflicted, especially since the newspaper was growing strong and soon became Egypt’s leading newspaper. The founders had two choices; they could either give in to pressure by shutting down or changing the journal’s direction to meet governmental directives, or they could continue down the path we had started on. They decided to continue.
Did you personally have problems with the government?
Yes a lot of problems. At one point there were 64 lawsuits against me and I was spending more time at the district attorney’s office than at the newspaper. Many of the lawsuits were dismissed and even when they went to court, we were never found guilty because we were always very careful to observe a high level of professionalism and objectivity. We verified the accuracy of our information very thoroughly so they could never hold anything against us. However, we also faced other types of threats. For example, in 2007 Engineer Ahmed Ezz called me to threaten me with revenge. He said that the feud between us would last for the next 10 years!
Meanwhile all our phone lines were bugged and all our conversations recorded. I’d be followed for days at a time as a means of exerting psychological pressure. In order to intensify the pressure, they’d tell us that Al Masry Al Youm was being monitored by the presidential security itself and that President Mubarak was upset with us and did not read our paper. We were regularly contacted by Amn El Dawla and even got calls from the Minister of Information. This went on right up until the day of the revolution.
Have any of the journalists at Al Masry Al Youm had problems themselves?
Three journalists were sentenced to prison for a year after we exposed corruption by Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman, the former Minister of Housing. However, we exerted a lot of pressure and there was a great public outcry, especially from the media who strongly supported us, and eventually the government had to release them. So yes, many of our journalists faced a lot of trouble and were constantly harassed; at every demonstration our journalists and photographers incurred many injuries. They also used to get arrested and then released after a few days. That’s why we used to send at least 10 people from our team (reporters, cameramen and photographers) to one event. We knew that up to six or seven of them would be arrested and their cameras or recorders would be taken away. The journalists would be taken in police vans to some place or other and we would have to find ways to have them released.
How about during the revolution?
During the revolution, when the police totally withdrew from the streets and popular committees were formed to protect the neighborhoods, there was a lot of violence on the streets. For the whole 18 days of the revolution we all lived in the office. We got mattresses to sleep on and our journalists sent their families to places where they would be safe. I personally sent my wife and children to her parents’ home in Sharqiya so I wouldn’t have to worry since I couldn’t check on them physically. There were many attempts to break into the newspaper’s building and we had journalists stand with batons at the entrance of the building to protect the newspaper. It was all very dangerous. I ordered all the women journalists to go home at four p.m every day so that only the men would spend the night in the office. To my surprise none of the women abided by the orders I gave; they did not leave! These were wives, mothers and even young women. They continued working so we prepared three rooms for them. They lived in the office for the whole duration of the revolution, working, going to Tahrir Square, and covering all the events. Some of them even just stayed in Tahrir, spending their nights there and sending their reports to us. Getting wounded didn’t matter to them.
When the Mubarak regime cut the telephone lines and the internet during the revolution, how did you communicate with your journalists as they covered events?
When the internet was cut, Al Masry Al Youm was the only website that kept working. We did that by secretly taking three rooms at the InterContinental Semiramis Hotel and using their wireless Internet. We used to film Tahrir from the Semiramis hotel and we were actually the only ones who filmed the battle on the Kasr El Nil bridge. CNN and other television stations actually took the footage from our website. We had a system of rotation, we would replace one team of journalists in Tahrir with another, so that the first team would be able to bring their material on a CD or flash memory to us. We also had journalists in places like Alexandria and Suez, who would call us on landlines and dictate their stories over the phone. We had three journalists in Suez for example and during the “Suez Battle”, which took place before the events in Cairo, our journalists went to random people’s houses, asking them to use their landlines to call the newspaper. People gladly invited them in and they’d say they loved Al Masry Al Youm, because from the first day we sided with the revolution. Actually, because of our position we had been given notice early on by the authorities that once this revolution was aborted we would be shut down. So we knew our destiny was linked to the revolution’s destiny!
We were also the only media entity that had a tent in Tahrir and we called it the Al Masry Al Youm Tent. Our journalists, with all their equipment, stayed in it during the whole revolution, as we were filming the square 24/7. Soon we will be releasing a 50 minute documentary on our website covering every day of the revolution with six of our journalists telling their stories.
So you have video coverage of the Kasr El Nil battle on January 28th as well as the ‘Battle of the Camel’ on February 2nd in Tahrir?
Yes we have complete coverage of both.
What is the situation vis-à-vis the authorities at present? Did you feel any pressure when the Military Council recently started investigating various media personalities, inviting them for a chat over a “cup of coffee”?
Of course there are some pressures from the government now. Yet, these constitute a kind of “moral” pressure, unlike the material pressure we faced before. I mean, they are not levelling legal charges against anyone or taking anyone to court. In any case, we are used to forcefully taking our freedom in our own hands. There’s a lot of criticism about the political role of the Military Council out there. We continue to tell the Council that there’s a big difference between its military role and the political role it is performing now. In the paper, we do not address the army’s military role or their national security role. But the Military Council is now playing a political role and that role must be the subject of discussion and scrutiny. And we have the right to criticise that.
Does the Military Council meet regularly with the media?
Sometimes they do, but they only talk about the country’s situation and they listen to our views. They do not discuss the media’s role and are a lot more professional and civil than the old regime.
Are you facing different kinds of pressure from other sources now, like for example, the Muslim Brotherhood?
We have many liberal opinion writers in the newspaper, supporters of a secular state who have written many articles about this topic. Writers such as Dr. Hassan Nafaa, Soliman Gouda, and Dr. Khaled Montasser, Mahmoud El Kardousy and Ali El Sayed. Mahmoud El Kardousy’s article which strongly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, was the one that elicited their latest extreme reaction. The Muslim Brotherhood called for a meeting of their Guidance Committee and took the decision to boycott Al Masry Al Youm; declaring they would not give any news or make any statements to our paper. We considered their actions inappropriate, since boycotting is a negative behavior that goes against freedom of speech and against liberalism and democracy. It constitutes a closing of the mind and signifies a rejection of other opinions. At the end of the day it’s their choice and they are the ones who are losing out. When a group seeks to convince people of their ideology and then boycotts Egypt’s leading newspaper, it’s definitely their loss. Of course, we are still following their news since we have other sources of information on them. Some of these sources are within the Muslim Brotherhood Council (Magles El Shoura) itself, and not all of the members in their Guidance Committee (Maktab El Irshad) agree with the decision to boycott us.
In general, we stand at an equal distance from all political currents. This is not a battle which we sought, but we are ready to take it on. We are not trying to target anyone. We cover both the positive and negative aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are now highly visible and should expect to be criticised, just as we discuss and criticise all political parties. We work for our country’s benefit.
Have the newspaper’s sales increased after the revolution?
We were already the number one newspaper in Egypt before the revolution, ahead of Al Ahram newspaper by 20% in terms of circulation. Now the difference is 100%. We have now surpassed 500,000 in daily sales. Al Ahram sells about 220,000 per day.
Is there any one columnist in your paper today with a following like that of the late Magdy Mehanna?
When the newspaper was first launched, we were determined to avoid the ills that had plagued national newspapers. We decided to hire young journalists with fresh minds and to train them professionally. We also refused to have our newspaper depend on one or two writers. Our policy is to recruit new writers who grow with our newspaper. Magdi Mehanna came from Al Wafd newspaper, but he blossomed in El Masry El Youm. We recruited many other talented writers like Soliman Gouda, Hamdi Rizk, Khaled Montasser, Khairy Ramadan and others. Because the paper is strong editorially and professionally, this provides support to our new writers. In a short time, the paper’s credibility gave our new writers credibility as well. So we no longer have a one man show. We now have a whole array of writers for our readers, like Dr. Hassan Nafaa, Dr. Khaled Montasser, Soliman Gouda, Mohamed Amin, and Galal Amer; a favourite of many with his satirical writing style.
Do you have any thoughts about rearranging the media set up in Egypt?
Al Masry Al Youm is actually leading the call for such a rearrangement right now. We want to work for a better future for Egypt by seeking to instill new values, new principles and new methods of operation for the Egyptian media. We want to concentrate on the future rather than focus on taking revenge and settling scores. The focus should be on how we can improve Egypt’s economy, return security and safety to the Egyptian street, improve education and medical care and how to make Egyptian citizens more aware and involved. We want to discuss all our problems openly and to contribute to their solutions.
Does the Higher Council of Journalism still play an important role?
No, it has a weak role now, which is basically limited to granting licenses to new newspapers. It still takes orders from the government of course, but it doesn’t meet anymore, so it’s basically inactive.
Together with other independent Editors-in-Chiefs, we delivered a petition to the government and the Military Council, asking for a change in the press laws and all laws affecting the media, to make them more compatible with national aspirations of democracy and reform. We have also called for abolishing the Higher Council of Journalism and for the freedom of issuing newspapers by notification only without seeking approval by any official organ. This Council is a vestige of the old authoritarian regime and of the socialist era. We expect them to respond positively to these requests. Yet, it may take some time because they have other priorities to deal with at this point.
What is your opinion on the Journalists’ Syndicate?
At present the Journalists’ Syndicate is, unfortunately, a syndicate without a role. It’s supposed to be in charge of improving the professional performance of journalists and newspapers in Egypt and defending the freedom of journalism and the media. It should both protect the profession from government interference and protect society from abuses by the press. However, it has been incapable of censuring journalists who perform unethically as its eyes are always on the next syndicate elections and it is subject to political maneuverings from different groups seeking to control it; be they the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nasserists, or others. At the same time it is also unable to stand up to the government, so it is a syndicate with no purpose.
Now that the syndicate’s elections are nearing, we are calling for choosing a new head as well as a harmonious Governing Council that would not be divided by ideological and political differences. We’re trying to find candidates who are up to this task and to mobilise the media community around the idea of electing a governing council that is professional, not political.
What are your views on the national newspapers?
These newspapers belong to an era that has long passed and they are no longer able to compete. They’re burdened by debts and by huge numbers of employees and yet they continue to be financed by the Egyptian taxpayer.
We need to restructure their ownership. None of the democratic governments in the world are in the business of owning newspapers. We are not saying the solution is to sell these newspapers to businessmen. We need to create cooperative ownership structures in the form of real public shareholders associations and real Boards of Directors. Shares could be distributed as follows: 20% could go to the government, 20% to the newspaper’s employees and 60% could be sold as shares to the general public. Like what happened in the case of the Egypt Telecom Company and others. So instead of public resources being wasted, shareholders would elect a Board of Directors that would run the company efficiently to achieve success. Instead of the present situation where the government has to keep resorting to funds from the Ministry of Finance, these Boards would be held accountable and this would ensure profitability and success.
Do you feel TV stations are competing with you now?
Of course, TV is competing with us and so is the new media on the internet. But we are convinced that print media will never die. Every new media helps existing media develop and improve. People said that TV would kill radio, and that the internet would kill television. But, the introduction of one medium doesn’t mean the demise of another. It is true that TV can deliver the news with more immediacy, but newspapers are the essence of journalism and they can address news with more depth. In newspapers, you find more in-depth analysis, and opinions and debates on all the issues.
You had a TV show with Wael Al Ebrashy last year. Will you continue in television as well?
Yes, actually I will have my own TV program soon, but I am first and foremost a print journalist. When I work in TV, it is also with a journalism stance. To me, the differences between different types of media are small. I am able to investigate a subject on television with the same instruments I work with in print journalism. I will be doing a show in Ramadan called Enta We Dameerak (You and Your Conscience). This is an exclusive scoop for you! I had this idea a year ago and I think it’s perfect for the current situation we are in. The idea is each one of us has two consciences, his human conscience and his professional conscience. For each one of my guests (whom I will host for 25 minutes), I will discuss where his conscience was when he performed a certain action. I will ask him if he had a bad conscience regarding certain actions or situations. What makes him unable to sleep at night? Does he have any regrets? I will host 30 different Egyptian personalities. I want to give them the scope to confess their mistakes. It would be a sort of confession of their wrong-doings in order to allow us to forgive them. I will be confessing my mistakes as well. I will tell all the old and new officials this is a good time to clear your consciences by confessing. Once you confess in public, khalas… you will feel better.
And with that, our interview comes to an end as El Gallad gets whisked away to attend to urgent matters in the newsroom. Yet before rushing out, he graciously thanks eniGma not only for the interview but also for bringing along CNN’s “Inside the Middle East” team to cover Al Masry Al Youm in their segment on the changes in the Egyptian media after the revolution, which also included Enigma Magazine and ONTV and was aired last month. To watch the episode go to: http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/international/2011/07/06/ime.maktabi.egypt.media.cnn