The news website that’s keeping press freedom alive in Egypt
Mada Masr was formed just before military coup of 2013. Amid growing censorship, its staff have risked their lives to continue reporting. Can they stay true to their mission?
On the afternoon of 17 June 2013, a group of friends gathered in a fourth-floor apartment in downtown Cairo. They sat on the floor because there were no chairs; there were also no desks, no shelves, and no ashtrays. A sign on the door, written in black marker, read “Office of the Artists Formerly Known as Egypt Independent”. What they had was a name – Mada, which means “span” or “range” in Arabic, had been chosen after much debate and many emails between 24 people – and a plan to set up an independent news outlet. Most of them had not seen each other since their former employer, a newspaper called EgyptIndependent, closed two months before.
Lina Attalah, the venture’s founder and editor-in-chief, called the meeting to order. Designers were rushing to finish the website; a team was drafting a business plan; half a dozen grant applications were pending. “The update is: there’s no money,” she said, to laughter, “but we have a lot of promises. I’m working on the faith that the money will be there.” She signed off on 17 articles to be delivered over the next week. Lina is dark-eyed and fine-boned, with long black hair; she speaks in lengthy and well-wrought sentences that suggest a professor teaching a graduate seminar. Nothing in her demeanour betrayed the pressures she felt. The company had no cash to pay its writers. She was covering the rent and furnishing the office out of her own pocket. This would be, by her count, her seventh news venture; many of the previous ones had folded owing to the hostility of successive governments towards independent-minded journalists (“I have a history of setting up places that close”). Although she was only 30 and didn’t have a husband or children, Lina was accustomed to taking care of other people.
The website had to launch by 30 June, the day that a mass demonstration calling for the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, was planned. Lina was determined about that – “I want everyone to be a journalist on that day” – but otherwise her timing could not have been worse. In the previous two and a half years, investment in Egypt had dried up; many foreign companies had evacuated their staff during the 2011 revolution and not returned. Morsi’s year in office had seen decreasing stability and a stagnant economy. Whatever came next – people were calling for the army to step in – could be more repressive.
“I think it could just be slow-motion state failure,” Lina said.
“Not state failure,” objected Dina Hussein, a close friend from college and the new website’s opinion editor. “Of course, the infrastructure is shit, there’s no electricity …”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Lina interrupted. “Not complete collapse.”
“Lebanon, not Somalia,” Dina said.
“It could be state failure for the next 10 years,” Lina said.
Everything about the project belied this pessimism. Mada Masr would be an independent online newspaper, owned by employees whose average age was 25, in a country where news production was controlled by the government or large conglomerates. It would produce stories, in English and Arabic, and make money from online advertising and side businesses in research, editing and translation. The company would be run as a democracy – in a country that had never seen such a system, by employees who, by and large, had not experienced it in practice. Egypt was ostensibly on a parallel course of building a democratic and sustainable state; both ventures were perilous, fraught with uncertainty, and short of money. In the year and a half to come, Mada’s goals would prove more daunting than its founders imagined. A military coup, set into motion three days after the website launched, would lead to the ruthless suppression of dissenting voices. Mada would emerge as one of the very few independent news sources in the country.
The Mada site went live in the early-morning hours of 30 June, right on schedule – a miracle in a country where neither a presidential debate nor a talkshow named 10 O’Clock at Night begins on time. Around five the next afternoon, I came out of an interview with a reporter at the Mada office. The army had just announced that it would intervene in 48 hours if the president did not respond to the people’s demands. Lina sat at the head of the conference table, with editors and reporters along both sides. Everyone had their head down. The only sound was the gentle clicking of fingers on keyboards – they were translating the military declaration into English. I felt as if I had opened a wrong door and walked in on a stranger’s funeral.
“Lina,” I whispered – it didn’t seem right to speak out loud. “This is a coup, right?”
“Yes,” she answered. “The beginning of one.”
What makes an activist? In Egypt’s tight-knit community, there are two types: The ones born into radical families for whom dissent is a birthright, and those who discovered this path for themselves. Lina is of the second type. She grew up in Heliopolis, a middle-class suburb of Cairo, in the apartment where her mother was born. Her father worked as a police officer and her mother translated programmes into French for state radio. When Lina was 14, she told her parents she was quitting school in order to attend the United World Colleges near Trieste, Italy. She was bored at her French-language school and wanted something different, even if it meant travelling a thousand miles from home and studying in English, her third language. Her parents were adamantly opposed – “We were a traditional family. For me to go so far away was very painful for them,” Lina says now – but she applied anyway. She obtained a full scholarship and, finally, the consent of her parents.
She enrolled at the American University of Cairo upon her return home in 2000 – at the very moment that political space in the country seemed to be opening up. In 2003, opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq morphed into the first-ever demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak. Lina majored in journalism but got most of her education off-campus, covering demonstrations for the English-language Cairo Times as an intern and “hanging out at the Lawyers’ Syndicate” where she met many veteran activists. After graduation, she cycled through a string of jobs – the Cairo Times, which went bankrupt owing to political pressure; two startup publications; and a two-year assignment with the BBC in Darfur. In 2009 she started reporting for the English-language edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, the country’s leading private newspaper, and was elected its managing editor the following year at the age of 26. “I was the most experienced person,” she told me.
The revolution marked a euphoric moment, but it didn’t last. After Mubarak stepped down, power passed temporarily to a military council, which ignored the demands of the revolutionaries and treated protesters with violence as brutal as any practised under Mubarak. The 2012 presidential election, the first truly open vote in the country’s history, brought to power Morsi, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He proceeded to govern with as little regard for democratic principles as his predecessors.
Egypt is a young country. Almost 60% of its population is under 30. All the key political movements of the last decade – the Kefaya protests of 2005 which challenged Mubarak, the 2011 revolution and the 2013 Tamarrod petitioncampaign to unseat Morsi – were initiated by young people, but the old men always reassert control after. Mubarak, when he stepped down, was 82 years old; Morsi was 60 when he took office. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the July 2013 military coup and was elected president the following May, is also 60. One could question, as a Mada story did, his decision to name a 53-year-old to head the government’s official youth commission, but everything is relative. Lina calls the state “an old defunct man who is governing our life”.
Because of the generation gap, the enemy is often within a person’s family. During the revolution, young people went to Tahrir Square against the wishes of their parents or without telling them. Lina was badly beaten on the revolution’s first day – several policemen punched her and dragged her through the street by her hair – but she told her parents that she had tripped and fallen in her office. On 30 June 2013, as anti-Morsi protesters took to the streets, the dynamic was reversed, with parents supporting a military takeover while their activist children despaired of where the country was heading. That day, many of the staff at Mada had to interrupt their reporting to escort their parents to the first anti-government protest of their lives. Maha ElNabawi, a culture reporter, was frustrated at her mother’s ignorance of protest-appropriate footwear. “She was going to wear these shoes that slip off easily,” she told me. “I was like, ‘Mom?!’”
At five o’clock that evening, Lina and I met up with her parents and older brother in front of their apartment building and walked the few blocks to the presidential palace. Hundreds of thousands of people had turned out to call for Morsi’s resignation. The mood was festive and relaxed, as if deposing a president were a giant block party. Drivers honked their horns; groups of women clutched posters of Morsi with a big red X over his face, like a gameshow contestant who has run out of time. A roar of support went up every time a military chopper passed overhead. Lina frowned. “I don’t know why they cheer every time they see a helicopter. It’s disturbing.”
Her mother, Mona Nabki, an energetic woman with copper-coloured hair, was elated at the turnout; the army later estimated that 14 million people nationwide took part, though there was no way to verify that figure. “There are so many people here. It just feels amazing,” she said.
“It was like this during the revolution,” Lina told her.
“But there are even more people out today,” her mother insisted. “There are protests in all the governorates.”
“There were more people during the revolution,” Lina said. She was casually affectionate with her mother and father, but she could not conceal her impatience at being with them now, when she should be checking in with reporters and editing stories. I sensed that her dissatisfaction ran deeper – that her parents were discovering protest now, too late, and for the wrong reasons. They had done nothing when they should; now they were taking action when there were no good choices to be made. As if all of this was, somehow, their fault. “Deep down,” Lina explained later, “the thinking is: what have you done? How much did you stand against oppression in your life? How much did you encourage your children to stand up against oppression?”
One afternoon I went to Heliopolis to talk to Lina’s mother. Our conversation did not go as I expected. Instead of disapproval, I heard a proud mother who was trying hard to keep up with her daughter. She showed me the iPad she had bought to stay up to date; she told me she had accompanied Lina to Tahrir Square one day during the revolution to see what it was like. “We’re very traditional people, especially her father,” she said. “But Lina would always win him over. She doesn’t want to upset him.” Growing up in a conservative family had shaped Lina as an activist and a journalist: determined to make things different, but understanding why it was hard.
On the morning of 8 July 2013, five days after the army had deposed Morsi, Lina was in the office when she started hearing reports of clashes between security forces and protesters in eastern Cairo. Morsi’s supporters had camped out at the gates of the Republican Guard clubhouse, where they believed he was being held, to protest his removal. Lina sent a photographer to visit the site and hospital wards, then she tracked down residents of nearby buildings by phone to get their firsthand accounts. The Mada story published that morning described a coordinated army assault on demonstrators at around 4am with tear gas, birdshot and live ammunition. Sixty-one people died and 435 were injured.
The next day, the domestic papers led with a different story. An “armed terrorist group” of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had stormed the Republican Guard facility with weapons, precipitating the military’s response. The daily newspaper Al-Shorouk had briefly posted an account online saying that the army had opened fire unprovoked, but it later removed the story and replaced it with one that hewed to the official line. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, published photos of supposed victims that turned out to be taken from the Syrian conflict.
“Right now, when all accounts are being manipulated by all sides, I want us to follow events as they unfold,” Lina said when I met her in the office on the day of the clashes. She had assigned reporters to trace incidences of violence in Alexandria and in a district of Cairo called Manial. “I want us, down the line, many, many years to come, to be a reference of what happened.
“I don’t know why I’m so obsessed about the future,” she continued. “I’m worried that people are unable to process the truth right now, when things are so politically and emotionally charged.”
In the six months after Morsi was ousted, estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians were killed, 17,000 wounded, and 18,000 arrested. The Egyptian press has presented this political violence, which is unprecedented in the country’s modern history, as a necessary “war on terror”. Particularly during key political events, the press tends to speak in one voice. In the runup to the constitutional referendum in January 2014, talkshow hosts browbeat viewers to support the document and accused dissenters of treason. In October, the editors-in-chief of major newspapers issued a statement pledging to support the state and to reject attempts to undermine the army, police and judiciary. To attribute all this to outright censorship would not be accurate. Most domestic journalists are hostile to Morsi, who targeted the media during his year in office; many industry veterans, with long experience working for government outlets, reflexively support the state. And the Brotherhood’s unpopularity among the public makes it difficult, and sometimes dangerous, for journalists to present a different point of view.
Egypt today has no official censorship system, and private satellite channels and newspapers have proliferated over the last decade. Yet the government has many means to keep the press in line. A Unesco study found as many as 186 laws on the books that restrict freedom of the press and expression; there are 12 journalists currently in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since the state owns most of the printing and distribution facilities, it can stop publication of an article or pull an issue from newsstands. The major private media belong to industrial conglomerates, which must maintain good government relations for the sake of business.
Legal prosecutions are relatively rare, probably because journalists know where the red lines are. I asked Belal Fadl, a well-known scriptwriter and columnist, how reporters know what they can’t write about.
He smiled at my question. “Everyone knows,” he said.
“How does everyone know?”
“In this country, you know this from practice.” He ticked off the rules: you couldn’t question legal rulings. You couldn’t write negative things about the military. In the old days, you could criticise the prime minister but not the president – a convention that has remained with the unspoken rule that Sisi is above reproach. At the pleading of his editor, Fadl had removed sentences from his articles perhaps seven or eight times while working as a columnist for Al-Shorouk. “You find yourself saying, ‘If I can pass 98% of the article, fine, let’s postpone the battle for another time,’” he told me. “As time goes by, you find that you’re doing self-censorship just for the sake of continuing.” (He has since left the paper.) Mostafa Bahgat, a correspondent at the private ON TV network, described how self-censorship works in real time. In the summer of 2013 when he covered clashes between the Brotherhood and the police, he stuck to filming from the side of the security forces because he knew his bosses didn’t want footage of people getting killed. “Just like doctors who do the same operation many times, they get used to it,” he said. “Self-censorship is what I feel I should do all the time.”
The absence of formal censorship means there is some variability in what appears in the press, even within a single publication. Al-Masry Al-Youm is a supporter of the regime, yet last year on the revolution’s third anniversary, it ran a special issue with articles by revolutionary leaders, some of whom are in jail. There it was: 12 pages of mostly anti-government commentary. Ahmad Ragab, the head of the paper’s investigative department, presented the issue to his bosses in blandly commercial terms. “I told them that Al-Masry Al‑Youm has always provided different material,” he told me, “and we won’t survive unless we do something different.” The variability suggests that publications can get away with more than they think – when journalists push, sometimes the red line moves.
Mada’s stock-in-trade is stories that counter the official narrative, yet even here reporters talk openly about pressure to censor themselves. Because most Egyptians support the government’s campaign of repression, to be seen as biased the other way – saying that Brotherhood members deserve due process, for example – is to risk losing readers. Lina told me that the paper would like to explore rifts within the police force, or to examine the evidence in court cases against Morsi, but that it needed to space out these projects carefully. “For our own credibility, it’s important to be seen as an independent newspaper,” she said. “There’s nothing easier than being radical – it’s the easy way out. But we want to reach out and negotiate a space for ourselves. You want to have impact.” One criticism of Mada from other journalists is that it targets an elite audience, rather than breaking investigative pieces that would broaden its appeal. The website is the largest among a handful of independent online news outlets, but with 350,000 unique visitors per month, its reach is still limited.
In November 2013, Mohamad Adam, a Mada reporter who covered the Muslim Brotherhood, had to go to the military court to attend to some matters regarding his reserve duty obligations. While he was there, he met many people who were being tried in military cases. He talked with Lina about writing a piece on the experience but decided against it; he didn’t want to risk trouble from state security over a relatively minor story. “I don’t want them to close down Mada over this,” Adam said slowly. “I’m happy to go to jail for a story, but not this story.”
I once asked Lina about her guidelines for reporter safety. “I ask people to evacuate when there’s live ammunition,” she said.
Lina broke her own rule on 14 August 2013 – the day the government cleared out a Brotherhood protest camp near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo. Reporting for two hours that morning, she and Adam witnessed many killings by live ammunition, as police stormed a sit-in of demonstrators who were demanding the reinstatement of Morsi. Habiba Abdel Aziz, a 26-year-old reporter and Brotherhood supporter who was a friend of Adam, was shot in the head. At one point, Adam sat down on the ground and cried. He and Lina braved heavy shooting around the entrance of the site’s hospital to report inside; when they left, they held hands and ran through sniper fire. Their story described victims’ relatives gathered in the hospital basement, waiting for the refrigerator doors to open so they could say goodbye to their loved ones. It also made clear that the police had not established a safe cordon around the hospital, which could have minimised casualties by allowing the wounded to get help. The indiscriminate killings in the summer of 2013, especially at Rabaa where it is estimated that more than 1,000 people died, “likely amounted to crimes against humanity”, a Human Rights Watch report later said.
After the Rabaa killings, Adam shut down. For two months he couldn’t write anything. “I didn’t feel like I could trade people’s lives for some nice articles. It felt sick,” he told me. “I could only write: People died. Fuck the army, fuck the police, fuck the Brotherhood.” He was supposed to contribute a story about a new political coalition called the Revolution Path Front, but writing about a group that would do little but issue statements on Facebook seemed pointless. “I see only failure, and I’m tired of writing about failure,” he told Lina.
Whole weeks passed that summer without anyone submitting a feature. Lina cancelled the weekly news meeting twice because there were no new stories to discuss; she understood everyone’s trauma, but she was frustrated too. Years of challenging the regime had toughened her, and witnessing so much violence only made her determined to do her job as a journalist. She maintained a certain emotional distance from people. Few of her colleagues knew that her father was on the police force; she rarely mentioned to outsiders that she was a Christian, a fact that is usually established upon meeting someone here. She didn’t talk about her personal life, other than to joke that she didn’t have one.
At the end of August, the Mada staff resolved its productivity problems in collective Mada fashion. The reporters met, without Lina, and decided that one person would be assigned to file a feature every day. There was no penalty for failing – knowing that you had let down the group was enough. Features began to flow again.
In October 2013, the staff met to discuss how to parcel out shares in the company among themselves. Collective ownership was at the heart of Mada’s egalitarian identity. But as more than a dozen people crowded around the conference table, which was littered with the remains of a pancake breakfast, divisions emerged. Lina and her deputy editor, Amira Ahmed, proposed giving each employee an equal number of shares, with the faith that everyone was doing all in his power to help Mada grow.
Maha ElNabawi objected: “Some people should get more based on their contributions.”
Mai Shams El-Din, a news reporter from upper Egypt, concurred. “If you’re only a reporter, you get so much. If you do more, you get more.”
“But the reporters put themselves in the most danger,” Maha countered.
Naira Antoun, the news editor, spoke up. “Equal ownership doesn’t work, because some people’s labour will always carry the labour of others,” she said. “If you just say, ‘Do whatever you can to make Mada survive,’ some people will always do shit, while others will do a lot.”
Over two hours, everyone rushed to voice their opinion. People talked over each other; they asked questions that went unanswered. Lina, as was her preference in meetings, sat back and listened. She liked to say that democracy was a process, and here it was – as messy and chaotic as a table of breakfast leftovers. No one involved was certain of where they were going or how they would get there. Every organisation, like every country, had to figure out on its own how to make democracy work. Eventually, some consensus emerged: most of the attendees came around to the principles of automatic ownership and equal shares, and a committee was set up to research how to appraise employees.
The Egyptian state was moving inexorably in another direction. With most of the top Brotherhood leaders in jail, the government went after its secular critics. Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known activist who had developed the Mada website and was a close friend of Lina’s, was arrested in late November 2013 on the charge of breaking a new law that required all protests to get prior approval from the security services. He was being held in solitary confinement at Tora prison while awaiting trial. A week later, Ali Shaath, another good friend of Lina’s, died suddenly. He had been eating dinner and suffered a heart attack; the hospital where he was taken did not have a defibrillator. You could reconcile yourself to the risks of being an activist in Egypt, but there were many more mundane ways to die.
“This was my alternative family,” Lina told me. “When you decide to be an activist, you need to have a community of people to talk to. For me, the community now – Ali is dead, and Alaa is in prison. They are the people I would go to to talk, or laugh, or cry. Now there’s no one to talk to.” The night following Ali’s death, Lina turned off her mobile phone and stopped going to work.
A couple of months earlier, Ali had talked about leaving Egypt because things were so dark. Lina urged him to stay; even obsessing over small projects, she told him, was worth something. “Obsession can produce surprises,” she said. She remembered these words now. After a week, she began going into the office again
Egypt engaged in its own soul-searching exercise in the autumn of 2013: to draft a constitution that would reflect its post-revolutionary identity. Supporters of the military takeover – many of whom had backed the 2011 revolution – called it a “reset”. By removing the undemocratic Brotherhood, they were putting the revolution back on track. The new constitution would replace the one a Brotherhood-dominated assembly had passed the year before.
The terms of the drafting were not conducive to radical reinvention. The document’s authors were given 60 days to finish the job – less time than it took Mada’s founders to write a business plan. In other countries, the process has taken years. And members of the constitutional committee had been chosen less for their expertise than the special interests they represented. Seats had been handed out like party favours to the farmers’ syndicate, the doctors’ syndicate and the engineers’ syndicate. The assembly was short on specialists on the economy and governance and public policy, but it had a celebrity heart surgeon and a Nubian writer.
Egypt has had nine constitutions over the past century; most have promised freedoms, such as speech and association, that never existed in fact. What was needed this time, constitutional experts said, was a rethinking of how to formulate those rights and how to reform the judicial sector to enforce them. Instead, the constitution grants more privileges to already-powerful institutions that are seen as a bulwark against the Brotherhood. The judiciary can now appoint its own top officials and shield its budget from public oversight; the military has veto power over the naming of the defence minister for eight years. The president enjoys expanded powers to appoint ministers, declare a state of emergency, and dissolve parliament. It was, a critic said, “a constitution of bribes”.
Nothing about the drafting was democratic; one of the committee’s first decisions was to make its deliberations secret. Only the final article-by-article show of hands, after all the horse-trading was done, was televised. It was a Potemkin vote for the cameras, like so many others Egypt has had. In the January 2014 referendum, the constitution passed with 98% approval. Almost no one I interviewed during the two days of voting had read the document.
In February 2014, Mada seemed to fall back to where it began: a nonprofit organisation called the Media Development Investment Fund turned down its application for an investment that would have supported operations for a year. Mada was insolvent. Lina had recently sold her car and the company halted plans to hire salespeople. Around that time, an article about a trial of Al-Jazeera reporters appeared on the Mada website with several factual errors. Lina was spending most of her time begging people for money – a task she hated – and she experienced every failure acutely. “I feel sometimes that we fall short of practising what we preach,” she told the staff during a meeting at which she spoke, often bitterly, with tears in her eyes. “The question is: how much curiosity do we have around the news? How much are we functioning as journalists in a classical sense? I’m questioning even that.”
Many of the reporters felt that too much democracy was the problem. Press conferences came and went without being covered and certain stories were discussed endlessly but never saw the light of day. “It would be better to delegate tasks to people, instead of having accountability be widely shared,” a staff reporter named Jahd Khalil told me. “That just spreads out how long it takes to do things.”
Mada’s crisis of democracy came to a head over Adam. Like Lina, he was a born iconoclast. He grew up in a farming village outside Cairo and didn’t meet his first Christian until he was 10 years old, at which point “I immediately sat down and talked with him like he was an alien,” he told me. After graduating from the University of Cairo with degrees in physics and chemistry, he sold prosthetics before getting into journalism through a chance introduction to an Egypt Independent reporter. One of his best stories had explored the world of rank-and-file Brotherhood members – a group he knew well from high school, where many of his teachers had been Brotherhood sympathisers.
Lina promoted him to editor of the Arabic-language website, but the transition was not smooth. Days might pass without a new piece being posted. Adam once went on holiday without leaving a plan for the site (he says he was not told this was necessary). Having experienced difficulties working with Adam, two of the company’s translators quit. When Lina tried to demote Adam back to reporter, he responded in the language of democracy. “We’re not an authoritarian institution,” he wrote to her in an email, “and nobody is going to take any firing or punitive decisions that have to do with other people’s jobs.” The staff was polarised over Adam’s fate. “It would be really, really funny if Mada were brought down not by politics or finances but by its own people,” Lina said at a company meeting in March. “There would be very little hope for Egypt, to be honest.”
The conflict, in part, was over what it meant to be democratic. Adam believed that major decisions must be made collectively, thus Lina’s demotion of him was unjust. Everyone else had made mistakes, he pointed out, and he had not been given the support he needed. Lina was coming to believe that she must demand more of everyone. An enterprise devoted to democratic principles that was neither functional nor productive was not a democracy. It was nothing.
To the surprise of just about everyone, Mada was changing. The editors decided that they would check on the progress of every story on a daily basis. A small group headed by Naira, the news editor, designed a program to monitor productivity. Monthly charts would track whether people were fulfilling their story requirements. Those who repeatedly missed targets would face salary cuts, then renegotiation of their contracts. “This whole collective responsibility thing is not working,” Lina told me, “so we should seek a more traditional way of management.”
It is common to hear people say that Egypt is not ready for democracy – the election of a field marshal as president in May seemed to confirm it. This kind of talk drove Lina crazy. “What kind of environment did you create for democracy?” she asked. Mada, for all its failings, was doing what the country was not. It was making democracy workable – refining the terms, throwing out what didn’t work, but just as importantly, retaining what did. “At the beginning of Mada, it was all about breaking free,” Lina said. “Now we’re thinking more carefully about what we want.”
At a gala dinner in June, 600 guests turned out to celebrate Mada’s first anniversary. The company had obtained funding that would cover its operations for the rest of the year, but there were more personal losses. Camille Lepage, a 26-year-old French photojournalist who had been Lina’s intern at Egypt Independent, had been killed the previous month while working in the Central African Republic; Antoun returned to her native England when her sister passed away. A judge sentenced Alaa to 15 years in prison (he was later granted a retrial, but he remains in prison while awaiting a verdict).
Adam came to the party briefly. He had taken a leave from Mada and Lina had not seen him in more than a month. After the dinner, he sent her a text suggesting that they meet. With the revolution where it is, he wrote, Mada is the one place I have to be. When they met up, Lina had a strong feeling that Adam should come back, but she turned him down after other staffers objected. She has not seen him since.
In recent months, the government has intensified its crackdown on non-governmental organisations, many of which are critical of the regime. The groups have been ordered to register under regulations that would limit their freedom, or face closure or prosecution. President Sisi issued an amendment to the criminal code in September imposing a life sentence on any recipient of foreign funds who intends to harm the national interest or breach public peace – vague charges that could apply to anyone who criticises the government. The Carter Center closed its Egypt office in October, citing the narrowing space for civil society; the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies relocated its main operations to Tunisia. Some smaller organisations have scaled back or shut down and high-profile activists have left the country. During this period, the Mada staff met to talk over whether it was time to temporarily shut down operations or work from home. They decided that until a direct threat came, they would continue to work as usual.
In a wide-ranging discussion in December, the reporters at Mada spoke about how the hazards of practicing journalism were affecting their coverage. Reporters rarely go to protests these days; the risk of getting shot at or arrested is too high. Travelling to Sinai, where the military’s fight against an extremist insurgency has included demolishing hundreds of houses and forcibly relocating thousands of people, is also seen as too dangerous. Heba Afify, a political reporter, recounted interviewing a military spokesman by phone but declining to identify herself as a Mada reporter. “I was scared to say Mada, so as not to put us on their radar,” she explained.
“But it’s important to start saying Mada when we call these people,” another reporter said. Everyone agreed that the paper’s relationship with the government was evolving. “We’re no longer an underground outlet,” Heba said. “We’re saying we’re here, and we have to interact.”
“We took the decision to exist in a very contentious and dangerous moment,” said Mai Shams El-Din, another news reporter. “If we take a step that courageous, we have to go on.”
The reporters are tackling several subjects whose narrative, until now, has been dominated by the government. One project will analyse media coverage of the Sinai insurgency, archiving statements made by both the military and jihadi groups. Another will investigate casualties in the government’s “war on terror” among civilians and military conscripts. A third will profile human-rights pioneers, documenting their accomplishments at a time when they are being demonised in the press.
I recently stopped by the Mada office, a few days before the fourth anniversary of the 2011 revolution. Evocative photographs had been framed and hung on the walls: protestors flashing the V-for-victory sign, a couple peering at soldiers through a net of barbed wire. The staff had just signed new job contracts, written jointly by Lina and each reporter with the goal of encouraging innovation in their coverage. Lina was thinking of ways to ensure quality while reducing her own managerial role – increasingly, she saw Mada as an institution that functioned independently of its founders. “It’s like a parent-child relationship,” she told me. “For the child to grow, you need to find ways to let go and let it survive.
“Mada is helping us navigate this very difficult political situation,” Lina said. “I think if Mada didn’t exist, I would be very reluctant to stay in this country.”
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Leslie T Chang is the author of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. She lives in Cairo.