In November 2022, Democracy Now! went to Egypt to cover the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh amid mounting international pressure for Egypt to release British Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who began a complete food and water when the summit began. After the summit, we went to Cairo and visited the offices of Mada Masr, the most important independent media outlet in Egypt, and where Alaa published many of his pieces. Amy Goodman interviews Mada Masr founding editor Lina Attalah about how the project was started in 2013, and much more. “The country was heading towards a major political transformation, as marked by the coup, the takeover of a military government and the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government,” recalls Attalah. “We had a very strong intuition that it’s going to be a hard time, not just for us as journalists but for the Egyptians by and large, specifically anyone who’s engaged in politics and civic action. And we thought that it was important to create a locally conceived record of this moment by starting this media.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re in the Cairo offices of Mada Masr, the most important independent media outlet in Egypt. We’re here just after the U.N. climate summit. It really is a large apartment, where so many independent journalists have come through. It is the place where the prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah has published many of his writings.
We’re joined right now by Lina Attalah. She is the founding editor of Mada Masr, has been through so much over this last — well, it’s almost a decade, been detained, been arrested. These offices have been raided.
Hi, Lina. It’s so great to be with you, finally. I’ve met you in the United States. We’ve interviewed you. But to be here in your offices makes an enormous difference, to have this sense of place. What does Mada Masr mean?
LINA ATTALAH: So, mada is like the horizon, and masr means Egypt. So, basically, when we started back in 2013, it was a way to still have some sort of a forward-looking vision for this country through the work that we’ve known how to do for years, which is journalism. So that’s why it’s called that.
AMY GOODMAN: What was it about 2013?
LINA ATTALAH: So, we started in the summer of 2013 as a group of founding editors and journalists, about 24 people. We were working together in another newspaper that had to shut down. The management back then cited some, you know, financial hurdles, but also political divergences between us.
It was a very apocalyptic summer. The country was heading towards a major political transformation, as marked by the coup, the takeover of a military government and the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. We had a very strong intuition that it’s going to be a hard time, not just for us as journalists but for the Egyptians by and large, specifically anyone who’s engaged in politics and civic action. And we thought that it was important to create a locally conceived record of this moment by starting this media. So, that was the reason. It was an intuition that things are going bad, we need to create a record for it, and maybe also, you know, have the audacity to be forward-looking in this project.
AMY GOODMAN: This is when Sisi came to power —
LINA ATTALAH: Exactly, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — in 2013. Behind you is a large chart. And in the middle of it, it says, “Tahrir is not a square.” Explain.
LINA ATTALAH: So, the wall behind me is an artwork by collaborating artists with Mada called Adelita Husni-Bey. And it started off with this notion that in journalism we try not to take anything for granted. There is no closed narrative; there is a continuation to everything.
So, specifically, where it comes — when it comes “Tahrir is not a square,” the idea is to try to imagine that we are not simply living in the defeat of 2011, that Tahrir transcends the square and the revolt that happened back then. It’s something that’s here to stay and to manifest in different ways, and in ways that also spatially go beyond Tahrir itself. So, not because we had a major mobilization in 2011, and a lot of the heroes of this mobilization are now in prison or have died or have left the country, not because of all of this, we live in defeat. No, we live in the idea that there is a constant reconfiguration and manifestation of this moment. So that’s why Tahrir is not simply a square. It’s much more.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been a journalist here in Egypt for over 20 years. About a decade ago, you founded Mada Masr, the most important independent media publication. Talk about how media has changed.
LINA ATTALAH: So, when we started back in 2013, it was a moment where we were still enjoying a marginal, relative openness through which we can practice journalism. And it was a buildup over the years, from even before the revolution of 2011. With the privatization of the economic sphere in Egypt, that goes back to the early 2000s, the media field has been privatized. And a major win of this economic configuration is that we started having independent media, some free voices and some more diverse narratives than the ones engineered by the state. Now, I belong to this generation. I practiced journalism within this margin, which was always a margin of possibility. And this is how we got to 2013 and managed, with a group of fantastic journalists, to start this project.
However, as I said before, there was a strong intuition that things are just going to get harder and harder. Now, in the past 10 years, I feel that this has been an unprecedented kind of closure on media freedoms, in general. And this is not just judging from the difficulty of doing our work on a day-to-day level — so, you know, getting the reporting, contacting sources, getting the information, all of this has become far harder — and not just judging from the kinds of violations that we’ve had to record and document in the past 10 years, but also judging from our own experience. Unfortunately, on average once a year, there is an ordeal that happens in this newsroom.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about when the police first raided Mada Masr? I mean, this is basically an apartment turned into a news office.
LINA ATTALAH: In 2019, the cops raided our offices and tried to arrest some of us. So, for a whole day, the entire group of journalists working in Mada were held hostage for a few hours. About 20 journalists were held hostage in this room over here behind me, all surrounded by cops, who took our phones and computers.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they just burst in the door?
LINA ATTALAH: Yes, they burst into the door. It was the big force of big men, cops.
AMY GOODMAN: Weapons?
LINA ATTALAH: I didn’t see weapons. Were there weapons? Ah, so, there, yeah, was weapons. There were pistols in their pockets. It was such a tour de force. They came in. They closed all the windows. We felt that, you know, something huge is going to happen. They trapped us all in the room behind me, took our phones and computers, and then arrested three of us in the end.
Luckily, we were freed within hours. But it was a signal that this is just getting harder. And I remember very vividly that day I was sitting on the corner of this newsroom and thinking, “Who’s going to write the obituary of Mada if all of us are going to end up being held hostages?” So I started imagining what the obituary should be like. You know, what’s the headline? And all of that was racing through my head as I was watching the cops throw their cigarette butts on the floor of the office, which I felt was very violating to this place that has become home over the years, because, you know, we do this job because we feel home in it somehow. So…
AMY GOODMAN: So, they took you to the police station along with, well, now the chief editor, Mohamed Hamama, as well as another reporter?
LINA ATTALAH: So, we were not interrogated at all. We were handcuffed together — Mohamed Hamama, Rana Mamdouh and myself. And we were taken in a car, in a pickup truck, a police truck. And nobody spoke to us at all that day. It was just the three of us, thinking that our life is just literally ending, with the exception of Mohamed Hamama trying to tell us in the car throughout, throughout the whole ordeal, that “It’s going to be fine. There is nothing to feel guilty about. There is only pride in what has happened thus far.” So it was very encouraging to be in this situation with him.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they ever explain why you were being detained?
LINA ATTALAH: They never clarified. We have speculations that it might be about content that we published that may have angered the authorities. But nobody really told us why they took us, and nobody told us why they left us.
The following day, we saw opposite narratives from the government about the raid and the arrests. So, some bodies within the government, like the Foreign Ministry, were saying that the raid happened because we do not have a license. Some other state bodies, like the state prosecution, said that we were a Muslim Brotherhood website, and that’s why we were raided. So, even the government did not have one narrative about why this raid and these arrests took place in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: And that wasn’t the last time you were picked up.
LINA ATTALAH: In 2020, I was personally arrested, also very briefly, because I accompanied Laila Soueif, the mother of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, to the older prison where he was held since 2019, the Tora Prison. By then, the pandemic had spread in Egypt, and one of the measures that the security has taken was basically to isolate prisoners completely from their loved ones, to the point where they would even refuse to get letters out from inmates to their loved ones, and the same reciprocally. So, Alaa’s mother, Laila, was insisting to go every day to the prison gates to demand a letter from her son to make sure that he’s OK. So, that day, I decided to accompany her and write a story about this. And then I was arrested.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re interviewing Laila, Alaa’s mother, in front of the Tora Prison, and they just took you away?
LINA ATTALAH: Exactly. They took me away while I was interviewing her, while we were both waiting in front of the prison guards. I was accused back then of taking pictures of the prison gates, which I wasn’t. And I was thrown in the police station’s jail very briefly, until I was taken to prosecution and then ordered released on bail towards the end of the day.
AMY GOODMAN: And have you been arrested since then?
LINA ATTALAH: I wasn’t arrested since then. But earlier this year, three of my colleagues and myself were summoned for prosecution — by prosecution for a story we did about political corruption within one of the main parties that are affiliated with the authorities. Again, we were questioned for the whole days, facing charges of spreading false news, misusing social media and, in my case, running a website without a license. And again, we were released on bail towards the end of the day.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I have this T-shirt here, and it says Mada. It’s got the sign that you can’t access the website. And it says Mada in Arabic. Describe it more for us, and also what’s on the back.
LINA ATTALAH: So, this is one of the T-shirts we have printed late — in late 2017, after our website was blocked. Our website was blocked back in 2017 alongside a number of other media websites, shortly, to become one of the new mechanisms by the authorities to block the free flow of information. So, over 500 websites, including independent media websites, human rights organizations’ websites, have been blocked since then. And they have been blocked without any legal cover. So, we don’t know who’s blocking.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you go to Mada Masr, you can’t access the website?
LINA ATTALAH: No, you cannot get in it in Egypt unless you have access to a VPN or a proxy website.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the image of blocked website.
LINA ATTALAH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the back.
LINA ATTALAH: I have to remember what’s on the back. Yeah, so, the back basically says, “Safari cannot open this page,” which is the message you get if you’re in Egypt. And then this is the demand we’ve been making since 2017: “Unblock Mada,” basically. A demand to unblock this website.
AMY GOODMAN: Hashtag #UnblockMada.
LINA ATTALAH: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: But that hasn’t happened.
LINA ATTALAH: It hasn’t, unfortunately,
AMY GOODMAN: When COP happened this year, can you talk about WhatsApp, us all being able to access it, but then, when COP ended, that was the end of it for Egypt?
LINA ATTALAH: Yeah, we were talking about in the news meeting earlier today. First, we heard — we started hearing reports from journalists at the COP complaining about websites and WhatsApp, WhatsApp calls being blocked in Egypt, and complaining about it. And we felt a moment of solidarity, because this is what we’ve been suffering from for years and years. So, suddenly, we felt that the world is witnessing this struggle with us.
Shortly after these complaints were made, WhatsApp was unblocked, alongside a few of the websites. Specifically, the international human rights organizations’ website that have been blocked were unblocked during the COP. We did some testing to see if the unblocking was bestowed upon Mada, as well, but, unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. Mada remained blocked.
We’ve been also working with like a mirror technology to allow people who don’t have access to VPN, which is also blocked in Egypt, to access our media. So, also we have mirror websites.
AMY GOODMAN: What version of the mirror website are you at now?
LINA ATTALAH: So, we are at Mada 32 right now, which basically means that over the past years Mada has been blocked for 31 different times, besides the main time when MadaMasr.com was blocked.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the kind of news you cover. And are people afraid to speak to you at Mada Masr?
LINA ATTALAH: So, when we started back in 2013, it was clear that we needed to do a very — a very basic news gathering operation, basic in the sense of getting the information out, trying to get the information out as much as possible, as opposed to focusing on very, very specific stories. And that’s because there has been such a media blackout that people were missing some key information about different topics.
Nowadays, the two main stories that have been preoccupying us, besides, of course, a lot of environmental reporting, that we learned how to grow and how to do because of the COP, because we care about certain ecological demands, and we believe it’s our job to also publish these stories — but other than that, the two main stories we’ve been focusing on is the story of the political bottleneck we’re in right now, so, specifically, political prisoners, political detentions, but also what are the different mechanisms of rule that are in place right now, given Egypt’s position geopolitically and globally. So, that’s the main story we are working on. But then, also, another major story that have taken much of our attention and our learning, in the past year specifically, is the economic crisis, is the crisis of indebtment, is the trickle down of this crisis on people’s lives, on livelihoods, on food security. And there’s so many aspects in which this crisis is being lived by Egyptians.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have an extremely repressive political situation here in Egypt, and you have the economy in very bad shape. Do you see a kind of uprising happening again, against Sisi?
LINA ATTALAH: It’s very hard to expect how people would respond to the economic crisis we are in, because, specifically in the last 10 years, there have been such mutedness, such political silence, that it’s very hard to see what would surface on the face of Earth.
I remember that a couple of weeks ago, when there were some very random calls for protests on 11/11, we had no idea who’s making the calls for protests, and we had no idea who would respond to these calls, given the high cost of expressing any oppositional opinion in Egypt nowadays. I remember that day I drove to my family’s house in the eastern part of town, and it was like a ghost city. There were cops everywhere. It was completely silent. Nothing was happening. But I also felt that there was so much noise to the silence somehow. I felt like this is a concerted effort to mute a voice that’s there underground and that’s boiling somehow. This is the sentiment I had.
Now, as far as the economic crisis is concerned, you know, covering it on an everyday basis is only raising questions for us on how people will continue to be able to cope or survive this. You know, we’ve gone into a second major devaluation just a few weeks ago. And our repayment schedule for our historical debt is scheduled within the coming month, which will put further strains on our economy. And, of course, between how the pandemic has affected the global economy, in which we have been integrated specifically in the last years, and the Russian war in Ukraine, with these global conditions, we have been experiencing a major flight of Western — of foreign currency, which has also depleted our resources to a great extent. So, the story we’re trying to understand is how Egyptians will be able to survive this time round with, you know, a completely different version of the social contract.
AMY GOODMAN: And put that together with the political repression, I mean, in the lead-up to the COP, the hundreds of people who were arrested, but there were also people who were released. What do you estimate is the numbers of people in prison and who were arrested in these last weeks?
LINA ATTALAH: So, estimates by different human rights groups put political imprisonment as in the thousands, so we are talking about sometimes a number that closes the 60,000 number. There were a few hundred people released ever since a pardons committee was put in place, or was reinstated by President Sisi more recently, but this number was actually exceeded by another number of other people who were arrested at the same time of the release of some political prisoners. So, if about 600 to 800 political prisoners were released in the last month, an exceeding number have been arrested or rearrested from those. So we haven’t seen much progress yet in terms of this, in terms of this pressing issue of jailing people en masse for expressing their opinion in a Facebook post or a tweet.
Matching this with the economic crisis becomes a big puzzle for all of us. We know that people are too afraid to express themselves on economic grievances because of this cost they would have to face. But we also see a lot of despair, and a sense of — a sense of having nothing to lose anymore, if you can’t put food on the table for your children after they’re coming back from school. So…
AMY GOODMAN: So, you had a reporter covering COP, the U.N. climate summit, Nada Arafat. One of her headlines was “From pushing coal to organizing COP, the greenwashing PR firm Egypt has cozied up to.” Talk more about that.
LINA ATTALAH: So, this is basically a firm that was hired by the Egyptian government to conduct some of its PR for this round of the COP. Upon studying a bit the history of this company, it turned out that it played a major role some 10 years ago in Egypt in promoting the use of coal in the cement industries, just as the time — just at the same time when environmental activists were trying to put together a campaign against coal, not just because of it being a polluting resource to use in Egypt, but also it’s not a resource that we — that is locally produced. We also have to import it, so it doesn’t also economically make sense to use coal. So, there was this campaign by the activists around the time of 2013, 2014. And in parallel to that — in parallel to that, there was this company that was hired, again, by Egyptian officials to promote the use of coal. The same company was also held responsible for doing some PR work for the oil lobby in previous COPs, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about Hill+Knowlton, well known for generating propaganda, paving the way for the Iraq War, putting forward the ambassador of Kuwait’s daughter, though not identifying her as such, talking about babies being pulled from incubators by Iraqi soldiers. That wasn’t true. It has a long history. Talk about what its relationship with the Egyptian military is.
LINA ATTALAH: So, it was very easy to see, once there was an announcement that the government will use their services for — to do some PR for the COP. The moment we captured that, we were also called by environmental activists who were active back in the time in the anti-coal campaign, to tell us, “We have some correspondence to show you how this company was hired again, back then, by Egyptian officials, in order to promote the use of coal.” So this is how the story came together. And we decided to break it around the time of the COP.
AMY GOODMAN: Lina, the German government warned its delegates at the U.N. climate summit about being spied on, by actual people, Egyptians, as well as using spyware. What do you know about this?
LINA ATTALAH: So, we saw the story. In general, our reporters on the ground did feel quite monitored and surveilled by government, by government people. This is quite anecdotal. But they have experienced that while moving around specifically in the Blue Zone, while trying to conduct interviews and all of that. So, what we can say is that this was corroborated by the experience of our journalists on the ground there.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about whether this U.N. climate summit was a success for the Egyptian government in greenwashing its image, as many alleged, or whether it was a failure, because, I mean, the hashtag #FreeAlaa was everywhere? There was a kind of understanding of not being able to talk about climate justice without human rights because of the case of Alaa, very much put forward by his sister Sanaa, herself had been imprisoned but was out at the COP talking about him being behind bars on hunger strike. He had stopped drinking water on the first day of the climate summit, had been on a hunger strike for seven months. It had never become so clear at a summit, that joining together of human rights and climate justice.
LINA ATTALAH: So, I wasn’t at the COP this year, but it was very palpable, the sentiment over there of solidarity with Alaa and other prisoners. I had goosebumps seeing protesters saying “Free Alaa, and free them all.” So it also extends to the so many other prisoners lingering in prisons here.
So, for sure, COP was a formidable opportunity to open up the real record of human rights violations to the world, in ways that we did not see coming, given the level of closure and restriction that we’ve been living through in the last 10 years. So there was something formidable in this opportunity to open up this record to the world. And I feel like, for sure, this was not something that was calculated by the Egyptian government when there was a lot of excitement about playing the role of a global convener of this, of the climate conference.
And I think the human rights narrative at COP, the way everybody, as you say, the “Free Alaa, and free them all,” and “You have not been defeated,” becoming the mantra of this climate conference, that there is no climate justice without human rights, justice will always be the record of COP27, next to what the government, what the Egyptian government, considers its success on a climate negotiation level with the passing of the agreement yesterday, with clauses that were specifically designed and pushed for by the Egyptian government, specifically with regards to loss and damages and so on. So, there is the human rights record that will always live next to what the government considers an environmental success of COP27.
AMY GOODMAN: Most of the articles in Alaa’s new book, called You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, were published here at Mada Masr. Talk about his relationship with Mada Masr, the kinds of voices that you bring out here, what makes Mada Masr so different.
LINA ATTALAH: So, we were always very proud to host Alaa’s writings, because they always made a proposition. They are not simply self-indulgent writings about one’s own condition as a prisoner. They were writings that were always trying to, you know, bridge a gap to readers and cultivate ideas, hopes around discursive matters. And this is really what this project is about. It’s not just about documenting what’s there in a foreclosed matter, but to try to also imagine propositions, ways out, and so on. So, this is what this platform is trying to do.
I have no answers on how — how we happen to still be here. I think it maybe belongs to some metaphysical order, a miracle, or something like this. But I also feel that a lot of the times when we go into trouble and manage to come out of it, there is a lot of it to do with the fact that we are a group of people, that we are holding space together. I think the fact that this is a collective effort is also giving us a lot of strength, the fact that we are just many of us, and the fact that we are also invisibly joined by the so many readers who show us support every time there is trouble. So I think this is an important source of strength for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the brief time that Alaa was free within these last nine years? He still had to sleep at the police station. It was just down the street from here.
LINA ATTALAH: This was a time when Alaa had just come out of a jail sentence of five years, and yet he had to check in to continue his sentence by checking in at the police station and sleeping there and spending there eight —
AMY GOODMAN: When was it?
LINA ATTALAH: That was in the summer of — in the spring of 2019. He was let out in April, was out for a few months, doing the daily check-ins at the police station, so spending eight hours at the police station overnight and then the rest of his hours out as a free man, mostly spent with his child, Khaled, and mostly spent also with him trying to reconstruct his intellectual faculties.
So he was doing a lot of writing at that time, a lot of researching for his writings. I remember him telling me, “I’m so relieved that I can still think and write normally, that I have not been beaten on that level.” And in fact, throughout this period, he wrote a lot, and we published a lot of his writings in Mada. So, he would write a very sober and resonating piece once every couple of weeks, for example. He would, you know, come by here a few hours before his time to check in at the police station at 6 p.m. every day to review, edit, work with our social media team on the dissemination work, with our translation team on the translation. So, he was very connected to us in that period, because it was also his vehicle to making sure that his brain was working and he could still write.
AMY GOODMAN: Lina, who is your audience? Who’s the audience for Mada Masr?
LINA ATTALAH: So, our audience started off in 2013 by being a small community of people who followed our journalism from before. So there was already a lot of affinity. But this audience has grown far bigger over the past 10 years, to a more invisible audience of Egyptians who do not know us personally or closely, but who are just looking simply for free information, information that’s not — that’s not engineered by anyone with power or by anyone who has interests to twist the facts and to twist realities. So, by now, we have a lot of Egyptians who don’t always agree with us but who follow our reporting because they want to know what really is happening.
AMY GOODMAN: You have said that journalism is a compelling mix of form and content. What do you mean?
LINA ATTALAH: So, it’s not — it’s never just about the information. It’s about what do we make with this information, how do we narrativize this information, what kind of contexts do we bring to them in order to mediate them and in order to make sense out of them. And this is somehow where form comes in. So, it’s not just about scattered, fragmented pieces of information, which is how governments like to give us information. It’s really about putting these facts together and creating narratives out of them, and also finding ways to communicate better through the platforms that exist today, in order to engage the public. We don’t think of public engagement just as the gimmicks of the internet, of how can we get millions to follow us. We think of public engagement as a political thing. Our political backing will come from more and more Egyptians reading us and believing in the importance of this kind of work.
AMY GOODMAN: What do people get from Mada Masr, I mean, when talking about human rights, for example, and also a different kind of coverage of the economy?
LINA ATTALAH: So, over the past years, one of the ways in which the great restrictions in which we are living have manifested is how this media apparatus, that was almost fully acquired by sovereign bodies in government, how this content was controlled, how this media was controlled, so not only there were direct acquisitions by key state institutions of these media, but the way the content has been controlled is unprecedented. So, we are talking about story directives, stories that are prewritten and just basically distributed, copies of copies of the same story you can find everywhere in these media, in such a way where it became laughable and not working. It became dysfunctional somehow. People would see the sameness across different media and feel that there is something wrong, because people are intelligent.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean literally the same headline.
LINA ATTALAH: Literally the same headline, literally the same content, literally the same composition. So, it’s a level of control that is completely resting on this sameness, on this production of sameness somehow. And this was how, you know, the room for doubt came by the people. You know, they feel there’s something room.
AMY GOODMAN: Mada reported on the WhatsApp group of chief editors of newspapers, where they actually received instructions about what to report on.
LINA ATTALAH: Maybe because we are doing the right thing, I was never on this group as a chief editor. So I don’t know what happens exactly on it. But our understanding from several reporters who were on this WhatsApp group is that on a daily basis there are directives on how to cover certain things, how not to cover certain things, how to completely black out on certain things. So, if there would be, for example, protests around other countries, neighboring countries, in Sudan or in Tunisia, how this needs to be blacked out completely and not talked about at all. So there would be some directives of the sort. And in some cases, there would be pointed coverage of how certain stories should be — should be covered.
There’s a famous joke here, when a broadcaster read something out of this WhatsApp group and did not pay attention and ended up reading, “Sent from Samsung,” etc., etc. So, they were not —
AMY GOODMAN: You mean at the end of the little chat —
LINA ATTALAH: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: — it would say, “Sent from Samsung” —
LINA ATTALAH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — because that was their phone.
LINA ATTALAH: Exactly, exactly. So, that was also, like, captured by everyone and laughed at as, you know, a manifestation of how this control is taking place.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been stopped as recently as just in the last few weeks as you’re walking on the street.
LINA ATTALAH: Yes, I was walking on the street. I was near downtown Cairo. And I have heard the story from many people around us, that, you know —
AMY GOODMAN: Is this since the COP or during COP?
LINA ATTALAH: It was right before the COP, during the COP, specifically around this 11/11 very random call for protests. So, you know, we’ve been hearing that people are stopped, their phones taken. And I expected that it could happen to me. I was a bit worried. You know, you don’t want an extra ordeal. But, in fact, I was stopped. But, you know, I gently declined from giving away my phone, saying that, “I know that this is not legal, and it’s unnecessary.” And, you know, I managed to get off the hook with this one, luckily, so…
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, there are reports of authorities stopping Egyptians on the street, putting something into their phone so that they could get the information?
LINA ATTALAH: Exactly. And, you know, we hear that there are specific searches when the cops take the phones, on, you know, the president’s name, any your references to protests. So, basically, it seems like the cops are trained what to do exactly when they pick up people’s phones randomly while walking.
AMY GOODMAN: If people want to access Mada Masr here, where do they go?
LINA ATTALAH: So, we have the mirror website, on which we publish most of our content. And we advertise it through social media. So this is the easiest way to do it. But if people have access to VPN, it’s most easiest, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: Lina, you’ve been a journalist for 20 years. Talk about your history. You founded Mada Masr just nine years ago.
LINA ATTALAH: I did it 20 years ago, because I thought that journalism is an important vehicle to activism.
AMY GOODMAN: How were you doing it then, before Mada Masr?
LINA ATTALAH: I was working with also a small newsroom, English-speaking, back in 2000, called The Cairo Times. And this is how it all started for me. And I felt like mediating the complexity of everyday life, of political life could be — could be, you know, what I want to do politically in life, how I want to develop myself politically. Now, 20 years on, why am I doing it? Because sometimes you don’t go back on these choices, you know? You know, it’s something we started. Specifically now, the fact that I’m free, and my colleagues are free, as well, doesn’t give us much of an option but to keep on. We don’t have an excuse. We are here. We’re doing our job. We have the resources to do it. So we have to keep doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: Next year is your 10th anniversary?
LINA ATTALAH: That’s right, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you support yourselves?
LINA ATTALAH: So, we have a lot of activities and services that try to generate revenue. We encourage our readers to also get these services, like our membership program, like our daily press digest. It’s through reader support that we manage to really get through. And, you know, we’ve started this project with the desire to be readers-powered. And we tried to do this experiment in the hardest political circumstances. So we hope that it continues to succeed in this way.
AMY GOODMAN: Mada Masr is in English and in Arabic. You started at The Cairo Times in English. Can you talk about why you chose to do a bilingual publication?
LINA ATTALAH: So, when we were working on Egypt Independent, the publication that was before Mada Masr, I was merely hired by a management of an existing newspaper, and I was hired to only run the English side of it, so I didn’t have much of an option. But back in 2013, when we started Mada Masr, again, there was no excuse to produce in English alone. We always wanted to tell the story to Egyptians in Arabic. So we quickly shifted into an Arabic-first publication, because this is really what mattered. We were very happy to be able to create a locally conceived story in English to the world about Egypt. And this has been the strength of our practice in the last years. But, you know, when we had the conditions of production in our hand back in 2013 and we created Mada Masr, it was clear that it was important to produce equally in Arabic and in English, and actually become an Arabic-first publication targeting Egyptians.
AMY GOODMAN: Lina, can you talk about what happened 20 years ago with the privatization of the state media, and then the space that was opened up for independent media, and where that stands today?
LINA ATTALAH: Before 2000, the media was — the media was mainly owned and run by the state. So there was only state media and very, very few oppositional media that are partisan, that belong to political parties, so they also had their own propagandist tendencies. And then, with the liberalization of the economy, by extension, the media landscape was liberalized. So, it wasn’t out of a political desire to liberalize the media, but it was more of the economic agenda of opening up, opening up the Egyptian — the Egyptian market, and so on. So, this is the point at which you have several corporations that decided to invest in media projects, mostly to get political clout.
But the unintended thing that happened there is that a lot of these media started reporting from outside of Cairo, started going to the countryside, started to tell stories about poverty in rural areas, for example, started to tell stories about marginalization in the Sinai Peninsula, where you were just there covering the COP. So, a lot of these media were covering these things. One of the main things that these media also started covering is, basically, because they started connecting with the blogger spaces that were populated by people like Alaa Abd El-Fattah and others who were reporting about human rights violations in the citizen journalism format, so a lot of these new media started connecting with this blogosphere, reporting stories about human rights violations, as well. So, by the time of the revolution, 2011, you had all these corporate media that also are independent from the government and that could tell very, very different stories than the stories that are covered by the state media. And this is, like I said before, the professional world I came from. I, you know, started working in independent media and managed to work within this very marginal space of freely reporting.
Now, the reversal of 2013 on the media space, which is, you know, another major manifestation of the political closure we’ve been living under, this closure has been manifesting in completely controlling the media, not only by state institutions directly acquiring a lot of these so-called independent media that I mentioned and that were, you know, part of the liberal media spaces in the early 2000s, but also they have been intervening heavily in the content on a day-to-day basis in order to control the story completely. So, we haven’t had anything like this since the days of state-run media. And I would even argue that it’s even more intense in terms of, again, the identical messaging and identical stories we find everywhere.
So, Mada is born — is a child of a margin, like I always like to call it. So, we were born in these conditions as hoping to keep even a super tiny margin with the hope that this margin can get bigger. And I think we managed to make it a little bigger with time, with the sheer presence of our reporters and our stories and so on. And we will continue to keep trying to not just hold the space, but maybe make it a bit larger, as we move forward.
AMY GOODMAN: How do people get their information, through print, through TV, through radio?
LINA ATTALAH: So, a lot more people are online now, because the unprecedented control of the media has also meant that TV, which was the main source of information from people — for people, stopped being political. We’ve had years, during these years of the 2000s, where people will rally around the television screens to watch an evening talk show where a lot of issues were discussed with a relative degree of freedom, and this has stopped being the case right now. So people are just resorting to social media, mostly, and far less TV. And the printed press has been completely dead at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: And the way Mada Masr reports, for example, on the economy, of course, people feel the effects of the economy, especially when it comes to poverty, but the causes of what is creating these conditions, how do you do it differently?
LINA ATTALAH: So, our economic coverage tries to work on two layers. The macroeconomic layer — and when we talk about the macroeconomic, I don’t mean just the numbers, you know, the volume of debt or the budget deficit and so on, but also historicizing this meta, macroeconomic story that’s there right now. So, for example, if the major economic issue right now is debt and the flight of foreign currency, we try to constantly remind people of how we came to this place, when did the spree of indebtment really started, when did it intensify. When it comes to the flight of foreign currencies, we start also explaining to people how we have become, for example, part of the so-called emerging market, how we have tried to compete over the bonds market as opposed to centering our economy on industrial activities that are more sustainable, this, you know, gap between development and growth and economic growth. So, this is the story that we try to tell all the time, you know, the story behind the story when it comes to the macroeconomic condition.
And then we try all the time to test this on the ground. So, how are people living this? So we are obsessed, for example, with understanding how people’s dietary habits have changed, specifically over the last couple of years, when, you know, massive inflation has been experienced. We are obsessed with stories like how people are making salads out of leaves, more leaves than tomatoes and carrots and so on, because these have become increasingly, increasingly expensive. So, we are trying to tell the story of impoverishment, not just poverty, and how this poverty is being experienced on people’s bodies in the most direct of ways.
AMY GOODMAN: Lina, thank you so much for talking to us. It is an honor to be here in Cairo at your offices of Mada Masr.