Kim Badawi

Editorial Assignments: Businessweek : Egypt's largest independent newspaper : Al-Masry Al-Youm

Egypt's largest independent newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, is showing Egyptians what a free press looks like. More than social media, that may be the key to the nation's future.

By Romesh Ratnesar

"We prayed the revolution would succeed," says Magdy El Galad, the editor-in-chief of Al-Masry Al-Youm, the largest independent newspaper in Egypt. "Because if it failed, we would have been assassinated." A wry smile crosses his face. He's joking, sort of.

It's Saturday afternoon, a working day in Cairo, and El Galad—who is 47 and reed-thin, with a sallow countenance and jet-black mustache that make him look a little like the old Saturday Night Live character Father Guido Sarducci—is seated at a table in his dimly lit office, sipping tea. He keeps three cell phones and a pack of cigarettes close at hand as he marks up pages about to go to press. The early edition of the Sunday paper goes on sale at 9 p.m., and El Galad has a little more than two hours to decide what to put on the front page.

He became the editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm (which translates to "The Daily Egyptian") in 2005, the year after it started publishing. Since then the paper's circulation has jumped from 10,000 to over 500,000, more than double the largest state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram ("Pyramids"), which means that what was once the scrappy voice of opposition is now Egypt's largest daily. During the anti-government revolt earlier this year, allies of the embattled president, Hosni Mubarak, vowed to shut down the paper after order was restored. It turned out that it was the Mubarak regime that got shut down, and Al-Masry's early support for the revolution cemented its place as Egypt's most objective, important, and influential newspaper. It also placed the paper squarely in the middle of the ongoing struggle for the country's future. Al-Masry Al-Youm may not have figured out how to turn a profit publishing on newsprint, but it is showing Egyptian society something about what a free press looks like—and why the revolution's outcome hinges, in part, on preserving it.

One of El Galad's assistants hands him a cell phone. It's the Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf. El Galad grabs the nearest blank sheet of paper and starts scribbling. He had heard that Sharaf's upcoming trip to the Gulf was canceled; he asks about it during their five-minute interview. "The Prime Minister says that Saudi Arabia is an important stop for him. They're trying to work something out," El Galad says after he hangs up the phone. "We'll see what will happen in a couple hours." When Sharaf's office informs him that the trip is back on, Al-Masry touts the exclusive on the front page. This kind of access was unthinkable under Mubarak. "Because of the revolution," El Galad says, lighting another cigarette, "people in Egypt have realized the influence of the press."

The demonstrations that ended Mubarak's 30-year rule have become known as "The Facebook Revolution," but the uprising had old-media roots. Over the last decade, the emergence of independent media organizations like Al-Masry Al-Youm provided Egyptians with a picture of the corruption, venality, and fecklessness of the Mubarak regime. When pro-democracy activists began converging on Tahrir Square in January, millions of fed-up Egyptians were primed to join them. "The social media obviously played a very important role," says Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, "but the more traditional media played a vital role, too—maybe not in triggering the revolution but in preparing the way for it."

And yet four months later, the revolution's momentum has stalled and the press is again walking a delicate line—albeit one painted by a different authority. The comity that prevailed during the 18-day uprising has given way to spasms of violence on Cairo's streets. Leaders of the Tahrir Square revolution charge that the country's caretaker government, which is being run by the military until elections this fall, has been too lenient toward Mubarak, his sons, and their cronies. (Stung by the criticism, the military council announced on May 23 that Mubarak will be tried for the deaths of protestors.) With Egypt and much of the Middle East on the edge of political chaos, there's a growing possibility that conservative religious groups, such as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, may end up seizing power.