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Behind The Crackdown On Independent Egyptian News Outlet

The editor of Mada Masr, a Worldcrunch partner publication based in Cairo, explains how they wound up making news itself last month.

Design via Mada Masr
Design via Mada Masr
Lina Attalah*

After Mada Masr published a Nov. 20 piece titled "President's eldest son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, sidelined from powerful intelligence position to diplomatic mission in Russia," its staff was targeted by authorities. Here's the backstory to the piece and its aftermath.

CAIRO — In case you haven't been following, our colleague Shady Zalat was arrested from his house in the middle of the night on Saturday, our office was raided the following day, and 18 of us were detained inside incommunicado for several hours before three of us, myself included, were arrested and very briefly detained.

When I first received the story early last week, I decided to sit on it until I could get further confirmation of the details, and not just a general confirmation of the main story. Once every single detail was confirmed by at least two separate sources — and when it came to some details, as many as four — I was ready to publish. We don't get easily excited by tips or scoops. Rather, we get anxious about the rigorous process of verification that follows. We have killed far more stories than we have published.

We understood how sensitive this particular story was, but as we grew increasingly confident of its veracity, we didn't shy away from it. Just before my colleagues and I were released from custody on Sunday, we were gently reprimanded for publishing it. We were asked rhetorically: Why go there? Why report about such things?

Mada has always been a project of inquiry, of curiosity, one that particularly extends to the darker rooms of power, spaces that we barely see or know. When we started publishing in 2013, many thought of us as a media by and for the children of the 2011 revolution. We are indeed the children (and the makers) of 2011. But we are far more ambitious than that.

We are specific to the context we are born in, the here and now: What does it mean to live in Egypt, in the shadow of a profound political transformation? We want to stitch together an account of this life and how it is changing, from all of its different angles: our society, our economy, our health, our urban environment, our education. We pay attention to culture and cultural production and how it interfaces with this reality. We bounce between negotiating and resisting a new-old type of authority, in a wide spectrum of practices for survival. This calls for a constant exercise of dissecting power, and this intellectual exercise can only start from an empirical place: information first. The story we published, and got punished for, belongs to that exercise.

Journalism is a fantastic meeting of form and content.

The process that followed information verification was one of editing and re-editing, as is our habit. Is the flow okay? Can it be better? What about the choice of this word or another? What about this sentence as a whole? Where is context missing?

I love journalism because it is a fantastic meeting of form and content. This can get technical, so I will spare you. I will just say that, at Mada, we like to think of ourselves as craftswomen and men whose excitement doesn't end at finding valuable information: it only begins then. What follows is a process of rigorous questioning, not only with regards to the veracity of the information, but also to the context in which it has emerged — the politics governing that context that might be interfering with this information. It is a process of canvassing this information through the revealed and the yet-to-be-revealed possibilities of language. I like the pretense of calling ourselves artists in this moment. I deliberately throw it into some of our conversations to encourage every one of us to call out to their creative license. We are indebted to the artists and the academic friends in our lives because they allow us to smuggle some of their practices and processes into what we do.

The day I worked on the story in the office with some of my colleagues was one of the more jovial days at Mada. We were excited, at times frantically laughing, perhaps to give voice to the deep-seated fear of the imminent fate we might meet after publishing. We drank endless soda waters and ate one chocolate bar after the other. We agreed to eat koshary after we were done in order to have a meal heavy enough that could send us straight to bed and away from anxiety. You may think we are brave, or so says our façade, but a lot of times we are scared, and it is important to account for that.

Both in fear and in crisis, we always know how to laugh. A friend was once passing through our office and saw our Shady Zalat sitting on his desk, working while dancing. She asked me: What is he doing? I said: Editing. This is how he does it. Shady was taken away from his wife and daughter, from us, for one and a half days, which for him seemed to be the beginning of a nightmare that wouldn't end. Shady didn't join Mada in 2014 to be handcuffed and blindfolded in 2019. He joined Mada to make that which we think, and that which we know, live beautifully in language. He joined to edit while dancing on his chair.

I saw a broken Shady last Monday in the first meeting between us after our ordeal, and it broke a part of me. But when a cat hovered around his daughter trying to eat some of her lunch, Shady got up and started running in circles around the table after the cat, joyfully, lightly, cracking us all up in laughter.

Most of the things that come to my mind from the three-hour raid of our office last Sunday are associated with laughter. In fact, I think that many of the times that we, the hostages, collectively burst into laughter, the security agents had to work hard to keep a straight face. In my mind filled with racing thoughts, I thought to myself that maybe the only triumph of the day is that we snapped the security agents out of their orderliness, or perhaps that we made them suffer a little bit because they had to fight to suppress their own laughter.

Shady Zalat — Photo: Mada Masr

As I saw our space being occupied by a masterful choreography of over 10 agents, all of them big and tall and male, the nerd in me also wanted to encourage those who would write the story of Mada's demise to be creative about it. Remember, journalism is a formidable meeting of form and content. In what language do we mourn a newspaper? How do we send an institution to bed? In reality, I think I'd rather be a prisoner than a writer or an editor of this story. But the deeper reality, is that I neither wish to be a prisoner, nor write or edit this story.

The u-turn of the police truck was like a miracle.

I think of our coming back from imminent detention and an endless lawsuit that would deposit our bodies into a justice system, whose every procedure is designed to punish us, as a miracle. The literal u-turn of the police truck carrying three of us after the raid, as it was on its way to an interrogation and a detention facility that scares us so much, was like a miracle. We are moved by the support we received from everyone — friends, families, but also our readers, our community here and abroad. We were told that someone high up, whose name we don't know, intervened at the last minute to suspend our imminent detention.

We don't know exactly what made this person intervene. We know that pressure might have played a role, or a moment of wisdom might have snuck into the timelines of the decision makers, but we also know that no one has been coming back from detention these days. Two days after our release, journalists Solafa Magdy, her husband Hossam al-Sayyad, and Mohamed Salah were arrested at a cafe in Dokki. They now face charges of joining a terrorist organization and publishing false news. Weeks before our ordeal, hundreds were detained for being activists, journalists, or opposition politicians using legal channels like Parliament to practice politics. Most of them are in continually renewed remand detention and face a triplet of standard charges. We might have been among them, and we might still be.

For now, we are grateful for everyone who did anything to help with our case. Our special gratitude goes to those who sang for us silently in their hearts and for those who found solace in calling out for divine saints they know little about. We think our release belongs to the transcendental order of miracles.

In the police truck, my colleagues Rana Mamdouh, Mohamed Hamama and myself were handcuffed to each other. We used the tight physical connection to press on each other's hands, a gesture of it will be fine, we will be okay. And as our practical minds started doing calculations of what needs to be done (who do we tell where they have taken us, what can I do with the Christmas plans I promised my brother, that notoriously long draft report of our year's work that has not been saved on my abducted computer, etc…), both Rana and Mohamed kept muttering to me: No place for guilt. We are here by choice. No place for guilt.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the formidable team of Mada Masr. When Shady was arrested and we were still free, we were working around the clock to do everything possible to get him released. I was conscious of burnout (not knowing what would ensue in the coming days), so I told some of my colleagues to get some rest. In a message, I wrote to them about how moved I was by their dedication and their tireless engagement in this difficult time. One of them, Yasmin el-Rifae, responded briefly, sharply and poetically.

"Prisoners of love," she said.

I leave you to more publishing, for as long as we can, with a gang of prisoners of love — who by now know best how to laugh in times of crisis.

*Lina Attalah is editor-in-chief of Mada Masr

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