New daily newspaper Al-Sabah struggles to make an impact

Al-Sabah, a new independent newspaper, hit the streets and cafes of Cairo on 30 September. Its recipe — sensational anti-Muslim Brotherhood headlines and dubiously sourced stories — might not be original, but precisely for that reason, its emergence says a lot about the current state of local print media.

The editor-in-chief is Wael al-Ibrashy, who replaced prominent anchor Mona al-Shazly as host of the popular Al-Ashera Masa’an talk show, aired on the Dream 2 satellite channel. Previously, he was the editor of Sawt al-Umma weekly, a publication largely classified as yellow press. Today, he heads a team of about 150 reporters and 150 other staff.

During an interview at the paper’s Dokki offices, Executive Editor Wael Lotfy claimed that despite the seemingly saturated market for daily newspapers, Al-Sabah offers something “new and different” from the “polarization in a large percentage of publications” that “follow certain political agendas.”

According to media estimates, no more than a million newspapers are in circulation.

In particular, Lotfy says Al-Sabah’s editorial line doesn’t take aim at the Muslim Brotherhood.

But many front-page headlines tell a different story.

“Israelis call for nominating [President Mohamed] Morsy for the Nobel Peace Prize,” in bold, black typeface, leads the 20 October issue. It’s a title guaranteed to aggravate many Egyptians, who can barely swallow the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and resist the idea of normalizing relations with the “enemy.”

Ousted President Hosni Mubarak was considered an ally of Israel, looking after its interests in the region, a point stressed by protesters during the revolt who described Mubarak as “an agent for Israel and the US.”

On page three, the story refers only to unspecified “Israelis on Facebook,” and cites the Shefa Palestine News Network — hardly a major outlet — as a source.

The unnamed Israeli individuals allegedly want to give Morsy the Nobel Peace Prize, following a letter that was leaked to the media in which Morsy addressed Israeli President Shimon Peres as his “dear, great friend” and “Your Excellency.”

During its short life, Al-Sabah has tended to lead with sensational front-page headlines slamming Morsy, the Brotherhood or Salafi leaders.

On 11 October, the front page led with a headline in bold, red letters, representing the Brotherhood as haters of democracy who suffer from an inflated ego.

“Gamal Heshmat: To hell with democracy … the Brotherhoodization of the state is our right,” says the headline, using the Arabic colloquial expression “toz,” meaning “to hell with.”

On page seven, there’s an interview with Heshmat that carries a different headline, indicating that the one on the front page is completely misleading.

The headline says, “To hell with democracy if it is used by failures [such as those who did poorly in elections] to confuse the authority [of the state].”

In the interview, Heshmat says the Brotherhood does not dominate all state institutions; on the contrary, they are represented in a small fraction of them.

“However, the media machine, which speaks on behalf of the counter-revolution, accuses us of dominating the state and blackmails us with the term ‘Brotherhoodization of the state,’ as if it’s a crime and not a right we received by the will of the people,” he said, according to Al-Sabah.

Many other stories in the publication slam Morsy and paint him and the Brotherhood in the worst possible light.

Following the Israelis story on page three is another headline depicting Morsy as eager to please military officials, unlikely to go down well with the many revolutionaries who resented the role of the military council during the lengthy transition period that followed the fall of Mubarak.

“The president continues to appease the army,” reads the headline. Details in the story refer to Morsy’s “third visit” in one week to military leaders in Gharbiya area in the city of Berany in Marsa Matrouh Governorate. The visit is an attempt to appease the army after “our colleague,” state-owned Al-Gomhurriya, published an inaccurate article about Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan being investigated by the Illicit Gains Authority and banned from travel.

The article also described in detail how the president was protected during his visit to Marsa Matrouh with 27 Central Security Forces trucks, five armored vehicles, 1,500 soldiers and 300 members of the National Guard. This was another subtle blow to Morsy, depicting his security arrangements as extravagant.

On the same page, Lotfy’s editorial talks about how an Al-Azhar sheikh in Tahrir Square decried the Brotherhood during a Friday sermon on the 19 October clashes, during which the Brotherhood fought with anti-Brotherhood protesters. Lotfy says the sheikh hit “the heart of the truth” with his speech.

The first story leading page one of the same issue is also about the 19 October protests, in which anti-Brotherhood groups took to the streets to protest the group’s political dominance.

The title likens the protests to the 25 January revolt that toppled Mubarak, saying, “The chants return; the people want to bring down the regime.”

The article itself is more balanced, referring to the clashes that took place among protesters in the march from Mostafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandiseen to Tahrir, because some parties rejected the presence of the “conference party” headed by former presidential candidate Amr Moussa and the Conservative Party, which is an offshoot of the now-disbanded National Democratic Party. The protesters accused Moussa and the members of the Conservative Party of collaborating and supporting the former corrupt regime, according to Al-Sabah.

The article also quotes Brotherhood Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein saying that the protesters don’t represent the Egyptian people, they only represent themselves. This point is usually neglected by other independent papers, which fail to represent the Brotherhood’s side of the story.

The newspaper addresses neglected segments of society and offers coverage and print space to youth issues, women’s issues and people with disabilities, Lotfy says.

The issue published on 20 October runs a story on respecting people with special needs and another on the difficulties that face elderly citizens, but the few issues reviewed by Egypt Independent didn’t have much coverage on women’s or youth issues.

On the business front, both Lotfy and Al-Sabah publisher Hesham Kessam think the market could afford to support and garner profit for a new independent publication.

Lotfy says he expects to make profits within six months of the newspaper’s first issue; Kessam says publishing a daily newspaper costs from LE7 million to LE15 million a year.

The newspaper has already managed to attract a few advertisers, according to Lotfy.

However, the few issues reviewed by Egypt Independent only included advertisements for products owned by Al-Sabah’s investor, Bahgat Group, headed by prominent businessman Ahmed Bahgat, who owns the Dream TV channels — including the channel on which Ibrashy hosts his talk show. Lotfy says 10 different members of the group own 10 percent of the paper each, in keeping with newspaper ownership regulations.

There are full-page advertisements for Dream Land and Dream Park, both owned by Bahgat Group, on the last pages of issues of 19, 20 and 21 October.

Lotfy says he is negotiating with an advertising company to mediate between him and advertisers in the future.

Advertisements represent the main profits for publications, as subscriptions and other forms of income barely cover costs, Kessam says.

Bahgat and his group also own a minority stake in Al-Masry Al-Youm group, which publishes the daily newspaper of the same name, and Egypt Independent.

Lotfy refuses to disclose the paper’s circulation figures, information for which is usually scarce.

This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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