Lina Attalah is editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian online newspaper founded in 2013. Receiving awards from the Times and the Knight Foundation in 2020, she is particularly active in the fight for press freedom.
You have been a journalist for over a decade. What made you decide to embrace this career?
A few months after I started studying at the American University in Cairo in 2000, the second Palestinian Intifada broke out. At that time there were not many protest movements in Egypt that expressed themselves in the streets, except for the pro-Palestinian movement. It was through this movement that we were able to make our first demands on domestic issues and against our own government. Two years later, when US forces invaded Iraq, similar movements emerged inside and outside the campus. I realised then that my way of engaging with this movement would be to try to talk about it through the medium of journalism. From the start, journalism has been my way of engaging politically.
Egypt today is a country where it is particularly difficult to do your job. What allows you to hold on and continue working in these conditions?
The simple fact that I am still here, present, able to write and manage a team in Cairo that produces the newspaper Mada Masr. Eight years ago, we decided to create this publication collectively during a time of crisis, because we felt that Egyptian journalism was going to disappear completely because of the repression it was enduring. What keeps me going is this group of journalists who believe in their mission, and our readership, who expect us to do our job.
Can you tell us about the newspaper Mada Masr, of which you are the editor-in-chief? What is your editorial line, and how do you manage to reach your audience, given that your website is currently blocked in Egypt?
We founded Mada Masr in 2013, at a very politically charged time. We knew that the consequences would be damaging for journalism and for political and civil rights in general. We wanted above all to document this very particular moment: it was therefore, from the start, a project very much rooted in the present. To this day, we still produce primarily news journalism, with an eyewitness angle. But we inform in the political sense of the term: in order to form an opinion, you need to be informed. So I insist on the fact that this is not analytical journalism, or 'slow journalism': it is above all a project linked to current events. Of course, we have also developed other, longer formats, investigations, prospective analyses, cultural reports. We started with a small readership, based on political affinity, but over time it has grown and we are also read by people who do not necessarily agree with us, but who really need information to try to position themselves. In my opinion, this is a success, because it creates the conditions for dialogue, which is quite rare in Egypt today. Access to our website has been blocked by the government since 2017, so we have developed technologies so that it can be accessed from mirror sites. For readers outside Egypt, the site can be accessed from its normal domain name.
Working as a team is a very important part of your approach. How do you keep a team together in such difficult conditions?
The collective dimension of our work is most apparent in times of crisis, when we need to draw on our collective intelligence. When one of us is arrested, or the website is blocked, we never look for solutions individually. Working as a team, in my experience, allows us to raise the bar, to think more boldly and to act more radically. For example, before publishing content that we know will cause us problems, discussing it together allows us to share the responsibility.
You have received many international awards in recent years. Does this make your work easier, or is it an extra burden for you?
It has brought us a lot of joy: although it is me collecting the award, it is a collective victory for the editorial staff and our readership. One might legitimately fear that these awards could above all serve our vanity, or give us political capital. But I was quickly reassured because they have been well received by our entire community in Egypt.
What is the situation in Egypt on the issue of women's rights? Is the debate being heard in society?
The situation is very dynamic, for example when you look at what is happening on social networks with the appearance of a new type of female influencer. Along with wealthy women, who have more freedom to express themselves, women from far more disadvantaged classes have taken over the social networks. This phenomenon reflects a social dynamic where a greater diversity of women are taking ownership of their own voice. The violent reaction of the regime, which has used the rule of law to silence these women, shows that the regime is not ready to accept these changes. The main problem with women influencers is that the patriarchal authorities have been taken by surprise that this kind of expression is coming from women who are not privileged, while greater permissiveness is given to those from more affluent classes. In Egypt, if you are a woman and poor, it seems you have no right to speak out. The long prison sentences handed down to several of these women is not the end of the story, however: the subject has really been brought into the open in Egyptian society, and beyond the repression and the very heavy price that some of these women have had to pay, it is already a great success.
This year, you published an article on the essay On the Concept of History by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Is it important for you to distance yourself from current events, and to look through the prism of history or philosophy to better understand the times we live in?
It's less a matter of distance than of having all the tools to be able to experience and understand the present. Intellectual tools allow us to engage more effectively: philosophy and critical thinking are very important elements in trying to think about the Egyptian revolution of 2011 in a political way.
Lina Attalah is a 2021 laureate of the Institut français residency programme at the Cité internationale des arts.
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