On the set of Ibrahim Eissa’s new show “El Boss,” everyone refers to the celebrity journalist as “boss,” on and off camera.
In his new endeavor – a talk show with some scripted “reality” elements – Eissa interviews celebrities and mentors four young reporters. Eissa, once a precocious young reporter himself, emerged in the late 80s as the enfant terrible of the Egyptian press. His new show gives him the opportunity to burnish a different persona, one that he clearly enjoys: godfather of the local media scene.
A presence on TV platforms and newspaper mastheads for two decades now, Eissa has had a huge impact, for better and for worse, on the development of journalism in Egypt. Again and again, he has gathered young talent to power his successful, controversial media ventures. And again and again, he has left these ventures behind to start something new.
On a recent Saturday, Eissa shot back-to-back 20-minute interviews with fellow talk show host Wael al-Ibrashy about immigration, opinion writer Omar Taher about education and actress Rania Youssef about beauty. In his first episode, he interviewed talk show host Sherif Amer about the current state of the media.
“The media has become the guy that people love to hate, as if it’s behind all problems, and you have to ask yourself, are they blind?” Eissa said to Amer.
Eissa brandished four camera lenses for his reporters to look through, as a metaphor for the different perspectives through which a story can be told.
“My job is to look through many lenses to find the truth,” Eissa proclaims “The viewer is lazy, he wants the truth in a capsule.”
In his short monologue at the end of the episode, Eissa holds a remote control, advising viewers to make use of this “mighty weapon” to change the channel if they don’t like what they see.
In between shots, Eissa comes out from the set, rotund and mustachioed, wearing his trademark suspenders, and jokes around with his young producers and director.
Eissa himself can be seen through many different lenses. At 49, he is popular and divisive.
Most acknowledge his unique ability to build successful media projects. Some, however, question the morality of the methods he has used to reach success, and criticize the sharp changes in his political positions over the years. An outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime who once welcomed the Brotherhood to participate in politics and championed the January 25 revolution, he has shocked some of his former fans with his stance in the last year, as he has engaged in no-holds-barred denunciation of the Islamist group and support of the army.
The Eissa brand
Eissa developed his journalistic style in the nineties, when he worked at Rose al-Youssef newspaper, one of the country’s oldest, most prestigious papers at the time, known as a school for liberal intellectuals and artists.
In 1995, he was offered the position of editor-in-chief at Al-Dostour, a new newspaper financed by businessman Essam Fahmy Ismail, who was launching his career as publisher.
Al-Dostour – irreverent, colloquial and illustrated with memorable cartoons – was an instant hit. Headlines were provocative. While most of the press fawned over the opening of the land reclamation project of Toshka, Al-Dostour’s front page trumpeted: “The freedom to form parties and publish papers is more important than Toshka.” When former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Cairo for the first time, the headline, in Hebrew, read: “Netanyahu: get out of Cairo.”
Readers felt Al-Dostour spoke to them in their language and uncovered the secrets of the wealthy, unreachable ruling elite.
“The paper entered into the prohibited areas that the poor classes are not allowed to know about: the elite parties, the relationships between businessmen and the state,” says a long-time former collaborator who requested anonymity (he will be referred to in this article as Youssef). “It had to be catchy. Most of it said nothing. We were just putting forward headlines that no one had read before.”
“During this era, people would go to state-owned Al-Ahram to know the news, then turn to Al-Dostour for all the gossip,” he adds. “Ibrahim’s idea was to do something that’s new and close to the street… something that speaks like the people so that they believe it.”
Many accuse Eissa of being overly populist, offering content that is simplistic and void of substance in order to appeal to a large public.
Former colleague and popular screenwriter and columnist Belal Fadl says that Eissa’s populist approach is based on contempt rather than appreciation of the people.
“He has always been part of this sect of intellectuals who disdain the reader and the people,” says Fadl. “He considers himself and his likes to be gifted and says: The people will accept whatever we give them as long as we package it nicely.”
Journalist Khaled Kassab has been working with Eissa for the last 15 years in different projects; he is one of the regulars on “El Boss.”
Kassab considers Eissa to be a pioneer. “Al-Dostour has changed the course of Egyptian journalism,” he says, “by inventing an unconventional, more literary way of telling the news.”
The use of cartoons was the most revolutionary element in Al-Dostour, shattering previous red lines and introducing some unprecedented practices, such as drawing former President Mubarak.
“If it wasn’t for Ibrahim Eissa and his enthusiasm for cartoons [the Egyptian cartoon industry] would have become extinct. The most important cartoonists in Egypt today all started in Al-Dostour,” says Amr Selim, who was the head of the cartoon section in Al-Dostour.
Ups and downs
Al-Dostour’s brash new style cemented Eissa’s fame and influence. It also initiated a boom and bust cycle, in which the talented editor would launch a new media project that, at the peak of its popularity and influence, would be either quashed by the authorities, or sold under opaque and controversial circumstances.
In 1998, Eissa crossed a line when he published a statement, attributed to the Jama’a al-Islamiya militant group, threatening the lives of three prominent Christian businessmen. The Ministry of Information said that the letter fostered sectarian tension and the paper was immediately banned. Eissa would be blacklisted for the next six years.
He and the group of young journalists who stuck with him embarked on approximately a dozen failed attempts to print new papers.
In some cases, they obtained a printing license issued abroad, while, in others, they bought the newspaper license of a political party. However, in most cases, security forces would stop the first issue in the print house or make it disappear as soon as it hit the shelves. Eissa kept his name off the masthead, to no avail.
He had more success, at this time, concentrating on publishing books and venturing into TV shows. His political chat show Ala Al-Qahwa (“At the coffee shop”) aired on the first Egyptian satellite channel, Dream TV, shortly after it launched in 2001.
In 1999, Eissa published his controversial book Maqtal al-Ragil al-Kebir (“The Murder of the Big Man”), which never made it past the printers, as the authorities suspected it referred to Mubarak. The book was eventually published and made available to the public in 2009. Eissa published collections of political essays as well as critiques of current religious discourse. In his book, Afkar Muhaddad Bel Qatal (“Ideas Threatened with Death”), published in the early nineties, he harshly criticizes the very popular preacher Metwally al-Shaarawi. His most recent novel, Mawlana (“Our Master”), soon to be turned into a television show, again centers on the figure of the Islamic preacher.
In 2004, Essam Ismail, Al-Dostour’s backer, received a court ruling allowing him to establish Al-Dostour as a joint-stock company. He made Eissa its editor in chief. The first issue was stopped at Al-Ahram printers.
The paper finally came back in 2005.
But Eissa ran into trouble once more in 2007. After writing an opinion article about the former president’s reportedly failing health, he was accused of harming the interest of society and endangering national stability and sentenced to a year in prison. He eventually was granted a presidential pardon.
Then, in 2010, Al-Dostour backer Essam Fahmy agreed to sell the newspaper to Reda Edward – a businessman with connections to the ruling elite. Eissa, who had agreed to the sale, was quickly fired by the new owner, and a considerable percentage of the paper’s journalists left in solidarity (many of them moved on to found Al-Dostour Al-Asly, “The Original Dostour.”) Once again, opinion was divided. Some hailed Eissa as an opposition figure being forced out by regime loyalists; others said he was an opportunist burnt by a deal gone bad.
Following the 2011 uprising, Eissa launched a new brand. The Tahrir TV channel was established while protesters were still in the famous square. Figures such as Belal Fadl and activist Nawara Negm were early anchors. Fadl recalls how they all viewed it as a labor of love and hoped for it to become the voice of the revolution. Soon, Eissa established a newspaper with the same name.
In October 2011 – just as regulars like Fadl and Mahmoud Saad had one foot out the door – Eissa sold his shares of the station, making a profit of several million Egyptian pounds, according to insiders. The station has since been resold to businessmen with links to Mubarak’s regime, and its direction has changed massively – today it is one of the most aggressive critics of the revolution and its figures.
Relations with the state
While Eissa’s fans viewed him as a plain-speaking opposition figure, the relationship between an influential newspaper and the ruling regime was by necessity more complicated.
Youssef claims that the biggest players in Mubarak’s regime, such as Safwat al-Sherif, Habib al-Adly and Kamal al-Shazly, planted stories in Al-Dostour to fight each other.
Al-Dostour reporters could easily reach ministers and other prominent figures, says Youssef.
“If I found out something about one of them, I would tell him,” he explains. “Then he would win me over by telling me something about someone else. The relations expand and the circle of influence grows. This is the game of journalism: The more you attack a source, the more you win them over.”
After Al-Dostour’s closure in 1998, the regime blacklisted the editor. Youssef claims that Zakareya Azmy, then presidential chief of staff, told Eissa that he would only return “when we say so.”
“They disciplined him, then let him back,” says Youssef.
But when that finally happened, in 2005, the paper was still confrontational. It made its name criticizing the so-called “inheritance” project, the grooming of Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father. Eissa’s reputation as a fierce opposition figure grew as his columns became daily bashing sessions of the regime and often of Mubarak himself.
But Youssef says not all topics were allowed. A piece against the minister of interior that he wrote entered Eissa’s drawer and never saw the light of day again, he says.
Journalist Mostafa al-Husseiny, who worked with Eissa in Tahrir TV, wrote in a blog post in 2012 that Eissa “plays the role of the fighter, but behind closed doors he would talk about Mubarak as a close friend, who he has some minor differences with that can be overlooked. The reality is not the one that his articles depict, which makes Mubarak into a devil and Eissa into an angel.”
Amr Selim, who headed the cartoon section of the second edition of Al-Dostour, views Eissa as a pioneer and true fighter. But he told told Mada Masr that it’s hard to believe that a paper could maintain that level of freedom without the state’s consent.
“I think that the regime reached a level of arrogance that they thought everything was under control, so as an additional step to give off a fake image of democracy they thought they’d let us do what we want,” he speculated.
Al-Dostour’s journalists played the regime just as much as it played them, says Selim.
“We used every bit of freedom that they gave us and bet on the people and created a build-up. We made use of their arrogance, which led them to think that nothing would happen,” he says.
After Eissa was sentenced to jail for his reporting on Mubarak’s health in 2008, he cast himself as a victim for freedom of speech and passionately attacked the Mubarak regime. At a meeting at the Journalists Syndicate, he called the former president a “pharaoh,” and said he’s left Egypt “in a coma in the emergency room.” But the editor seems to have used back channels to negotiate with the regime. Shortly after, Mubarak issued him a pardon, which he quietly accepted.
A nose for talent
All Eissa’s colleagues who talked to Mada Masr say Eissa prides himself of being a “talent hunter” above anything else.
Many of the most prominent young journalists on the scene today started under Eissa, such as Belal Fadl, Omar Taher and Mohamed al-Garhy. While some remain loyal to Eissa, others, such as Fadl, have turned into his staunchest critics. Regardless of how their relationship with Eissa turned out, the day they came under his wing was life-changing for many reporters.
Kassab, who has followed Eissa in all his projects since the editor “discovered” him in a newsroom in 1999, refers to him as his teacher.
Youssef agreed that Eissa created a unique experience for young journalists.
“In two, three months we were talking to ministers and judges and the whole journalistic field knew us,” he said.
Youssef’s relationship with Eissa started in the late nineties when he sent him an investigation he wrote about political corruption. Eissa published the article on a full page and asked to meet Youssef.
“When I went to the office he came all the way outside to welcome me and gave me a hug, cracked one of his loud laughs, and told me: I want these bombs every week,” Youssef recalls, “We didn’t talk about money, I went in with a great spirit, and that’s how everyone was and he benefitted, because none of us asked about money.”
In return for participating in a groundbreaking media project, many reporters put up with meager pay and otherwise unsuitable conditions.
Youssef alleges that even as the funding of the paper increased, only Eissa and his close circle saw increases in their salaries, while the young journalists remained underpaid. This is a common grievance that many who work with Eissa have.
In his blog post, Mostafa al-Husseiny described Eissa’s treatment of young journalists.
“Eissa is known in the journalistic sphere for squashing small journalists, he works them inhumane hours and gives them peanuts while he enjoys the millions that the boards of the papers give him,” he wrote.
Most reporters were never given full-time contracts, and a journalist who worked in for Al-Dostour in 2005 told Mada Masr that his salary as a full-time reporter was around 300 LE, far below the average at the time. He described journalists getting to the office early in the morning to take empty cartons from the kitchen to sit on, because there weren’t enough chairs.
Youssef said that while Eissa was apologetic about the small pay early on, he became more defensive later, at one point screaming at journalists in the newsroom, “ I make Al-Dostour and Al-Dostour makes you!”
Eissa has been accused numerous times by colleagues and other commentators of conveniently changing his political positions throughout his career.
Since its start and up till 2011, Al-Dostour had a good relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, occasionally publishing articles written by Brotherhood leaders.
Before the revolution, Eissa defended the Brotherhood against state oppression and celebrated their electoral wins.
As recently as October 2011, he wrote an article in Al-Dostour entitled “Welcome to the Brotherhood.”
“If millions of Egyptian voters were to give the Muslim brotherhood the majority in the elections,” he wrote, “this would be majorly and abundantly beneficial.”
Eissa argues that the Brotherhood’s long experience as an organized political body will enable it to stabilize the political situation. He even calls the group “representative of Egypt’s class and cultural map.”
It is now hard to imagine that these words were written by Eissa. Today he exclusively refers to Muslim Brotherhood members as “sheep,” mocking their obedience to their leaders, and to the organization as “the terrorist group,” condoning all measures taken against it by the state.
Eissa’s views regarding young protesters have undergone a similar transformation.
On January 28, 2011, Eissa protested alongside Mohamed ElBaradei,. He championed the revolution; spoke out against the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011 and hosted press conferences by revolutionary groups in the offices of Al-Tahrir newspaper during Morsi’s rule.
Now Eissa’s rhetoric has become perfectly aligned with the state.
In one article he wrote in October 2013 titled “Political Triviality,” he calls concerns raised by activists of the return of the police state and Mubarak’s oppression “nonsense,” referring to the activists raising these concerns as “effeminate.”
April 6 Youth Movement founder Ahmed Maher, currently serving a three-year sentence, wrote a deeply bitter letter to Eissa from prison after the journalist applauded Maher’s arrest and questioned the patriotism of the April 6 Movement. Addressed to “Hima,” the affectionate nickname activists used to have for Eissa, the letter states: “He says that we are wavering, even though our positions are constant and his change every few months. Not only his positions – Eissa’s core values change, his principles and convictions.”
Former colleague Belal Fadl says that Eissa’s change of heart is simply based on his decision to target a different audience (and the advertisement revenues it can draw).
“He found his new audience in the ‘hezb al-kanaba’ (“couch potatoes”) who are too ashamed to watch Tawfik Okasha. He gives them the same ideas but in a chic manner, told with stories from history with anecdotes and lines of poetry,” Fadl says.
Eissa, who once encouraged Egyptians to take action against an oppressive government, today emphasizes the need for a strong state, says Fadl, who has written several columns in Al-Shorouk newspaper criticizing his former mentor’s changing views.
In one article, Fadl analyzes Eissa’s changing testimony in former president Mubarak’s trial for killing protesters.
In Eissa’s original testimony in 2011, he accused police forces of shooting protesters. However, in his testimony in the retrial of the same case he said that he did not witness shooting and added that Mubarak couldn’t have issued orders to shoot protesters because he is a “patriotic president.”
Selim defends Eissa, saying he opposed military rule in 2011 because he is against the militarization of the state, but that now he supports the military because it is taking the country towards a civilian state and is protecting it from terrorism.
Others say what is consistent in Eissa’s career is not political principle but rather his drive to succeed.
“People are overestimating him by considering him someone with a mission. He is an ambitious journalist who is willing to take any position to be number one,” says Youssef.
Unfortunately Mada Masr wasn’t able to pose any questions to Eissa himself. On the set “El Boss,” Eissa was jocular and friendly and promised Mada Masr an interview. But at the scheduled time, at his offices at the headquarters of Al-Tahrir newspaper, a receptionist said Eissa was away, and refused to provide a number at which to reach him, or to re-schedule the appointment.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Eissa’s banned book Maqtal al-Ragil al-Kebir was not published until 2011. It also mistakenly referenced Eissa’s court case as having started in 2008. This article was corrected on April 29.