A year of the Mada Digest and local press

If you were diligent enough to follow the local press closely last year, it was bound to have an effect on you — the news either made you angry, mournful or drove you a little crazy. Now imagine waking up at the crack of dawn every day to read every newspaper from start to finish in an attempt to make sense of it all.

Exactly one year ago, I signed up to take on the title of press reviewer, working daily to produce the Mada Morning Digest. This means starting my workday at 6 am with the dreaded walk to the newspaper stand, arming myself with a large cup of coffee and delving into the world of local media. 

The digest is a daily overview and comparative analysis of Arabic-language newspapers in Egypt, with a focus on how major issues are covered in the local press and giving a broad perspective. It sets out to be contextualized, nuanced, balanced.

As a journalist, I was already used to reading the news, but never so intensely, all at once and so early in the morning. Every day. 

My first day on the job was worse than I expected. It was just months after former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal, and in the middle of the ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. I recall some of the headlines: “Revolution of anger against the terrorism of the Brotherhood,” “Execution is the solution,” and “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood.” 

Four years of studying journalism had suddenly turned to mush. It was hard to stomach the packaging of the news.

Initially, I had thought a large portion of the digest would be dedicated to spotting differences in coverage between state-owned and privately owned media, but I soon discovered that they were one and the same. State propaganda regarding terrorism, opposition groups and human rights was no longer exclusive to state media, and sometimes private newspapers were even more conservative than state newspapers.

At first, I couldn’t help showing my resentment against the media by writing sarcastically and, at times, using a passive aggressive tone. I had to suppress the urge to put everything in quotes to mimic the air quotes I would use if I was verbally discussing the absurd news while shaking my head in disbelief.

Then my copy editor banned me from using quotation marks, and began collecting examples of passive aggressive writing she’d edited out of the digest. I had to tone it down a bit.

In all fairness, local media has outdone itself this year with especially remarkable twists on the news, and I consider myself half lucky to have witnessed this progression. I got to document all the different trends that emerged and vanished, along with screenshots of all the times Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb was caught in a ridiculous situation, like getting wedged in a student project.

The year started off with simmering anger against the Muslim Brotherhood in light of the security situation. Then came the constitutional referendum in January, and it was all about one love for Egypt. The color red was all over the front pages, showing people dancing and smiling. This phase had one of my all-time favorite “news” stories — oops, there go the air quotes. It was of a man who had wanted to vote yes for the Constitution but voted no by accident, and stood outside the polling station crying in anguish. 

Then came the endless teasing by then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over whether he would run for president or not, keeping the press on its toes and reaching out to so-called anonymous sources who confirmed on a daily basis that an official announcement was going to happen the following week. This went on for months on end.

In the lead-up to the presidential election, the media didn’t even attempt to feign unbiased coverage. They were in your face about who they favored, and it definitely wasn’t the sole other candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi. Meanwhile, every other day Sisi was quoted whispering sweet nothings into Egyptians’ ears before they hit the polls.

Sisi’s soft tone and heartthrob image would transform into that of a stern leader shortly after his sweeping victory. Newspapers wanted to make it clear that you do not want to mess with Sisi, showing pictures of him after every terrorist attack clenching his fist while promising to end terrorism.

After being elected, Sisi revealed his “Eid gift” to Egyptians: the new Suez Canal mega project. The media literally could not even try to stay composed anymore. Newspapers raved about the project — it was going to be the biggest, greatest project in the history of national projects.

Somewhere in between, of course, was the plea to donate to the failure that is the Tahya Masr Fund. The media took on the role of a guilt-tripping uncle by constantly showing pictures of old, impoverished, frail men and women who had donated the last of their pension, or the last pair of earrings they had (it was always the last of something), and asked: “So they donated, and you don’t want to? Think about that.” They dropped the mic and walked off stage, leaving the audience stunned and confused. 

If there was ever a year to monitor the Egyptian media, it was 2014. Yes, I started off dreading the task at hand, but it has since grown on me in many ways. Aside from making me a better journalist, it has also given me a better understanding of the country and a load of information on one of the most tumultuous years in Egypt’s modern history.

I’ve become weirdly attached to the digest, as my colleagues would attest. On the days when I can’t do it, there is a sense of relief mixed with a weird separation anxiety and a list of recommendations for the person filling in.

In many ways, the digest has become like an newborn child. It either wakes me up at ungodly hours or I have to tend to it through the night. It is emotionally and physically draining, but one funny picture of Mehleb puts a smile on my face and all is forgiven. 

But that’s what local Arabic media has become: it’s so bad, it’s good. It pains and amuses you at the same time, it makes you resentful of those in charge, but puts you in hysterical laughing fits at how adorable they look dressed in a white, plastic bag overall.

*The Digest is a subscription-based service, emailed every weekday morning. For more information, email: services@madamasr.com

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Passant Rabie