BROOKE: On Thursday in Cairo, Egyptian women held a vigil to honor the poet and activist Shaima al-Sabbagh, shot last weekend amid violence marking the 4th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.
News anchor: Video posted on the Internet show Shaima al-Sabbagh, a socialist activist, protesting peacefully. Witnesses say she was then hit by a birdshot that was fired by police to disperse the crowd...
BROOKE: In the years since the popular uprising that ended the 30-year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has been rocked by unstable government and violent clashes. This year’s anniversary was no different - at least 18 people died. Eyewitnesses point fingers at government forces. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi blames the Muslim Brotherhood. Lina Attalah, founder and editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, an independent newspaper founded in 2013, says the pictures of Shaima's death had an impact on all Egyptian media, even outlets that typically toe the government's line.
LINA ATTALAH: It’s an image of Shaima being carried by one of her colleagues. Her blood is spilling all over her face. I definitely think that the image of her death has enough power to start unsettling the current regime. It is something that stays with people. It is something that imposes itself on the narrative and hence we found this different editorial line from a lot of the media who would basically repeat what the regime has to say about everything.
BROOKE: Now President Sisi has an interesting view of how the press is supposed to function, right? You say he regularly uses the word "constructive."
ATTALAH: That's right. He uses the word constructive in the context of talking about the media, in the context of talking about arts... What the use of the word constructive means really for him is to be supportive of the regime and if you do otherwise you are actually the opposite of that, namely, destructive. He spoke about how former president Gamel Abdel Nasser was very lucky because back in the 60's the media was completely nationalized. The media really meant the voice of the state. And president Sisi very openly and unreservedly said that President Nasser was lucky in that sense.
BROOKE: Those were the days, weren't they?
ATTALAH: Not for me.
BROOKE: [Laughs] When we spoke with you last year, following the third anniversary of the revolution, you spoke of the crackdown on expression that was even worse than the Mubarak years, and you said it was because, quote, "Mubarak had actually left deliberately some margin of freedom. Right now," you said, "we're not even finding that margin, the margins are being tightened more and more, and I'm pretty sure this is not really sustainable, particularly after the revolution." So, what has changed since then?
ATTALAH: Even though the impression remains that all of the media are completely aligned around the state, I feel there are cracks. You can see it in a small tidbit of dissident voices in some television programming; you would find a little bit more opinion pieces in newspapers that are not necessarily completely aligned with the regime.
BROOKE: Because the revolution did make a difference?
ATTALAH: I think the revolution did make a difference in people's sense of entitlement to express themselves. Even though the revolution is often referred to today in a language of despair and failure, people are not the same.
BROOKE: So you founded your paper, Mada Masr, in 2013. It is, truly, one of the few independent news sources in the country. And in a recent profile of your paper in the Guardian you said, "Right now, when all accounts are being manipulated by all sides, I want us, down the line, many many years to come, to be reference of what happened."
ATTALAH: My concern was really more the future because the present moment remains quite oblique and a lot of people refuse to see what's going on. The event and the truth are easily becoming a casualty in this context and that's why one of our responsibilities is to create a record.
BROOKE: Now, as you counter and critique the military and the state in your reporting, how do you stay above the fray?
ATTALAH: I really don't know. I'm often worried about the safety of the team, the safety of myself. I certainly don't want, don't want, to end up in prison. The way the crackdown is practiced in Egypt is also extremely arbitrary and it’s very hard to make sense out of how policies are made, how court rulings function, and in that maze, it becomes really hard to understand how those who are staying out are staying out and those who ended up in jail are in jail. And if you think about it too much, you can end up in a paranoia that basically obstructs your work.
BROOKE: You've said you don't want to be known as an "activist paper." What does that mean?
ATTALAH: Activism is a by-default description of practicing media in a country that stands against media freedoms. It’s like calling me a short journalist. It’s a matter of fact that I'm short, right? But also, what we're trying to do is produce a professional media that reaches out to everyone who is both activist or non-activist.
BROOKE: And obviously your paper isn't just politics, you're doing cultural journalism, lifestyle journalism...
ATTALAH: We are trying to produce journalism of meaning in a context where you don't have much of that. What does it mean to write about culture in a meaningful way?
BROOKE: Tell me about a musician that you've written about recently.
[music under: Maurice Louca]
ATTALAH: I think the most recent is Maurice Louca, who just released an album called Salute the Parrot. He's basically using popular music - what we call in Arabic. "shaabi" - and regenerates it into somewhat electronic. It’s very interesting - it makes you listen to popular, traditional music in a new way.
BROOKE: And it's not political.
ATTALAH: Well it’s not political but it’s revolutionary. It’s a bit hard sometimes how culture in Egypt in the last four years was largely represented as a byproduct of the revolution when there is an ongoing cultural practice that is revolutionary without necessarily being about politics and I think that is interesting.
BROOKE: And I can draw a really strong parallel between what he's doing in music and what you're trying to do with your paper: Offer a new way of doing something that isn't saturated in the politics of the moment.
ATTALAH: Yeah, that's a plausible comparison although he's much more entertaining than us, I guess.
BROOKE: When we call you on the 5th anniversary of the revolution, what do you hope to say?
ATTALAH: I mean I wish that, you know, by next year, many of my friends who are in jail to be out. I'm not trying to say it in a cheesy way, but it's been feeling lonely. If we have a conversation next year, if I would hope for something, it would be to have some of these people back.
BROOKE: Lina thank you very much.
ATTALAH: Of course, take care.
BROOKE: Lina Attalah is founder and editor of Mada Masr, an independent online newspaper based in Cairo.