On Power, Machines, and Departures: Running Mada Masr in Today’s Egypt



What does it take to publish a critical daily news platform in the post-revolutionary context of today’s Egypt? Mada Masr’s co-founder and editor Lina Attalah answers this question with more questions fundamental to all political publications, which concludes in the best possible way this issue.

In the summer of 2016, I met Christos Giovanopoulos in Athens. The first time was in Cairo, two years earlier, when a western cultural institution dared to host a gathering where activists, engaged in theorizing their activism in different fields, assembled to talk about social movement building.  I write “dared” because of the ascending closure of the political space by Egypt’s rulers since the 2013 regime change. Christos, an activist and member of the Greek SYRIZA party, was animated like the first time we met in Cairo. You couldn’t tell his camp’s defeat the previous summer when the Greek government accepted bailout plans from its European lenders, despite a national referendum rejecting corresponding austerity measures.

Back in Cairo, Christos had rolled what continues to be one of my favorite political sound bites: “We don’t take power. We build power.” The context in which Christos’ superb expression came about was on how to create relatable political spaces where organizational logics and languages cease to be divisive and where people bring their everyday life resistance and coping mechanisms to the movement. Sentient and durable movement building starts here.

I appropriated Christos’ expression and started uttering it myself, especially around the time the Egyptian government (or its ghost) blocked in 2018 the news website I co-founded in Cairo, Mada Masr, deemed one of few independent voices in an impoverished media landscape since the aforementioned 2013 political closure. Something about the erosion of authorship in political culture, discourse and practice makes it appealing: the pervasiveness of the notion that overwhelms its traceability to one origin, the power of anonymity as a collective identity, the fluid proliferation of a compelling idea. I like the story of how Carol Hanisch, the radical second-wave feminist, rejected the popular attribution of the seminal expression of “the personal is political” to her. I like the fluidity of how the idea of building power versus taking power settled with me as one of its many homes. I also like the timeliness of its content with many of those who were part of the 2011 revolution in Egypt and elsewhere, mourning its decay today. In practicing publishing everyday, and building a surrounding space that caters to this practice, I like to think of myself as emulating the ethos embedded in “We don’t take power. We build power.”

There is relevance to building power at times of defeat. It is perhaps the only time when building power is possible, for, in other moments like those of revolutionary eruptions, the possibility of taking over is more palpable, and in a sense, overwhelmingly blinding. Revolutionary eruptions can, at times, trump the possibility of building counter power.

I was lucky to have persistently thrown myself into the world of publishing, because there is often something to generate, especially with the specific labor of journalism, of persistently witnessing and pointing to abuses of power, of betraying its secrets. This is not to say that no other political act is possible in times of abusive power, nor to essentialize journalism as the main form of channeling dissent. It is rather a praise of its repetition, a way of saying that there are certain affordable productive acts, which, in their consistent repetition, can nearly become obsessions, swallowing obsessions that confront loss, ennui. Imagine the state dismissing the revolutionaries for disrupting the wheels of production. Inhabit that logic. Become a wheel of production, like a printing press incessantly rolling, a web page constantly loading, an everyday appearance that refuses to cease to exist.

In 2014, I was invited to a gathering in Beirut of publications editors’ working in and on the Middle East. Borrowing from the language of contemporary labor processes, our hosts, Angela Harutyunyan and Octavian Esanu, called the meeting “critical machines.” In the jargon of labor, a critical machine is a piece of equipment that monitors malfunctioning that may disrupt the production flow and informs human operators accordingly. In alluding to this device, the critical machine, the hosts were trying to propose an analogy with a modern behavior that relies on reason to question authority, as well as the conditions under which we are able to know things, to establish what we want to do about them and what we are able to dream of, generally.

It was more of a provocation that made me wonder if what I cherish as a subversive act, namely doing journalism in some heydays of authoritarianism, is simply based on a rationale we cannot control. I do not know if in insisting to continue to publish, to survive, we are committing to some polite modern attitude of questioning power, as opposed to trying to subvert the roots on which the entire arrangement of who is in power and who is left behind to oppose it is based. We might be submitting to the comfort zone of a certain habit of resistance that isn’t radical enough, a predictable resistance that those in power are able to account for and somewhat contain. It reminds me of a famous reasoning that authoritarian regimes like to keep small margins of opposition operate in order to claim that they aren’t that oppressive after all. Being in that margin assumes an ethical position, where we bounce between the comfort of being ethical and the absent imagination of any other alternative for resistance. Within that margin, to what extent are we questioning the conditions of our existence and production? Is our presence, mediated through the reproducibility of our content, simply consolidating the truth that we live under abusive power and we are set to fight it, with little influence? Or are we able to question the very structures that put us in this position of dissent and shaped our modes of resistance in particular ways?

Since 2013, I enjoyed working like a machine as opposed to falling in the silence of defeat, but not without wondering: what about the repetition of the forms and contents of journalistic production? Are we committing to certain erasures by saying the same thing over and over? Are we able to account for the complexity of the daunting reality we seek to convey without resorting to flattening it in order to make it comprehensible, relatable and containable within the limitations of language? Are we able to see that much and tell all that we could see, and if so, how? With which tools do we tell? Does language figure among the structures of authority we seek to challenge? What about the dark descent of knowledge production and enlightenment into despicable mass culture, the kind of vehicle that led one day to totalitarianism?

I wonder if we have to choose between obsessive productive repetition that can eventually obliterate meaning and a rupture, a cessation, which in its departing motion can tell much more than our regular publishing does. Is there a space in between to occupy?

In one conversation with Lina Ejeilat, the editor of the Jordan-based 7iber magazine, who I consider like an intimate band mate in that broader project of making different kinds of sounds in the region, she, in turn, referred to another band mate, Ma’n Abu Taleb, the editor of the critical Arabic music zine Ma3azef.

Lina was remembering Ma’n’s passionate prose on how we shouldn’t consider the idea of retreating and resist by holding our ground. But she was also reflecting on the type of compromises we can afford in order to resist retreat, especially when compromises are made to the core of that which we are trying to do. We were both speaking in the context of our parallel trajectories. In 2013, 7iber was blocked and put ahead of the difficult choice of having to apply for licensing in accordance with a restrictive amendment to the press and publications law. Somehow, 7iber managed to survive that encounter with the law, without compromising its editorial integrity. In 2017, Mada Masr was blocked, albeit in our case, no public authority claimed the act, in a literal translation of invisible power. Then we were also put ahead of the difficult choice of registering the website in accordance with a restrictive media law in order to be allowed to operate in Egypt.

We did not have much doubt that we had to register; in the sense that if the law has the authority of defining what is allowed, we thought we have ample entitlement to use it, because we believe we should exist; we should publicly exist as a publishing media. In other words, if the law is what it takes to be recognized as journalists, then we would abide by it. But I couldn’t resist a certain estrangement while going through the motions of practicing abiding by the law; these daily trips in an exhausted and exhausting city to bureaucratic establishments carrying the infrastructure of the nation on their frail, tired bodies.

I couldn’t resist a certain unrest that comes from translating the law into a set of bureaucratic acts and paperwork that essentially banalize your existence in order to fit it into a system; not to mention when the law is designed and implemented with the kind of inconsistencies that make it impossible to fit into any system. This is where the law becomes the gentle, modernist tool of oppression.  I wrote to my colleagues  an email detailing what I mean here, fulfilling a responsibility to inform the anxious body of journalists about how we are dealing with our unknown fate.

Ahlan. After two weeks of interacting with bureaucracy (my favorite activity), and reading, re-reading and debating the law with people in similar places as well as our lawyer, we finally submitted our papers today, one day before the deadline. We submitted the documentation requested from us; an application where we listed basic information, selected names of staff, 70 percent of whom are syndicate members and editorial line. We also submitted my criminal record (I am not guilty of anything), our commercial registration, a bank certificate proving that we have raised our capital to LE100,000 and a proof of our physical address. We also paid, graciously, the LE50,000 application fee. We are taking some legal measures to make sure our submission is acknowledged […] In the process of reading and re-reading the law, [we] have been questioning the category we are registering under, namely whether we are simply a content website or an online newspaper. If the former, we should be exempted from the LE100,000 capital raise and the 70 percent syndicate membership. We opted to be royalist in our submission approach, and acted as though we are an online newspaper. In the process also, we became more skeptical of the registration process and it’s normal. In the past, we spoke about it theoretically.

Now, as we are going through it on the ground, between the confusing attitude of the different representatives of the media council, the sudden inexplicable decision to open the licensing process before the executive bylaws are out and the utter confusion about the meaning of this decision and the fact that in the meager chance that we get accepted, we can’t start to imagine the amount of scrutiny we would be under, we are re-thinking the comfort with which we thought we should register. So the time for thinking about alternatives has come. Think Mada. Think Octopus.

I felt as though I have one arm stretched to hand in the documentation to the media council bureaucrats and the other stretched to another side where someone is saying from their grave, “withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative.” The law, in Michel Foucault’s thinking, among others, figures in the list of the negative.

For the longest time, I was drawn to the idea of “vanishing before dying,” of disappearing in a spectacular way when existence is no longer possible. In building up on the idea, I imagine vanishing artistically as a visible act that resists its own disappearance. Think of that theater piece or that film that ends, curtains down or screens off. The product, in its unitary sense, is gone, yet something of it stays with you. But while spectacular, indelible, trace-making vanishing is an avenue, another can always be configuration. Here again, Foucault inspires in his capsuled summary of his directives in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Œdipus’ preface (1972): “Prefer mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.”

What if we let go of publishing using the traditional digital realm of developing a website and using social media or wherever else readers are putting their attention to create traction around it? Isn’t our going to the Internet in the first place a flight from the concentrated methods of traditional publishing and broadcasting? Why aren’t we in that flight anymore? Why are we reproducing the old methods of production and distribution when we were promised the possible radical change by technology?

Can we start imagining being nowhere, and everywhere? Can we, for real, subvert the conditions we are politely critiquing, taking the fight to our own body? Our own existence?

Attalah Funambulist5