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Egypt's press has become surprisingly free—and lively

CAIRO, Egypt—Hisham Kassem is a tall and confident businessman with a penchant for truth-telling and a reputation for challenging Egypt's authoritarian government. Still, when an investor approached him about starting a Cairo-based newspaper, Kassem recalled thinking: "Oh, no, another nutcase."

That was in 2003, when authorities routinely jailed and harassed critical Egyptian journalists. Kassem, 46, found the idea of yet another staid daily ludicrous. But he mulled the idea and fired back with a proposal for a paper that would be nonpartisan, independently financed and fearless in its coverage—in short, everything other Egyptian papers were not.

"What you need now is a paper of record in Egypt," Kassem recalled telling his business partners. "That's what's missing."

Kassem's gamble paid off, judging from the widespread praise for his feisty, nearly 2-year-old paper. Al Misri al Youm is one of several independent or opposition newspapers to emerge as President Hosni Mubarak gradually relaxed media restrictions and allowed unprecedented space for criticism of his 24-year reign.

The paper started with a trial run of 500 copies and now boasts a circulation of about 40,000, steadily climbing ad revenues and a staff of more than 200. Most important, the paper has a reputation for fairness, accuracy and courage—winning it the grudging respect of even Mubarak's inner circle.

Publishers such as Kassem deliver bold, hard-hitting news to the doorsteps of thousands of Egyptian homes—a rare success story for an Egyptian opposition movement emboldened by the Bush administration's pressure for reform in the Middle East.

Even so, greater press freedom may be the only visible evidence of Mubarak's promised changes. During last year's election campaign, the 77-year-old president pledged more accountability for his vast security services, yet police brutality complaints continue to mount. He proffered special attention for low-income Egyptians, but his administration was accused of bungling the emergency response to a recent ferry disaster on the Red Sea that killed 1,000 mostly poor workers. And despite Mubarak's vow to ease pressure on opposition parties, this month he delayed municipal elections for two years in what's widely viewed as an effort to stop influential Islamists from eroding his authority.

To Egyptians, unfulfilled government promises are nothing new. Only now, they can read about it in the morning papers.

"Civil liberties, human rights, political reform—that's front-page material," Kassem said. "And I want 80 percent of the news to be local."

Even as the traditional, state-backed papers try to liven up coverage to compete, the upstart dailies still stand out. One day last week, for example, al Ahram, the largest and most venerable of the old-guard papers, ran front-page items on a soccer match, a new government hot line for bird-flu cases, Mubarak meeting with his Cabinet, and Mubarak's wife announcing the theme of her annual motherhood conference.

Al Misri al Youm, by contrast, ran a front page full of local news about a political party in disarray, judges fighting for more independence, Islamists suggesting donations to the cash-strapped Palestinian militant group Hamas, and an exclusive investigation into corruption at the agriculture ministry. The price? About 17 cents a copy.

Lawrence Pintak, a former Middle East correspondent for CBS News and now the director of a media program at the American University of Cairo, said he's noticed a stark difference from the days when Egyptian journalists would pass on juicy tips to foreign colleagues for fear of retaliation if they pursued the stories themselves.

"Many felt themselves to be government drones, but now I sense this huge enthusiasm among journalists," Pintak said. "Now, even if they're in controlled or semi-controlled media, they see possibility, they see change coming."

Al Misri al Youm means "The Egyptian Today," and other fledgling papers have names that also evoke a new day for Cairo journalism: "The Dawn," "Voice of the Nation," "Tomorrow." Each day, lurid tales of corruption, cover-ups and election rigging appear, and editorial cartoonists portray Mubarak and his cronies as clowns—unimaginable offenses just three or four years ago.

"You have to accept it as part of the reform and the new environment of freedom of expression," said Mohamed Kamal, a senior member of the ruling party who acted as Mubarak's spokesman during the presidential elections. "They were subjected to restrictions for many years and now they're free, so they're screaming rather than writing rational, sensible stuff."

Most of the new papers are backed by opposition political parties. Al Misri al Youm, which professes independence, is led by Kassem, a deputy leader of a political party whose candidate came second to Mubarak in Egypt's first contested presidential elections last year. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carved out time Wednesday to meet with Kassem on her Middle East tour; he's writing about the encounter for the paper.

But Kassem insists that inside the bustling offices of Al Misri al Youm, he's more publisher than politician, obsessed with the bottom line and offering a fresh product for Egyptian readers. Building a paper from scratch is a Herculean task in any country, but especially hard in an Arab nation with strict notions of tradition and a heavy-handed government. Then there are Kassem's high standards for excellence, which he imposed on his nervous staff from Day 1.

"I said, fire everybody you hired. Give me an empty office, two people to keep it clean, a financial controller and an errands person," Kassem recalled telling the paper's chief financier. "I told him, within five months, you'll have a daily ready to launch."

With the clock ticking toward the launch date, Kassem and his staff rushed to recruit Egypt's most talented reporters. Applications flooded the paper's post-office box, and editors quickly sorted what Kassem described as "the morons" from the "serious ones."

He wanted new graduates, younger than 40, with little or no experience because they were less likely to have the "irredeemable" habits of established journalists beaten into submission by the state press. He refused applicants who wore their political or religious convictions on their sleeves.

The paper's first editor was dismissed after just six months, in part because he refused to run an alcohol ad, saying it was forbidden in Islam. Kassem locked horns with another editor who refused to give contracts to women. He also banned anti-Israeli rants as predictable and tired.

"I don't want anybody here who wants to destroy Israel. If he does, he can go to the border and start shooting," Kassem said. "I will not have another Arabs vs. The World Tribune."

When the paper debuted in June 2004, Kassem said he threatened to sack the editor and "almost had a nervous breakdown" because two editorial columns were on the front page. News, Kassem reiterated, plain and simple. It wasn't long before Al Misri al Youm's reporters began to revel in their new freedom, uncovering scandals and racking up scoops.

"Some days, the government gets really irritated with us," Kassem said. "More than one official now has said that this is the most dangerous paper in the country. It's because people believe us."

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Miret Naggar contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): EGYPT-NEWSPAPERS

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