Egypt’s “national press” is a collection of state-owned newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses that dominated the public sphere in Egypt for over half a century until protests gripped the country in January and brought down the Mubarak regime. At a time when many of Egypt’s longstanding institutions—the judiciary, security services, military, and universities—are facing enormous challenges and the prospect of serious change, the national press is hardly likely to remain untouched. Just the opposite, in fact: the state-owned press in Egypt is facing an unprecedented, perhaps even existential, crisis. Can it be saved? And should it be saved?

Encompassing large newspapers nationalized by the pre-revolutionary regimes as well as those founded by the post-1952 rulers (including al-Ahram, one of the Arab world’s oldest dailies, as well as al-Akhbar and al-Gumhuriyya, a host of weeklies, monthlies, and specialized publications), this central part of Egypt’s media industry had begun facing a series of imposing political and financial problems in the decade before the revolution. Like many other institutions, there were internal pressures for change that were stifled; the external danger signs for the press were simply ignored. Thus the mounting problems did little to disrupt its operations; there was no sense of crisis. The national press faced increasing competition, declining revenues and circulation, and a loss of credibility—but managed to soldier on, impervious to its problems. But since February and the fall of the regime that it served (and that shielded it), the national press has entered an era of profound crisis. No longer able to ignore its problems, various papers and publishing houses have faced internal revolts and demands for reform.

Before the revolution

Each of Egypt’s state-owned publishing houses operated as a little empire prior to the revolution. They were subject to formal oversight by a press council attached to the upper house of parliament—an institutional arrangement devised in the 1970s. But their chief editors should be seen almost as presidential appointees, anxious to curry the incumbent’s favor and portray themselves as personally close to the ruler; they also tended to be sycophantic to leading officials (especially the minister of information). And in return for such loyalty, they were granted a fairly free hand over their domains. Heading one of these institutions could bring tremendous job security, considerable autonomy, and high pay. Turnover was not unknown, but it was rare. In 2005, some figures with more than two decades of service were forced to retire in a string of changes marketed as reform, but amounting to a substitution of new sycophants for old ones.

But while the publishing houses knew mainly stability, they should have been running scared in the years before the revolution as the same problems facing print media everywhere in the world—declining readership and advertizing revenue—affected Egypt’s giants. While hard information about circulation is not available, all close observers of Egyptian media agreed that circulation was steadily dropping. (Officials provide only vague and unsubstantiated numbers on their sales. And offered figures seem to be padded by official purchases of dailies.)

But the national press also had other troubles. First, the papers they were quickly losing their few shreds of credibility. It was not that the level of professionalism and accuracy declined over time; the combination of turgid news and vitriolic and lurid attacks on regime opponents was maintained at a steady pace. Many Egyptians long ago learned to turn past the news and op-eds of the state-owned dailies and go straight to what interested them: the obituaries in al-Ahram or the sports pages of al-Gumhuriyya. But in the 1990s and especially in the 2000s (with the ballooning popularity of satellite television) there were increasingly other sources of information. There were suddenly places where politics could be discussed intelligently (or at least in an interesting manner) and the official monopoly of information was broken.

Second, the national press found new competitors emerging even within the realm of print media it traditionally dominated. In the 1980s and 1990s, pan-Arab newspapers entered the Egyptian market and a few opposition publications made a valiant effort to garner readers. For elite readers, there was a collection of English-language publications that violated the bounds placed by the government. Most ominously in 2004, a wholly new beast entered the Egyptian media scene: an independently-owned, commercially-driven private daily, al-Misri al-Yawm. Circulation figures are no more reliable for private than for state run media, but most media observers saw al-Misri al-Yawm as challenging (and perhaps eventually exceeding) al-Ahram’s preeminent position. It was soon joined by a host of other rivals, most of them bankrolled by deep-pocketed backers promoting their views and apparently unconcerned with the profit margin for the moment. Some of these, like the highbrow al-Shuruq, introduced a level of professionalism long absent from print media, maintaining a calm but clearly oppositional stance; others leaned toward sensationalism and political coverage that made up in drama what it lacked in accuracy.

Third, the national press was a business disaster. Like many other state-owned operations, the publishing houses hired too many workers, gave them too little training and support, and paid them very low salaries. And they got what they paid for. As they tried to modernize their operations, and as advertizing and circulation declined, the state-owned enterprises borrowed—incurring massive debts that they could not hope to repay without some kind of restructuring.

Finally, those at the head of the industry treated it as their private playground. Top officials were widely reputed to pay themselves astronomical salaries. Worse, according to some employees, were the financial irregularities. In several enterprises (including al-Ahram, al-Gumhuriyya, al-Akhbar, and Dar al-Ma`arif, publisher of October, among others) there were allegations that company property was sold at below market rates to friends of top officials.

Even before the revolution, there were other signs of internal problems. Some employees sought to bring corruption allegations to the attention of public prosecutors. But investigations were carried out at a glacial pace. Other journalists had grievances that were professional or political in nature as they chafed at the political limitations and sycophancy towards officials that were imposed on them.

During the Revolution

The national press hardly redeemed itself during the Egyptian revolution. Indeed, as protests mounted, the press swung into its traditional role of simultaneously denying the existence of any disturbances and holding out the threat of chaos if they continued; it smeared the motivations and patriotism of opponents with a variety of contradictory charges. As the regime crumbled, the national press scurried in several directions at once, maligning the protesters one day and signaling some distance with the regime the next.

Some media institutions themselves were objects of tremendous ire during the revolution (though it tended to be state television that inspired the most contempt), and in some major outlets, there were demonstrations by employees either in support of the revolution or in protest against perceived corruption in their own institutions.

The sudden departure of Mubarak placed the national press in an seemingly difficult position, forced to explain what had happened. But publications that had never known shame did not suddenly discover it. Instead, they resorted to repositioning their loyalty on a moment’s notice. In its first edition after Mubarak’s departure, al-Ahram proudly trumpeted the revolution’s victory; in a banner headline that likely made more Egyptians laugh than cry, it celebrated the cause it had denounced: “The People Brought Down the Regime!” Momentarily disoriented without a president to fawn over, the national press gravitated for a short time between currying favor with revolutionaries and the army before swinging enthusiastically behind the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s interim ruling junta. Now it has become the generals whose political signals they await before trumpeting the news. And indeed, as revolutionary enthusiasm has receded, the national press has swung more resolutely behind the military, perhaps in reflex but perhaps also in a desperate attempt to find a new powerful patron to rescue it from financial and political disaster.

The Crisis of the National Press

Thus far, the unseemly but adroit political maneuvering of the national press has provided only short-term protection. The publishing houses are still deeply plagued by the same problems from before the revolution. In fact, the problems have been aggravated by current political and economic decisions and it seems unlikely that they can be ignored or deferred much longer.

First, many of the top leaders of the national press have unsavory political or ethical reputations—or both. Many of the most senior officials associated with the old regime have been removed, but their replacements have not always inspired more confidence. In walking in front of the Journalists’ Syndicate (the professional association for full-time journalists in all outlets) in late July, for instance, I saw banners and posters denouncing the replacements at al-Gumhuriyya and Dar al-Ma`arif as corrupt or as stalwarts of the overthrown order. A group of journalists also set up shop in Tahrir Square for various demonstrations to demand the “cleansing” of the press with posters featuring photographs of their bosses. In discussions with senior figures at three of Egypt’s state-owned publishing enterprises in July, I heard similar descriptions of the current situation as a state of limbo between a discredited old order and an unknown emerging one. Investigation of the various corruption charges against former (and sometimes current) officials of the national press continue to proceed slowly if at all, fostering simmering resentments and potentially depriving the institutions of funds they desperately need to recover.

But even if the national press was to gain control of any assets allegedly embezzled by the ousted bosses, it still would be in a very difficult economic position. It is not clear who will want to read Egyptian state-owned newspapers in the new environment. Their vulnerability varies considerably among outlets. Al-Ahram may be the most viable, at least for the short term. In addition to circulation and advertizing, it also earns revenues from its printing press (which most of the opposition and independent newspapers are forced to use because of licensing restrictions on other presses, a situation which may not be politically sustainable). Its publisher may also be able to fall back on its position as the paper of record and sales to government organs. But other publishing houses do not have those residual assets.

Saddled with massive debts, overstaffed, facing dropping circulation, and politically exposed (making a bailout difficult), a serious restructuring is needed. Or, as one leading journalist at Dar al-Hilal explained, both an economic and a political restructuring is necessary. The former is needed to reconstruct institutions that stop bleeding funds; the latter is needed to shore up professionalism and grant the national press the autonomy and credibility it has lacked for generations.

Both tasks are daunting. Economic restructuring is difficult in a more competitive media environment, with Egyptian media outlets chasing limited advertizing revenue and perhaps a shrinking readership. With independent papers media able to rely on freelancers, smaller staffs, and wealthy backers, the national press has to find a way not only to bring in revenue and cut costs but also to dig out of its massive debt.

Political restructuring is also difficult. On a very general level, it is not clear what role (if any) the national press should have if some of the instruments of authoritarian are dismantled. Nor has a serious national discussion on the subject begun among Egyptians who already have a full docket of transitional issues to decide. On a more practical level, the structures that the national press report to—the Ministry of Information and the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament—are themselves in a state of political limbo. With feistier employees, no clear oversight, a lack of political credibility, and the absence of any clear process for political reconstruction, Egypt’s national press may lack the ability to restructure itself.

And there is an apparent difficulty which no official I spoke with seemed to wish to confront: economic restructuring and political restructuring might pull in contradictory directions. The former requires that the problem of an overstaffed, underpaid, and underperforming labor force be addressed. The latter requires instead that demands of the employees—as a newly mobilized force and the only real inspiration for reform within the organizations—be answered. Cutting the wage bill while giving employees more of a voice in internal affairs may not be easy to achieve.

Decision Points and Prognosis

The way forward is not clear. But several upcoming developments will likely force the issue.

First, the corruption cases of media officials themselves will likely wind their way forward, slowly exposing the rot inside these institutions.

Second, the agitation by employees—largely quiet for the last few months—could easily return if discredited editors are not replaced, wages are not paid, prosecutions do not materialize, or reform continues to lag.

Third, elections for the Journalists’ Syndicate, scheduled for this fall, will likely result in a more pugnacious professional association. In the past, the Syndicate was usually headed by a regime stalwart (though the board often included independent and opposition figures). He was often able to mediate quietly between journalists’ complaints and the regime, often placating the rank and file by obtaining and doling out privileges and benefits; the new leadership may not adopt such gentle techniques or coopt the membership so easily.

Fourth, the election of a new parliament will create a new pressure point for those seeking reform, especially in the legal framework governing the national press. All kinds of actors in Egypt—judges, labor activists, religious scholars—are dusting off their legislative plans, preparing to rush to the newly elected parliament and demand comprehensive new laws governing their sector of Egyptian society. It is very likely that journalists will be pushy members of that queue. And here they might be supplicants in two different ways: as professionals demanding autonomy and political insulation; and as state employees demanding that their positions and salaries be safeguarded.

Finally, the constitutional assembly will have to confront the place of the national press and find a replacement for the anachronistic current position, a jerry-rigged way for the regime to control the press in the aftermath of 1960s Arab socialism. The idea of a press council attached to the Shura Council, an arrangement designed in the Sadat years, makes little sense in the current political and media environment.

But beyond vague suggestions of a BBC model for the Egyptian media, few proposals for political restructuring have been advanced.

Egypt’s national press cannot operate as it has in the past; it has lost its economic and political base. But the path forward is extremely hazy at present: will some publishing houses go under, will the government continue to set the political tune of the press, can viable new business models be devised, or will a relapsed authoritarian spirit prevail?