By Ghazala Irshad
After 30 long years, Cairo’s oppressive smog cleared the way for a change in the air on the crisp evening of February 11th. The sun chose a dramatic descent for the occasion, setting Tahrir Square ablaze in a red as fiery as the anti-regime protestors. It vanished into the inky twilight, just for a moment, before the news that Egyptians had overthrown their president lit up the square again. The wind picked up and followed book publisher Sherif Boraie and Nugoom FM radio presenter Youssef Al Hosseiny as they made their way past young bloggers crowding the long, narrow corridors of Pierre Sioufi’s upper-level flat to the terrace. A newly formed group of teenage friends, including 17-year-old activist Sanaa Seif, were excitedly taking in scenes of Muslim Brotherhood members crying, the irreligious praying, and strangers hugging and kissing in the streets below.
As Hosni Mubarak reluctantly handed over his power to the military that night, Boraie and Al Hosseiny proudly gave power to the voice of Seif and the other youth over the cacophony of fireworks, patriotic chants, and honking horns: “Congratulations on your revolution. Now, we want you to create a newspaper for the new democracy.” Without hesitating to question the lack of experience among the teenagers, Seif agreed. After all, if they could topple a regime, they could do anything. They would have to wait until the following day to start, though. “Tonight, we must celebrate!”
Nearly six months later, as a new wave of protests and sit-ins take place across Egypt, the teens are carrying the spirit of the revolution forward in the pages of a free, Arabic-language monthly underground bulletin that aims to “educate and activate” its readers from all socio-economic backgrounds. They have managed to illegally self-publish and personally distribute over 25,000 copies of each of its five editions throughout Cairo and in cities as far away as Minya and Mansoura. Standing for the principles of “freedom, equality, and justice,” the simply titled El Gornal, (“newspaper” in Egyptian Arabic) brazenly flaunts a Mubarak-imposed law that requires new publications to undergo a lengthy approval process by government security services.
Despite the regime’s fall, the point of El Gornal’s simple act of defiance is to raise awareness and provoke thought, according to 20-year-old photographer and filmmaker Ziad Tareq, who is also participating in Tahrir’s second sit-in. The paper aims to force Egyptians to go beyond unity during protests and pride in the revolution by continuing to cultivate and harness “people power,” which Tareq believes many of his fellow citizens have yet to find within themselves after 30 years of repression.
“Some in Tahrir never even knew what they didn’t know. The system destroyed people and made them complacent,” says Tareq, whose own father is a member of the National Democratic Party and recently ousted editor-in-chief of the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. (Unsurprisingly, their relationship is not on good terms.) “Honestly, no type of government will ever be good for us unless we as a society evolve. We changed our government; now, we must change our people.”
One of the ways El Gornal is influencing change is through informative articles about complex questions written in layman’s terms, such as a piece by a legal expert explaining the distinction between military rule and emergency law, or a more recent feature defining new terms used by mainstream media in reference to upcoming parliamentary elections. Basic, but important, information such as this is overlooked by mainstream or government-controlled media outlets that either assume their audiences are already aware, or intentionally keep them in the dark.
But El Gornal strives to do more than just set the mainstream media straight. Half the paper is dedicated to publishing the unedited opinions and testimonials of their wide variety of readers from different parts of the country, about everything from the role religion should play in government, to a first-hand account of the military’s force against protestors at the Israeli embassy in May. While the team behind El Gornal may not agree with all the opinions they feature, (“Some of them reflect our society’s need for time to drop naivete and develop maturity,” says Tareq) they emphasize that the point is to give everyone a platform for their voice to be heard.
Reader enthusiasm for this type of forum for information exchange and expression of opinion among average Egyptians has been instant and dedicated, says Tareq, and their desire to stay connected mirrors the country’s overall unity: “I’m most encouraged that people are so willing to hear the news and thoughts of their fellow citizens from all over Egypt,” he says, as a man in galabiya enters his tent to ask for an extra copy of the paper.
Tareq feels the best way to revive Egyptian society is, like El Gornal, to “break everything the old regime left behind in order to make room for brand new freedoms, without any attachments or agendas.” He and the others hope that readers will recognize El Gornal’s existence itself as groundbreaking, but more importantly, as a challenge for Egyptians to push all “unnatural boundaries” in their daily lives.
“Mubarak stepping down is not a happy ending for us; it is an opportunity for a fresh start,” adds the gracefully composed Seif, a high school senior whose wide-eyes and soft-spoken demeanor belie her sharp wit and strong will. “We must establish the freedom we deserve–together.”
But there is no one more deserving of the freedom of expression than this group of young adults, (or “Facebook kids,” as he calls them), says Sioufi, whose sprawling Tahrir Square flat served as a recharging station and hippie commune of sorts for hundreds of demonstrators seeking refuge during the 18 days before Mubarak resigned.
“They have earned the respect of not only their peers, but also their elders,” Sioufi says. They need El Gornal because “their opinions should not be written off or relegated to one column in a standard newspaper to be read only by other youth. They deserve equal prominence and readership as the journalists and political figures highlighted in existing media.”
But for all the media talk of the youth-led “social media revolution,” the movement did not become a force until it stepped outside of the world wide web and disseminated into the hands of Egyptians on the streets, says Seif. “We hope people use El Gornal as a tool to fight back against the media’s misinformation,” she says. Ultimately, Seif, Tareq, and the others want readers to pay it forward by sharing knowledge, debating, and taking action together, the way that they themselves did as strangers in Sioufi’s flat early this year. After all, it only took 18 days to yield positive results last time.