Hisham Kassem stands in the middle of rubble in a vast and empty open-plan office under renovation, explaining to a visitor where, six months from now, dozens of journalists and other staff will be producing his newspaper, al-Karnak.
He says it will be the first true convergent newsroom – delivering 24-hour information simultaneously to print, the web and mobile devices.
Only a decade ago, when he was running a small-circulation English-language weekly, Mr Kassem could never have imagined he would be doing this. His magazine had to be licensed and printed abroad and was subject to a state censor. Local printing licences were almost impossible to obtain and the eight publishing houses controlled by the state dominated the media. Critical publications were regularly banned, and mobile phones and the internet were mostly restricted to the affluent elite.
But then everything changed. In 2004, backed by a group of prominent businessmen, he launched al-Masri al-Youm (The Egyptian Today), one of the first independent dailies made possible by newly available licences. It and other newspapers radically altered the media landscape.
“Before 2003, you could not even criticise [President Hosni] Mubarak,” Mr Kassem says. “Now, only the military remains untouchable.”
But even if formal censorship has disappeared, the advances in press freedom remain fragile and the media still come under pressure in a country with weak institutions and a strong executive. To guard against some of these pressures, Al-Karnak’s ownership is guided by one principle: that no single shareholder would have more than 10 per cent.
“I have received plenty of offers from people who wanted to buy 51 per cent,” he says, but he turned down all of them. He is launching with about two-thirds of his initial capital of E£30m ($5m), drawn from 16 individuals, hoping to raise the rest as the venture picks up steam.
This model, he hopes, will shield al-Karnak from the pressure that the security services sometimes puts on businessmen publishers to skew coverage and rein in feisty editors.
Ibrahim Eissa, Egypt’s most famous and irreverent journalist, knows all about this. He is the former editor and chief columnist of al-Destour (The Constitution), a newspaper that delights in criticising the government and lampooning political figures, including Mr Mubarak. He has been sued for libel many times and, several years ago, was tried for endangering national security by spreading rumours about Mr Mubarak’s health. (He was convicted but received a presidential pardon.)
In October, Mr Eissa was fired from the newspaper he created by its new owners, businessmen associated with the opposition Wafd Party. The change of ownership had raised questions about whether al-Destour’s firebrand style would survive. For him, there is no doubt: his dismissal was “co-ordinated with the regime”.
Even if the reason for his firing remains uncertain, it was seen as the beginning of the reversal of the past six years’ advances in press freedom. Also in October, the authorities announced that companies that mass-distribute SMS messages would have to obtain new licences and submit the content of the messages to security scrutiny, while companies providing camera and satellite link-up services to news channels would have to operate under the state-run Egyptian Radio and Television Union. Several satellite stations broadcasting on the government-owned Nilesat satellites were also shut down.
The SMS decision has since been overturned by a court on the grounds of freedom of expression, while another court decision lifted the ban on most of the channels (although these decisions could be ignored). But some fear these are signs of a clampdown.
“We are entering a dead zone,” Mr Eissa says of the media and political climate.
He and a group of loyalists from al-Destour have continued to produce an online version of the newspaper, and he is working on several new projects. Like Mr Kassem, he believes the internet may deliver larger audiences in the future and make irrelevant restrictions on printing licences, which are granted by a Higher Press Committee controlled by senior regime figures.
With 17m internet users (still rapidly growing in part due to a government programme to subsidise computer ownership and internet access) and 60m mobile lines, the convergence of the web and mobile devices looks like the future of media in Egypt, as in the rest of the world.
Mahmoud Salem, a business development manager at the Good News group, which owns a satellite station, a newspaper and several websites, suggests that Arabic content production still needs to mature and target markets “to allow for better segmentation”.
While sports and news do well online, Mr Salem points to an unlikely success story: that of www.fatakat.com, a website dedicated to women that he says “is run by a guy in Shubra [a lower middle class Cairo neighbourhood] with his eight sisters and is doing great with traffic volume”.
Fatakat, which provides, among other things, fashion tips for veiled women and cooking lessons, is ranked by Alexa.com as the sixth most popular website in Egypt, just after international behemoths such as Google, MSN and Yahoo and far ahead of any Egyptian newspaper website.
Its success suggests that, beyond politics, there is a huge market out there awaiting the right content.