Egypt’s First Hyperlocal Paper: A New Route to Fostering Community Activism and Citizen Engagement

Heba Elsayed is a research fellow at the University of Oxford. Heba’s research interests have centred around media and identity construction, particularly in the Egyptian context. In her guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, Heba explores Mantiqti, Egypt’s first hyperlocal paper.

The 25th January 2011 not only marked Egypt’s political and social revolution against 30 years of dictatorship, but also set in motion Egypt’s media revolution against decades of controlled information. There is no doubt that Egypt’s post-2011 media landscape has witnessed an unforeseen expansion in new communication spaces − radio, television channels, online media, photography, mobile technology and graffiti − as newfound tools of citizen deliberation and routes to participation in national affairs. Added to this trend is the recent birth of a new type of small-scale community based journalism, driven by an ethical vision: to promote community cohesion and to support the active engagement of citizens at the neighbourhood level. Mantiqti, meaning My Place in Arabic, is Egypt’s first ever hyperlocal paper seeking to make its mark in the context of an increasingly bustling, yet not always effective, media environment.

The Egyptian case proves that an increase in quantity of media outlets does not necessarily translate into a healthy and diverse public sphere. Take Egyptian television’s recent coverage of the military overthrow of President Morsi as an example. On the one hand, Egyptian audiences are exposed to military-fuelled state propaganda promoting a monolithic vision of patriotism and national unity, and on the other hand, hordes of privatized broadcasters use sensationalist strategies as a means to boost audience ratings and secure profits. In other words established media outlets in Egypt usually have their own axe to grind relegating audience needs and priorities to a backseat. In seeking to circulate a uniform representation of the “loyal” Egyptian citizen, state media glosses over the socio-economic and cultural divides that characterise Egypt’s numerous micro-communities, while being chiefly concerned with market-driven demands and personal agendas, private broadcasters too have failed to address the actual daily needs of Egypt’s diverse communities. Mantiqti is the first attempt at nurturing a new type of media in Egypt centred around the unique features of the different neighbourhoods that make up Cairo’s vast urban topography, thus positioning the needs of local communities at the core of its journalistic endeavour. Issued by the Egypt Media Development Program (EMDP), Mantiqti covers Cairo’s downtown area of Borsa, and distributes 10,000 copies a month, which are available free at newsstands, local cafes and door-to-door.

Home to Cairo’s financial district and over 34 popular cafes, Borsa is at the heart of the city, and is characterised by a unique cultural and historical heritage. This is manifest in the area’s distinct 19th century architecture, its wide pedestrian zones and its position at the intersection of three main Cairo streets. Founder of Mantiqti, Tarek Atia, is himself an integral figure in the Borsa community through the location of EMDP office. Atia sees the paper as a focal point for local residents, businessmen and visitors to the area to engage in community-centred ventures such as monitoring of local services and working together to preserve the unique character of Borsa. This is reflected in the first issue of the paper, which presents a “Borsa constitution” made up of six articles – involving resident’s rights and their responsibilities towards Borsa − which are approved and signed by both residents of the area and local business owners. Interestingly, to achieve his vision of creating a new form of community-based media, Atia has chosen to bypass advancements in digital and new media, and has gone back to basics. He has returned to the oldest form of mass media in the contemporary world, the printing press, and Lord Reith’s founding principles that the media must ‘educate, inform and entertain.’

Mantiqti may be driven primarily by a developmental agenda, yet is also a commercial project supported predominantly by local businesses, reflected in the space given to them to advertise their services. Thus, although the paper is free and is circulated on a much smaller scale than conventional press in Egypt, attention to detail and quality is integral to Mantiqti so it can continue to attract national and local advertisers. A professional journalist himself, Atia says: ‘journalism needs to be both entertaining and informative and thus we have focused on creating a high-quality paper that contains personal stories, photographs, and provides a space for members of the community to get to know one another.’ What makes Mantiqti particularly unique is that residents of Borsa are not one-way consumers of a preordained media message, but are active participants in the paper’s content production. Thus in essence, Mantiqti is an innovative media product created by communities for communities. For instance, in the second issue, five pages are dedicated to the problem of parking around the Borsa area. Although this is a widespread problem affecting most districts in Cairo, the paper offers a very personalized, area-specific coverage of the issue by presenting: an assessment of the different garages and parking spots around Borsa; residents’ perspectives on the issue; and most interestingly, giving space to the neglected sayes – parking attendant – who plays a crucial role in organising vehicles by offering a valet-style service. In my opinion, this is where the novelty of Mantiqti lies. It avoids an elitist approach to community action- often adopted in Egypt- where privileged members of a locale promote their development vision on behalf of the community. Instead, Mantiqti endorses an inclusive community-building initiative that gives voice to rich businessmen, residents, and underprivileged street vendors alike.

Two years of continuous political uncertainty and extreme economic volatility has left many in Egypt cynical that the country will reach a state of normality in the near future. However, key to Egypt moving forward is all the different groups that make up its diverse national fabric − Christians, Nubians, rural inhabitants and residents of the Sinai Peninsula − coming together into a common nation-building project. Importantly, however, a sense of loyalty to the nation is not a monolithic endeavour that can be imposed by dominant institutions and transmitted through centralised media platforms in the shape of regurgitated patriotic songs. Mantiqti, therefore, may pave the way for a new type of media that works from below to help forge a sense of purpose and loyalty to one’s immediate locale, which on the long term, may translate into feelings of loyalty and devotedness at the larger national scale. Thus, as Egyptians face the challenge of adjusting to the unknown abyss of the post-Mubarak era, community-based media may be an important new route to creating well-informed and actively-engaged citizens. 




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