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Journalism blooms in Egypt’s Arab Spring

“Just because people aren’t reading papers now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future,” said Cairo-based journalist Issandr El Amrani. “There’s every reason to believe that if you build a smart newspaper, readers will come.”

More than a decade ago, El Amrani worked for Kassem on his English-language Cairo Times when it was Egypt’s only independent news magazine. He remembered his old boss as an uncompromising curmudgeon who, given the arbitrary way in which the government’s draconian press laws were enforced, skillfully and effectively flirted with treason. “Hisham was a great judge of character and what he could get away with,” El Amrani said. “He knew how to get exactly to the edge of the permissible and push the boundaries, but not get the paper into unnecessary trouble.”

Years later, as publisher of the independent daily Al Masry Al Yoom, Kassem would feature blank spaces on pages where punchy stories would have appeared if not for the thin skins of powerful apparatchiks. Under his watch, Al Masry Al Yoom emerged as the most influential newspaper in Egypt as well as a rival to the state-owned Al Ahram for paying subscribers and rack sales.

In 2007, frustrated with meddlesome shareholders, Kassem decided to launch his own daily paper. He spent two years touring the world’s best news dailies and by late 2009 he had raised a capital fund worth 30 million Egyptian pounds (about $5 million)  from a pool of private investors, none of whom were allowed stakes of more than 5 percent. He invested 300,000 euros in a news management system that will help him operate a relatively lean staff of 80 editors and reporters — a third of whom will be low-cost young hires with little or no experience — capable of turning around print, radio and video news coverage on a dime.

And what of the “Facebook kids,” the young bloggers who brought down a dictator with their serrated posts and staccato tweets? There will be room for them in Kassem’s new domain, but only if they check their celebrity at the door and remember their place in its old-school hierarchy. “I don’t like stars, particularly if they don’t think like journalists,” he said. “They’re a nuisance with inflated egos and they’re not as important as they say they are.”

However ambitious, Kassem is no Napoleon, let alone a Murdoch. While determined to nurture his company into a media powerhouse at home, he has no pretensions to build an empire abroad. Should post-Mubarak Egypt revive itself as the Arab world’s political and intellectual fountainhead, however, his vision for a professional news industry in Egypt will certainly have played a role. If that happens, the high production and ethical standards he has long set for himself may become one of Egypt’s most coveted exports.

As El Amrani put it: “If anyone can do it, Hisham can.”