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Yosri Fouda: Journalist, TV Host and Revolutionary Hero

Egypt - Yosri Fouda
Yosri Fouda. Photo Sophia Kembowski

 

“The experience of freedom is in one way like the experience of death. You can visit death but you can’t come back from it.”

These words by Egyptian journalist and presenter Yosri Fouda sum up why he became a hero of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. Following President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011, Fouda’s outspoken talk show was one of the most watched and influential in the country’s TV history.

However, his career started much earlier and is characterized by many firsts. Born in 1964, Fouda graduated from Cairo University with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication before pursuing a master’s degree at the American University in Cairo. He was granted a scholarship to study for a PhD in the United Kingdom. His studies came to an abrupt end when one of his roommates told him that the BBC was looking for Arab reporters for a new venture it was launching.

He worked for the BBC from 1994 to 1996, setting up the first BBC Arabic service and later serving as the first Arabic roving reporter. During this time he covered several complex stories, such as the Middle East peace process, and found himself in his first warzone while covering the conflict in Bosnia.

He came to international attention in 1996, when he joined the Qatari broadcaster al-Jazeera, which was in its infancy at the time, as the first London bureau chief. It was here that he moved into investigative journalism, after he showed his new employer a pilot he had produced. This resulted in Sirri Lil Ghaya (‘top secret’), which became one of the most popular shows on al-Jazeera. People took notice of the budding TV station when Fouda became the only journalist to interview Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

After 12 years at al-Jazeera, during which time the station became a global media player, Fouda returned to Egypt in 2009. While initially aiming for some time off to decide what to do next, Fouda was approached by ONTV, which was then a young, independent channel. Two years later, on 25 January 2011, the Egyptian revolution erupted in Tahrir Square. Although Fouda had already garnered acclaim worldwide for his work as an investigative journalist, it was only after the revolution that he became a household name in Egypt, thanks to his show Akher Kalam (‘the last word’).

In an interview with the BBC in October 2011, Fouda explained how the revolution was liberating to him as an Egyptian citizen but also as a journalist, and how he set out to create a new form of journalism in the post-revolution era. The high point of his show came when it was credited with bringing about the resignation of Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak before he stepped down. During the show, writer and activist Alaa al-Aswany openly challenged Shafik and accused him of opposing the revolution. It was the first time that a civilian had publicly confronted and humiliated a prime minister in Egypt, and gave an indication of the new media landscape that was forming across the country.

This focus on freedom of expression became central to Fouda’s time in post-revolution Egypt. In October 2011, he suspended his show, citing “a noticeable deterioration in media freedoms”. He accused those in power of trying to use the media to spread lies and “fabricate a reality that does not exist”. He returned to the air three weeks later, stressing that he had suspended the show “to prove a point”.

However, the media situation in Egypt continued to deteriorate. Fouda spoke out against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled the country following Mubarak’s fall. He also spoke out against Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member and the first elected president after the revolution, criticizing in particular the presidential decrees that granted Morsi sweeping powers. He suspended his show again in June 2012, refusing to give a reason beyond a simple tweet saying, ‘I’ve stopped my show because I respect you.’ The show resumed in September 2012, before eventually being taken off air in 2014.

Fouda left ONTV and withdrew from the media, choosing to be silent rather than stifled. Once a darling of the regime for his anti-Morsi stance, his support fell away when he became critical of the military-led coalition that replaced him and of the subsequent president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

It was two years before he made his comeback, signing up with Deutsche Welle (DW) for a new show in Arabic. Called The Fifth Estate, it sought to recreate the success of Akher Kalam.

In February 2016, the long-time bachelor announced his engagement to Syrian news anchor Alma Intabli. He now lives in Germany, where he continues to work for DW. In Egypt’s current media environment, which has become more restrictive than under Mubarak, it is unlikely that he would find work at home.