Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Saturday Stroll to Topple a Dictator

At noon, about a hundred Syrian and Egyptian men and women stood outside the high, anonymous walls of the Syrian Embassy. Most of the women wore full-face veils, while the men wrapped their hair, and sometimes their faces as well, in Syrian flags. They chanted “Freedom for Syria” and danced to a beat pounded out on a low, throbbing drum. I found myself wondering if embassies in Cairo are put in residential neighborhoods so that protests are subject to noise complaints. Then, I remembered that noise complaints would be ironic in what many call the loudest city in the world.

Riot police stood with long, thin batons and body-length plastic shields, producing a vague sense of tension, although it was clear that violence would be unlikely at so peaceful and harmless a demonstration. Every once in a while, tourists would emerge from the King Hotel, across the street, and look about confusedly before finding a taxi.

At around three, the excitement waned. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to turn this into a bloody, pointless showdown with police. The chants wafted away and the people started to disperse. All of a sudden, several women, anonymous in their long black dresses and covered faces, unfurled a banner of the Syrian flag. They began shouting “Allahu Akbar,” God is Most Great!, and walking down the street. A group of young men piled into and on top of an old, extremely corroded salmon-pink car. The driver lit a cigarette and turned the key, and the car sputtered and popped. 

Three men hopped off the top of the car, went around the back, and held their Syrian flags in their teeth as they pushed until the ignition started and the car finally rolled on its own. They hopped back on top as the vehicle, amazingly, crawled behind the women with the banner.

The hasty parade advanced up the street, chanting slogans, beating the drum, allowing ample time for me to fend off sales pitches from men selling Real Ancient Egyptian Antiquities. Several times, I saw Egyptian kids dance along and shout “Syria! Syria!”

The parade, now perhaps 30 or 40-strong, was heading towards the Arab League building downtown. It’s not a long walk, but it’s a walk more designed for a date than for a protest, crossing two bridges over the Nile and a quiet island that holds the Cairo Opera House and a number of manicured, sedate parks. 

As the nearly broken salmon-pink car full of men and the veiled women with the giant Syrian flag made their way across the bridge and the island and the second bridge, they passed couples arm in arm, old men waiting for the bus, and families with small children who would sway to the drum and the chanting.

Cars passing by honked loudly in support, but after a while, the honks started to drown out the marchers. The wind picked up from the Nile below, soaking up the drum, and the chants finally met their match as whiny pop music blared from a small boat sailing under the bridge.

Coming off the bridge, they made a stunning image against the sun, which was starting to dip for the day: the black gowns, the waving flags, the car about to give in to the weight of three young men walking on the roof. The whole delegation arrived at the Arab League building at 4pm, where their home base, the sit-in, has been lulling for weeks. A giant sign implored the Arab League: “Your silence is killing us!”

The marchers stepped across the construction rubble for a new hotel to find shade under an even bigger Syrian flag tied to some trees. Some of the men sat in plastic chairs, while their friends, who had been sitting-in all day, made them tea.

The Muslim Brotherhood Goes to the Movies

The majority of headlines about the Muslim Brotherhood these days describe the tensions accompanying their role in the political landscape as elections loom in late November; internal rifts, careful diplomacy, alliances broken and reformed.
But under the surface of this political positioning, something else is happening. Over the summer and into the fall, youth members of the Brotherhood have been building a collection of short films called Ikhwan Cinema. In each, a kitschy portrayal of Egyptian societyteaches a moral lesson. In one, a civil servant demands a bribe, only to receive a phone call telling him his son is injured in the hospital. When he arrives at the hospital, he finds out that he can only get his boy to the emergency room with a bribe, fulfilling a kind of corruption-condemning karma.
Why create these videos? The Brotherhood preempted the question by releasing statements over the summer,arguing that "there is a noticeable link between violence and corruption and the messages that are portrayed in films and other forms of media." These videos are meant to be an antidote to that trend.
The Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other Islamic voices in Egypt, have been campaigning to clean up corruption and violence with Islamic principles for years. What I found amazing this time were the reference points. The Brotherhood's online statements linked to an American peer-reviewed article called "The Psychological Effects of Violent Media on Children" by Aimee Tompkins and a book chapter called "Media-made Criminality: The Representation of Crime in the Mass Media" by Robert Reiner. Elsewhere they referred to an article about how the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was linked to violence in popular culture.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Elections in Tunisia, Envy in Egypt

Last summer, I was studying Arabic in Tunisia with a group of Americans, funded by the U.S. government, with Tunisian teachers. For many of my colleagues, who had only studied classical Arabic, Tunisian would be their first dialect. I had the hardest time, having studied smatterings of Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian. As I tried to learn Tunisian, my speech was peppered with these other dialects: words foreign, if recognizable, to Tunisians.

Usually my aberrant words were Levantine, and my teachers would smile and correct me with the Tunisian word. But every time an Egyptian word snuck in, I received a glare.

Many Tunisians, I found out, were bitter that Egypt got all of the attention: the tourists, the archaeologists, the Hollywood mystique of Ancient secrets. Tunisians reminded me that they, after all, had the Carthaginians, impressive Roman ruins, crystal beaches, cosmopolitan sophistication, better food, more alcohol. It was the syndrome of the second-best, the indignation of feeling like they deserved more than just a handful of pasty German sunbathers. The mother in my host-family told me Tunisia had the “first beach in the world.” That’s impossible! I scoffed, What do you mean? She clarified; a French magazine had rated Tunisia’s beaches #1 in a top-ten list.

Then Tunisia had its moment in the international spotlight. A revolution, set in motion by the horrific, yet inspiring death of Mohamed Bouazizi, ousted a dictator and captured the world’s attention. Tunisia would not only be free politically, but perhaps more relevant culturally, the origin and center of the Arab Spring.

But Egypt grabbed that spotlight too. A few weeks after the protests in Tunisia, Egypt took to the streets, with millions more people and thousands more camera-phones and hours more coverage in international media. “Few in international media cared about what they saw as an insignificant country,” wrote Tunisian blogger Yasmine El Rafie of her own revolution. “The Egyptian uprising was journalistically monitored in detail.”

And in the months since, everyone continued to focus their lenses Egypt’s sputtering transition to democratic elections. In Tunisia, elections were being organized, and today, at least for a moment, the envy flipped. The famous Egyptian blogger, who goes by the name the Big Pharaoh, vented that Tunisia had successfully allowed expats representation in parliament, while the Egyptian army has struck down the ability of Egyptian expats to even vote. He tweeted Saturday: “Tunisia has constituted a number of seats in their new parliament for citizens abroad. Yet here, a single decision banned millions of votes.”

Moments later, he was frustrated with the current success of pluralism in Tunisia. “Has anyone read the agenda of the Tunisian "Islamist" party El Nahda,” he asked. “Very moderate and conciliatory. Tunis is scoring big time against us.”

The sports metaphor was not new. The revolutionary experiences of Tunisia and Egypt have often been likened to a football match. All through Sunday, one saw tweets like these:

Ahmed Safwat: can't but envy #Tunisia , really disappointed with #Scaf and #ikhwan ... but let's hope for a better tomorrow ...

Karim Hussein: Good luck for Tunisian voting today, I envy you can vote all over the world. It puzzles me we can't do the same ... :(

MarwaApril: TUNISIA I'm jealous !!! U are my ideal, God bless u. Respect !

Shereef Abbas (al ahram center): I'm jealous of both Tunisia & Libya. One's having proper elections (incl. Tun. abroad) & the other will have Gaddafi under ground in days.

Nermeen Edrees: I have to admit that as much as am happy for #Tunisia, I am a tad jealous.

Alia El Sandouby (in California): #TNELEC so jealous of #Tunisia 9 months after #Jan25 egy expats still denied #right2vote we'll keep fighting till we get our full roghts

Others implored their fellow Egyptians to ditch the competition metaphors:

Sarah Carr: Could everyone please stop comparing the Arab revolutions and saying Tunisia's beating Egypt etc it's not bloody X Factor.

@MahmoudAboBakr (translated in a post by Tarek Amr): Those who are saying the situation in Tunisia is better than us, and that their revolution proceeded ours, do you have a handbook or a catalogue that defines a revolution and its stages?

Tarek Amr also found the tweet that ended up my favorite:

@EmanM: I can't believe it Tunisians! Please write more in Arabic and stop using French for us to be able to understand you. We are both Arabs.

Unlike many of my fellow expats, I don’t assume Americans are all experts on civics, or that democracy is going to save anybody. I lived in a state that elected George W. Bush and then Rick Perry. 

Add to that the fact that Twitter, in both Tunisia and Egypt, represents an extremely small portion of the population.

But no matter what, it is really beautiful to see the solidarity and warmth floating digitally across the Mediterranean. 

Photo courtesy of Sherif9282, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Qaddafi's death from an Egyptian newsroom

At a press conference today, the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, here to talk about elections and media and all sorts of other things, stood in front of journalists and awkwardly tried to comment on Qaddafi's capture, which at that point was still unverified. It was news to all of us too. Unaware that Qaddafi had been killed, Clegg told the reporters,"We believe they should be responsible for their crimes inflicted on Libyan people." One journalist began to clap, and when nobody joined him, he stopped. 

I took a taxi back to the Daily News Egypt office. When I arrived, the TV, which usually sits silent, glowed with horrific images. The circle of editors (nearly all of whom are women here) sat at their computers, half-working and half-watching as Al Jazeera projected the footage, which "proved" Qaddafi is really dead. Not everyone was so sure yet. On Twitter, American journalist Kristen Chick wrote "This new picture of Qaddafi is very recognizable as him." Hadeel al-Shalchi, an Egyptian, tweeted "Very graphic video…of someone who looks VERY like Gadhafi being beaten and dragged in the street." "Seriously, how crazy is this?," wrote Blake Hounshell, Managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, "Gaddafi was found in a sewer waving around a golden gun."

"Oh my god this is disgusting," one editor said. "And they keep repeating it," said another, as her face soured.

The image was stuck on Al Jazeera like a perverted screensaver. Qaddafi's grainy, bloodied, washed-out face laying on the ground, eyes rolled back, hair a wild mess. A shaky, pixilated video jumps between white, grey, blue, khaki, the jeans and skin of men surrounding him. And then, red, the deep dark stain of blood covering Qaddafi’s shirt as he slumps back, very clearly dead.

"I want to see what BBC is showing," one said. We found BBC Arabic from the endless list of satellite channels. They were cutting between expert commentary and mundane footage of a couple of soldiers standing on a street. It was not clear they saw the camera, until the group began to grow. One of the soldiers produced a Libyan flag, and they began to unfold it. Stretching it out, they bounced it up and down, one soldier holding each corner, and then holding it up around what looked, oddly, like a trophy. On CNN, more celebrations were shown. They didn’t show the bloody image.

Moving back from CNN to Al Jazeera, the TV lingered on Nile TV International, a State-owned station. They were reporting news of a Football victory in England. Everyone in the office laughed.

The editors, now less squeamish, debated which screen grab of Qaddafi’s corpse to run in their paper. Theories started to proliferate in the room. In Agence Free Presse footage, Qaddafi is clearly dead, but in Al Jazeera footage, he is being dragged, his state of consciousness not as obvious. “Was Qaddafi knocked out (Jazeera footage) and then killed (bloodied AFP pic)?” tweeted Sarah, sitting next to me. “Or was he killed (bloodied AFP pic) and then body cleaned up and clothes removed (for Jazeera footage)?”

It was a macabre debate, which probably was going on simultaneously around the world among those who deal day to day with how you can possibly know, even when you’re looking at evidence, that something has really happened.

And in Syria, State TV is denying Qaddafi was killed.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Press Battles After Maspero

On Wednesday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces held a press conference, where they denied starting the violence that caused the deaths of over twenty demonstrators on Sunday night. David Kirkpatrick, in the New York Times, quoted General Adel Emara, who explained the situation he thought the soldiers, all of who were quite young, found themselves in that night.
“I want you all to imagine, as parents would,” Emara told a sea of microphones, “the soldier in his vehicle who sees the scene and wants to run for his life. He sees a car burning, and if people jump out, the crowd beats him up severely.” “What can he do,” the General asked rhetorically, yet answering to the fact that were run over by military vehicles, “other than try to drive his car out of this hell to safety?”
Like much of the foreign press, Kirkpatrick refrained from joining into the chorus of Egyptian journalists, who are so stridently sure that the blame lays squarely on the army, the police, and the State media. Still, his assessment invariably seeped out, dripping off the bottom of the page as he ended with a few paragraphs on Vivianne Magdy.

Magdy became an icon after going on television on Tuesday, teary and raw with grief, and describing how her fiancé was run over and killed by one of the military vehicles. Kirkpatrick made his point simply by laying out her experience at the end of his article. And then, he went further, leaving the reader with a description of a picture of Magdy holding the hand of her fiancé, dead in the hospital.

On Thursday, several youth organizations held their own press conference, to offer the counter-narrative to the SCAF statements the day before, including eyewitness testimony of many who were at Maspero on Sunday night.

I knew the street of the office, but not the number, so I walked until I saw several cameras and a few smoking journalists in front of a doorway, waiting for the conference to finish. A young man in a light blue shirt waved a long white stick at some schoolchildren who were giggling and pushing each other towards the cameras. “Is the press conference here?” I asked him. “Yes, but there is so much zahma,” he replied, using a word that usually refers to traffic.

The smallness of the room and the number of people crammed into it would have felt like a comedy skit if the reason for the cramming were not so serious. The room, really a foyer, was in fact so small that journalists had to take turns getting good positions to film and hear the speakers, who took turns stepping into the fluorescent haze of the cameras, positioning themselves in front of microphones rigged into staplers and held in the air by anonymous arms protruding from the mass of people.

Every few minutes, the murmurings of cameramen jostling for space and others making quiet phone calls were enough to overtake the speaker’s voice, at which point the organizers would scream at everyone to quiet down. Backing out of the mass, I came upon several couches, where the buzz of reporters typing their stories sounded like rain.

Usually press conferences are comprised of two sides: the mildly disinterested, yet persistent press, and the speakers, who may be busy, important leaders taking a break, or else the disempowered, desperate to put their message out into the world.

Here, there were not two sides. The journalists often tossed in their own comments, on occasion even interrupting the speaker to correct what they felt to be a missed angle, a hidden issue. At one point, an American journalist, looking on skeptically, commented on some footage being shown on a small laptop screen. “It’s just so dark,” she declared. “Sorry,” the speaker, who had shot the video, responded, “It’s from mobile phone.” She squinted and lightly shook her head.

My Arabic is workable, but crammed shoulder to shoulder and jostled constantly, I couldn’t concentrate enough to translate well, so I relied on Twitter feeds, which relayed the important details of each speech in English. I’ve witnessed many press conferences, courtroom proceedings, and protests in languages I don’t fully understand. Every time, the diminished understanding of what is said is made up for by an increased attention to what is felt. The whole scene becomes a symphony of gestures, tones of voice, and emotional reactions between the participants. This time, that symphony was conducted by the images and videos played on laptops, showing brutal footage of the army attacking the protesters.

A 25-year old witness named Lobna Darwish, who has short, curly hair and is herself a fairly well-known journalist, stood up to give her account. Her memories were full of the scattered, incomplete impressions of violence that everyone seems to have of Sunday night. She stressed that the march was initially “full of families.” “Things were fine,” she said, “until we reached the Shubra underpass,” at which point “rocks were thrown at us.” "At first when I saw the first truck, I thought it was an individual case of a military officer who went crazy," she said, in Daily News Egypt reporter Heba Fahmy’s translation. "But there were four armored personnel carriers running over the people again and again."
By the third hour of the conference, time started to drag and the room went from sardine-can to cocktail party. Some of the activists who spoke late into the afternoon shortened their accounts into tight take-away points for the tired reporters, who still dutifully scribbled notes and held their microphones in the air.
In a room next door and on the street outside, the activists told their stories again and again in front of different television cameras. Their narratives gradually became less and less scattered and hazy and congealed into consistent, persuasive, and passionate accounts. I saw one man give a journalist a flash drive full of footage, telling him he could keep it.

As I prepared to leave, a woman handed me two pages in English, a translation of the press conference’s official statement. It wove Sunday night’s violence into the broader struggle of the revolution. “Egypt’s Copts wrote a new line with their blood for their contribution in the revolution on the long road chosen by the Egyptian people to have a better life based on freedom, justice, and equality,” it read. It continued to call Sunday night’s violence a “full-fledged conspiracy” by the army, which “surpassed that of Mubarak’s mercenaries; shedding the blood of Egyptians in cold blood and with the cruelest of means.”  It reiterated the accusations leveled at the State media, and then claimed the army was “putting [Egypt] on the brink of civil war for the sole purpose of distracting Egyptians from their true enemy…”

A few hours later, down the street from Tahrir square, mourners clustered in black holding candles, silently handing out a statement of demands including an immediate transition to civil government and the firing of State media producers. Numbering maybe 50 or 60, they silently stood on the curb, allowing photographers to snap their pictures and handing out candles to newcomers. In the middle of the traffic circle, just twenty feet away and across a lane of buzzing, blaring taxis, hundreds of young men shouted “Freedom for Christians and Muslims!”

Photo from the Associated Press

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Really Happened pt. 2

Originally published on Huffington Post Blogs:

On Sunday night around 8 p.m., I logged into Twitter and the reports started streaming in, fragmented but urgent. Violence had erupted near the Maspero building between a march of Coptic Christians coming from Shubra and a mixture of soldiers, police, and civilians. Gunshots were heard. Deaths were confirmed. We were witnessing the worst violence since the revolution.
But from the beginning there was more to it. Peppered in among the Twitter messages from journalists and activists were accusations leveled at the State media, which had called upon "honest" or "honorable" Egyptians (depending on the translation) to come out into the streets and protect the military from the protesters. It was also reported on Nile TV, a state-owned station, that several soldiers had been killed. I grabbed some tea and started reading everything I could find.
And I found a lot. Many journalists were incredulous. Sarah Sheffer wrote that "Egyptian state TV claimed that Coptic Christians initiated the attack, angering many who believe that the inaccurate state TV discourse will insight [sic] further violence." Tom Gara tweeted that "Egyptian propaganda managed to turn a massacre of protesters into a two-way deadly 'clash' with deaths on both sides." Tony Karon suggested that "the sectarian issue itself is one easily manipulated to create a specter of chaos -- and make the argument for Egypt to be ruled by a strong hand," meaning that the military started the violence, and blamed it on the protesters. The journalists also pointed out that the names of the soldiers supposedly killed had not come out, because they did not really exist.
Read more:

Monday, October 10, 2011

Inside a Press Conference with Leon Panetta

Last week, the Daily News Egypt sent me to write about a press conference with Leon Panetta, the current US Secretary of Defense. The conference was to be held at the Fairmont Heliopolis hotel, a good hour away from downtown Cairo in traffic.

The Fairmont Heliopolis, like many expensive Cairo hotels, is massive and opulent in a way that even massive, opulent hotels in America might consider a bit much. Waterfalls appear where you would least expect them. Grand pianos and Victorian-style office furniture dot endless open spaces that I would call rooms, as opposed to hallways, except that everyone just walks through them, and nobody seems to be using the grand pianos or office furniture.

The staff stands everywhere, looking attentive. They stand in doorways, next to doorways, and behind doorways. The amount of helpfulness and service is a bit intimidating. I ask one of the staff where the press conference will be held. He asks another man, who asks another man, who points me down some stairs.

I find a room where diplomats from the U.S. Embassy are greeting journalists, and I begin to feel like the new kid in high school. Most of the journalists have clustered into small social groups. The American newspapers hang out with the international wires, the Egyptian dailies with the Egyptian broadcasters.

The bureau chief of a major American newspaper walks in. He wears a shirt tucked into slacks, instead of the suits favored by the Egyptians. He is greeted warmly by a diplomat and they chat about I-Pads.

At one point, a man from the embassy asks us, with almost unnatural courtesy, to please get up, leave our things and go to the hallway. A bomb-sniffing dog does a once-over with his handler, a short man wearing all blue and a cap that reads “K-9.” We all sip coffee or tea. Someone jokes that they thought Panetta was “more of a cat person.”

I had arrived panting at 2:15 worrying I was late. At 3:55, we are told that the Secretary will be coming momentarily. One of the international wire journalists looks at another and says, “It looks like you won.” Apparently, they had a bet going on just how late the press conference would start. A little after 4, Leon Panetta and his entourage enter the room.

Panetta has both the easy grace of a politician and the cheeriness of an Italian grandfather. The combination is disorienting when you remember that he was once Clinton’s chief of staff. It’s even more disorienting when you then remember that he oversaw the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. A little over two years ago, when Panetta was appointed head of the C.I.A., he had basically no experience in intelligence, and it was said he had been appointed because of his straightforward, trusting relationship with Obama. His reputation for straight shooting is legend. He wrote once of the Bush years that Americans had been turned “from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers.”

Talking about Egypt and the U.S.’s response to the Arab Spring, he leaned away from that impulse. Throughout the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has mostly watched from the outside and then supported the results. Panetta gave the usual compliments. “In many ways the dramatic changes we've seen in the Middle East had their birth here in Egypt, " he said,  "because Egypt has always represented a very pivotal nation in this region.”

Press conferences like this one involve a few brief remarks, followed by a longer question and answer session. Every sentence stands alone, utilizing a cadence that makes it easily quotable, if not particularly memorable. Twice Panetta said, “The Egyptian people, I believe, will succeed in a democratic transition.”

Most of the journalists have one or two questions. Panetta’s answers will become stories once the journalist adds just a bit of background information. Having not done this before, and unable to read the subtexts in much of Panetta’s responses, the impression I got is that they must be spinning a lot of cloth out of very little material.

A reporter for an Egyptian newspaper, a young woman with long, curly hair and a very serious demeanor, asks Panetta about Ilan Grapel, the Israeli-American held on questionable espionage charges since June. He responds: "I was not involved in any direct negotiations with regard to that issue...We urge that he ultimately be released.”

The Egyptians seldom felt comfortable asking a follow-up question that pressed him to clarify his vague, general statements. The Americans did it routinely, if not always successfully.

At one point, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times asked if the military leadership had given Panetta a timetable for the transition to civil government. Panetta laid out what everyone knew about the coming year if they had read the newspapers, and in this room they likely had.

Kirkpatrick looked annoyed. “That’s all been published,” he said, almost reactively, with a speed clearly born of having done this a lot. “Does the military plan to step out with parliamentary election or presidential?”

Panetta looked a little unsure. He glanced over to Ambassador Patterson, who answered calmly. “I don’t think, frankly, the military knows or anyone else knows,” she said.

“Are you encouraging them?” Kirkpatrick asked. “Yes,” Panetta said, with a tone that suggested he probably had not.  He paused, and then added; “Obviously the sooner that power could be relinquished to civilian authorities, the better for the democracy that the Egyptian people will have.”

Later that day, Kirkpatrick published his article. It was called “Egypt Unclear on Timetable of Power Transfer, U.S. Says.” It characterized Patterson’s comments as “an unusually candid assessment of the haze over Egypt’s path toward democracy.”

A reporter with Al-Ahram, an Egyptian state newspaper asked Panetta when U.S. troops would leave Iraq. After having to give a question to Patterson, Panetta looked relieved at this one, and outlined the Obama plan. The writer, like Kirkpatrick, was unimpressed by the official line, which had also been widely published.

The reporter asked a follow-up question, but his accent was so thick that Panetta had trouble understanding. He smiled awkwardly. Kirkpatrick jumped back in to clarify the question, “Is there a role for America in warming relations between Israel and Egypt?”

Panetta sort of laughed, trying to establish a bit of camaraderie with the other Americans in the room. This was not the first time he had done so. He had always given off a feeling of being relieved when the question did not have a thick Egyptian accent. 

After the snickering settled down, his response to the question about Israel and Egypt was extremely vague. “Anything the United States can do would be in the interest of U.S. security.”

Next to me, I glance at the notepad of an Egyptian broadcast journalist. During the two hour wait, he had scribbled down over a page’s worth of questions in Arabic. He raises his hand dutifully every time an answer finishes, but never gets to ask anything.

Again I feel like I’m in high school, only now it is in terms of the social hierarchy. International journalists get to follow the Secretary as he travels to and from the press conference. Their questions receive more careful answers.

But all the answers are careful to some extent. Press conferences are a ritual in which powerful people give the impression that they can freely discuss what happens behind closed doors, when really they cannot. If too candid, they get in trouble for using the press as a diplomatic tool, an unwieldy knife instead of the scalpel of direct negotiations. The journalists know this, and the more experiences ones try to dig just beneath the surface, to get a single new piece of information out of the rubble of diplomatic speech.

A year ago, I was beginning my Arabic homework. The unit was about the vocabulary used in Arabic newspapers. I was pleasantly surprised to see that with fairly few new words, I could easily read an Arabic newspaper article about international diplomacy. The next day in class, however, I struggled to remember what I read. The articles always seemed to be talking about “strengthening relations” or “economic ties” or “bilateral negotiations.” “I don’t understand why I don’t have anything to say about this,” I told the teacher, my frustration apparent. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “maybe diplomacy isn’t for you.”

"What Really Happened Last Night?"

The 24-hour news cycle, combined with the use of Twitter by journalists, brings the experience of reading the news a lot closer to that of being a reporter. The reader sitting at her computer, much like the journalist in the field, finds conflicting information everywhere, making it necessary to sift, weigh, and decide who to trust. This is even more the case when the events are violent, the scene chaotic, and the control of information very clearly political. Last night, I sat in the comfort of my apartment and tried to figure out what was going on a short cab ride away as reports started coming out about protests leading to violence. Here are a few of the things I read, a fragmented portrait of reality I constructed for myself from news reports and Twitter:

Sarah Carr: The march from the Cairo district of Shubra was huge, like the numbers on 28 January. In the front row was a group of men in long white bibs, “martyr upon demand” written on their chests. A tiny old lady walked among them, waving a large wooden cross: “God protect you my children, God protect you.”

Zeinobia: The rally was peaceful till Shubra tunnel where suddenly it was met by rocks hurled and gunshots in the air by some people “allegedly from locales!!” , nevertheless the rally continued but people were angry

Sarah Carr: At a traffic underpass at the end of Shubra Street, at around 6 pm, there was the sudden sound of what sounded like gunfire. Protesters at the front told those behind to stop - the march was under attack. Rocks rained down from left and right and from the bridge, underneath which protesters were taking shelter.

Wendell Steavenson: A few hours ago, in the early evening dark, I stood on the 6th of October Bridge and saw fires flaring up out of burning vehicles, arcs of red tracer from fired blanks, the whoosh and tumbling bounce of white-plumed tear gas, streaks of light made by Molotov cocktails, the crackling sparks of tasers, and revolving blue ambulance light.

David Kirkpatrick: Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to deflect the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians” to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power. “Muslims get what is happening,” she said. The military, she said, was “trying to start a civil war.”

Reem Abdellatif: What we are seeing in #Egypt is a clash between military & civilians, not Muslims and Copts.

Sarah Carr: Suddenly, there was a great surge of people moving back, and something strange happened. Two armored personnel carriers (APCs) began driving at frightening speed through protesters, who threw themselves out of its path. A soldier on top of each vehicle manned a gun, and spun it wildly, apparently shooting at random although the screams made it difficult to discern exactly where the sound of gunfire was coming from.

Sarah Sheffer: Egyptian state TV claimed that Coptic Christians initiated the attack, angering many who believe that the inaccurate state TV discourse will insight further violence.

Tony Karon: But, of course, the sectarian issue itself is one easily manipulated to create a specter of chaos -- and make the argument for Egypt to be ruled by a strong hand.

Issandr El Amrani: This marks the first time that the army has taken such an aggressive posture against a predominantly Christian protest, which will easily lead the framing of today’s events as the first time that the military chooses to kill protesting Christians.

Issandr El Amrani: Worrisome because state television has behaved thus far tonight much as it did during the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising this winter. In other words, it has deployed propaganda, unverifiable allegations, talk of “foreign agendas” and “outside hands”, and extremely partial reporting. It has repeatedly used sectarian language, with presenters referring to protestors as “the Copts” and using sentences such as “The Copts have killed two soldiers.” On top of this, the military cut off the live TV feeds of several satellite TV stations, including 25TV, al-Hurra, and at a later point al-Jazeera, reducing the independent reporting of an unfolding event. And most of all because TV presenters were urging Egyptians to “protect the army from the Copts.”

Mahmoud Salem: thugs are attacking the coptic hospital. REPORTERS go there NOW.

Sarach Carr: The Coptic Hospital tried its best to deal with the sudden influx of casualties. Its floors were sticky with blood and there was barely room to move among the wounded, the worried and the inconsolable. A man asked if we were press, and whether we’d like to film the morgue if we “were strong enough.”
Manal Hassan: alaa just told me that they got news that #EgArmy is confiscating photos from newspapers of the massacre today

Michael Hanna: Without being hyperbolic, this is the way civil wars start.

Amira Salah-Ahmed: Following dictator's style guide, egypt's rulers committing same atrocities as former regime. exact same images, only bloodier

Reem Abdellatif: Passed by #Coptic hospital on way to work, dozens of mourners. Women in black crying, screaming.

Tom Gara: Sectarian provocation in state media shows the army isnt like Mubarak, it is far more reckless. More incompetent, more dangerous.

MohHKamel: How come there isn't a single photo or video of a Copt with a gun? How come no one has seen or knows the names of the 3 soldiers?

Reem Abdellatif: Legally/logically speaking, army not allowed to shoot unless given OK from top. so what really happened last night?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Armed Forces Day

Originally published on Huffington Post Blogs:

Even if you could not see the military jets flying over Cairo on October 6th, you could hear them. Throughout the day, in nearly every part of the city, the air would fill intermittently with a loud passing roar, as if a single sound effect from a war film had been plucked out and played everywhere.
If you stood in the right place, you could see six or eight F-16's in a tight formation leaving behind them streaks of red, white, and a third color. I assumed the third stripe would be black, completing the color set of the Egyptian flag, but to the naked eye it really looked more like blue. On Twitter, comments proliferated suggesting that the colors represented the billion dollars plus of American military aid still being given.
On the first Armed Forces day since the revolution, the sound of the jets laid out in the open the tension that has defined the revolution's immediate legacy. Mubarak is gone. On that front, the protest movements have succeeded. But since early February, Egypt has been run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), usually collapsed into the single figure of Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the de facto head of state. The Emergency Law, one of the main grievances of the anti-Mubarak movements, has been reinstated for months. When I read articles in newspapers criticizing and defending the law, I have to remind myself that the revolution really did happen, that I haven't stepped a year into the past.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011


On Friday, I went to Tahrir square again to see protests that would bring together a huge numbers for the purpose of "Reclaiming the Revolution." Unlike former protests, where thousands of average Egyptians mingle with tech-savvy activists, here the scene was dominated by distinct political movements, each with their own stage. Standing in the middle you could slowly twist your head 360 degrees and take in a large swath of the Egyptian political landscape.

There was the stage for presidential candidate Hazem Abou Ismail, affiliated but not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There was the Freedom and Justice movement, not to be confused with the Freedom and Justice party, and the Egypt’s future movement, next to the Youth Union of Upper Egypt. At another stage, set up by Al-Wasat party, which split from the Muslim Brotherhood over a decade ago, the head of yet another party, called Free Egypt, shouted, “Islamists, liberals and leftists are all united in our demands for bread, freedom and social justice.”

And despite the chaos, they did seem united, at least in terms of organization. They took turns making speeches, each politely quieting their scratchy P.A. system when another began to speak.

Earlier in the day Sean Penn had appeared, dominating much of the less critical press, to the chagrin of some activists. As the afternoon wore on, the turnout of roughly 10,000, which many considered weak, began to lull in the afternoon heat. 

By the evening, thousands remained, and after sunset prayers, the few remaining thousands stood riveted by images projected on a tall building overlooking the square. These were mostly aerial shots the protestors, as if to say Look how many of us there were! 

We watched the mouse, controlled by one of the activists onstage, select photos from Facebook and Twitter pages. The projection shook in the breeze and the crowd, like any crowd drawn by a giant light, looked a little bored, as if their friend was trying to show them something he couldn't find.

And then, finally, his search ended, and the boredom quickly turned to horror.

He played a YouTube video in which members of the police are interrogating arrested detainees, some electrocuting and slapping them while others laugh and take videos with their phones. A man on stage, in front of the disturbing videos, shouted furiously. Some in the crowd shouted at him in support, others stood silent, not sure how to deal with the shocking images.

Homemade videos of police brutality, Citizen-Journalism as they’ve been dubbed, have been used in the past to bring people out to the square. Now, however, those same tools were being used to galvanize the people in the square themselves, as if the injustices bringing everyone to the streets could not just be described, but had to be seen, on the spot, taking us all to an emotional peak together. 

We ducked into a cafe, packed with older men smoking shisha pipes and sipping hot drinks and juice. They sat back to back with protestors taking a break from the streets. As I order tea, a man notices I speak Arabic and is eager to chat, to communicate, as is customary and unavoidable, in a tangled bilingual jumble. 

Khaled (not his real name) is 40, unmarried, a dealer of spare auto parts in a working class neighborhood. He had participated in the protests of January and February that ousted President Mubarak, but had not returned since, and was here to see, six months later, the legacy of the work he had a small part in. 

"We don't understand how to do politics," he told me, sort of in both languages. A boy handed us each a poster of Gamel Abdel Nasser, the first president of modern Egypt. Next to his image a decree of a political movement looking to his ideas for inspiration was laid out. Khaled did not read the words, but looked at the image, smiled, and said, "He loved the Egyptian people," exclusively in Arabic now that he was excited and wanting to speak quickly, "but he was a military man. He didn't have a mind for politics." 

I nod, and then almost burn myself on the tea as he continues his history lesson. "And Sadat?,” I ask. "He was the same, but he also understood some economics." "And Mubarak?" "He didn't understand anything, and he didn’t love the Egyptian people."

But more importantly than who runs the country, Khaled feels, his people must "learn to do politics" (what’s the English verb for this?) and they will, he says, because they have "pride," a word he makes me repeat many, many times above the din of the cafe.

We hop in a cab, and go to a theater in Zamalek, a well-kept upper-class neighborhood on an island in the middle of the Nile. We've been hearing about these puppet shows, "concerts" in which marionettes of the Beatles or a famous Arab singer lip-synch to a live recording.

This evening, the puppet is Abdel Halim Hafez, sort of the Frank Sinatra of Egypt, whose rich, honey tenor made him one of the first acceptable male sex symbols in the 1960’s and 70’s. The day he died, I have been told by numerous Egyptians, 4 or 14 young women (I've heard both) committed suicide.

The cultural center presents these puppet shows every month. Roughly two hundred Egyptians, mostly in families, are there singing along, awash in nostalgia for a time some of them remember, and others are encouraged by their parents to take pride in even if they were not born yet.

The marionette of Abdel Halim conducts the stiff-jointed wooden musicians. The puppeteers are quite talented, and every movement looks authentic. When he hits a long note, he closes his puppet eyes, lifts his hands, and holds the audience in his puppet spell. When the audience in the recording cheers, the real audience joins in.

In the 60’s, the real Abdel Halim Hafez acted in cheesy movie musicals, which now make wonderful artifacts of the days when Egypt was on the center of the world stage politically. Socially a liberal, mini-skirt wearing society, Egypt produced popular culture for the whole Arab world. Egyptian national radio played everywhere in the Middle East. Nasser led the non-aligned movement on a platform of anti-imperialism. Abdel Halim sang extolling political songs, like Al-Watan Al-Akbar (The Greatest Nation), which have, as one might expect, uncritical, sentimental lyrics like “It’s triumphs fills its existence/ Each day its glories grow/ My nation grows and is liberated.”

Abdel Halim was known as the “son of the revolution,” referring of course to the 1952 revolution that ended the British-backed monarchy and created a great hope that Egypt would lead the region politically, economically, and culturally.

And so, while thousands look towards the future, a few hundred, a few miles away, look towards the past. 

And what a past it was: