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

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