Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #1



Over the past few months, I’ve been learning a lot through interviews and brief chats with Egyptian journalists. Recently, I talked to Amira Salah-Ahmed, business editor at the Daily News Egypt, as well as a poet and the co-author of a book called Diaries of the Revolution (which at the moment is only in Italian, unfortunately). We sat down at Cilantro, a posh coffee shop near her newspaper office, roughly a week after the spate of violence at Tahrir in November. The foreign press had spent a week covering the violence and was just beginning to make note of the fact that the rest of Egypt was going about their daily lives as normal and that many cab drivers and shopkeepers weren’t necessarily supportive of the protest movement. The terms “Silent Majority” and “Party of the Couch” had just become common parlance.

I mentioned this to Amira, and she lept into oratorical first gear: “The silent majority has a right to participate in the rhetoric and the discourse that’s going on, and they have the right demand to whatever it is they see that they need for their lives to take a certain shape,” she told me, ordering a vanilla latte and making a sharp rhetorical left turn. “But at the same time, if...they are demanding something that will kind of perpetuate a kind of military dictatorship or something that doesn’t stand for equality and justice for all people, different religions or races or ideological differences or classes, if they’re not demanding that kind of democracy, then the question is do they have a right to democracy?”

Having grown up in Long Island, New York and attended the American University in Cairo, Amira is one a generation of young journalists who face a dilemma over their relationship to political events. They were educated under the Western journalistic model, which shuns advocacy while prizing neutral, dispassionate inquiry. And yet, in Egypt, where that inquiry put them face to face with the injustices of the Mubarak government, journalists like Amira felt themselves becoming advocates. 

“There is a thin line between being an activist and a journalist,” she told me. “We consider ourselves independent, but when your independence entails bringing out the truth, and the truth is very, very ugly, and it’s always against the current regime and the status quo, then you’re instantly opposition. So you’re always put in this position, unwillingly maybe, and sometimes unintentionally, of opposing the regime, when in fact what you’re doing is a completely objective portrayal of certain situations. At the same time, when you’re under an autocratic regime, I mean, any kind of- highlighting the truth in any form, it is a form of activism…I think it's obvious that a lot of the independent media supported the revolution.”

But was the opposite true? Were state-owned newspapers all for the regime? “For them it’s not really,” Amira began, interjecting with the qualifying “– and this is a very judgmental statement- I feel like for them it’s not a form of activism. It’s a job.”

“In this context you would look at the independent media as journalists/activists and the state media personnel as someone who just goes to their job and does it in a very routine manner, without thinking of the consequences.”

Amira thinks that it is not always a matter of the particular journalist being politically for the regime, but that the institutions exercise a top-down internal censorship. Reporters for state-owned television stations, for example, would film all of the pre-revolution protests, because it was the news of the day, but their footage would just wind up stored in archives.

She believes there are two kinds of state journalists. One kind "don’t really see that this is a problem...to be just kind of regurgitating what the state is saying, whatever orders are coming from the top, and there are others who, even when they are professional and do want to perform their jobs correctly, they’re not able to take it past just being there witnessing it, and its unpredictable whether they get to cover it or not.”

“They have no power,” she concluded, “but at the same time you have to ask what’s keeping you there. So it is kind of a question of integrity.”

If that is the dilemma state journalists face, as Amira sees it, then the dilemma facing independent journalists like herself is more about dealing with the possible repercussions of stories.

“There’s a sense of responsibility you have to think about when you’re covering news like this,” she explained. “In times of instability and turmoil and revolutions you really have to not only report objectively what’s going on, but you also have to think about whether you’re reporting something that’s going to fuel anger to a level that you can’t even imagine.”

“There comes a time when if the news turns out to be not true,” she continued, “you’re not just going to write a correction the next day. You will have caused a lot of ripples that you have no control over.”

As the business editor of a major newspaper in English, Amira works with a particularly delicate set of issues, because publishing sensitive information can, in her words, “move the market.”

“You say something about their chairman being questioned by, for example, the illicit gains authority,” she explained. “Instantly that’s going to have an effect on the company’s stocks, performance on the stock market and their ability maybe to get credit from banks.”

Of course, if the information is true then Amira publishes it. But in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, when the extent of corruption across the corporate layer of the country was coming out, it was harder to know when to publish, and all the different news agencies were competing for who could break stories the fastest.

“The competition was very fierce about who was going to get the news out first…Because if Al Arabiya reported it then Reuters would pick up the news that Al Arabiya reported from an unconfirmed source, and sometimes you had a story that was like Al Arabiya reported something that Al Jazeera said that was being printed by Reuters in our newspaper, for example. So its like your third or fourth unconfirmed source and you’re still propagating to get it out first.”

As a business editor who supports the activists demonstrating at Tahrir, Amira faces this dilemma: One the one hand, she wants to play up the protest movement’s legitimacy, enacting the symbiotic relationship between activists and independent journalists. On the other, she doesn’t want to adversely affect perceptions in the business world that Egypt is a good place to invest. She wants to see investment strengthen the country’s now weak economy.

She feels politically impelled to play up the Tahrir story, the political instability of the moment, in solidarity with efforts to bring about democratic change. For the business world, however, she feels a need to portray stability, and the physical distance between Tahrir from the rest of Egypt, where life proceeds as normal. And so, just like that, we were back to the Silent majority.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saving the Books Burned in the Institut d’Egypte



On Thursday, in a small room under the national archives, it felt like an emergency room. Fifteen to twenty women and men scrambled back and forth in white lab coats from one station to another, as crumpled old newspapers and small black confetti, the charred remains of book pages, crunched under their feet.

A week ago, a fire broke out at the Institut d’Egypte, an archive in downtown Cairo. Founded as a part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to bolster his invasion of Egypt with the production of scientific and archeological scholarship, the archive’s current house was built in the early 20th century. Inside were over 200,000 rare books and manuscripts.
  
Throughout the week before, protesters had been pushed back from a sit-in at the Cabinet building down Qasr al-Aini street towards Tahrir square. As the battle passed the building, a fire erupted on the lower floors and quickly spread to the top.

The press battle took a familiar form, as the protesters blamed the army, the army blamed the protesters, and reporters picked sides. “Eyewinesses were reported to have seen protesters throwing a Molotov cocktail at stone-throwing soldiers at the Shura Council building,” wrote the Egypt Independent, referring to a government building next door, “but the projectile missed the intended target and instead landed in the Egyptian Scientific Institute.” Al Arabiya, which is Saudi owned, reported that the fire “drove several experts to warn of a possible intervention by foreign entities to preserve the heritage at risk.” Surprisingly, Israeli newspaper Haaretz accused “rioters” of setting the fire, showing where the liberal paper’s assumptions generally fall.

Over the next few days, protesters and other Egyptians answering calls on Twitter and Facebook loaded up tens of thousands of manuscripts from pavement outside of the American University in Cairo and the US embassy downtown to the national archives.
Dina, a professional tour guide who had answered the call to “save the books,” was more interested saving the artifacts than the political situation, and had taken on an leadership of the constantly arriving volunteers, having become an expert in the few hours of head start she had over the rest of us. She barked instructions (“If the book is wet, you have to re-wrap it!”), peppered in with peppy encouragement (“Keep up the good work. Good job guys!)

I learned the task in about 30 seconds, and then repeated the task several hundred times over the course of a few hours. It was simple: You unwrap a book saved in newspaper, sweep away the charred shards, lay it on a large piece of butcher paper and wrap it like a piece of glass or pottery. Someone else hermetically seals a plastic casing around the butcher paper, and someone else was putting each plastic-wrapped item in a machine.

“I hate that I’m wrapping the book like meat,” Dina told me, “but what can I do?”

There was somehow far too much work and far too little to do in the aftermath of the fire. Hundreds of books had to be dried and sealed immediately, and then would have to be painstakingly assessed by conservators and experts, but at the same time, most of the books seemed basically unsalvageable. Each newspaper wrapping opened up like a sick joke of a Christmas gift, revealing a pile of papers that could range from a slightly charred exterior to a fully destroyed mound of black and grey that fell apart in your hands the moment it hit the fluorescent light overhead.

I’m as much of a romantic about the importance of archives as anyone, but many of the documents were totally perplexing. I wanted to write down titles, but couldn’t touch my pen and notebook with my ashy latex-gloved hands. I remember something about “mollusks of Wisconsin.” I stand to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable, but I couldn’t imagine who would come to Egypt and sift through an archive to find this. 

The work continues through this weekend and next week, even as confusion over access plagues the volunteers’ efforts, in a sort of classic case of Egyptian bureacracy. “Dear volunteers. The management…has been changing its mind often on when they need us or not, and whether they need us or not,” wrote Adham Hafez, an artist helping to organize the efforts, on Facebook.  “It's up to any volunteer today to decide if you still want to go, take the chance, and see if they need help or not.”

But of course he had to add a comment on that bureacracy: “We know they do need help, and if they work with their very slow rhythm then the books will die in a few days.”

On Thursday, everyone working would intermittently make comments of self-righteous pity and shake their heads. “It doesn’t seem like people even knew what was in there,” one volunteer, an American art curator said. “Well, it’s the least we can do,” a young AUC student responded.

“Yesterday, I was unwrapping them like this and I found the Description de L’Egypte.” Dina told me, referring to the compendium of reports written by 160 scientists and researchers between 1809 and 1829. Its full title translates to “Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which was made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army.”

 “How did it look?” I asked Dina. She clapped her hands and shook her head. 

Last night, I was sitting with a few American and Egyptian journalists and translators, and a Palestinian NGO worker who had just moved to Cairo from Ramallah. “I want to ask everyone a question,” the Palestinian asked everyone, “do you think xenophobia is on the rise in Egypt, like everyone keeps saying it is?”

Since mid-November, between the highly publicized arrest of American students and the beatings of journalists, everyone talks about a feeling that the constant accusations of foreign interference in Egyptian affairs has taken its toll in the daily experiences of actual foreigners.

I remembered standing, back aching, in the archives and listening to Dina speak with pain about the loss of the Description de l’Egypte, a historical document produced by an unapologetic colonial invasion, as one her nation’s proudest treasures.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Disillusionment in Tahrir


Disillusionment has been creeping over the protest movement throughout the past week. It started on the streets, where battle on several side streets near Tahrir led to the building of mass stone barricades, large square stones of differing sizes with rounded edges that sit one on top of the other, to allow bits of light to peer through.

The disillusionment continued to bubble up as elections grinded through the run-offs of the second phase (the fourth of six distinct pairs of election days and runoffs- how un-cathartic), with low turn-out as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Salafi Nour party compete for a few scattered seats.

Over ten protesters have been killed, Sheikh Emad Effat of Al Azhar has been shot, an anonymous woman has been very publicly stripped and beaten, and hundreds have been injured as outrage continued to flow online and throughout downtown streets as mini-marches wove through the major arteries amongst brightly-lit clothing stores and cafes that used to close for violence but now stay open. Every week, you hear that big numbers will return “this Friday...,” but they never do. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces continues to blame instability on a conspiratorial “plot.”

“What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle,” wrote Steven Cook in Foreign Policy, “didn’t seem to have a point.”

One can see disillusionment soaking through the normally snappy tone of Western journalists and commentators. For unsurprising reasons, most American reporters side with the protest movement, or at least have a deeply seeded desire to see the little guy win. This week they could not keep that feeling out of their writing, even if they wanted to. Cook is both critical of the protesters and disappointed in them. “With all the creativity and energy that went into bringing Mubarak down and is currently going into plans to transform Egyptian society, there has also been much narcissism and revolutionary navel-gazing,” he writes. “The instigators of Mubarak's fall have seemed to be more focused on burnishing their revolutionary cred on Twitter and Facebook -- which are not accessible to the vast majority of Egyptians -- than doing the hard work of political organizing.”

The revolutionaries themselves produce the darkest prose. Novelist and public intellectual Alaa Al Aswany told Robert Fisk this week “The biggest mistake of the revolution was that overthrowing Mubarak was too good to be true.” A blogger who goes by Zeinobia wrote caustically: “We do not plan. We only react and do not accept criticism and everybody has its own agenda over the country’s best interest.” “We are repeating our mistakes and unfortunately we are paying huge price from blood and souls by repeating these he mistakes we commit over and over in these battles or rather traps.”

It certainly felt like a trap when I took a walk near the barricades a few nights ago. Bits of light shot through the stones stacked up as several hundred protesters milled and waited. A few teenagers jumped in rhythm, bouncing a flag and singing chants as if at a soccer game. A gaggle of even younger kids were throwing stones over the wall, some speeding up as others grew bored. Behind barbed wire, next to the wall, military policemen in oversized helmets stood and watched, letting the rocks flutter over their heads.   “This is stupid,” my friend said, as if chastising. “Someone should stop them.” Everyone seemed to be waiting for a provocation, an act demanding a reaction, and a statement blaming the other side.

The most painful soliloquy came from a blogger, Sandmonkey, whose real name is Mahmoud Salem. He was the best example of a seasoned activist turned green politician. After participating as a major figure in January and February, he decided to run for parliament. He lost (“fair and square,” he admits) and then went to run a campaign for someone in Suez, where he described sobering violations and violence. He came to believe that the poll workers were helping the ultra-conservative Nour party. At one point, he sent one of his own men into a vote-counting station dressed as a Salafi.  The fake Salafi was told by Army personnel that “they hooked them up with two seats, while winking.”
Salem is convinced that the military is aiding the Salafi’s as a repeat of 2005, when Mubarak held a “free” election, in which he allowed Muslim Brotherhood members to win a modest, but large number of seats. He hoped to show Egypt’s liberals and a Bush-administration high on the democracy-promotion message after failures in Iraq, that without Mubarak, they’d get Saudi-style theocracy.
Egyptian liberals are consistent in telling this story, so they see the same thing going on now. Only now, the Brotherhood, Salem writes, “are not scary enough for the general population. But the Salafis? Terrifying shit.”
Salem, when not dissecting the backstage movements of political powers, spins pity. “We clashed with the military,” he says “and we forgot the people, and we let that small window that shows up maybe every 100 years where a nation is willing to change, to evolve, to go to waste.”


“There is a disconnect between the revolutionaries and the people,” he continues “and that disconnect exists in regards of priorities. Our priorities are a civilian government, the end of corruption, the reform of the police, judiciary, state media and the military, while their priorities are living in peace and putting food on the table. And we ignore that, or belittle it, telling them that if they want this they should support what we want, and deriding their economic fears by telling them that things will be rough for the next 3 to 5 years, but afterwards things will get better on the long run. Newsflash, the majority of people can’t afford having it even rougher for 3 to 5 years.”
Salem closes: “There is no solution. It’s the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. There must be a way out, but I can’t seem to find one without more blood getting spilled. There is no panacea here, no exit strategy. Just helplessness, and waiting for whatever it is that will happen next, even though we can rest assured it won’t be good news. I am sorry that I cannot comfort you, but maybe, just maybe, this is not the time to be comforted.”
My own embassy looked a little naive when they shared the post on Twitter. “Provocative/engaging analysis,” they wrote. “What do others think?” I felt naive, too. 


I often find myself frustrated with the way so many young American writers pretend to the neutral tone of their favorite newspapers, while shamelessly siding with the protest movement. In the meantime, analysts like those at Stratfor or the Council on Foreign Relations, pride themselves on not getting involved in the messiness of solidarity. When I think and write, I am trying to personally weave a path between the two trends, because after all I cannot deny a certain wistful hopefulness that the eager protesters come out on top, but I also cannot deny the occasional glib reaction to that hopefulness. In such moments, writing about Egypt as an innocent abroad  proves nearly impossible. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

After Media Attention, a Young Salafi Group Looks Ahead



Under a pavilion at Al Azhar Park, an uncommonly clean swath of grass and palm trees overlooking the bustle of Islamic Cairo, a group of young beaded men and modestly dressed women are having a debate. “Just being on Facebook is not enough,” one says. “We need a board of directors,” another agrees. “We need experts!”

This is Salafyo Costa, a young organization cheekily named after the international coffee chain where they hang out. They count themselves among the Salafis, the ultraconservative religious segment of Egyptian society which surprised liberal Egyptians and many in the U.S. when it took roughly a quarter of the parliamentary vote in the first round of elections this month. 

The Salafi movement in Egypt are believed to be among the most uncompromising when it comes to instituting Islamic law. Reports that they hope to ban bikinis and alcohol have pervaded local and international newspapers, making liberals and Westerners nervous while appealing to a broad base of lower class Egyptians in the countryside and the popular areas of Cairo. Since their initial electoral victories, Salafi leaders, including those of the Nour party, have struggled to assure their competitors that they will not seek to radically alter Egyptian society.

Amidst these inevitable tensions, Salafyo Costa have emerged as a media darling, the open-minded, smiling face of the Salafi movement, as well as a leader in dialogue between different segments of Egyptian society. “Our goal,” organizer Muhammad Tolba explained, “is not political. It is to make Egypt like koshary,” referring to the Egyptian dish of lentils, pasta, rice, onions and tomato sauce in which the flavors are “different but together.”

During the uprisings in January, Tolba and Walid Mustafa, the group’s other co-founder, brought a banner with their name, Salafyo Costa, and a large symbol depicting a bearded face in the coffee chain’s logo. “We agreed, we have to participate, even if they don’t want us in Tahrir,” Tolba said. “But people took an interest, so the media started to focus on us.”

The coverage swiftly picked up and carried the small band of friends from local English news sources Al Masry Al Youm, Daily News Egypt, Al Ahram, and Al Akhbar to international attention in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books and the L.A. Times.

Salafyo Costa’s success can in many ways be attributed to Tolba himself, an IT consultant whose effortless charisma and sense of humor has brought him to the TV show of Bassem Youssef, or “Egypt’s John Stewart” and interviews with numerous Western journalists. In every article, Tolba’s sly sense of humor shines, and I got a taste that afternoon. As the group discussed possible political avenues, he dramatically skipped over one woman wearing a full niqab covering her face. “We have issues with women,” he announced, looking at me and waiting for a smile. I knew the rest of the women present had spoken already and he was just kidding, so I obliged, and he quieted down for her. 

Like many groups who participated in the January uprisings, Salafyo Costa attracted followers online through Facebook and Youtube before having a real following in the streets. A Youtube video uploaded in the spring called “Where is my ear?” made light of the divisions between conservatives and liberals in Egypt. By August, their Facebook group had 9,000 members. Today it has over 13,000.
Among those members are not only Muslim conservatives, but Christians and liberals attracted to the group’s open-minded attitude. While listening to Tolba explain the history of the group, a young Christian man and woman appeared and were greeted warmly. “I was their enemy,” said Mina, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority who joined the group on Facebook in order to criticize them after a church-bombing flared interreligious tensions.
They engaged Mina in dialogue online, and eventually he joined the group. “One I started to understand them,” he continued, “people in my own community stopped understanding me. In my church people started to say I was an infidel.” Still, Mina persisted and now he is good friends with the group’s leaders, a clean-shaven standout among the long beards.
This huge burst of media coverage throughout the summer has given Salafyo Costa an inflated sense of influence. Now, as the political tide in Egypt is turning from protests in Tahrir to the realm of elections, parties, and high-level negotiations, the group is taking stock and deciding how to make the organization more official, whether as an NGO, a party, or something more unique.

In the meantime, they have been criticized by traditional Salafi groups for not grounding their actions in the pronouncements of respected sheikhs. Parties sought their support, but they knew that signing on would dilute their appeal. “They asked me to choose Nour or Freedom and Justice,” Tolba said, referencing the two main Islamic parties, “and I chose a chipsy,” a popular sandwich.

Everyone chuckled, and then the tone turned more serious. “What is the objective, the purpose of this group?” asked Seif, another leader who sports a prayer-mark on his forehead and peppers his Arabic with English words.

Tolba decided to allow each person in attendance three minutes to express their hopes for Salafyo Costa and everyone had their own angle. “We can’t be a lobby,” one woman said. “We all have different ideas.” “Yes, and we fight so much when we talk about politics,” another agreed.

“We should be a charity that raises political awareness without pushing a particular party,” another older veiled woman responded.

“I’m just happy with the charity work we’re doing,” said another.

“Maybe we can have a case by case vote before we participate in anything political,” Tolba suggested.

Their dilemma is represented by their name, which attracts attention due to its clever humor, but leads many to see the group as less than serious. Tolba’s sense of humor also helped put off the real decisions about core beliefs. After all, it’s a lot easier to make fun of misconceptions than to decide policy.

The debate went on through the afternoon, as everyone pitched their ideas. When too many people spoke at one time, a woman held her hands in a T-shape, apparently the universal gesture for “Time Out!” They all agreed that Salafyo Costa had been successful as a cultural bridge between different elements of Egyptian society, and it was just a matter of formalizing the group without losing that spark.

“The media made this movement,” Tolba asserted. “But we need more people on the ground.”

Eventually, the discussion turned to whether it would be possible to support individual candidates while also being an educational NGO. Suddenly, Tolba turned to me and asked “Do groups do this in the U.S.?”

Ripped out of my observing role, I floundered and tried to think of an example. The only group that sprang to mind was J Street, the left of center Jewish lobbying group which oversees both an “Education fund” and a political action committee, under two different tax headings.

I began to tell them about J Street, having no idea how such things work in Egypt, but happy to explain, and Seif stopped me. “Can’t you think of one that isn’t Jewish?” he asked, with a big, ironic smile. “Well, uh, it’s just an example…” I responded. And he quickly interrupted, “I’m just kidding. What’s it called? J Street?”

He motioned a J in the air, and wrote the name down.  “I’ll look it up on Google later,” he said.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Rock the Vote





I was too young to remember Madonna’s 1990 Public Service Announcement, in which she wrapped herself in an American flag, danced with two skinny, prancing men and declared: “If you don’t vote, you’re going to get a spanky.”

I did, however, grow up with Rock the Vote, the slick, celebrity-laden media campaign to register voters and consistently get a new generation of 18 year olds to participate in the electoral process (This was before Obama, the candidate charismatic and youthful enough to do that on his own).

What I took away from Rock the Vote is that even countries that have held open elections for decades need to continually educate every new generation on what voting is, how it works, and why its important. The first two goals are just a matter of packaging information succinctly, but the third is far more difficult. In order to galvanize people to do more than vote, to be jazzed about voting and do it meaningfully, you need big, exciting media campaigns (and having Madonna certainly doesn’t hurt, either).

This year in Egypt, I’ve been watching an entirely different set of campaigns attempt to educate voters, many of whom are illiterate, and most of whom are voting for the first time (as many stayed away from the intimidation and rigging of the Mubarak regime’s elections in 2005 and 2010). In the meantime, the High Elections Commission provides basic information (lists of candidates and parties, maps of constituencies, etc.), but little of the spark that will really drive voters to feel as though their vote counts.

So, as has happened so often in recent Egyptian history, NGO’s stepped in to fill the void. Their efforts ranged from online questionnaires that direct you to one party or another to printed flyers explaining the whole process to extensive websites.

Most of all, however, they produced short clips, aiming to reach voters who do not surf online for elections information, and boy are they creative. Here is perhaps my favorite example, in which a young Egyptian man rails against the injustices of his country. “There is no education, no dignity, no human rights, no opportunity,” he exclaims, all the while being slapped on the back of the neck by an old, corrupt fat cat of the former regime. All of a sudden, a ballot box comes crashing down on the slapper, and the young man triumphantly is told by a booming, ironically authoritarian voice, “No. There is.” He steps up on the box and the former oppressor and votes. The short clip features a melodrama, a kind of deep sadness and bold hope far more intense than anything in the U.S.



The clip was produced by “Have A Voice,” a campaign organized by a local NGO with international funding. Another campaign, which is locally funded, and apparently quite successful is called Qabila TV. My good friend and fellow Fulbrighter Ibrahim Elshamy is writing a Master’s thesis on the channel and explained to me last night how they work. Qabila TV was started in late 2010, before the Egyptian revolution, Ibrahim told me, and originally produced semi-nationalistic clips telling Egyptians “This is what Egypt has to offer,” and encouraging internal tourism.

Now, they are making videos, mostly cute cartoons, on every facet of the electoral process in order to explain to first-time voters everything from how campaigns are run to how to choose a candidate to how to proceed once they get to the polling station.

“They realize they have limitations,” Ibrahim told me, and they don’t aim to reach mass audiences. Instead, they hope to educate a small but critical portion of Egyptian society: trusted senior residents of villages, neighborhoods, or apartment buildings who learn about the electoral process from these media initiatives and then relay what they learn (with varying degrees of success) to their personal networks of family, coworkers, and neighbors. Qabila TV (which translates to tribe) has screened its short films in villages around Egypt, and have later gotten feedback that attendants have gone on to hold screenings as a spur to discussion even when the NGO itself did not send a representative.

So, although the number of viewers of any given piece of media may be small, its reach may be much greater. “People tend to say ‘so and so knows about politics. Let’s go ask him,” Ibrahim told me, and if that person is well informed by these media, then the whole neighborhood benefits.

It’s an uphill battle. Reports are constantly coming out that first-time voters know they have to vote (they are, in theory, fined a hefty 500LE or $80 if they do not), but have no idea who to vote for, so they just pick one of the many symbols that accompany candidates’ names. Ibrahim worries more about what he read in this article, the idea that “identity is driving politics.” Instead of making decisions on policy, people are choosing parties based on their professed secularism or religious nature. Of course, this happens in the U.S. all the time. American voters regularly choose a candidate because he is a Christian, he is secular, or sometimes more importantly he is not something (Kennedy’s Catholicism then, Romney’s Mormonism now). “People feel like Mubarak was liberal and secular and corrupt,” Ibrahim told me, so they say, “Let’s give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance without looking at their policies.” 

Qabila TV is non-partisan in the sense that they do not support one party. They are, however, avowedly partisan in terms of advocating for a secular, civil society. In this cartoon, they compare the state to a bride, and show three possible choices the groom (the voter) can make (nobody said they were feminist). The first two, the theocratic and the military bride, do not tolerate any disagreement, and are always ready to make the groom run for cover. The civil bride, however, can always work through differences.




Apparently weddings are a common metaphor for democracy here. A month ago, I attended a lecture in which Judge Amir Ramzi told a room full of voters to encourage their family members and friends vote, and if the family members do not understand who to vote for, to tell them to “consider candidates like a groom for your daughter.”

The uphill battle here is not only about educating voters. The parliament they are electing will pick an assembly tasked to write the new constitution. In the meantime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has given little to no indication that they have any desire to be ruled by a civilian government. So, whether all of these great initiatives will translate into popular accountability, the real goal of democratic elections, is a different question altogether. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Springborg Affair: The Army, a New Newspaper, and a Censorship Debacle



It began on Monday, December 5th, when English newspaper readers in Cairo learned that a new paper, the Egypt Independent, had disappeared from newsstands. They learned about the disappearance from the British press, in an article by Alistair Beach of The Independent (no relation to the Egyptian paper). "A censorship row has broken out at the country's newest newspaper after staff were ordered to shelve an entire print run of 20,000 copies," Beach wrote, "over an article that suggested the leader of the governing Military Council could go to prison."
In the censored article, political science professor Robert Springborg had suggested that "resentment" might be growing in the ranks of the military against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt's current de-facto leader Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi. An edited version of the article can be read on Egypt Independent's website. Instead of the word "resentment" it used the somehow less toxic "concern," and excised the offending paragraph...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Diplomats and the Journalists (2/2): John Kerry Speaks



With a chiseled, 19th-century profile, Kerry projected a casual informality, making up for the Northeastern stuffiness that lost him points in the 2004 election. As he entered, he knew that American journalists in the room remembered him as a presidential candidate as much as a Senator. Noting my accent, he grabbed my arm and chummily asked "They treatin' you well here?"

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Kerry takes a complimentary position to the State department's more reactionary policies, acting as a safety valve that allows the U.S. to both be reactionary and project poise at the same time. “Kerry doesn't have the burden of the Obama team's ‘policy’ on his back, although he can act as a surrogate for the White House when the President needs him to,” writes John Kiriakou in the Huffington Post. “Obama wants to talk to the Brotherhood, but he doesn't want to anger US voters who may oppose such an overture.”

On January 28th of this year, several days before the Obama administration would side with the Tahrir protesters, Kerry published an op-ed in the New York Times that in retrospect looks expected, but at the time seemed daring. "Egyptians have moved beyond his regime, and the best way to avoid unrest turning into upheaval is for President Mubarak to take himself and his family out of the equation," he wrote, adding that "the Egyptian people are demanding wholesale transformation, not window dressing."

At this conference, he stuck to an economic line. The Americans generally wanted him to cast doubt on either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. “We don't always get to choose who we are dealing with in a complicated and dangerous world,” he told the reporters, “but we will deal with those governments that are chosen by their people in order to advance a global set of principles.”
Some of the Egyptians wanted him to say something broad about Israel-Palestine and the Muslim world. The Reuters reporter asked him about Newt Gingrich’s line about the Palestinians being an “invented people,” but he wouldn’t say anything about it. 

He described meeting expatriate Egyptians around the world who “are not investing as much as they would like to be,” adding that “sending a clear, and constant message with respect to the IMF, movement towards fiscal reform, and the kind of business climate that is going to exist here is critical."
The message was clear only to those with a background in the messy details of the Egyptian economy. Following the downturn after the revolution, then-Finance Minister Samir Radwan negotiated a loan with the IMF for 3 billion dollars, but turned it down in June. Reuters reported that the about-face was “widely believed to be due to opposition from the army.”
Then in November, a new finance minister, Hazem al Beblawi announced Egypt would again seek the loan, but the deal was later suspended. This week, Mumtaz Said replaced al Beblawi, making him the third finance minister since the revolution. The state of the IMF loan is unclear, and Kerry was suggesting that the U.S. wants Egypt to take it. It might help the business environment, but it would also tie the Egyptian government to international obligations before another upheaval changes the decision-makers.
Nevertheless, he threw his lot in with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), holding back from agreeing with the protesters like he did on January 28th. "Have mistakes been made? Yes. But Egypt has had its sovereignty and its identity protected by the efforts of SCAF,” he told us. “There are many countries where a military would never have moved to provide the kind of protection that this military has provided…You can see what’s happening in Syria today.” “Fundamentally,” he said, “they [SCAF] have been safeguarding the revolution.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Diplomats and the Journalists (1/2): Waiting for John Kerry


John Kerry was a little over an hour late to the press conference, leaving the journalists ample time to schmooze with one another and the cheery embassy staff, two thirds through a twelve-hour workday.

When I arrived, on time and therefore very early, I found David, the deputy press attache (on his first diplomatic "mission") talking to an Egyptian journalist, a short older woman with long dark hair and small, sharply angled glasses. She was making him work hard to be diplomatic.

"Where are the other journalists? How did they know Kerry would be late?" she unloaded in imperfect but rapid English on the young, red-cheeked diplomat, as if smelling conspiracy. "I don't know," he shrugged. "Maybe they just have better sources."

He smiled. She didn't get the joke. Looking around the room, she pointed out the American and Egyptian flags hanging behind the table where Kerry would speak. "Why the flags?" she quipped, tossing up her hands. "I've been to press conferences at German, British, and French embassies. They never have flags. Why the arrogance?”

"But they are next to each other. They're equal."

"Yeah right!"

When she walked away to greet another diplomat, I chatted with David about a recent road trip he had taken around U.S. national parks. He told me wanted to see the country he would be representing abroad before a long career that will involve little choice about where he is posted, and little chance to actually see the place he is representing.

That gave him a lot in common with the international journalists who began to arrive in waves. A tall British man from Reuters, wearing a knitted scarf and a casual linen blazer, joined the conversation. The buzzing Egyptian woman returned and asked him where he was based. "England," he responded, "but I've reported from something like thirty-one countries over twenty years."

He's been in Jerusalem for the last several, but had been sent to Cairo for ten days to help the local staff, who had been exhausted lately. He told me that he had taken the Jerusalem job expecting action, but now his staff has been jealously watching the Cairo bureau get all the activity (elections and revolutionary protests in the same week!). "But we have to be careful what we wish for," he told me. "Because when things go downhill in Jerusalem, they go downhill sort of spectacularly."

More journalists arrived, representing Egyptian, American, and European wire services, newspapers, and websites. As usual, they clustered together based on informal, expected networks: the Egyptians from independent papers, the Egyptians from state-owned papers, the Americans, the Europeans.

Since I didn't have a club, I chatted more with the Egyptian woman. She works for the Middle East News Agency (MENA), a wire service owned by the Egyptian state with a staff of roughly 500. I asked if anything had changed for her in the tumultuous past year. "Of course. Before the revolution we could not write about the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak. Like the rest of Egypt we have the freedom to write about anything now!"

"But what about the military council?"

"Well of course we depend on the government for our budget."

That was not so surprising, but then she explained how being state-owned means the agency is swept up into inter-regional relations, which I had not known. A few months ago, MENA had planned to publish an article on the sit-in of Syrian protesters at the Arab League building in Cairo. The Syrian government got wind and was angry. MENA, which is based in Egypt, worried that some of their correspondents in Syria might be put at risk, so they pulled it out. I wondered out loud if it is more responsible to get the stories and then censor them, or like Western agencies simply send less people to places like Syria. She shook her head. “It’s just business.”

The din in the room suddenly grew, meaning that John Kerry had arrived. When he entered, he insisted on working his way around and shaking hands with everyone: a move that unsubtly robs time from the questions and answers.

Part Two (the part with John Kerry) on Wednesday

Friday, December 9, 2011

Interview with Writer Khaled Alkhamissi


Taxi is Khaled Alkhamissi’s 2006 debut novel. A collection of 58 vignettes recounting conversations with cab drivers around Cairo, Taxi catalogues opinions of fictional, but likely characters on politics, culture, religion, and of course, traffic. I wrote about one of them a month ago.

Many of the daily economic frustrations documented by Alkhamissi were later described as causes for the uprisings earlier this year. “This democratic cacophony transforms into a fresh and fast crash course not just in the backdrop to the Arab spring,” wrote Chris Ross in The Guardian, “but in all aspects of contemporary North African culture and people.”

I was asked to interview Mr. Alkhamissi by the Daily News Egypt. After numerous phone calls, advice from other journalists that he is notoriously hard to get a hold of, and many emails back and forth with the editor, I finally was asked to submit questions by email, as he would be traveling for readings abroad. Two weeks later, I received his answers. My questions had been translated into Arabic and then with the answers back into English. It was a confusing, difficult, but educational process. Sometimes his answers seemed snarky, like his reaction to the question was one of annoyance, but then going back and reading my double-translated questions, it was hard to imagine anyone having answered differently.

I asked Alkhamissi how it feels to represent Egypt abroad as a novelist, particularly in a period when Arab writers like Alaa Al Aswany and Hisham Matar are regularly sought-after commentators on current events for a Western audience and locally.

“Egyptian and Arab novelists have played a general cultural role throughout the twentieth century,” he explained. “Most of them worked in the Egyptian press and had opinion pieces that pervaded intellectual and cultural debates within Egyptian society,” including Tawfik Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idriss, and Fuad Haddad. “What happens today among Egyptian novelists,” he wrote “is the natural continuation to an organic connection between culture and politics in Egypt.”

As for the role of these thinkers play once they leave the borders of Egypt, he is more suspicious. “I can’t imagine that any novelist can represent his country. He primarily represents himself,” he argues, adding that the burden is on the international audience, not the Egyptian writer, to understand his work and its context. “I don’t change myself and I don’t change depending on the audience. The audience on the other hand has to make the effort to receive what is said properly.”

In this vein, Alkhamissi writes off the quotes that cover new English editions Taxi, which claim that the book “predicted” the revolution, as the promotional tools of publishers. After a detailed explanation of how the publishing industry gets favorable quotes, he recited the obvious: “The publishing process…is connected to the logistics of profit and loss.”

“The descent of millions of citizens into the streets and squares calling for the removal of a regime,” he continued, is the product of “extremely complex social phenomena,” with roots in “historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and financial elements.” In order to understand it, “we must return to the nineteenth century and the beginning of the formation of Egyptian citizenship,” as well as “the processes of gradual maturity from the second half of the nineteenth century until our current day.”

Nevertheless, he firmly identifies with the protest movement. “What is required today is to identify the protesters throughout Egypt’s different squares,” he says, “to appoint a civilian presidential council that administrates the transition period in a transparent way as an alternative to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Activist and the Ethnomusicologist: Zakaria Ibrahim and El Tanbura





Zakaria Ibrahim, the director of musical group El Tanbura and the El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music, has been interviewed and written about numerous times and can always be counted on for a tightly wound, yet broadly reflective quote. “Egypt is like a big sister to other Arab countries. It’s easy to see from our history why Egypt has become so important,” he told one journalist. 


Writing for Al-Jazeera, Zakaria told his own story in broad, nostalgic strokes. “I came back to Port Said in 1980. I discovered our musical heritage, which had carried our dreams, had changed,” he wrote. “It was now something completely different, more commercial.”

Zakaria resisted that commercialism by finding the musicians who played the songs he remembered from his childhood in Port Said and founding El Tanbura in 1989. Over the next 23 years, he founded nearly ten other groups, creating a grassroots ethnomusicology tradition to preserve Egyptian folk music and bringing Bedouin, Nubian, Sudanese, and other traditional groups to theaters in Cairo and international touring circuits.

Part of the charm of El Tanbura, Zakaria’s flagship group, is that they don’t fall into the trap of tacky heritage tourism. On Thursday night, they drank Stella beers and smoked cigarettes while mingling with the Egyptian, European, and American audience members. Everyone sat on short stools in an unpretentious black box theater. The men in the band wore sweaters and simple button-up shirts, as if they had just come from work. The oldest member wore a tarboosh (or fez), and it didn't seem like a costume.

I met Zakaria several weeks ago, and have written about him a few times here, but I had not known what a local celebrity he is. He glided through the room full of fans and admirers, shaking hands and humbly grinning at the fawning compliments, talking about his pride in the recent revolution and how El Tanbura represents “a way of combating globalization.”

When everyone settled into their seats, he made a short speech. “In 1956,” he began, “we had to defend our city from three armies. What were they?” The audience sat in silence, as a young, American student in the front recounted the aggressors who had attacked Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. “France,” he said, and Zakaria waved his hands to coax out the rest, “England, and Israel.”

“The simsimiya,” Zakaria continued, pointing to the large lyre which came to Port Said in the 1930's, “sang to the resistance” against the British. “Now, we are reviving this repertoire of resistance…We were in Tahrir!” Indeed, El Tanbura's acoustic performances among the crowds in February were covered by CNN and Afropop Worldwide

The four singers and five musicians then blazed through nearly two hours of Suhbagiyya, the resistance songs native to Port Said and other traditional melodies. They had written a few new songs about the 2011 protests as well, which were received with spirited chants of "Ya Musr! Ya Musr! (Oh Egypt!).

At their concerts in Port Said, the dancing, singing, and beating on café tables can last five hours. In the midst of it, Zakaria hangs back and only takes a vocal solo occasionally. At moments of rapturous intensity, he breaks without warning into a zombie-like dance: his arms hang limp in front of his chest and bounce up and down as his feet take turns kicking forwards and backwards, his head wiggling as if possessed.

The other singers each have their own performance style when they take the lead. Some are flirty, some pleading, and some simply overcome with joy. They pick embarrassed members of the crowd to join them in dancing up front. Each has developed a repertoire of hand gestures that mimic the lyrics. “There was no education!” one sings on the subject of pre-Nasser Egypt, tossing up his hands as if making a political speech.

For Zakaria, this kind of cultural work is political activism, and his bands are a continuation of his days as a student leftist under Sadat’s rule in the 1970’s. After Mubarak fell, The El Mastaba Center released a statement saying that they aim to "raise the status of the traditional musician whose music and creativity have been marginalized and compromised by state and tourism agendas." They called upon "all civil organization working in art and culture" to "work together for a new future for our country, one that we create ourselves and that is not imposed on us."


A few weeks ago, I walked through the Tahrir protests with Zakaria and Rachel Aspden, a journalist who wrote about Zakaria two years ago. Zakaria surveyed the scene and showed a boyish excitement about the demonstrations, a wide smile under his bushy mustache. Many were calling this the second revolution, and he had raced to the square to take part. A trace of tear gas hung in the air, and the smell of blood wafted over from a field hospital as we wandered around.

We ran into a small group of middle-aged activists, and I met a woman whose voice was slightly hoarse from shouting. She gave Zakaria a big hug, and then took me aside and told me that when she was a student activist, she looked up to Zakaria as the older generation of anti-Mubarak leftists. “I got the courage one day to go up to him and say ‘I really like you!’ and he didn’t dismiss me. He helped me out.”

I asked her if she had seen El Tanbura and she gave me a look of wistful pride. “I think what he is doing is really heroic,” she said. “To keep art going, even when it’s in the background, is really heroic.”