Monday, January 30, 2012

Observations #2

6. On the metro, a big, burly, effeminate man waddles in, sweating from the hard work of hopping from car to car, selling tabloids, hundreds of which are slung on his shoulder. “Hosni Mubarak is still the President of Egypt!” he shouts, letting it hang in the air before adding: “...says his defense lawyer at his trial.” It turns out Mubarak never technically signed the correct document to resign.

7. A protest is held against in front of the Maspero building downtown, where state-television studios are housed. Demonstrators set up a projector and beam onto the side wall of the massive, Soviet style edifice the word “Liars,” followed by videos of police and army atrocities that state television channels did not cover.

8. In the metro station, a young Egyptian man wears a tight brown sweater, reading “Ron Paul 2012.”

9. A picture floating around the internet after the first day of parliamentary sessions showed a new representative, a bearded professor from the Salafi Al Nour Party, with his eyes closed and his head slouched. Numerous people posted pictures of the “sleeping Salafi” with cynical asides. It turns out that the member of parliament is in fact blind.

10. I recently met a prosecutor who works for the Egyptian equivalent of the District Attorney in the Red Sea region. Tourists commit the bulk of crimes in these resort towns, and he told me that 20% of crimes he has seen involve a foreigner pretending to have lost money at the hotel so they will be fraudulently reimbursed. He volunteered a list of which countries produce the most swindling sunbathers, with Germany at the bottom and Russia at the top.

11. While chatting about recent arrests of Americans, a diplomat told me that one American journalist went out of his way to get arrested so he could write about it.

12. In Egypt, foreigners often do not want to refer to Israel in the presence of Egyptians they do not know, particularly cabdrivers, eavesdroppers from neighboring dinner tables, and waiters. They always refer to Israel as something else. A partial list includes Greece, Disneyland, Bahrain, ‘our neighbor to the North,’ and ‘up there.’ 

Funding Art with Food

Wednesday Wagbas, a new initiative at the Townhouse Gallery, is aiming to give funding to artists for new projects at a time of increasing uncertainty in the Egyptian visual art scene.

The idea is to raise funds through public dinners by allowing diners to learn about the art projects they are aiding as they consume a meal by a guest chef

According to organizer and curator Ania Szremski, the concept originated out of Sunday Soup, a Chicago-based project in which curators and artists “were exploring” how they “could self-organize and self-support their practices without having to depend on existing funding structures.”

These structures, including mainly museums and foundations, Szremski believes, “are typically fraught with many layers of ideology-driven bureaucracy that can be really constrictive.”

At Sunday Soups, on the other hand, anyone could come, pay $10 for a bowl of soup, listen to several artists discuss their projects, and at the end of the meal, everyone would vote on which project they liked best, with the winning artist getting the sum of all the money paid towards the soup.

So Szremski decided to bring the idea to Cairo, a place with a notoriously complex relationship between big, state institutions like the Ministry of Culture, and the scattered, often more experimental independent scene in which Townhouse is a major player.

The move towards grassroots funding for artists comes in the context of an Egyptian art scene redefining itself after 60 years of transition. In the 1950s, Nasser’s government oversaw a massive proliferation of opportunities for artists, although they were not given completely free reign. “Artists gave up their independence, shelved their critical faculties and made bland propaganda,” argued writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Frieze magazine recently, “because the trade-off was essentially employment for life.”

The rest is here.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Split Screen and the Trapped Americans

In a taxi this morning, I overheard the driver mouthing to himself the words “Down, down with military rule.” The phrase has a memorable cadence in Arabic, and I’ve noticed a lot of people on the metro, in buses, and on the street forming their lips into the weekend’s chants. Like a catchy song from a party the night before, it feels more like an after effect, a trace of a memory that lingers on the lips but fades with the day.

I stepped into the office, where a big television on the far wall showed a split screen. Usually split screens are utilized when there are two important events going on that both need to be monitored: anti-regime protesters in Tahrir and pro-regime protesters in Abbasiya, street battles in Syria and elections in Egypt, a live interview and a tense sit-in. Last year, the most dramatic split screens showed a composed Mubarak next to raging throngs of protesters.

Today, however, the split screen seemed like it was trying to double up on the visual stimulation in the absence of any real stories. On one side, Tahrir square was totally empty save for a few tattered tents. Traffic filled the spaces where thousands had chanted on Friday. On the other side of the screen, the camera panned through polling stations, as today is the first election day for the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament). The channel’s producers jumped between rooms, pictures of boxes and booths in a quick, fidgety rhythm, because the sad fact is that nobody had come out to vote. Voters are exhausted from numerous rounds, runoffs, and reruns, while parties campaign less because they feel the results are pretty much preordained. Some polling stations had as few as five voters throughout the entire morning. Judges and poll workers looked bored, drinking their tea and gazing around the empty classrooms.

I turned on the computer and logged onto Twitter. I found a brief exchange from the night before:

Amiralx: Oh so tomorrow starts shoura council elections, anyone actually voting?

CarterTroy: I think everyone but the Ikhwan and salafi said, "fuck it."

Amiralx: hmm..i think i'll do the same.

Amira (who I have written about here) was voicing a common perspective among anti-military protesters, who failed to win many seats in the People’s Assembly elections, failed to turn the revolution’s anniversary into its renewal, and now are trying to figure out what comes next.

The official transition, with new elections and a parliament that met for the first time last week, trudges along like a train that left to cheers but now has hit the lonely open track of politics,where change, unlike at Tahrir, happens very slowly and without much fanfare. 

This split screen has been developing over the course of the year, but it never felt as normalized and lackluster as it did today. 

Americans I’ve talked to in Cairo are all talking about the recent news that the Egyptian government is barring several Americans who work for U.S. NGO’s from leaving. The most famous of the trapped Americans is Sam LaHood, whose father is the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the highest-ranking Republican in the Obama administration. The SCAF is sending a delegation to Washington, while articles high on speculation and short on information keep coming out about it. 

The issue really is about the lack of any mechanisms for anyone, particularly journalists, to find anything out about what happens in the black box of Egyptian bureaucracy. The New Yorker’s Wendell Steavenson took a broad, unassuming view. “Several times in Egypt, digging into a story that doesn’t seem to make any sense, I have become quickly enmeshed in a web,” she wrote. “It is impossible to separate the strands of corruption and government fiefdom from subsidy and bureaucracy, personal relationships, inefficiency, and the theory of fuck-up.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Daily Crime Column

“Benha Criminal Court has sentenced a housewife and her lover to death, having found them guilty of murdering her husband, a 40-year-old mechanic called Mohamed Ahmed, so they could continue with their illicit romance without any interruptions.”

“A 21-year-old worker was fatally stabbed twice, in the neck and chest, by the man who'd just stolen his mobile.”

“A worker was caught trying to smuggle hashish and hallucinogenic pills to his friend in Tanta Prison.”

These are a few examples of the daily column by a man named Hugh, a British expatriate who for almost seven years has written almost exclusively about crime for The Egyptian Gazette. I had kept up with the columns, partly because I read so much crime writing in Texas, and partly because the concept seemed so weird that I figured there must be a story behind it. One night several weeks ago, I met a young British man who, by sheer coincidence, was a family friend of Hugh’s. He agreed to set up a meeting.

Hugh speaks quietly, wears black-framed glasses and carries a dusty black suitcase reminiscent of traveling salesman in the same hand as a woven crammed with Arabic newspapers. He has lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and is one of three foreign employees at the newspaper, which is owned by the state. Every day, he takes the metro from his home in the posh suburb of Maadi to the office downtown. He collects the day’s crime news from Arabic papers and translates the ‘best’ bits into English for his own column the next day. “What do you choose?” I asked him. “Murders, mostly,” he responded, “I also generally like sob stories…sad stories of kidnapping and such.”

Crime writing is a bizarre niche of journalism. Those who practice it might be seen as heartless or macabre or just shameless (as seen recently with the British phone-hacking scandal), and yet news of horrible acts of theft, kidnapping, rape, and murder hold an undeniable pull on the broad mass of readers. We want to see the murky depths of human frailty and cruelty translated from the cold tone of police reports to something spicier.

Hugh’s knowledge of individual cases is endless. Throughout our conversation at a small sweets and tea shop in the tree-lined neighborhood of Zamalek, he peppered in story after story from Egypt, as well as England and the U.S. “There was a man in Aswan who killed his mother” “There was a body found in a chimney in Bristol” “A girl committed suicide by jumping onto the train tracks.”

In addition to the daily blotter, Egypt has had as many big, spectacular cases on the order of OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony as any other country. In 2008, Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a real estate mogul and politician whose net worth was estimated at 800 million dollars, was charged with the murder of his Lebanese girlfriend, a pop star named Suzanne Tamim. He had paid a former police officer 2 million dollars to kill her in Dubai, where she was living with another man, an Iraqi kickboxing champion. The story had intrigue, glamour, money, and sickening violence, which made it a huge sensation in the Egyptian press. Hugh recalled most of the details three years later.

But for the most part, Hugh’s stories are about small, unremarkable crimes with just a dash of the peculiar. He relishes in the details, and in person speculates on how crimes get pulled off, and if they don’t, why the criminal didn’t think he would fail. Hugh laughed telling us the story of kidnappers who had arranged a meeting place to make the exchange of a young child for vast amounts of cash, who hadn’t thought about the possibility that police might arrive at the same rendezvous point. Looking at his articles online later, I found stories of bribes in the leasing of fish farms (“A Fishy Deal in Aswan”) and a stabbing over excessive use of a horn in traffic. Sometimes there is no crime committed but simply a freak accident that seems to fit the bill, as when a street in Port Said caved in suddenly, causing water mains to burst and entire blocks to flood. “That sinking feeling,” was Hugh’s title.

With huge numbers of expatriates and tourists, there is a surprisingly large market for English language news. The Egyptian Gazette, as far as I can tell, is the only English language paper to feature substantial amounts of news about crime. The paper now competes with a huge amount of English coverage in Egypt, both in print and online, state-owned and independent, and from my own anecdotal evidence, it seems to be the one of the least-read.

But it is by far the oldest, founded in 1880 by five British men living here, one of whom went on to be Managing Editor of The Times of London. It boomed throughout the period of British occupation, but found its highest circulation during World War II, when British troops were stationed throughout the country. After the war, circulation dropped and the evening edition was turned into a weekly, called The Egyptian Mail, which still comes out on Tuesdays. In general, the paper has been eclipsed by the growth of Al Ahram’s online edition and the proliferation of independent English papers in the mid-2000’s.

It is perhaps this British history that explains some of the language and style one still finds among the articles. Words that would make an American smirk, like “scurrilous,” and “skullduggery” and “discomfiture” and “lass,” can be found in many of the articles.

I asked Hugh if he thought crime had been up in the last year, since Mubarak left power, and many policemen had left the streets. “I think there’s been a lot more auto theft,” he told me. “They smuggle the cars into Gaza through the tunnels.” He smiled, and looked quizzical. “I wonder if they take them apart or get them all the way through in one piece,” he said. He pondered for a moment, then moved on to another story.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Celebrating an Unfinished Revolution

Today was the first anniversary of the uprisings that took Hosni Mubarak from rule and began twelve months of big questions, sharp turns, and long waits. Fifty-five revolutionary groups had organized marches from over a dozen meeting points throughout the city, while many thousands of others simply came out to celebrate the first of a new holiday. The question of whether to celebrate or whether to demand loomed large.

After a few falafel sandwiches, I took a long walk, following one of the masses of more politically charged protesters as they trickled across the bridge to Tahrir and entered the square to find thousands already there, many of whom had camped out since late last night.

I saw mothers, fathers, and children waving flags and enjoying the warm weather in the shadow of chanting crowds holding empty coffins for the victims of clashes in October, November, and December. I saw couples on dates by the Nile, and heard playful popular music waft from small docked boats mixing with the foreboding taps of a military beat. Rows of ambulances stood at attention in case the day turned violent. Men with neatly trimmed, Brotherhood-style beards guarded entrances to the square, while their counterparts from the night before snatched sleep in the midst of surging crowds. 

I saw the tangled remains of two stages that had collapsed earlier in the day, making headlines in the absence of more exciting news. I saw a television screen mounted on metal scaffolding, covered with a tarp, playing saccharine soap opera music as pictures of young men who had died over the year scrolled by, followed by slow motion footage of an Egyptian flag waving in the wind. I saw a massive puddle broken by stones on which kids played hopscotch, receiving applause when they made it across still dry.

I saw lots of demands, broad and pointed, written and shouted: “The people want the fall of the Field Marshal” and “Down, Down with Military Rule” and “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice!” and “Leave! Leave!” A large number of banners simply read “The Revolution Continues.” Tucked behind several buildings, a dozen religiously dressed men sat outside the American Embassy demanding the release of the "Blind Sheikh," Omar Abdu Rahman, who is 73 years old and being held for connections to the World Trade Center bombing in the early nineties. Their banners read "SMS to Obama!"

I saw graffiti of a starker, bleaker variety, usually black stencils of shouting faces or lonely figures with arms outstretched. I saw posters for obscure political parties (like the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, which won a single seat out of 508), vendors hawking Socialist newspapers, candidate flyers for upcoming elections, and dozens of homemade signs.

The single image I saw the most, though, was of young boys and girls having their picture taken, wearing an Egyptian flag headband or flowers in their hair, the number “25” written on their cheek or the word “Freedom” written on their forehead. Some waved a flag or spread their fingers into a peace sign, as if to have for posterity their own version of the iconic image of the youth protester that covers billboards, newspapers, and even coffee mugs across the city.

As dusk set in and the day’s final call to prayer puffed from speakers perched on minarets, several men set up a stage on the back of a blue pick-up truck, hoisting onto plywood several speakers, microphones, and a power generator. A group called Eskanderella climbed on top with traditional Arabic instruments and played a set of revolutionary folk songs under the glow of neon hotel signs and fluorescent shoe stores. “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian!” they sang. Hundreds gathered and joined into the singing, their cell phones looking like fireflies as they captured the dimly lit truck. Fireworks pocked the sky as the crowd clapped along, a few cried, and most sang in unison “You’re Egyptian, You’re Egyptian.”

The song slowed to a close, and an older man with a tattered green coat and disheveled gray hair climbed up onto the truck bed. The singer handed him a microphone. “We are here to say that the revolution continues,” he shouted. “The revolution demands bread, freedom, and social justice. You are the revolution. You are Egypt.” The concertgoers were now a mass of chanting voices. “Down, down with military rule,” they shouted, waving flags and fists in the air. I turned off to a side street, joining a handful of families tugging along their yawning children. It had been a long day of celebration, in addition to a feeling that the cause for celebration remains a work unfinished. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Expectations for Tomorrow in The Huffington Post

At an International Press Gathering last week, foreign journalists came to hear remarks by a few Egyptian counterparts about what to expect on January 25th, the first anniversary of one of the most reported revolutions in recent history. The nervous joke passing between the crisply dressed Americans and Europeans was that if the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently running the country, wanted to get rid of negative coverage in one fell swoop, all it would take is a well placed bomb here, in a warehouse hidden among the downtown blocks.
Amid the stark concrete walls, a handful of influential Egyptian journalists and editors described what they thought might happen when big numbers return to Tahrir next week.
"I think it will pass quietly," former Al Jazeera bureau chief Amr El Kahky said. Hisham Kassem, an oft-quoted source in American articles about Egypt and a lifetime newspaperman-dissident, looked out over the expectant faces and said, "In the past, I was the revolutionary at these kinds of things. Now, I'm going to be a wet blanket."
"I don't think very much is going to happen," he continued, explaining that contrary to many versions of the story, he believes that the military deployed last January not to help the protesters topple the Mubarak regime, but actually to save it. When they realized that the regime, in fact, could not be saved, they pushed the leader out of power to save themselves and got stuck running the country.
And then, Kassem argued, "the media took this on as a revolution," and "raised the expectations," when in fact a regime change, a real revolution was, and is, far from over. The media focused on young, camera-friendly revolutionaries and led them to expect instant leadership. "But politics is cruel," he said, filling his role as a wet blanket. "You will find yourselves irrelevant."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Observations #1

1. On the microbus ride to Suez from Cairo, a man clutches a trash bag holding a metal cage wrapped in tattered newspaper. Inside, a small, white sparrow sits calmly picking at the newspaper, which displays pictures of crowds battling police in riot gear and small square photos of public figures. The man tears away at a picture of a shouting woman waving her arm to show me the bird’s white, confused face.

2. At the German Cultural Center, a group of Egyptian youth promote a new website called “18 Days in Egypt.” A young man with spiked hair and a tight blue sweater explains that the site allows users to upload media to a timeline and map. The result will be an archive of marches, battles, and funerals documented through photos, videos, and writings. He plays a well-known clip from State television: during the revolution, a man against the protests called into a live talk show crying and saying that the protesters were ruining Egypt. Seeing this clip for the first time in nearly a year, the crowd laughs.

3. In an abandoned hotel building of European grandeur, an art exhibit sits in memory of a young artist killed during the revolution. In a converted guest room, artist Ahmed El Shaer presents Nekh, named for the word a camel driver shouts to get his animal to sit down. The artwork is a computer game, played on an old fuzzy PC, which reenacts February 3rd, the “Battle of the Camel,” when Mubarak’s forces entered Tahrir square on camels to run down protesters. In the game, you pick to be a man or a camel, and then you fire at the other side, which continues to multiply, rather than disappear, as you hit them. The point of the game is that it cannot be won, and every time you lose, the game asks you to keep playing.

4. The train from Cairo to Suez groans loudly in a way that reminds me of the movie Titanic. The cabin is extremely dirty, and the doors swing open at every turn, letting in blasts of freezing air. Several young soldiers spend the entirety of the two-hour trip trying to jam folded paper and push rocks into the door to keep it from sticking, all the while laughing

5. The Cairo International Book Fair opens after last year’s cancellation (due to the uprisings). The English version of the website still reads; the “Cairo International Book Fair is honored every year by President Mohammad Hosny Mubarak who inaugurates its activities and proceedings.” 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"A city so large that it had to turn itself inside out."

Driving east or west out of Cairo, one used to see endless desert, broken only by a few sleepy settlements and austere power lines. But in the past few decades, endless stretches of apartments and mini-palaces have sprung up, sometimes seemingly overnight, to cover vast swaths in patchy layers of brick, steel, and asphalt.

During the Mubarak years, developers purchased massive holdings of land around the city in opaque deals. The government decided to leave the inner-city, with all of its poverty and structural decay, alone and promote a movement quite similar to American “white flight,” albeit more about class than race. The new suburbs, alternately called “satellite cities” and “compounds,” go by names as striking and openly referential as Dreamland, Utopia, and Beverly Hills. Houses are built with an overblown, dramatic sense of design, with coliseums, fountains, and intricately carved woodwork. 

Cairo Divided is a new publication by Jack Shenker, The Guardian’s Cairo correspondent, and photojournalist Jason Larkin that investigates these new “satellite cities” and their role in the unprecedented and rapid urban development that now surrounds Cairo.

According to Shenker, developments ranging from the major hubs of New Cairo and 6th of October City to smaller, posh areas like Cairo Festival City and Palm Hills are “reshaping the political and psychological contours” of Egypt’s capital. “This is a story about a city so large,” he writes, “that it had to turn itself inside out, transforming its periphery into a core whilst condemning the previous centre to a life on the margins.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Review of Alaa Al Aswany's 'On the State of Egypt' in The Montreal Review

I first saw Alaa Al Aswany's On the State of Egypt sitting in a bookstore in the U.S. in July 2011. The ‘revolution,' as we were still calling it—‘uprisings' is the more popular term now —was only six months old. The American University in Cairo Press and Random House, I assumed, had cobbled together a quick, dated collection in order to capitalize on hunger for the triumphant narrative of the Arab spring. I have now lived in Egypt for six months, and reading Al Aswany's writings while following the spins and falls of the country's political situation has proved educational in a way far more disturbing than I would have imagined back then.

Al Aswany, a dentist who still practices, became internationally known for his debut novel The Yacoubian Building in 2002. The 2006 film version was one of the highest budgeted and grossing film in Egyptian history. Its account of intersecting characters in Mubarak's Egypt attempted a handful of political critiques, but buried them in a tapestry of more newsworthy cultural taboos like homosexuality, Islamic fundamentalism, and prostitution. One character, for example, is unjustly denied entrance to the police academy, turns to Islamic activism, is tortured by state security, and avenges his humiliation through violent Islamism. The regime's injustice is evident, but softened in its tragic dance with radicalism.

On the State of Egypt is a collection of Al Aswany's columns from 2005 to 2010 in two newspapers, the once-fiercely oppositional al-Dustur (whose editor Ibrahim Eissa Mubarak threw in jail numerous times before having fired) and the less severe al-Shorouk . In these columns, Aswany does not bury his criticisms in the life trajectories of fictional characters, but charges head first into the Mubarak regime's litany of injustices.

Click to read the rest at The Montreal Review

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The President vs. The Press

The journalists filed into the grand conference room overlooking the Nile and its dusty, neon east bank, cuing up microphones, resting pads and pens on knees, and snapping test photos. They saw their counterparts from other newspapers and channels and smiled, kissing one another on the cheek and making small talk. They grew quiet as the former President entered the room through a secret entrance, flanked by secret service.

Several days before, commenting on the recent parliamentary elections, the former President had told a journalist that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country’s de facto- and de facto autocratic- rulers, would retain some privileges after the transition from their authority to that of a civilian government. “I don’t think the SCAF is going to turn over full responsibility to the civilian government," he said. "There are going to be some privileges of the military that would probably be protected.”

Shortly after the interview was published, the SCAF announced, to the long-nurtured skepticism of activists and journalists, that the former President had gotten and given the wrong impression. They decreed (because the SCAF rarely speaks, but often decrees), that they want to give up power fully to a civilian government. Few of their critics believed it, but the former President could not risk the fallout from admitting any doubts of his own. “I’m going to stand by what the SCAF has said,” he said, adding that they had assured him the widely condemned military trials of civilians deemed against the regime had been stopped.

He tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the focus on the technical aspects of the elections and away from the messy, broad meaning of the revolution. He told the journalists that his greatest disappointment was the low number of women elected to the parliament. A young American woman writing for an Egyptian news website took the microphone and heatedly responded with that old reporting taboo, in which the phrase “many believe” or “some people say” or “we have been told” is a cover for the reporter’s own beliefs. Ostensibly quoting anti-regime activists, she announced that “now is not the time to focus on women’s rights,” adding that “many believe” activists should focus on forcing the SCAF to leave power before turning to particular issues like women’s rights.  

The former President bristled. “I understand your speech,” he responded, “but not your question,” and then he deferred: “This is a decision for Egyptians to make.” 

Many of the journalists in the room, it seemed, believed that SCAF wants to remain in power, which would effectively strip these elections of their legitimacy. They wanted the former President to agree, to say that he did not believe what he had heard. They wanted him to provide a credible source to voice what they themselves would have liked to say, but are kept from saying by the regime of neutral reporting: that the SCAF is lying, has no plans of leaving power and will cling to it by any means. If they could only formulate the question the right way, with the right balance of challenge and trust, then ‘Some people say’ would instantly transform into ‘The former President has said.’

But the former President, his own feelings purposefully and by necessity buried in the folds of diplomacy, could not give them what they wanted. In answer after answer, he reinforced that he could do no more than believe what he been told at face value, or else risk losing his ability to affect change at all.  

A young Egyptian journalist, a woman with long dark hair, thick eyeliner, and a fierce expression, got fed up. “We still can’t see that,” she said, referring the SCAF's promises. “Your own impression says there are negotiations to give power to the SCAF after the elections,” she continued, trying to lay out the contradictions between what he had said the day before and what he had said today, respectfully but with bite.

The former President grew curt. “I feel like I’ve answered the same question three or four times, and I’ll answer it again,” he said, repeating the same description of how a new constitution, with whatever powers granted to the SCAF, would have to be approved by a constitutional referendum, in a vote by the Egyptian population.

He could not get into what happened last time Egyptians voted in this kind of referendum. In March, after an inspiring snapshot of democracy (smiling voters, inky fingers, etc.) the SCAF had announced their own additional articles ten days later, over and above the process, almost casually.  

“The SCAF,” the former President told the young women, both of them now a bit red in the face, “agree with what I just said. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly, and if I get another identical question, I’m not going to answer it.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Notes from The Carter Center

The Carter Center's headquarters, usually on the 9th floor of an anonymous apartment building, have been moved for the week of President Carter's visit to a large, grand conference room in a large, grand international hotel. Endless cups of bright orange and strawberry juice chase cups of coffee and tea, croissants and meringues, as thirty staff members and interns type, call, eat, drink, meet, and speak, all at a buzzing, frenetic pace, while hotel staff stand in austere, bored silence, occasionally bolting into action to replenish the snacks. 

Outside, a phalanx of Egyptian and American secret service agents mill around, checking their phones and making small talk. The Egyptians wear white shirts, black jackets, and red ties, making them look like walking national flags. I remember a great short story by Donald Barthelme where he wonders: "Does the bodyguard gauge the importance of his principal in terms of the number of bodyguards he requires?" Today I made a game of trying to count them, and got lost in an officious ocean of red and white, which the American and Egyptian flags have in common, and blue and black, their differences. 

The energy of the war room comes in waves throughout the fourteen to sixteen hour days. Everyone's eyes grow red from staring at computer screens. Small talk often consists of making fun of journalists who stole pastries or dressed poorly, announcements of how swamped with work someone is, and bemused observations usually met with silence and zombie-like stares.

Everyone revels in the fun details of Carter' s meetings and photo op's and interviews, most of which happen far from the war room. At a polling station visit yesterday, the former President was swarmed by cameramen and moved slowly at the center of three concentric circles of secret service, police, and reporters. Because voter turnout has been so low this round, Carter only got to see a single voter actually perform the ritual of marking a ballot, dropping it in the big wooden box, and inking his finger. The man told Carter he was a big fan of the Camp David Accords, despite being an "Islamist." 

When the President enters the room, everyone stands and their faces glow. He raises his hands, and in his long familiar Georgia accent announces simply "My guarantee to you all, is that whatever happens here, it's going to be interesting!" 

The moment of zen comes late in the evening watching the elaborate ritual of sealing big wooden ballot boxes with hot red wax:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #2

Sarah El Sirgany is one of the best-known independent journalists in Egypt. Many times when I tell people that I write for The Daily News Egypt, where she is the managing editor, they ask about her with the reverence usually reserved for celebrities.

After witnessing many conversations in the newspaper’s office, it became clear that she has thought long and hard about her role as a journalist during and after last January’s uprisings, and the relationship between her work and activism. “As an independent journalist you’re cornered. You’re classified as anti-regime right away, no matter how objective you are,” she told me one afternoon, taking a short break from work for a sandwich. “If you’re not with us you’re against us.”

The term ‘independent journalist’ here usually refers to reporters for a news source other than those owned by the state or political parties, though this does not necessarily mean they are free of outside interests. Publisher Hisham Kassem, who used to run the independent Al Masry Al Youm, quit his position over worries that his newspaper was owned by big business interests and would become compromised in its reporting as a result. “If you look now there isn’t a single paper or TV station that’s not owned by an individual,” he told a group of students recently. “My big fear now is that the media is going to be owned by the oligarchs here in Egypt.”

But what makes Sarah an independent journalist, I think, is also the way she speaks critically of the state-owned, Arabic language press. “The problem is there’s a school,” she told me. “I don’t know why it’s been propagated as a school of journalism, a school of writing that’s being taught as a school of journalism, in how you start to editorialize, write more descriptive, literary type of writing in Arabic, while you are writing a news report or an investigative feature.”  She attributes this style of writing to “lack of development.” “We got stagnated,” she explained, “in the 1960s.”

That was when the Egyptian government under Nasser nationalized the press (using the more indirect term “reorganize”). But the history of the style Sarah sees as “stagnated” goes much farther back. In the late nineteenth century, newspapers began to proliferate throughout the Arab world, then mostly under the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the early newspaper editors and journalists in Egypt were not native Egyptians, but Christians from greater Syria escaping stricter control of the press in regions closer to the Ottoman capitol of Istanbul.

These Christian Arabs, among them the founders of Al Ahram, now Egypt and the Arab world’s highest circulation newspaper, had been educated in French mission schools and for various reasons had become culturally Francophile. According to Abdullah Schleifer, longtime NBC bureau chief in Cairo who later worked for Saudi-owned station Al-Arabiya, they were “influenced by the aggressively laic if not agnostic quality to much of the nineteenth century Parisian press.”

“The secular and often non-Muslim pioneers of Arab journalism,” he continues, “were drawn to the belle letter tradition within Arabic literature…which had more to do with literary flourish and self-expression, interpretation, opinion, and literary stance than with accuracy and sourcing.”

Schleifer’s explanation is sweeping, but compelling as a grand historical narrative. He explains how Anglo-American journalism developed in the context of merchants needing quick, accurate, objective information, while French journalism, which inspired much Arab journalism, saw “news as a vehicle for analysis—often a most partisan or ideological analysis.”

In 1960, when Nasser nationalized the Egyptian press, this historically French-influenced style easily merged with the need to use the press to mobilize the Egyptian people towards Nasser’s anti-imperial vision of Egyptian self-determination. The most-read articles of the time were by Mohamed Heikal, a close friend of Nasser and Editor in Chief of Al Ahram, whose Friday columns were believed to be a direct communication from Nasser to Egypt and the world (the columns were translated immediately every week into English and French for foreign diplomats).  “The press is an authority whose function is to guide people and actively participate in building their society exactly as does the People’s Assembly,’” Heikal wrote in 1960.

Fifty years later, many independent Egyptian journalists, and nearly all of the English-language reporters, study at the American University in Cairo, and have taken to the American school of journalism, with its emphasis on neutral, sharp factual accounts. Pick out any article on politics in The Daily News Egypt, where Sarah is the managing editor, and it reads like a just-the-facts-ma’am Associated Press brief. This emphasis on the American style puts journalists like Sarah into a culture clash with the heirs to the more literary tradition, who still populate the state-owned newspaper’s mastheads. In this clash of institutional cultures, one person’s “guidance” and “active participation” is another’s sycophantic self-censorship.

But part of the problem, for Sarah, is that even if she wanted source and verify her facts with the kind of meticulous detail she respects so much, it is impossible much of the time. “It’s an issue of how we can verify all this information,” she told me. “It’s not just about having the courage to write [and challenge the regime.]. It’s about actually having the information, and a big part of the story is that we don’t have a Freedom of Information Act.”

Back when she was an intern, she explained, she would be tasked with fact-checking. “Just to call a government authority to check that the number you have is right and that the head of the authority is the same name that you have,” she explained, “you end up with ‘Why are you asking?’” and other angrier questions from the bureaucrat on the other end of the phone.  “So we don’t have this culture of giving out information, even to journalists.”

In general, though, Sarah seems hopeful. When I asked her about the revolution, now nearly a year ago, she said it had a big effect on how she saw her own role in Egypt: “For me at least it provided me with a sense that writing could be a source of information and people would react…It triggered a newfound freedom because all the taboos were broken in a day.” Still, recalling the state-employed reporters, she sighed: “a lot of journalists were trapped in a self-censorship mentality.”

More on Egyptian Journalism

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Egypt's New Year's Eve did not have the usual mix of cheer and nostalgia we've given it in the states. It’s not normally an important holiday, and is commonly celebrated by the Coptic minority more than the Muslim majority. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, a church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 20 and wounding over a hundred. The failure of the government to investigate the attack was one of many strands that twisted together to bring people into the streets in late January.

This year, the press covered memorials for last year’s violence side by side with the small celebrations at Tahrir to ring in the new year. A small stage sat next to the square, and people shot off fireworks, held small white candles, and watched some very old Coptic men with black robes and long beards struggle to hold a tune over a live band playing nationalist songs. Many shouted apolitical chants- “freedom,” “Blessed be Egypt!” mixed with the more pointed “Down with the military regime!” Threading through the crowd young men in kufiyehs handed out stickers calling for the release of Maikel Nabil, who has been in prison for about nine months since suggesting that the army never should have been trusted to guide the transition. Many spread their fingers into peace signs.

The political chants and protest elements of New Year’s Eve were tentative and tepid. Since that evening, I’ve come to feel as though activists are waiting for the anniversary of January 25th, hoping that the memorializing will take a forward-looking, and, perhaps for the most optimistic among them, an angrily populist turn.

“Naturally political movements, parties and groups are planning to celebrate the first anniversary of the uprising on Jan. 25, possibly through calls for million man marches against military rule,” wrote my editor Rania Al Malky in an editorial published last week. “But over the past two weeks, SCAF has turned this cause for celebration to a potential apocalypse, casting a dark shadow of fear and horror over the memory of the resurrection of Egypt’s spirit of freedom in a way that reflects their true take on the colossal events that have uprooted their very legitimacy.”
“The countdown to January 25 has started,” she concluded.
Last night while walking home I ran into S, a friend from my time at the American University in Cairo who now works for a public relations firm. I had run into her several times around Tahrir in the past few months, and she is a lot like Mustafa (who I wrote about last week), a young, committed anti-regime activist unaffiliated with any movement but always ready to show up and shout.

S is short, speaks quickly, wears a lot of black, and often posts impassioned, pithy political statements on her Facebook. I walked her towards a posh cafĂ© near the iconic statue of Um Kulthum, Egypt’s most famous singer, and she told me that during the recent elections she had taken her PR skills and worked for the campaign of Mahmoud Salem.

Salem, who is better known by his blog nickname Sandmonkey, and who I have quoted at length here, was one of the only revolutionary youth activists to run for office. When he lost, he became campaign manager for his party in another district. He has since written a long, disgusted blog post and given several public addresses about how demoralizing, violent, and dishonest he found the whole experience. He believes that the army was helping radical Salafi candidates win to scare the rest of the public into the military’s arms. 

I asked S what that was like to work for Salem, and she responded, almost reflexively, “It was hard to keep it clean.” “What do you mean?” I pressed, and she explained her conviction that most of the other campaigns spread false rumors about each other and even resorted to violent harassment on a regular basis.

Trying to put some hope back into the awkward silence that often follows such dour political assessments, I asked her about January 25th, 2011, which is fast approaching. She perked back up and explained that the 25th will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

First, January 25th is still Police Day. This was one of the reasons so many people came out last year (because they have work off and because they don’t like the police), and it is likely that the lack of reform in the police forces will lead the same people angry about it last year to return. Second, there are the families and more apolitical segments of Egyptian society who will come out simply for the anniversary of the revolution’s beginning. Only third, in her list, came the real diehard anti-military council activists calling for the council to step down just as Mubarak did nearly a year ago.

As she crossed the street and I waved goodbye, I felt a disconnect: Her thoughts on the 25th were wary and worried, her tone was full of excitement.   

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The City Boys Take to the Country

Mustafa is twenty-one, tall, dark-skinned, and powerfully built. He hides his short, curly mound of hair under a black, tough-guy hoodie and a purple cap emblazoned with nonsensical English, a hallmark of budget Egyptian fashion (It reads “Monetarily No Fellowless”). He has a big black scar on his upper back that he credits to Central Security Forces and he laughs rarely, though he smiles often. He sleeps into the afternoon every day, stays up late every night, and appears both restless and like he has all the time in the world to sit in cafes, smoking cigarettes, drinking tea, and talking with his friends about soccer, marriage, where the good parties are (usually with the soccer hooligans, called Ultras), and where they might find girls to talk to (usually unsuccessful).

More recently, Mustafa talks about politics too. He goes to Tahrir and participates in the protests, though he does not belong to any official movement. During the revolution, he took to the streets, but, as our mutual friend Will told me, he insisted on finishing a test for one his business classes first.

His family lives near downtown, so since January he has been able to drift in and out of the political ferment of the square, taking leaflets to distribute back in his neighborhood and chanting “The People Want the Fall of the Regime” one minute, and getting riled up over soccer games the next. “Talking about politics is just like talking about soccer,” he told me one evening. “It’s all just about picking between sides and supporting one.”

This weekend, I went with Mustafa, Will (who blogs here), and two of Mustafa’s Cairo schoolmates to Tamiyah, a village an hour south of Cairo, past the pyramids, in the governorate of Fayoum. Mustafa’s family keeps a house there, which sits empty and dark most of the year. His mother’s family hails from the village, while his father’s origins are in Upper Egypt (the southern, more tribal areas sometimes  dubbed the Texas of Egypt). His father worked as a journalist for one of the opposition party newspapers, and was taken in by his maternal grandparents, while covering political events in Fayoum, in a random act of hospitality. It was there that he saw Mustafa’s mother, and asked the man who had offered him a place to sleep if he could marry his daughter.

There is only a lightly shaded streak of political activity in Mustafa's genealogy, but since the revolution, he has thrown himself in earnestly to the excitement and tumult of the downtown marches, cat and mouse battles with state security, and the bustling tent city culture of Tahrir.  As we arrived in Tamiyah, where Mustafa spent a lot of time as a young boy, he was recognized and greeted warmly by young kids and old men alike. While he studies business in the big city, many of his childhood friends now work as butchers and farmers. He told Will and I that he hoped to escape the endless political talk of Cairo for a little while, but it often felt throughout the evening like politics had followed him. 

In a small, bright red truck, we sat and waited to make the thirty-minute drive from Tamiyah to Fayoum. Generally, microbuses that can fit ten to fifteen passengers wait at the dusty station as the driver calls out the destination in a rapid staccato that makes the name sound like a snack or beverage (“Fayoum! Fayoum!, with a rising lilt on “youm”). This microbus could carry ten, and nine piled in quickly but the mysterious tenth was taking his time. Mustafa offered that we could all pay a small amount more (5 to 10 cents) to cover the empty seat. Somehow this led to a conversation about the prices of microbus trips, with an older man, unshaven and wearing a tired blue sweater, talking nostalgically about how it used to be so cheap in the old days, and how prices jumped in the Mubarak era.

Where the same conversation, a year ago, might have led to a collective wail of complaints, here it turned into a passionate conversation about the future of the country, with the older man offering broad, passionate possibilities for changing the political system, and a young police officer in training nodding and saying, “Yes, I agree, but it’s impossible to implement!” All the while, Mustafa leaned his head back and made eye contact with me to express annoyance. His friend Ahmed jokingly wrapped a scarf around his mouth and chin, pulled his hood over his ears, and posed for Mustafa’s camera as a young, tough terrorist or revolutionary.

After gobbling down a meal of fried chicken, tahina, and salad we stopped at a juice stand. The man behind the cash register noticed Mustafa and his friends’ accent and dress. “Where are you from?” he asked them. “Cairo,” Mustafa said. “No…Tahrir! We are from the square!” He raised his hand, and the man smiled and shook his head noncommittally.

We spent most of the evening in Fayoum and Tamiyah playing the part of listless Egyptian teenagers, talking about soccer endlessly (I was probably asked which team I supported twenty times, and never had an answer) and dancing through the streets to psychedelic sha’abi music. Sha’abi literally means popular, but refers more to the working-class connotation of that word (here’s a great example). It’s a blend of hip-hop, sufi music, and Egyptian wedding music, and Mustafa and his friends will jump and swing through the streets gregariously as the music bursts out of their cell phones.

The next morning, Mustafa chatted with an old family friend from Tamiyah about the elections. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Salafi movement, as many predicted, swept these rural areas of Egypt. But under the image of a swing towards conservatism, Tamiyah is also a place of striking symbolism in terms of religious coexistence. Minarets rise up interspersed with the bell towers of a large Coptic church in the center of town, which is currently being renovated, and the Muslim and Christian populations freely mix without the tensions and flares that have recently overtaken similar towns and cities throughout the country.

On the way back to Cairo, the traffic bottlenecked and the driver hopped out to see why. He returned to the bus snickering, and when we finally passed the dusty choke-point of the cars, motorcycles, and buses, we saw why as well: a pick-up truck overfull with carts of vegetables had gone too fast over a speed bump, spilling tomatoes all over the side of the road. Men from other cars had stopped, in the middle of the road, to help the poor truck driver put what was salvageable of his lost cargo back into the bed, thereby turning four lanes into one. 

“All the older generation thinks we are lazy,” Mustafa had told me late in the evening, sitting in the long empty living room, as the sound of motorcycles quieted for a lone rooster and the crunch of occasional feet in the narrow, dark alleys. “They think we smoke this and that and drink and sit around and watch soccer, and we have to fight to get involved in politics." Ahmed nodded, adding: “What we have do is get rid of corruption and bribery and all the old problems, and change ourselves from within, and maybe we’ll get to rule the country someday.”