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.”

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