Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Youth of the Arab Spring

Several hours into a day of writing at the newspaper office, I watched as an old friend of the editors stopped in to say hello. A dashing young man in his late twenties with short blonde hair and a slightly soldierly vibe, he had once worked for the paper, producing video for the website and writing a few stories.

He then became a stringer for a major international news network, filming, producing, appearing on camera, and taking on all different sets of tasks in an era when one is expected to play all roles in the making of international news. The network sent him to Libya, where a piece of shrapnel found its way into his leg, and then to France, where a doctor pulled the shrapnel out, and then to Cairo for recovery. He would soon be off to the border with Gaza for his next glamorous assignment.

The newspaper has a fairly liberal stop-in policy. Journalists and researchers needing advice for a story or a long academic project come by and chat with the editors, and international delegations who want to know more about how news is produced in a place with lots of news come to tour the modest offices. Old colleagues, however, get a big warm welcome, full of smiles and endless perfunctory conversation-starters; “How have you been?” “What’s up?” “How’s life?” “What’re you working on?”

The American relaxed in a chair between the desks, which face each other so editors can talk as they work. He made himself busy looking through a magazine as the editors tapped away at their computers. “I have a question for ya’ll,” he finally said, breaking the silence with his slight mid-western accent. “We need to interview a young activist for a quick update story on the Arab Spring. Who should we interview?”

It was a dazzingly complex question, the answer to which would result in just a few short minutes of footage, which may or may not get primetime play on the network. The majority of the most influential activists in the Egyptian revolution were in their early to mid-thirties. These included Asmaa Mahfouz (27), Wael Ghonim (31), Hossam el-Hamalawy (34) and Ahmed Maher (31). They are certainly young, especially compared to the old dissidents and opposition party leaders, but they were not youth in the hip, Western sense.

During the eighteen days that brought down Mubarak, much of the Western press coverage focused on even younger Egyptians, including Gigi Ibrahim (23), Ethar El Katatney (23) and Sarah Abdelrahman (also 23). Of course, viewers find the prospect that some kids overthrew a dictator before getting their bachelor’s degrees a thrilling story, and these young women were very involved in the protests. But instead of television shows in the U.S. which cast thirty year-olds as semi-convincing college students, here the Western news media looked for the college students themselves.

Not long after that day at the office, in November, violence at Tahrir square would break out again and ensure in the eyes of the world that the Egyptian revolution has not recent history but an ongoing story, (except, perhaps, American readers of TIME magazine, which decided to give their domestic cover to a story called “Why Anxiety is Good for You” and their international cover to an Egyptian in a gasmask).

About a month later, 23 year-old Gigi Ibrahim went on BBC NewsNight for a roundtable discussion on the Arab Spring. Ibrahim had been on Al Jazeera and The Daily Show with John Stewart. She often wore a leather jacket and slung a camera on her shoulder, looking equal parts revolutionary and war correspondent.

One of the BBC’s producers emailed Ibrahim before she called in to London, and he outlined the issues “likely to come up in the discussion.” These included: “How the revolutions were not predicted,” “Western willingness to intervene in Libya but not elsewhere,” and “What the people want when they come to vote (eg western stlye [sic] democracy or something more Islamist).” Ibrahim’s fellow guests would be a bit older than her, including historian Simon Schama, former British ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, Nobel Prize winner Tawakul Karman, and Henry Kissinger.

“When I got on the show,” she reflected later, “I was faced with the most western-centric, orientalist, and racist point of view on the Arab Spring.” Ibrahim felt that comments which described “western technology as what made these revolutions possible” and discussed the “Islamist threat to democracy” were simplifying and pernicious.

She took issue in particular with the great Secretary of State. “It was impossible enough to bare Henry Kissinger’s deep voice on the other end of the line being asked as an ‘expert’ on the Middle East,” she lamented.

“Henry Kissinger?! The one whose exact polices ruined our country and many others to the ground?!! unbelievably stupid. I was going to explode out of frustration for not getting ANY chance to address these comments (insults in my opinion). I hardly had a minute all together to express my point of view or have any questions directed to me.”

Ibrahim furiously emailed the BBC producers the next day. “Your entity incites and affirms the western agenda that our revolution stands against,” she wrote, “and if you are professional journalists you would at least give all sides an equal opportunity to present their view, but you chose Henry Kissinger (with all his history) to be more of an “expert” on the Arab Spring (given how much time you allowed him to speak) than someone fighting there and knows more about what is happening (given why you invited me in the first place). The least you would have done is an equal time to each speaker but you proved to me how unprofessional you are. Thank you for a night of deep frustration.”

Ibrahim’s blog address, incidentally, is “theangryegyptian.wordpress.com”

Back to the newsroom: After the American young man asked about who to interview, the editors (late twenties and early thirties), who are themselves ‘activists’ in one way or another, pondered their networks of friends, acquaintances and sources. Certainly any of them could have fit the bill, but who recommends themselves? “What about Gigi Ibrahim?” one said. The man nodded and raised his eyebrows. “She’s been on TV so much already, though,” chimed in another editor. “Yeah, but who hasn’t?” the American responded.

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