Monday, May 28, 2012

Jay Rosen's Horse Race Journalism and the Egyptian Presidential Election


Several days ago, I had lunch with several reporters, all of whom were covering Egypt’s elections. They were wound up tightly with nervous energy, and let it out by scrolling through Twitter on their smart phones. 

Everyone had been stunned the day before. The two front-runners were in fourth and fifth place. The Brotherhood’s candidate, who many people had called a “spare tire” because he was a last minute substitute, would be competing with Mubarak’s last prime minister. The Western reporters, many of whom are friends with liberal and leftist young Egyptians, were just as tense. I felt my chair jiggling and looked over to see a reporter’s leg pumping up and down, making the table quiver and sending the energy throughout all the connected furniture.

We had all just attended a press conference with President Carter, packed into a conference hall at the Four Seasons. Surrounded by over twenty bodyguards, Carter had begun with an affable “Good afternoon everybody!” and then launched into a long list of complaints over his election observation team’s lack of access to the polls. “Usually we go wherever we wish,” he said. “There is no way for us to certify that this process has been fair.”

Carter began to take questions and called on a international television reporter. The reporter had the perfect cadence of a television news anchor. I had met him before and knew this wasn’t his normal voice, and I was amazed by his ability to turn it on and sound like Peter Jennings. The photographers looked bored, because once they had a few shots of Carter sitting and speaking, there was little else for them to shoot. Every time Carter gestured with his hands, I heard a wave of camera clicks, trying to capture the more interesting image he was momentarily giving them.

When the press conference ended, everyone applauded. It felt like rare moment, like applauding in church after a sermon. “In Egypt, everyone just loves Jimmy,” I overheard one reporter say.

Many of these reporters, a few hours later, would be at the Brotherhood press conference. Then, they would move en masse to a press conference by Hamdeen Sabbahi, the unlikely third place candidate. All the while, they would be trying to make sense of an extremely complicated set of political machinations: What would each of the candidates who failed to make the run-offs do? Would they side with a winner hoping desperately to keep the Brotherhood or the former regime people out of the presidency?

Few seemed to mention that the president’s duties were still hopelessly unclear, that the constitution hadn’t even been written yet. I realized that I was watching what NYU Professor Jay Rosen calls “Horse-Race Journalism,” who is ahead today, who is behind, etc. He describes it as “a reusable model for how to do campaign coverage in which you focus on who’s going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister.” It “imagines the campaign as a sporting event.” Joan Didion called American campaign coverage a game of Insider Baseball in 1988. “These are people,” she wrote of campaign reporters, “who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.”

I’ve been reading Rosen’s excellent blog of press criticism for several months, and had been trying to think about how to apply some of his ideas about journalism to what I see in Egypt. He doesn’t write a lot about foreign correspondents, so I’ve had to be creative in drawing the links. With the election, it’s easy. In 2008, Rosen wrote about campaign reporters in the U.S. as a “herd of independent minds” who use horse-race journalism to “play up their detachment” and appear as insiders who can give special information on what will happen in the election and why, rather than what the point is. He writes:

“Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because “who’s gonna win?” is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists. Ever noticed how spirits lift when the pundit roundtable turns from the Middle East or the looming recession to the horse race, and there’s an opportunity for sizing up the candidates? To be manifestly agenda-less is journalistic bliss. Of course, since trying to get ahead of the voters can affect how voters view the candidates, the innocence, too, is an illusion. But a potent one.”

He continues:

“Imagine if we had them all — the whole Gang of 500 — in a room and we asked them (off the record): How many of you feel roughly qualified to be Secretary of State? Ted Koppel having retired, no hands would go up. Secretary of the Treasury? No hands. White House Chief of Staff? Maybe one or two would raise a hand. Qualified to be President? No one would dare say that. Strategist for a presidential campaign? I’d say at least 200 hands would shoot up. Reporters identify with those guys — the behind-the-scenes message senders — and they cultivate the same knowledge.
What a waste! Journalists ought to be bringing new knowledge into the system.”

During the Egyptian election, the horse race is far more interesting than it is in even a particularly gripping American election. It’s the first time the result is not preordained by a dictator. There are more candidates. The stakes are higher, because the winner has no clear powers and thus might take huge powers. All kinds of historical forces that swam under the surface during Mubarak’s years are now in the open view, ripe for the analyst’s speculation.


In fact, much coverage of Middle East politics operates like a slow-motion horse-race. The election season in Egypt has simply been a faster, more tiring version of the endless political machinations that have dominating Egypt's news every since the revolution (and Iraq's news since the invasion and Lebanon's news for decades). Everyone writes about the jockeying for power thats played out between the military council, the Brotherhood, and the revolutionaries over the last year. It often feels like the battle is the point in and of itself, rather than what any of these given groups aim to do for the country and why Egyptians support one group or another. 

Rosen’s point about horse-race journalism allows us to see that getting wrapped up in the excitement of who will side with whom, who will turn on whom, and who will be the take-all winner is fun for journalists and bad for their readers, the public. The press painted a narrative in which Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s former foreign minister, and Brotherhood breakaway Abdel Moneim Abuel Fotoh were the frontrunners. Many figured that these guys had enough votes, so they picked Sabbahi, Morsy, and Shafik. And then what happened? Sabbahi, Morsy, and Shafik beat Moussa and Abuel Fotoh. Many Egyptians felt like they would have voted differently knowing what they know now.

Rosen believes that an alternative model might involve asking what the public wants. “What are the issues they want to see the candidates discussing? And then to ask each day ‘How did we do at advancing the discussion citizen’s agenda today?” Of course, his question needs to be rephrased for foreign correspondents. What is the point of covering the endless machinations of politics in other countries? Do they have any obligations to the global public that consumes their reporting?

“If journalists helped citizens get their agenda addressed during the campaign,” he explains, “they would be performing a role that’s very important.” That's true, and the questions are only more complex when they aren't citizens.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Most Presidential Puppet



It seemed late in the game to hold a rally, but there he was, parading down the street of the working class neighborhood of Ard El Awa, flanked by kids doing cartwheels and other kids dodging spitballs. Four girls with big campaign signs for their candidate, Bakaboza, realized they'd been left behind and bolted towards the crowd, hopping every few feet and kicking up dust. 

Bakaboza waved his large, paper-mache hands, twiddled his mustache, tipped his red cap, and proceeded under the sober stares of his Islamist competitors, Abdel Moneim Abuel Fotoh (who also campaigned with puppetry) and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, who I've heard several times called the organization's puppet. 

The kids shouted his name over and over. "Baka Baka Boza!" A man beat a drum and they got more creative, shouting "Bakabakabaka what? Bakabakaboza!" A car passing by joined in the rhythm: ba ba ba ba. ba ba ba. ba ba ba ba baaaa baaaa. Another car, clearly not a supporter of the Bakaboza campaign, gave one big, long honk to clear the way: Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

Bakaboza is a puppet, but where that term usually refers to corporate and political ownership, here the only ones pulling strings are ordinary people. On his campaign platform, distributed on glossy sheets, Bakaboza promised public jukeboxes in the streets and an end to corruption. He promised that men will learn to cook and sew while women learn to fix motorcycles. He promised to burn garbage to make electricity and to replace the walls of police stations with glass. No more illiteracy! Mango trees in the streets!

If children under 13 were allowed to vote, Bakaboza would be a serious contender. His platform and image was put together by a collective of artists working with an American named Nini Ayach. They gathered in workshops to design the perfect candidate, at a time when everyone seemed to be supporting one candidate, simply to avoid supporting another. 

Bakaboza proceeded to a makeshift stage in an alley, tightly squeezed between a butcher and a corner grocery. Men drinking tea and smoking shisha looked on languidly. With ample reverb, Bakaboza delivered his platform. The crowd kept cheering. 

Only twelve hours later, their parents would learn that everyone's expectations had been dashed, that to predict anything in the presidential election was to venture into a morass of unknowns. The two men who were given hours on television to debate, the obvious frontrunners, both failed to make the top three candidates. The least charismatic candidate was vying for the number one spot with an undeniably Mubarak-era figure. Everywhere around us we saw surprises. Twelve hours after his spontaneous crowd formed in Ard El Awa, Bakaboza seemed like one of the less surprising aspects of this election.






Thursday, May 24, 2012

"That's Democracy"



At 2:20PM, outside of the New Primary School in Hedayat El Kobba, a handful of portly older policemen ordered around young soldiers. Usually the orders involved helping old women step up to the curb. There were no lines or crowds to control. Voters came every few minutes. In November, there were always big crowds. Now that everyone is used to two days of voting, there doesn’t seem to be much of a rush. “More people will come after work,” a police officer told me, flicking his cigarette into the street.

At 4:00PM, outside of the Education administration building several blocks away, I met an egg seller and his employee, Hossam and Mohamed. Both had blue ink on their pinkies. Egyptians, I have learned, never hesitate to say whom they’re voting for. You don’t find any of the privacy fetishism of American voters. Hossam voted for the charismatic leftist in the back of the race, Hamdeen Sabbahi. Mohamed voted for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former Minister of Aviation. The candidates represent opposite ends of the spectrum: revolutionary and former regime, but Hossam and Mohamed weren’t arguing at all. I almost cringe at the feel-good-ness of Mohamed’s explanation: “I have my opinion, and he has his opinion. That’s democracy.”

I asked them who they thought would win. Both agreed that Shafik would at least make it to the run-off. “He is very close to the military council,” Hossam said, “so he has a better chance.” This was the third or fourth time someone had said this to me, that the former regime candidate had a better shot because the country’s current leaders want him to win. Every time someone says this, I reactively ask, “So you mean that they will influence the election? Will they do something illegal?”

Hossam scrunched his face and shrugged. “No, no. I’m not saying they’ll do something illegal, but still he has a better chance. You know?” I still don’t understand this.

At 5:00PM, outside of a third polling station in the same neighborhood, a long line of women snaked around the block. I bought some tea and watched an entourage of cameras and men in suits approach the entrance. In the center I spotted Khaled Ali, the youngest candidate by far, a labor lawyer either seen as untainted or callow. A few days before, I saw him give a speech at a rally near Tahrir square. His voice boomed through the alleyways and over buildings, while a few hundred supporters filled the street. Several young women were pasting stickers with his young, clean-shaven face up on light poles. “The jails of the military council will be like the jail of Mubarak!” he shouted. “Ask the commission why there was no real debate between all the candidates! Ask them! Ask them!” Some men in trash trucks heckled the crowd.

As Ali approached the polling station, he waved to the few people that were clearly staring. A few more people whispered to one another, “That’s Khaled Ali!” For the most part, however, nobody recognized him. 

Photo: A Khaled Ali poster in Aswan, sandwiched between a ripped, outdated parliamentary poster and a poster for defunct presidential candidate Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, covered with an advertisement for apartments. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Port Said's Political House Band in Rolling Stone



Two years ago Rolling Stone Magazine launched a Middle East edition, based in Dubai. I wrote this piece for them on Zakaria Ibrahim and his band El Tanbura, who I've been following for months and written about several times, here and here


Many thanks to Zakaria, of course, as well as ethnomusicologist Kristina Nelson, one of Cairo's most informed and passionate cultural mentors, and Rachel Aspden, a journalist who introduced me to Zakaria's music in November. She has a piece of her own about the band



I MET ZAKARIA IBRAHIM on the outskirts of Cairo’s Tahrir Square last November, at a time when foreign correspondents were proudly donning gas masks and telling newly minted war stories at the downtown cafes. Tear gas clung to the air and mixed with shisha smoke and sentences were punctuated with rubber bullets. Protesters and security forces traded stones, shouts, and high white arcs of gas that sent hundreds scurrying into side streets. Ibrahim bobbed out from a scattering of revolutionaries, his bushy Ottoman mustache framing a boyish smile.


Our mutual friend had described a bandleader and ethnomusicologist responsible for reviving a tradition of folk songs in the city of Port Said, where the Suez Canal meets the Mediterranean Sea. But tonight, Ibrahim had momentarily resumed his former life as a student activist. “I’ve been shouting all day,” he told me, lighting a cigarette. “It’s very exciting to be back in the square again.”

A group of older activists approached and greeted him. One woman explained how, in the 1970’s, she had been intimidated by the seasoned student leftists and Ibrahim had been the one among them who reached out to give her advice. Forty years later, her schoolgirl crush was still clear. I asked her about Ibrahim’s band, El Tanbura. “I think what he is doing is heroic,” she said. “To keep art going—even when it’s in the background—is heroic.”



Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Micro-Bus Passengers



The trains from Sohag to Cairo were full. Men were standing crushed together in the small, screeching space between the cars. Thursdays are like American Fridays, everyone skipping town for the weekend. This was exacerbated by the elections, everyone going home to vote in their district.

We decided to take a micro-bus, and there were ample opportunities, since the drivers had caught wind of the weekend rush. We hopped in one and waited until it filled up with other passengers, finally becoming desperate enough to pay for an extra seat so we wouldn’t have to wait for one more. A young cab driver named Mustafa bought us tea and pineapple soda. We hit the road with a friendly bunch of Copts on their way to Alexandria, each shouting into a cell phone to let loved ones know they had left with the loud, confused tone of grandparents throughout the world who don’t realize you can speak at a normal volume into a cell phone.

The driver was a laconic man in his 30’s wearing a galabiya, letting a cigarette dangle and ash out of his mouth under a thick mustache and a slightly less thick scruff of beard, as if he had once worried about his appearance but had recently stopped. After ten minutes on the road, he turned off into a village, careening between donkeys carting watermelons and children running between huge ditches filled with trash. The bus filled the alleys and crushed sugar cane stalks that had fallen in the street, probably due to the unpaved road, the rotting wooden wheels, and the uneven pace of the aforementioned donkeys.

After a few minutes, a woman in the back, clearly wealthier than the rest with a floral print headscarf, started to get annoyed at the detour. “This will take longer,” she shouted, either out of rage or in order to carry her voice over the sound of crushed sugarcane. “What is going on?”

“Just five minutes,” the driver shouted back, “and we’ll be back on the road.”

The others started to realize what was happening. We were way off course. Sohag is separated from Cairo by a desert highway, not small, green villages. “Where are we?” a man in a light blue galabiya said, raising his voice to a squeak.

“Five minutes. Really, just five minutes.”

“This won’t take five minutes,” the wealthier woman screamed. “I didn’t take the train because it was full, but I would have taken an airplane if I knew you’d take us out of the way!”

“Just five minutes. No problem. It really will only take five minutes.”

The repetition seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves, coaxing them into a frenzy. “How do we know we’re safe?” someone shrieked, “that you won’t take us into some ditch?”

Their country accents made it difficult for me to understand everything, but soon it became clear. The driver had promised someone in this village a ride to Cairo, and he had failed to tell anyone else. “What’s the problem?” my friend asked the man in blue. “The problem is we’re here.”

The noise was suddenly deafening. We had hit a village traffic jam, with three-wheeled tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and other cars honking, motors running with little muffling, donkeys clopping along the street, grainy music playing from the micro-bus’ speakers, and over all of this, the screaming. Everyone was screaming. “You have no manners, no manners at all to treat us this way!” “Just tell us frankly, how long will this take? An hour?” “This is horrible!” “Where are we? I don’t know where we are!”

The driver turned around, no longer quite as laconic, though a crumb still clung to his lower lip from a long-forgotten cracker. “Come on,” he said, “Is this really so bad? Are you going to die?”

That quieted most of them, except for the floral-print lady in the back. “Yes,” she shouted resolutely. “I am going to die.” The rest chuckled.

Just then, a woman approached the car from a nearby building. Her eyelids were heavy. Apparently she had been sleeping and wasn’t ready to leave. Then she had to say goodbye, each hug and handshake raising the temperature in the bus. Cairo was still six hours away. The floral-print lady jeered, “It’s bad enough we had to wait so long for you.”

The man in blue stopped her. “It’s not her fault,” he said. “It’s the driver’s fault for not telling us.”

The driver offered to buy everyone drinks in consolation. The floral-print lady wanted change, handing him a hundred pound bill ($17) to pay for a two-pound water (32 cents). Everyone stared at the cash.

The man in blue leaned in to my two friends. “Tell me,” he said. “Do you speak Arabic?”

We all nodded. The passengers, realizing we understood the whole episode, burst out laughing. Happy conversation followed, with the man in blue practicing his English: “I am Christmas. I am Christmas.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Far-Flung Archives



In the Rifa’a Al Tahtawi Library in Sohag, seven hours by train from Cairo, I saw an image I normally associate with whimsical films. An old man produced a book. When he opened it, the page produced a gush of dust, forming a momentary cloud in his face, set against decrepit card catalogues and dusty shelves. Fire damage gave the ceiling a ghostly pallor and four red fire extinguishers sat like guards at attention by the door. The last American researcher had come to the library three or four years ago and everyone was still talking about it.

I had come to help a friend with her own historical research, on the thought and work of Tahtawi, a major educational reformer in early 19th century Egypt and one of the first Egyptians to write about life in Europe. He is a minor national icon today. His bust can be found around Cairo, and here in Sohag a large statue is covered with presidential campaign posters, as if to be associated with the legendary figure might obtain votes.

We arrived at the library, and my friend spoke with the director, a tall, graceful man with short white hair and long, youthful eyelashes. She handed him a folder filled with credentials, introductions from her university and the commission supporting her research in Egypt.

Conducting research in Egypt’s archives is a bit like going to a used bookstore. If you just want to browse and poke around, you’ll find something unexpected and exciting. If you have a specific need, like most scholars, the work can be maddening. Bureaucracy awaits you at every corner. Librarians with little knowledge of the library keep a suspicious watch. At the national archives, my friend told me, if you search for something in a year that you haven’t specifically been granted to study, your permission can be revoked instantly.

American University in Cairo professor Khaled Fahmy bemoaned the problem in a popular periodical. “As someone who has dealt with these institutions for many years,” he wrote, “I have come to believe that those responsible for them are informed by a singular idea, namely, that knowledge is finite. Reading is potentially a suspicious activity, and those responsible for these cultural institutions therefore view themselves as custodians of knowledge, and consider their prime task to be to strive hard to protect and safeguard knowledge, but never to disseminate or produce it.”
There are few open stacks in Egypt, and even fewer libraries where you can borrow books. In November, a library downtown caught on fire during protests. I helped briefly with the rescue effort, mostly a futile effort to package and dry severely wet and charred old books, and noticed that nobody seemed to know what had been in the library.  “The real tragedy,” Fahmy commented, “is that nobody — not even scholars — knew of its existence in the first place, nor did those who lament the lost manuscripts ever bother to read them.”
In Sohag, I watched as my friend massaged her relationship with the director. He was obviously impressed with her accomplishments, her strong Arabic and historical knowledge, but he didn’t want to show it. Others milled about the room, reading newspapers and eating lunch. The director served us tea and made small talk about American views of Egyptians and the presidential election. He watched as she handled the old books and ledgers, and eventually his gaze settled on a newspaper. I began to read on a Kindle, and everyone in the room was curious about it: the cost, the ability to store hundreds of books on a single device. This proved far more exciting than the dusty volumes on the shelves.

This library holds Tahtawi’s personal books, published works in Arabic and French that he obtained over a lifetime, mixed in with a great deal of the strange and unexpected, including at least four copies of ‘Treasure Island.’ The University of Sohag had been keeping Tahtawi’s manuscripts, but we discovered that they had been removed. My friend called a family member of Tahtawi, who she had met by coincidence in Cairo. He told her that the family forcibly took the manuscripts from the University library when they discovered that the library was not taking proper care of them. Many had crumbled beyond repair.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Young Soldiers of Port Said



One evening in Port Said, Mohamed called to get together with a few of his friends, all young soldiers. “Meet me at De Lesseps,” he said. I did not know where this was, only that De Lesseps had designed the canal. A café, maybe? Or a street? After a lot of confusion, he agreed to come find me. We hugged and he introduced his friends. Then the universal Moment of the Bored Teenager played itself out. “Where do you want to go now?” he asked. “I don’t know. How about you?” I answered.

“I don’t know. You decide.” 

“Where do you normally go?”

It was going nowhere. “Well,” I finally said, “I’d like to see this De Lesseps.”

It turns out that a common meeting point for friends in Port Said is a stone column (the more obscure term is ‘plinth’) where a statue of the Suez Canal’s planner once stood. The people of Port Said angrily pulled it down in 1956. Now, it’s a lonely, graffiti covered outpost where the canal meets the Mediterranean sea. It reads “De Lesseps” in Latin characters, though they are fading from the salt in the air.

We walked around on the boardwalk that overlooks the canal. Mohamed is from Kafr El Sheikh, a small agricultural city in the delta, where his mother teaches and his father practices medicine. Mohamed wants to become an English teacher in a high school, but he also wants to live in England or France for a while. He pronounces the names of the two countries in his own, idiosyncratic way, and when he mentions them as possible destinations my mind loops back instantly to weeks before when he told me about 1956, about how “England and France attacked our land.”

His friend Mahmood, also a soldier, also wants to live abroad. His uncle has a pizza restaurant in Los Angeles, so he’d like to go there, or maybe to London.

After crossing the canal, we stepped off the ferry and noticed some graffiti, which Mohamed proceeded to read out loud. “Askot Al-Nizam,” or “Down with the regime.” he mock-shouted, raising his fist slightly. This irked Mahmood, who chastised him. “We’re not supposed to say that. We’re in the army.”

“Whatever,” Mohamed shrugged, “I was just reading it. Not saying it myself.”

“Yes, but we could get in trouble. Don’t say that, even if you see it.”

Another friend, also named Mohamed, wanted to break the tension, so he proclaimed, “Down with your uncle!”

We spent the evening smoking shisha and talking about politics, before they had to be back at the quarters at 9pm, like high schoolers with a strict parental deadline. They talked a lot about smoking hashish, a common drug in Port Said, though most of them have only smoked it a few times, and Mohamed never has (he also strictly refrains from shisha, which is only tobacco).

The talk turned to Israel, Obama’s support for Israel (which they don’t support), and Obama himself (who they do still like, tepidly) “Israeli soldiers are weaker than Egyptian soldiers,” Mohamed said. “But they have all this fancy technology from the Americans, so it’s not fair. But if it was just a fight between men, we would win. I could swim across the canal right now, no problem.”

Before we left, they grew serious, or as serious as they could possibly grow on a fun night off from the service. “I’m interviewing your boss [the director of the military museum] tomorrow,” I told them. Earlier that day, Mahmood had introduced me to the Colonel and said, “He knows everything about Port Said. He can tell you all about it.” So I reiterated. “He’s going to tell me about the history of the city.”


“When you meet with the director tomorrow,” Mohamed said, “You cannot tell him that you hung out with us like this, or that we talked about all of these things. Pretend you don’t know our names. He'll kill us."

“Kill who? Who are you?” I said, wiping the expression off my face. They all burst into laughter. “Exactly!” Mahmood roared.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Presidential Debate



A week ago, I wrote a post mentioning the lack of negative campaigning in the Egyptian presidential elections. A political science student at Cairo University had told me, “We just haven’t figured it out yet.” He was obviously oversimplifying, but that conversation came surging back when I watched the first debate on television several nights ago. They had definitely figured it out.


The two front-runners [and this debate only strengthened their lead], Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Abuel Fotouh stood side by side on one of the most popular television programs, facing two of the most popular news show hosts. Each candidate had two minutes to answer each of the twenty-four questions. They were also able to ask one another questions. 


Analyst Issandr El Amrani summed up the two candidates well. Moussa, he writes, “appears to be a tolerable candidate for most Egyptians, even if they might hold their noses,” while Abuel Fotouh, “is the candidate of hope and change, a rare figure who unites the political spectrum - even if his discourse suffers from blurriness as a result.”

A doctor named Mostafa Hussein translated the bulk of the long exchange, which you can see in raw form here. Moussa and Abuel Fotouh have something in common that is seldom articulated as a parallel. Moussa was a leading minister in the Mubarak regime, but for the last ten years has been outside the national government. Abuel Fotouh was once a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but has since distanced himself and is now what Shadi Hamid in Foreign Policy callsthe Rorschach test of Egyptian politics. Liberals think he's more liberal than he actually is. Conservatives hope he's more conservative.”

Thus, both Moussa and Abuel Fotouh have positioned themselves just outside major political power blocs, so they are open to the accusations leveled against these blocs, but can also credibly claim distance from them.

It played out predictably: Moussa focused on the need for ‘transparency,’ something the Mubarak government notoriously lacked, while targeting Abuel Fotouh’s Islamist past. Abuel Fotouh shot back with openings like, “I'd like to ask Mr. Moussa, as a member of the past regime, which people revolted against, can he become part of the solution?” Moussa, a bit ridiculously, tried to position himself as a revolutionary. “I opposed state policy while foreign minister…we all helped bring down the regime.”

It’s no surprise how Moussa became Egypt’s leading diplomat. He honed sharply on Abuel Fotouh’s more lenient statements about the ability of Muslims to convert to Christianity, knowing this would alienate Abuel Fotouh’s more hard-line religious supporters. He also repeatedly pulled the Brotherhood card, which makes Abuel Fotouh look like he could be more loyal to an organization than to the entire country. “You were in the political opposition in the framework of the Muslim Brotherhood and not in the entire national sense,” he said. “I was out of the foreign ministry because of my opposition to the [Mubarak regime] and their unjust practices and I am in solidarity with the people.”

After commercials, they returned to talk about tax policies, the minimum wage, and the role of the military. The differences were small, because obviously debates are not only about facts. There were no Kennedy-Nixon moments: each looked presidential and relatable. Yet every Egyptian I spoke with afterwards said they thought that Moussa undoubtedly won. “You were a Brotherhood member,” Moussa had said. “Will this mean that as president there is someone above you in the organization.” Abuel Fotouh responded smartly, saying “Amr Moussa clearly doesn’t read the news. I left the organization and no longer swear allegiance to it.” But the damage was done.

These personal attacks might have seemed superficial or cheap, but I think they were powerful. If you wanted to have any power or political experience in Egypt over the last thirty years, you either had to collaborate with the regime, like Moussa, or join opposition groups that could only gain influence by relying on secrecy, like Abuel Fotouh. There just wasn’t any other way, it turns out, to do it (gaining power abroad, like Mohamed El Baradei, opens up accusations of being ‘out of touch’ with Egyptians) There was a poisonous political atmosphere in Egypt, and it festered for a long time, so getting past it will take a lot of grievance-airing. 

Everyone is using words like “birth pangs” and “transition” and “figuring out” to explain the messier aspects of Egyptian democracy as it proceeds towards the first presidential election. I don’t buy it. Every election in the U.S. (and perhaps everywhere) involves someone from the incumbent party arguing they are not responsible for failures and corruption and a challenger who has to prove the cleanliness of their record.  At least these two candidates know where Libya is, don’t make up confusing words like ‘Obamneycare,’ forget which departments of the government they’d eliminate, talk about their wife’s “couple of cadillacs” in Detroit, compare themselves to serial killers, or (because Obama has his faults too) campaign with cutesy stories of web designers.

 “We haven’t figured it out yet,” said the university student. At this rate, I hope they never do.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Observations #9



54. Although few protesters ever chant “The people and the army are one hand!” anymore, the phrase is emblazoned on many of the military’s tanks as they guard state buildings and embassies.

55. Young men have long made their way around Tahrir square with paint cups of red, white, and black, writing Jan 25 and brushing an Egyptian flag onto anyone’s arm or hand or face for a few pounds. Recently, though, they have been going from car to car in traffic jams and beginning the flag on someone’s arm, stretched out of the window, before they have a chance to protest.

56. While in Port Said, I found a boarded up shop with its name covered in newspapers to protect it from the sandy wind. The newspapers, upon closer inspection, were mostly all from the day after the soccer stadium violence, detailing then numbers of dead and wounded and speculating on who was to blame.

57. Coca-Cola billboard in Port Said: “GIVE ME A BETTER TOMORROW.”

58. Along the Suez Canal boardwalk, a man approached us and asked where we were from. When we said America, he burst into rhapsody: “I love America, a lot, a lot, a lot.” He had a thick, grey beard and weathered skin. “In America, and in Egypt,” he said, “people are like apples. There are a few rotten ones every once in a while, but most of them are very beautiful.”

59. During the revolution, a chief prison warden named Mohamed El-Batran was killed after refusing higher orders to release prisoners into the streets. In October, a rights group claimed he was killed by security personnel, not, as previously believed, by prisoners. Graffiti artists painted his picture alongside those of other ‘martyrs of the revolution’ on the sides of buildings. Many anonymous people since have tried to deface the painting. A graffiti artist explained: “They don’t want to accept that he was part of the revolution for refusing orders, that he was killed for it.” It was unclear to me if ‘they’ refers to the revolutionaries or the military.

60. Near my apartment, a cab driver spends every day, from morning until late at night, hanging around his station wagon taxi. He is short, wears long sleeve T-shirts tucked into jeans, and a grey comb-over atop his circular head. He shines the taxi, cleans it out, decorates it with pictures and trinkets, opens up the windows and blasts music from it, and just generally mills around its vicinity. I have never seen him drive it.

Photo: Mummified crocodiles in Kom Ombo, by Emily Smith

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #5: The Wire


Wire agencies like AFP, AP, and Reuters have been around for a long time and still work off the old-school, no-contradictions-here creed of ‘objectivity.’ Writers must bury their opinions, or at least appear to do so. They don't always get the byline, even if it's all their work. They never write 'I saw' or 'She told me' and they would definitely never, ever write 'I felt' or 'I assumed.' As a result, I have to bury the identity of the friend I interviewed about working at a wire agency. Throughout our conversationafter I received begrudging permission to put it ‘on the record'this journalist would say every few minutes, ‘Now you can’t print that detail, because that will give me away.’ I’ll call this reporter Ahmed, the most common Egyptian male name.

As wire services have expanded from brief clips about wars, protests, and politics, they’ve gone towards features. To write a feature, you need a narrative, and to write a narrative, you have to exercise creativity, making choices about quotes, about the lead, about the angle. To exercise this kind of creativity, do you need an opinion? Ahmed has much to say on this subject.

After falling into journalism by accident a few years ago (“My resume fell into the wrong pile at a job fair”), Ahmed covered all sorts of political and economic stories leading up the revolution. He started to notice that the wire agencies, which often have the first write-up of any major event ('The first draft of history,' goes the old saying), subtly influence the narrative taken by the rest of the press. 


One night while Ahmed was on call, villagers attacked a church hundreds of miles from Cairo. The agency sent Ahmed to cover it.
Everyone, including his editors, assumed that Muslims had attacked Christians in a good old-fashioned episode of 'sectarianism.' It was an old dynamic, more famously played out in Lebanon and Iraq, but uncorked in Egypt by the revolution (The Coptic leadership made a devil's bargain with the largely secular Mubarak, goes the narrative, and now they're stranded). 


Ahmed was not so sure. He thought the dispute which led to the attack might have to do with inter-family rivalries, surely propelled by religious differences, but not totally produced by them; sectarian tension, maybe, but not sectarian war, not strife. He talked to Muslim families, in addition to the Christians, and wrote what he felt like amounted to the nuanced, he-said-she-said-but-its-been-going-on-so-long-nobody-really-knows reality. It was a small town, Ahmed realized, where people have been fighting for so long that nobody knows who to blame. In addition, the problem had been exacerbated by a lack of clarity in the laws regarding church licenses, brought about by decades of bureaucratic malaise in the rural fringes. 


The editors weren’t pleased. It was too complex. How could an international audience come to understand this village’s inter-family honor battles in a few hundred, even a thousand words? Wouldn’t it be easier, clearer, and cleaner to call it ‘Muslims vs. Christians’?

“This sounds like persecution to me,” one editor said to Ahmed, who by the end of line edit after line edit was ready to quit, stranded out there in the desert at midnight in a cheap hotel after forty eight hours of reporting. They were jumping to conclusions, painting Egypt as a country descending into sectarianism, into Muslims vs. Christians, and Ahmed wanted no part. He was Egyptian, after all, and the editors were not. He had a stake in the way his country was represented.

 In the months that followed, other news outlets covered the story as Muslims vs. Christians. Coptic organizations in the U.S. decried persecution even if the evidence was thin. Ahmed expected this. What surprised him was how his own agency’s stories about sectarian tensions in small villages would always add a few words between commas, something to the effect of ‘issues sometimes fueled by tribal or inter-family disputes.’ Ahmed’s framing of the story had made its way into the stock phrases repeated in other articles. It might be subtle, but he had undoubtedly impacted the first draft of Egypt's history.

More on Journalism in Egypt

Monday, May 7, 2012

Should Journalists Be Protected?



Last week I wrote this piece for The Huffington Post: 


Thursday was World Press Freedom Day. On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) published an article listing the arrests, injuries, and assaults of at least eighteen journalists covering recent clashes near the Egyptian Ministry of Defense. Some reporters were beaten, others shot at, a few captured or detained by the military.
CJP's Mohammed Abdel Dayem commented with indignation, "Authorities cannot stand by while journalists are being beaten -- at times so viciously that their lives are put at risk... We call on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to identify the attackers and bring them to justice immediately, as well as to release journalists in custody. Journalists must be allowed to carry out their work without threat of physical assault or arrest."
I had always felt uncomfortable with this kind of indignation, and I finally began to understand it when I discovered NYU Professor Jay Rosen's blog PressThink. Rosen argues that journalists have a creed, a religion of sorts, in which it is taken as holy writ that they have a right to be protected and to go about their work without intimidation. This is based on some version of the American first amendment. He who attacks or arrests journalists, the story goes, is violating something more than just the journalist's wellbeing. Censorship, whether physical or bureaucratic, is sacrilege.
For the past few years, the rise of what is called 'citizen journalism' or 'public journalism', which Rosen himself has helped to pioneer, has made the question of journalists' rights all the more tricky. The Huffington Post's campaign coverage initiative Off the Bus was an example of how the death of newspapers and the Internet-driven rise of audience participation in reporting can be harnessed to increase credibility.
But what about when the audience is fighting? In Egypt, the concept of citizen journalism has been as celebrated as anywhere over the past year. But if every citizen is a journalist, and citizens are protesting the government, how can journalists credibly demand protection? And who are they demanding protection from?

Since posting this piece, I've gotten some interesting comments. One person was a bit indignant, writing "They are accredited. 
A guy with a phone isn't a journalist." Another wrote, "And what about journalists that give out full names, e-mail addresses, and hometowns of military personnel? Do they have the right to possibly put those people in further danger, or their families?" And finally: 

"Domestically you do have a fair degree of certainty that if arrested, media credentials will prevent you being charged. That flows through internationally as well. The credentials either serve as proof that you were not part of an activity (an observer), or that somebody is going to care about you and there might be some adverse outcome from higher up the local chain of command."

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Politics and Puppets



Political ads are largely a new phenomenon in Egypt. In the Mubarak days, state television itself was an ad for the regime, and opposition parties and individuals were never able to get thirty-second spots to criticize the regime. During the parliamentary elections, a few commercials used the stock images and music that anyone, anywhere around the world would loosely associate with a “better future”: the uplifting music, the farmers in the fields, the family sitting and eating together.

A new crop of ads has begun to appear ahead of the presidential election. The one thing that I, as an American, noticed immediately is that none of them are negative or attacking in the way that has become so familiar in the U.S. Every message is positive and affirming, and nobody mentions other candidates at all. I asked several political science students at Cairo University about this. One told me, “In Egypt, attacking somebody’s reputation is frowned upon. It seems like you don’t know anything about the real issues if all you do is attack the other guy.”

Another disagreed, “This is the first time we’ve had ads like this, so nobody has figured that out yet. It will come soon enough.”

The first exciting and memorable campaign ad came out today. It is for the campaign of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who broke away from the organization when they said last year that they would not field presidential candidates. Now, they are fielding one, so Aboul Fotouh seems completely independent. He was arrested and imprisoned on and off through the 80’s and 90’s and was once the Secretary-General of the Arab Medical Union.

More Egyptians than I can count have told me that they support Aboul Fotouh, and he is undeniably a front-runner now that many other well-known candidates have been barred from running. Aboul Fotouh has also managed to bridge a divide that not long ago seemed impossible to cross: He has been endorsed by the ultraconservative Salafi parties and is widely seen as liberal, moderate, and aligned with the revolution’s ideals.

Here is the ad:



Puppets have a long lineage in Egypt. Some people take it back to Ancient times. I attended a show at the National Puppet Theater recently, and the weeknight audience was packed with eager children and their parents. One puppet play called ‘The Big Night’, by the famous poet Salah Jahin, depicts all-night celebrations during Ramadan and is a veritable part of the Egyptian national canon, as beloved as any movie, novel, or TV show. One of the songs from 'The Big Night' has been re-worded to provide the music for Aboul Fotouh's ad above.

But in addition to the historical and cultural antecedents in Egypt, this has also been a year of puppets in politics around the Arab world. In November, a group of very clever Syrian puppeteers began a web series of skits that poke fun at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Watching the silly presentation and then reading the news from Syria produces a disconcerting effect, but you can’t help but feel that reducing al-Assad to an undignified caricature on a twitching finger is a novel form of public shaming. It might be frowned upon in a real election, as the Cairo University student explained. When it’s a dictatorship, however, public shaming appears to be fair game. 


Photo: Aboul Fotouh campaign posters in Aswan

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Observations #8



47. When you get your shoes shined, the shiner gives you a piece of cardboard on which to place your feet so they don’t touch the floor. The practice seems to be more psychological than practical, because the cardboard has been used on both sides and is just as dirty (or just as clean) as the floor.

48. I generally avoid constantly relaying the humorous wording of poor translations in menus, on signs, and everywhere else English is printed throughout Egypt, though they are endless. These two sentences, however, stick with me: 1) “Aboriginal heritage quality is unprecedented.” 2) “You are in the embrace of the history.”

49. Twice I mentioned casually in a conversation that one of my friends drinks a lot, getting every friend who visits her to snag the allowed four bottles from the airport’s duty-free store. “Is she a reporter?” was twice the immediate reaction.

50. The performances of Aida at the Cairo Opera House concluded weeks ago, but behind the theater I discovered a vast wasteland of thrown-away set pieces: etched hieroglyphs on wooden boards ten feet tall, golden processionals graying from exhaust, and the fake rock once used to portray the cave where Aida is trapped forever, now exposed and chipped away by the nearby Nile’s draft.

51. Due to shortages, fewer gas stations actually offer gas, so there are massive traffic jams on streets leading towards those that do. Several times, we have climbed into a cab and negotiated with the driver whether to take the longer route, which might cost more, or settle in for sitting in traffic for a half hour, waiting in the crush of cars passing by the gas station.

52. At many upscale cafes, music videos or action films play on television screens while loud music is played over the speakers. Usually, the sound and image are completely independent of one another, leading to strange juxtapositions, like odes to lost love over a belly dancing video or Steven Segal fight scene.

53. At the Windsor Hotel Bar, one of the most antique relics of the British colonial era, the waiter plays symphonic music over the speakers to drown the sound of the Friday afternoon sermon from a nearby mosque. He motions to another waiter and says, “She likes it because she is Muslim, but I do not like it.” I ask him if he is a Christian, and he says grimaces. “I am like a flower. I am from the earth.”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mubarak's Men for President



A family of four entered the metro car and slowly squeezed through the thick of people until they formed a semi-circle around me. The father had a bushy grey mustache and a tired grey suit, and kept an eye on his wife, son, and daughter. All of them were smiling and wore a button for the presidential campaign of Ahmed Shafiq. The father's button was the size of a cufflink. The son's was big and white against his blue shirt, with a picture of Shafiq, arms crossed and a calm expression. 

Shafiq was an air force commander before Mubarak appointed him Minister of Civil Aviation in 2002. On January 29th, 2011, as the regime was starting to give in to the protesters’ demands, Shafiq was promoted to Prime Minister as a last-ditch effort to put new but pliable leaders in front of the country.

On March 2nd last year, Shafiq appeared on a popular talk show opposite novelist Alaa Al Aswany, who attacked him for ignoring the hundreds of activists killed during the uprisings. Each took turns ratcheting up the pressure, until finally Shafiq lost his cool. "-"Don't put on that patriotism act," he shouted. "I'm more of a patriot than you are. I fought in the war and I killed and got killed, and I did everything." He resigned the next day.

Then, he announced his candidacy in November. Last week, a law banning former regime officials from the race led the election commission to cancel his campaign. He appealed the decision to a higher court, which found in his favor, and now he is back in.

The family surrounded me on the way from the escalator to the exit above ground. “Will you take a picture with us?” the son said, smiling and elbowing his sister to take the camera, “and give us a comment in support of Ahmed Shafiq?”

I had a momentary vision of my face under the headline: “American Spy found promoting Mubarak regime official” I tried desperately to stay polite, but the turnstile would slow me down, so I had to ease out with words rather than run. “Tell me about him,” I said. “Why should I support him?”

The father seemed surprised, and he twitched his mustache. “You’ve seen the airport?” he asked. I nodded. “He built it. It’s beautiful. That’s enough for us: He should be president.” I smiled and nodded and we all shared a warm moment, and then I waved and left before they had a chance to raise a camera.

I have met many pro-revolution Egyptians, as well as many foreign correspondents, who are mystified by the very clear signs that Mubarak-era officials might be successful in a general election. These officials are mainly running on the 2008 John McCain line, simultaneously two contradictory messages: “I’ve been in the government, so I know how to get things done” and “I’m different from everyone else in the government who messed up.” This didn’t work for McCain, but there are no candidates with the undeniable charm and charisma that got Obama elected, either.

The most charismatic, by many accounts, is Amr Moussa. He is leading some of the polls, even if they are to be taken with a grain of salt. Moussa was Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1990’s, and from 2001-2011 served as Secretary-General of the Arab League.  As Mubarak grew older and sicker, pessimistic activists felt that Moussa would be the best-case successor, immensely preferable to Mubarak’s son Gamal, but still corrupt and old-guard. Moussa laid low throughout the revolution, and now he is in the race, like Shafiq, standing on the platform of plausible deniability: I was in the regime, but I was the good one.

But with many Egyptians, Moussa and Shafiq (and Omar Suleiman) don’t even need plausible deniability. There are the Egyptians who think the revolution has only made daily life worse and would be happy for the stability provided by someone who knows the inner workings of the state. The revolution focused on Mubarak as an individual, and as a result nearly everyone else, save for a handful of people at the very top, have gotten away unscathed.

On top of that, there are Egyptians who simply didn’t support the revolution. When I first arrived here last September, I found that one of my closest friends from my last stint in Egypt, in 2009, could not be less happy with what had happened in his country. We sat at a café and he showed me Facebook groups he had joined with names like “I am Sorry, Mr. President” and “Martyrs and Victims of the Police During January 25th.” He showed me YouTube videos of January 28th, 2011, when the regime sent camels and horses to Tahrir to attack protesters. He claimed that the casualty figures were inflated and some of the more violent moments were staged.

I spent the next several months thinking of him as an outlier. After all, his family had been connected to the regime, and he counted Reagan and Kissinger as personal heroes. This was hardly typical.


But recently, I have found myself in more and more chance encounters with people who want Mubarak’s appointees to lead Egypt. They look at how bad things have gotten since the revolution: the rise in crime, the absence of police, the plummeting economy, the stalled state of tourism, the inept military leadership, the sporadic violence, the plodding parliament, the possibility of radical Islamist rule, the gas shortages, and the daily zigzag of bewildering news. Instead of blaming Mubarak’s regime for hollowing out the state so that it cracked with the slightest tap, they blame the revolution and would be happy to trade it in. 


Photo: Graffiti marking Ahmed Shafiq as "Feloul" or a "Remnant" of the former regime.