Monday, June 13, 2011

Why the international media gets Egypt wrong

An article by the Associated Press today began, “the long banned Muslim Brotherhood has been recognized as the Freedom and Justice Party.”

That’s not quite true.

What the article means to say is that the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the long banned Muslim Brotherhood, has been recognized.

The difference is significant.

While Egypt’s political scene has accepted the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate actor, the organization which has been banned for decades is still, officially, banned. The Freedom and Justice Party was indeed founded by the Brotherhood and in the party the Brotherhood has its first legal political entity.

However, the party does not exclusively contain Brotherhood members, nor are all members of the Brotherhood automatically members of the party. According to one of the party’s founders, 25 percent of its members are not affiliated with the Brotherhood. What’s more, around 8 percent are women and Coptic Christians.

It remains to be seen how the party’s relationship with the Brotherhood will play out, but technically the Associated Press got its facts wrong.

This is only one small example of the international media’s frequent mistake when it comes to Egypt and the wider Arab world: they see only the surface and do not know, or do not understand, the nuances.

The problem is twofold: first, manpower and resources. Second, the target audience is, usually, not the Middle East.

The issue of distributing resources is something all newspapers and news agencies must come to terms with. International agencies must cover the entire world and consequently cannot devote too many resources to any one area. That said, the entire world is watching the Middle East now more than ever and consequently it is more important to get the facts straight than ever before. Small slip-ups could have far-reaching implications.

The second issue is arguably more important. News agencies want their stories to be understandable. It is one of the fundamental principles of journalism: convey your story to your reader so they understand what you’re talking about. But oversimplification to this extent does not help anyone. It certainly does not help the “West” understand the Arab world.

Journalism’s goal is not to defeat misperceptions, but the international media must learn to balance the simple goal of telling the news with a more complex duty to portray more than the surface of its subject.

When it comes to the Arab world, too often foreign media takes the easy road: they report what they see with their own eyes and talk with people it’s easy to talk to. Namely, other journalists and people who speak their language or are of their own social class.

Watching coverage of the Egyptian Revolution in the United States, many Americans thought to themselves, “Hey, it looks like America succeeded in Egypt. Everyone speaks English.”

Those reporting the world-changing events taking place in Cairo’s now-iconic Tahrir Square made the vital mistake of interviewing predominantly English-speaking Egyptians, probably because it was easier.

In the short-term such reporting may be easier. In the long-term, however, this sort of reporting misses what’s actually happening on the ground; it misses the opportunity to portray a different culture and a different way of thinking in a way its target audience – in this case, the Western world – can understand.

This is why the international media consistently gets Egypt wrong, and probably part of the reasons misconceptions about the region continue to prevail. It is no longer acceptable to skim the surface and write the easy story – if it ever was. The world does not only want the surface news. The world wants to understand Egypt.

This article was originally published at Youm7 English Edition on June 7, 2011.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Remembering Khaled Said

Some would argue his death started a revolution – or at the very least was one of its major catalysts. Khaled Said is still burned into Egypt's memory a year after his brutal death.

Today Egyptians gathered in Cairo, Alexandria and Fayoum to remember Khaled.

While the exact details continue to be disputed, Khaled was killed at the hands of Egyptian police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. He was beaten to death and his body was dumped his home. Four days later his story spread rapidly across the internet after prominent opposition politician Ayman Nour publicized Khaled’s death and pictures of his mangled face.

Egyptians were outraged. Protests were organized. In Khaled’s home city of Alexandria, men and women stood along the corniche, the road separating the city from the Mediterranean Sea, every Friday afternoon. They dressed in black. They carried the Bible or the Quran, and they prayed silently for Khaled’s soul.

Stark images of educated, upper-middle-class youth stretching down the corniche drew more attention. These were not the small, violent demonstrations Egyptians were accustomed to. Those attending actually had something to lose.

Yet Khaled was not the first to die at the hands of Egyptian police. There were many before him. So why did Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman, draw millions of supporters to a Facebook page within days? Why were weekly demonstrations organized in Alexandria and Egypt’s capital, Cairo, for months after his death?

Ultimately, the answer is simple: Egypt’s politically inactive middle class considered him one of their own.

Shortly after news of Khaled’s murder was made public, an Egyptian friend told me why he – an upperclass Egyptian who wasn’t involved in politics and had the money for a good education – was so affected by Khaled’s death: “He didn't look for trouble, yet corruption killed him anyway. Maybe they've done worse things before, but this directly threatens me: this is a young guy who comes from almost the same background as me and most of my friends. He does the same things that I do. He stays out of trouble. And yet, this.”

My friend, like many other Egyptians, believed he could be next.

While some of those who publicized Khaled’s case were seasoned activists, many more were not. For the first time, portions of Egypt’s middle class went to the streets in public demonstrations – perhaps the most politically repercussive aspect of Khaled’s death.

In the earliest days of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, the people taking to the streets were not underpaid laborers or career activists. They were Egypt’s educated middle class, and the first time they had gone to the streets was after Khaled’s death. There were chants for better wages and economic issues, but the calls for democracy, freedom, and human rights were louder. It was, in the beginning, not a bread uprising but a call for what many have termed the “Western” ideals of personal freedom.

The career activists and the politicians were there as well, but they were outnumbered by ordinary Egyptians. Soon the economic demands came. A wave of labor strikes has hit Egypt in the wake of the revolution. Now, people believe they have the right to make their demands heard.

Khaled’s death did not cause the Egyptian revolution. According to a recent poll by the International Republic Institute his death was not even a major motivating factor for Egyptians to participate in or support the revolution.

Khaled’s death was important in a different way. It catalyzed a realization among Egypt’s middle class, who could afford their basic needs: they were no longer safe simply by staying out of politics. For the first time, many decided long-term benefits of going to the streets outweighed the short-term risks.

Now, a year after his death, Egyptians remember Khaled. He is remembered not only as a martyr of the former regime, but as a symbol for everything Egyptians have lost and everything they stand to gain: the rights to life and liberty.