Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To tell the story of Egyptians with humanity

I'll be honest: sometimes I wonder why I'm a journalist in Egypt.

Cairo is a dirty, polluted, crowded city. The streets are littered with trash; sand incessantly finds its way into my living room; my family is six timezones away. Everyone is always late, it's impossible to get sources to answer their phones, and Tweeps are more reliable fact checkers than state media.

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I was reminded why I bother: it's because I want to tell the story of the Egyptians. It's because of the never-ending Egyptian humor; the smiles in the face of poverty; the perseverance in the face of persecution. It's because of the slow, steady determination that has kept Egyptians and the Egyptian identity intact over millennia, through invasion, occupation, and oppression.

It's because Egyptians inspire me.

Last night BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet spoke at a gathering of Egyptian and American journalists in Cairo. Her frank speech moved me - and others - nearly to tears. She spoke of objectivity; of obligation; of what it means to be a journalist in a conflict zone. She reminded me why I am a journalist, here and now, and why I care about reporting on Egypt.

"When you cover a happy story, cover it with joy," she said. "When you cover a sad story, cover it with compassion."

To be objective does not mean to be heartless. A good journalist must write with humanity.

I've often wondered what, exactly, is my role - as a foreigner and as a journalist - in Egypt. Both foreigners and Egyptians have told me I don't belong here, and both foreigners and Egyptians have told me I tell the story better than anyone else. I've written before about the line between professionalism and humanity, and that's something that comes to mind again and again.

Before Egypt's January uprising, as a foreigner, I was looked upon with suspicion. As a foreigner, I was thanked profusely. After Egypt's January uprising, as a foreigner, I am looked upon with suspicion. As a foreigner, I am thanked profusely.

It's a bit strange sometimes.

As a journalist, I am obligated to tell the truth as I see it at the time. I am obligated to tell both sides of the story. I am obligated to be objective.

But on January 26, 2011 I watched as a group of young men - unarmed, with their hands in the air as they chanted peaceful, peaceful - were without warning attacked with tear gas, tasers, sticks, and firearms by both uniformed and plainclothes police in the streets of downtown Cairo.

What is the other side of that story?

I don't know.

So what can I do, as a foreign journalist in Egypt? I can write. I can tell the truth, and I can tell it with joy and compassion, which so often seems to be lacking from mainstream media. I can tell the stories of a people and a place that have become dear to my heart, and I can do it in a way many other journalists either cannot or will not.

I've been told I have a way with words. I've been told I can draw people into my writing. I can use that way with words, coupled with common sense and a solid understanding of Egypt's politics and people, and I can tell the story of Egyptians.

That's why I'm a journalist in Egypt.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"The military has thugs," he told me

The hoarse cry came from a man dashing across Cairo’s Abdel Moneim Reyad Square on Sunday night. “The military has thugs! The military has thugs!”

He paused long enough to reiterate the statement to myself and another female journo moving in the opposite direction – “The military has thugs!” – before continuing toward nearby Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution.

Behind him, a group of military police became clearly visible as they rounded a corner. Among the uniforms were people in plainclothes carrying large sticks and clubs.

The clubs started to swing, and those still in the square ran for cover.

It was around 8pm. The clashes began hours earlier. “This feels like the 28th of January,” someone said, referencing Egypt's 'Day of Rage,' one of the most violent days of the uprising that toppled Egypt’s former regime earlier this year.

The cat-and-mouse game between military police and demonstrators continued into the night as wild rumors spread.

Near the Egyptian Museum, a group of four young people glanced between their cell phones and the scene around them, probably updating Twitter on the situation and their safety.

Twitter is a primary means for activists to keep tabs on each other during demonstrations in Egypt.

Earlier in the evening, the area by the Ramsis Hilton where the military police entered Abdel Moneim Reyad Square was occupied by demonstrators. This was where they carried the wounded from Maspiro, the nearby site of ongoing clashes between Coptic Christian demonstrators, military police and unknown plainclothes persons.

The clashes left at least 26 dead, according to the most recent figures from the Ministry of Health.

Some activists put the number much higher.

Clashes began when unknown persons attacked a Coptic Christian demonstration. When military police  finally intervened it was not to protect the demonstrators, according to eyewitnesses.

Christian demonstrators seeking refuge by the Hilton from the violence and tear gas told me, “The army is killing Christians.”

As the situation around the Hilton intensified, young men directed traffic away from the area. An armed personnel carrier and other vehicles burned, sending a dense black smoke into the air above the Nile.

A fire truck arrived, presumably to put out the fires. It was greeted with stones and rocks, but eventually allowed to pass.

Outside the Hilton, cries of the injured permeated sporadic chants of, “The people want the fall of the musheer,” Egypt’s military ruler, and “Where are our rights?”

One man’s screams faded into dull moans as he was placed on the ground after being carried from Maspiro on a blanket. A group of young men kept the crowd back to give the injured man air, only allowing me, as a photographer, near him, so I could document “what the army did to the Christians.”

A sudden stir in the crowd announced the arrival of Bothaina Kamel, the only woman to announce her candidacy for the Egyptian presidency so far. Wearing a bright orange reflective vest, Bothaina moved quickly through the crowd toward the Nile, the latest location of clashes between military police and demonstrators.

Many Muslims quickly joined their Christian brothers after clashes began. A Coptic man named Nabil told me that Muslims had saved his life twice that night.

Outside the Hilton, one Copt held a string of Muslim prayer beads along with his cross. “Both Muslim and Christian are here,” said another.

“Heard a Muslim guy urging other protesters, ‘let’s head to the front, I’m not gonna let the Christians take a bullet alone,’” tweeted activist Mosa’ab Elshamy. Such poignant moments are reminiscent of the early days of the Egyptian revolution, when Coptic Christians joined hands to protect their Muslim countrymen as they prayed in the streets.

Many Christians were angry, saying they felt they were being targeted. Coptic Christians comprise around 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and often say they are not treated equally to the Muslim majority.

“Christians will live in Egypt forever,” said one Coptic man, angrily blaming the extremist Islamic Salafi trend for being behind attacks against Christians. “They will not make us leave.”

While one man asked repeatedly, “Where is the United Nations?,” another insisted, “We are not asking for international protection.”

A number of activists reported a very different show of solidarity: “I cannot believe it the battle is over and the people who were hitting us from the other side have joined us,” tweeted Lilian Wagdy, an activist on the ground.

A few hours later, popular ‘tweep’ Mahmoud Salem, known on Twitter as ‘Sandmonkey,’ relayed a similar situation. He reported clashes between groups of Egyptians, all in plainclothes, with one side chanting, “The people and the army are one hand” and the other side “Muslims and Christians are one hand.”

Then, he tweeted, “In a very weird moment, both sides started chanting ‘one hand,’ stopped fighting, joined each other into one big marsh.”

At some point, the rumors started to fly, by word of mouth, on Twitter, and in the media.

Among the quickest to spread were claims that U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had announced that the U.S. would send troops to Egypt to protect Christian churches.

While the United States and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo emphatically denied the rumor, it still made the front page of some Egyptian newspapers on Monday morning.

Another rumor that has proven impossible to confirm claimed someone – either thugs or military personnel – threw dead bodies into the Nile. I have been unable to locate an eyewitness to this incident.

“I say again, I saw three military police throw dead bodies in the Nile, and another body was under their feet,” wrote Mohamed Elmoshir on Twitter.

Some rumors were true: shortly before midnight, I witnessed a military soldier shoot live ammunition in Tahrir Square, and videos of military vehicles driving at reckless speeds through crowds of demonstrators quickly appeared on YouTube.

As Monday dawned, Egyptians were angry, scared, saddened, and, perhaps most of all, worried. What would happen next? What did clashes between the army and the people mean for the transitional period? Blame for last night’s events has been placed on everyone from the demonstrators to Salafis to elements of Egypt’s formerly ruling regime to the military to the ubiquitous “foreign hand.”

One image, provided to the AUC Caravan, perhaps best illustrates the divisions and solidarity on both sides of the battle. In it, a uniformed military soldier carries an injured boy down a debris-strewn street. Another boy and a man in civilian clothes follow the soldier.

In the background, military soldiers and civilians stand, motionless.

**A version of this post was originally published at Youm7 English Edition (offline since Jan 2012).