Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Literature Review: Egypt

What the press is saying about that country with the cool pyramids?
Literature Review is an occasional series investigating how the U.S. press covers an African country or issue.

For the foreign correspondent, Egypt represents a dilemma. Stories in the international press from there fluctuate between the two extremes of dreary and gruesome. And no wonder: Today’s Egypt is a land that seems to be teetering on the brink of civil calamity. For the foreign correspondent worth his or her salt, a dateline in Egypt must be like a right of passage. Since time immemorial these dynamic writers have duly set off and filed stories on the overcrowded slums of Cairo, the general population’s rabid hatred of the West (not to mention Israel), the corrupt, nasty government of Honsi Mubarak, the seething Islamists, journalists (and now bloggers) languishing in prison and more recently, the hotels on the Sinai Peninsula left in charred, smoking ruins. (Let me know if I missed anything.)

There is problem with this line of thought, however. If we are to believe writers, Egypt has forever seemed to be on the verge of some melt down. When wasn’t Cairo overcrowded? When didn’t at least some of the population have second-thoughts about secular government? When did people anywhere adore blatantly corrupt leaders? And that’s why many of these breathless narratives suffer from the problem of low-hanging fruit. Of course, it’s important to document all the viciousness occurring in a country. If you didn’t you’d be remiss – and be sent back home. The mathematics behind these reports, however, feels too simple: oppressive government + struggling democrats + “reform-minded” Islamists = “modern” Egypt.

Underneath these stories, I feel a little weariness creeping into the once-stolid omniscient narrator of newspaper journalism. You know, the quaint tug of the world’s most dangerous nagging question: I flew all the way here for this? I can picture reporters asking themselves: Isn’t there something deeper, more fundamental going on here? Perhaps it’s something I could find if my editor would allow me to skip the next protest and actually sit down and speak with people. (If not, maybe I could at least go snorkeling.)

Working for the clampdown
From the looks of it, maybe it is best we don’t investigate further. Politics is a tough game in Egypt. The papers have done a good job keeping us informed on the comings and goings of the political class. “The regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in the midst of one of its largest crackdowns against public dissent in a decade,” the Christian Science Monitor reported last week. Judges handed down prison sentences to seven journalists; emergency laws allow the government to allow upwards of 1,000 “activists” from the Muslim Brotherhood to stew in jail; labor activists have been detained for inciting strikes. On top of that, groups of Bedouins, who claim the police do not properly protect them, recently turned their anger on the headquarters of the ruling party’s headquarters and defaced pictures of President Honsi Mubarak, according to the Associated Press.

Put away the fact that Egypt must have a lot of prisons. The implication of all these stories is the well documented fact that Egyptian authorities have no compunction against torture. "It's hard to explain why, except that torture becomes a habit," Aida Seif al-Dawla, a psychologist who runs a rehabilitation center for victims of violence, told the Christian Science Monitor. "But there's no question that police abuse has gone through the roof.”

The San Francisco Chronicle recounted a story about a video posted on the internet taken from a cell phone camera of a 13-year-old boy released after spending seven days in police custody for allegedly stealing tea bags. In the video, the boy was “tattooed with bruises and burn marks, and his torso a patchwork of bandages.” He died a few hours later.

Moving on from the gruesome details of the boy’s torture, the story considers whether the proliferation of cell phones with cameras will put the brakes on police brutality. "Activists that have worked to end torture have told me: 'You've done more in a few days what we were not able to do in 10 years,' " said a 32-year-old Egyptian blogger responsible for posting films of police torture videos.

One major daily considers the long-term prognosis of the Mubarak regime. For those waiting for the 79-year-old man (ranked by Parade Magazine as the world’s 18th-worse dictator in 2007) to simply ride off into the sunset, don’t be on it. The Washington Post said the ruling coterie is grooming 41-year-old Gamal Mubarak, a former investment banker in London, to succeed his father. The reporter even tagged along to a youth conference (populated by the ruling class) where Gamal – who is known in Egypt as “Jimmy” – gave a barely passable speech. What he lacks in charisma, Jimmy may make up for in business savvy. He has already helped usher in the beginnings of reform to Egypt’s economy. (World Bank president Robert Zoellick recently pointed out that Egypt tops the list of reforming countries at a speech at the National Press Club.)

So, will sophisticated Jimmy throw off the reins once he takes power? Just like father-son leadership changes in Morocco, Jordan and Syria, the apples rarely fall far from the tree. "People always think, 'He uses the Internet and he speaks good English and therefore he won't be like his parents,'” a Middle East expert at George Washington University told the Post. “But it never seems to work out that way.”

Stranger than fiction
The reality underlying every one of these stories is the strange truth that U.S. taxpayers provide a hefty allowance to the Mubarak government. According to the State Dept., U.S. military assistance to Egypt amounts to more than $1.3 billion per year and USAID has ponied up more than $25 billion in development assistance between 1975 and 2002.

The New York Times reports that (at least one) member of the Egyptian opposition complains that Condoleezza Rice now only half-heartedly broaches the subject of human rights violations with the Egyptian government. By referring only to “advocates and analysts,” the story attempts to make the point that in previous years, the Bush administration aggressively campaigned for democracy in countries like Egypt. Apparently it worked. However, the administration now cannot be bothered.

“I think the American government does give Egypt leeway to deal with the domestic opposition so long as Egypt supports the American foreign policy in the region,” Mustapha Kamel el-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, told the New York Times. That includes helping Israel and the Palestinians find common ground and opposing the spread of Iran’s influence.

In their defense, American officials claim they continue to raise these issues, yet the Egyptians often bristle at Washington’s interference in domestic affairs.

A confederate knows
Journalist maxim # 679: The problem with low-hanging fruit is that it is often better left for the kids. Or the chickens.

In a country as large, complicated and promising as Egypt, there must be a million stories to tell. Make that a billion. But readers aren’t finding those stories. Oh, newspaper editors (and newspaper ombudsman) will stammer and shout: That’s a repressive regime in Egypt! And one of our “allies,” too. The Truth must get out!

I don’t mean to get all Edward W. Said here, but American writers have always represented Egypt as a country of menacing cries, zealous Arabs mixed in with the occasional bout of proper “European” conduct. Don’t believe me; check out this passage from William Loring’s 1884 book A Confederate Soldier in Egypt:

It was my first experience among these transformed Eastern people, and the impression was vivid. Returning to see European dress and vehicles in common use, it seemed at first as though Oriental Cairo touched by the hand of Ismail had lost some of its time-honored splendor. In truth, Cairo showed in former days the glittering ostentation of the favored few, which sadly contrasted with the most squalid and repulsive poverty of the many. There was that sort of wretchedness which made Egypt a pest-house, but the improvement of the people and the forced observance of sanitary precautions in the fourteen years of the reign of Ismail had effaced many sad and sorrowful pictures. In all that time Egypt had never been visited by an epidemic ; formerly the curse was periodical. No man of feeling who knew the past failed to be gladdened by the change ; every such man kindly extended his sympathy to that ruler who had fearlessly wiped out old customs and landmarks in the interest of humanity ; whose reign commenced with heaps of mud houses, and closed with so many finely constructed buildings and other material improvements ; who transformed Egypt into a civilized country, where the stranger was welcomed, and through which he could journey with as much comfort and safety as in any other part of the world.

Today, lefty media groups complain newspapers merely present international events through the frame of the war on terror: “Friend” of U.S. worries about Islamic extremism, yet continues doing harm to its people. Righties would say – well, I honestly don’t know what they’d say. The point is, what will people in, say, 75 years declare when they come across today’s tracts? Like Loring before, we’re projecting the profound worries of our age – human and political rights, freedom from poverty, an overwhelming fear of terror – onto our stories.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Until you’ve asked yourself whether we’ve grown up enough to move off the well trodden path of misunderstanding and misrepresenting countries like Egypt. Like the Cold War before, the War on Terror will someday be short-listed to the dust bin of history. But as journalists, we seem set on rehashing the same mistakes our forefathers made. Let me be clear: We need a new lens to view this old country. Let’s retire the antiquated arithmetic of glittering ostentation + wretchedness = “modern” Egypt.

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