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Egypt: Report from the “Center of the World”

As Americans flee, COM alum stays despite fears

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egypt_hose_h.jpg

Riot police spray protesters with hoses, trying to force them away from Tahrir Square on January 28. 
Children and women fill the square on January 29 after riot police left and the army took over (below). Photos by Lindsey Parietti

In the wake of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on Friday, jubilation has replaced antigovernment protests in the streets of Cairo. But after 18 days of public confrontation and violence, few Americans are there to witness it. Journalist Lindsey Parietti (COM’07), however, has stayed to report the news for the English language edition of the Cairo daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, where she works as a copy editor and contributor.

Since the beginning of the protests, Parietti has ventured out daily to do man-on-the-street interviews, shoot photographs, and gather impressions for the paper as well as for her blog. As of February 10, thousands of workers, including doctors and medical students, had walked off their jobs to support the throngs of demonstrators, who the day before had blocked access to the nation’s parliament. In a speech broadcast live on State TV Thursday night, Mubarak underscored his intention to remain in office until September to oversee a “peaceful transfer of power.” Calling those who have died in the protests “martyrs,” the president admitted making “mistakes,” announced the formation of commissions to address the opposition’s demands, and promised to pursue justice for victims of police violence. “All Egyptians are in the same trench,” said the authoritarian ruler of 30 years, his remarks reverberating through the densely packed crowds in Tahrir Square.

BU Today spoke to Parietti shortly before Mubarak’s TV appearance Thursday night, approximately 12 hours before the president stepped down.

BU Today: Have Mubarak’s promises of pay raises and other concessions changed the tone of the protests?
Parietti:
Not at all. If the administration had acted during the first week when protests broke out, perhaps people could have been placated with promises of constitutional change and a new cabinet. What started as a call for an end to police torture and some unemployment relief, and other smaller economic and political reforms, is now simply a demand for Mubarak to leave office immediately. It’s not proving easy for the various political movements and opposition parties to focus protesters around other demands.

Tell us a bit about your job and what it’s been like reporting the news in the heat of the uprising.
Al-Masry Al-Youm is the largest independent daily newspaper in Egypt. I work for the English edition website, usually as a part-time copy editor, but with all that’s going on I have been working nearly every day both writing and editing. I had only started working for the paper in December, but there’s nothing like being locked in a hotel room with 18 of your colleagues to make quick friends. Of course, it’s been overwhelming, as well as an incredible adrenaline rush. It’s also personal for me to be here during this. I’ve lived in Egypt on and off for more than two years; I have friends and a home here. Many of my friends evacuated last week, including my Australian and American roommates, and I’m hoping they’ll come back when some of this paranoia against foreigners dies down. I had an Egyptian friend staying with me, but for the last two nights I stayed with journalist friends in a Cairo suburb because of many reports of foreigners—even those who aren’t journalists—being intimidated.

Do you think Mubarak’s government can really hold on until the end of his term?
Mubarak, as I’m sure the world knows now, is incredibly tenacious; obviously you don’t control a country for 30 years without being politically savvy. But no, I don’t think he can hold out until September, although I’m sure he still has quite a bit of maneuvering to do. Also, I think it’s important for people outside Egypt to understand that Mubarak still has a base of support here, especially all of those whose economic interests are tied to the ruling National Democratic Party. You don’t get to be a successful businessman or woman in Egypt without having good relations with the government, and in many cases business moguls, such as Ahmed Ezz, are also party leaders or NDP representatives in parliament.

Where in Cairo do you live? Is it unsafe right now?
I live in a fairly poor neighborhood of downtown, about a mile from Tahrir Square, where the protests are taking place. At first this seemed fortunate since our neighborhood wasn’t prone to a lot of looting or protests. But since the pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak forces clashed last Wednesday, everyone is far more suspicious, especially of foreign journalists. Egyptian State TV has also been broadcasting messages that foreigners are spies, possibly working for Israel or America, and that the foreign media is only trying to portray a negative image of Egypt to the world. There has been quite a media war going on between Al Jazeera and State TV.

Outside of Tahrir Square, is life in Cairo returning to normal?
Yes, partially. Banks and some businesses reopened Sunday, February 6. People have returned to work and in Cairo the protests are mostly isolated downtown. Of course, people are still tense, and there’s still evidence of anti-Mubarak graffiti, smashed storefronts, and burned cars everywhere.

News reports have Egyptian state television broadcasting some bizarre propaganda, like an offer of free Kentucky Fried Chicken food for the protesters. Any other such rumors circulating in the streets?
I actually live next to a KFC, and I hadn’t heard anything about that one—incidentally, the KFC here doesn’t taste at all like it does in the United States. There have been a lot of xenophobic rumors broadcast lately. Israel is always a popular scapegoat. It was even blamed for the spate of recent shark attacks: something about Israel leading sharks to Egypt’s Red Sea beaches to weaken tourism. Also, it’s been interesting to see the pictures State TV has been broadcasting, of empty streets, for example, even during the height of the protests. On Sunday they showed a lot of pictures of people getting money at banks.

What do you envision happening if Mubarak steps down?
If I knew that, I’d probably be getting paid a lot of money by an intelligence agency right now. The situation here has changed so much on a daily basis that it’s difficult to predict what will happen next. If Mubarak were to step down, it looks like newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, would head a transition government. He’s met with opposition leaders to discuss constitutional reforms and other concessions, but the administration really hasn’t done anything concrete thus far. If not a United States–backed Suleiman transition government, then I’d say a coalition of opposition forces would have to somehow try to unite and respond to protesters’ interests well enough to hold on to popular support. One of the drawbacks of having such a sudden and large popular uprising is that protesters come from all walks of life and political and religious perspectives. They’re united now against a common enemy, but remove Mubarak and any one group that tries to take power will end up disappointing the majority of protesters as soon as it is actually faced with policy decisions.

What’s it like to be an American in Cairo at this moment?
My friend and fellow BU alum Kyle Cheney (COM’07) asked me how it felt to be at the center of the world right now, and that’s exactly how it feels: like I’m at the center of the world. But that’s not a feeling unique to my nationality. As for being an American here now, it’s a little bit scary, but it feels more like an incredible opportunity than a burden. I also feel like a bit of an outsider trying to respect the fact that this is an Egyptian movement and Egyptians understandably don’t want foreign interference. But it’s difficult not to feel frustrated when many of us are being ostracized in the place we’ve made home. It’s also difficult to not get involved. How do you stay an impartial observer when soldiers are handing you juice boxes, for example?

Have you been personally accosted or threatened?
Last Wednesday I went to Tahrir in the morning to interview pro-Mubarak demonstrators, and an opposition protester grabbed my arm and asked me why I was taking photos of them. Then one of the pro-Mubarak protesters handed me a pack of cookies, and I really didn’t know what to do. It’s incredibly rude to refuse food here, and he kept insisting and shaking the package at me. I ended up taking it and quickly shoving it in my pocket. It’s hard for anyone here to understand or believe that the press isn’t taking sides, perhaps rightfully so.

Visit Lindsey Parietti’s Cairo blog here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.


2 Comments

2 Comments on Egypt: Report from the “Center of the World”

  • Anonymous on 02.11.2011 at 1:27 pm

    Using correct words

    Susan, you would rather open the dictionary every now and then, and make sure you are using the correct words! “Protestation” means “serious declaration.” You should have just used “protests” in that sentence.

  • Anonymous on 02.11.2011 at 5:36 pm

    Using correct grammar

    Good article, Susan. If you made a poor word choices, as specified by a previous poster, your article is interesting, articulate and does not suffer from the gramatical errors and misplaced certitude of your critic.

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