Did Reporters Covering the Arab Spring Miss the Real Story?

A reporter looks back at getting lost in the heat of the moment during Egypt's revolution.

Pro-Morsi university students and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood occupy Tahrir Square on Dec. 1, 2013, for the first time since the removal of President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo. (Photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Hadeel Al-Shalchi is an Iraqi-Canadian journalist based in Cairo. She has covered the Middle East since 2006 with CBC Radio, Associated Press, and Reuters.

In the early throes of the Arab Spring, there were days when it was almost impossible to do an interview in Tahrir Square—but not for a lack of willing subjects among the newly revolution-drunk masses who gathered daily to sing their freedom songs and share rants in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Notebook and recorder clutched in one hand, pen in the other, I’d always start out optimistic, finding a suitable person for what's called the "how you doing" interview. But it would invariably begin. As soon as one person noticed that I was a journalist conducting an interview, friends would be called on to gather round. Soon the circle enveloping me would grow so thick I wouldn’t be able to move, crammed into a group hug of Egyptians who all wanted to tell me what they thought. I’d eventually have to squeeze my way through the arms and legs of the squabbling group, leaving them as they yelled and disagreed and debated their ideas and opinions on the future of their country. 

It was really a journalist’s dream. For the first time in my years of covering the Middle East, people wanted to talk to me. In a culture that has always been afraid of authority and being caught saying something anti-government or anti-regime, people were freely giving their names to go on record to criticize the government. They would tell the difficult stories of their lives and why they were spending days and nights in Tahrir to change it.

Utopia was just one way to describe the scene in Tahrir in those days before it all came crumbling down.

Tahrir was a safe place then. It was a place that quickly evolved from a demonstration scene to a village where Egyptians tried so hard to put their best foot forward. In a city where littering and pollution have been a constant problem, those in Tahrir went to lengths to sweep and clean the grounds and keep the tents of those staying overnight tidy. In a country where religious men and women keep to themselves, heavily bearded men in traditional religious clothing could be seen planning chants, assisting and debating with cigarette-smoking women in Western clothing.

I would sometimes walk around the Square blinking—did I really just pass a group of teenage boys and not get sexually harassed? Vendors of tea and popcorn called out their wares; volunteers guarded the outskirts of the Square; people lay around making music and delivering food and discussing what they would do with their newfound freedom and hope. It was a village of possibility.

Journalists got caught up in this utopia as well. Many Egyptian journalists—even those who worked for foreign media outlets—began to view their work as a form of activism. They worked harder and longer than any other reporter out there; they were going to show that their country was capable and willing and ready for freedom. Some were also reluctant to believe the revolutionaries who overtook Tahrir could succeed; some cried on TV while reporting live when Mubarak fell; others lashed out at any story idea that hinted at the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the shift in power that came with their support of Tahrir.

Western journalists also got caught up in the euphoria. My formative years were spent in Canada, and as with other journalists who landed in Cairo, it wasn’t long before I became used to covering a story about Egypt that was hopeless, about a people who seemed to give up their rights as long as they had some food on the table every day, a story of a region that was humiliated by the West when its culture and faith came under attack after 9/11.

Yet, here we were, telling the world that the people were rising, that they really had had enough and it was time. We all wanted it to happen so badly. The long days in Tahrir, the huge amount of tear gas I had breathed, the beatings I had escaped, and the constant stress of wire reporting under such extreme circumstances had gone to my head. I refused to believe that anyone was going to be critical of what was happening in Tahrir. I wanted to spend all my days in Tahrir, ignore all those hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who stayed home quietly grumbling disapproval at what was happening downtown. 

Amid the grumbling of others was the discord among friends. I stopped talking to a good Egyptian friend who questioned the revolution. I refused to debate with her, and I refused to allow her an opinion. I was wrong, but the emotion and the exhaustion and the palpable hope we were feeling and reporting on in those days made it audacious for anyone to question it.

Today journalists and those who lent a backbone of favorable reporting to Tahrir three years ago bandy about the word “naive”—a word no reporter wants to be associated with because of its connotations of childish ignorance and, worst of all for a journalist, being wrong.

But Egyptians, too, were naive. The revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood underestimated the power of the ancient, entrenched Egyptian military and police. Though they seemed to have been taken by surprise in 2011, the machinery of oppression clicked into gear and patiently played the political game—more cleverly, it's now clear, than any of the other players.

Today, those Egyptians we neglected to focus enough on—those who hated what was happening in Tahrir—have taken over the Square, calling for and supporting the return of the old guard.

Meanwhile, journalists, activists, and hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members languish in jail as traitors of the regime, punished for the audacity of their hope.

This content was created in partnership with our parent company, Participant Media.

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