Media wars

I didn’t go out at all today (Thursday) because as part of its campaign against the Tahrir protestors the regime has ordered the media to initiate a vile hate campaign against journalists and foreigners – which I am sort of both.

The mood changed yesterday and suddenly I was unable to leave my house. Friends rang me, warning me that gangs of people were roaming around Cairo’s streets attacking foreigners, or people who look foreign, or are suspected of being foreign, or agents, or spies, or Israeli, or Palestinian, or Iranian, or all of the above. Over 20 journalists were detained, some were roughed up, a photojournalist was stabbed. Journalists were chucked out of hotels, apparently on government orders.

An Egyptian friend told me that she went to rescue two foreign journalists near the October Bridge in Dokki and was herself set upon by a mob who accused her of being a foreign agent. Her and her brother were bundled into a taxi where her brother shielded her with his body. The army eventually intervened and rescued them and, in a strange coincidence, she and her brother added up at an army checkpoint with the girlfriend of a mate of mine, who had also been set upon in the same place. They were kept there until the mob dispersed.

I had thought that my problem was that, despite being biologically Egyptian-British, my Egyptian mother’s genes seem to have been on strike when I was formed and I am very much a Carol from Croydon. Usually this isn’t a problem (other than being welcomed to Egypt frequently by strange men) but it has now taken on a sinister tone. Another halfie with the Egyptian nationality I know was stopped at an army checkpoint and subjected to all sorts of bullshit just because they felt she looked different, or talked different or is somehow alien.

I’ve written about the identity issues I experience as a result of being a halfie elsewhere. Mostly I ignore them, because you know, who says I want to be part of your club anyway, but having to persuade a gang of 20 people that you are Egyptian five times every hour in order to be allowed to take photographs is exhausting, even more so when your physical safety depends on persuading said group that your Egyptianness levels meets their requirements.

The worst thing about this is how very un-Egyptian it is. Much is made of the legendary Egyptian hospitality, and for good reason. Egyptians take care of their guests. Which is not to say that xenophobia or racism doesn’t exist, and doesn’t exist in its worst forms. But very generally speaking I’ve felt safer and more looked after in Egypt than anywhere else in the world.

The descent into murky hatred coincides with a concerted state media campaign against foreigners and sinister “foreign agents” who are behind the Tahir protests, a continuation of previous campaigns against foreigners which have targeted e.g. Palestinians, religious minorities, gays, Shias…etc. State media is an extension of the regime. Add this to a security vacuum and the withdrawal of the police and a desperate regime and uncertainty and you get this, another highly convenient instance of manufactured discontent.

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14 Responses to Media wars

  1. Sarah, I am a journalist from The New Zealand Herald. Just letting you know again that I ran excerpts from your blog in my column today. Have previously tried to contact you various ways while Internet was down. Your blog has been greatly appreciated and so welcomed. Perhaps you can follow me on Twitter so we can direct message? @TraceyBarnett Stay safe and keep writing.

  2. jeff swingle says:

    when will this egyptian govt wake up and realize what is really happening

  3. The hospitality of Egyptians is phenomenal. One of my best friends (now), picked me up from the airport to make sure I didn’t get picked on by any foreigner-duping cab drivers when I first arrived in Cairo to study Arabic when all she knew about me was that I was coming from her same US university and coming to Cairo. And that I was Jewish and half-Israeli. And that didn’t change her hospitality at all. Although it did lead to some awkward conversations …
    Friend: “When you in the army did you ever …”
    Me: “No”

    Long-live the half-breeds! We are the only ones able to see more than one side, and once you break out of one side you can suddenly see them all.

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  5. I’ve been in that sort of ambiguous “insider outsider” position in a few different countries, including Egypt, and I know how you feel and agree with what you’ve said here. It’s very easy and common for nationalism to be used to justify excluding people or treating them as contemptible on the grounds that they don’t meet some arbitrary standard for membership in the nation. I wasn’t at all expecting the recent paranoia about foreigners in Egypt, but with hindsight, it makes sense that the regime would use nationalism to portray the pro-democracy movement as ‘foreign’. I agree with you completely about Egyptian hospitality, and it’s true that this onslaught of violent xenophobia is absolutely extraordinary in Egypt, but I think you’re also right to suggest that the state didn’t manufacture this level of paranoia from scratch overnight. To your list of campaigns against foreigners, I’d add the hostility against Algerians surrounding the football matches in 2009. But I think xenophobia isn’t just a product of campaigns against specific groups; it’s also formed out of the more general ideas and more subtle messages people absorb, in school and in the media, about the relationships between their country and the rest of the world. This includes the way history is taught, what students learn about other parts of the world, the sorts of foreign characters that appear in films, and so on. If the revolution in Egypt is successful, no doubt there’ll be a need to reevaluate all of this, to think about what the next generation should be taught about nationalism, about what the word “Egyptian” means and about Egypt’s connections with the rest of the world. I’m sure that process would benefit a lot from your experiences.

  6. Tennessee says:

    Tipped Wendell Steavenson (New Yorker News Desk) about your list of demands photo. She added it. Her Feb 4 entry—“Inside and Outside Tahrir Sq.”

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  9. Ray says:

    As a European born in Egypt, I left that country 42 years ago and never looked back.
    Some Egyptians may be kind and generous but most of them are petty thieves, mavericks and opportunists when they deal with foreigners because they think we are stupid, rich and sexually permissive.

  10. Mo says:

    Beautifully put.

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  12. dick atlas says:

    Love what you say about half-bloods. I am a Jew married to a Christian. Not the same, but similar. Worst idea idea in all of civilization is “my god is better than your god.” Why would he care – if there was a he? I hope that the idealism that I see in Egypt is not squashed this time as was my generation’s after Viet Nam.

  13. Newgyptian says:

    I am biologically 100% Egyptian but the water/air in the US and Arabian Gulf states where I grew up must be mighty powerful because I would get the “Welcome to Egypt” call several times a day as well. And also have ppl who have known me for years say, “But you *must* have some some sort of foreign blood in you.”

    So even some not actually half-breeds have to contend with it. I feel for you..

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