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Don’t shoot I hoot

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Philip Whitfield

Philip Whitfield

By Philip Whitfield

Let’s remind ourselves of the central challenge Egypt faces: the population explosion and its consequences. We know Greater Cairo’s 22 million will be 40 million in 10 years. In 30 years Cairo’s population will be greater than the entire United Kingdom’s.

Unless something dramatic happens – and I imagine it will – the economic resources Egypt has at its disposal are a 10th of the UK’s and the country has no financial reserves and, in my opinion, little if any capacity to develop the skills of its young people to take advantage of President Sisi’s new economy.

All this mirrors Britain’s circumstances when the population of Britain quadrupled in about 100 years from 7 million in 1751 to over 26 million in 1871. British courts had 222 offences punishable by death, including cutting down a tree or stealing a rabbit. The jails were overflowing; 46 ships were used as prison hulks and about 200,000 convicts were transported to Australia.

Here’s a historian’s view of England at the time: a society divided by intolerance, a population cowed beneath the iron fist of a brutal and paranoid police state; an unequal society of great wealth and unimaginable poverty, rife with suspicion, superstition and bloodlust.

It was a society that lived under imminent threat of war, day to day scrutiny by spies, and cruel and unusual state retribution; a land of clear divisions: between the old faith and the new, between the cities and the rural communities, between the known and unknown… and therefore frightening.

Britain coped by harnessing what became known as the Industrial Revolution. We have no idea how Egypt will cope. President Sisi mirrors every military president that has gone before him. He’s asked the citizenry to pay out more in taxes to keep a system of government alive, which, as we all know, is corrupt, conniving and deceitful. Good luck to him for taking them on.

The media in Egypt has the means to frame the debate, yet it falls short. Stories are short of substance and myths prevail. History is cruel to reporters. What seems true at the time in hindsight may turn out to be a half-truth or even quite the opposite.

I won’t insult your intelligence by dwelling on the obvious. We live in a place where freedom of speech is discouraged; dissent is quashed violently, people are locked up on spurious charges and others are held in jail for years without access to due process. In Egypt today we find a regime imposing stifling restrictions.

For their part, the media have much to consider. When I’m invited to teach journalism here or in the USA I find students aghast at the thought of setting out their own beats to cover a particular area of interest and develop rapport. They expect stories to arrive in emailed handouts. The government takes advantage of this, flooding them with gobbledegook.

I was taught to read stories not for their content, but for what’s missing. Most of the stories you read lack any meat. They are bland repetitions of officially inspired statements, which should be taken with a pinch of salt. My first observation is that despite advances in technology, reporters are losing their street smarts.

My second point is this: we are missing a voice that transcends the barriers to free speech. Absent is a voice with sufficient force to express the injustice that is simmering in the minds of ordinary people. We live in confusions of information and a vacuum of knowledge. Reporters are too meek.

The preeminent reporter and writer Ernest Hemingway said: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. The hardest thing to do is to write straight honest prose on human beings.”

That’s what’s been on my mind as I struggle to characterise the happenings in Egypt, maybe in a novel or, more likely, a film.

I’m spurred by Hemmingway’s thoughts: “After you are finished reading a good book you will feel that all that happened to you and it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”

To me it’s not a cop out from journalism. When the force of censorship and oppression is overwhelming, ingenuity adopts other means to express people’s anxiety. In many ways the Arab Spring mirrors the emergence of new thinking at the time of the 16th century Age of Enlightenment. Across Europe a raft of intellectuals such as Voltaire stood up to the villains, finding ways to circumvent censorship and oppression.

They exposed corruption in plays and satirical novels. We learn more about those earth-shattering events studying William Shakespeare than history books. The opening lines of the play Richard III who deals with the tension between free will and fatalism: the kernel of the Egyptian uprising. And in marshalling wit and satire he deftly skirts the censor’s red pencil: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York, and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

You can’t understand what’s going on here unless you experience Cairo’s Casablanca of Kant and corruption: lofty words and cruel deeds.  Albert Einstein put it this way:  “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

Yet intolerance, the ghettoising of thought, can be the springboard for creativity to flourish. The New York Times columnist David Brooks says in a period of disillusion and distrust, creative people don’t flee from contradictions: they embrace them.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet combined the Greek honour code (thou shalt avenge the murder of thy father) with the Christian mercy code (thou shalt not kill); Picasso combined the traditions of European art with the traditions of African masks. Saul Bellow combined the strictness of the Jewish conscience with the free-floating go-getter-ness of the American drive for success. Brooks says the opposable mind comes to the fore – the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time.

Half the population of Egypt is under 24.  The most recent and credible research shows they weren’t naive in mobilising the Arab Spring. They lacked the skills to avoid the Muslim Brotherhood takeover, the extremism that rises to the surface during most revolutions. They lacked the smarts to become a political force.

Amira Haas – Haaretz‘s reporter in the West Bank – says the foreign correspondent’s job is not to be “the first witness to history” but to “monitor the centres of power”. She’s absolutely right.

I think we are entitled to reports that analyse the root causes of this conflict; in Hemmingway’s words, “You felt that all that happened to you and it all belongs to you”.

Don’t shoot the messengers in Cairo. Let’s help them all we can, to reflect, as Hemmingway put it: “The good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather is.”


Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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