In an article published this week in Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, journalist Ahmed Derini takes personal and professional aim at the often critical foreign journalists working in Egypt, calling on Egyptians to ignore what they write.
Derini implies that Western correspondents, often young, are as good as political scouts and their criticism is a manifestation of the political positions of their home countries. It is an article that is at times silly, but at other times reflects an understandable and popular view of supporters of the Egyptian government, which should be responded to.
According to Derini, the writings of foreign journalists in Egypt, which are often translated from foreign languages to Arabic, enjoy too much respect among Egyptians.
Derini thinks that critical and foreign journalists want to see Egypt fail before it has had chance to succeed; that they are trying to criticise it into collapse. He does not consider that there could be other motivations behind the work we do.
He identifies what he sees as a contradiction too, that at a time when Western countries call for supporting Egypt in its fight against terrorism, its journalists are criticising rather than supporting its work to secure the country and region.
Interestingly, he says “we Egyptians don’t need an Economist article to know that the economic system is not doing enough for the poor and we don’t need a Guardian article to know that there is torture in Egyptian prisons.” Derini realises that there is still much residual-Mubarakism in the apparatus of the state.
At heart, Derini is an apologist for the failures of the Egyptian government as it attempts to restore the country; the kind of pro-Sisi attitude that says, yes the government is guilty of many wrongs, “but they are working on it, give them time” – and it is a view widely held by Egyptians of all social classes.
But I would say to Derini that it is you who holds the West in too high esteem. You seem to believe that as soon as a country develops a functioning economy, its government begins to hand out rights and freedoms out happily.
The truth is that, even in the richest Western countries, the fight for rights and freedoms is an ongoing struggle that does not end. Press freedoms, rights against police brutality, rights of poor citizens are just as much under threat in the wealthy countries as in the poor. Look how they criminalise their journalists, disperse protests, and invade the privacy of their citizens.
Two foreign journalists recently identified $9.4bn spread across Egyptian government ministries that is not audited or scrutinised, and much of it is believed to be used corruptly. They used information partly provided by the Central Auditing Organisation’s Hisham Genena, at a time when Genena is being demonised by certain sections of Egyptian society and state. Do you think their work is negative, harming to Egypt? Do you think that these funds will be given up happily by those who use them now? Or do you think that Egypt’s desperately cash-strapped state should look into the money?
My point is that criticism and investigation is not a threat to Egypt and its recovery, it is exactly what we need to rebuild it.
Derini continues that not only are correspondents biased and political, but because so many are young, that means they only interact with young Egyptians and so have a skewed, narrow impression of Egyptian politics. He somehow believes that this has led them to believe that “Islamists are the true representatives of the Egyptian identity… so that when they report about Islamist politics against the government it is a victory for the will of the people”. Really, they don’t believe this – and if you think reporting on opposition to the regime is writing about the Brotherhood, then I think you are the one who has a skewed impression of Egypt.
Incidentally, why so many correspondents are young is not because they are some sort of political boy scouts deployed by hostile nations. What I think is closer to the truth is that there is little money in journalism, barely enough to raise a family. And yet, that does not mean that they are necessarily bad at their job. I know many Egyptian journalists who admire the quality and content of foreign correspondents here and lament the restrictions they feel in local press.
I do, however, have sympathy for Derini’s view that Egyptians should be able to understand their own country for themselves, not have to listen to what foreigners say of it.
In fact, having spent time with many foreigners and foreign journalists in Cairo, I do not think that they are beyond criticism. I do not think they are beacons of impartiality like you say people hold them up to be. Many are so transfixed with a ‘war correspondent’ mentality, that all they see is protest, violence, and ISIS. Some foreigners I have met in Egypt seem to think they are above the culture and so they don’t see any of the beauties of the country. I often think that if you are abroad and you cannot find anything to hold up as being better than in your own country, then you have to wonder if there is some element of racism at play.
I think many foreigners also turn the frustrations they encounter living day to day in Egypt in to a kind of resentment against the country and the people as a whole, and that colours their understanding.
Then, there are also just fundamental political differences. Many foreigners in Egypt think that a new state cannot be built in Egypt without properly reconciling society over the massacre of Rabaa, the mass crackdown and imprisonment of tens of thousands of innocent people.
What do you think foreign correspondents would write if the government announced a review into the questionable evidence used to imprison and detain tens of thousands of Egyptians since the 2011 revolution?
The point is that people may hold different views, but those who believe in criticism and press freedom do not believe in it because they want Egypt to fail. We criticise because we want Egypt to succeed.