At Last, Egypt’s Story Has Changed

For too long Egyptian protests and repression were underplayed in the press because they were so familiar.

During the two years that I was reporting from Cairo (2006-08), it would sometimes appear to me that the correspondents of some of the bigger U.S. newspapers were ignoring or underplaying the major Egyptian stories of the day.

A season of brutally suppressed street demonstrations in favor of judicial independence, the continued imprisonment of Hosni Mubarak’s 2005 election challenger, and an unprecedented wave of labor unrest in the Nile Delta—all these seemed to get short shrift in the big American broadsheets.

When this occurred to me, I would remind myself, in my colleagues’ defense, that there was a lot happening elsewhere in the region, not least in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. Egypt wasn’t the whole Middle East, and their travel budgets more than dwarfed mine.

Eventually, however, I realized something else was at work. It wasn’t that outlets like the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post were ignoring these Egyptian stories. It was that they had already written them, time and again, in the years prior to my arrival.

Egypt was frozen in time. Surprises happened, like the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections. But these events were managed and mitigated by Hosni Mubarak’s smothering security state. In every important way, Egypt seemed pathologically resistant to change. With little that was “new,” the country produced very little “news.”

In the years after I left Egypt, I saw my own stories repeated by a new crop of reporters: small street protests, brutally suppressed; labor unrest; the president’s son being groomed for office.

“[T]hat’s what stung about Egypt,” I wrote near the end of my book The Black Nile, “the sense of a place trapped in amber—though amber at least acts as a preservative. Egypt felt like some slow-decaying element.”

In the book’s second-to-last paragraph, as a boatman takes me to the Nile’s terminus at Rosetta, where the great river spills into the Mediterranean Sea, I tried to get to the crux of what it was about Egypt that so vexed and saddened me:

I had spent more than six months tracing the Nile from the shores of Lake Victoria and had expected to be happier at the end of the line. Down the length of the Nile people lived and even thrived under extraordinary constraints. But Uganda and Sudan were dynamic, changing. There, the future was unwritten and—however unevenly—the horizon was growing. It seemed the opposite held in Egypt: Here, your fate was obvious and you would never be free.

The past seven days have made a lie of that last sentence of mine.

The dam has burst. For the Egyptian people (and the Tunisian people, and just maybe the Sudanese people, too), there are thrilling and frightful new stories to write.

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