Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Nancy Youssef, the Middle East bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers, discusses the unique circumstances behind the political revolutions in Egypt during her Friday lecture in the Amphitheater.
In early 2011, the world watched in awe as Egyptian revolutionaries ousted President Hosni Mubarak from office after nearly 30 years in power. Removing an authoritarian leader was a momentous accomplishment, said Nancy Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers’ Middle East bureau chief, but the difficult part came afterward.
At the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture on Friday, Youssef outlined to the Amphitheater audience the difficulties that Egypt has faced in establishing democracy.
Fourteen months after Mubarak was ousted, Mohamed Morsi was elected president, but after a lackluster presidency, he was removed from office a year later. Then, former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected in May 2014 in a move that Youssef sees as reminiscent of the authoritarian days of Mubarak. She attributed this to the chaos that has ensued since the revolution began in 2011, and further speculated about “why, in just three years, Egyptians who went from demanding changes from their government, who went from demanding the end of police brutality, are now welcoming something far worse, the killing of thousands, the suppression of their rights.”
It is currently illegal to protest in Egypt. Around half of the population is illiterate, and the average Egyptian makes $200 a month. The World Economic Forum has ranked Egyptian primary education among the last in the world.
Criticizing Sisi can result in arrest, Youssef said, citing a man who was recently incarcerated for naming his donkey after the president. Thousands of political dissidents have been arrested, she said.
“Almost daily, there are images of people being killed by the police, tortured, falsely imprisoned,” she said. “And a government that is putting down laws to suppress people’s rights, and people welcome it.”
Why has Egypt seemingly reverted to the status quo? In answering this, Youssef stressed the importance of taking a long view of the Arab Spring, not merely assessing it from January 2011’s “celebratory images out of Tahrir Square with word of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster,” but looking to the last 20 years of life in Egypt.
“Those [years] really laid the foundation for the Egypt that we have seen emerge today,” she said.
Tunisia has been more successful in establishing its emerging democracy, she said, and noted the vast differences in the buildup to the two countries’ respective revolutions.
Tunisia, Youssef said, saw “a real revolution of social thought and economic thought that transcended all the classes of that society, and in Egypt, that didn’t happen. In the 20 years leading up to it, the masses were in the same economic circle.”
The Egyptian middle class has eroded over the last 20 years, corruption has run rampant and any economic growth “served the elites and didn’t serve the masses” — a similar situation to that of Syria. Egypt’s economic stagnation has resulted in smuggling markets and terrorist activity, two phenomena that have created their own economic class, Youssef said.
This criminal activity does not bode well for democracy.
“Our own history tells us that bad men can’t make good citizens, and a democracy demands, in a sense, good citizens,” she said.
The nation’s low level of education means trouble for democracy, she said, invoking Thomas Jefferson’s contention that democracy demands an educated electorate.
Egypt, she said, is a society of haves and have-nots, toting an economic system that has held people back and built an environment not looking to build a national state.
And this society has not been good to political parties, which, Youssef said, faced constant threat from the Mubarak regime. Mubarak jailed the leaders of the young, liberal political parties that only knew real exposure after the Arab Spring.
These parties lacked guidance, she added, explaining that liberal political movements most often wasted time preaching to the educated, well-off choir, not the impoverished masses.
“What was created in that environment was not parties that reached out to the various economic sects of Egypt, but to people they knew,” Youssef said. “We saw this on Twitter, where, essentially, people were talking to one another, but not to the base. If you were trying to communicate a political message on Twitter in Egypt, you were not reaching the majority. In a country where people only earn $200 a month and are illiterate, they’re not on Twitter.”
In the last 10 years, Mubarak loosened up on political parties, but due to most parties’ inexperience, the 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood benefited the most from this freedom. The Brotherhood reached out to poor, uneducated people in rural areas which the young, liberal parties failed to do.
“Their tentacles extended into every single part of that society,” she said. “They provided food. They provided garbage pickup. They provided medical care. So you can imagine how juxtaposed that is — a Muslim Brotherhood that is in your neighborhood, versus these liberal parties who are essentially, from their perspective, talking down to you about these kinds of changes that you need in terms that seem, frankly, quite foreign.”
Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the Arab Spring, the U.S. invested “millions and millions, maybe billions” of dollars to promote democracy in Egypt.
Youssef explained that the United States has historically promoted democracy in other countries like Iraq in the belief that democracy would mean stability, leading to less warfare involving the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. sent groups like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute to teach political parties how to organize themselves, campaign and voice dissent in an autocratic system.
According to Youssef, this was not enough.
“There was never an education to the masses about how to receive that information,” she said. “It’s as though we taught the political parties one language, and they spoke it to a population that had no idea what they were saying. And that gap created an environment where the U.S. would stress process, elections, teaching these elites on how to run Parliament, things that were many, many steps ahead of where Egypt was.”
In essence, she said, “we were speaking in macro terms to a country that needed to hear it in micro terms.”
Once Mubarak left office, Egyptians did not know how to proceed, Youssef said. Everyone had a different definition of “democracy.” To the public, she added, democracy often meant total freedom without law and order, leading to violence and chaos.
“It was built on that weak foundation of not defining what democracy means, and agreeing as a society on how to proceed once Mubarak falls,” she said.
And after Mubarak fell, the public pushed for elections immediately.
“Because the basic terms were not clearly defined to everyone, there was a perception that democracy was an election — that once you had an election, you had a democracy,” Youssef said.
Once Morsi disappointed the public with his first year in office, she said, the nation felt that it could not tolerate four years of him in the presidency. Just over two years since the fall of Mubarak, Youssef said, “we’d gotten rid of one president on the street. Why not another?”
After Morsi was removed from office, Egypt had grown jaded to rampant violence and repression, she said.
“The society that was once outraged under the Morsi government that 10 people had been killed in front of a presidential palace, a month later, would not even flinch at 1,100 people being killed on Aug. 13 in front of two sit-in sites that were set up on Morsi’s behalf,” she said. “It was a fundamental change of society in a matter of weeks. The nationalism that had been there, that had fueled the Arab Spring in 2011, by 2012, was over, and we were back to [a more] divisive political system in place.”
Egypt had grown “exhausted” by democracy, she said. Because every part of society had different expectations for it, and a process had not been established, the status quo, represented by Sisi, seemed appealing.
“ ‘It’s a dictatorship, but it’s the devil we know,’ ” Youssef said, invoking popular sentiment. “ ‘What’s the value of freedom of speech if I can’t provide for my family?’ ”
Q: A free press is obviously part of a healthy democracy, and though journalists work towards objectivity, do journalists then have an obligation to be part of that promotion of democracy within Egypt?
A: Do you mean do Egyptian journalists have that responsibility?
A: You know, the Egyptian journalists are really struggling with that right now actually. Remember that journalism, under Egypt, was saying what Mubarak and the regime wanted you to say. They’re sort of experimenting with how much they can say. Right now, it’s not happening very much because they know that they could be jailed at any point for saying something that goes against the regime. So what’s happening now is a struggle. The Al-Jazeera case and the arrest of those has actually awakened in a lot of journalists an awareness because I think up until this, at first the Al-Jazeera case was presented as a war against Al-Jazeera, that hated station in Egypt. Just a little background on that: The reason that Al-Jazeera is so hated in Egypt is the Egyptian state sees Al-Jazeera as an instigator of the Arab Spring. Where they were showing images of three people in Tahrir, Al-Jazeera was showing hundred of thousands of people. Where the Egyptian state television was saying Morsi was the enemy, Al-Jazeera was showing Morsi as the great savior of Egypt and so they arrested these journalists, I believe in part, to get rid of Al-Jazeera in Egypt. So initially, Egyptian journalists didn’t see this as a freedom of press issue but as an Al-Jazeera issue and over time they’ve now been sentenced, those three journalists, to seven years in prison. They were charged with running a terrorist cell out of the Marriott Hotel, which would be the worst place you could ever run a terrorist cell because there’s intelligence officers everywhere. So it’s a long-winded way of saying I think there’s starting to be an education on that from their own experiences, but it’s taken time and the irony is the Al-Jazeera case — which was supposed to send a message — has instead maybe awoken in people an awareness.
Q: What is the U.S. policy toward Egypt, and do we actually speak with one voice?
A: What is the policy toward Egypt? Well, it’s changed. During the election process, the message was supporting the process — not a candidate. I think the same way that the Egyptian public is exasperated by all these changes, we’re starting to see signals of an American administration that, in a sense, welcomes the status quo at least for now because at least something that is known. John Kerry last fall said that Egypt was on the path to democracy, which shocked every Egyptian I know, and you get the sense in talking to the administration that to serve U.S. interests, to protect Israel, to protect the ability to arrest Harris and the like, that Sisi represents a system that he knows because he was a product of it, he was the minister of defense under Morsi before he ousted him and he was the head of intelligence under Mubarak and, I have been told, has been instrumental in every key decision that Egypt has made over the last five years. So the tone that you get from the administration now is not one that pushes for the kinds of revolutionary changes. The administration that said Mubarak has to go is no longer. It’s one that says we need stability, much as the Egyptian public is saying.
Q: Speaking of stability, this question from Twitter — personal question: Can you, will you, be able to return to Egypt?
A: So one of the reasons I left, so I’m a dual national, which was wonderful during it because I could sneak into places like the Sinai. I snuck into prison to visit the Al-Jazeera staff, because my Egyptian national ID card, I look like a very rich housewife, and so nobody assumes anything about me because I stripped it of any identity in terms of job and everything else. So, usually people just took pity on me and let me do what I wanted to do, which was great. But until we started targeting journalists and others, the widespread arrests had been so much so for women in particular, you were likely subject to sexual assault in Egypt, virginity tests, pregnancy tests. The currency in Egyptian prison is cigarettes and Viagra. So I knew if I had been arrested in Egypt I would be treated more like an Egyptian and less like an American and all the dangers that came with it. So, in the short term, I’m not too keen to go back. I’ll do it if I have to or if the news drives me to it. But it’s very difficult because the rules of engagement if you will, between the government and its people, are changing so quickly that you don’t know when it’s going to turn. None of us had the imagination to think that the Al-Jazeera staff would be held and arrested for 10 months — excuse me eight months — and sentenced to seven years. When they were arrested, we thought they’d be held for a couple days. So because of that I hesitate, because that American passport that before all this would have protected me from anything, now has its limitations.
Q: Do citizen journalists help or hinder the work of professionals working there?
A: I think they do help. I think the problem is, again, how we receive it. So one of the things is, during the uprising, everyone went to Twitter and said, “OK this is how Egyptians think.” Now, I should tell you I’m 100 percent Egyptian and again related to, like, half the people there, and I don’t know what an Egyptian thinks. I have no idea. It’s not a monolithic voice. So I think citizen journalists help. I think it’s great that there are more people out there getting more voices. But there has to be a reassessment on how we take that information. Just because one citizen journalist or one Twitter account says something, it doesn’t speak for an entire population. So I think that’s where the adjustment needs to happen. But, I am a journalist so the last thing I would ever do is encourage or call for less voice out there. I’m always for that but perhaps a better way in terms of how we take it in.
Q: Should the United States promote democracy or focus instead on building literacy and economic equality?
A: Yeah, that’s a great question that I don’t know how to answer because I don’t know how much the United States can do. I think there are efforts to promote literacy. The thing we don’t take — or don’t appreciate is — there’s an interest for a lot of people in Egypt to keep a population uneducated so how do you butt up against that? There are days when I’m very isolationist and I think the United States should just focus on protecting its interests because you see the challenges when you live there up close. That said, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think you can encourage education — and the United States does do that — and encourage democracy. But again, in such a way that adjusts the environment that you’re working in. Perhaps democracy promotion is on a much smaller scale. It could be as much as encouraging women, fathers to educate their children, that’s a form of democracy promotion and it can be subtle and have an effect and is really catered towards the challenges that Egypt is facing.
Q: This is a question from Twitter: So how can the U.S. government support a less than democratic transitional form of government and still stay true to our democratic ideals?
A: Well, that’s the dilemma isn’t it? Because our morals and our interests in this day and age are colliding. I think the question becomes, “What is the priority,” and each country demands its own answers to that. But that is the challenge, and if you spend time in the Middle East, that’s all you can find. The same thing happened in Libya, frankly, where to keep Gadhafi in power because he got rid of his nuclear weapons, he was cooperating with the U.S., he was holding terrorists, but our interests said that — or our morals said that — we support those who want a democratic state of rule. So I don’t have an answer and I don’t think the United States does other than to say that, perhaps, it’s time to have a discussion about priorities and how do you balance those things. It’s very very difficult, particularly during Arab Spring when things were changing so quickly and were so captivating that your heart wanted to support these efforts but then you’d step back and say, “How does this play long term?” That game, if you will, of morals versus interest, it’s a chess match in the Middle East, and you now have to think three, four, five moves ahead to play it.
Q: Can the autocracy in Egypt actually help to stabilize the region?
A: We’ll see, it’s possible. They are certainly sharing some U.S. interests in that they’re arresting terrorists. Of course they’re arresting everybody, but they are arresting terrorists as well. They are allowing Israel to conduct operations in the Sinai; they’re being very aggressive in terms of rallying up those who are problems. Sisi has the potential to be a regional leader. He can be very captivating and it’s possible. But it’s hard to see now. I’m almost not objective because I spent so much of my time talking to these young men and women, who you can see in them, their change in approach and their change in thinking because of things the regime had done to them or their families. You know if you’re family member’s in jail for eight months and being tortured, you’re susceptible to being sympathetic to those who want to fight the state. So I’m almost not an objective person because so much of what I did is interviewing people who were in those situations.
Q: What would need to take place for Egypt to develop a growing middle class?
A: The end of the sort of two worlds. Many of the challenges that confront this country. The return of some sort of economic opportunity for middle class Egyptians, an economy that encourages it. One of the challenges for Egypt is, so there are basically two kinds of jobs. There are jobs that are for the elite and then there’s the taxi driver, the housekeeper jobs and there’s so many of those jobs and so many of these. What’s lacking in Egypt is a market for the kinds of middle-class jobs that fuel an economy, and, on top of that, the ones that they do have that are subsidized by the government — teaching, for example. There’s a case of even just income salary raises for them would help address that problem. But the number of jobs in that middle area are really lacking. Now Sisi’s trying to do it. One of the reasons he’s getting rid of the subsidies is trying to fix some of the deep-seated economic problems there but I don’t know how you create a jobs program under such instability. So part of the answer is you create stability first. Remember, a lot of those middle class jobs were in the tourism industry which of course is no longer.
A: Should Egypt develop a bill of rights? If so, what’s the best way to do it?
Q: Yeah, so here’s the problem: They have a constitution and everything’s on paper. But in Egypt everything’s on paper until it isn’t. There needs to be a climate of law and order first. I mean, I exploited, by the way, the lack of law and order all the time. That’s how I did my job. But I give an example, I snuck into prison to visit the Al-Jazeera staff. Now normally, in most countries you can’t sneak into prison, right? It’s usually kind of hard. So what you do is you take advantage of the absurdity of the system, and so I walked in. So in an Egyptian system, if you’re a prisoner, your family has to bring you everything: your clothes, your food — everything — I mean, they provide you food but it’s really not food. And so I posed as an uppity housewife and I carried bags and bags and bags of food. My company paid for Mohammed to eat for like three months because I wanted to look like I was there to see my loved one. And the guy says who are you? And I just gave him my name, I didn’t volunteer my job. And he said you can’t go in and I said just for five minutes, for my brother, look at everything I bought. I’m very weak, I’m a girl; I can’t be expected to carry all of this back home. And because there’s no order, go in, five minutes. And that’s how I got in. So when I tell you there’s no order, there’s no order. I loved it as a reporter. So I’m really not the best person to ask. So you could have a bill of rights that’s great but until you have a system that respects law and order. So that’s like on a micro level. On a macro level, the judges — remember, we just this month or two months ago a judge sentenced 524 people for the death of one police officer. Because they see themselves not as maintaining law and order, but as defending Egyptian nationalism. You see what I’m saying? So you can have a bill of rights, but there has to be a change of mentality first that respects law and order rather than a system that embraces slipping people money on the side and defending these big principles. You can write it down but there’s not the climate for it in Egypt that I encountered. Which again was great for me but not so great for the rest of us, for everyone else there. But you have to do what you have to do as a journalist, right?
Q: In The New York Times today, there’s an article that energy subsidies have been cut by the government and there was little or no protest about that. Why so little protest and what might the government do next?
A: Well, because it’s illegal to protest and you’ll get thrown in jail. You can go to jail and not have a hearing for months and months and months, again there’s no system. Just so you know, there weren’t protests, but try to get a taxi in Egypt now. They now turn off the meter and they make up their own price based on the cut of that subsidy. So they deal with it in their own ways in the absence of the ability to protest.
Q: How has all of this affected tourism in Egypt? This person is actually taking a tour to Egypt and Israel in February and asking should they even go?
A: Wait, going to Egypt in February? Call me. I’ll say this: You can go to the pyramids. The last time I went, I was the only person there. Can you imagine? The Egyptian museum, I was one of the few people there. I don’t know how many of you have been to the pyramids, but if you have, you know it’s around this very impoverished neighborhood and if you go to the pyramids these kids will come up to you and say picture, picture, picture and you take the picture and then they ask you for five pounds for taking the picture, that was the racket, one of many up at the pyramids. Those kids are gone. If you go the pyramids now, in a taxi, just don’t go in a taxi because the residents in this impoverished neighborhood that depended on tourism, somebody will jump on top of car, sometimes they’ll jump in your car and they’ll start hitting it to try to get you to go to their place of tourism so you can ride their horse and go to the pyramids with them. So that’s how dire it’s become. And I’ve tried, if you try swerving to get them off, they hold on for dear life. I asked them what makes you think you pounding on my car will make me want to spend money at your business? I don’t understand the thought process, but that’s the level of desperation. I’ll tell you though the other way that it’s affected Egypt: You know there was a code in the society that everybody had to be on their best behavior because the country depended on tourism. So you didn’t do things, there was always the harassment of women but there wasn’t this disregard for and total disrespect of one another because there was an image that had to be preserved to keep the tourism industry going and that’s gone. So where foreigners were once treated like saints when they came through Egypt, you see, I do this, when you see a foreigner in Egypt you’re like what are you doing here? Don’t you know how bad it is? There’s not this protection of the tourists that there once was, there’s a mauling of them and for those who are left behind after the tourists leave, a real collapse of the society because that social contract has been broken with the end of tourism.
Q: Do you think the U.S. is capable of accepting governance by the Muslim Brotherhood if they prevail in a legitimate election?
A: No. So here’s the thing, so the Muslim Brotherhood has been around for 85 years. It is believed to have been responsible for a couple assassinations, and you have an establishment that has been taught its total career that it’s defending Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood threat. You can’t imagine what a bad taste left in their mouth to have to salute Muhammad Morsi. He was in jail before, he was in jail during the uprising. Now, we’re saluting him. It just goes against everything they stand for. And they really believe, besides, that that those guys pose a threat to the Egyptian identity and it permeates every part of society, it permeates the judicial branch, it permeates the military, it permeates police, it is institutionalized. So the idea that people in some legitimate process would welcome the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t going to happen. And frankly, the year-long tenure of the brotherhood whether it’s true or not is historically is now seen by Egyptians, those who voted for Morsi, as something that did great harm to Egypt. That had Morsi governed better, maybe our democratic experiment would have worked. Had he been a nationalist leader, maybe we would be on a different path. So now it’s seen not only historically but most recently as a year ago as a beginning factor to Egypt’s demise.
Q: Are years of economic subsidies by the United States partly responsible for an electorate that isn’t working too hard to be “upwardly mobile?”
A: Well, the economic subsidies for Egypt that the United States provides is in the form of military aid. So what that’s seen as is the United States is supplying a military that isn’t very sophisticated or judicious in its use of its power. So, if you go to the Sinai, for example, you’ll see a U.S. Apache flying over your head in the morning and that means they’re going to attack your neighborhood that day and you flee and if you’re at a protest you get tear gassed with canisters that say “Made in the USA.” So that’s how it’s seen as in Egypt — not as an economic problem, but that the U.S. is sanctifying a crackdown on segments of the population. Now, some people welcome who they’re cracking down on, but at some point every Egyptian has been hit with a tear gas canister with “Made in the USA” on the side of it.
Q: Earlier this week, Gordon Wood suggested the Egyptian Revolution looks a lot like the French Revolution than the American Revolution. This is because Egypt, like 18th century France, lacked a history and institutions of democracy. Do you agree?
A: Yeah, I do. I always hesitate though only because the information age that we live in fundamentally changes how I can assess these things, because what I’ve witness in Egypt is information or misinformation fundamentally changing the trajectory of movements, the decision of policymakers. So I agree historically that is a better reference. But whether that means that Egypt will play out in the same way I think is very hard to say given the environment in which the revolution will be happening. Things move faster, and as more reactionary — if you will — in a way to immediate events rather than one that allows for long-term, grassroots effort that needs to happen in Egypt.
Q: This person is asking the status of the popular Egyptian satirist Jon Stewart counterpart in the Egyptian media and whether he has been arrested.
A: Well, he was once, and he smiled the whole way through so that was nice. And he came on once a week on Fridays and the whole upper society for sure would literally stop, you’d be smoking shisha, and just watching him for an hour. It was a week round up of the news, and it was the same set as Jon Stewart and everything. He was celebrated for a long, long, long time because this was something never seen in Egypt and it was the most popular show in the Middle East for a long time. And then, when Sisi, right before Sisi’s election when his program was on the air, all of a sudden there were these power cuts on the TV and it would black out that channel, during his show, two weeks in a row. I’ve talked to him about it I don’t know how much he’d want me to say publicly but there were threats to him and his staff that they would be arrested and now people’s lives were at stake. And he had been arrested once and under this new system they could arrest him under all sorts of laws, insulting the judiciary, insulting this, insulting that and his program would be shut down. I think he’s trying to come back in another way, but making fun of the newsmakers in Egypt is no longer an option. So he’s free now and he has shut down his studio. They had their last show I want to say in May, so right around Sisi’s election they saw the writing on the wall as it were and he is trying to reprogram his staff and his approach in such a way to deal with things that fits within the narrow confines of the law. So my guess is it will be something more like Saturday Night Live and less like the Daily Show when it’s all said and done. But that’s my conjecture. So I think he’ll be back and I think it’d be great for Egypt if he was. I don’t know if you guys know he was a doctor at the time of the uprising and treated patients and he started making fun of Jon Stewart on YouTube. He made his own show and within a couple weeks it had a million viewers and then he had his own show. So he’s a doctor by trade. The best part about him is his mannerisms are built for a comic and if you meet him one on one, you think that’s just for TV, no he’s like that the whole time and you can’t help but watch him and talking to him you’ll start laughing and he’ll tell you horrible things, there’s a crackdown, there’s this and he does it in such an animated way, he’s very good at what he does. So I hope he comes back.
Q: With the Egyptian economy so weak, who besides the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are sending them money? Also, who does Egypt consider to be their closest allies?
A: Well, let’s deal with the second question first. The official answer is we have multiple allies. For the Egyptian military their biggest ally is the United States because they provide the bulk of their Apaches and their weapons and their training, and the United States has been training their commanders for 30 years. Sisi himself was trained at the Army War College — as was his deputy, Sobhi. If you ask the economic community, they would say Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s provided at least $12 billion in aid to keep the Egyptian economy going and, literally, they’re living paycheck to paycheck in Egypt. So I think it depends on who you ask, I think there’s a closer relationship right now between Saudi Arabia and Egypt because they both see the Muslim Brotherhood as a fundamental threat that has to be dealt with immediately and through mass arrests.
Q: Would democracy in Egypt require the separation of the military from its economic dominance. If so, how?
A: Yes, and impossible to do. Unlike our military, the Egyptian military has its own economy. They have their own gas stations, their own products, their own water supply. You can buy a bottle of water provided by the Egyptian military. Nobody knows how much their economy is based on the military — the budget is actually secret from the parliament. So nobody really knows, so separating that would be very very hard because Egypt is it’s military, it’s the most nationalist thing in Egypt now and the idea of separating it is just inconceivable right now. I don’t know how you would do it and who would do it when the military is the biggest force. Think of other Mubarak and other Sufyan before him. There was civilian leadership, but they both had backgrounds. And Nasser before them — all three backgrounds in the military before that and the puller string is the military and that continues today. So that’s why they want to have so much power precisely to protect those economic interests.
Q: So how will the role of our — the United States — future elected government affect Egypt’s future in the next few years?
A: I think the most immediate effect it can have is on its military and if you affect the military you affect the country. Right now, the United States has held up the sale of 10 Apaches. Senator Leahy has held up the remaining $78 million that would deliver those Apaches to Egypt, and I think that’s the most direct way. I think there’s an argument to be made that, to affect change among the government at this point — and this sounds horrible to say — that there has to be punitive measures taken. And they want those Apaches. Those Apaches are the keystone to their military operation, and without the supplies and the repair parts they can’t operate those Apaches. Now, the Egyptians have tried buying from the Russians and, of course, the U.S. military response is: “Go ahead, ours are better.” And they always come back to the U.S. because our military equipment is so much better than the Russian ones. So they tried to go around the United States and it hasn’t worked, so I think the most effective means of impacting change on Egypt and on how it conducts itself and trying to demand course directions is on the military because the Egyptian government takes particular offense to talking down to them about how they need to be more democratic or how they need to do things the American way. It just doesn’t land well, and you say that to the Egyptian public, it’s particularly onerous.
Q: What is Egypt’s position on accepting refugees from Gaza?
A: Well, that’s a great question. When this crisis last erupted in 2012, the Rafah border crossing, which is the one between Gaza and Sinai, had been open for a little bit. It’s been open less so under this crisis. And, notably, Sisi did not come out and condemn what was happening and the Egyptian public noticed that immediately. So they open it occasionally, more people are allowed in than allowed out. But the Egyptian public argues that the Egyptian government, its government is keeping people trapped. The Israelis will say you have to flee and the people of Gaza will say we have nowhere to flee to because of that border crossing. So it’s been closed a lot more than it was just two years ago.
Q: This person says we recognize that the U.S. exports military gear to Egypt. What about exports of grain and oil? Can Egypt feed itself?
A: Egypt does depend very heavily on wheat. It’s one of the biggest receivers of wheat in the world. Egypt’s diet is so dependent on bread, the Arabic word for bread, aish, the Egyptian slang one is also the same word for life so you get a sense of how dependent it is on it. I think it would go to other sources for that, other than the United States if it had to. So it can have some leverage, but I really think in terms of affecting change it’s in the military because it would be very hard from a humanitarian perspective that we’re going to try to punish the government by cutting off food supplies to its’ people.
Q: Will the current regime promote education of the masses and if not how will the foundation for democracy be laid?
A: Now, we don’t see that kind of education promotion except among the elites. The income inequality gap has to be closed first so I don’t know what order you do these things. It seems like stability first and then closing that income inequality gap and then it can address it because until people demand it, you have a population that doesn’t know to demand for more. I don’t see a pressure on Egypt to do it. Remember, they have so many challenges right now that they haven’t been able to deal with for decades that I don’t think they’re in a place to properly address education problems.
Q: Last question: I know that news organization are cutting their foreign correspondents. So, beyond your work at McClatchy, as we end this week and think about how we can stay informed about what’s going on in Egypt, who of your colleagues in journalism would you recommend that we follow in the weeks and months ahead.
A: Well, you’re right there are fewer of us there. It’s become so hard. Not only the financial pressures on this side of the ocean, but then the security pressures on that side of the ocean. I really think, and this is to all topics on the news, we as an industry have kind of failed to give people one stop shopping for news. For me to understand news I don’t read just one person. I read everybody I can, and with all those little tidbits I can pull together what’s happened, and I would recommend the same thing on Egypt. I can’t recommend one source because it takes me five, six, seven stories just to understand what’s happened. There’s not that one source stopping on Egypt, there was. That said, I think The Guardian, is probably my favorite source of news on Egypt because they have an incredible correspondent there who’s done some amazing work. There’s a woman named Sarah El Deeb from the Associated Press who’s a personal favorite and has done remarkable work including a very in-depth piece about the government sanctifying the sexual assault of women in Tahrir Square.
—Transcribed by Emma Foehringer Merchant