The uprising in Egypt has taken the international media by storm. Since protests broke out on the streets of Cairo on January 25, headlines have been flooded with accounts of upheaval, revolution, and concern over the future of a nation and a region. For many, however, it remains unclear just how indicative news coverage has been of the situation on the ground. Among those questioning media’s role in the wake of Egypt’s turmoil is Amanda Labora, B’12, who was studying in Alexandria with Middlebury College when the protesting began. She believes that the Western media, in its portrayal of violence and religion in Egypt, is painting a skewed picture of the true state of affairs.
Labora has been in almost constant contact with Egyptian friends since she returned to the States from Alexandria last week. She and other students from her Middlebury language program have compiled interviews with professors at the University of Alexandria in PDF format for the press, as well as translated Facebook chat conversations between Egyptians and Americans. While sifting through the documents, she adds as an aside, “Right now someone is chatting with me as we speak. I ask them what the news is, how they are doing.” Then she pulls up a typical news headline from the New York Times—“West Backs Gradual Egyptian Transition.” She looks indignant. “Who cares about US policy in Egypt? This is all through a Western lens. But to me, the Egyptian people’s words are what’s important.”
In the United States, the news from Egypt has focused nearly exclusively on Cairo, and on the mass violence that purportedly characterizes the protest movement. While violence has certainly been demonizing Egypt, Amanda explains that the media has not adequately depicted who the protestors are—and who they aren’t. The protesters, she stresses, are not the thugs who are wreaking havoc on the streets. On the contrary, much of the violence in Egyptian cities has been the result of Mubarak’s effort to generate chaos as a mechanism to delegitimize his opposition. The idea is that once enough chaos reigns, the people, whose primary grievance is security, will demand the reestablishment of the police force Mubarak disbanded soon after the protests began. To make security matters even worse, thousands of prisoners escaped during overnight mass breakouts across Egypt; many suspect that Mubarak was complicit in their liberation. Amanda presented a hypothetical situation: “Imagine if the whole police force just left New York City and all of the state prisoners escaped with weapons.”
In the face of the collapsed security apparatus, however, ordinary Egyptians—citizens young and old who are calling for change—have stepped in where the old system has collapsed: “Even when the police had left [Alexandria], I woke up the next day, and I could see from the balcony [that] people had taken up the role of traffic cop on the corner.” The protesters are the ones keeping the cities running, picking up after their own protests, and taking care of their fellow Egyptians. “Doctors are going out into the streets, [there is] medical care for free, [there is] a sense of community. In a situation that is complete chaos, Egyptians are stepping up to help each other.”
Among those providing security in the unrest are civilian militias. Composed of individuals from every neighborhood in Alexandria, they take it upon themselves to protect families from armed looters. Wessam El-Maligi is a professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Alexandria, a Fulbright Scholar and former professor at Macalester College in the States. He also is a member of a neighborhood militia, and as soon as riots broke out, he left the University to join the civilians protecting his family’s village.
Another major misconception about the uprising is that it is intrinsically linked to Islam, and that Egyptian society is anti-Christian. In light of recent attacks on the Christian community in Egypt—including a car bomb explosion outside of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Day—Amanda was nervous about the Egyptian Muslims’ attitude toward Christians in the nation. What she found, however, was that ordinary Egyptians are not calling for radical Islamic government; their call for change is not rooted in religious fury or intolerance. “[In Alexandria] I lived with women who were from the countryside, and were much more conservative. I was asking them about the church attack, and also about the Muslim Brotherhood. I was very surprised by the answers. They are very by the book about their religion, but everyone I talked to said that it wouldn’t be fair to have a government that was Muslim when 10% of Egyptians are Christian.”
Doctor Nehad Heliel is director of the Middlebury School in Alexandria, and has been an active participant in the protests. Dr. Nehad is Muslim, but she does not wear the veil. Because of this, many Egyptians assume she is Christian. However, Amanda recalls how other Muslim protestors interacted with Nehad: “They were telling her, ‘Whether you’re Christian or not, you’re our sister as well.’ Everyone was mistaking her for a Christian and going out of their way to tell her she is one of them.”
It’s also important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—the main opposition to the National Democratic Party—is first and foremost an administrator of social services. “We are part of the people,” Mahmoud Izzat, Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Al-Jazeera TV. “The people are demanding the basics—mainly the necessities of life—and they have the right to do so.”
Amanda’s effort has been to get as many press sources as possible in touch with Egyptians on the ground. Because American news sources are harping on the international implications of an Egyptian revolution, attention is being diverted from the events unfolding in real time. After all, to quote Amanda, “This is Egypt’s revolution.” Amanda’s fear is that the rest of the world will “lose sight of the people, the Egyptians. You get a mob rather than a collective of individuals.”