Dispatches from Egypt

Abdalla Hassan ’94 believes that “every stop in life’s journey guides the course of our lives” and his years at Brooklyn College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history, helped him to discover what mattered to him most.

“I was an idealist,” says Hassan. “I felt I could change the world. I was attracted to a romantic vision of what journalism was. Reality is a bit different.”

For more than a decade, Hassan, 40, the son of Egyptian immigrants, has worked as an Egypt-based journalist and editor, often reporting from the midst of the latest upheavals there. In 2010 Hassan was awarded a fellowship from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, giving him a break from reporting on the ground to do more in-depth, academic work on the subject of the media and its impact.

“The arts become a wonderful outlet for expression, since audiences grasp the hidden meanings,” says Hassan. “People living in authoritarian regimes see movies as messages of resistance, defiance, subversion. I always marveled at this phenomenon.”

Hassan has freelanced for the World Press Review, Reuters, CNN, and BBC Radio. He has also edited and project managed more than a hundred book titles—academic works, translations of Arabic fiction, travel guides, illustrated books, and Arabic-language course books. He has directed and produced a documentary called Fan Mandur (The Art of Mandur), which profiles the work and life of famous Egyptian potter Mohammed Mandur and his son. His book Changing News, Changing Realities: Media Censorship’s Evolution in Egypt , is due to be published by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Here he describes his experience during the tumultuous days of Egypt’s “Arab Spring.”

Living Revolution

Maybe it was time to be back home in Brooklyn.

It was July 2010 and I had completed a six-month journalism fellowship in the United Kingdom. The break from the daily grind of Cairo offered me the chance to consider where I belonged in a changing media profession. After having lived and worked as a journalist and editor in Egypt for twelve years I felt my life there was drawing to a close.

In the dusty, crowded streets of Cairo lingered an unsettling feeling of malaise and frustration. So much needed to change: Corruption was not only widespread, it was encouraged; a huge polarization of wealth existed, with most Egyptians living on the margins of existence. Add to that the shadow of fear—that anyone could be picked up by the authorities, randomly (for being in wrong place at the wrong time) or on purpose (to silence dissent), and subjected to all manner of abuse. Being away for half a year made me realize the extent to which citizens in autocratic regimes are conditioned to repress the desire for change, accept a ruling system they know to be a failure, and internalize a fear they call pragmatism.

I returned to Cairo. I was a journalist and Egypt was what I knew. Presidential elections were scheduled for September 2011, expected to be a crucial period in the nation’s history. It was foreseen that the octogenarian president and present-day pharaoh, who ruled the country for three decades, would run again and expectedly win. I wanted to see how it would all unfold at a time when the clamor of dissent was growing. The system of government was beholden to the whim and self-interest of the clique in power, aided by the compliant handiwork of the massive apparatus of the security state. Who would have thought revolution was even possible?

Two factors escalated an uprising: intense and sustained month-long protests in neighboring Tunisia, which ousted that nation’s dictator, and the organizing power of social media. The cascade of events in Tunisia proved just how weak entrenched autocrats are when confronted with the masses on the streets. Egypt would follow within days. On January 25, 2011, with tens of thousands on the streets, critical mass was reached and the barrier of fear shattered.

January 28, 2011, was dubbed the ‘Friday of Rage.’ Millions of Egyptians across the country came out to demand the downfall of the regime. Internet and mobile communication were cut by the state in a far-reaching measure to contain the largest mass protests the country had ever seen. Video camera in hand, I joined a protest in the middle-class Cairo district of Haram. Two young men offered to carry me on their shoulders as I recorded the exceptional scene. Thousands of protestors became tens of thousands, stretching more than the eye could see.

A few of the protestors helped me escape with my camera and footage by ducking into an alley and waiting for the crowds to pass before heading in the opposite direction. But it turned out that protestors thought the cameraperson was being abducted by secret police and massed at the alley’s entrance. I needed to assure them that everything was fine. As I left the protest rally two young men ran after me, warning me that plainclothes security officers were following behind. And so we ran.

It was awe-inspiring to be living those days of revolution, seeing citizens bravely united in action and making ultimate sacrifices for the promise of freedom, no longer cowered by manufactured fear. Never before have I experienced such collective empowerment. Exactly two weeks later a onetime pharaoh was relegated to history.

When a civilian president was finally elected he reneged on campaign pledges, decreed to himself unchecked powers, and turned revolutionary allies into ardent foes. Demanding early presidential elections, Egyptians took to the streets to protest his rule one year after he was sworn in. His defense minister gave him a 48-hour ultimatum to meet the people’s demands. Faced with early elections or a military overthrow, the elected president opted for a coup.

A military-backed roadmap was announced, one that did not have the endorsement of a democratic vote. The chief justice of the country’s highest court was appointed the interim president, elections for a parliament and a president were promised after the constitution was amended and voted on in a national referendum.

Acts of violence escalated, jihadist groups stepped up their attacks. Supporters of the former president took to the streets in rallies and sit-ins, facing brutal crackdowns from a resurrected security state in the name of waging a war on terrorism. Hundreds were killed, thousands detained, journalists and revolutionary activists were not spared. Egyptian society was split into two antagonistic camps: one supporting the army, the other supporting the legitimacy of an elected president.

Three years later and the aspirations of a revolution have not materialized. Many Egyptians seem content to trade the turmoil of today with the authoritarianism—and perceived stability—of the past. Seldom does one hear the clarion call of the popular uprising: bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity.

Maybe, I think, it’s the time to be back in Brooklyn.

Contact: Ernesto Mora / 718-951-6377 / emora@brooklyn.cuny.edu