We all know what happened in Egypt. As journalists we are trapped in a current affairs knowledge competition. Knowing becomes a sense of professional pride. But how often do we question if the stories we are getting from a screen or a printed page tell the whole story? Or, to frame it differently, how much do we really know beyond the fact that the Egyptian people fought a dictator and seemingly won before we moved on to more “exciting” news like Libya or Syria?
I recently had the great pleasure of listening to Ghada Shahbender, human rights advocate and grassroots organizer in Egypt. Ghada not only organizes medics on the ground through social media, but also liaises with international reporters of the calibre of Marie Calvin, who she remembers, “did her best to portray the plight” of the Egyptians. Ms Shahbender explained how mainstream western media had misrepresented Egypt’s Arab Spring.
“The media summarized and simplified our revolution because it was easier,” she said.
Egypt’s revolution, in her opinion, was not fully reported until thousands amassed on the streets of Cairo and faced Mubarak’s regime on the 25th of January 2011. But their struggle began way before that.
I think it is really important to revise the sequence of events that lead to the “Egyptian Revolution” because as journalists we have a duty to chronicle the essence of social movements beyond the big events. Even if there are not 100,000 people shouting on the streets, it doesn’t mean that the conditions for change are not brewing in organizing meetings and non-violent demonstrations.
We have a responsibility to tell the whole story, because if we only focus on the major events, people get the inaccurate impression that revolutions and change happen over-night. It seems that people suddenly wake up, say “enough is enough” and simultaneously all walk out to the streets demanding change.
In reality, civil resistance and social movements take years of strategic momentum building, planning, organizing, boring meetings. In the words of Serbian “Otpor” leader Ivan Marovic: “Revolutions are 80% boring planning meetings and only 20% require you to set foot on the streets.”
In Ghada’s opinion, the revolution in Egypt started in 2004, when an organization called “Kefeia” (Enough) organized a rally at Cairo International Book Fair. In 2005, Condoleeza Rice visited the Egyptian capital and “promised democracy in Egypt” while people on the streets protested chanting: “Give him (Mubarak) a visa Condoleeza and take him back to Washington.”
The Egyptians faced elections in 2005, where Mubarak was re-elected, police brutality in 2007 and overall labour strikes set the pace for 2008. Constant social turmoil and non-violent protest paved the way for 2009, when it really got serious. The Egyptian Association for Change started attracting a-political people. Now, not only those who normally demonstrated, but normal people were taking to the streets to make their voices heard.
In 2010, 27 year-old Khaled Mohamed Saeed was murdered and he became an icon of the brutality of the Mubarak regime.
He became a symbol for the victims, and people started using the contrasting images of him alive and his body laid out in the morgue as an emblem for the fight. Adding to this, Mubarak’s fraudulent election win in November later that year fuelled the fire of the Egyptian people’s rage and pain. This is when a national demonstration was called for on the 25th of January, “Police Day” in Egypt.
The rest has been more or less published in western newspapers. The eight days of the Glorious Egyptian Revolution ended with Mubarak’s resignation to power and the Military Council stepping up to government. But the struggle is not over. Since then the Egyptian people have had to fight police and army brutality even worse that under Mubarak, but with a big difference: the government knows their power now and fears them because they are organized.
“We use social networks like Facebook and twitter to let people know where demonstrations are being held and if any resources are needed,” adds Ghada. “People bring what they can afford and participate. We know our strength now.”
Nevertheless, the struggle of the people of Egypt is far from over, and the media has a duty to report that. Ghada calls out to the international media to “look beyond sexy headlines” and honour the martyrs of the revolution who have given their lives fighting for freedom.
“It is the price we pay, but sometimes it seems too high,” she adds. “Look at Syria now and wonder how much is being untold. Not for Egypt, Syria or Greece but for humanity at large.”
At the end of her plenary session, Ghada played a video produced by her eldest daughter’s film channel, Mosireen the most watched non-profit YouTube channel of all time. All of us watching cannot help but cry: the violence is raw and evil. Most images were not shown in western screens and even Al Jazeera failed to broadcast some of the more gruesome images.
“We show them because the victims’ family want to the world to know what happened,” she explained. “There are times when we would rather not show the horrible death and cruelty, but the families asks us to show the world exactly what is going on.”
Listening to her made me think of our jobs as journalists. There is a romanticised idea of conflict reporting and a certain vanity to having the most horrible stories to show. The scoop is made even better because it is drenched in human drama and blood. But sometimes we forget exactly that: our stories, as horrible, surreal, juicy, sexy or exciting as they may seem, only thread together different snapshots of human experience.
“Look for the story behind the story,” says Ghada, “the story of human beings because that is what really counts.”
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