At the Front Line Club in central London, the renowned establishment for journalism and journalists, the celebrated Egyptian figure Yosri Fouda, who became esteemed for his coverage of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, shared his valuable insights into the revolution through the lens of his media experience.
Fouda, an esteemed journalist and author, initially worked for the BBC’s Arabic subsidiary, covering the enduring conflict in Bosnia. He currently works for ONTV, an independent Cairo-based channel owned by Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
Fouda spoke to Ahram Online in interview.
Ahram Online: What were the landmark media moments at the initial phase of the revolution that made a lasting imprint?
Yosri Fouda: The BBC interview on 28 January 2011, when I reported that the tear gas being used against civilians by the security forces was made in the US, which I then stated epitomises the relationship between the US and the Middle East. Immediately the transmission was halted. I later heard conspiracy theories saying that the BBC had not expected me to reveal the origin of the tear gas, hence the disruption.
Another instance which I have to mention relates to a landmark moment on Egyptian television that occurred during the first 18 days of the revolution. ONTV aired a panel discussion lead by myself and Reem Maged, panelists included my boss, Naguib Sawiris, the prime minister at the time, Ahmed Shafiq, my dear friend and author Alaa Al-Aswany, and renowned journalist Hamdy Qandil.
This discussion marked a breakthrough in Egyptian cultural norms as Al-Aswany openly challenged General Shafiq’s position as part of the old regime, demanding accountability. The celebrated author seemed undeterred by Shafiq’s powerful position or seniority in age, contradicting Egyptian cultural norms that dictate the necessity to respect and obey one's elders, regardless of their virtuosity.
The public reaction was one of shock, as Egyptians had never witnessed a civilian openly challenging an elder government official, let alone the prime minister! Three hours after the interview, Shafiq resigned as PM in response to what he deemed as his public humiliation. This is a clear example of what media can do in our part of the world — its power to foster change.
Is the revolution over?
The revolution is still underway. Revolutions take years and years. We have three main parties in Egypt: the army, Islamists and secular forces, each with their own understanding of where Egypt should go. For the army, the revolution was initially about getting rid of the son (Gamal Mubarak), his mother (Suzanne Mubarak), their cronies, and former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly. Later on they had to sacrifice the father (Hosni Mubarak) in order to satisfy public demands. Now the military’s main concern remains securing an adequate level of authority and above all its economic interests.
For the Islamists, the revolution was a means to reach the People's Assembly and put their feet on the political landscape. Conversely, the secular liberal forces perceived the revolution as a means to attain justice and accountability.
Every force flirts with totalitarianism. This pattern flows in cycles and will continue to do so until each realise that Egypt will never lend itself to only one force. Egypt is big enough for everyone.
Will Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, succeed in uniting some of these forces?
Morsi is a kind man, though like all politicians he has a project which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a former Muslim Brotherhood. Once Brotherhood always Brotherhood. Morsi has tried to unite all forces, particularly in the last week before his presidential victory. Whether this will be the case in a year’s time remains to be seen.
Markedly, the war underway in the deep state between the remnants of the old regime (the NDP), security intelligence forces and the media is threatening such unity. The partnership between the army and the Brotherhood is not going to last much longer.
Earlier nicknamed the "spare tyre," will Morsi become his own independent man and defy the army, or will he continue to liaise with the military?
Just getting used to the notion that he is the president of Egypt is going to take him some time. In many ways, his hands are tied, as a lot of the president’s power was stripped by the army’s constitutional declaration before he became president. This manoeuvre was in anticipation of the electoral results, which explains the messy way the second round of the elections was dealt with.
The situation is complex, because if one really believes in free choice and democracy then a president should have full powers, otherwise you cannot hold them accountable. This ongoing power struggle in Egypt is just one facet of the revolution.
How have Egyptians evolved after the revolution?
Egyptian culture and character is changing. The country is so polarised; it is going through a learning process. The very identity of Egypt is currently disputed. The Salafists are focused on a single word in Article 2 of the constitution that will determine whether the constitution will follow the principles of Islam or the rulings of Islam.
It is therefore more important than ever that Egyptians do not direct blame towards one party given its differing ideology, as each force loves Egypt but simply has a contrasting vision for the country. More tolerance is required. People need to remember the saying, “You don’t need to be in love to share a house.”
How can people dissatisfied with the current political scene use this new found democracy to change reality on the ground?
The only process is to build from the bottom up by working on the ground first, like the Muslim Brotherhood did: educate people about politics and try to establish a solid political machine.
One has to learn from the Muslim Brotherhood. No force could play politics on par with them as they tapped into their legacy of grassroots experience, explaining their present success.
The revolution is often blamed for being the cause of Egypt’s current economic peril. Do you agree with this notion?
The revolution is not the reason for the country’s economic turmoil. One major trick used by the former regime relates to the fabrication of crises associated with fuel, bread and traffic, leading many to hate the revolution and direct their support to remnants of the former regime.
Many Egyptians believe the revolution has failed, illustrated by low voter turnout, particularly in the second round of the presidential elections when 50 per cent of the population did not vote. What is your take on this?
People have taken for granted the huge steps we’ve taken. On 25 January 2011, no one knew it would be a revolution — it was a far-fetched dream. We have done a lot in a year and a half. Revolutions take time. What do people expect?
For over 30 years Egyptians did not feel like they were part of their country. They were alienated in their own homes. Finally, people are standing up for their rights, striking and challenging authorities by all feasible means.
Why did you suspend your show on ONTV?
Media can be used to create or negate a reality that is not there; that is how the army and Mubarak used it. People thought after the revolution that media could still be used to alter reality. In my belief this is not possible. Accordingly, when ONTV tried to do this during the second round of the presidential elections, when it appeared Morsi was leading, I suspended my show.
Naguib Sawiris, the owner of the channel, understood and respected my stance given his decent and honourable nature. Moreover, the head of ONTV publicly apologised, admitting panic had lead to attempts to manipulate reality.
In media it takes years to build credibility, which can easily be lost in a hour, which is what I didn’t want for my show or the channel.
What are your future plans?
I am a field guy; that is my passion. But due to the revolution and the pace of events, I felt I could not afford to leave Egypt at this critical time. I had initially planned to leave in six weeks, but after the announcement of the first round of the presidential elections, I decided to stay for one more year. I anticipated the guilt I would feel for leaving during this precarious period.