This past November I had the good fortune of being chosen to represent the American University of Beirut as a student delegate at the annual Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) Conference held in Cairo, Egypt. ARIJ is a Jordan-based institute that provides funding, support and training for young journalists across the Middle East, and this was the first year their conference was to be held in Cairo.
The conference advised “colleagues to wear conservative clothing, and to avoid wearing tight pants and revealing shirts when going out to public places.” The conference also provided documents and advice for Palestinian journalists attempting to leave the West Bank and Gaza through Israeli checkpoints. Suddenly, my stress about getting a visa for my Canadian passport at the airport seemed pretty trivial.
Two days before the start of the conference, protests broke out across Egypt, including in the iconic Tahrir square after President Morsi passed a controversial presidential decree that gave him sweeping powers. I considered not going – but passing up on a chance to visit Cairo was just too much.
The day of the conference, I caught a 5 am flight out of Beirut along with another friend from the AUB who was also attending. After the typical Beirut airport experience (basically, overly relaxed security), we took off on Egypt Air, and landed in Cairo around an hour later. Once in Cairo airport, I realized that my worries about getting a visa upon landing had been unfounded – the old man behind the booth didn’t even look at my passport, let alone ask me any questions before handing me the visa.
We took a cab into the city around 7 am, when a deep smog was still covering the city. Our taxi driver asked us where we had come from, and why we were here. “Why did you come?” he asked us, “It’s not safe.”
“Bassita, na7na min Beirut.” we tried to joke (“Don’t worry, we’re from Beirut.”)
“Cairo isn’t Beirut” he replied. He then told us that he had been driving some tourists to their hotel last night when the car in front of them exploded. These two Beirutis were in over our heads.
We finally arrived to the hotel to find that our hotel reservation had been cancelled. After a brief argument of Lebanese vs. Egyptian Arabic, we somehow worked out a solution. A bus then took us to another hotel in Cairo’s Zamalik area, where the conference was taking place. Even being used to the madness of Beirut traffic, the bus ride was heart-stopping. Cars, buses, motorcycles, street vendors horses and donkeys jockey for positions on Cairo’s streets – with no clear winner.
The ARIJ conference turned out to be extremely interesting, with talks ranging from ethics of war reporting, methods for interviewing trauma victims, methods for conducting investigative journalism, and a showcase of the best investigative reports coming out of the Arab world in the past year.
It was also interesting to note that there appeared to be somewhat of a disconnect between the western and Arab reporters. One American professor who spoke went through the details of how he uncovered a french government scandal involving funding from the alcohol lobby – he did so mainly by going through public government records. A young Egyptian then stood up and asked how he recommended going about this kind of investigation in Egypt, where either there were no public records, or you may get beaten up for asking the wrong questions.
Another American journalist spoke about acquiring sources, and how to convince those who wish to remain anonymous to go public. An Iraqi journalist then asked about a specific case – in one of her recent stories, the main source had paid Al Qaeda not to kill him – there was therefore no way he would accept to go public with his name, as he would be killed. In both cases, the speakers looked shocked and a little dumbfounded at the questions. One thing is for sure – the terms of engagement are different in the west and in the Middle East.
In the evening, we returned to our hotel via taxi. We asked him about the situation in the city, and whether the area had remained safe that day. He told us the protests had spread to almost all areas of Cairo and Alexandria, and that all roads out of the city were blocked by protestors. He then went on to tell us that he had previously worked as a bureaucrat for the Egyptian government, that Morsi had fired him unfairly, and that he was now forced to work as a taxi driver to make a living. How much of this is true I will never know, as we were stuck in traffic when we suddenly heard a commotion behind us. A crowd was surging towards us, and an army officer had come out of nowhere and begun to spray tear gas directly into the crowd. Our taxi driver did some unworldly maneuver and managed to get us out and back to the hotel, but the excitement was not done for the night.
My fellow AUBite had some Lebanese family living in Cairo, who took us out and toured us around the Zamalik area in the evening. There was something distinctly strange about the atmosphere – fancy restaurants along the Nile, and luxurious Egyptian versions of “bateaux mouches” were empty, though it was a Saturday night. “Cairo isn’t Beirut” our host told us. It was the second time I’d heard that phrase in one day. “The people here aren’t used to uncertainty.” It’s easy to forget that Mubarak ruled Egypt with relative stability for 30 years – a completely different history from that of Lebanon. He asked us if we wanted to see Tahrir Square. We were both reluctant, but it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and so we decided to go.
Walking into Tahrir was overwhelming – so many key events had come from this place. Outside of the ring of white cloth tents it was like a microcosm of the Arab world. Kaak vendors, women with their children, but mostly men sitting, playing cards, smoking arguileh and talking politics. It wasn’t a threatening atmosphere, but definitely an uncomfortable one. As two of the only unveiled women there, we got many stares, though no one approached us, perhaps because we were with a man. Mostly there was a sense of lawlessness, a feeling that if anything were to happen, there was no governing authority that would step in. We definitely felt a sense of relief when we left the square. The tension and uncertainty in the air was almost suffocating, despite the movement being one of freedom and democracy. The next day during the conference, we read on the news that three women had been attacked in Tahrir that day – and the square was only 5 minutes from the hotel we were in at that moment. Very eye opening.
When we landed back in Beirut the next day, I saw the city with very different eyes. It seemed green, uncrowded, and very clean – though Beirut is none of the above. Lebanon is chaotic, but somehow the chaos seems contained, even manageable. Cairo was sprawling, huge, unpredictable and beautiful. And though its streets felt very dirty and crowded, and even unsafe, you got the sense that it was a very ancient and noble city – or once had been. Whatever the future of Egypt is, I surely won’t forget my 3 days in Cairo, or my impromptu visit to Tahrir anytime soon.