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S. Mandour, Yesterday's Story

Orient-Institut Studies 2 (2013)

Sahar Mandour

Yesterday's Story


It was a hot potato of a day.
Half of it saluting the police, and the other half fulminating against it.
It was Egypt's Day of Rage and the country's Police Day. The day was January 25, 2011.
Since newspapers generally tell yesterday's story, one way of grasping the larger picture is to see what the day's papers have to say.
On January 25, 2011, Egypt's 'national' press looked towards the past captured in that long gone-day when Vice-President Hosni Mubarak was appointed head of state and the country was still reeling from the shock of President Anwar Sadat's assassination.
That was the tack being followed by the 'national' papers on January 25.
For the 'independent' press, on the other hand, the story was playing out at that very moment. After all the wasted years of official obfuscation, a different day seemed possible after all.
While the 'independent' press spilled out every which way and could not be contained, the 'national' press stone-walled, refusing to address the issues head on and making only the most oblique references to them, to wit Al-Gumhuriya's headline: "Human rights organizations condemn attempts to defame national holiday: solidarity event with the police in front of the High Court."


It was a hot potato of a day.
Half of it saluting the police, and the other half fulminating against it.
October 6, 1981 had asked no questions. The citizenry woke up and went about their lives as they knew them, and then the president was assassinated. With that assassination, a story ended and another, ostensibly temporary one, began. The operative word that day was transition ... one or two terms at most ...
But the transition never ended – it became so entrenched that it defeated the very notion of time and remained beyond its reach. That is how thirty years later, the regime's days were no longer numbered in electoral terms but according to the president's declining health. That was the sole remaining measure of change. And then, from behind the mask of physiology, the touted change appeared in the form of 'the son,' the president's youngest male child. The future was obliterated and continuity was forever secured.


On the day before January 25, the average Egyptian was immersed in a quagmire that was an image of himself. He had become past-master at hiding from the future, had forgotten it existed. The 'national' papers repeated it every morning: tomorrow had morphed into yesterday, if not today. The end of change had been confirmed.


When January 25, 2011 dawned, the average Egyptian looked the day in the face, seized it with both hands and gave voice to years of silenced anger, joining all the other average Egyptians in the street, not to wax lyrical about poetry or inner feelings, nor to parade in fancy clothes and with refiner airs, but to demand that this day end differently to every other day before it. And to their own surprise, average Egyptians made it happen. The images of the time are unforgettable: the good will, intelligence, honesty, peaceableness, civility and, yes, pain, they convey about the 18-day Revolution stand in stark contrast to the feelings of gloom, humiliation and obstruction which permeated the picture prior to January 25.


However, just as Anwar Sadat's story didn't end with his assassination, or Hosni Mubarak's start with his accession, the revolution too didn't just materialize out of nowhere. The instant which we describe as the Revolution was the intersection of a multitude of factors and contexts. These built up and intensified over time and, like the narrative threads of a story, went in myriad directions – and the seeming break in the narrative was merely a link in the chain which concealed its inherent continuity.


That is precisely and exactly what the press attested to on January 25, 2011.


Before examining the salient aspects of that day's coverage, a note on the nature of the Egyptian press is in order. Until their nationalization under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's newspapers were all privately owned. During Anwar Sadat's rule, political parties were legalized and party-affiliated newspapers were launched, creating two categories of newspapers – 'partisan' and 'national.' When restrictive newspaper publication laws were ushered in during the Mubarak regime, newspapers obtained the right to publish under foreign licence, a case in point being the Cyprus-licensed al-Dostour . That is how the deceptive trick of foreign licensing was able to accomplish what domestic repression could not, as newspapers with non-Egyptian licenses could be treated like the foreign press and simply shut down under the pretext that they were "prohibited in Egypt." This is exactly what happened to al-Dostour in 1998, only three years after it launched. In 2000, Sawt al-Ummah was launched as a private newspaper under Egyptian license, and the 'independent newspaper' designation was born. This meant that the paper was independent both of the state and of political parties. A cascade of others followed, including al-Masry al-Youm (2004), a second iteration of al-Dostour (2005) and al-Shorouq (2009). Al-Ahram, al-Akhbar and al-Gomhuriyya remained the country's 'national' (ie, state-owned) papers.


On the morning of January 25, 2011, Egypt's newspapers came down on either side of a dividing line, and their narratives clearly reflected their respective stances. The independent press was clear, both in its coverage and sub-text, as well as between the lines; it addressed the causes of the storm sweeping the country and explored what people-led change might bring. Hence the title of al- Shorouq 's leading editorial by Wa'el Kandeel which read: "January 25 ... to whom will the last word go today?"


The 'national' papers, on the other hand, regurgitated the same old lexicon. On page after page of domestic coverage the standard code words were there: stability; development; success; continuity; rectification. Some of the headlines reflecting that sentiment included: "Cairo's Plan 35 to Help Solve Capital's Problems;" "Gabon's First Lady Applauds Suzanne Mubarak's Efforts;" "Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly Welcomes Egyptian Proposal;" " Prime Minister [Announces]: 700,000 New Jobs Annually;" "Profit of 508 million Egyptian Pounds;" "Solutions to Water Problems;" and "Cairo Battles Influenza;" not to mention a headline quoting the speaker of parliament as saying "Relations Between Muslims and Copts are Solid." The gentleman was extending these assurances to a visiting US delegation as well as to the Egyptian people.


In light of the holiday being observed on January 25, the organ of the Egyptian police force, al-Shurtah, published what purported to be an interview with the country's president that was carried by all the 'national' papers. Still, the topics covered were so general in nature that it was likely a mere compilation of previous statements rather than an actual interview. Echoing the tenor of the 'nationals', Al-Shurtah quoted the president as saying: "The way forward is to finish building the pillars of democracy: investment, justice, decentralization, and the police force – with its perpetually valiant stance in our national struggles."


Clearly, preachifying about the past had become even more imperative on this day. The 'national' papers were careful to disguise their preachiness, so that the collective rage of the country would appear more benign. It was Police Day, a day of celebration that could be exploited by troublemakers and saboteurs, so it was best to salute the course of the last 30 years and advocate for continuity.


As for the bomb explosions at the Alexandria church, a sectarian crime that had shaken the country to its core, that wasn't the work of an Egyptian, but of a Palestinian! "Terrorist Group of 19 Suicide Bombers Attacks Places of Worship" headlined al-Ahram. Details in the body of the story allegedly demonstrated that the perpetrator could "in no way" have been Egyptian. Although the phrase 'in no way'may not be a meaningful descriptor, it conveyed relief, the relief that Egypt's toil and tears were marked by innocence . No strife to report, no remedy or review was necessary, all was well. The Palestinian pepetrator was a member of al-Qa'eda, associated with the Gaza-based Jaysh al-Islam, according to a "significant statement" by then Minsiter of the Interior, Habib el-Adli. Although such words do not belong in a journalistic vocabulary, anymore than their counterparts cited above, al-Ahram used them anyway – it was truly a significant statement! The rest of the 'national' papers focused on the attorney general's "warning" to the press against divulging details about the incident. An attorney general's warning here, a minister's statement there, and the road to revolution was paved!
In the same vein, Al-Ahram, said 'even' Abu Mazen 1 was declaring his support for Egypt and condemning the perpetrator. "After being welcomed by the President, Abu Mazen Looks into Investigation Implicating Palestinians in the Crime" read the headline. God forbid that the paper should fall into the trap of ascribing importance to the breaking Wikileaks scandal reported by al-Jazeera, which had just revealed the extent of Palestinian concessions in peace talks with Israel, especially with respect to Jerusalem and settlements. Those were nothing but exaggerations! While al-Shorouq headlined "Anger at the Palestinian Authority and al-Jazeera," on its front page, following up with "Al-Jazeera Crisis Hits the Palestinian Authority" on an inside page, it also made the point that exaggerating results in distortion – to wit the demonstrations on Police Day. Abu Mazen was a rational man, after all, and the country was moving towards progress. Confirming this in an editorial entitled "Confidence, Negligence and Confrontation," al-Gomhuriyah's editor offered his readers an ideal newspaper experience with seven photographs of the head of state splashed across the first five pages of the paper. Of course, Egypt was no utopian society, the paper conceded it had some problems, but that was pretty much it ... the problems were in the course of being resolved.


Echoing that, al-Ahram argued that those protesting the public expropriation of their lands in the district of Warraq should be heard. Their "No to recreation, yes to services!" response to "the development" of northern Giza with a project that included parks, shopping centers and other forms of societal happiness was, said the paper, entirely right – development should not proceed at the expense of area residents! Reporting the news on its front page, al-Ahram said it counted on the Minister to 'clear the way'of obstacles. The people had voiced their complaints and the governor had listened, as the saying goes.


The same was also true for al-Gumhuriyah whose readers were treated to a news item entitled "Position of Handicapped Graduate Teaching Assistant in Helwan Given to Colleague." This appeared on the paper's front page inside a large bold box with a picture inside it, in a brave little corner entitled "Against the Government." To begin with, the very term handicapped is offensive, but that wasn't all. The story went on to portray the young man's situation with sympathy, detailing how he overcame hardships to become part of the teaching faculty at a university only to have his position wrested from him on the basis of his disability. This very legitimate criticism, however, appeared right below the day's headline stating: "Mubarak: I Side With the Poor and Will Not Allow Placing of Additional Burdens on Citizens."


Basically, the 'national' papers were saying: "Our pages are so chock-full of news that there is no room for more. The citizens of Egypt are our priority, and our publishing mission is to teach them how to behave and not to grumble. Rebellion is not constructive and it does not keep our country safe."


The misfortune of the 'national' press was that it was just one more soap-box by now, competing with myriad other views echoing throughout the land. It wasn't just a question of misfortune, however, it was a question of context. The birth of the 'independent' newspapers came at an enormous price, and the committed journalists involved in their publication were willing to pay that price. Allowing those newspapers to appear gave the regime some 'positive play,' since it demonstrated that the authorities had "granted" their citizens freedom of speech. This also enhanced the credibility of the 'national'papers. The independent press became a source that was fed, on some level, by the many tributaries of the 'national' press, the context being that the 'nationalist' bent had emerged from newspapers that had once all been independent.


And then along came Akhbar al-Adab 2 which emerged as an independent paper during Mubarak's time, and forged a space in which the establishment could be challenged. But now, in this time of the Muslim Brotherhood, the 'national' papers have been confined to their 'stable' as punishment for their earlier rebellion. While this has not spelt death, it is one chapter among many in the unfolding story... Just as the 'reign' of the Brotherhood is one of many chapters in the Mubarak story, Mubarak's story is one chapter among many of the Brotherhood's. What did the 'independent' papers have to say about that day which the 'national' papers had experienced as the 'sunny continuity of a happy past that had been bestowed by heaven above for thirty years?'


Whereas the Minister of Interior was using the royal 'we' to reassure al-Ahram , saying "we will protect any groups of people who have assembled to express their opinion," al-Shorouq came out with the following headline: "Police Deploys Undercover Agents Among Demonstrators and Shuts Down the Capital." On its inside pages, the newspaper provided details about a 'defensive plan of attack' for the Day of Rage. Those three forthright words, which appeared at the top of the front page, clearly spelt out the paper's stance: it was going to provide whatever information, hope or questions that citizens, demonstrators and activists might need in the fulfilment of their roles. And, indeed, why not, on a day when the headlines read: "[Ministry of] Interior Readying Itself with 3,000 Soldiers and 1,000 Undercover Agents and April 6 [Movement] Responding with 15,000 New Leaflets" or "Day of Rage Opposition Demonstrations Closely Monitored in the Provinces" or "Vigil in Front of Egyptian Embassy in London" and "Salafists Exercising Restraint" not to mention "[leaked] Documents Indicating the Extent of Palestinian Despair"? "The Controversy of the Tunisian Phenomenon and its Echoes" was the focus of the editorial page, as well as of the regional (Arab) pages and of the commentary columns, all of them trying to grapple with the significance of this day.


On a more mundane level, there were also the following: " Minister of Education Strikes a Deal to Abolish a Decree;" "Solidarity Stance by Independent Union;" "Clashes Between Security Forces and Students in Banha;" "Doctors' Strike in Tanta,"etc. This then was our given, the context in which we were operating: corruption and outrage in the domestic sphere, disparagement of our external allies' lack of scrupules, and envy of our neighbor's revolution – all this filled the people with questions the outcome of which would unfold the next day.


That was the tack followed by the independent al-Masry al-Youm , which headlined the direct relationship between what was unfolding that day with the previous day's events, as it reported on demonstrations that had already begun on January 24. "Twelve Demonstrations in Cairo and Provinces Demand Improvements in Jobs, Wages and Benefits" the paper reported. It also pointed to broad international support for this stance and cited Human Rights Watch's criticism of the government's repressive measures against the press, the opposition and demonstrators. The paper didn't pull any punches and it reported the attempted suicide of four people, also carrying the prime minister's rejoinder that "suicide isn't a solution."


I should point out that gloomy headlines were not al-Masry al-Youm 's sole prerogative. Al- Ahram also had its share of bleak headlines, although they were couched in slightly more surreal terms such as: 'Questions of Unemployment Are Government's Pressing Problem; Rash of Suicides due to Personal Problems.' Why link unemployment and suicide in the same headline if your discourse was to deny that they had anything to do with one another? It's clear for anyone with eyes to see that whoever made that editorial decision was completely indifferent to the inconsistency of the paper's narrative. And that was simply because they were indifferent about their readers, ie, the people. That was but one of the many discourses of January 25.


The press tells the whole story, not just with the words it publishes but with those that lie between the lines. What is said and what is left unsaid, what is witheld and what is revealed, all tell the story. That day, al-Shorouq had two headlines which a time traveler from the future could read with a knowing eye in hindsight. The first, just under the paper's banner headline, was the title of a news story: "Brotherhood to Participate in Demonstrations Today after Details of Secret Meeting Leaked to Security." The article went on to allege that after the Brotherhood's ruling council held a secret meeting and details reached security, provincial representatives of the movement were summoned and threatened with arrest and other forms of duress if the Brotherhood participated in the demonstrations.


Was there no mention of the Brotherhood's participation in the Day of Rage demonstrations by 'national' papers, because such articles would have helped stoke the climate of fear? Not only had the regime established relations with its 'enemy', but the degree of brotherly cooperation between them was such that following a few early 'threatening' barbs, accomodation had followed, and a few parliamentary seats were the ultimate result. Now, neither side would acknowledge the existence of the other, their discourses had lost all legitimacy and their co-dependence had increased. The security apparatus was exposed, the regime stone-walled and the 'national' papers went silent. It just didn't happen.


After it had attempted to assassinate him, Nasser had criminalized the Muslim Brotherhood, both in thought and in deed, imprisoning its leaders. When Nasser died, Sadat reconsidered and he loosened the government's stranglehold enough for the movement to start seeking favor with the regime. When Sadat was assassinated, Hosni Mubarak was sitting right beside him. As Khaled al-Islambuli, the movement member who carried out the assassination, ran towards the two men firing at the president's chest, Mubarak was all eyes. In that instant, he knew how he would protect himself from the next assassin's bullet – it was clear that the Brotherhood had not been stamped out by Nasser's outlawing and that Sadat had not been saved by the accomodations he made with them. Mubarak thus carved out a middle road: the movement continued to be banned as a poltical party but its members were given a place in the country's political configuration and allowed room to breathe – a combination of carrot and stick, repression and privileges. As Sadat lay sprawled out on the ground, his body riddled with his 'enemy's' bullets, Mubarak's eyes were filled with the terrifying image of a future that had to be averted at all costs. That is why he could not take in the broader picture in the country and forgot about the ordinary folk of Egypt. On January 25, he relied upon his utter faith in the continuing validity of the paradigm 'Either me, or my enemy.' The paradigm was eternal, in his view, mummified for the ages, and in adhering to it, he forgot that the actors could change. Thus, it is not at all strange that the Egyptian president that follows after Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Husni Mobarak should be an ikhwanji , a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In this sense, the new president is just the flip side of his predecessor – the hidden or shadow vice-president that previous presidents had struggled against and who was now their legitimate successor.


Another headline in al-Shorouq on January 25 pointed to the possibility of an alternative Mubarak ending. Titled "Government to Begin Public Auction of Seized Land," the article reported that tens of thousands of feddans 3 from a grandiose land reclamation project in the desert were going on the auction block. The project had first been mooted in the late 1960s and Mubarak decided that the glory of his name would be associated with it, much like Nasser's was with the High Dam, and Sadat's with the Crossing 4 . In the mid-1990s, tracts of land proximate to Nasser's own glory, in the desert around the High Dam, had been seized, and in an operation dubbed Toshka, these expropriated tracts of land were bought and sold many times over. The project was scuttled by the glaring corruption and abuse of power that was involved, as well as the technical difficulties associated with its implementation.


In January 1996, on the eve of its launch, the inside pages of al-Ahram could not speak highly enough of the Toshka project. Exactly fifteen years later, in January 2011, al-Shorouq reported that the project was going to the auction block and that efforts were being made to 'legalize' various aspects of the grandiose plan which had remained 'ambiguous.'


Perusing the day's papers is a good way to grasp the overall picture.


It is sufficient to place the day in its context and to look back on it with some perspective to realize that 'the facts' are all there: the minister of the interior who tried to reassure his people by telling them that the explosion at the church in Alexandria was the work of a 'foreigner' is now in prison – with an outstanding charge of complicity in the incident; the prime minister, Ahmed Nadheef, who promised 700,000 new jobs annually for out-of-work Egyptians, is also in jail, on charges of corruption, embezzlement and squandering public monies; as for the rest of the players in the headlines of the 'national' papers' – Mubarak and the other men who continued to express outrage about "foreign interference in our internal affairs" after the USA voiced concern for Coptic Christians in the wake of the explosions – they too are on the lam or in jail. And behold the sight of America, applauding and cheering on those who deposed its former ally without the slightest hesitation or compuction now that he was of no value to them anymore.


The title of this essay is "Yesterday's Story." But it is also the title of a song, composed by Riad Sunbati and sung by Umm Kulthum. The lyrics, by Ahmed Fathi, include the following verses:

'I won't come back to you, despite the pleas of my heart,
You're the one who was impatient and distant, and went on to betray my love.
Ask for my heart back today, and the answer will be no.'


Yesterday was love. Yesterday was also the break-up. And today is but one moment in a succession of stories which were born and grew out of another point in time, and which will continue on into other points in time. Will the diva, Umm Kulthum, turn to another beseeching lover? Will she hide from him and all the other would-be lovers like him? Will she look for a secure love that doesn't resemble the previous one and yet remains defined by it?


Or will she choose to love herself a little, before considering another candidate while still on the rebound?


The past doesn't end. And while we tell yesterday's story today, in a sense after the event, all the key elements of today's story are already there – the cause of every effect, the consequence of every action – as any astute observer will see, so long as she is not prone to the pendulum-like swings of excessive hope and despair.


For hope, like despair, it but is a passing emotion in the flood of human life.


The events of our life, whether born in hope or ending in despair, are bound in both emotions. It takes several generations to write a single story, and while the story is about yesterday it is always a portent of tomorrow. Just like the newspapers.

Translated by Maia Tabet


Sahar Mandour was born in 1977 in Beirut to a Lebanese mother and an Egyptian father. She studied psychology at St Joseph University in Lebanon. While studying, she went on to work as a journalist and has been an editor and journalist at Assafir Newspaper since 1998. Her work as a journalist focuses on subjects related to culture, youth issues, human rights and the arts. Mandour is the author of several novels, including 32 (Dar Al Adab Publishers, Beirut, 2010), Hobb Beiruti (A Beiruti Love) (Dar Al Adab Publishers, 2009) and Sa'arsom Najma Aala Jabeen Vienna (I'll Draw a Star On Vienna's Forehead) (La Cedetheque and Dar Al-Shorouq Publishers, 2007).

1 The president of the Palestinian Authority.

2 The weekly supplement, Literature News.

3 1 feddan = 1.038 acres.

4 The crossing of the Israeli fortifications known as the Bar-Lev Line during the October 1973 War.

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Sahar Mandour
Yesterday's Story
Neuere Zeitgeschichte (1945-heute)
PDF document mandour_story_en.doc.pdf — PDF document, 317 KB
S. Mandour, Yesterday's Story
In: Proceedings of the Conference "Inverted Worlds: Cultural Motion in the Arab Region", Beirut, October 4–8 2012, Hg. Syrinx von Hees, Nadia von Maltzahn, Ines Weinrich (Orient Institute Studies, 2)
URL: https://prae.perspectivia.net/publikationen/orient-institut-studies/2-2013/mandour_story_en
Veröffentlicht am: 16.08.2013 10:19
Zugriff vom: 17.09.2019 16:28
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