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Letter from Europe / Western Media & the Arab Spring

New York Times Photo Essay:

Utterly naive and lethally irresponsible Western press coverage played a devastating role in the fate of the Arab Spring. It encouraged everyone (including the protesters) to believe that a new age was dawning and nothing could stop it.

There had been a major shift in foreign correspondent generations just before the confrontation with Mubarak got underway. Oldsters like me, with decades of experience in the Middle East, went out, and in came the twenty-somethings with their Facebook and Twitter accounts, iPads and iPhones. The middle class youngsters in Tahrir Square were their age, spoke perfect English and often French or Italian, dressed just like them, and lived in the same virtual world. But what the veterans understood, and worried about, is that neither the kids in the square nor the young journalists -- who quickly bonded with them -- lived in the real Egypt. Half the population nationwide is illiterate, and outside of Cairo and Alexandria the figure is probably close to two-thirds. The real Egypt is a nation of fedayeen, small farmers in the Nile Delta and the south beyond Luxor, where life has barely changed in a millennium. More than 90 percent of its women have experienced genital mutilation. The only institutions that have any credibility among the fedayeen are the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt, and the army, which is the only route out of the village for rural boys.

It's sobering to look back at the coverage of the Arab Spring. Even in the most authoritative Western newspapers -- the NY Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Corriere della Sera, La Vanguardia -- almost no reporting was sourced in Upper Egypt or the Nile Delta. It was all about those middle-class kids in Tahrir Square, who were without a doubt courageous and inspiring.

But they were an exceedingly thin slice of Egyptian society, and they never had a chance. Within days of Mubarak's fall, they were shoved aside in a battle for supremacy between the Muslim Brothers (who won the first round) and the army, which eventually assumed dictatorial power by brutal force. Some of the kids died on the margins of that battle. Most of the rest are now living in impoverished and demoralized exile in America or Europe.

That's the backdrop to Amr Alfiqy's sad and powerful images of exile in the Times photo essay linked to above. As is so often the case, the West's tendency to believe what it wanted to believe, and act accordingly, has left broken lives and shattered ideals in its wake.

Frank Viviano © 2016

Frank Viviano is a Sicilian-American journalist and foreign correspondent.

Art / Dan Hubig © 2016


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