I Wish I Were in Cairo

February 07, 2011

Multiple Pages
I Wish I Were in Cairo

It is hard for an old hack like me to sit still when a big story is unfolding. Not so long ago, the sound of gunfire almost anywhere on Earth called me off with the rest of the pack to see who was shooting at whom. Now my colleagues are in Cairo watching history at play while I tap away at the keyboard in the lower Alps. I read their copy, listen to their radio bulletins, and watch their television reports. (How do they listen to the stupid questions from their anchors at home without laughing out loud?) I know what a hard time they are having. I don’t mean getting arrested by the Egyptian police, which is the finest tribute a corrupt regime can pay our otherwise discredited profession. What is truly hard is figuring out what is going on, even when you are there—perhaps because you are there.

In Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the leaderless mass expressed hundreds of different opinions to journalists. Most Egyptian demonstrators—Coptic and Muslim, poor and middle class, religious and secular, young and old, men and women—demanded an end to Hosni Mubarak’s illegitimate rule. Most detest his new vice-president, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Beyond that, what do they want? What is their vision for Egypt? When I read my colleagues grappling to answer those questions, I sympathize with them. There are too many voices. The people in the square and other gathering places in Cairo, Alexandria, the Nile Delta, Port Said, and the city of Suez have enunciated no long-term program. No party leadership is articulating the protestors’ goals. The only common theme is rage against Mubarak and all he represents: severe repression, torture, police brutality, corruption on a scale that surpasses the worst Levantine standards, subservience to the United States, collusion with Israel to starve the Gaza Strip’s people, and the impoverishment of a nation-state whose resources were once more evenly shared.

“My view is that the US undermines its pro-democracy rhetoric with its consistent policy of preventing democracy in the dictatorships it underwrites.”

If the reporters there make mistakes, remember that you would, too. It is not easy to stand in a crowd of ten or twenty thousand human beings and decipher their intentions. Looking into a lone individual’s soul—with its complications, divided loyalties, and conflicting motives—is confusing enough. Historians a few generations after these events might succeed.

The New York Times’ Anthony Shadid is doing some of the best reporting in Egypt, as he did in Iraq. He listens to people and disregards embassy propaganda, which is great for his readers if not his editors. The Economist’s Max Rodenbeck, although deprived of a byline (customary with that august publication), is also doing great work. He knows the country well, speaks perfect Arabic, and wrote the excellent Cairo: The City Victorious. His eyewitness reports may in part have inspired the editors to write in the last edition: “If the West cannot back Egypt’s people in their quest to determine their own destiny, then its arguments for democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world stand for nothing.”

My view is that the US undermines its pro-democracy rhetoric with its consistent policy of preventing democracy in the dictatorships it underwrites.

Let us hope that someone within the apparatus will forward US Embassy and CIA cables to WikiLeaks so that we may read what the US has been negotiating with Mubarak, his army chiefs, and his intelligence services to maintain America’s dominant position. At first, Mubarak seemed as expendable as the Shah of Iran or Ferdinand Marcos. Then Obama’s envoy, former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, announced after seeing Mubarak: “The president must stay in office to steer those changes through. I therefore believe that President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical; it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Mubarak, who sponsored Egypt’s last fraudulent election, is as unlikely as Chicago’s Daley family to suddenly become electoral probity’s guardian. Soon after Wisner spoke (or misspoke), Agence France-Presse reported from Munich, where Hillary Clinton was lecturing the world on democracy again: “A member of the US delegation to the security conference in Munich said that Wisner was speaking as a private citizen and not on behalf of the US government.” While it is difficult for journalists to understand what is going on in Tahrir Square, the Obama White House and its State Department’s machinations take us to a new plane of mystification.

Perhaps it’s just as well I’m home in rural France, where I, like Mubarak, am in transition. From the moribund profession of journalist and writer, I am moving to the equally future-free position of publisher. Under the kind aegis of London’s independent house Quartet Books, I am setting up the modestly named Charles Glass Books to produce four or five journalistic volumes a year. Printed books. On paper. Please help the Glass children and grandchildren by buying as many copies as you can afford. My first blockbuster was going to be a brilliant biography of the greatest journalist of his generation, I. F. Stone, American Radical. I’m publishing it in May, but my sudden acquisition of the British rights to Stéphane Hessel’s French bestseller, Indignez-Vous!, means American Radical will be second. I have about ten days left to get it out under the title Time for Outrage! This means multiple hours writing a foreword, revising the English translation, checking the endnotes, commissioning the artist John Springs to draw the cover illustration, and asking the designer Jonathan Pelham to do the cover. My old friend Jacqui Graham, who resigned as chief publicist at Pan Macmillan books after thirty-two years there, is helping with the promotion. Other friends have offered time and advice, for which I am grateful, as I run this operation from the kitchen table. Having complained about publishers since my first book came out in 1989—including proposing that firing squads deal with them all—I am beginning to see things their way.

Still, I wish I were in Cairo.

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