revolt like an egyptian

Q&A With Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera English’s Correspondent in Cairo

Ayman Mohyeldin’s first job in journalism was answering phones and getting coffee for the Today show during 2001’s Summer of the Shark. But after 9/11, Mohyeldin, who was born in Egypt to an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother and later immigrated with his family to Detroit, found his Arabic-language skills and familiarity with the region in high demand. As a correspondent for NBC, CNN, and then Al Jazeera English, he was embedded with U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan and was the only English-language reporter inside Gaza during Israel’s air strikes in 2008. Mohyeldin has been stationed in Cairo since the protests started. He was reporting from the top of Al Jazeera’s building when state police tried to cut off the live feed on January 28. He was handcuffed and blindfolded by the Egytian army when trying to enter Tahrir Square. And he helped announce Mubarak’s ouster on live television just moments ago. At 2 a.m. in Cairo last night, Mohyeldin talked to Intel about what the protesters were looking for from President Obama, the difference between Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic, and why Anderson Cooper getting punched in the head might not be the biggest part of the story.

What was the mood last night after Mubarak’s speech refusing to resign?
It was utter anger and frustration. Complete disappointment. They took off their shoes and started waving it at the screen, which is a very disrespectful gesture here in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt. They were frustrated by the fact that here is a president and vice-president that refused to listen to the will of the people. It was very much a vitriolic hatred toward the president. The vice-president’s speech many people thought was condescending and patronizing.

Do you think it would have made a difference if President Obama had made a clear statement advocating for Mubarak’s resignation?
Yes, absolutely, there’s no doubt that at the end of the day, if it were to come out of the United States administration — either through official or unofficial channels, whether in public or done in private — it would hold a great deal of weight. When you look at the difference between the president of Egypt and the Egyptian military and how the two institutions have responded to American pressure, you get the sense of what I’m talking about.

Here you have the Egyptian military, which receives a great deal of funding, a lot of military hardware from the U.S., and so many senior officers are trained in the United States. When the military found itself in this very difficult position, we heard Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying that the military must choose very carefully what course of action it takes because if it was seen as a military that opens fire on a civilian population, well, that could really dry up the funding it receives. He could see the Egyptian military no longer in a state of prestige and would no longer be able to participate in joint operations with American forces like Operation Bright Sun. It reined in the Egyptian military from being too closely aligned with the regime.

Had something like that happened from the Obama administration, I think you would have seen a much more agreeable response from the president. Right now, we can safely say the Egyptian people, those who are protesting, don’t want Mubarak in office anymore. So President Mubarak must be feeling some kind of support from somewhere. He must be finding some cracks in the response of the international community. We know he has regional allies — Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan — that may be lobbying the U.S. on their behalf. But the fact that the U.S. is still giving him this kind of wiggle room and not forcing him to be clear on what he means by transition and how it will play out — he’s using that to his advantage.

So you think based on his speech, even behind the scenes, the U.S. wasn’t being forceful about his resignation.
Yeah, exactly. The U.S. publicly and privately has not struck the right tone. They use terms like “an orderly transition of power.” Well, Mubarak is saying he has met that threshold. He’ll step down in September, he’s begun a constitutional reform process, he’s begun a dialogue with several other parties. Had the U.S. said, “No, we envision you stepping down, handing over power to a counsel of civilian, military, and judicial leaders, then you’ll find the crisis coming to the forefront.” No doubt about it, Mubarak depends on the U.S. and Europe’s financial support. And more importantly, political and diplomatic credibility.

But the U.S. helped prop up Mubarak. How do the protesters feel about us interceding now?
The reality is that the U.S. government has armed, financed, and essentially bankrolled this authoritarian regime. The result has been a regime that felt very much in control and by many people’s assessment, usurped his power, curbed civil and human rights, and in exchange the U.S. was given a partner that promoted stability and was a close ally in the so-called War on Terror and was involved in the U.S. rendition program through the CIA. So you can understand why there’s a great deal of skepticism toward the U.S.’s reluctance to come out and promote values of human rights and democracy. The Egyptian people don’t understand why they don’t support that wholeheartedly as much as they supported this regime for 30 years. That disconnect is very, very apparent to every ordinary Egyptian citizen — not just the elite or the intellectuals.

Whether or not the protesters agree with past historical policies, the United States now has a very important responsibility. It can distance itself from its past actions by embracing this popular movement that’s based on values and ideals. So far, it’s been doing it very slowly, very reluctantly, and once again it’s not yet ready to compromise the issue of so-called stability, as Mubarak was saying. It was exactly what Condoleezza Rice said when she was in Egypt during the Iraq War. For nearly six years, the U.S. pursued a policy of stability over democracy.

What was your experience being detained?
I was on my way into Liberation Square when a military officer spotted me. I showed him my ID, but he wasn’t satisfied with my desire to report. So he escorted me to a holding cell where the Egyptian military has their operational command. I was interrogated, I was blindfolded, I had my hands tied behind my back. I was forced to sit on the pavement along with other detainees. We waited until we were interrogated, and we were told we were going to be transferred to military intelligence. All of it happened over the course of nine hours, during which I witnessed serious violations of human rights. I saw the military soldiers punching and beating and dragging, and whipping, actually, to try to subdue them and keep them under their control. I saw an Egyptian solider who had a taser gun. He was igniting the taser gun into the face of the people to try to intimidate them. It was a bit of a horrifying ordeal. But I can assure you it pales in comparison to what many of the other protesters have gone through in the past couple weeks.

Were the other detainees protesters or press or both?
Both. There was a cameraman who was with me. I believe there was a reporter for the New York Times; he was quickly released. They didn’t blindfold him or anything. Ironically, perhaps because of my Egyptian background, they prolonged my detention. They also prolonged the detention of a Reuters cameraman who too was of Arab descent. All the detainees who were with me who were seriously roughed up or frightened up or scared or threatened with electrocution are people who may have been caught up in the protest unjustly — people who may have lost their IDs at the time, but then came across these neighborhood-watch committees and were turned over to the military.

So this was the military, this wasn’t the police force or Mubarak’s “thugs”?
When I was detained it was exclusively the military. These were individuals dressed in military clothes and fatigues. There were interrogators who were dressed in plainclothes, but the actual people who were running the show were the Egyptian military and the military police. They were the ones behind the violence toward a lot of detainees.

What’s the difference between Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic?
We’re speaking to two very different audiences. Al Jazeera English speaks to the international English-speaking audience. Al Jazeera Arabic speaks to the Arab world. The perspectives are very different because the viewers are very different. Viewers who know Egypt’s history and know a lot of the key players in the region and know the narrative of the event are going to be much more aware of the most nuanced pieces of information. Whereas for English-language viewers who might not know a lot about Egypt’s politics, you have to put it in a proper context with the mindset that you’re speaking to people from India to Indonesia to China to the United States.

Do you have separate editorial hierarchies?
We have two entirely independent editorial staffs. When I report, I report to my bosses and my editors in Doha. There’s a great amount of synergy and cooperation, and we share resources and information, though we don’t take our editorial guidelines from Al Jazeera Arabic and they don’t take theirs from Al Jazeera English. At the end of the day, we don’t share the same editorial policies. What we do share is the editorial code of ethics and the same editorial vision as the network.

Sentiment in the U.S. is that Al Jazeera English’s connection to Al Jazeera Arabic is what held it back from me being able to watch you on cable. Al Jazeera English seems to be having its moment with the amazingly comprehensive coverage of the crisis. Do you think your coverage of Egypt will change apprehension toward Al Jazeera Arabic?
We’re definitely hampered in the U.S. by the negative stereotype that U.S. companies have toward Al Jazeera Arabic, which is really unfortunate because when you look at Al Jazeera English, it’s hosted some of the most senior American officials. We’ve interviewed the secretary of State and members of Congress and secretary of Defense. It’s really a misrepresentation of the facts that sometimes skews people’s attitudes. Anyone who works at Al Jazeera English is convinced that if you watch Al Jazeera English, and if you watch and understand Al Jazeera Arabic, you will be convinced that the journalism is professional, that the quality of work is very high. The only problem is that very few people in the United States understand Al Jazeera Arabic. They buy into a lot of the innuendos. Once they have that sense of fear, they use that brush to point Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English with it.

You worked at NBC and CNN before transferring to Al Jazeera. Did you have any of those perceptions about the network?
Absolutely not. Al Jazeera Arabic has been around since 1996. I actually grew up in the United States when I was in high school intrigued to hear about this channel that had just started. It took a couple years before Al Jazeera Arabic made its way on to the U.S. system, at least satellite system. As the son of immigrant parents who were still very much connected to the Middle East and were craving the latest information, which was so difficult to get on American networks, Al Jazeera Arabic became a regular staple of my household in high school and college. So I was very familiar with what the channel stood for and I had no ethical or editorial qualms about joining the network.

Do you think Al Jazeera’s role in Egypt will be enough to finally get the station on American cable?
Al Jazeera English also covered the Israeli War in Gaza in 2008 and 2009. That was also being hailed as a defining moment for the station. People were saying the same things they are now; they compared it to CNN’s Gulf War moment. What was so unique about 2008 was that we were truly the only international language channel. Me and my colleague were the only two foreign correspondents based in the Gaza strip. So we had the scoop on everyone. What’s different about this one is that once again, Al Jazeera has shined above other networks, but we were competing against them. So we didn’t have the exclusivity, but we were able to show that even when you fly in the big names from America — the Anderson Coopers and the Katie Courics and the Christiane Amanpours — it was still the Al Jazeera reporters on the ground, who probably don’t have the same star power and name recognition, that were able to break news. So we can compete with American networks and transcend the limitations imposed on it.

For a day or so, the story in the U.S. became “our anchors are getting attacked.” Did you think it was ridiculous?
Without sounding disrespectful, it’s really a sad state of affairs when a big part of a news show’s coverage revolves around the anchor being punched ten times in the head, in the case of Anderson Cooper. In the case of Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour that they were jostled around by protesters. Listen, I’m not trying to take anything away from that. Those are very scary moments and we know that journalists have been harassed, but it’s really how you deal with the story that reflects the importance of it. This is a dangerous environment. The journalists are not supposed to be part of the story. Sometimes the tendency for these big personalities when they arrive in this country is to think that the story revolves around how they’re seeing the story rather than actual events that happened. But please don’t take my words out of context. I’m not trying to take any shots at these personalities. But it’s a slight disservice to the story when it becomes more about the journalist more than the actual people who are doing much worse.

You’ve been covering this for weeks. You’re in Tahrir Square. Is it hard not to feel like a protester yourself?
No, I don’t see myself as a protester by any means of the word. I see myself as a protester not for Egypt, but for freedom of speech and of expression, and the freedom of the media. Insofar as that I share that value, then I can be described that way. They have other demands. They want better wages, they want President Mubarak to step down, they want constitutional reforms. That does not impact me. But would my interests be advanced in an environment where there was more pluralism? Absolutely. So there can be convergence of interests. But I’m not seeing myself as the same as the people in Liberation Square.

Does it feel like covering a war?
It has similar elements of danger and unpredictability. But it doesn’t have the same sense of random violence that you would find in Iraq or Gaza. I’m not worried that when I go down the street to the supermarket, like in Iraq, that if a suicide bomber blows himself up I could be dead. Or if I had to go down the street in Gaza and an Israeli air strike happened.

What was the significance of Commiqué 1 from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [to whom Mubarak handed over his power]?
The Supreme Council convenes very rarely. It’s the most senior joint council of all the heads of the military branches and military services. In essence it would be equivalent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States. Now, obviously the president, who is the commander in chief, would be expected to attended that meeting. But he didn’t. He wasn’t seen in the video that was released. That in and of itself raises a lot of questions about the military and what was taking place behind closed doors.

Q&A With Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera English’s Correspondent in Cairo