Al Jazeera's Abderrahim Foukara

Feb 04, 2011

Al Jazeera Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara will be online at 11 a.m. ET on Friday, February 4 to discuss the protests in Egypt, the detention of journalists and what Americans don't get about the conflict.

This is Abderrahim Foukara and we will be chatting about Egypt.

What do you think your coverage of Egypt means for AJE's prospects for widescale broadcast in the US, which has eluded the network?

What's going on in Egypt is very important not just to Egypt and the Middle East, but is also of enormous consequence to the future of United States influence in that part of the world. For Americans not to be aware of the various complexities of the current situation in Egypt as it has been reflected in the coverage of Al Jazeera, would be a big opportunity missed by Americans to be informed about Egypt and to make the right decisions about it. So the hope is that Al Jazeera's coverage of the current events in Egypt will lead many Americans to take a closer look at Al Jazeera's presence in the United States and to think about how they want to deal with the fact that it's not currently available on a wide scale on cable in this country.

What are some of the main points that Americans are not being told or are getting the wrong impression about the conflicts in Egypt?

One thing that people should know is that Egyptians have traditionally been the center of gravity in the Arab and Muslim world and anything that happens in Egypt will affect inevitably how things shape up in that part of the world. If this turns out to be about democracy, as many, many Egyptians are saying it is, then obviously it can only be good for the future relations between that part of the world and the United States and therefore it is a turn towards finding a solid, common ground with Americans, rather than a threat to the interests of the United States in that part of the world. The current events in Egypt, although they are now in one way or another influenced by political movements, including some religious ones, were started by young people, and young people who are not demonstrating with some anti-Western or anti-U.S. slogans. On the contrary, they are demonstrating for freedom and democracy.

How do you cover a place like Egypt where corruption is so obvious? For example, that the 'pro-Mubarak' demonstrators are paid by the government to participate in 'elections' where he is 're-elected' with 90% of the vote every time. How do you frame known falsehoods like that? You can't just say "everybody knows this isn't true," or can you?

Corruption is crucial in what's happening in both Egypt and Tunisia, because Tunisia was the spark that started all of this. And corruption here is not an economic phenomenon, it is a political phenomenon. In both countries, what we have seen in recent decades is a move by their governments to liberalize the economy. As they have liberalized the economy and created a private sector, the concomittant result of that is widespread corruption by the ruling classes and a lot of Egyptians and Tunisians accept that liberalizing the economy may hold great economic promise, but because the issue of corruption was left unchecked, liberalizing the economy in this environment has created corruption and corruption has left hundreds of thousands of young people unemployed and without future prospects. That's what started the problems in Tunisia when that young man set fire to himself. So whatever government appears in both Tunisia and Egypt, will be mindful of corruption and its political consequences.

This is something that we haven't seen a lot on American television, but we have seen a lot on Arab television. We've had a lot of people saying these young people are unhappy about unemployment. The issue of government and elite corruption, who basically reap the benefits of a liberalized economy and do not help create jobs and improve their social conditions, that's what our coverage has focused on.

Good morning, Mr. Foukara. A question about the Muslim Brotherhood. As I recall a professor from maybe Switzerland, who was a member of this group, was hired by Notre Dame a few years back and the Bush administration refused him a visa. That would suggest an atitude of mindless, knee-jerk fear toward the group, even in the form of a single professor. What is the Obama admninstration's attitude to them? Wouldn't they represent , even if they came to power, a sensible Islamist approach to running things--more like Turkey than the Taliban? Thanks

For 30 years, Mubarak's government has been saying that if they opened up the political game in Egypt, then the main beneficiary would be the Muslim Brotherhood, which would threaten not just the interests of Egypt, but the interests of the United States in the Middle East. The fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is shared by many people inside of Egypt in the wider Arab world, and obviously in the West, including in the United States. What we have seen in Egypt over the past two weeks is what many Egyptians describe as a revolution, led not by the Muslim Brotherhood, but initially by disaffected young Egyptians who want better living conditions, but they also want democracy. Although religious parties have now become part of that wave in ways that we cannot always calculate with exact precision, there are indicators that tell us that the people who may be calling the shots in a future government in Egypt will be, in addition to the religious parties, many other movements of different affiliations, some of them secular, but also the role of the Army will be very important, whatever happens inEgypt, and that raises the comparison with either Pakistan or Turkey. Obviously, many Egyptians are hoping that the example of Turkey will prevail, because that has allowed a religious party not just to rule, but to modernize Turkey and to make it a regional power that works in tandem with the Europeans, Americans and others, even as it satisfies the political and economic aspirations of its own people in Turkey.

With the possibility of a drastic change in the power equation in Egypt that will be more connected to the sentiments on Arab Street and the rest of the Arab world, do you envisage a shift in how Egypt and in particular the United States and Israel handle and treat the Palestine question?

The current events in Egypt obviously raise questions about the future of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. This peace  treaty has been crucial to the relationship between Egypt and Israel on the one hand and Egypt and the U.S. on the other. Because the Egyptian army is expected to continue to play a very important role in Egyptian political life, there's little chance that it would want to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, because it would have very little to gain from it, which would put it back in conflict with Israel -- a conflict that neither the Egyptian army nor Israel can afford. Where the change may happen with regard to Israel, is in the nature of the Egyptian meidation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A new government in Egypt may want to recover the mantle of what many Arabs see as Palestine-related nationalist sentiment. Therefore, it may not in the future lean on the Palestinians whether in the West Bank or in Gaza in the same way that many Egyptians and Arabs feel that the current government of Mubarak has done in that mediation.

Mr. Foukara in you opinion why has Egypt been so successful at forcing president Mubarak to step down whereas Iranians have struggled?

Up until this particular point in time, Mubarak hasn't stepped down yet, but while there are some similarities, there are obviously some fundamental differences between Egypt and Iran. One similarity is that both the protestors in Iran two years ago and in Egypt now are young people who are looking for more openness in their societies and better prospects in their lives and for a higher level of political participation in political life. The difference is that in Egypt the eyes of many Egyptians even as they have been feeling their way through their economic and political problems with the current government in Egypt over the last 30 years, they have suddently seen the wall of fear in Tunisia collapse. That provided inspiration. Now, although many people in the Arab world feel that the days of pan-Arab nationalism as official government policy are over, after for example the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam's regime, one thing has not changed, and that is that the spirit of belonging to the same culture -- Arab culture -- has certainly made it easier for Egyptians to identify with what happened in Tunisia, overcome their fear and take to the streets. The government in Iran seemed to have been better prepared to suppress the movement of young people two years ago, but also the level of participation in the demonstrations in Egypt is far wider and deeper than we ever saw in Iran two years ago.

How do you plan to cover events where you know your journalists will be harassed? How do you plan in advance to deal with cameras being broken, cards/tape confiscated, feeds offline? How do you get around attempts to sabotage your coverage?

One aspect of journalism that news organizations seem to be investing more and more in, financially, but also in terms of expertise, is how to cover zones of conflict. There are now firms that provide training to journalists to show them how to cope in a zone of conflict. What we have seen in Egypt, especially in the last 24 hours, has obviously been a major challenge to that investment. Because of the range of harrassment, intimidation and assault, nonetheless there are enough journalists who are obviously so committed to covering this extremely important story in Egypt, that in one way or another news organizations, including Al Jazeera continue to find creative ways to bring coverage to their viewers. When you are banned from reporting in a country and your accreditation is withdrawn, it helps if you have a network of contacts inside that country because that helps you, even as you're not able to bring your reporters on air, it allows you to continue to talk to those contacts and to continue to gather news in various ways. Nowadays with Facebook and Twitter, other means in which news organizations are also investing, Al Jazeera for example has been able to use those as a way to go around the ban in Egypt in order to continue to cover the story. There is another important type of investment, which Al Jazeera has made, and that is trust and credibility in that part of the world. People have come and continue to come to Al Jazeera because it brings them the news they need to know. There are obviuosly some people in the region and elsewhere who are extremely unhappy with our coverage and are describing it as full of incitement. But that criticism, especially when it comes from autocratic governments in the region, only helps consolidate the trust and credibility of a news network.

How has the Obama Administration's flip-flop (first two days of the revolt supporting Mubarek) been received by the Egyptian revolutionaries? Do they see the American people supporting them on Facebook (Virtual march of Millions) and recognize the difference between government and governed?

There are obviously two different clocks here -- there's a clock in Washington and a clock in the Middle East. When Tunisians were getting ready to topple their own president, the U.S. Secretary of State, just a few days before he was toppled, seemed to have had her finger on the pulse of the region. She issued a stern warning to leaders in the Middle East that they have to change with the times and offer their young people better prospects, economically and politically. However, she did say that the U.S. does not take sides and while viewed from Washington it is understandable why she said that, in the Middle East she sounded like she was siding with the president of Tunisia at that time. Similarly, in Egypt, when the Obama administration initially said that it supported the protestors, but only went so far as to urge Mubarak's government to introduce reforms, again, that was viewed as the Obama administration siding with the government of Mubarak. It has now taken several days for the Obama administration to take a less nuanced stand towards the events in Egypt with the President saying that changes should happen now. The U.S. has always played a very important role in the politics of various countries in the Middle East. However, the way it deals with the current events in Egypt will have a long term impact on its ability to wield influence in that part of the world. The feeling in the Middle East is it is not too late for the U.S. to come out clearly on the side of the values that many Americans themselves espouse here at home in the U.S. and while it has strategic interests to preserve in the Middle East, supporting those same values that Americans espouse in the Middle East will, in the long term, probably help U.S. strategic interests more than harm them.

I wish I could answer more questions, but I have to run. I want to say this is the first time I've done this and it's a real privilege to be able to chat with the readers of The Washington Post.

In This Chat
Abderrahim Foukara
Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera.
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