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Robert Fisk: “You can learn more from a joke in Shubra than from an interview with the president”
Published in Bikya Masr on 03 - 01 - 2012

CAIRO: One of the leading media personalities in the region, Robert Fisk has created much controversy in recent months with an interview on Syrian national television. The man famed for his work in Lebanon has also been following the Egyptian political scene since the uprising last January and sat down with Aly Shaban el-Sotohy to talk all things Egypt.
How was your last trip to Egypt? Who do you meet?
I was here in August. I must have been to Egypt about 100 times in my life. During that time, I met just about everybody you know. I met Mubarak briefly. I met Sadat once. During the revolution, then, of course, I was speaking to everybody: Baradei, Ayman Nour, you know, all the usual suspects. Amr Mousa, I've met.
I'm not interested particularly in individual figures. I think that you can learn more from a joke in Shubra than from an interview with the president. I was once interviewing a president in the Arab world, I will not say which one, and all he did was repeat speeches. Whenever I delivered a direct question, he would continue his speech. So after one hour, it was so boring that I looked at my watch and I said, “Mr President, you must have more things to do than talk to me,” and thanks be to God, he said, “Yes.”
Before coming to Egypt, did you discuss Egypt with anybody? Is it an important topic for you?
You keep looking at the Egyptian thing. You see, I've just been in Syria, which is rather more dramatic than Egypt at the moment. So my mind has been very much on Syria, and I live in Beirut which is close to Syria. And I was in Damascus where my question was not about Egypt. My question to all the officials was, “Did you see the picture of Gaddafi, and what did you think when you saw it?” And it was very interesting because, outside the Middle East, people think that it must fill Syrians with terror to see Gaddafi's picture. It didn't. They all said the same thing: “We're very sorry to see it, because now the West will say, look how the Muslims behave.” That was the Syrian reaction, that the West would use this against Arabs. It was not fear. Very interesting.
After Damascus, I was in Istanbul because the Turkish edition of my book, which contains a big chapter on the Armenian genocide, and it's called a “genocide” in Turkish, came out, so I did 23 interviews and press conferences in Istanbul, but many people asked questions about Egypt. This is why I came in August. I was exploring the degree in which trade unions had been involved in the revolution, because it's very interesting. In Tunisia, despite Ben Ali, you have successful trade unions. In Egypt, despite Mubarak, you have trade unions. In Libya, you have no trade unions. In Syria, they're part of the Baath party. In Bahrain, forget it. In Yemen, it doesn't really exist. Where you have strong trade unions, your revolution has not been so bloody. Where you have no trade unions, there has been much more bloodshed.
When I was hear in August, I went to Mahallah. They had a little revolution in 2006. They had a tent city, and they called everyone on Facebook and mobiles from the countryside. And they had a strike at the cotton factory, and they drove the ‘baltagiyyah' out of Mahalla. It was a dry run, a trial run.
All the tactics of this revolution were used in Mahallah. In 2009, they tried again, but people were too frightened, they didn't come. When I look back now, I think the final nail for Mubarak was the strike. The railway stopped, the schools stopped, the universities stopped, and Mahallah people came to Tahrir. I didn't realize then the importance of the Mahallah people coming.
I went there and I met the women who were also in the revolution, who came out in the women's section because they were seperated, and they went on strike in 2006 and they were using the phones. So it was both sexes, men and women, and it was every part of the big revolution here that started in Mahallah, in 2006. And they recalled it for me. I went to meet some people in Mahalla.
What is the strongest image you have from the elections?
How huge the queues were. I walked half a mile in Shubra from one end to the other. In Europe, when you have elections, you don't get that many people. I said in my story today, they put European elections to shame. The other thing was that, however flawed the constitution may be, despite the dangers of continued military rule, Egyptians in their millions wanted to show that this country belongs to them, not to the elite. Because, you see, all the dictators, all of them, I don't know why, believe that the countries are their personal property, that they have property rights, [that] they have a document that says, “I own Egypt.”
I've been asking myself since January, How do dictatorships work? How do they work? What is the system? I think that one of the first things that a dictator does is that he has to infantilise people. You remember, even in his last speech, when people thought he was going to resign, Muburak said “my children.” What happens is, the children, they're ok if they obey the headmaster, and they are given fake ministers, fake governments, fake elections, fake newspapers. If they disobey or they get angry, they will be sent to the police station where they will not be children again.
But what happens here is, I think, three things: Education improved, not as much as it should but it improved … I was very surprised, I gave a lecture at the University of Cairo a few years ago and the students were much much smarter and brighter than they used to be – especially the female students. So, better education, of course, technology, Facebook, Twitter, which the dictator did not understand. For example, the first thing in the revolution, they put tanks around the TV stations. This is what the dictator does in 1961 not in 2011! No one watched Egyptian television! And the third thing is Egyptians have travelled. When I first came here in 1976, most Egyptians had never been outside Egypt. Now they have been to Jordan, they've been to Lebanon, they've been to Europe, they've been to America. So when all these three things came together, the children grew up only to discover that the government was made up of children, one of whom was 83 years old!
After the revolution, I went to see my old friend whom I greatly admire, Mohammad Hussain Haikel. He's the most energetic journalist. He's 87 and he plays golf. And my wife said to me – my wife was with me, “When you are 87, you must be like Muhammad Hussain Haikel.” And I said to him, “How does a dictator become a dictator?” And he said, “When he bocomes a dictator – these are his words – he moves into a sea of quietness.”
What about Tahrir Square now?
[Sighs ] Why is it called Midan al-Tahrir? Because during the British period, when the hotel was the British barracks – I mean before – and the building was the foreign ministry of King Farouk, opposite the Arab League, the area of what is Tahrir Square was called something different. At that period, this was the one area of Egypt in which no Egyptian was allowed to walk. So when in January the people went toTahrir, they were re-enacting the liberation of their country, because this was the area where the British prevented any Egyptian from going, just like the police and Baltagiyya tried to prevent the people. They were playing the English role, you see.
When I first came here in 1976, I was very sick in Cairo. I was very ill, I was vomitting. I was staying at the Hilton. Now it's called something else … The Ritz … It was the only luxury hotel in Cairo, and I was still ill. Now it's much better. It was mid-summer, August, in 1976, and I walked out of the hotel and I lay down – There was a bus station in Tahrir Square – and I lay down on a concrete bench, and I was sick again, I felt so awful. And I said, “I am going to leave. I am not going to stay in the Middle East. I am not going to be the correspondent here. I am going to go home.” And for some reason, I decided I'd stay and go the Beirut and come to Cairo, and who would have believed that, 35 years later, on this place of my total dispair, we would see the revolution? The very same spot!
And now the name Tahrir is known throughout the world. They don't know what it means, but they know it. But for me it means memories form the different buildings. You know, on the corner of the square, next to the statue of the police officer who was killed in the war 1967, there is an old building, a French-type building, and I wrote a story from the roof watching them down below fighting. I called it the house on the corner. And no one could tell me who owned this house. On the walls, there were the ruins of silk wallpaper, the stairs were made of marble. There were stairs missing, but they were marble. It was obviously a beautiful rich house in the 19th century.
I kept referring to this building. In my mind, I thought, this building would have seen leading people through the streets. But still I couldn't find anyone who knew who owned it. In August, I went back to the house. Now it is all locked up. It still is now. And I found down the street an old bawaab with no teeth, maybe one tooth. And said who owns the house. He said, a Christian. And he gave me his name. I'm going to try and find the family. But he died and went to ‘janna' where he is sleeping now. And I thought, this could have been Charles Dickens wroting this: “where he is sleeping now.” So in August, in my weekly column, I said I have found the name of the man who owned the house of the corner.
So all these places, the metro station that closed, Sadat, the travel agents that never opened and had the medical thing outside, the sight of women breaking up stones so the men could throw them back at the police.
I came down Giza during the revolution and I wanted to go to the square. On the bridge, not the ones with the lions on it, the one further up [6th of October], I saw the crowds outside the TV station, all holding Mubarak pictures. I call them Mubarakites. I called the people in Tahrir the anti-Mubarakites. There were thousands and thousands. This was on the day of the camels, but I didn't know that then, this was before the camels. I wanted to go into the square, And one of my colleagues said, “You should keep away from these people. These people are against the press.” But I don't have press written on me, and I put my notebook in my pocket, and I was just a foreigner with grey hair. So I went down right to the front of them where all the stones were coming from the anti-Mubarakites. And suddenly, the Mubarak people started surging into the square. And I saw the camel forces went right by me. I said this is insane, this is madness. But I said to myself, Robert, if you want to go to Tahrir, go with them! They're going! Just behind their frontline wth the Baltagis. I saw the horseriders being pulled off their horses. But this time, I was half way into Tahrir. And I suddenly thought the Mubarakites are going to lose, they're pulling back. And I saw an electric junction box by the road. And I got down behind the junction box like this. I do not wear flak jackets and helmets and everything. It's just me, I'm normal. And the stones from the Mubarakites and the stones from the anti-Mubarakites were crashing onto the top of the electric box, and I was doing this. And I said, if I can just stay here long enough, the Mubarakites will go back, and I'll be in the square. And sure enough they did. They went straight past me, they drove the Mubarakites out, and I was in Tahrir Square with the protesters. This was an unusual way of reaching Tahrir square but it worked!
But now, this is a shadow of these events that happened. Then there was a feeling that those who had died, the martyrs, call them what you like, that they had died for a purpose. Is that the same feeling about the 41 who have died now? I don't know, I'm not so sure – whatever you think of the Freedom and Justice Party.
Before the revolution, the FJP and Tantawi were talking. And I saw them on television. I said, “These rather fun bearded men, I did not see them on Tahrir Square.” So even before the revolution ended, other people were arriving to eat the fruits of the revolution. “Can I have another piece of pineapple? Thank you very much…” But it seemed to me then that there followed a kind of conspiracy of old men. Everyone in the square was in their twenties. Everyone that Egypt was been given to was in there seventies.
What is this privilege that age gives people? Why must people want power when they are dying? Mubarak is 83, he goes on till the end. King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, even the Crown Prince, they're all old men! Hafez al-Assad went on till the end, till he died in his seat. What is this? Many of the politicians in Lebanon are in their seventies and eighties! What is this? If they don't get assassinated! It's what we call the family system, the zu'ama, the za'eem. You've all got zu'ama, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt…Is this becuse the Arab world is patriarchal? Why is it that they keep wanting to appoint their sons? Jamal, Seif al-Islam, Bashar…
I've put this to many people in Egypt, in Lebanon, and in Syria. And the answer is always the same. Every man thinks his son is the best man after him! Therefore he's the best man to lead the country! And so my son will be the next caliph. We had a caliphate in Syria, we almost had a caliphate in Egypt, we almost had a caliphate in Lybia, you had a huge caliphate in Saudi Arabia, and in Bahrain… All the Gulf. Many caliphates! All of whom are going to be rubbing shoulders with the next caliphate.
Osama bin Laden talked to me about the Treaty of Sevres, with Haram! Haram! the end of Andalusia and then the end of the Ottoman caliphate. But I said, “No, no, you are wrong, there are many caliphates and you are announcing that you're going to destroy them!” And in the end he did not destroy the caliphates, the people did! In Lybia, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Syria, I have not seen one picture of al-Qaeda or bin Laden, never! And what do the Americans say, “Oh we're worried about Islamists!” I have an American friend who came to see me in Beirut in my home. He was worried about Islamists. What is this? This is the Muslim world! They are Muslims here! What do you want them to do? Convert to consumerism? I said, “Look, in Italy and Germany, you have the Christian Democrats in power but we don't think they're going to start the 13th crusade!”
In Egypt, they say that there are two million in the square. Are they truly representative of the 83 million in their houses?
Two milion is a lot of people! It's not 2,000 people. Also in Alexandria and Ismailyya. At the time of the actual revolution, January 25 to February 11, there were little revolutions all over Egypt. And they weren't holding trade union flags, they weren't holding city flags, they were holding the Egyptian flag! Seventy – eighty million can't have come to Cairo. But now the question today is, Do the people in Tahrir represent Egypt? That is a much more important question. Revolutions are a very messy business. Not dirty, messy.
Is the SCAF protecting the revolution?
[In French] Up to a point. [In English] If you don't have the army, you may have the baltaguiyya back. But Tantawi, every morning he wakes up, there is one thing he must say to himself, and perhaps he does: “I was not elected, I was not elected, I was not elected.”
When do you feel that Egypt will be on the right path?
I will be dead of old age by then. You may be dead of old age. Revolutions don't take place in twenty days. Revolutions last for 50, 60 years. When did the Soviet revolution end? 1990. When did the French Revolution end? With Napoleon? No, the French Revolution continues now! They're still calling the revolutionary colours red, white and blue. And now you have another Napoleon. [In French] You have a Napoleon called Sarkozy. You must read the Canard Enchaine to properly understand this idea. [In English] You need a Canard Enchaine in Cairo! You need a satirical newspaper that publishes truth but has very good jokes.
ShortURL: http://goo.gl/5rmnV
Tags: Interview, Robert Fisk, SCAF
Section: Egypt, Latest News

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