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Egypt: 'A Very Divided Nation Right Now'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we want to focus on events in Egypt, which as you probably know, has seen some of the region's most dramatic change since the beginning of the Arab Spring when longtime President Hosni Mubarak agreed to relinquish power.

Since then, though, the turmoil has only continued. The country's first elected president is now on trial facing multiple charges, and members of the news media who've been trying to report on all these issues have come under attack. We wanted to hear more about all this, so we've called NPR Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel. And she's with us now. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Leila, let's start with the most recent developments. Egypt's chief prosecutor has referred 20 people, including a handful of journalists working for the news organization Al Jazeera, for criminal charges. What exactly are they accused of, and why has this issue gotten so much attention both in Egypt and outside of the country?

FADEL: Well, it's not clear that all 20 are journalists. But what is clear is that they're going after Al Jazeera, the Qatari-funded network. They have five Al Jazeera journalists in jail. They're all being referred to court. And they're being accused of basically being terrorists because - and based on the charges that we saw, it's because they were doing their job, their job to speak to all sides, as we all do. The reason it's getting so much attention is because it's bringing to the limelight that there are such limits now on freedom of expression.

The window of dissent is completely closing, and so human rights activists, critics, journalists are all concerned about whether they can criticize or whether they can report accurately without dealing with ramifications. Here in Egypt right now, the local press - most of the local press really is partisan on one narrative line that the government is facing a real threat - a terrorist threat. And so when critical articles or when critical journalism happens, there's huge outcry against it.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, are the members of the journalistic community have any sense of why this particular network has been targeted?

FADEL: Well, Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar, a wealthy Gulf nation that had been supportive of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. And so there is a beef between the Egyptian government and the Qataris. And so these people that are going on trial may be just the scapegoats of that beef between them. But it's also a chilling warning to the rest of the journalists who've all been criticized by this government for being unfair, for reporting unfairly because we cover issues of human rights and freedom of expression. So it's quite a reminder that now there are very severe limits on what can and cannot be said here.

MARTIN: What are the charges against them? I understand that one of the charges is reporting false news and cast - something along the lines of casting Egypt in a bad light.

FADEL: Right, so...

MARTIN: Do I have the right?

FADEL: Yeah, that's right. So that charge, that they were reporting false news, which would destroy Egypt's image abroad, but also a much more serious charge is that they were running a terrorist cell out of the Marriott Hotel in a swank neighborhood of Cairo. And this is supposedly being run by the Canadian-Egyptian senior producer at Al Jazeera English, a guy that everybody describes as a fun-loving guy, formerly of CNN, an award-winning author and the furthest thing, really, from an Islamist, his family says. So it's quite shocking for them and really upsetting. And people are saying, you know, they're being made an example out of, and it's a warning to anyone else.

You know, for Al Jazeera in particular, there's been severe accusations that they've been biased, and maybe they have. But the question now is that, is there any free speech in Egypt? Is it OK to be biased when we're seeing on local television here people going on television and cooking up all kinds of conspiracy theories, including one in which a person advocated the slaughtering of Americans because they say that Obama was, you know, possibly plotting an assassination of Sisi. So it's a really dangerous time for journalists here.

MARTIN: Let's talk about what's going on with former President Mohamed Morsi. For those who may not remember, he is on trial. But his trial has been adjourned until next month. I just want to play a short clip of some of the courtroom drama. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1: (Speaking foreign language) (Yelling).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: (Speaking foreign language) (Yelling).

MARTIN: Can you translate for us, what's happening there?

FADEL: Well, right there, Mohamed Morsi, from inside a glass barricaded cage, is saying who are you, do you know who I am? And the judge is responding, I'm the chief of this criminal court. You know, it was another day of drama and chaos. This is the second time that he appears in court, but the first time that Egyptians hear Morsi on television. The first trial wasn't aired at all other than brief mutated footage. And generally, in the courtroom, when I was in the courtroom the first time, he's consistently saying I'm the legitimate president of Egypt. He's saying I don't recognize this court. He's being charged with four different crimes in four different trials including espionage, breaking out of prison, inciting violence, insulting the judiciary.

And a lot of these charges, human rights groups say, are just basically absurd - that he collaborated with the Palestinian Hamas group, that he collaborated with the Hezbollah group. And a lot being, what they say, based on revisionist history - that he killed policemen and soldiers. And so really what we're seeing is a very politicized situation and serious drama in a court room in this existential struggle between a military-backed government and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.

MARTIN: How are most Egyptians reacting to all of this? And, as you mentioned, that people's access to kind of unbiased information is very difficult right now because there's been a very aggressive effort to shape the messages that people are getting about this. Do you have any sense of how these events are being viewed by most people?

FADEL: Well, this is a truly divided nation right now. And you're feeling - you feel that there's a heightened situation where people are on one side or the other. They're either with the military and say that those who are not with the military are traitors, or they're against the military and want Morsi back, which is something that's really not possible right now.

Much of Egypt turned on Morsi because of his bad leadership in the year that he was in power. But, you know, ordinary Egyptians and people are focused on what most people are focused on - is their life better? Can they feed their families? Are there more jobs? And the answers to a lot of those questions is no, they can't. And so it's unclear how long this wild popularity of the head of the army is going to last and the army-backed government because ultimately, Egyptian grievances are the same.

MARTIN: And so you're saying the quality of life is still not improving?

FADEL: Not only is it not improving, it maybe is worse. You know, there's much worse traffic problems than we've ever seen before. The economy has somewhat been bolstered since the ouster of Morsi by Gulf money that's coming in, but it's not trickling down. You're not seeing more job creation. You're not seeing people feeling happier, healthier, safer in their country. And so, ultimately, where does this lead? Does it lead to another sort of mass uprising against another leader in the future if things don't improve?

MARTIN: Tell us, if you would, a little bit more about Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. You were saying that - well, first of all, he was one of the major players in Mohamed Morsi's downfall. You're saying that, as a leader of the army, it's been - it's pretty clear that he is going to run for the presidency. Isn't that a change from what had been promised in the past? Am I right about that?

FADEL: Right. The military has long said that they don't want to control Egypt. They want this to be a civilian nation. Publicly, they said they don't want to control. They don't want this type of responsibility. They want a civilian-led government. And now, ironically, the man who led the ouster of Morsi, with the backing of much of Egypt, is now about to run for the presidency, as far as we can tell. He's gotten the mandate from the army. They say he's got to heed the call of the people. He's wildly popular. And so now we may see the head of the army become the president of Egypt.

MARTIN: And speaking to his popularity, I understand that you spoke to - you've had a lot of kind of what we would call man-on-the-street interviews, or man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews, about this, and people attest to his popularity. I just want to play a short clip from an interview that you did with a driver named Islam (ph), and this is what he had to say.


MARTIN: And you're saying that he's saying what?

FADEL: So this man is a driver, about middle-class Egyptian, saying that Sisi is the only man for the job right now. They need somebody who can take a stand right now, who can secure the nation from the threats internally. This is a country that has been dealing with some serious attacks on security forces. And he's saying they need somebody who will unite but also be strong in the face of so-called terrorism. And that's really the feeling of a lot of Egyptians.

This is a wildly popular man who's only been in the public face for a couple of years, ironically, appointed by Morsi himself as the defense minister of Egypt. He's almost become a mythical figure that has, you know - in one column, he was described as a man with Herculean strength, somebody who people think can fix every single problem of this country. So the issue becomes, if indeed he does become president and is unable to fix the myriad of problems in Egypt, does the population turn against him and the military leadership?

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, do you mind if I ask you about your own life and days as a working journalist? You've been working in Egypt for some time now, but are you able to function? I mean, it seems like we hear the interviews that you do with people, you know, out and about, but are you being followed? Are you able to report freely to this point and just function just as a person? Are you able to get groceries when you want them? Are you able to have electricity when you want them? I mean, what is your day-to-day life if you don't mind my asking?

FADEL: Right. I mean, I think what maybe a lot of listeners might not understand about Egypt is that life on a daily basis, if you're not out there doing human rights work or journalism, is fine. I mean, if you have, you know, a job and you're able to afford your lifestyle, which many Egyptians can't, you can live your life fine. And people live their life fine. You see a bombing, but you also see across the street people hanging out at the cafe, going to work. So life on the daily basis is normal. But as a journalist, I am feeling very differently today than I felt seven months ago. You know, you're always concerned when you live in countries in transition or police states that the authorities will come after you.

But these days, you're also afraid because there is a lot of suspicion of the foreign press because of what's being said about us on television because of the way that we're reporting that we're maybe trying to destroy Egypt rather than just trying to understand what's going on, just trying to talk to people. So I'm definitely more careful. I'm trying to be less visible in the way that I report. But definitely, I still go out. I still report. I talk to people because I feel that's the only way to do our jobs. But it's very scary when you see your colleagues being prosecuted and looking at the evidence and realizing some of that evidence is notes and recordings and videos and things that we all do in our job on a daily basis. And then also watching, you know, other people being prosecuted, anybody that criticizes. It's all a reminder that the rules have changed here, and the acceptance of criticism and neutral reporting is not necessarily the way it is here anymore.

MARTIN: That was NPR Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel with us from her home office in Cairo. Leila, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.