The Egyptian revolution: progress report provides fascinating insight

February 14, 2012

We all have that feeling. Coming across a piece of writing that so clearly articulates a deeply-held idea that resonates.

“I wish I’d written that.”

The sweetness of excitement and discovery tinged with the slightest sour of regret and professional jealousy.

I came across just such a moment while reading a great account of the state of play in Egypt over the last few months.

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness is a besetting sin of journalism. Where good ethnography opens up all the fascinating and frustrating contradictions of everyday life as lived by people, journalism summarizes and papers over these differences, subordinating them to the persuasive power of narrative.

There’s a place for both but having been a journalist, I prefer ethnography.

And yet, even after 15 years as an anthropologist, I still find it easier to write narrative like a journalist.

[Egyptian Struggles Continue]

This is from Mark Allen Peterson’s remarkable blog Connected in Cairo. The post is dated 6 February 2012.

Peterson is a  journo-turned-ethnographer. A well-worn path for people moving from a professional life into an academic second-life.

I love the line about the misplaced concreteness of journalism. It is the type of blinkered thinking that leads to ideological blindspots and the pack mentality of political reporting.

It is appropriate to in relation to most of the coverage I’ve seen of the Egyptian revolution.

it’s also why the story of Australian freelance Austin Mackell is important.

Austin and his colleagues were arrested a few days ago by authorities for travelling to Mahalla, a hotbed of trade union activism against the military regime in Cairo. Some trade union activists were also rounded up.

It seems like Mackell is to be released and deported from Egypt, which is a shame because  not many other reporters are getting to the trade union story.

Instead the prefer the misplaced concreteness of what they understand – the parliamentary politics and machinations of the political parties. The heroes of the street – those who made the revolution of a year ago – are now relegated to walk-on parts as props, not actors on the main stage.

Mackell was in Mahalla to interview a trade union leader, but as he explained on ABC’s The World Today, he did not get a chance. Soon after arriving in the city the group was mobbed:

AUSTIN MACKELL: I was totally doing my job as a journalist. I was interviewing a labour union leader. I was only – I was with a masters student, who’s doing his on labour movements in Egypt, and my translator and the driver. And we got out to interview Mr Fayyumi, we had time to shake hands and we were immediately set upon. So there was not chance for us to give any provocation.

SIMON SANTOW: And you were accused of offering money to local youths in order for them to cause chaos?

AUSTIN MACKELL: Yeah, yes. I mean this is the standard line that the people who are protesting, that the people who are fighting for their rights in any regard are actually being paid by foreign agents. This is the line that state TV has run with on a number of occasions in similar cases, and it’s what happened with us as well.

SIMON SANTOW: And you can be absolutely unequivocal that you were there entirely just as a journalist?

AUSTIN MACKELL: Absolutely.

SIMON SANTOW: No crossing of any line?

AUSTIN MACKELL: No crossing of any line.

[The World Today]

It seems the arrest of Mackell is part of the general crackdown on foreigners instigated my the military regime as a way of undermining protest against continuation of the Junta’s anti-democractic policies.

There are reports that the charges against Mackell and the others have been dropped, but I can’t confirm it.


Serious allegations against an Australian journalist in Egypt

February 13, 2012

Update 11pm Monday 12 Feb

Austin Mackell’s blog, The Moon Under Water is a very interesting log of what’s been happening in Egypt in recent weeks.

It seems that the Australian journalist will be deported from Egypt on the pretext that his visa’s expired.

 

Young Australian journalist Austin Mackell is facing serious charges in Egypt after his arrest over the weekend.

Mackell is a freelance who works for Global Radio News, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and many independent outlets. He has been reporting from the Middle East for some time and covering the Egyptian revolution from the front lines.

Egyptian authorities took him into custody along with an American colleague Derek Ludovici and Aliya Alwi, a local fixer .

The trio is accused of attempting to bribe people into joining a protest strike in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kobra.

There is an online campaign to free Mackell and his colleagues. It is highly likely that the charges against them are a set up and politically motivated. You can keep up with developments on this story by following #freeaustin on Twitter.

An AAP story gives some details of what happened in the town, where the reporter had gone to meet a contact.

Ms Alwi posted details of the ordeal on her Twitter account, writing early on Sunday Australian time that she and Mr Mackell were being transported to a military intelligence office in the nearby city of Tanta.

A few hours earlier, she wrote: “Report against us filed now. Many witnesses saw us ’offering money to youth to vandalise and cause chaos’.”

Another tweet read: “Charges brought against of inciting protest and vandalism. Witnesses have been produced to confirm it.”

One of those witnesses was eight-years old, she wrote.

The trio apparently first believed the police were trying to protect them after they experienced some aggression from locals.

“Our car got rocked and beaten against the glass, got called a whore and all sorts of things. Police escorted us to station,” Ms Alwi wrote.

[SMH 12 Feb]

What’s very interesting about this story is the trade union and activist connection. Mahalla is apparently a hotbed of working class political opposition to the military regime in Cairo. As far as I am aware Austin Mackell is one of the few reporters on the ground who sees this as an important story.

On the ABC there’s a good interview with another Aussie journalist in Egypt Jess Hill who is working for the Global Mail among others.

She talks about the politics of Mahalla. It seems that Austin Mackell may have come across a story the Egyptian authorities don’t want told.

This is really important, not just as a story of Egyptian politics, but also of what journalists should be doing in Egypt and also because Mackell has been accused of something terrible in terms of journalism ethics.

I am inclined to believe this is a set-up and I agree with what Jess Hill told the ABC, it seems like political activists and independent journalists are being given a message from the regime to stay away from sensitive issues. It would not surprise me if the regime now launched Syrian style raids into Mahalla.

I thing Austin Mackell is innocent of the allegations. Anyone who obviously likes cat must be a good person.