Street cleaning and fairy dust

Misinformation & Al-Wafd

Earlier this month, Ahmed Abulhassan, a student graduating from the faculty of pharmacy at German University of Cairo, wrote a bleak and unintentionally hysterical note on Facebook of an interview that the newspaper al-Wafd, conducted with him months ago. Al-Wafd is considered the mouthpiece of the al-Wafd party, a liberal and democratic Egyptian party. Just like other oppositional newspapers in the country – al-Masry al-Youm and al-Youm al-Saba’a – the paper has vacillated between regime support and condemnation.

During the revolution this past January, Ahmed was in Dubai visiting his family. Naturally, he felt like he was missing a pivotal moment in the history of his country. He was tweeting the entire time, trying to provide news about events in Cairo as an alternative to the big news outlets. Returning a few days after Mubarak’s fall, he – just like thousands of other Egyptians – had an altruistic desire to clean the neighbourhood of downtown Cairo with a few of his friends. Perhaps to him it was like a purging of the excess and detritus of the old regime.“I brought a few duffel bags full of trash bags and gloves, took three friends out to downtown and started to clean the streets,” Ahmed said. After finishing in downtown, they made their way to the Qasr al-Ainy bridge.

Returning a few days after Mubarak’s fall, he had an altruistic desire to clean the neighbourhood of downtown Cairo with a few of his friends.

On the bridge, Ahmed continues, “a car stopped and a reporter and a camera man jumped out. ‘We are very proud of what you are doing,’ they said. ‘Can we take a picture of you and ask why you are doing this?’” Ahmed asked which newspaper they were from and gave his name, answering that he was cleaning the streets. That was all he said to the reporter. Time passed and nothing appeared in the paper.

Weeks later, thanks to the expediency of social networking and camaraderie, a friend uploaded the article as it appeared. The picture was Ahmed’s. The article accompanying the picture however, was a wonderful potpourri of make-believe and fairy dust. Ahmed provides a translation:

The title reads: Ahmed Abulhassan (Unemployed). His name is in the title, right there. Then: “Job opportunities for all and the elimination of unemployment. I graduated from the faculty of engineering in Cairo University four years ago and I have not found a job since and I hope to fix the economical situation in the country.”

The article goes on and on. Ahmed appears to be delivering a sermon about the ills of his country and the change needed to bring positive development to Egypt. In the article, “he” continues:

“I hope to fix the economical situation in the country so that it affects the employment opportunities in various public and private sectors. This would make a better future that helps to rid the problems of unemployment and to reduce the incidence of crimes that occur because of poverty and destitution and helplessness. This is in addition to bringing in a system that imposes a state of social justice and eliminates corruption, allowing the revolution to prosper Egypt, and to bring it back to its natural place with all of its legitimate demands and with the aim of bringing progress to the country.”

What were the motives for this falsely-attributed diatribe?

What were the motives for this falsely-attributed diatribe? Was the newspaper attempting to say something without claiming responsibility for the opinions explicated within it? In the time after Mubarak’s fall, ideas like these were embraced by a big number of Egyptians. It would be difficult to claim the necessity to publish the speech under the name of another person. So most likely, it was simple laziness – and the desire to publish something a little bit too well-constructed to be a reply from someone on the street.

But the consequences of this kind of ineptitude can be far more serious. This is proved by the story of Jonathan Rashad. During the first organised protests at the Israeli embassy, a lone wolf who later got the epithet “Flag Man” made a sensation. This local hero scaled the wall of the embassy and dramatically ripped the Israeli flag from its pole. Afterwards, photographs of the deed from Egyptian freelance photographer Jonathan Rashad appeared in several publications from major news agencies, among them the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. This led al-Wafd to publish an online article claiming that Rashad was an Israeli correspondent. Rashad writes about this experience on his blog.

The article again embroiders a longer and longer tale based on absolute fiction.

A claim that Rashad was Israeli would be incredibly damaging. When he found out about the article, he called the newspaper, furiously demanding for an apology. “I managed to reach the editor-in-chief of al-Wafd,” said Rashad. “I was so angry when I called him. I told him that he should issue an apology statement included in the same article where I was mentioned, and I threatened to sue him if I didn’t get it within the hour. He apologised to me and promised to issue the statement in 10 minutes. Oh, that was fast! He issued the statement just like he said. In 10 minutes.”

This statement falsely blamed Haaretz for the mistake. Furthermore, the article again embroiders a longer and longer tale based on absolute fiction. It claims that Rashad was a member of the group No Military Trials and, later on, states that he said: “I am in love with Egyptian soil” – an unnecessarily poetic metaphor that only serves to add insult to injury in this tedious saga.

The lack of accountability in this paper’s journalistic ‘methods’ might occasionally be amusing but is for the most part outrageous. Ahmed suggested that it might have had something to do with interns who – like most interns – probably are abused and ill-paid by the paper. But such excuses should not matter. In the post-revolutionary maelstrom that is Cairo today, the impetus for institutions influencing the public imagination should be to act in a more ethical and accountable way. Commensurate with this is the need for independent watchdogs, people like Ahmed Abdulhassan and Jonathan Rashad. By writing about these incidents and talking about them with friends, they are individually and independently affecting the community in a positive way. And change is all about small steps.

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