After months of plotting, we finally lure hot-shot journalist Ayman Mohyeldin into the CairoScene offices where we find out about his love for ‘bacon burgers and the brotherhood’*, his favourite dictator of all time and being a Belieber...(*a joke).
Ayman Mohyeldin was one of the revelations of the January 25th Egyptian revolution. As the nation –temporarily devoid of mobiles and Internet – desperately surfed their TV channels, this young, good-looking Egyptian with an American accent and no-nonsense cool and calm demeanor kept popping up on Al Jazeera International. He was at the heart of the action, cutting through the hyperbole and contextualising one of the greatest stories of the century as it unraveled. And then –for no real viable reason other than being an Al Jazeera journalist – the military arrested him as he tried to enter Tahrir Square. Overnight he became a sensation, a celebrity of sorts. And so we all learned about this Egyptian-Palestinian boy who had worked as a news producer for CNN in Iraq (one of the first western journalists allowed to enter and report on the handing over and trial of the deposed President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein), who had a Masters in International Politics with a focus on Peace and Conflict Resolution, who was the first journalist to enter one of Libya's nuclear research facilities after producing Muammar al-Gaddafi's first interview announcing Libya would abandon all WMD programmes, who starred in the 2102 documentary, The War Around Us, who... Well, the list goes on. Ayman Mohyeldin was the perfect Egyptian poster boy, a future mother-in-law’s wet dream. These days he’s mainly based in the States working for NBC. We managed to pin him down and drag him into the CairoScene offices during a recent trip to Egypt where we proceeded to ask him about none of the above…
Have you ever contemplated suicide?
When you were a teenager?
No, it was like, last weekend. I mean not seriously contemplated. The frustrations of the job that we have, sometimes makes me think like I want to kill myself.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
I kind of stumbled into it by accident. I was doing an NBC internship at their Washington D. C. bureau while finishing my Masters’ degree. I was going to go onto law school. But then September 11th happened, so it kind of changed all my calculations. Suddenly, there were all these opportunities presenting themselves to really get into international news, which was something kind of difficult to do prior to that.
What was your first big break or big news story?
I covered the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Iraq War of 2003. I’ve covered the Constitutional Referendum here in Egypt in 2007. They were all learning experiences. So I guess they are all breaks in their own way. I’ve been very fortunate, but my mother thinks I’ve been cursed.
Egyptian journalists have been under tremendous pressure of late…
There are some alarming trends against journalists, both foreign and domestic, as a result of the government trying to ban or silence dissent.
Can that sort of pressure ever lead to any positive outcome?
It could if we actually had good journalism. But unfortunately Egypt doesn’t have good journalism. It has good journalists and bad journalism.
Let’s say you were elected President of the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, what would be the first thing you do?
I would resign; I mean it’s such a pointless job. To be honest with you, I would actually try to deregulate media as much as possible. Because in this country the thing that kills it the most is the complete self-censorship. In order to be a qualified journalist here you have to have certain accreditations. You have to have a degree and be a part of the union - that’s the only way you can get the protection of the Syndicate. I would change a lot of the laws about free speech and what qualifies as an insult. You know, try to cut back on the over-regulation of the society.
Have you been a victim of any of these regulations yourself in your career?
Over the years, for sure! In 2007 I did a story about the constitutional referendum where I went into one of the voting booths, and voted illegally in the referendum, and I recorded how easy it was and how much fraud there was in the constitutional referendum. The next day, a lot of the Egyptian press were calling for me to be extradited from the US and tried for treason and all of this stupid nonsense.
But that came from the local press and not the authorities…
But at the time the media was very much controlled, not so much in the editorial tone, but the fact that you needed permits to work, you couldn’t shoot in the streets without the government knowing, you had to get a press pass. So some of it was self-censorship and the government drove some of it. But because those lines are so blurred, it creates a culture where you don’t have a free press, which is a problem.
Do you envision any sort of journalistic uprising; a media revolution of sorts?
You’re seeing more and more online outlets that are providing more of the kind of information that is beneficial for society. There’s definitely optimism, there’s cause for hope.
What’s been your favourite story in terms of something you’ve uncovered yourself?
I was in a courtroom with Saddam Hussein, which was pretty interesting. I kind of finagled my way into that courtroom.
It seems like you’re good at finagling, what’s your secret?
Are you thinking about becoming journalists?
We’re thinking about becoming finaglers. So, you were in Saddam’s courtroom! Was he an impressive man in terms of charisma?
When I saw him, it was the first time he had been seen in public since being arrested, so he was handed over to the Iraqis, and what was interesting was the fact that he appeared to have been stripped away from all his charisma. He was emotional, very teary-eyed, and as the proceedings went on, he seemed to regain his confidence. So he then started to be defiant, and it was interesting to see that transformation. I don’t think he knew what he was about to be brought into when he came into this courtroom in front of a handful of people, and suddenly he went from this quite weak and demure individual to being defiant again, saying. “I’m the leader of this country.”
Who’s your favourite dictator of all time?
That’s a really tough one. I mean being a good dictator requires a lot of style. I’m not a fan of dictators that are gruesome and bloody. You know dictators that are benevolent but greedy? I think those I can kind of appreciate more than really bloody, I just wanna kill everyone in my presence type, so I can’t think of any that I really like.
Muammar Gadaffi to Vlad the Impaler, somewhere between those two?
No, Gadaffi, I think, is just a retard. I actually interviewed him back in 2004 and he just doesn’t make sense. He was trying to give up his weapons of mass destruction program after the whole Iraq war and he kept saying, “We want to give up our weapons WMD,” not realising that WMD means weapons of mass destruction.
Where do you draw the line between doing the best job you can in a dangerous environment and not dying? Is there even a line?
I think every journalist at some point in their life reconciles to the idea of dying on the job and whether or not that is something they are prepared to do. I think everyone naturally goes through that process. Not everyone answers it the same way, but everyone asks themselves that question.
Are you prepared to die for journalism?
Yes, I am.
What’s the closest you’ve come?
I lived in Gaza during 23 days of daily bombings. There were explosions going on around us. I was in Iraq for three years; I had an IED go off in a car right in front of me. There are countless times.
What do you do to shake off the horrors of war? What’s your poison?
I do Pilates.
We thought you were going say, “I do pill” and stop right there.
I pop pills. (He laughs).
While you’re doing Pilates?
That’s a good combo.
And then I stand on TV to report without a shirt on (laughter). I’m joking. I trust that you guys are responsible enough to know what parts of the interview to…
Our audience is intelligent enough for us to just put it out there.
Here’s the problem with that, which is - I trust that if I say I pop pills, you’re not going to say, “He pops pills,” without the rest of the sentence where I say it’s a joke.
We might put a winky face after it. Have you ever taken drugs?
I’m very fortunate to say that I’ve never taken drugs.
No marijuana? No weed?
No weed. Isn’t weed the same thing as marijuana?
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been while reporting?
I was going say this interview!
I have a funny story about him actually… When I came to Egypt in 2010, in the summer before the revolution, Matt was working for The National. He shot me an email saying, “Mr. Mohyeldin, I’d love to interview you about how to cover Egypt.” So I went to have coffee with him, thinking he was some young guy out of college. It turned out him and I were the same age. I always tease him that in the email he called me Mr. Mohyeldin. I insist whenever he talks to me that he calls me Mr. Mohyeldin. Now he’s a hotshot journalist, a lot more credible than I am.
Do the foreign journalists in Egypt ever get bitchy towards each other?
No, they have good communities of support and friendship. A lot of us have known each other for years, from different stories and assignments. There’s always healthy competition. Everyone wants to do their job as best they can. It’s not like an episode of Melrose Place, it’s not scandalous.
So there’s really no beef between you and any other journalist?
Just me and Matt Bradley.
Have you ever thought about doing some sort of journalist competition?
Don King has offered to set up a fight between me and Matt Bradley.
Oh my God we’d totally sponsor it.
You would sponsor it?
With our own money.
I think there are a lot of interesting undercurrents that we could play up. Wall Street Journal vs. NBC, print vs. television. He’s American, I’m Egyptian, we could play West vs. East. He’s Christian, I’m Muslim.
He’s pretty short, you’re pretty tall.
Yeah. He’s white, I’m dark.
Just tell us where and when.
I’m just waiting to get the right offer.
Every time we talk about you coming in for the interview, it’s usually followed by a little side conversation with two or three girls proverbially drooling over you and going on about how hot you are. How does it feel to be drooled over? To be Egypt’s resident hottie journalist?
Where are the girls that said that?
Are your parents waiting for you to get married?
They’re not waiting, they’re harassing me.
Do you have groupies?
The kind of girls who will constantly tweet at you?
No, I’m fortunate enough to say that I do not have groupies.
Did you vote in the referendum?
I don’t think it’s my place to vote. I think the people who should vote in Egypt are the people who have a stake in Egypt in the long term, not the people who can get on a plane tomorrow and leave. It’s easy for me to make a decision on what I think is the best step for Egypt knowing that I don’t have to suffer the consequences of my decisions. I can just get on a flight and leave, and I think that’s a little bit irresponsible of me. And that doesn’t mean I should or shouldn’t, but I’d rather not put myself in that hole.
Omar Suleiman once said Egyptians are not ready enough for democracy. Do you feel that is the case?
I do believe Egypt is ready for democracy because I don’t think that anyone is or is not ready for democracy. I think the biggest problem Egypt suffers from is a lack of education, a lack of civic responsibility. People don’t understand the importance of their vote, so they think their vote can be bought with a bag of rice, a can of oil, some chicken, whatever. So until people start respecting their own voice, respecting their own responsibility, they are going to be constantly taken advantage of.
What if the government put food in the polling stations? Everyone would vote because there would be food everywhere.
Would you encourage people to vote a certain way, or would you just put it out there?
No, no, no, if there’s food there, they’re definitely going to go and then they can vote whichever way they want. It’s not the parties giving away the food.
It’s not a bad idea, but where do you put the meat and where do you put the chicken? Some guy wants the chicken, and the chicken is next to the Brotherhood supporters, and he thinks, “Oh I’ll get the chicken and I’ll vote for the Muslim Brotherhood while I’m there…”
What if there were two rooms, you walk through the room with food first and then vote in the second room. Or food would come after, so you would have to vote to get to the food.
That’s perfect, signed, sealed, delivered right there. I’m a big foodie, so I’d definitely go vote, and put aside my responsibility.
What would be the meal that would push you to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood?
Bacon cheeseburger. That’s a joke, don’t use that.
Too late, that’s the headline: “Ayman Mohyeldin loves bacon and Brotherhood.” Do you have any methods to keep your own emotions at bay when you’re reporting?
Yeah, I tell the voice in my head to stay out of it.
Do you ever do nice stories about puppies or calligraphy or both?
That is a good story; puppies that can do calligraphy. Well, what’s a nice story?
Like nice things happening in the world.
There was one nice story that I liked which was about millennials, and I think you guys are all millennials. That was pretty cool, their habits, what they like, what they’re doing, so it was nice to kind of delve into that a little bit.
Do you ever edit your own Wikipedia page?
Really? Because we just did to add the pills thing. But do you Google yourself?
No I don’t Google myself, but I do have Google alerts set so if an article or something pops up.
Who’s your favourite perfomer?
Who’s your favourite political performer?
What meal would you have to have to vote for Britney Spears?
What office is she running for?
President of Namibia…
You were nominated for an Emmy.
Is that a trick question? (He laughs)
It was more of a statement.
Yeah, I was like, “Are you back on the Wikipedia page?”
You were nominated for an Emmy, you didn’t win though, right?
I didn’t win, no, I won in other categories, but not in the category where I was nominated individually.
Were you at the ceremony?
Did you do that thing where you had to fake smile when someone else won?
No, nobody cares. It’s not like the Oscars.
What’s the best red carpet that you’ve been on?
The best red carpet?
We’ve seen a couple of Time Gala pictures that look pretty fancy.
Yeah, that was a nice one.
You’re big on Twitter, there must be some people that really piss you off.
Who are they?
The kind of people that have no sense of humour, and have no ability to see something in context. It’s hard, because Twitter is only 140 characters, but I think when you look at someone’s personality, you’re not reading just 140 characters. I think you have to look at it in the context of what do they generally tweet about. I tweet about a variety of things from food to war to politics. I mean, I tweeted that I like Justin Bieber.
Do you like Justin Bieber?
I do like Justin Bieber. I think the world can learn a lot from Justin Bieber.
So would you say you’re a Belieber?
I am a Belieber.
What’s your favourite song of his?
Never Say Never.
How does it inspire you in your day-to-day life?
I never say never.
What would you like your legacy to be as a journalist?
Ultimately, I would like my legacy as a journalist to be that there was something wrong during my lifetime that I was a witness to, that I tried to speak up about. That’s it. I’d love to change it, but I don’t think I can. In the future, if someone says, “How in the world did we let that happen?” They can always look back and say, “Well, there were reporters that did speak up about it.” I mean, think about the people that wrote about slavery, who were able to see that this is a grave injustice, and speak up about it despite the fact that this didn’t change for hundreds of years.
If you could ask yourself one question based on the information on your Wikipedia page, what would it be?
I would ask… well… can you read me the Wikipedia page?
It says you were born in 1979…
How was that?
Great year. Does anyone in this room actually work? Or are you all just props hired for the day?
Is your phone tapped?
I don’t know. Is yours?
We don’t know. You share your profession with famous journalists such as Superman and Spiderman, which one do you prefer?
Neither one of them to be honest with you. One's a print guy and one's a photographer. They’re both dorks. I mean, you can’t be a real badass superhero without being a television journalist.
If there was a superhero based on you, what would he be called?
Eye-man. He has the ability to see with his eyes the truth. No one can lie to him. And his nemesis would be Lie-man, the guy who lies to everyone.
If you could give one piece of advice to budding journalists in Egypt, what would it be?
Make sure you have your priorities right; money is important. Don’t go after a job that doesn’t pay a lot of money. The job that’s going to give you the most fame; that’s important. The truth does not matter. Don’t worry about that, someone else will get the truth out there. I’m joking. Make sure you write that I’m joking.
Follow Ayman Mohyeldin on Twitter @AymanM