We get up close and personal with the Wall Street Journal's Cairo correspondent and Twitter celebrity, Matt Bradley to find out how he's faring in a country where everything happens in the middle of the night and everyone thinks he's a spy...
When the going gets tough, the tough hit the streets to report. Though foreign journalists are sometimes viewed with suspicion in Egypt today, there are a few we’ve come to know, love and rely on. Living here for over four years now, Matt Bradley was writing about Egypt before, you know, everything happened, and quickly had to adapt to the fast-paced and often chaotic events that now make international headlines. We ask the Wall Street Journal reporter which protestors throw the better party, whether it was a coup and if he’s a spy, as well as asking him the questions YOU tweeted in…
Why did you come to Egypt and how did Middle Eastern politics become your thing?
I moved here four and a half years ago, in January 2009. I lived in Abu Dhabi for a while, working at The National and they made me their Cairo correspondent. It was a boring time as before the revolution, I was writing about Arabic calligraphy, shisha and Sham El Nessim, stuff like that. Then the revolution kicked off, and I was in my new job, standing in the middle of Tahrir.
Come the 25th January, did you realise it would be such a big deal?
No. Actually, I sent an email to my bosses on a couple of days before the 25th saying that it would be probably a couple of people and hundreds of cops, even though I found it interesting given what had happened in Tunisia. So I went down on the 25th and I looked up to find thousands and thousands of people. running right at the square. I thought to myself “Wow, Egypt has really woken up!” That was two and a half years ago and the protesting has stayed in fashion ever since.
So what are the main differences between writing about Tahrir and writing about Sham el Nessim?
Everything that I write now has to do with the revolution. Before I just wrote about the culture of Egypt. Of course it’s much better for my career; it’s much more exciting and more interesting. The problem is that in Egypt no news happens until nighttime. Then suddenly, in the morning, you’ll find a new constitutional declaration taking and you have an hour to write a front page story about the crazy stuff that happened when we were sleeping!
What do you believe - people’s coup or military coup?
I don’t know; it’s hard to say. I would call it ‘the third great wave of happiness.’ There is this massive misunderstanding between the Egyptian press and public and the western media around this word “coup.” This the first thing that comes to mind [when you see what’s happening] and I’m actually surprised that people were so offended by it. Just because it’s a military coup to my mind, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It’s just a description of what happened, that doesn’t necessarily need to cause an argument.
One of the big differences though, between June 30th and January 25th is that the first time round, the western media was kind of on board. I was totally psyched. The mood was similar on June 30th. I was in Tahrir hanging out with people who, two weeks before, were discouraged and frustrated, and now were incredibly energised. So we could call this a revolution too, but one must remember that Morsi was elected and Mubarak wasn’t. I suppose you could say Mubarak was elected in 2005…
Do you think the western media would have shown more sympathy had we protested at the point when we had to choose between Ahmed Shafik and Mohamed Morsi?
This is a very a loaded question because when you talk about “we” it’s clear that the type of people sitting in this room do not necessarily represent the public. I can say that with confidence! If we’re talking about the majority, I think a lot of people were frustrated by the dualities they had to confront in that election. One of the problems with that is that it went back to exactly what Mubarak had predicted in his final days. And this was a year and half after he was toppled. Egypt still had the same conflict – choosing between this military-type strongman versus an Islamist-type strongman. And today it’s back to the same story.
What do you think about the conspiracy that the Tamarod movement was backed by the military?
I’m very skeptical about their numbers. As for whether or not they were backed by the army, first of all it doesn’t really matter anymore and, second of all, I’ve always resisted thinking that things are planned. Nothing here is ever planned! Five minutes out of Cairo Airport and you know that nothing in Egypt is planned. I think that it probably was a grass-roots movement and when it took off, other players tried to get in on it, be it Sawiris or the army.
As an outsider, what would you say the main differences, in terms of the crowd, between January 25th and 30th of June?
As a foreigner, people were certainly more hostile this time round. But that’s not to say it wasn’t the same first time round. During the ‘first revolution’, if you will, I remember being in Dar El Salaam, near Torah Prison where all these prisoners were being released, and the residents there came out there with machetes and bats and chased me the down the street! It was a shock. I had been here for two years and thought that Egyptians loved me. Turns out their personality and perspective had changed overnight.
Why do you think that is?
I think it had a lot to do with the media at the time. State television was saying that foreigners are behind this revolution, working in favour of some Zionist plot. And you certainly see that this time round. People have some crazy things to say about American foreign policy in the region, and what individuals are doing to advance this. You think, wow, how did people start to believe this? Before the January 25th revolution, I had not imagined there’d be such fast shifts in public opinion. I didn’t know that the xenophobia lay so close to the surface.
You mentioned that January 25th had a lot of support in the foreign media. Do you think that June 30th got less support because the West really believe in democracy or was it something else that had them change their tone?
On January 25th, this whole thing was totally new. But now it’s been going on, non-stop, for two and a half years now. It’s no longer an innovative thing in my mind. Also, you began seeing the tearing down of a third regime and the world is waiting to see what gets built, not what’s falling down.
Let’s get to the point: who throws a better party Itahedeya or Tahrir?
Itahedeya, definitely! Tahrir was actually quite threatening this time. Itahedeya was much more relaxed with families and concerts. I tried to stay away with Tahrir as much as possible this time.
Nahda or Raba’a?
I’ve never been to Nahda, actually. I‘ve been to Raba’a many times and it was kind of extraordinary. It was tent city, with butchers and barbers…it’s wild. Nahda seems more violent. But the whole Egyptian protest culture has been in a state of flux. It’s changed a lot in the last few years.
So the suspicion you’ve faced from protestors; which side were they on?
The pro-Morsi camp welcome the foreign media. They see them as much more equitable than the Egyptian media. The anti-Morsi camp weren’t bad but I haven’t really been there that much. I have an Egyptian-American colleague who was down in Tahrir instead of me so he handled it better than I would have. People didn’t surround him and demand to see his ID to find out if he’s a spy or not…
But are you a spy?
I’m not a spy. Thanks for asking.
Is there a way to clear Raba’a that doesn’t require bloodshed (this interview was conducted prior to August 14th)?
I hope so and I think the negotiations are going on right now and the US government have been involved. Even the evil Anne Patterson was photographed there. I think they are trying their best to avoid bloodshed, even the Brotherhood. Looking ahead, it’s difficult to imagine an Egypt where the Islamists, even if they are very small minority, which I don’t think they are, are totally excluded, or worse, feel like victims of state violence. And that’s the dangerous thing here. You start to hear these whisperings of ‘democracy isn’t for us’ and that’s extremely limiting.
Well, one point of view is that the Brotherhood has used the ballot to oppress and that their ideology itself doesn’t allow for democratic principles…
And that’s fair, but at the same time, when it came to the constitutional declaration last November, the Brothers said that it had to take extraordinary measures in order to cleanse the state from the former regime. Everybody in Egypt now feels so desperate that they say we need to take extraordinary measures. You heard it from the MB and now you’re hearing it from the military. When anybody gets into power, they say these are extraordinary times and they need to take extraordinary measures, whether it’s in violation of the law or the constitution or whatever. And that can often cause another paranoid and often violent reaction from the other side, whoever the ‘other side’ is at the time. And that’s where this cycle comes from; it’s a need to react to these extraordinary measures.
You’ve been through many Egyptian governments yourself. Have you faced any difficulties from the authorities as a foreign journalist?
The biggest difficulty is getting people to respond to your phone calls! It’s not as easy in the west when you call somebody and you get their secretary or you can email them and they will actually reply. Here, if you want to get in contact with someone, you have to spend the entire day trying to get in touch. In terms of dealing with the successive governments, it hasn’t been that bad, it’s just there are the moments when every American is suspected as being spy. But that’s more from the public. It’s scary when you’re just talking to some people and suddenly somebody comes along and says “He’s an Israeli spy!” And I’m like, what! Where did that come from! How did everybody come to this conclusion?
Have you been a victim of physical violence?
Not really. I’ve been in the riots so I’ve been hit by a rock here and there. And the tear gas.
But who makes better the tear gas: Egypt or America?
Well, it’s all the same…
Do you get laid a lot because you’re a journalist?
Ummm…Yes. These are the kind of questions I like! Hahaha, nah I’m kidding.
Do you get recognised from your Twitter avatar?
Do you get a lot of backlash on Twitter? What’s the worst you’ve gotten?
Yes. Whatever you say, there’s someone saying something back. Being called a terrorist was pretty bad. Really?
Speaking of Twitter, we have some questions tweeted in by our readers:
First up: Do you enjoy patronising Egyptian liberals? Do you consider yourself a classist?
I kind of enjoy patronising Egyptian liberals, yes.
Twitter Question two: Are you allowed to talk about the Walls Street Journals’ editorial board and the quality of the writing?
All I know about the editorial board comes after things are published and the site is behind a pay wall so not many people read it anyway. Nobody’s ever come to me to say anything and I think people know the difference between the kind of things I report and what’s said in the opinion columns.
Twitter Question three: Replacing Patterson with Ford – who is accused of doing worse in Syria than Patterson has done here – what do you think?
I think that all of that was based on this one report so we’ll see. Maybe we’ll ask him: “Did you create violent pseudo-military squads in Syria?” And I imagine he’ll say no, though I can’t speak for Mr. Ford!
Twitter Question four: Do you seriously think that kids wearing white shrouds in Raba’a was nothing more than a fashion statement?
Hahaha, I don’t remember saying that myself!
Speaking of fashion what’s the ideal outfit for reporting on the streets of Cairo?
A safari suit.
Are you patronising us and calling us animals?!
No! I’m just saying it’s a good look!
Do you like Gehad El Haddad? We find him really annoying…
I’ve met with him a lot. I think he is a super nice guy…
Ok, well if you could take out one Muslim brotherhood member for a drink who would it be?
What kind of drink?
And I could spike mine? I’d have to say Khairat El Shater. First of all, I think he could drink me under the table – with his karkade, of course – and I think he’s a fascinating character. I met with him once and he’s an interesting man.
Politics aside, who has the better glasses: Mohamed El Baradei or Gehad El Haddad?
Mohamed El Baradei’s glasses are better. He’s famous for them. Does El Haddad wear glasses? I didn’t even notice.
When you heard Morsi’s speech accusing Mohamed from Maadi of stealing all the fuel, did you go out and look for him?
We tried to get to the bottom of that. I’m not even kidding. They exist!
What was the biggest lie you’ve ever followed for a story?
Well we tried to look into Tamarod to see if that’s some kind of conspiracy but we came up with pretty little. But was that a lie? I don’t know. There’s always some story, especially around the elections. We’d go down to a polling station to see what’s happening and all of it would kind of disappear in front of your eyes.
What’s the best conspiracy you’ve heard since you’ve been in Egypt?
The Israeli sharks one, from before the revolution, was pretty hysterical. The poor government official that had to answer that question! The one about the US Ambassador running Egypt from a mosque with the help of Hazem Abu Ismail was pretty good too. Just picturing that is kind of funny to me!
So what you’re saying is Obama IS NOT a Muslim?
I’m pretty sure he’s not. I’ve seen his birth certificate; it was published in the newspapers!
What did you think of our military air shows versus American air shows?
It was so much air show! I haven’t seen any air show since I was a kid, in the states but if quantity trumps quality, then there was just so much! I can’t believe they put that on for days . You could just gaze up at any time and watch it; it was beautiful!
So Egyptians are well-known for being creative when it comes to jokes and insults. What are the funniest things you’ve heard about Sisi and Morsi?
The funniest thing right now is democraSISI. And Sisi na pas une coup was kind of fun. And all of the cartoons about Morsi after the constitutional declaration.
Do you have a favourite chant?
Back at the beginning of the revolution my favourite one was “Ya horreya feneik feneik? Hosny Mubarak beiny we beinek!”
Is there a secret place where foreign journalists congregate that we’re not invited to?
I used to go to Amici a lot until they made it this over-30s thing. Which I am, but why would I want to hang out with old people? The place I go to most is La Bodega, but it’s not necessarily a journalist hang out. I guess a lot of them go to El Horreya in downtown, but I’m not really into that.
Do you have any beef with other foreign journalists?
No, everybody’s really nice. They’re competitive, but no one has any beef.
Do you get offended when people diss the Wall Street Journal? We get called fascist elitist cunts all the time and it hurts…
Not really. A lot of the time I walk into a room and say I’m from the Wall Street Journal and they’ll be like, “this guy here says he’s from the Washington Post.” And I’m like no, the Wall Street Journal. Then he’ll turn around and say “he’s from the LA Times.” Like I said, because of the pay wall on the site, not many people read it.
Do you have any journalism tips for CairoScene?
Just stop being fascists.
Serious question though – Why would a Muslim write a book about Jesus?
Hahaha…Probably because Obama paid him to do it…