The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Bassem Youssef on the Egyptian media's "Great Writers"

Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the excellent team Industry Arabic. Comedian Bassem Youssef had his hit satirical news show pulled -- after just one episode -- last Fall. While he looks for new options, he has been one of the few voices of reason and conscience and humor in Egyptian op-ed pages. This column appeared a few weeks back, but what it has to say about local media's free use of anonymous sources, rumors and conspiracy theories is still (and unfortunately will probably remain for a long time ) relevant.

Your Dear Old Professionalism is Dead, Shorouk newspaper, 24 December

by Bassem Youssef

What I read was not the typical sort of Facebook nonsense. And it wasn't a "prank" on one of those fake forums; it was a respectable article penned by the Great Writer.

There are a few names that just need to appear on any article for it to receive the "stamp of authority." For the Great Writer and Journalist cannot just flush his history down the drain and publish "any old drivel and that's it."

But between the "stamp of authority" and what I read I'm at a loss about what to believe.

Here the Writer is narrating true and accurate details about what happened between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler.

And oh my what details!!!

The Secretary of State conveys to the king serious information about Qatar and their relations with Israel and the article goes on to relate how the Secretary of State fidgeted and how the Ruler cleared his throat. The article narrates with great precision what the US Secretary of State told him, from the opening "Allow me, Your Highness, to tell you a critical secret," to secret phone calls between Obama, the emir of Qatar and Erdogan, to how a Syrian minister snuck into Jordan dressed as a woman, to details about the latest episode of "Sponge Bob."

The article did everything short of following the minister into the bathroom!!!

The article was not a general account of what happened between the two parties – you know, the big picture. It was a word-by-word script with choice lines from a screenplay by Osama Anwar Okasha.

I'm not casting doubts on the credibility of the Great Writer, and I'm not accusing him of lying. However, the Great Writer and his comrades from among the legends of Arab journalism are the first ones who told us that if a writer writes something for his readers, he has to have sources for it. I read the article from start to finish and didn't find a single source….at all.

All that's written is that "someone trustworthy" told him these things.

Who's the layabout source that would spin these yarns?

So why were we upset with the Islamists?

Weren’t their show nothing but a steady 24-hour stream of "I was told" and "He told me and I told him”?

So why are we upset? It's enough that thousands of people read the article and really believed this friendly dialogue between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler, and that they exchange the Arabian Nights stories that this article is chock-full of.

The problem is that, unfortunately,  this type of writing, which was invented by a Great Writer in the Sixties, has become acceptable in Arab journalism, and since then "bullshitting" has become a lifestyle for many who were at the forefront of the Egyptian newspaper scene.

There's an entire generation that grew up hearing urban legends about how Sadat put poison in Nasser's cup of coffeee. And for you to be able to know this story, either Sadat told you or Nasser came back from the dead and told you, or you yourself were hiding in the coffee pot.

This Writer who confounds us every two months with a new book about the secrets of the intelligence services, the presidency and the army and who by sheer dumb luck just happens to be present at the right time and place to hear what Mubarak, Tantawy, Anan and Morsi all said. This is in addition to his uncanny ability to get in the good graces of Mubarak, Morsi and anyone else he ends up with. And let's not forget that "the Minister of Defense will force himself to run against his will;” Congratulations!

Then you have the other Writer who every now and then will inform us about the plots that American intelligence is hatching and divulge to us what spy agencies around the world are telling us. I recall that at the time of the trial of the human rights NGOs when the Americans fled, the Great Journalist told viewers that he had verified information that the US army was going to land helicopters on the roof of the American embassy to evacuate the people working in these NGOs. As a result, those in power were forced to give in and allow them to be smuggled out so such a scandal would not take place. Of course the Great Writer thought that he was thereby serving the Military Council by relating this ridiculous scenario so that people would say: "This is God's grace and wisdom.  Thank God America didn't get the better of us."

Do you get it? A helicopter penetrates Egyptian airspace like it's nothing, crosses the Delta and gets past the air defense systems -- again no big deal -- then the welcome mat is rolled out for these aircraft to reach downtown. Finally, these helicopters land – nothing to see here – on the roof of the embassy and get these people out of Egypt. All while we – pardon the expression – sit around like a sack of potatoes.

But why? The Military Council at that time – how awful! – was forced into this shameful solution so that Egypt wouldn't be put to shame by a landing operation. Although this boot-licking scenario is actually more shameful to the country and its rulers. But it seems that the Great Writer "didn't think it through." But no matter, is there anyone who's paying attention or remembering these stories?

I don't mind that there are these people who know the inside story of all these matters – I wish you nothing but the best, good fellow! But I have a question about all these nice stories that these people are circulating about America, Obama and intelligence agencies: how did these stories escape the notice of American newspapers, American media outlets and American oversight bodies to end up in our newspapers and books, out of all of God's good creation?

Do you remember the story of Khairat El-Shater, who sold Sinai for 80 million dollars? Do you remember the documented information that Obama's brother is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you remember the documented information that came from a German base where a meeting took place between the great powers, and newspapers published details of the foul conspiracy that these countries were plotting against Egypt? How is it that the "respectable" newspapers and "respectable" talk shows were able to dedicate large amounts of space to discuss this villainous conspiracy -- then days later, we forgot the villainous conspiracy and Egypt's leaders sat with representatives of these countries that had plotted against us, as if it was nothing?

Doesn't it get you riled up or make you proud if you believe that neither the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN or any American media outlets were able to obtain this information, yet the bold, heroic journalists of Egyptian newspapers were able to get a hold of it so the "super" professional broadcasters could circulate it on Egyptian TV?

Do you remember the Egyptian talk show stars who reported statements about the Brotherhood, Morsi, Morsi's wife and Ezzat al-Garf -- but they were reporting statements from fake Twitter accounts?

Have you followed the transcripts of the calls attributed to Morsi and the rest of the Brotherhood leadership?

Have any of us heard them? If these calls describe their treason in detail, why are the Egyptian people not allowed to hear them? If journalists are allowed to publish transcripts of these recordings, then what objection is there to releasing the recording themselves?

I remember now the famous program that was broadcasting the events of 30 June moment by moment; The presenters in the studio were determined to read funny tweets from an account attributed to Mohamed Morsi, while the journalist sitting in their midst was trying to explain that this Twitter account was satirical. But the veteran presenter insisted on reading this fluff as if it were real.

Now the ground is ripe for such beings known as strategic experts to emerge, and for journalists who were educated at the same "Great Writer School" of the poisoned coffee cup. And nobody gives a thought to consulting sources or asking for proof of the bullshit that they spew.

My dear reader, I'm asking you to review all the information that you've read on Facebook or on websites that you think are news websites, or from presenters that read their news from these sites. How may pieces of news turned out to be true? How many pieces of news were confirmed by global news sources?

To be frank, the answer to this question is: "It doesn't matter." This news sooths your nerves because it is against those you hate. So there is no need for us to check it or verify its sources.

This is the same sin that the Islamists were guilty of before. They did not hesitate to use rumours and fabrications no matter the source, as long as it served their aims.

Now the Islamists are gone and the rumors remain, but going in the opposite direction.