"There’s nothing left of the euphoria on Tahrir Square"
"MYCAI – My Cairo" is the title of the book published by Jörg Armbruster in late 2014 with the Syrian, German-speaking writer Suleman Taufiq. On the occasion of the book launch in the ifa Gallery in Stuttgart, we spoke with him about his Cairo, the "Arab Spring" and his long-standing work as ARD foreign correspondent for the Middle East.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte
ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations): Mr Armbruster, your book is called "My Cairo". Let us imagine we're not sitting in a café in Stuttgart, but somewhere in Cairo instead. Where would we have met?
Jörg Armbruster: Probably at Café Simon in Zamalek, a European quarter of Cairo where I lived. It is a very old café from the 1920s. When I first went there 20 years ago, there was an ancient machine which they used to make espresso. It is no longer there today, but the former flair very much is.
ifa: The book reveals the personal Cairo of more than 60 authors. How was your first encounter with Cairo, "the mother of the world", as the city is known?
Armbruster: I was in Cairo for the first time in the 1970s, as a tourist visiting my cousin. He is an archaeologist and has also written a section of the book. From the outset, I had a very personal approach, far away from the normal tourist routes. When I was sent to Cairo in 1999 for the SWR channel, then still SDR, I got lost in one of the many slums. At some point, I saw an elderly man whisper something to a little girl. The girl came up to me, took me by the hand and led me out of the labyrinth of alleyways. This kindness of the people strongly influenced my image of Cairo.
ifa: Do you think we can learn something from the Egyptians?
Armbruster: Learning is always tricky, but certainly the openness and hospitality. To make tea, even if it is the last of the tea, and to share the last of your bread with a stranger, and then be happy that he is interested in you. I felt that very strongly there and we don't have that here.
ifa: Why did you go to Cairo in 1999?
Armbruster: SDR was a small station with two foreign correspondents: one for southern Africa, and one for the Middle East. I was in both offices, but eventually began to specialise in the Middle East because I found the region exciting. In the Middle East, there are more lines of conflict than in southern Africa after the end of apartheid. We are witnessing that today with the Islamic State (IS). Oil plays an important role, there are many different interests. I have always been very intrigued by ways of coping with that.
ifa: You were on the air when Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011, and reported on the cheers from the protesters. How much of that euphoria remains today?
Armbruster: None of it, for various reasons. Firstly, there were too many demonstrations, which frustrates many Egyptians because it has had economic impacts. Prices and unemployment have risen, tourism and investment failed to materialise. In the end, the majority of Egyptians are more interested in having bread on the table than achieving abstract concepts like democracy and freedom. But even among the people from Tahrir Square, little remains from the euphoria. One of them, who first welcomed the ousting of Mubarak but later condemned it when he saw where it led, recently told me: "We have tried our strength, we are in a position to oust someone. We have made a lot of mistakes and must do things differently in future. But we know how strong we are. " I believe that a force has been released, which cannot be suppressed.
ifa: How do you assess the current political situation in Egypt? What happened to the so-called Arab Spring?
Armbruster: I was in Cairo to present the book "My Cairo" at the Goethe Institute at the beginning of the year. People were ready to discuss it, although it is hardly politically. Currently in Cairo, hardly anyone wants to discuss politics or to take a public position. This has something to do with the fact that the new government and the police take a very repressive stance against everything that smells of opposition: Be it the Muslim Brotherhood or their sympathisers who are sentenced to death as if on an assembly line. Everything that Tahrir Square achieved was destroyed by the new government.
ifa: Was your assessment of the situation in 2011 too naive?
Armbruster: To a certain extent, yes. And too unprepared. Tahrir Square worked, and Mubarak was successfully ousted, but what came afterwards? A military government, the military council of Hussein Tantawi, which started very quickly with repression. The Egyptians were of the opinion that the people and the army were one. That irritated me a great deal at the time as a reporter, because they were never. The army has always been an instrument of power in the hands of the generals, the Egyptian ruling elite. But this illusion was prevalent and the people truly believed it. That was a big mistake. The period after the ousting was simply not prepared well enough.
ifa: Not only journalists, but also academics were quite effusive about the importance of Facebook and Twitter back then. How do you assess the role of social media for the upheavals in the Arab world today?
Armbruster: All of us, the reporters, overestimated the role of social media and always spoke of the so-called Facebook revolution. We overlooked the high illiteracy rate – the many Egyptians who do not use Facebook or who cannot read, but who nonetheless participated in the demonstrations because they were dissatisfied with the system and wanted to be involved in the economic progress of the country. Social media has played an important role as an organisational tool for the initiators of the demonstrations, but they didn’t reach the people in the poor areas. There the people went personally and asked the locals to join the demonstrations.
ifa: What would you advise partner organisations in cultural and educational policy as to how they should support such transformation processes and strengthen civil societies?
Armbruster: Under Mubarak that was a possibility, but today it is practically no longer an option. The government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi knows exactly to prevent it, for example, non-governmental organisations are given short leash. Almost no foreign funds may be sent to Egypt anymore to support CSOs or to enable individuals to become active. The new government knows what the old one did wrong, namely to allow these organisations to function, thereby enabling an emancipation of the population and encouraging unrest. But foreign cultural policy is very important, even if intermediary organisations such as the Goethe Institute in Cairo are finding it increasingly difficult. It is all being closely watched by the government. Creating places where opponents can meet and discuss in freedom – that's important.
ifa: How will Egypt develop under al-Sisi?
Armbruster: I have become cautious. When Mohammed Mursi was elected, I thought that he would stay the next ten years; he stayed just one year. I had not expected that he would make such stupid policies, not even with a renewed coup. If al-Sisi succeeds in giving the economy a real boost, so that the Egyptians can feel improvement, then I would imagine he will remain for a long time in power.
ifa: Until recently, Tunisia was considered as a model for democratic transformation processes in North Africa. Despite the attack in Tunis, would you deem it a successful "Arabellion"?
Armbruster: I hope so. Tunisia is not out of the woods, the attack was a dangerous setback. Now it comes down to how the government responds: authoritarian or more democratic. One must not forget: Tunisia has not only the spring face that we love, but also an ugly side, namely a large and radical Islamist scene. What is important now is the country's economy. If it is supported by the West, Tunisia has a good future. The EU must invest vigorously to create jobs so that people feel that democratisation was worth it. Tunisia was also in a better situation than Egypt: The military was not as strong and there was a broader educated elite to support the upheavals. The new government has a mountain of problems in front of him which they probably cannot overcome in four years. This could then be exploited by the Ennahda party who could say, "Now let us have a go again."
ifa: Can a predominantly Islamic country develop democratically?
Armbruster: That varies from country to country. Tunisia is perhaps the most advanced because it has always insisted on the separation of religion and state since independence. I would say that Islam is not a general obstacle to the democratisation of a country. However, Muslims must rethink development, and must separate religion and the state much more than previously. That will probably not take place in the near future. With us, it took a long time, and even today it is still not one hundred percent the case. Only in those countries, Islam plays a much more prominent role in everyday life than our Christianity does.
ifa: A further question on the matter: How can we support such developments?
Armbruster: The West must stay out of it, the developing countries will need to negotiate that themselves. If they democratise, their democracy will be different from ours, and we must accept that. It is a decision for the country, not the Europeans; they are perhaps more savvy, but they are also more likely to be rejected by the countries of the Middle East. I have seen this again and again. Both the authoritarian governments and leftist movements have told me repeatedly: "Do not interfere. Let us do our own thing, we're fine!" And I believe in that too.
ifa: Mid-March marks the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the protests in Syria. You also reported from there. Was there a so-called Arab Spring in Syria?
Armbruster: No, the war began with peaceful protests but the regime responded immediately with great force, triggering a spiral of violence. From the beginning, anyone who stood against Bashar al-Assad was considered a terrorist, although that was initially certainly not the case. As a "self-fulfilling prophecy" the terrorists have actually arrived and today it has spiralled out of control. What does the future hold? I don’t know. It is true that al-Assad commands a third of the country, supported by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. He could not survive alone. The IS dominates another third of the country and various jihadist groups the rest. Moderate forces, which must surely exist, barely play a role. It would be a miracle if Syria were ever again the country it was in 2011. I myself have serious doubts about this.
"In the case of Syria, it was a completely new experience to have to report on unrest at second or third hand."
"It would be a miracle if Syria were ever again the country it was in 2011."
ifa: To what extent have conditions changed for television correspondents in the last ten years?
Armbruster: A lot has changed. With Syria, for example: In the first year we couldn’t even get in. Initially one needed a permit from the government. We applied and applied, but we only got to travel to Damascus at the end of 2012. At first we were reliant on Youtube videos. It was a completely new experience to have to report on unrest at second or third hand. We tried to cover ourselves, establishing a special editorial service who did nothing but try to verify these videos. It was bad journalism from second or third hand, and certainly we made mistakes.
ifa: For example?
Armbruster: By having images identified incorrectly. The Assad regime posted its own videos in Youtube streams and afterwards, after use by the BBC or Al Jazeera, disclosed that the recordings were not from Syria but Iraq, and then they could say “Look! They’re lying!” We, the ARD, did the same, but we were not important enough to be pilloried.
ifa: And how have working conditions changed as a journalist in Egypt?
Armbruster: After the fall of Mubarak, we no longer had to show permits and were able to move around the country freely. Under Mubarak we needed a permit for every time we took footage in the streets, which was annoying because current stories obviously cannot wait to be approved. Stories would get delayed for up to two weeks. We still filmed without permission and always with a certain risk.
ifa: What expectations do you have of yourself as a journalist?
Armbruster: Not only to tell what is current, but also to show how the conflict came about. To anticipate developments, to recognise them in time, and then point them out. To always tell the stories as closely as possible to the people, and not to merely convey abstract political developments. It is important to explain cultural differences. For example, what role Islam plays, whether it is really so terrible. With contributions of one and a half minutes in the news that is of course difficult, but there are other programmes devoted precisely to that. On the other hand, I did once manage to get three minutes on the news when I was in Damascus, and had especially exciting material. This is of course extremely rare, but the evening news is more flexible than you might think.
"As a journalist, it is important to explain cultural differences; for example, what is the role of Islam."
ifa: Is it possible to report objectively about conflicts?
Armbruster: You have to say goodbye to that idea. Objectivity does not exist in journalism, we are not scientists. One must report the truth, should not dramatise, not over- or understate or take sides. The journalist has to report what he or she sees. But it may not always be objective; the audience needs to know that, and the reporter should communicate as much. News is certainly a different story, but in reports we report what we see and believe to be true.
ifa: What is "true" for you?
Armbruster: It depends on the talks I’ve had, the information that I read and the identifiable positions. I need to get involved with the people and take time to talk to them myself, of course – let them speak. That is not always easy in our fast-paced industry, but it is important.
ifa: You said it is also about anticipating developments. Crisis prevention will play a greater role in German foreign policy in the future. How can the media provide more preventive information? Currently, reporting is mostly done in the "critical phase".
Armbruster: Yes, that is something that upsets me. The subject is often only broached when it has come to a boil. It is often the mechanisms of the media system itself that set a limit. It can be hard to get a story through with the colleagues at home when it is clear that something is brewing. This was the case with IS. It was only a major topic when Mosul was occupied. We knew for some time about the Islamic State, we saw it in Aleppo in 2013. One reason is that this issue was overshadowed by other events such as the Ukraine conflict from November, 2013. That was a conflict on our doorstep, and therefore had priority.
ifa: You mentioned Aleppo. You were shot almost exactly two years ago. How are you today?
Armbruster: Good. I can move the arm, although it is limited, but I can write by hand and with the laptop, which is most important.
ifa: And how have you dealt with the experience of your own vulnerability – as a journalist, and as a human being?
Armbruster: That was of course a big shock. All of us who are out and about there probably think we are invincible. In Tripoli, when our hotel was shelled we lay flat on the floor and found it all rather comical. But I had never dreamt of being properly hurt. Even on the journey back then to Aleppo. A day before I was shot, we had to seek cover from grenade fire, but continued filming because we wanted to record the commotion. I think reporters on missions like that are a little bit crazy.
"Objectivity does not exist in journalism, we are not scientists."
ifa: Who is responsible for deciding where to go when on mission?
Armbruster: I do, but we discuss it as a team. I remember a situation in Yemen as we stood next to a shell that had hit but did not explode. When Yemeni soldiers started to dig for it with basic tools, the cameraman wanted to stop filming. So we went.
ifa: And in 2013 in Aleppo?
Armbruster: I think we were a bit naive because we were on the way out, into Turkey. We just wanted to quickly bring a sack of medication to a field hospital, but the driver made a mistake. He was too close to the front, and drove into the line of fire of a sniper. When we noticed, it was too late. You can blame who you like: the driver, me. Thankfully, I was hurt, not the driver or one of my colleagues, otherwise I’d never forgive myself.
ifa: Would you return to Aleppo?
Armbruster: Not to Aleppo, no, because it is surrounded and everyone who can is trying to leave the city. But I’d like to return to Azaz. Last year I was in Kurdistan, in northern Syria, which compared to the acute conflict areas is of course far safer. I am very interested in the country.
ifa: Since December 2012 you are officially retired, but still work as a reporter. What are your plans for the coming years?
Armbruster: A year ago, I made the last major documentary for ARD, and my time in television is over. I write now and then for newspapers. Currently I am researching for a book on German Jews who emigrated during the Nazi period to Israel. I think this is urgent because this generation is dying out due to age. I have a publisher, but the research is still in its infancy.
ifa: I wish you every success with it, and hope to welcome you at the ifa on your next book launch in a few years.
This interview was also published on Qantara.de. © ifa, 26.03.2015