Suzy El-Geneidy, deputy chief editor of Al-Ahram Al-Arabi magazine, is one of the most prominent journalists in Egypt and one of the most sought-after opinionists for the developments at both national and regional level. Her name became familiar to many readers around the world in the first years of this decade, when Egypt passed through a series of political upheavals and her sober, experienced viewpoint appeared quite often in the stories of major international media. Mrs. El-Geneidy, a person with deep respect for Greece, kindly accepted to grant us an interview* and discuss with us on a number of topics regarding, among else, the current media reality in her country and the prospects of cooperation between Greece and Egypt on a number of topics, including the media sector.
How would you describe today's media landscape in Egypt?
It is different than the landscape that existed before the [25th January 2011] revolution and then, after the revolution, in the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Now, it’s the time of President el-Sisi administration. Every era is a different one. Before the 2011 revolution, former President Mubarak had 30 years in power, there was not a very high percentage of free press, but, towards the end of his era -this is a coincidence, something to think about-, before he left power, for six or seven years, freedom of the press was a little more elevated, it was more open than it used to be before. There were private newspapers, private channels, talk shows. There wasn’t a very high rate of freedom, as, for example, in the United States or in Europe, but there were steps forward, actually.
After the 2011 revolution, one can say there was press freedom – it was a period of instability, everybody was writing what they wanted to say, there was no control by any means, but it was a chaos, as with any case of instability that happens in any country. After that period, there was the presidential election and we had the Muslim Brotherhood in power. This group started trying to control the press by putting their people at the head of newspapers – in the end, as they could not control the country, they could not control the press.
After President el-Sisi was elected, the press was in a shaky mood, one can say so. You know, every government in any country tries to control the press. This is not unique in Egypt, or in any other country. Even in the USA, President Trump is always criticizing CNN, the Washington Post and other media. This is usual. In Egypt still we have a certain freedom of the press, but I can’t say it is the same as it had been immediately after the 2011 revolution or before it. We must not forget, though, that there is all the time an effort [by the government] to control, of course, while the journalists all the time claim that they need more freedom. So, it is the usual situation with every stable country, the journalists asking for more freedom, the government trying to control. We are in this situation now.
The world of information has undergone important changes in recent years, thanks to a number of technological developments, from the internet to all new methods of audiovisual broadcasting. What is, in your opinion, really particular in this new media environment? How the new ways of spreading and consuming information have affected, or eventually transformed the work of journalists and opinion makers all over the world?
Of course, there has been a great difference. The websites, especially social media, change the way especially young people see the world. The world is now actually a small village, with internet, cyberspace, social media. The original, the classic press (newspapers, magazines) is being defeated, not only in Egypt, but all over the world. That’s why [traditional media organizations] are making more websites, you can see that every newspaper, every magazine in Egypt has its own website, because they understand that people read their websites and don’t buy the newspapers or magazines as they used to do. The problem is that the ethics of journalism is not as it used to be or as it should be. For instance, let’s think of a journalist at a website, who reaches a conclusion and writes it as a news, not caring about credibility of his website - because he doesn’t care about credibility of the website, he is only concerned about giving the news quickly. Then other, competing websites take the news and put it also and that’s it. Usually no name of source is given, it is an anonymous source who doesn’t want to say his/her name, then the journalist jumps to conclusions and assumes that it is right. And then, even if this newspiece is not accurate, or even if it is false news, people have it in their mind, don’t delete it, it is in the mind of the people as if it were correct news. The [traditional] press was different. You had to be sure. This is the difference between the websites and classical newspapers. We understand more about ethics, we also understand more about covering in depth, writing not just the news, but what is behind this news, what this news means. You will not find this a lot in the websites. Maybe some of them are smart enough and try to do or will do it, in a few years, I hope, they will put in-depth news. This is the second point.
The third thing, which is very important, is the social media. In my own perspective, I don’t think that the social media is press. It means only information. But, unfortunately, people rely more on them for everything, for every aspect of life, not only news, but also for understanding news. You find in Facebook, Twitter, or in other social media, things that are not accurate. And people don’t think that they have to be accurate, they are sharing or pasting things, as if they were true. You know, you can create a rumour, just a rumour, to enforce something to be a “real” thing. When I met people responsible for Facebook in some conferences, in Barcelona, in Brussels, who spoke about the future of the press, I told them about all this, that one can ruin someone’s life, just by saying/posting something false about him. People share it and deal with it as if it were reality, while it is not. One can do a lot of things – but this is not appropriate, unfortunately. Millions of people are using Facebook, but what are they, its leaders, doing with all this for the humanity? They don’t care. I don’t know – they care about money etc. I mean, we all understand that social media sometimes are being controlled, they are not all so free. Certain intentions and ideas are to be spread in this way. I am not adopting conspiracy theories, but I think it is being used. My Masters’ Degree from the American University of Cairo was about propaganda, how to use propaganda in political life. So, I understand very well how to use all this. I can do it, so I understand why they are doing it.
So, the whole world, not only in Egypt, are moving to non-reliable press, unfortunately. I think that, from an international viewpoint, something has to be done. This situation is shifting, is changing the way people are thinking, as well as the traditional values. But, of course, I am not against social media, I am using it every day, my kids are using it every day, I couldn’t live without social media. This is my job. I am always using sites of newspapers, Egyptian, Arab and international, I am always using Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, but still I have a critical attitude. When I find the news from Facebook, sometimes I am alerted and I [warn other people] that this news may not be correct and they have to be careful. Sometimes I do it.
What is the impact of social media and other modern forms of communication in today's Egypt? Do you share the view that Egyptians, in particular the youth, are following very closely the international trends and tendencies in this field?
It is very popular, especially among young people. It makes me sad, for instance, that I have three daughters, they don’t read newspapers, they don’t care. In my generation we had to read. Even before I became a journalist, when I was young, in the secondary school, I had to read the newspaper, I had to read books. My kids read books, but they don’t like magazines or newspapers, they don’t believe [in them], they think it is all controlled. So, young people are reading more social media than press. I don’t want to say it is dangerous – but sometimes it is not benefitting 100%, as it should be. It certainly has its own benefits, it has its positive aspects, but the percentage of true or false in what people get to know from social media depends much on what sites they open.
The most important thing: Terrorists are using social media. They play in the minds of young people. This is very dangerous. We have to speak about this. Steps have to be taken, not only by controlling sites that have been found to be sites of terrorist groups. Some people are very normal in their sites, but still they are controlling [the minds of young people], because they are smart. That’s why you can find some European young people – without any, for example, Algerian or Moroccan connection – who are being played and moved [by such sites] and consciously come to Syria or Iraq to fight – why? Because somebody has played with their minds, somebody has confused them – and this is very dangerous.
Greece and Egypt are enjoying a particularly important moment in their traditionally strong and deeply-rooted relations, in a bilateral level, as well as in the frame of the tripartite cooperation with Cyprus. Would you have any ideas or suggestions on possible ways of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in the media and information sector?
I think the trilateral cooperation is very important, the summits of the three leaders are all very important. I think we have been concentrating more on oil and gas, but we actually need more cooperation in tourism, which is a very important sector, as well as in the cultural field. Egypt and Greece had relations for thousands of years BC. More recently, during the First and the Second World War, a lot of Greeks came to Egypt to find security and stability. Many ancestors of today’s people in Egypt were Greek, you can find them everywhere talking about their grandfathers who were from Greece. So, we need more culture, more cooperation in this field, we also need to have more press visits between the two countries, we need more Greek journalists to come and speak about our political and economic cooperation, we need also Egyptian press representatives to go to Greece, we need to know more about Greece. We hear, for instance, that Greece has had economic problems, that Greece is better now, but this is still negative news. We need to know more about the relations between us – between the two countries, between families, the benefits of our cooperation at the level of people. It’s not all about oil – I understand that we like it very much, because it can give us money, but still people need to understand more about the importance of cooperation between Egypt and Greece.
We need also to enhance our cooperation in the counter-terrorism sector, it is very important. We are [already] doing this, but if there is more that can be done, we have to examine it – in terms, for example, of certain equipment that Egypt may need. We have a very severe war against terrorism, especially in certain places in North Sinai, so we need all the help that we can get from our friends – and Greece is one of our friends, of course, this is very important.
Also, as I understand, I have been reading that maybe the triple cooperation could [include] another country, like Italy, for instance, or other countries in the region. I understand that Greece and Cyprus also cooperate with Jordan etc. – so, this cooperation is very successful, if we can enlarge it a bit, it would be a good idea, I guess.
By the way, the relations between Egypt and Turkey have suffered a lot because of Erdogan’s policy, especially after the June 30 2013 revolution. You know, Egypt and Turkey of course do have relations with each other. Egyptian people used to go every year – some of them, of course – as tourists to Turkey, Turkish people came also to Egypt, he had a big volume of trade exchange and investments. But after June 30, 2013 and the steps taken by Turkey, the relations are very bad. And now they are actually threatening, we read declarations from the Foreign Minister of Turkey about the agreement between Egypt and Cyprus concerning oil in the Mediterranean, Egypt has issued a statement, but the point is that Egypt, Greece and Cyprus need each other, they can benefit from each other, at this stage, against all this Erdogan policy. We need it very much. We need all the time to show the world that our cooperation is not just in the oil field, it is not just meetings and that’s it. People should feel it, actually. And people will feel it by having more visitors at any level, not only at the summit level, or the foreign ministers’ level, or the oil ministers’ level. No. “People to people”, this is very important. If you write an article about the cooperation between the people – for example, about the Greeks who have been living here and the Egyptians who have been living in Greece – this will be read, I can assure you.
One can also stress another very important point on this aspect, the need for more Greeks to learn Arabic…
… and more Egyptians to learn Greek, of course.
We both know the existing financial restrictions, but one doesn’t have to rely only on government to find financial aid for culture. There may be some businessmen, for instance, who are interested in this kind of activities, such as financing special programmes for certain Egyptians to learn Greek, for example in colleges in Egypt where people learn different languages. There is a number of people who want to learn Greek in order to ask for a job at some Greek companies. This can have big impact on our relations.
What is a message you would like to send to media professionals and people of Greece in general on the occasion of this interview?
We need to understand that we live in a very unstable - I don’t want to say terrible - world. We have a lot of challenges: terrorism, fundamentalist ideas, development, how to make people’s life better. We have a very strong challenge regarding different countries which are controlled by big companies around the world. We need to come out of these challenges with ideas. It is important to find ways to defend ourselves in this world. We are going to defend our ideas, our rules, our values by uniting, by speaking to each other, by accepting each other. It doesn’t matter if the ideas, the religion, the colour are different. The only thing that matters is how to live better, how to have a better quality of life in this world. This cannot happen with all the problems that we are having now.
So, that’s why Egypt and Greece, with their very ancient civilizations, have a role in this world. We are not just two countries, we are civilised countries. And civilised countries in this world have a certain responsibility, this is my own perspective. The responsibility is to speak to each other, unite and know what are the challenges that we need to face, speak to each other about it and try to do better steps for humanity, not only for our own people, for our own environment, for our region. We need also to speak about humanity as a whole, the future of the humanity, this is very important. It will not be achieved by every country speaking to itself. Egypt and Greece have a very strong role in this, as heirs of very old civilizations. We need to teach the world how to be better.
*Interviewed for Greek News Agenda by Christos Apostolopoulos, Head of the press office of the Greek Embassy in Cairo
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