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November 13, 2012

Ringside Seat at the Arab Spring

Reuel S. Amdur

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"All of a sudden, we all turned into war correspondents." That was Hadeel Al-Shalchi's experience in finding herself in the midst of an Arab world suddenly erupting in revolt. She spoke at Carleton University on September 19 about her experience of being a correspondent in a war zone. Al-Shalchi began working overseas for the Associated Press (AP) but now works for Reuters. With budget cuts in the media, she feels fortunate in having the opportunity.

As a war correspondent, she faced danger on a regular basis.  Working for AP from 2008 till this year, she was out there pretty much on her own.  Things are better with Reuters which provides her with a security escort.  Reuters also makes a counseling service available, to help deal with the emotional effects of the dangers she encountered and the horrors she witnessed.  She needs to use the counseling on a regular basis. 

She covered Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria.  People tend to think of the uprisings as being a lower class phenomenon.  Not so, according to Al-Shalchi.  Yes, the lower class takes part, but so does the middle class.  Many educated people were unable to find work. One banner on the front of a building in Egypt read, “We are the middle class.” 

In general in the area, she noted that armies control a lot of things.  They are not just armies.  And their behavior during the Arab Spring has varied from one place to another.

Her parents are Iraqi, and she was born in Kuwait, but El-Shalchi prizes her Canadian passport.  It offers her a measure of safety, as Canada has little impact on the area.  Yet, it was common for her to be approached by rebels with one question: How can I get to Canada?  Being a woman was also helpful.  Putting on a bit of a feminine air, she got rebels to take her under their wing, helping her to get where she wanted to go and what she needed.  Nevertheless, dangers lurked.  She mentioned a Western woman correspondent who was raped in Egypt. 

Al-Shalchi was an AP reporter in Tunis when it all began.  There the revolution was civilized.  People sat in cafés while the uprising was going on in the street.  The army did not allow the police to attack demonstrators.  Two days after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled, groups of people milled around in the streets debating politics and religion.  Al-Shalchi felt the electricity of the event.  “The whole of the Arab Spring was summed up,” she said, “in a graffito on a wall: ‘No fear after today.’” 

“Tunisians are very well educated,” she said.  This is a tribute to Ben Ali, in spite of his repression and corruption. Even people from the rural areas know English and French, and they were talking about democracy.  “Tunisians are intellectual.” 

In the other Arab countries, she encountered situations that were more violent.  As a reporter in conflict, to get accurate information she relied heavily on hospitals and morgues.  She counted bodies.  She learned from doctors in hospitals information about the kinds of injuries and the weapons that inflicted them.

She was called away from Tunis to go hurriedly to Egypt, where that government was beginning to totter.  Her generalization about Egyptians: they are humorous.  One demonstrator carried a placard in both hands reading, “Leave already.  My arms are aching.”

Egypt, she pointed out, was more important in the Arab Spring than Tunisia.  “It is important for its historical significance, as the center of the Arab world, and because of its treaty with Israel.” Unlike in Tunisia, the Egyptian army allowed the police to attack the people. The army’s position was ambiguous.

The media in Egypt, she said, engaged in a lot of risk-taking under Mubarak, and during the uprising they were in the front lines.  Of course, so was she.  Both the government and the rebels were media-savvy.  Doctors and nurses were also taking their lives in their hands, manning field hospitals. 

Looking at the current situation in Egypt, she said that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only cohesive group with a clear program.  In reaction to the new government there, “Everyone is fumbling about Egypt, including the United States.” 

She was also in Bahrain, during the troubles there.  Al-Shalchi found people to have a sense of optimism.  “Democracy will come tomorrow,” they would say.

“There is a revolt in Bahrain every three to five years,” she observed, the Shiite population against the Sunni rulers.  She went to a festive demonstration in Pearl Square, where she witnessed people being beaten up.  “The police,” she explained, “are not locals.  They come from places like Pakistan and India, brought in to increase the number of Sunnis.  They do not sympathize with the local people.”

Al-Shalchi was also assigned to go to Libya.  The Libyans she found to be passionate.  As in Egypt, there were field hospitals.  And it was in Libya that she found herself in big trouble.  In the course of her conscientious reporting, she saw and reported that some rebels were engaged in looting.  The next thing that she knew, a Facebook entry reported that she was one of Gadaffi’s agents, and her Twitter account was hacked.  She got out as soon as she could, and she learned an important lesson.  When you have that kind of information about people on whom you rely, reveal it only once you are out of the country.

Of all her Middle East assignments, the one that most affected her personally was in Syria.  It was “the most difficult experience I ever had.”  She followed a group; of rebels on an operation.  They were untrained and poorly armed.  A tank shell fell ten feet from her.

With army snipers all over, the rebels took to guerilla warfare.  To stay hidden from snipers, they passed from building to building by breaking holes through the walls.  The government forces were attacking civilian areas with tank shells and from the air.  She witnessed people pulling bodies from the rubble of apartment buildings, including bodies of babies.  Hospitals were also attacked, and in some Syrian hospitals there were among the doctors some who were government agents.

There were rebels who collected shells and tear gas canisters with markings on them showing country of origin. “This is what your country is doing,” she was told.

She saw troubling signs in rebel ranks.  Foreigners were there, from Doha and Saudi Arabia, and they were extremists.  For that reason, among others, she is very apprehensive about the future in Syria.  Among the rebels that she encountered, Sunnis, there was a hatred of the Shiites, “especially once the fighting began.”  Assad and many of those closest to him are from Syria’s Alawite minority and the Alawites are a Shia sect.  They are a base of support for Assad.  As well, Assad has been arming Christians and other minority communities for, the government tells them, “protection against the terrorists.”  She fears a blood bath coming.  And Lebanon is due for something as well.

As another cause of her apprehension as well as her personal horror, the rebels with whom she was embedded arranged for her to sleep in the basement of a school.  That basement was also a makeshift prison for captured government fighters.  They were being tortured, using electricity. 

The honeymoon period, after the fall of dictators, is over.  “The people were reading, questioning, talking.  Now it has come to a lull.  The army or a hard line group is taking over.  People are losing interest.  Liberals are bored and tired.”  The Islamists are growing more powerful, with well-armed Salafists in Lybia.  Organized Salafists in Tunisia are attacking art.  New governments, she regrets, are beginning to act like the ones they replaced.  “Is it the Arab Spring or the Arab Burp?” 

On a final note, she has had some satisfaction in knowing that what she is doing is recording history, telling the story as no one else can.  And her accounts are being taken seriously.  She knows, for example, that they are being followed in the White House.

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