Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Egyptian World View

Here are two stories about what it's like to live and work under a dictatorship.

I lived in Egypt as a college student in 1978 and 1979.

While there I worked for NBC News and as a junior editor at The Egyptian Gazette, that nation's daily English-language newspaper.

Sadat was "President."

I put "President" in quotes because he routinely won every election with 99 percent of the vote. All rigged. In fact, one of NBC's camera teams stumbled on some neighborhood hacks stuffing ballot boxes.

Imagine living in a country where you know the political system is a joke.

Also, imagine living in a country where your sole media sources feed you a daily diet of hate.

One night at The Egyptian Gazette, I saw a stack of wire stories from South America. Unusual. Bizarre Christian cultist Jim Jones and his "disciples" had assassinated an American congressman in a jungle ambush. Then he caused hundreds of his followers to commit suicide, or he had them murdered.

At first, the two Egyptian senior editors were going to only run the story inside. Maybe four paragraphs.

I talked them into putting it on the front page. Oddly, even though hundreds had died, they didn't think it was a big news story

Of course, it could not be the lead on the front page. That was reserved every day for "President" Sadat.

I convinced the editor-in-chief to let me write the leader, the paper's main editorial, to explain what had happened.

I did that and went home feeling satisfied.

The next morning I picked up the paper. The editorial was as I had a written it, except that the editor-in-chief had inserted one sentence in the middle of my piece....something about how Jim Jones was like the "Zionist terrorists who hijacked Palestine."

Jaw...on floor.

That night I asked him, politely, why he had done that. He sort of shrugged and looked away. He very affably explained that things were the way they were. To keep his job, he had to do something like that every day.

Dictatorships need external enemies, to distract their subjects, so that they do not rise against them.

And, incidentally, one day I got curious and looked at back issues to see what the lead front page story was the day the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the Moon. It was something about "President" Nasser cutting a ribbon to open a new bridge.