BBC Egyptian Journalist Shaimaa Khalil Documents Changes in her Homeland, Post-Revolution

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The ideals of the Arab Spring have attracted people from all around the globe. Some have gone to support a rebellion, as Nichole Mansfield may have done in Syria. Others have traveled to countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia full of hope. Hope that in places where revolutions overthrew dictators, society would be different and democracy would flourish. The BBC's Shaimaa Khalil went back to Egypt, the country of her birth. She returned to her hometown of Alexandria, to see what life there is like two years after Egypt's revolution. Shaimaa Khalil produced a series of documentaries getting at the state of things in a way few journalists have. Today and next week we'll be hearing bits from that series, Egypt's Challenge, starting with this scene.

Shaimaa Khalil: This is all I need to tell me I'm in Alexandria. I'm looking at six baskets of freshly caught fish and shrimp and crabs. And you can just smell the salty water on them. This reminds me of my grandmother's house, because I remember Fridays when my father used to come with baskets, just like this one, full of shrimp and squid and crabs. And my grandmother would have these huge pots where she'd cook the crab and the whole house, the whole neighborhood would smell of freshly cooked crab.

Werman: And that's how Shaimaa introduces us to her hometown of Alexandria. And Shaimaa, I've never been there, but I can smell the seafood as you describe the scene. It's amazing.

Khalil: It is very very hard to escape, Marco, it's this thing that's just all consuming. And of course Alexandria being a coastal town is very known for it's fresh seafood. But I think it's also, I mean, you know you can hear it in my voice the excitement, because just looking at these baskets and smelling the fish brought back so many memories of my childhood. Because really Egyptians love their food, but Alexandrians love their seafood.

Werman: Yeah, you sound very excited. So tell us a bit about why you chose to go back now to Egypt, and what you expected to find.

Khalil: I think that the way that Egypt's been covered in the last two years has been really kind of 'headline news'  so when violence happens, when demonstrations break out outside of the presidential palace, or Tahrir Square. But to me this was my home country going through a very fundamental transition. And what I wanted to do was kind of really gauge how this transition, change was happening, but also kind of present a variety of Egyptian voices in a variety of Egyptian locations. Because another thing I noticed about the coverage of the international media to Egypt was that it's very Cairo-centric. And I just wanted to you know kind of through this series say 'look, it's a vast country. So many different places have all experienced the revolution in different ways, and here's what they have to say.' 

Werman: We'll hear some of those voices today and next week. Let's start off with somebody in your own family. Your cousin Hebah voted for Mohamed Morsi.

Khalil: Yes.

Werman: She had high hopes, but now she's disappointed. So let's listen to what she has to say.

Hebah: Everyone supported him, including all the revolutionary powers, and all the youth. So when he makes the right decisions, people support him, even when they are not from the Muslim Brotherhoods. I don't know why did he drift away from this path. I guess it's because he wants to empower the Muslim Brotherhoods. It's about their own benefits, not about Egypt's benefits. This is the turning point for us. You know there is a nickname for those who voted for Morsi, the 'lemon squeezers' . That we squeeze lemon over things that we don't like their taste. We are lemon squeezers.

Werman: So Hebah is one of the lemon squeezers. How bad [laughs] That's a great phrase. How bad is life for these lemon squeezers?

Khalil: You know, I think the worst thing for the lemon squeezers is the sense of disappointment and the sense of feeling cheated almost. Because you there was a very stark moment, really, during the elections, when basically Egyptians were confronted with either someone from the Muslim Brotherhood or someone who served under Hosni Mubarak. And for many of those who went to Tahir Square that was going to be impossible. It just worked against everything they had hoped for. So the only person they had to turn to was Mohammad Morsi. And basically the lemon squeezer is an expression saying, 'you know what, you're not really our first choice, or our second choice, but you're kind of our only choice at the moment, and we're kind of counting on you to step up here.'  And unfortunately he didn't. Unfortunately on so many occasions, Marco, he's proved to be incompetent of leading the country out of this crisis. And I think the problem really is, with the lemon squeezers and Egyptians at the moment is that Egypt is no longer a country in a transitional phase. I think Egypt is a country that is in a crisis. And it doesn't have the proper leadership to lead it out of that crisis.

Werman: Well, just like here, if you're squeezing lemons, you're trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

Khalil: Exactly, yeah.

Werman: Shaimaa, you also speak to some of the new leaders in Egypt, and I was struck by how forthcoming the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman was with you. He admits to his party buying votes by making food donations. Let's hear that.

Spokesman: It's a race. Don't blame the Muslim Brotherhood or the service (?) people that they provide the poor people with what they need. Blame yourself. Why you don't do the same? And you are more rich than the Muslim Brotherhood. Go and do it. And we will see the results.

Werman: So, Shaimaa, if I'm not mistaken, he's saying that, 'we bought votes better than the other guys' ?

Khalil: Well, yeah, not in so many words, but that was essentially it. I mean the question to him really was, 'Look, you know, the fact is people vote for you, not because you have a vision, not because you have a strategy. It's just because you provide services.'  And he said, 'Well, yes, we provide services. And if people want to provide more services, you know, let them go ahead.'  But one thing it reflects, obviously, is how these people get votes. But I also think that it just reflects a very primal, basic political process. People are still getting to grips with why, with how, you know with political processes. You know, why is it that you go out and vote for someone. For many Egyptians at the moment, because of the dire economic circumstances, it's the person that provides the services. It's the person that you can turn to when you're in a crisis, who can be there for you.

Werman: Were there things that you found that gave you hope?

Khalil: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, the sense of empowerment, of young people, it never ever ceases to amazing me. Only because, you know, I've grown up in Egypt. I was a teenager in Egypt. And never in my time growing up there had I thought of changing the reality of the country where I lived. Never had I thought that I could be an agent of change. I could be an agent for this country to be better. I just thought, 'You know what? The president's name is Hosni Mubarak. His son's name is Gamal Mubarak. He's probably going to be the next president. And that's that.'  And to speak to all these young people now who stand up to authority, who hold them to account, who basically say, 'Look you will not get away with whatever it is that you do, because we will keep you in check.'  It was so inspiring! And you see it on so many levels. But you know I would say that the prospects for a young person in Egypt aren't very high. And I must say, there are people that said, you know, 'we'll stay. This is gonna get better.'  And other people have said, 'You know what? We've done our bit. I think we should leave.'  So, you know, you get a mixture of opinion.

Werman: Do the people who say, 'Stay. Things will get better.'  Do they see that revolutions are always a little unstable in the beginning and eventually, if you work hard, things might get better. Is that their hope?

Khalil: Yeah, I think what they're doing is they're kind of working through their disappointment. I think that they have expected or wanted things to change a lot faster for them, and that hasn't happened. But I think many realize that there have been mistakes on the part of the revolutionaries. They were in revolutionary mode for too long and they didn't engage in the political process as much as they should have. And I think now they're kind of recalculating their steps. But ultimately I think everybody recognizes that what has been achieved is huge. And one of my really good friends, a young journalist, said, 'You have to imagine this. A couple of years ago, during the Mubarak time, when we used to just assemble kind of a bunch of us. We knew that we weren't going to go home that day.'  We have toppled this regime. And we just need to keep reminding ourselves that this is what we were able to do.

Werman: Powerful stuff. Well we'll hear more from your series next week. And listeners you can hear all six thirty minute episodes of Shaimaa Khalil's series Egypt's Challenge. We've got a link for them at Shaimaa, thank you very much.

Khalil: Thanks, Marco. Thanks for having me.