Are Afghans being kept in the dark on Egypt?


KABUL, Afghanistan — Mired in the endless, stagnating crisis that is Afghanistan, it is hard not to feel a spark of jealousy at the storm of national pride and energy that has engulfed Egypt over the past week.

Like most of the universe, I have been glued to the television for the past week. I have worried and rejoiced with CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera in their nearly round-the-clock reporting from Cairo, Alexandria and other flashpoints.

But the Afghan media has been sparing in its footage of the remarkable events unfolding just a few countries away. The evening news programs have given the revolution a bit of exposure, but nothing like the gushing plaudits emanating from the Western outlets.

With good reason.

The sight of a million or more people pouring out on the streets to demand the end to a hated regime is likely to cause a bit of excitement among the population and more than a little heartburn in the presidential palace.

I spent Wednesday trying to convince some Afghan media colleagues to do a piece on the reaction in Kabul to the Cairo uprising. It was surprisingly hard going.

“Just ask people what they think about the events in Egypt,” I urged. “Do man-in-the-street interviews.”

The editor of a local news agency looked at me incredulously.

“This is not a good story to do,” he said flatly. “If we ask people if they want change, of course they’ll say yes. Everybody wants change here. We should not give them any ideas.”

I was astounded at his attitude. In my other life as a journalism trainer, I have spent years trying to instill the idea that giving people ideas, or at least encouraging them to think, is one of the principle roles of a professional media.

But then I understood him, albeit reluctantly — after three decades of war, the prospects of a peaceful demonstration involving large numbers of Afghans are practically nil. The country is a powder keg of ethnic, political and social tension. The smallest spark could set off a conflagration that would sweep away any final hopes that the country is on the road to stability, democracy and prosperity.

It has been a particularly difficult week in Afghanistan, unreported and unremarked in the shadow of Egypt’s more spectacular and uplifting events.

Last weekend an explosion in a supermarket frequented by foreigners killed 14 people and ripped from the international community any last illusions of security. Most of my friends in embassies and major international organizations are still locked down, and I have to confess that I was a bit nervous yesterday as I was picking up cheese and toothpaste at the sister store of the one that was destroyed.

The Afghan government is once again in upheaval, something that will undoubtedly shock no one. The senate is in revolt against the president, since Hamid Karzai has not yet appointed the one-third of the upper chamber that he is supposed to by law. The senators went ahead without the absent colleagues and elected a speaker, something that a constitutional oversight committee insists is against the law.

Rumors have been flying that Karzai’s own vice presidents have been fanning the flames of the senators’ resentment, although the august body denies that there is any major tension between it and the executive.

The lower house has been engaged in a travesty of democracy as the parliamentarians attempt to elect their own speaker. There are persistent reports from highly credible sources that Karzai’s people have been sprinkling money with a lavish hand in support of the president’s preferred candidate, Abdul Rassul Sayyaf.

Sayyaf would be a strange choice indeed — he has been implicated in some of the worst atrocities of the civil-war period, and has been named as a war criminal by several international bodies, including Human Rights Watch.

But he is an ethnic Pashtun, with the clout to bring his wayward colleagues to heel. His main rival was a Tajik, Younus Qanuni, who served as speaker of the last parliament.

Four rounds of voting and several days of debate have failed to produce a winner; on Saturday the crisis will enter its second week.

Other recent bombshells include revelations that losses at Kabul Bank, the corrupt venture that enriched some of Afghanistan’s best-connected families, could amount to close to a billion dollars. Bailing out the bank could put a major dent in Afghanistan’s meager GDP, unless Uncle Sam can be convinced to absorb the blow.

Private security firms are being disbanded at a startling rate, for reasons which are far from clear. Some companies are being shut down for failing to report the correct number of vehicles they own, while others, accused of murder and mayhem, remain untouched.

Perhaps most worrying of all, the U.S. government’s own Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has issued a report saying that the aid effort in the country is a shambles.

But who wants more bad news from Afghanistan? Fatigue has set in, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to drum up popular interest in this small, dysfunctional country whose fate has nevertheless drawn in much of the rest of the world.

As a journalist, I am frankly green with envy at colleagues who are covering what is unquestionably the biggest story in the world right now. A friend of mine, a radio journalist who had recently shifted from Kabul to Cairo, was complaining late last summer that her new assignment was just a tad … well, boring.

“It is much harder to get on the air from Egypt,” she fretted, reflecting on her years at the center of the Afghanistan whirlwind.

I’m willing to bet that she hasn’t had that problem lately. Egypt is almost completely occupying the hearts, minds, eyes and ears of media consumers everywhere.

In the meantime, Afghanistan continues its lazy but deliberate downward spiral. It will be a long, hard slog until 2014, when responsibility shifts away from the international community to Afghanistan’s own resources. If the current trends continue, most of it will take place outside the relentless media scrutiny that Afghanistan has enjoyed up until just recently.

Cairo, anyone?