Friday, 14 December 2012

Egypt: where your copy is outdated as soon as you publish it

Below is the translated version of a column I wrote for the Dutch website Coolpolitics. Original version here

“Fuck damnit!” I am rudely awakened by a verbal onslaught of cursing and yelling. An empty pizzabox flies through the living room, followed by a scrunched up paper coffee cup. 

I’m laying on the couch at a friend’s place. He is an editor for an international press agency and working the graveyard shift. I have recently moved house and my new place doesn’t have internet yet, so in exchange for pizza and coffee I can come and use his internet connection. 

Despite this being my second cup of coffee in less than an hour, I’ve managed to pass out on his sofa, the all-round craziness of the past few weeks in Cairo taking its toll. My computer is still on my lap, a half empty cup of coffee clasped in hand. 

A president who issues a decree placing himself above the law, parliament drafting a half-baked constitution that was initially adopted in a bizarre 16-hour marathon session, mass protests and violent riots between supporters and opponents of the regime: it’s been a busy few weeks in Cairo. And now, judging from the agitated state of my friend, something else is up. 

Attempting to rub the sleep out of my eyes I get up and walk over to his desk. “What’s up?” I ask. He turns to me, furious. His face is tomato-red and steam appears to be coming from of his ears. "Remember those tax measures that were announced this afternoon?" I nod, yawning loudly. That afternoon the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi had announced that taxes on various essentials, such as petrol and cooking oil, would rise dramatically. For cigarettes, hookah tobacco, mobile phones and alcohol consumers would pay significantly more, and additionally, income tax and property tax would increase.

"Well, a few minutes ago those measures were all - yes, ALL - withdrawn. Just like that! Entirely matter of fact, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world”, the editor grumbles. "And of course this happens the exact moment I publish my opinion piece about it." I look at him, confused. It was well after midnight, what government sends out a press release at this time? Or even takes decisions of such magnitude? 

"And you know how they made their decision public?" the editor rages on, "via a message on their Facebook page. On Face-book! At two o'clock in the morning! Really! Egypt is such a banana republic! And those Muslim Brothers are a bunch of amateurs." His tirade is interrupted by a call from the head office in New York. They want to know what’s going on. Filing a story that is irrelevant ten minutes after it has been published does not make them happy, to say the least. 

“Tits and balls!” my friend cries out as he hangs up and angrily slams his Blackberry on his desk. Deleting the article is forbidden by the agency’s editorial guidelines and would be futile, as the piece has already been syndicated on several big news websites. Rewriting the article is also not an option, as the news it featured is now obsolete. The only thing he can do is add an update at the bottom of the : "Note: the above mentioned tax measures have been withdrawn." Or, in other words: what you just read was completely irrelevant. Apologies. With the compliments of president Morsi. 

So, my friend the editor just wasted a few hours writing and researching an article, all for nothing. And this is certainly not the first time. A while back Morsi announced on some random weekday that shops and restaurants were to have a mandatory closing time of 10 pm. Effective the next weekend. An extremely unpopular measure in a 24-hour city like Cairo, so this new law was also lifted before it had even come into effect. And again: the ink on the opinion articles that had been written about it had barely dried up. Welcome to Egypt, where your article is outdated as soon as it is published.

I’ve given up on filing well before deadline, because nine out of ten times you end up updating your story in the middle of the night anyway. So you might as well write the entire piece in the dead of night. 

And while my friend is still pacing around wildly in his living room, foaming at the mouth, I put on my shoes to go get us a new round of coffee. It’s going to be another long night. 

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