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A Look At The Youth Of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Charles Sennott is the correspondent for next week's PBS
"Frontline" documentary "Revolution in Cairo." He got back from Tahrir
His report focuses on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian
protests and the split between the younger and older members of the
group. The Brotherhood is an Islamist group that has renounced violence
and became Egypt's most organized opposition group, in spite of the fact
that it was banned.
Sennott tells the story by focusing on one young member of the
Brotherhood and the diverse group of young people he was part of that
helped start the revolution. Sennott is the former Middle East bureau
chief and London bureau chief for the Boston Globe. He's covered the
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he's the author of a book about the
diminishing Christian population in the Middle East. He's also the co-
founder and executive editor of GlobalPost, a website devoted to
covering international news stories.
The documentary, "Revolution in Cairo," is a co-production of GlobalPost
and the PBS series "Frontline." It will be broadcast on Tuesday.
Charles Sennott, welcome back to FRESH AIR. As we record this, I think
you've been back in the U.S. less than 24 hours. How much have you slept
since covering Tahrir Square?
Mr. CHARLES SENNOTT (Correspondent, "Revolution in Cairo): I got in late
last night and got up early this morning, but it wasn't bad, not bad on
GROSS: Did you get any sleep while you were there?
Mr. SENNOTT: Not really. This is the most exciting story I've ever
covered in my life. I mean, I've been a reporter for 25 years. I've done
the Middle East for about - more than 15 of those years. And it just was
so thrilling, so breathtaking, so unpredictable and really a journey for
the whole country of Egypt, but also for those correspondents who've
covered the Middle East for a long time.
I saw a lot of veteran colleagues who were there, and all of us were
just reflecting on how we couldn't believe this was happening. We really
couldn't believe our eyes.
GROSS: Now, one of the things that you witnessed was the creation of
what the writers called the birth certificate of a free Egypt, and this
was drafted by some of the leaders of the youth movement.
So I'd like you to describe the scene. Tell us who was there.
Mr. SENNOTT: Sure. This was the Revolutionary Youth Council. And, you
know, this is just in the hour after Mubarak has announced that he would
be stepping down.
This Tahrir Square exploded with joy when this was announced, and there
was at least a full-on hour of just noise, celebration, literally,
dancing in the street. And, you know, it never really quieted down.
But about an hour after that, as there are still fireworks going off in
the square and huge chants rising up from this crowd of hundreds of
thousands of people, we found the Revolutionary Youth Council huddled
together in a green, four-man tent. And there were probably seven or
eight members of the youth council there, representing a lot of
different aspects of Egyptian society and of this movement that started
There were people from the April 6th youth movement, also from some of
the sort of secular opposition parties, like ElBaradei's people were
there. Muslim Brotherhood was in the tent. A Coptic Christian woman who
was with a secular party was there. And it was really quite a moment.
They were there with head - you know, like flashlights beaming down on a
ripped-off piece of cardboard from a water box, and it was the Muslim
GROSS: This is because they didn't have any paper that they needed the
Mr. SENNOTT: Exactly, had no paper. So they just took this big Nestle
water box, you know, just a box of bottled water. They ripped the top
off it. They turned it over to the blank cardboard side.
And it was the Muslim Brotherhood representative who became the scribe
and began just drafting sentences. And all of them were working together
to come up with these sentences, and it really was quite a moment to see
these young people giving voice to what this moment meant in a
communique, and you really felt like you were inside a revolution. It
was a really, really beautiful moment.
GROSS: You actually sent us an audio clip of one of the drafters reading
this document because you were there with cameras, and this is going to
be one of the scenes in your "Frontline" documentary that airs on
Tuesday on public television. So set up the clip that we're going to
Mr. SENNOTT: So what you hear is a Christian Coptic woman. Her name is
Sally Moore. And she is reading the statement, which has now been
translated from the Arabic, in which they wrote it, to the English
During that time, when Sally was actually reading the statement, there
was another one of the members of the council who was there, actually
tweeting the fact that the entire statement, in both Arabic, French and
English, would be up on the Facebook page, and he was giving directions
on how to find it.
So it was really one of those live, digital moments of this Facebook
GROSS: So let's hear that reading that you recorded.
(Soundbite of television program, "Revolution in Cairo")
Ms. SALLY MOORE: A new Egypt. The people have finally toppled the
regime. The people have finally toppled the regime with the continuous
chants, the Egyptian people declared the revolution of the 25th of
January. With all pride, we announce we are on the brink of the new
Egypt we have always dreamt of, an Egypt free of fear, oppression,
tyranny; an Egypt of safety, transparency and tolerance.
This is a great awakening, and the Egyptian people will no longer allow
a tyrant or a corrupt to lead. We appreciate the continuous struggle and
fight for freedom undertaken by politicians, intellectuals, youth,
elders, women and students. Therefore, we declare that the first urgent
step is to ensure the civility of the Egyptian faith.
The brave Egyptian army will secure the gains of this revolution, that
this will not be aborted by the remnants of the previous regime. And
then they will return to a its position as the protector of - as the
protector of the Egypt, the land and the people, from every aggression
History will not forget how the army stood by its people without any
hesitance - okay, sorry - and the annals of history will remember the
martyrs of Egypt, those who wrote with their blood the birth certificate
of a free Egypt. Long live the struggle of the free Egyptians, the youth
coalition of the Egyptian (unintelligible).
GROSS: So that's a young Egyptian reading what the drafters described as
the birth certificate of a free Egypt. And my guest is journalist
Charles Sennott, who's covered the Middle East for about 20 years,
former Middle East and London bureau chief of the Boston Globe. He's now
the executive editor and vice president of GlobalPost, and he's the
correspondent for a "Frontline" documentary that airs Tuesday called
"Revolution in Cairo."
So, getting back to what you witnessed, this birth certificate of a free
Egypt, within this tent of young leaders of the revolution, you have a
representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. You have secular leaders. You
have a Coptic Christian who identifies as a secular leader. Were there
tensions between the members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the more
secular leaders within that tent?
Mr. SENNOTT: No, there really were no tensions. And this was one of the
really exciting and really beautiful aspects of this revolution was to
see young people within Egyptian society coming together from a lot of
different walks of life.
Many of the younger people who were part of the Facebook front in this
revolution, came from across the river, in a wealthy neighborhood called
Zamalek. And they're very educated. They're very Western. Many of them
speak English. They're really plugged in.
And they don't know many of the kids who come from other neighborhoods
like Shoubra, a very poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Cairo, or
Imbaba, another poor neighborhood that had a really strong Islamist
movement within it, particularly in the '90s.
And what you saw was this co-mingling of people from secular and
religious backgrounds, and from rich and poor. And, you know, the 30-
year truth of the regime of Mubarak was that he made sure that never
happened. He kept people divided.
There was really, I think, a concerted attempt not to allow people to
pull together like that, and I think they were thrilled and energized by
it, and you could feel it.
So no, there really - you would really miss the essence of what happened
if you thought there was a division there.
GROSS: So the Revolutionary Youth Council that you filmed, and you
witnessed their drafting of this birth certificate of a free Egypt, was
this the leading youth group that organized the protests, or is this one
of many youth groups?
Mr. SENNOTT: It's one of several leading youth groups. Most of them fall
under the wide umbrella of the Revolutionary Youth Council. Some of them
have slightly different names, or there are different committees, and
some of those stresses and small fissures within those groups are
becoming more pronounced now, in the aftermath of the revolution. And
how that's all going to take shape is really going to be a big part of
the future in Egypt right now.
The only group within the youth council that I think has great clarity
of purpose is the Muslim Brotherhood. They played no role as a large
organization in the beginning of the revolution. It really was the youth
movement of the Muslim Brotherhood that convinced the old guard,
finally, many days into this revolution, to come along and join it.
Once the Muslim Brotherhood did do that, it became an organization that
helped sustain the revolution. They brought a lot of organizational
So, you know, you see these fractures and these fissures that were
present. They were all pushed down during these days of the revolution,
which felt a lot more like Woodstock than a political party or some
political event. It really felt like a street event. Now, those
divisions, I imagine, will surface.
GROSS: There are a lot of questions being asked about the role of the
Muslim Brotherhood, and will they push for an Islamic state. You say
they said they weren't taking a leading role in the demonstrations, but
you found that Tahrir Square was largely organized by a small army of
Muslim Brotherhood volunteers doing what?
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers were really
coordinating the cascading series of checkpoints that were present as
you came into Tahrir Square from any of the side roads or alleyways that
And the reason they set up those checkpoints was they wanted to keep out
the thugs of the Mubarak regime, the people with contacts to the
different police organizations or who were perhaps on government
payrolls who they, kind of, would be able to judge whether or not these
guys were going to cause a problem. And that's why it was five tiers.
It was very friendly. They would greet you. They would say: Welcome to a
free Egypt. Then they would check your bags, they would check you, they
would check your ID, and the idea of having many layers of this was to
really try to weed out that confrontational force that was trying to get
in the square, that was backing Mubarak, and from the protestors' point
of view, looking to pick a fight, to make this seem like a violent
demonstration when their intention was for it not to be violent.
So you saw the Muslim Brotherhood organize that, and other things they
did, they created a whole handout of blankets. You know, I saw this big,
broken-down old truck - very Muslim Brotherhood-like truck - packed with
these brand new blankets to keep people warm at night who were staying
in the square. And they set up a human chain to hand out the blankets.
And many moments like that. They set up the tea tables, to give people
hot tea. They brought in food. They really were tough on the front line
when the confrontations with the police began to happen. It was really
the Muslim Brotherhood, you know, veterans, who have had a lot of
experience with physically challenging the regime who were out there on
the front lines.
And if you looked carefully, you could see it, that the Muslim
Brotherhood was playing an important role, but you would miss the
meaning of the revolution if you thought it was theirs. It really
GROSS: My guest is journalist Charles Sennott. He's the correspondent
for the "Frontline" documentary "Revolution in Cairo," which will be
shown Tuesday on public TV. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Charles Sennott, and he
just got back from Tahrir Square, where he was filming a documentary for
"Frontline" that will be shown Tuesday night, and it's called
"Revolution in Cairo." He's also the executive editor and vice president
of GlobalPost and the former Middle East bureau chief and London bureau
chief of the Boston Globe.
So I was reading in Newsweek that Newsweek got a file that was compiled
last year by Arab analysts with close ties to Saudi intelligence that
argues that a well-financed, global Muslim Brotherhood network uses,
quote, moderate-seeming politicians to further its extremist agenda.
Is that something that you suspect is actually happening, that they're
coming up with a smiling, democracy kind of face, but they actually have
an extremist agenda beneath that?
Mr. SENNOTT: I think some of that criticism is unfair in the sense that
you have to remember where it's coming from. You know, we watched Hosni
Mubarak use the Muslim Brotherhood to create an aura of fear around any
scenario in which he has to step down or is removed from power.
He threatened Egypt, and he warned the West that if it's not me, then
you're going to have the Muslim Brotherhood, and then we're all in
And one of the things that emerged from Tahrir Square was to hear the
secular, more left-leaning, if that's what you'd call it, Egyptians talk
about how they're no longer afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and
they're tired of them being set up as the bogeyman and all of - you
know, to keep the Mubarak regime in power.
I think similarly, you have to reflect that that may be the Saudi regime
trying to say that there is this fearful Islamist element that if we
don't keep the House of Saud in power, we'll be unleashed across the
land and will mean a nightmare for the United States of America.
We'd be naÃ¯ve if we didn't think there is a truly very profound threat
from the Salafist movements of Egyptian Islamic militancy and the
Salafist movements worldwide. But to try to pin that on the Muslim
Brotherhood I think is out of character with who they are.
They're widely seen as more moderate. The - Osama bin Laden and
Zawahiri, the leaders of al-Qaida, despise the Muslim Brotherhood for
its moderation. They believe they are wimps and that they are
ineffective and that they deal with what al-Qaida would refer to as
Taqfir(ph), those Muslims who have betrayed the faith by siding with the
West or working with the West.
And it's important here to remember that because there's a real opening
here, potentially, for the United States to see with a greater
complexity that there are many different expressions of Islamist
movements across the world, and we have a chance here to re-evaluate
GROSS: So you mentioned the Salafist movement, which is more extreme
than the Muslim Brotherhood. So what is the Salafist movement?
Mr. SENNOTT: The Salafist movement really grows out of Wahabism, which
is grounded in Saudi Arabia. It's a theological stream that is more
puritanical, and it's been the ideological basis upon which more violent
expressions of political Islam has grown, like al-Qaida.
GROSS: Now, when you were in Tahrir Square, you spoke with some of the
younger and older members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And there's a split
between the Muslim Brotherhood between those two generations. So what
did you learn from the people you spoke to about what that split is
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, the youth movement within the Muslim Brotherhood was
very frustrated with the old guard, which is very sclerotic. It grows
out of a history that really begins in 1928. It's slow. It's old,
bearded guys who wave their finger at you when they talk and lecture at
you all the time, and it's - you know, its famous slogan, Islam is the
solution, is very reductionist, and it's boring. It's a boring movement
in some ways.
And the youth movement within the Muslim Brotherhood saw that the people
their age, the 20-somethings in Tahrir Square, really had something. And
the Muslim Brotherhood youth have also been communicating on Facebook
and through blogs. They have Twitter accounts.
They were part of this youth movement, and they were excited about it,
but the Muslim Brotherhood in its entirety would not come along with
them. But they did allow the Muslim Brotherhood youth to work with the
other youth to get it rolling.
So they're really seen as pioneering now. They have a lot of street cred
within the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood for pulling the big
sleeping giant that is the Muslim Brotherhood along into this
demonstration, even if it was late in the game, and even if it was not
They were the sort of vanguard that brought the Muslim Brotherhood into
being part of the revolution in Tahrir Square.
GROSS: Did you find that the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood
that you spoke to were more open-minded than the older members about
women's rights, women's clothing, religious and ethnic diversity?
Mr. SENNOTT: Yes. They're more open. They still sort of hold that line,
I think, that they believe in a lot of the sort of grounding truths of
the Muslim Brotherhood, which are that to be a good Muslim, you know,
there should be a separation of sexes in schools and in many public
The checkpoints they set up, for example, women had one line, and men
had another. They believe these things are part of their faith and that
they have practical applications in life, and they accept them.
That said, we followed this one particular Muslim Brotherhood youth
whose name is Mohammed Abbas(ph). He's 26 years old, and he embodies
everything in the Muslim Brotherhood youth movement. He comes out of a
poor neighborhood called Imbaba, where the Islamists have always been
In fact, in the '90s, Imbaba was referred to as the Islamic Republic of
Imbaba, and he grows up in that. He comes of age in that. His uncle is
in the Muslim Brotherhood. And his process of being grafted into the
Muslim Brotherhood is very common.
But he understood that this demonstration in Tahrir Square wasn't going
to have anything to do with this big umbrella that he is part of, the
Muslim Brotherhood. But he knew that his youthfulness, his sense of
being online, his sense of having a Facebook account, of following
blogs, was his way to work with other people and to really push this
And in doing that, he struck up a friendship with the woman Sally, who
read the statement of the birth certificate of a free Egypt. She's
Christian. She's secular. She's a woman. And she became a friend. And I
think one of the things we really learned from spending a lot of time
with just this small group of people was seeing how this event changed
And really, hearing them talk about each other as friends is something,
if it sounds a little too feel-good to believe, but it really was one of
the truths that came out of Tahrir Square - that they got to know each
other and that they feel they can work together in the future, even if
they disagree with each other profoundly on a lot of issues.
GROSS: Yeah, I guess the question is, does that filter down to the
people who weren't in Tahrir Square and didn't work closely with each
other and didn't have this transformative experience?
Mr. SENNOTT: And that is really one of the big questions of the
revolution, going forward. To what extent will the spirit of that
revolution hold and shape the future of Egypt? Or will it dissipate into
political infighting? And will the military take advantage of that chaos
and that disagreement and exert control? That is the big question going
forward in Egypt right now.
GROSS: Charles Sennott will be back in the second half of the show. He's
the correspondent for the "Frontline" documentary "Revolution in Cairo,"
which will be shown Tuesday on PBS. It's a co-production of "Frontline"
and the international news website GlobalPost, which Sennott co-founded.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Charles Sennott,
who got back from Tahrir Square on Tuesday. He's the correspondent for
next Tuesday's PBS "Frontline" documentary, "Revolution in Cairo." It's
a co-production with GlobalPost, a website co-founded by Sennott, which
is devoted to international news reporting.
His "Frontline" report focuses on the Islamist group the Muslim
Brotherhood and its role on the Egyptian Revolution. He follows a 26-
year-old member of the Brotherhood, who's part of one of the groups of
young people that organized the protest.
When we left off, we were talking about the split between the younger
and older members of the Brotherhood.
You're saying it's the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood who got
the Brotherhood involved in the revolution in Tahrir Square and yet,
it's the older members of the Brotherhood that were invited into talks.
An older member was invited to talk with then Vice President Suleiman
during the protest and now an older member of the Brotherhood, an
appeals lawyer and former member of parliament, was invited to
participate in the drafting of the constitution.
So how did say, Mohammed Abbas, the younger member of the Muslim
Brotherhood, who you followed for your "Frontline" documentary, how did
he feel about it being the older members invited into the process while
it was the younger members who really got the ball rolling?
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, there are two stages to give you an answer to that
question. The first one is, when Morsi, one of the leaders of the Muslim
Brotherhood, went and spoke with the military after Vice President
Suleiman had been named, that was considered a real betrayal. They were
very angry. The Muslim Brotherhood youth felt that the old guard was
trying to undercut the goals and the real momentum that they felt the
demonstrations in Tahrir Square had, and they voiced that to them. And
they voiced it to us in the media, a rare breakdown in discipline within
the movement. So you knew that was genuine.
But then I think, you know, the leadership understood that. They pulled
out of those talks. They no longer went forward until Mubarak fell, and
then the old guard, yes, did meet with the military again after Mubarak
had stepped down, but so did the youth movement.
So I think yes, the old guard has played a more visible role, it's a
very disciplined movement and Mohammed Abbas, the young Muslim
Brotherhood character, will be deferential, but he's been part of the
dialogue as well. So I think there is a sense that they're moving on
these two tracks going forward.
GROSS: Tuesday of this week, the Islamic Brotherhood released a
statement on its website saying that it envisions the establishment of a
democratic civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and
justice with central Islamic values serving all Egyptians, regardless of
color, creed, political trend or religion.
So what does that mean to have an Islamist group saying that they want
central Islamic values serving all Egyptians? Like, that's a little
confusing, since some of those Egyptians don't follow the kind of
Islamic values that the Brotherhood stands for.
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, right now Article 2 of the constitution says that
Islam will be the basis upon which the laws of this constitution are
written and that religion will play an important role in the laws of
GROSS: This Article 2 of the new constitution?
Mr. SENNOTT: This Article 2 of the old constitution.
GROSS: The old constitution. All right.
Mr. SENNOTT: Yeah, which was, you know, the Mubarak regime and the
parliament that put that in place.
Mr. SENNOTT: That is largely seen as an effort by Mubarak to stave off
Islamic opposition. Remember, Egypt is a really religious society, that
movement could have really swept into power and he needed to balance
those. That's always been the political history of Egypt certainly since
Sadat. How do you balance the forces of Islam and the secular forces
Going forward, I don't think it's that much different than the way it
has been, so I don't think it's going to shock Egypt that, you know,
that Islam and the religion will be the grounding upon which they draw
for wisdom and legal applications that will be part of the constitution.
I don't think that's going to surprise anyone in Egypt even the Coptic
The question will be how our minority rights shaped around that and to
what extent are their protections built in for this not to become, you
know, an all-out Islamic state?
But the Muslim Brotherhood has that long-term goal of eventually getting
to Sharia, to Islamic law. And they will tell you that very publicly,
very openly. But they will also, with the next breath, tell you that
they're patient and this is going to take a long time. And it will only
happen when all of the people of Egypt accept it to happen and want it
And that's what I mean by this slow-moving disciplined movement with a
clear set of goals that has steadily through the decades affected great
change within Egyptian society, making it more religious, giving it an
expression of political Islam without having a violent methodology to
So I think those things aren't contradictory right now within Egyptian
society, and I think if a sophisticated group of people within the
United States State Department could get together and look at the real
history of the Muslim Brotherhood and embrace some of the deep problems
with it. Some of its origins are, they go beyond being anti-Israeli and
they go into elements of anti-Semitism in their founding decades ago for
sure and there are strains of that that are worrisome and you hear them
expressed and they really, really are disturbing, frankly.
There are definitely elements of their understanding of the role of the
Christian minority in Egypt and women in Egypt that would be something
that most secular Egyptians don't agree with and would think - and would
want to reject.
But we need to develop a sharper ear for what is this movement really,
what role will play in the future, and is it something that the United
States can engage with to connect to a very broad swath of Egyptian
society as it defines its future going forward. Because in a way the
Muslim Brotherhood can put the violent extremists, the more militant
expressions of political Islam out of business.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Charles
Sennott. He just got back from Tahrir Square, where he was shooting a
"Frontline" documentary called "Revolution in Cairo," that will be
broadcast on Tuesday. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk
some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Charles
Sennott, and he just got back from covering Tahrir Square, where he was
shooting a documentary for the PBS series "Frontline." It will be shown
on Tuesday. It's called "Revolution in Cairo." He's also the executive
editor and co-founder of GlobalPost, which is an Internet-based
international journalistic operation and he's the former Middle East and
London bureau chief for the Boston Globe.
One of the things I find fascinating about what's been going on in Egypt
is that it's this amazingly successful peaceful protest, as opposed to
people glorifying martyrdom. Like, is that a revolution in and of
Mr. SENNOTT: It is. I think it's the most exciting thing about what
happened in Egypt, is that people rose up nonviolently to express that
they were just fed up with the corruption and the brutality of the
Mubarak regime, which has been backed by the United States for 30 years,
given $1 billion a year in aid, and they expressed this nonviolently and
And what's thrilling about that is that it actually may end up
marginalizing the ideology of al-Qaida, the notion that you need a
violent expression, you need to go to war, jihad, against the West in
order to topple these regimes. Well, that hasn't worked and this did.
And I think that's a resonant message that is just rippling through the
region right now, and it's a brushfire and it really is unclear where
it's going to go, where it could take us, what could come of it.
GROSS: Were there times when you were in Tahrir Square, when this
peaceful demonstration seemed to be on the verge of turning violent?
Mr. SENNOTT: Yes. Thursday, when Mubarak was widely rumored to be
stepping down, I mean to the point where the CIA thought he was stepping
down, the president of the United States thought he was going to step
down, there were people hugging each other and celebrating this
extraordinary moment. And everyone presumed that when he came on the air
and there was going to be a speech, that he would say I am stepping down
and turning over authority to the military or to the vice president, but
that he would basically cede to the will of the people and step down.
When he came on on Thursday in this rambling confusing speech which was
broadcast live in Tahrir Square with amazing clarity, by the way, on the
audio, I mean you could really hear it, the place was silent as they
listened. And as it became apparent that he was not stepping down and he
was saying lines that were just causing these great groans from the
crowd like, I was young once too...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SENNOTT: You know, you just heard every young person in that crowd
just rise up and start to get it that he's not going to step down. And
our character who we were following, Mohammed Abbas, was one of the
first to take off his shoe and just hold his shoe up in the air on the
GROSS: As a sign of disrespect.
Mr. SENNOTT: Yeah. It's a great sign of disrespect in the Arab world is
to show the bottom of the sole of your shoe. And he did this and then
everyone started to take their shoes off and hold them up, and it was
this moment of just fury.
And that sense of a turning point had a lot of us very afraid. I mean we
really thought there was going to be rioting, that this thing would
erupt, that it would really blow up. And, you know, it is one of the
sort of amazing parts of this is that it didn't.
GROSS: Why didn't it? Like what happened? Was there anything that you
observed that can explain how the crowd stayed peaceful when they felt
so betrayed and so and they felt I'm sure like it was a turning point
where their tactics had to change because he wasn't going, Mubarak
Mr. SENNOTT: I don't know what stopped it specifically. I know that
generally this was really about dignity for the Egyptian people. They
felt like they had just had enough and they were going to do a peaceful
demonstration, and even if Mubarak's thugs came out and tried to make it
violent, they were not going to let that happen and they were going to
stay with this, and there was a sense of perseverance and a desire to
bring dignity back to their lives. And I think that they genuinely felt
that if they went violent and they began to loot stores or to burn Cairo
that they would just lose their dignity and they would show to the world
that this guy was right, this place needs to be controlled with an iron
And I think another aspect was two things: One was this was a pretty
bourgeois youth; they don't really want to get their heads cracked, and
it was a disciplined Muslim Brotherhood movement that made sure that
their numbers, big numbers, didn't take to the street and didn't exert
any sense of violence. They really put out the message very clearly that
this is not going to get out of control.
GROSS: Now there were attacks on some journalists, including Anderson
Cooper and Lara Logan of CBS, who was sexually assaulted. Were you ever
in danger while you were in Tahrir Square?
Mr. SENNOTT: In Tahrir Square I didn't feel danger. When we began
reporting out into the alleyways off the square or when we tried to get
to Imbaba, a poor neighborhood where our central character was from and
we wanted to get out to his house, or when we dared to venture out to
the side streets, then you felt danger. And, yeah, there were a lot of
Mubarak thugs who would stop you, who would see the camera and who would
say, you know, where are you from? Can I see your ID? Who are you? And
if you tried to back away they'd get a little bit of a crowd behind them
and they'd start shouting, you know, who are these guys? They're
foreigners. They're trying to destroy our country. And you'd have to
just kind of quiet them down and be as open and honest with them as you
But the sad part of this is it just took one of these thugs to shout out
the words, you know, he's an Israeli and then there can really be
violence. And that's what happened with some of our colleagues is that
they just were unlucky in being in a situation where things got out of
control and then the mob turned on them. We managed to get through that
and we really avoided those situations by just cooling them down and
walking away from them before they developed.
It's harder for a big network crew to do that and I think it's
interesting that the people who were really the most targeted here were
the most visible journalists: Anderson Cooper, they're traveling with
very large crews, they draw a lot of attention to themselves, their
faces are known. I would imagine the same situation with Lara Logan and
this despicable attack on her, which we all had heard about and we're
all extremely concerned about for her. And really, I got to say as a
journalist, angry, particularly at this idea of crossing that line into
GROSS: I'll say this doesn't bode well for Israel if the worst thing
that you can say is he's an Israeli and that leads to an attack.
Mr. SENNOTT: This is part of the paranoia of the Arab world. And one of
the really hard things to get at, it's a very nuanced point but I'll try
to express it, and that is that these sclerotic old regimes that we
supported, like Mubarak, who were corrupt and brutal, they ran their
state media. And one of the things I have observed in my many years of
reporting in the Middle East is that they ran their state media to allow
the people to hate Israel, as long as they never challenged the regime.
GROSS: In Tahrir Square, there were times when Christians protected
Muslims as they prayed, and when Muslims protected Christians as they
prayed. You wrote a book a few years ago about Christians in the Middle
East and how many of them have moved and how it's become unsafe in a lot
of places in the Middle East for Christians to live, because they're
discriminated against by Muslims. So when you look at Egypt, which has a
sizable, but dwindling Coptic Christian population - I think you say in
the past 20 years, the Coptic Christian population has gone from 10
percent to five percent of Egypt. Do you think that they will be safe in
a new Egypt?
Mr. SENNOTT: I don't know. I think that the Christian minority in Egypt
is battered and afraid, and there were wonderful expressions of
Christians and Muslims working together in Tahrir Square that I think
gives the Christian minority - at least the Christian minority in Cairo
- some hope that maybe this will change the dynamic.
But the Coptic Christians' Pope Shenouda is largely seen as pro-regime.
Even if the Christian minority suffered at the hands of the Islamists
and, you know, militant factions of the Islamists that existed in places
like Alexandria - where that horrific attack on the church happened
earlier this year. They are worried. They're afraid, and I don't think
they trust this revolution.
You can find, certainly, some members of it who do. And there were
people in Tahrir Square who have great hope. But I think my
understanding from talking to a lot of the people I know from that
Coptic Christian community was that they're sort of holding their
breath, and they don't quite trust the situation.
GROSS: So one of the interesting things about your story, as a
journalist reporting on Tahrir Square, is when the protests started, you
were actually in Kabul. You were in Afghanistan, reporting there. And
you've been reporting on Afghanistan off and on since, I think, the
'90s. So you're in Kabul, watching Tahrir Square on TV with people from
Afghanistan. Were you with military people, or civilians?
Mr. SENNOTT: I was actually with civilians. I was with an NGO that
promotes democracy, of all things, in Afghanistan, and it's funded by a
lot of different governments and different NGOs. And they are just a
very interesting slice of Afghan society, and they watched it with a
reverence and a respect and a sort of a questioning about Karzai,
President Karzai of Afghanistan and the corruption that they feel his
regime is expressing. And is this another U.S.-backed regime - which
Karzai clearly had U.S. backing in the early days. And they're just
wondering what's going to happen with their future, with their attempts
to build a democracy? And it became a very reflective moment.
It was an interesting time to be in Afghanistan, because it's not going
to launch into street protests. I think most Afghans know they can't
afford that. That could cause a civil war, if they tried to take down
President Karzai through street demonstrations. That could really erupt
in bad violence. So I think they know the - it's not their Tahrir
moment, but there's a sense of yearning that you could feel in
Afghanistan about wanting something a lot better than what they have.
GROSS: There's almost something symbolic about the fact that you were
watching Tahrir Square on a TV in Afghanistan. What are some of your
reflections now, having covered the Iraq War, having covered Afghanistan
in 2001 and 2002 and now, you know, watching the peaceful revolution in
Egypt, and just kind of comparing those different approaches to
Mr. SENNOTT: Well, it's a long reflection from covering the long war.
For me, it began in the '90s, as you said, when the first World Trade
Center bombing happened. You know, I went to Egypt, because that's where
the suspects were from. There was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman and some of
the other people who were involved in that attempt to take down the
World Trade Center in 1993, which failed, but killed six people and
wounded more than a thousand.
My reporting journey in the long war began in Egypt. And for me, what it
really is about - and I guess the big take away would be the consistency
and the hypocrisy of American foreign policy this whole time, that we
just haven't listened to the street well in the Arab world and in the
Muslim world. And we haven't really understood that the regimes we
propped up were actually causing a great deal of instability. We thought
it was stability, but actually, it's instability. And Egypt is a kind of
wake-up call for a new opportunity for American foreign policy to find a
way to engage with this opposition and to find new ways at that.
And I think going forward, that's what's going to have to happen in
Egypt, and it's going to have to be what happens in Iraq and
Afghanistan, that they're going to have to rethink American foreign
policy and what its goals and objectives are.
GROSS: Well, Charles Sennott, thank you for talking with us about what
you experienced and reported on in Tahrir Square.
Mr. SENNOTT: Thanks, Terry. It's always great to talk with you.
GROSS: Charles Sennott is the correspondent for the "Frontline"
documentary "Revolution in Cairo," which will be shown on public TV next
Tuesday. It's a co-production of "Frontline" and GlobalPost, a website
co-founded by Sennott, devoted to international news reporting.
Coming up, John Powers recommends two new movies that might not already
be on your radar.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Unexpected Excitement In 'Cold Weather' & 'Poetry'
TERRY GROSS, host:
January and February can be notoriously slow months for new Hollywood
movies. But our critic-at-large John Powers says they're the perfect
time to catch up with exciting, new American talents and acclaimed
movies from other countries. He's particularly enthusiastic about two
currently in theaters, Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather" and the Cannes Film
Festival hit "Poetry."
JOHN POWERS: If anything defines movies these days, it's their utter
predictability. We know all along that Colin Firth's King George will
learn to stop stuttering. We never doubt that Adam Sandler will wind up
with warm, wry Jennifer Aniston, not the busty blonde he appears to be
after. And there's undeniable pleasure in this. We like watching what we
expect to happen, happen.
But there's a deeper pleasure to be had from movies that offers things
we don't expect. That's the excitement you get from two wonderful new
releases, "Cold Weather" and "Poetry." Although one's an American indie
and the other from South Korea, they both keep us asking: Where could
this possibly be going?
"Cold Weather" is by Aaron Katz, a 30-year-old Portland filmmaker who
may not have much money to work with, but has everything else: a sly
sense of humor, a light touch with relationships and a keen sense of
visual beauty. These virtues were all on display in this dreamy, shape-
shifter of a picture.
Cris Lankenau plays Doug, a college dropout who's one of those lazily
alienated heroes beloved of current movies: a not-quite rebel whose idea
of a cause is fantasizing about being Sherlock Holmes. Doug shares a
Portland apartment with his sister, Gail â that's the terrific Trieste
Kelly Dunn - with whom he has a friendly, but distant relationship.
At first, not a lot seems to be happening. Doug takes a job at an ice
factory, where he becomes friends with Carlos, amusingly played by Raul
Castillo, who moonlights as a DJ. And he meets up with his old
girlfriend Rachel. She's played by Robyn Rikoon.
The four start hanging out, but just when we fear that "Cold Weather" is
going to be yet another movie about narcissistic 20-somethings sitting
around, yammering, the story switches gears. After DJ-ing a show, Carlos
wakes Doug up in the middle of the night and tells him that he's
(Soundbite of movie, "Cold Weather")
Mr. RAUL CASTILLO (Actor): (as Carlos) It's Rachel.
Mr. CRIS LANKENAU (Actor): (as Doug) What about her?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) She said she was going to come to my show
tonight, and she didn't come. I mean, she just didn't show.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) So what?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) Well, she said she was going to come for sure.
I mean, she went out of her way to call me this afternoon and said she
was definitely going to come.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) Okay.
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) So I called her after my set, and she didn't
answer. And then I keep trying to call her, but it goes straight to
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) This is what you woke me up for?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) It's just weird, man. I mean, I went over to
her motel room and all the lights were on in her room, but when I
knocked, no answer.
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) She's probably asleep.
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) Why were all the lights on, then?
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) I don't know, Carlos. The lights are on in here,
and I was asleep.
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) Well, how come she doesn't answer her phone?
Mr. LANKENAU: (as Doug) How the hell should I know?
Mr. CASTILLO: (as Carlos) It just doesn't make sense, man.
POWERS: So Doug gets to play detective, after all. With help from Gail
and Carlos, he tries to find Rachel, a woman-hunt that involves, among
other things, sleazy photographs and a mysterious man in a cowboy hat.
Yet while this search is engrossing, "Cold Weather" never turns into a
routine thriller. It's not all about solving the mystery. In fact, by
the end, we realize that Katz has been playing with mystery conventions
to do other things - to reveal the city of Portland in all its Northwest
beauty and grunginess, and more important, to capture how his characters
- especially Doug and his sister - go from being trapped in chilly
isolation to forging human connections that promise some warmth.
There's a different kind of mystery at the heart of "Poetry," the great
new movie from Lee Chang-dong, South Korea's former minister of culture,
who tells the most unpredictable stories of any filmmaker working
anywhere. Here, he takes a premise that sounds almost laughably boring -
an old woman takes a poetry class - and elevates it into a work as
constantly surprising as it is enigmatic and moving.
Its heroine, Mija, played by Yun Jeong-hie, is a decent, proper
sexagenarian who supports herself and her teenage grandson, Wook, by
cleaning houses. In search of some meaning in life, Mija decides to
learn to write poetry. Ironically, even as her poetry teacher tells her
that she must learn to look at things closely, life is teaching her
exactly the same lesson. When a young woman commits suicide after a
sexual assault that may have involved her grandson, Mija is forced to
start viewing life in a whole new way.
She tries to get to the bottom of what happened. In the process, we not
only see the flowering of her awareness, but we're made aware of the way
that the male-dominated, money-dominated Korean society has no interest
in, or respect for, lives like Mija's.
But don't worry. Lee's film isn't some dreary, social tract. It contains
a mesmerizingly rich performance by Yun, the Korean equivalent of
Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn, who came out
of retirement to play Mija. And it boasts a theme that could hardly be
more moral or wise. Like poetry itself, "Poetry" the film is about the
search for beauty and truth in life and what happens when we discover
that the truth is not always beautiful.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You can watch
clips from the film "Cold Weather" on our website, freshair.npr.org,
where you can also download podcasts of our show.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.