Shahira Amin was a senior correspondent and the deputy head for the state-owned Nile TV who resigned on February 3, following the network’s refusal to provide coverage of the revolution that was under way. She is, it should be said, now back at Nile TV. On her own terms.
Bidoun: Did you see any of this coming?
Shahira Amin: I had heard there would be a day of rage and people were sending me messages on Facebook about it, but I didn’t anticipate what would happen in my wildest dreams. When Tunisia revolted, many people asked me if Egypt would be next. I said, “Never,” because I thought there was so much apathy. I had covered the legislative elections the year before and noted the apathy. People didn’t care anymore, and people were being bought. I felt we had hit rock bottom.
B: Did you cover the parliamentary elections for state TV?
SA: Not for state television! They knew I would speak my mind. So they kept me away. I asked my boss if we could cover them and they said we want you in the studio. I took a fixer job with Time magazine instead. Through that experience, I lost hope that Egypt would rise again. I went all over, from Helwan to Saida Zeinab, on election day. We followed some of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates as they were casting their ballots, and it was the same everywhere I went: either the gates were closed or they weren’t letting voters in. We would call in the number used to report irregularities, and they would reply, “Wait twenty minutes — we will get the place in order.” Of course that would never happen.
One of the security guys at one of the polling stations said to me, “Why are you swimming against the tide? Your arms will get cut off.”
I had to go on air that night. They called one of the MPs — he was Coptic, Dr. Magdy something. I got him on the line and asked him if he was happy with the results for the Copts and the Coptic representation in parliament. The phone clicked: he just put the phone down.
We were two presenters that evening, Mohamed and myself. Mohamed said, on air, “I don’t agree with Shahira’s question!” We moved on… I think the guy was just so shocked I had asked him such a truthful question. Of course the Copts were not happy with their election results!
Still, I’ve never had a big problem with Nile TV until the revolution. This was the first time. I was always getting my story out as impartially as I could. I got a lot of stories out on female genital mutilation [FGM], for example, a very sensitive subject here. The first time I did an FGM story was in 2002. I asked my boss for a camera to go to one of the villages in Assiut that had declared itself FGM-free. She told me we didn’t have any cameras. I managed to get a camera from another channel and did the story…
When the earthquake hit in Haiti, I wanted that to be the top story of that day. Instead, our editor in chief told me there was to be a phone call between Mahmoud Abbas and Mubarak that day. A phone call! And all these people were in the middle of dying! I went ahead with Haiti, but I had to sign a paper saying that it was my decision alone to do so.
On another occasion, an editor had written that Israel had bombarded Hamas in Gaza. If you read the wires just hours before, it was clear that it was Hamas that had fired into Israel… She had turned the story around.
Other things bothered me. When it came to Palestinians, they always insisted on using the word “freedom fighter.” They would never use the word “suicide bomber” for the Palestinians. I always changed it to “suicide bomber,” rather than “resistance fighters.” State TV was very much a propaganda machine.
On the 25th we hadn’t expected a protest of this size and intensity. I was on air that day. We were given press releases from the Ministry of Information that said the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood had instigated these protests. We were also asked to talk about the outlawed foreign agents involved and to report that there were no injuries or clashes. I had a program that night, the daily debate, with Mustafa Kamel El Sayed, a liberal thinker and political science professor. I was told to tell him not to come, so they pulled him and put one of the regime’s men on my show instead who spoke about the foreign agents. I went home feeling sick that night.
I was off the air from the 26th to the 30th, as I had been invited to an EU-sponsored workshop in London on media and the state. I followed the news on BBC, and there was an Internet blackout. I couldn’t even reach my kids, who were here in Cairo.
I came back on the 30th and told my boss I couldn’t be on air because I had a bad hair day. In the next days, I went to Tahrir twice not to cover it, but just to be there. I saw families, I saw that it was inclusive, I saw that there was no religious agenda.
On February 2, I was on air. That was the day of the pro-Mubarak rallies on state TV. All day we showed these rallies, and we showed peaceful corners of Tahrir Square with no sound. This was the day of the horses and camels — and there was no mention of what had happened. No mention of the demands of the protesters. There was just talk of people being bought off by Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I was watching Al-Arabeyya in the newsroom the entire time. I went home feeling very bad. I didn’t sleep that night. I think deep in my mind I knew I was not going back.
The next day they were to put me on air at one o’clock. I stalled. It was 11am, and they called to say, “Why aren’t you coming?” I parked at the Semiramis Hotel, as I usually do, and told them I would be there shortly.
As I started walking away from the hotel and toward the state TV building, I heard the chants of the protesters in Tahrir. I turned instinctively and walked toward the square instead of to work. I sent an SMS to the head of the news section, Mr. Abdel Latif. I said, “Forgive me. I won’t be coming back to the building. I’m on the people’s side, not the regime’s.”
Ten minutes later someone from the head of security at the news sector called me. “What happened?” they asked. “Are you upset?”
I said nothing.
They said, “Why aren’t you coming back?”
And I told them, “To have a clear conscience.”
That was the day of the truck. The day the truck ran down the protesters. But you know, it was the men on horseback that did it for me. That and seeing the Molotov cocktails being thrown. I knew I wouldn’t go back.