Journalist Had Front-Row Seat To Egypt's Revolution

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen had a front-row seat to the revolution that has shaken Egypt and the Middle East. Host Melissa Block talks with Cohen about his recent reporting trip to Cairo, and whether Iran might be next.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Indeed, we might see 2/11, the day Hosni Mubarak fell, as the antidote to 9/11. That's the view of The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen who watched the revolution unfold in Cairo and, before that, in Tunisia.

Roger Cohen, welcome to the program.

ROGER COHEN: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Roger, one point you have made is that you think it's time to retire the dismissive shorthand The Arab Street. What do you mean?

COHEN: Well, these Arab societies have been blow outs. We've been living with a kind of Arab Jurassic Park with rulers who've been in place decades. And the result of that was that everybody outside the regime was just referred to dismissively as The Arab Street - this great mass of disenfranchised people, condemned to live with this situation. And that's changing. This is an Arab spring.

BLOCK: This is the first time I've felt I really count for something, that I as a human being have my dignity and can have some impact on the society around me.

BLOCK: This notion of dignity, newly discovered dignity, that you're talking about, you also described coming to the fore in encounters that you saw in Cairo, in Tahrir Square, between the older generation and young protestors who were cleaning up after Mubarak left. Cleaning up - scrubbing, dusting the streets. What did they tell you?

COHEN: Yeah. Well, I saw this young woman and she was sweeping away. And, as you know, Melissa, Cairo is the city of dust par excellence. But Tahrir Square, the day after Mubarak fled, was gleaming. The place practically looked like Zurich. It was absolutely amazing. And she said simply, we want to clean out the old and bring in the new, bring in what's fresh.

BLOCK: Actually what I do does make a difference. I remember in particular one man in his 60s coming up to me and pointing, actually, at this young woman and saying: They did what we couldn't do. This is a precious generation.

BLOCK: Roger Cohen, the last time that you and spoke on the program, you were just about to leave Tehran. This was in 2009 and you were leaving after the student protest that you'd been covering, the protests that were so brutally suppressed. And I wonder how you compare what you saw two years ago or so, on the streets of Tehran, with what you just saw in Cairo with such a different ending.

COHEN: Yeah, I was actually thinking, Melissa, if this had had a bad ending, too, and Tahrir Square and all the good things happening there had been crushed, I was going to throw myself in the Nile. I'm not sure if I could have taken it.

But I thought about Iran a lot. I've thought about Iran a lot for the last year and a half. And I know that the desire that's really been present in Iran for more than a hundred years for what Khomeini spoke about when he spoke of freedom in 1979, at the time of the revolution, that's there. Many of the people in that, you know, friends I made have been through terrible times since I left. Some have been in prison. Many I know are leaving, trying to leave, mainly to Canada. And it's such a waste, you know.

Iran, highly-educated, highly-educated women, really all the rudiments of civil society and a regime that, you know, right now I think has sort of burrowed into its darkest corner. There have been moments of opening over the 30-plus years since the revolution. Right now, it's a pretty dark moment.

BLOCK: You know, you mentioned earlier the Jurassic Park of leaders in the Middle East. And I wonder, when you think about the leadership in Iran, do you imagine that that regime could fold, as we've seen now in other countries?

COHEN: Just on Jurassic Park, you know, the prime minister of Bahrain - where there's all sorts of rumblings right now in the street - the prime minister of Bahrain has been there 40 years. And that's pretty typical.

Iran - I think that Iran is weakened as a result of these events, but whether it's sufficiently weakened to really make the regime vulnerable remains to be seen. Last time around, it could muster the brutally to put the protests down. But one thing is sure, those protests will return and we're seeing them even today.

BLOCK: Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times, thank you very much.

COHEN: Thank you, Melissa.

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