A Sail On The Nile Caps A Revolutionary Road Trip

Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep offers final thoughts on his Revolutionary Road Trip through North Africa. We also hear from NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson and Leila Fadel, who will fill in for Soraya in Cairo next year.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep has completed a road trip through the nations of the Arab Spring. The journey ended during a tumultuous week in Cairo. A court dissolved Egypt's recently elected parliament, even as the country prepared for this week's presidential election. And in the center of the swiftly changing city, Steve found a timeless place to take a longer view.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, as we've traveled through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, there's an old Arabic saying we've kept in mind: The wind does not blow as the ships desire. It's a reminder that some circumstances are beyond your control, that you have to adapt to circumstances - good advice for the traveler, and good advice perhaps also for people living through the uprisings of the past year and a half and the aftermath.

It's especially good advice for us now, because we're on a sailboat in the middle of the Nile River, with Cairo spreading out on either bank. We see brightly lit hotels on either side. And a little bit downriver, we can see a bridge that leads to Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian uprising began in early 2011. We're going to talk about some of the things that have happened since with a couple of correspondents who've seen it all. One of them is NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's been based here in Cairo since a little before the uprisings. Soraya, welcome.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad you came on board with us. And we're...

NELSON: I'm very excited.

INSKEEP: ...also joined by Leila Fadel. She is a reporter for the Washington Post who is coming to NPR to rotate in and replace Soraya in Cairo in a few weeks. And Leila, welcome to you.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So we know there's been a lot of dramatic news, but how really is this country different than it was a year and a half ago?

NELSON: Well, it is very much freer than it was. I mean, you have freer newspapers. You have political parties starting to emerge. We saw 13 candidates standing for the presidential election. That was totally unheard of in this country, I mean, forever basically. So there is more freedom, but at the same time, things have very much stayed the same. You know, you still have the generals in charge, very much as they've been for six decades. And there's a real struggle going on between who will end up really being in charge of Egypt.

INSKEEP: Leila, I suppose that would remind us why it is that so many people say they're disappointed in this revolution, even though so many things seem to have changed.

FADEL: Well, I think the disappointments go beyond just the politics. I mean, people went to the streets a year and a half ago because the cost of bread was higher. The cost of meat was higher. There was no employment. And none of that has changed, either. So even though they have more freedom of expression and can curse the generals and can curse the former president, they still can't afford bread. And so people talk about a second revolution, the bread revolution, the hunger revolution, if that were to ever come.

INSKEEP: Is this a more religious or a more conservative country than people thought it was a couple of years ago?

FADEL: I have a friend who often talks about how before the revolution, it's like they never had a mirror. So they could never look in the mirror and see who they really were. And so since Tahrir Square happened, for the first time, Egyptians are looking in the mirror and realizing, oh, this is who we are. This is what the people in the Delta think, and this is what people in Beva(ph), you know, the working-class neighborhood of Cairo, think. And so I think this is a conservative country, but there are so many facets that nobody ever got to know because there was only one voice that spoke for Egypt, and that was Hosni Mubarak.

INSKEEP: Has it been easier for you guys, as reporters, to learn about this country than it was in the past?

FADEL: I think it's been a double-edged sword, really. I mean, I think we have the freedom in some ways, where you can travel and intelligence doesn't necessarily follow you. But there's so much suspicion right now because of the uncertainty there is in Egypt, because of the way the generals speak about foreign agendas. So sometimes people are so open and excited to explain what's happening in their neighborhood and why, and sometimes they're afraid of you.

NELSON: When I first got here, I could never bring a microphone out on the street - never - without being approached by police officers within a few minutes. Even when I tried to follow the quote-unquote "rules," when I would interview somebody not in a public space, but somewhere else, you know, immediately, would descend. This happened in Sinai, when I went to interview a Bedouin sheikh there. And that's changed.

When I went back to Sinai not too long ago to do a story about the Bedouin kidnappings of tourists, we were able to crisscross that peninsula, went through every checkpoint that was there, and nobody stopped us. I mean, it was an amazing sense of freedom that one rarely has in the Middle East. But as Leila noted, there still is a lot of oppression, and the generals certainly have gone after a lot of Egyptians.

FADEL: Not only do the generals go after them with the military laws, but the citizens themselves, because they've been told, you know, these are foreign funded or all these different youth groups - these are foreign funded. And so you - you know, once I interviewed a girl who was carrying $12. She was 22. And the army arrested her in a protest saying, you have dollars. You're paying all the protestors to protest against us, and they beat her in the tank. And then they held the dollars as evidence. And it was the silliest thing. She's a tour guide operator. But it works in some ways to stir that fear, because of the uncertainty. Nobody knows what's happening, what's going to happen.

INSKEEP: Leila Fadel of the Washington Post, and welcome soon to NPR. Thanks for coming onboard with us here.

FADEL: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, it's been great to see you again.

NELSON: Thanks, Steve. Great to see you, too.

GREENE: Steve Inskeep on the river Nile, his final stop on a Revolutionary Road trip through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

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