A Look At The Youth Of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Journalist Charles Sennott recently returned from Tahrir Square, where he was filming a documentary on the revolution for PBS's Frontline. It focuses on the young members of the Muslim Brotherhood who played an important role in Egypt's revolution.
NPR logo

A Look At The Youth Of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133777435/133816067" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Look At The Youth Of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

A Look At The Youth Of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133777435/133816067" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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 Square Tuesday.

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 jet lag.

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 the revolution.

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 Brotherhood...

GROSS: This is because they didn't have any paper that they needed the cardboard.

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 hear.

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 version.

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 revolution.

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 or instability.

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 skill.

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 led in.

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 wasn't.

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 AIR.

(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 trouble.

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 na�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 that.

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 about?

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 their revolution.

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 places.

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 very strong.

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 revolution.

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 them.

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 Egypt.

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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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 within society?

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 Christians.

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 to happen.

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 get there.

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 itself?

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 they won.

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 stage and...

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 wasn't going.

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 fist.

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 could.

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 sexual assault.

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 democracy?

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.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.