Reporting From Egypt On The Day 'There Was A Rip In The Fabric Of Society' For more than five years, NPR's Leila Fadel has been reporting from Cairo. She looks back on that time — from the optimism she arrived with to the massacre that tore Egyptian society apart.

Reporting From Egypt On The Day 'There Was A Rip In The Fabric Of Society'

Reporting From Egypt On The Day 'There Was A Rip In The Fabric Of Society'

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For more than five years, NPR's Leila Fadel has been reporting from Cairo. She looks back on that time — from the optimism she arrived with to the massacre that tore Egyptian society apart.


When you're a foreign correspondent, you're a visitor, a witness, but you also invest in the place where you live and in the stories you cover. And that was certainly the case for our colleague Leila Fadel who has spent nearly six years in Egypt, most of that time working for NPR. She watched Egypt and the region go from a period of optimism about democracy to a time of violence and uncertainty. Leila's leaving her post now. I spoke to her last week, hours before she caught her flight out of Cairo heading for New York City.

Leila, are you are you packed?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: As usual, I'm pretty last minute about it, but I'm close to packed now.

GREENE: Well, good. Well, it will be nice to have you back closer in the United States. You know, I wanted to play a little bit of tape for you as we chat because you and I spoke about four years ago. You had been based in Cairo for a little while for The Washington Post and you were just joining NPR. And you were talking about some of the things you were interested in looking at in the years ahead. And this is what you told me.


FADEL: The other things that are important that we don't often talk about is the flourishing of music and culture and freedom of expression and freedom of media and people sort of navigating what they can and can't say because now they can say much more.

GREENE: They can say much more. I mean, Leila, you sounded like you were getting ready to go back and cover, you know, a democracy that had been born. You sound really optimistic.

FADEL: I mean, that was what it was at the time. That's what people thought was happening, the birth of Arab citizenship, and that's what I thought as a journalist I was witnessing. Things have changed so much. To listen back to what I was saying, the idea that freedom of expression was flourishing is so different from today at a time where I'm scared to pull my mic out in the streets of Cairo.


FADEL: So it's such a different time. I was walking with a human rights worker who's also leaving. And she kept telling me how nervous she was because something might happen.

GREENE: So you're just living in fear. I mean, you're living and working in fear.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, not the same kind of fear that Egyptians deal with every day. But there are no red lines anymore. There used to be very clear red lines under the former president, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011, but there really aren't today. And so you don't know when you've crossed the line and when you might run into trouble. This is a government, a state, that seems very paranoid and very unpredictable.

GREENE: You've covered so many moments in that country. Does one stand out when you really feel like you were living and working in a country that had changed dramatically?

FADEL: Yes, August 2013 - that was when the first democratically elected president of Egypt, who had fallen out of favor for most people - for many people - in Egypt...

GREENE: This was Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, right? He was - he'd been elected.

FADEL: Yes. He'd been elected. It was the first seemingly free and fair election in Egypt after Mubarak's ouster. And his supporters were angry that he'd been ousted by the military in their staged sit-ins in two parts of Cairo. And what I watched in August 2013 were the security forces basically conducting a massacre.


FADEL: I think we need to run.

GREENE: This is sound you were actually collecting that day. I mean, you were out there as these guns were being fired to people.

FADEL: Yeah. Just listening back to it brings back the memories of running through this alleyway under gunfire, seeing a man drop when he was basically shot in the head. The carnage shocked me. It's the middle of Cairo in the middle of a cosmopolitan city, but what shocked me more was the reaction to it, that people were ready to excuse it and say it was necessary because they were very worried about an Islamist government because they were very worried about stability, about Egypt's place in the region, about uncertainty. And that's when I feel like Egypt changed, something broke and society really divided.

GREENE: You cover an entire region. You know, I think about Egypt, you saying something is broken. I think about Libya where, like Egypt and the Arab Spring, there was so much hope for a new day. And Libya's an absolute violent mess now. Is there some lesson that you are bringing home with you?

FADEL: Change is so hard, and as things change, there is uncertainty, and there is fear, and there is skepticism of of new things. And I think watching these countries who have tried to change - Egypt, Libya - so much went wrong as people battled over power and people wanted stability. They didn't want their economies to change.

And so when we look at Egypt, it's gone back to a military-backed president that's more repressive than we ever saw under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and in Libya, where I met incredible people who really wanted to make their country better, like Salwa Bughaighis who's this Libyan lawyer that I met on my very first trip to Libya in February 2011 in the uprising that was centered in the eastern city of Benghazi.


SALWA BUGHAIGHIS: Many people think that Benghazi's really died now, but Benghazi's still alive. There is explosion of shops, different decoration, and there's people still going to work, still they have this hope for a new Libya, and they are working for that.

FADEL: And that was my last interview with her because she was later assassinated in her home by a militia...

GREENE: Oh, God.

FADEL: ...In the city that she loved and had hope for, in the city that she hoped to change. And so I think that that says a lot about where things have gone, so many people in prison, so many people who've been killed as there is a battle for the future of this region.

GREENE: Are you leaving still loving Egypt, I mean, as emotional as it is and meeting people who you've lost? I mean, is there love for the place as well?

FADEL: I love this country. I've lived here almost six years. It's a second home to me, and I have watched and lived at the emotional roller coaster with the people that I've covered. And so I think that's why talking about it makes me very emotional is because I've been on that same roller coaster as an observer. And so seeing some of these more dark moments that are not lined with the hope that we saw pre-2013, the hope that we saw in 2011, is very difficult. And it's very difficult to walk away when the trajectory is in such a downward place. So who knows what the future holds? But walking away at this moment, it is very sad because it doesn't look good.

GREENE: All right. We're speaking to NPR's Leila Fadel, who is leaving her post in Cairo after working there for nearly six years and covering a lot of tumultuous events and telling some incredible stories. Leila, thanks a lot.

FADEL: Thank you.

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