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At the newsroom

In the aftermath of the Egypt-Algeria game in Sudan, and as we frantically were gathering information and contacts for our coverage, we also had to sit down and discuss the flood of information – or the lack of it at times.

Every TV show on Wednesday night had covered the ordeal of those who traveled to Sudan. Phone calls were pouring in from those frightened by attacks by Algerian fans and those who can’t get to or inside the airport. People we spoke to for our stories weren’t short of their own horror stories.

But it seemed to be only in Egypt’s mind, because on the other hand, the news agencies either ignored it or referred to it as minor incidents. By Friday morning I started doubting myself. There were two parallel worlds, one where people were traumatized and another where nothing of significance happened.

Pictures were only available of the game, but no photos on the wires of what happened afterwards. But as my friend — a person I trust who gave me a first hand account of his experience there — told me, “Our first reaction when attacked was not to take pictures, but to protect ourselves.”

He did send me photos of the shattered windows of their bus, which we ran in the paper.

But this led to some important questions: How accurate are the reports we are getting? How can we validate them? It’s not possible that thousands have agreed on one story, but are they exaggerating? Are we falling in the trap of sensationalization? Are we getting too caught up in the details that we are failing to see the bigger picture?

Seeing the media frenzy that followed was also worrying. The state-run official satellite station, El-Masreya, ran footage of the Thursday night demonstration. (For those of you who don’t know, for state TV and media, demos don’t happen). Many TV shows crossed the line (not a fine line) that separates coverage to outward agitation of the masses, some even calling for targeting Algerians in Egypt. It’s the same type of irresponsible media that fueled the masses in Algeria with false reports. (Mainly the death of Algerians during the game in Egypt, which the Algerian government denied. The denial didn’t find a place in some newspapers that had confirmed these alleged deaths.)

Alaa Mubarak speaking on TV (a rare occurrence for the media shy son), the initial tolerance for the protests near the Algerian embassy, and the liberty in which media was allowed to report on and fuel the anger were factors to consider.

After the initial story that ran in the Friday edition, we ran more stories the following day: more eyewitnesses’ accounts, the diplomatic relations between Egypt and Algeria, a story about Alaa Mubarak speaking on TV, and of course a story about the demonstrations that took place on Thursday and Friday.

But in doing so, we tried to be careful with the wording. Not sensational but not subdued either. Report it as is. Focus on the facts. I hope we didn’t mess up or miss a word here or there.

Objectivity, the first lesson any journalist learns, can sometimes seem like an elusive goal.

My take on the frenzy: When did Alaa become the hero?

After sending the paper to print and during the two days I took off, I had the chance to talk to more people, not about their experience in Sudan but about their reactions here in Cairo to the whole thing.

The most worrying realization was that many felt more humiliated by this incident than the numerous tragedies that have marred our recent history: from train accidents to the death of over 1,000 people over the course of few hours when their ferry sank in the Red Sea (and the subsequent escape of its owner).

I’m not trying to belittle the incident or what people have went through last week in Sudan. I don’t have the slightest doubt that this happened. Although it’s difficult to prove with material evidence, since people were running away from the attacks rather than clashing with the attackers, it’s still traumatizing for any person to be chased down the streets of a foreign city (or their hometown for that matter). Whether the Algerian government is complicit in this by intentionally allowing more violent fans to travel needs to be probed. Justice needs to be served. The failure of the Sudanese security to enforce order and protect its Egyptian visitors needs to addressed as well. We also need to revise the official response after the bus carrying the Algerian players was pelted by stones on their way from the airport.

But let’s put it all in perspective.

This incident is given more space, in state and private media, than other more tragic ones. Without scientific research, it’s easy to notice the difference between portraying the ordeal of the fans who returned and the ordeal of the families that spent nights (stress the ‘s’ here) in Red Sea towns waiting for news on the fate of their loved ones after the ferry sank in 2006. No masses were agitated on the scale we saw over the weekend. No actors or singers cried on live TV from the shock of it. No one felt humiliated when the case was referred to misdemeanor court or that the owner of the ferry was tried in absentia, because he left the country. Not in disguise but like any respectable citizen traveling abroad with the seal of government consent on his forehead.

Remember no people were chased down streets or had their buses pelted with stones then; they were merely left to die in freezing water and their corpses were left floating in open water, all 1,035 of them.

It’s only when the anger would be directed to an outside enemy is it allowed to be fueled and to mushroom. And not any enemy. People were beaten in Tahrir in March 2003 when they tried to march to the US embassy to protest the Iraq War. They were described as barbaric and accused of vandalism. Last week, the media and the ministry of interior (which usually takes days to issue a statement, that if they decided to acknowledge the existence of an incident) hailed the protest at the Algerian embassy that left a lot of shattered glass in Zamalek as “civilized.”

This has led many to the verge of hysteria and some willingly fell off that cliff. The hysteria I’m talking about here can be summarized in the willingness of many to attack any person just because he or she is Algerian. Someone, usually sane, told me over the weekend he would randomly attack any Algerian he sees in Cairo. What about XX, an Algerian friend? What if the man you are attacking has just spoken in your favor? What if it’s a woman? An old woman?

This hysteria won’t only have violent irreversible repercussions but has the ability of distracting people from the right ways to seek justice and also other important issues on the local front.

The idea that Egyptians are allowing many to cash in on their ordeal is equally worrying. Aside from celebrities, Alaa Mubarak’s phone interjection on TV has left me speechless.

Suddenly, the business-savvy son of the president who’s been in power for 28 years has become the hero. He’s angry, he wants to avenge the masses and like the rest of the Egyptians he feels humiliated. Suddenly, he is speaking against Egypt’s policy of political posturing, a policy that thrived during his father’s reign (except for selected enemies).

Alaa’s popularity is off the chart. The past 28 years and his other ‘business interjections’ were instantly forgiven and forever forgotten.

Sorry, but I draw the line here: When Alaa rises in popularity as hysteria reigns.