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Consequential acts

One reporter’s inside look at the string of events that led to last year’s Arab Spring.

By , Northeastern Magazine

Just minutes into the new year of 2011, a suicide bomber struck Coptic Christian worshipers at a church in Alexandria, Egypt. Horrific as the attack was, taking 21 lives, it was soon swallowed up by events in the weeks and months that followed: three Middle East autocrats toppled from power, democracy movements flaring up from Morocco to Syria, and an entire region of the world spinning off in a wholly unexpected direction.But Michael Slackman, deputy foreign editor at the New York Times and a 1984 alumnus of Northeastern’s journalism program, saw that church bombing—or rather, its immediate aftermath—as a turning point.

Slackman covered the story as a reporter for the Times. Two days after the attack, he recalls, a priest rose in the very same church and offered thanks to President Hosni Mubarak for his expressions of support and condemnation of the violence.

That was no surprise; the Copts had traditionally given Mubarak their loyalty in exchange for the regime’s pledge of security. But what did surprise Slackman was the parishioners’ response in the church that day.

“The priest is speaking and they started screaming, ‘No! No! No! No!’” he says. “They wanted the local governor ousted, and they would not accept the idea that they should thank Hosni Mubarak.”

Instead of giving thanks, they and Christians across Egypt took to the streets for days, in an unprecedented string of anti-regime demonstrations.

“It was crystal clear that the social contract had broken down [between the government and religious minority groups] and that the government couldn’t provide the basic element of the bargain, which was security,” he says. “Things were coming undone.”

Regimes Decaying From Within

Slackman’s byline appeared on more than 50 stories recounting the events we now refer to as the Arab Spring. He reported on daily, often bloody, developments in Bahrain for two chaotic weeks, wrote the political epitaph of Mubarak, and pulled together analytical pieces, like the Sept. 11, 2011, Times article examining a decade in the Middle East framed by the Twin Towers and Tahrir Square.

And although he was actually the Times‘ Berlin bureau chief at the time, Slackman chronicled the upheaval of that winter and spring from a deep well of knowledge, plumbed from his experience as the newspaper’s Cairo bureau chief from 2005 to 2010.

He well understood that the breakdown in the social contract he’d witnessed in Alexandria in January had been building for years and was widespread throughout the Middle East, driven by two facts of life in the region: a massive spike in the youth population and no jobs.

The collapse was particularly acute in Egypt, says Slackman. Where once rich and poor had occupied different floors of the same apartment building, the wealthy were now living in walled compounds with golf courses and names like Beverly Hills; government ministers were given to measuring the nation’s progress by the number of luxury hotels under construction; and Mubarak had become increasingly detached from day-to-day decision-making.

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A telling example was the government’s plan in May 2009 to slaughter all the pigs in Egypt in reaction to that year’s swine flu epidemic. The strategy was adopted against the advice of the World Health Organization—and, apparently, without thought of Egypt’s informal but effective system of garbage disposal.

“Christians basically controlled the garbage collection in Egypt,” says Slackman. “It gave Cairo what must have been one of the highest rates of recycling of any major metropolitan area in the world, because the Christians collecting the garbage would sort it all out and feed the organic waste to the pigs.

“So someone in the regime got the bright idea to kill the pigs—300,000 of them—and guess what happened to the garbage? It piled up in the streets.”

The level of government dysfunction piled up right along with it. The regime couldn’t provide fresh water or bread or protect its own people, let alone pick up the garbage, says Slackman.

“When I was there in early January [2011], it was clear the status quo was no longer sustainable,” he says. “What was not clear was that millions of Egyptians would take to the streets and not leave until Mubarak fell.”

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Slackman wrote as much in a story datelined from Cairo on Jan. 18, 2011, four days after Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the successful revolt in his country. The story spoke of “a lingering sense of uncertainty” in the Arab world over what would happen next.

A week later, ordinary Egyptians supplied the answer, with tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands occupying Tahrir Square.

A Revolution Off the Rails

By that time, Slackman was in Berlin; he’d left Egypt on Jan. 24. But he was back in the region, in Jordan, on Feb. 11—the day Mubarak stepped down—assigned to report on the role of young people in the uprisings.

“From Jordan, I went to Bahrain, where I’d only planned to spend a couple of days hanging out with these young organizers,” he says. “And that’s when everything went off the rails in Bahrain.”

The tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain features a ruling class that is almost entirely Sunni, with a majority population of Shiites, giving the pro-democracy protests there an element of sectarian division not seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

When Slackman, Times reporter Nadim Audi, and Timesvideographer Sean Patrick Farrell arrived, the rallies were small and scattered. While government officials offered conciliatory statements and promises of reform, the police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets.

On Feb. 16, the trio was in the capital city of Manama, reporting on what appeared to be a victory for the protesters. The government was allowing thousands of them, mostly Shiites from outlying villages, to gather in Pearl Square, the nation’s symbolic center.

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“They were beyond joyous, they couldn’t believe it,” recalls Slackman. “It was a very exciting moment.”

He filed his story and went to bed—but not for long. In the middle of the night, a colleague woke him up, pounding on the door and shouting about a shooting.

Hundreds of police had surrounded Pearl Square—where men, women, and children were sleeping in tents—and opened fire into the encampment.

After hustling down to the square, Slackman, Farrell, and Audi spent the rest of the night reporting on a story drained of joy: clouds of tear gas, more police shooting, victims holed up in a gas station waiting to be taken to the hospital. It ended, Slackman says, with a Bahraini policeman pointing a shotgun at his head and telling him, “Don’t be afraid, we’re here to help you. We’re hunting Shiites.”

Slackman describes the days and nights that followed: tanks and Bahraini National Guardsman enforcing an on-again-off-again lockdown of the square, brief periods of calm and official restraint punctured by violent government crackdowns, and “someone dying every day.”

On Feb. 18, the Times team covered a protest march following a Shiite funeral for a man who had been killed by security forces earlier in the week. When the clapping, chanting marchers tried to enter Pearl Square, the police and military fired on them.

Slackman and Farrell did a video report on the protest and the security forces’ response. What happened next is preserved on YouTube: An image of a helicopter hovering overhead dissolves into a bouncing, kaleidoscopic blur, accompanied by the clatter of what sounds like automatic weapons fire, then a shaky, moving image of the scene as Slackman and several others in the background start to run.

The helicopter was targeting them, says Slackman, and when they ran, it followed, “literally hunting us,” until they found cover behind a retaining wall and grabbed a ride out of the danger zone.

Government spokesmen denied any shooting occurred at the protest that day, Slackman says. When pressed, “they said they were not authorized to release that information. That was Bahrain.”

The Promise of Change

Slackman would move on to Morocco for 10 days to report on an opposition movement that ultimately won important concessions from King Mohammed VI, and then spend a week in late March 2011, reporting on the burgeoning violence in Syria.

But Bahrain had altered the movement’s momentum. The hard lines drawn there, as well as in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, marked a new phase, as Slackman noted in one of his final stories on the Arab Spring, datelined April 27, 2011: “Arab leaders facing public revolt have increasingly concluded that it is better to shoot to kill, or at least to arrest and imprison, than to abdicate and flee.”

In the 16 months since, democracy’s prospects in the region remain very much in doubt, even in the Arab nations that succeeded in deposing their dictators.

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But Slackman believes that ordinary people doing ordinary things drive events. “Whether a young woman decides to get an education or is married off as a young child,” he says, “is as consequential an act, in the long term, as whether or not a kid puts on a suicide vest and blows himself up.”

So he sees hope in the way that many more ordinary people in the Middle East, particularly the young, are reshaping their identities around values of equal opportunity and the rule of law.

He witnessed this unity of values infuse the movement with enough energy to overthrow Gadhafi, Mubarak, and Ben Ali. And while those euphoric days in Tahrir Square are past—days when Christians formed circles around praying Muslims to protect them from pro-Mubarak forces—they left a compelling vision of a possible future.

“These societies are evolving; call it an Arab Spring if you want to,” Slackman observes. “It’s change.”

Timeline of Arab Spring (click to enlarge)

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