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In Fast-Forward Middle East, Think Backgammon Not Dominoes

By Mort Rosenblum

Egypt toppled after Tunisia, and now others totter. Distant analysts seize on the obvious: dominoes. But the Middle East plays backgammon, far more intricate and old as the Sphinx.

In a wired world, we all shared the joy in Tahrir Square and kibitzed until our fingers ached. Now comes the hard part. Revolutionaries must build something better.

The wider world can help, mostly by staying out of the way. Without close coverage by reporters who understand the game, we will get things wrong at the speed of light.

Yet few seasoned correspondents are based in North Africa or in Middle Eastern states most vulnerable to upheaval from the street.

And so we all need to do what skilled reporters do: weigh sources; add in vital background; see events from the perspective of the people involved; shun easy assumption.

Happily, the much-maligned U.S. "mainstream" includes such pros as Anthony Shadid, who started out in Cairo with Associated Press before winning two Pulitzers for The Washington Post and then joining The New York Times.

NBC's Richard Engel, all but sleepwalking toward the end, offered brilliant coverage of a city he knows well. Christopher Dickey, of Tina Brown/Newsweek, adds telling nuance from sources cultivated over decades.

But Fox News' graphics confused Egypt with Iraq. CNN parachuted in late and at one crucial point focused at length on how its reporters got pushed around in the crowd.

In the thick of Cairo tumult, the Times' Frank Rich wrote:

"More often than not we have little or no context for what we're watching. That's the legacy of years of self-censored, superficial, provincial and at times Islamophobic coverage of the Arab world in a large swath of American news media."

Social media play an enormous role as an accelerant that rallies and encourages gutsy young people ready to storm their Bastilles. It explains little.

In Tunisia, Facebook and Twitter brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, a greedy thug propped up by France who had plundered a small nation of educated, secular Muslims.

Hosni Mubarak is different. He ran a complex society, which since the pharaohs has anchored the world's most unruly neighborhood. A clever email bouncing around shows him being "uninstalled," replaced by "Egypt 2.0." Not quite.

Every regime from moderate Morocco to enigmatic Iran sits atop elaborate socio-political structures. Deposing leaders is not enough. Think Iraq. Better yet, think Egypt.

Gamal Abdel Nasser led the military to overthrow King Farouk in 1952 and called himself president after 6,000 years of absolute monarchs, caliphs and colonizers.

For three decades Mubarak kept the balance Anwar Sadat worked out among Israelis, hard-line Arabs and homegrown Muslim Brothers whose philosophy underpins al Qaeda.

An army coup d'état, however popular, is not yet democracy. Troops sympathized with protesters, but senior officers have much to lose.

As winds of change bring fresh hope, history suggests wariness. Real democracy and free expression may finally be possible. Yet Egypt is still Egypt.

Nick Kristof described how a little bunch of madmen - journalists - caught a plane from Zurich sent to evacuate sane people. Old Cairo hands chuckled at one remark: the scariest part was the cab ride into town.

On one past trip, my driver gleefully blasted through a stoplight. "In Egypt," he told me, "red lights are like apples. We eat them."

Impossibly crowded, Cairo is permanent madness with an invisible underlying order rooted deeply in its past. Sprawling Alexandria has its own ancient eccentricities.

Most of Egypt's 80 million people live on farms and settlements in a country half again as big as Texas. Some are Christian Copts. Others are Muslim zealots, foreheads bruised from banging the floor in prayer. Many are as reactionary as hip Cairenes are progressive.

When round-the-world balloonists prepared to land in the desert, a friend and I followed the Nile south and headed west over the dunes. We drove 700 miles back into the 12th century.

Floodplain families worry more about water flow from the Aswan Dam than national politics. In remote oases, camel herders contemplate nighttime stars, not newspapers.

As pieces move on the board, look to solid reporters like Shadid, whose lead story on Feb. 1 caught the essence:

"President Hosni Mubarak declared  . . . that he would step down in September as modern Egypt's longest-serving leader, but that did not go far enough for the hundreds of thousands who poured into Tahrir Square in a sprawling protest that cut across entrenched lines of piety, class and ideology."

Al Jazeera creams competitors in the Middle East. Owned by the emir of Qatar, it is, in fact, fair and balanced. U.S. cable companies shun it. But Americans pushed the network's online traffic up by 2,500 percent.

The Internet brings us both pundits who write well but understand little and seasoned journalists who are less articulate but see news firsthand. Trust the latter.

Look also for others' dispatches: The Guardian or The Hindu; Der Spiegel, El Pais or Le Monde. Reporting is about getting it right, not nationality or short-lived scoops.

Tahrir Square put all corrupt regimes into play. But despots don't simply topple by chain reaction. We can't possibly get this great game right without real reporters who know the difference between dominoes and backgammon.


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