article

02.12.11

Ayman Mohyeldin: Al Jazeera's Breakout Star

Ayman Mohyeldin earned raves covering Egypt’s revolt for the Qatar-based network. He talks to Lloyd Grove about being roughed up by the military, the next big coup, and Anderson Cooper’s whining.

Ayman Mohyeldin earned raves covering Egypt’s coup for the Qatar-based network. He talks to Lloyd Grove about being roughed up by the military, the next big protests, and Anderson Cooper’s whining. Plus, Al Jazeera’s U.S. bureau chief discusses the network and how Fox got its Egypt coverage all wrong.

Less than an hour after the announcement that Hosni Mubarak had quit the Egyptian presidency after three decades of repression, as the vast crowd in Cairo’s Liberation Square roared with endless elation, al Jazeera English’s lead correspondent typed feverishly on his BlackBerry.

“Freeeeeeeedddooooommm!!!!!!” Ayman Mohyeldin tweeted  to the world.

Moments earlier, surveying Egypt’s historic revolution from his balcony at the Hilton, he had been weeping freely.

Photos: Egypt's Protests

The 31-year-old Mohyeldin—who has emerged as the Qatar-based news channel’s breakout star during the 18 days that shook the Arab world—can be forgiven if he departed from his usual clear-eyed reporting and incisive analysis to indulge in a moment of rapturous exuberance. An American citizen, he’s a native Egyptian—the upper-middle-class son of a retired Army colonel who moved his family to the United States in 1984 to give 5-year-old Ayman and his 7-year-old brother Ahmed (now a Washington, D.C., neurosurgeon) a new life in the land of opportunity.

“I’ve never gone through this range of emotions on a story in my life,” Mohyeldin told me on Saturday night from Cairo, after a rare dinner break with friends—24 hours after Mubarak’s abdication. “The good thing that happened on Friday is that nobody actually noticed it, but I did cry during the broadcast. I pretty much lost it. It just happened when they were showing the pictures of Liberation Square and broadcasting the sound of five minutes of utter celebration.”

Mohyeldin—who received his master’s degree in international politics and conflict resolution from American University, but dropped law school plans in 2001 to toil as a lowly desk assistant at NBC News’ Washington bureau—has seen more than his share of conflict. Over the past decade, he has reported on the 9/11 attacks, Libya’s nuclear-research program, the Iraq War, the terrorist bombings at a Jordanian hotel and Egypt’s Sharm al Sheikh resort, and Israel’s frequent military incursions into Gaza.

At al Jazeera’s English-language channel—which he joined in 2006, after chasing the Middle East beat for CNN—he most recently distinguished himself covering the Tunisian revolution that last month ended the quarter-century dictatorship of President Ben Ali.

“It’s funny, because a lot of my journalistic colleagues and friends say, ‘You’re really blessed, because everywhere you go, you get these big stories,’” Mohyeldin said. “And my mother thinks I’m cursed, because everywhere I go, something happens… But it’s not about adrenaline to be honest with you. If can speak very selfishly, I really love journalism—it’s a very selfish profession in the sense that you get to witness history at somebody else’s expense.”

It has all come together in Cairo.

Mohyeldin and his colleagues have owned this story while the major U.S. television outlets struggle to keep up. And al Jazeera managed this feat even as the Mubarak regime attempted to knock them off the air—revoking their Ministry of Information journalists’ license, stopping their major satellite service, confiscating their equipment, targeting their reporters for arrest and abuse, and sending paid pro-Mubarak thugs to trash the newsroom of al Jazeera’s Arabic channel on the fifth floor of a downtown Cairo office building. (It’s a sad and absurd irony that al Jazeera English, although available online, is not carried by the great majority of U.S. cable providers.)

“They torched al Jazeera’s big office on the fifth floor, with the big logo on it, but not our small office on the sixth floor,” Mohyeldin said. “I guess they just didn’t notice us,” he added, joking, “If the offices of the English channel were supposed to be ransacked, that would have cost an extra $100.” He and his colleagues took the precaution of hiding cameras and satellite dishes at a secure secret location.

Mohyeldin himself was arrested twice— the second time last Sunday by Egyptian military authorities who shackled and blindfolded him, and, for seven hours, threatened him with a Taser, along with other journalists and several protesters, before letting him go. 

So much for the popular American media storyline of Egypt’s admirably disciplined, universally respected military—in marked contrast to a corrupt and malicious police force.

“I’ve never gone through this range of emotions on a story in my life,” Mohyeldin told me on Saturday night from Cairo.

“I attribute that [the arrest and detention] to the unprofessionalism of the military—to the fact that the military doesn’t know how to deal with the civilian population, particularly its own,” Mohyeldin said. “So while the command structure came out and said, ‘We will not use force to break up the protests,’ that doesn’t mean the officers in the ranks weren’t told that ‘we are not taking this as a joking matter, that anyone who questions your authority, who wants to undermine the military, crush them with an iron fist.’ They were simply trying to subdue those people. They weren’t trying to get information from them or get them to change their political views—and because they were put in this predicament, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”

Unlike some of his much higher-paid American counterparts, notably CNN star Anderson Cooper—who since fleeing Cairo days before Mubarak’s fall has talked repeatedly on the air ( including on David Letterman’s show) about being jostled, punched, and kicked by a pro-Mubarak mob—Mohyeldin has soft-pedaled the personal dangers of covering the revolution.

“There’s an unspoken rule among journalists that you don’t want to badmouth other journalists, especially when you’re on the same story with them,” said Mohyeldin, who has mildly chided Cooper, Katie Couric, and Christiane Amanpour for dramatizing the perils of revolution coverage. “I got lot of people messaging me saying I was a little harsh. And I didn’t mean to be harsh. I was just being genuine… I have a friend who works at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, who happened to be in the States, and he called me and goes, ‘Listen I have to ask you for a very important favor.’ And I was really worried. ‘What’s wrong? Whatever it is, I’ll do it.’ And he said, ‘Can you please take care of Anderson Cooper? He looks like he’s getting roughed up there.’”

Mohyeldin—who regularly speaks with top-ranking contacts in the Egyptian officer corps—credits the influence of members of the American defense establishment, especially Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as a prudent calculation by the Egyptian high command that the ultimate policy of non-violent restraint and neutrality would serve their long-term interests. Distinct from militaries in Western democracies, Egypt’s is an independent center of power; indeed, aside from benefiting from a billion-plus dollars in annual U.S. largesse, it operates tourist attractions and other businesses to line its leaders’ pockets and replenish its coffers.

“Don’t forget that on Friday, the 28th of January, the police used a lot of brutal force—live ammunition, tear gas, batons, you name it, and yet the people overpowered them. That scared the regime,” Mohyeldin told me. “Imagine what would have happened if the military said, ‘You know what? We want to clear Liberation Square’ to protect the Mubarak regime. And imagine that they tried to do it and they suddenly realized that they had killed 2,000 or 3,000 people but the people kept coming back in waves and waves. That would have meant the entire collapse of the Egyptian state and of every institution in Egypt. So I think that’s why they were very nervous, and I think they genuinely doubted their ability to maintain law and order.”

In the end, Mohyeldin said, it’s likely that Mubarak was toppled in a military coup—albeit a carefully negotiated one. “I don’t know what the deal was—but was there some kind of deal struck in which he told the military supreme council, ‘Look, I’ll step down, but you need to give me an assurance that I cannot be prosecuted, or my family.’ We’ll find out the backstory in the coming weeks or months.”

Mohyeldin told me he believes that the military authorities will follow through on promises to move the country to a civilian-led democracy. He predicted that a new democratic Egypt will end up revisiting and perhaps revising its peace treaty with Israel. He said President Obama, after initially fumbling the U.S. response to the protests—sending mixed signals about the American commitment to Egyptian democracy—eventually recovered and “he made a very good speech on Friday."

"Israel and America should not be scared of a pluralistic, democratic Egypt,” he said. “This will present the U.S. an opportunity on a silver platter” to reaffirm its support for freedom across the Arab world instead of cynically propping up oppressive regimes because they do America’s bidding. He added that the search for tens of billions of dollars in public money that Mubarak and his cronies have allegedly amassed and hidden over the past 30 years is a lower priority.

In the meantime, Mohyeldin is planning to leave Cairo soon to continue to cover the potentially spreading revolution. “I actually just messaged the director of news in Doha about whether I’m going to Algeria or Yemen next, so I’m waiting for him to reply,” he said.

The dashing foreign correspondent added that he’s in the market for a serious girlfriend. “My mother’s on my case,” he confided. “And I promised her that after this, I would try to focus this year on getting married.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.