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An interview with Michael Slackman

The New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Michael Slackman visited Carnegie Mellon on Tuesday for a talk presented by The New York Times, Undergraduate Student Senate, and the Collegiate Readership Program. Slackman sat down with The Tartan to talk about his time in the Middle East and his life as a reporter and editor. The following transcript is an abridged version of the interview, with some questions and answers removed.

The Tartan: Your talk is about U.S. relations abroad in relation to the Arab Spring. How did those events initially affect relations and how are they still affecting relations?

Michael Slackman: The Arab Spring did two things to America's role in the Middle East. The first thing that it did is, it upended the paradigm of power that previously existed and that we relied on to pursue our agenda in the Middle East and to preserve the status quo. What I mean by that is — well there was Israel — but in the Arab world, we primarily relied on this loose axis of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to preserve the peace with Israel and contain Iran. With the Arab Spring and all the tumult that has occurred in Egypt, that has fundamentally — we've basically lost Egypt as a vehicle for trying to pursue our interests in the Middle East, but because of the way we've behaved in Egypt, first supporting the ouster Mubarak, and then not supporting the military takeover, the Saudis are very angry at us. So they are pursuing what they see as their own interests in the region, sometimes contradictory to ours.

So I think it's really shaken up the way in which we are able to engage in the Middle East because that power paradigm has changed. But the other thing is — the reality is — the Middle East, these countries, are going through a real identity crisis. It's very internal, whether it's in Egypt, Tunisia, or Syria. They're trying to figure out who they are and how they relate to each other, what it means to be a citizen, what the relationship between religion and society is, what the relationship between military and society is, so to that extent, there's almost nothing we can do. We just have to kind of sit back and let events play out on the ground as these countries try to figure out who they are and where they're going.

TT: When you were abroad in Egypt, when the Arab Spring — the first events were occurring — were there noticeable changes that you saw?

MS: The biggest change — I lived in Egypt for eight years, not consecutively three for [the Los Angeles Times] and five for The New York Times — and the entire time I was there, the street was a non-factor. The population was largely depoliticized. It was too costly for the Egyptian public to get involved in politics. For a long time, there was a compact between Mubarak and citizens that basically said 'You can live your lives, we'll guarantee a level of livelihood, but keep out of politics.' As the population got bigger, as the economy stalled, the government was no longer able to keep up its end. The entire structure of the state really was failing in its ability to do what you expect a state to do from pick up the trash to provide security to put out a fire if there's a fire, to provide access to basic healthcare and education. It couldn't do that anymore and the demands of the people and the anger of the people kept growing. With the Arab Spring, the street — for the first time in my lifetime — became a real force in Arab politics, and it continues to be to this day. Leaders can no longer dictate from the top down. They need the consent of the masses because people have seen the power of protest.

TT: How did your experience abroad differ from what we saw here? How did it compare?

MS: I didn't live in Egypt when the Arab Spring happened. I had already moved to Germany a year earlier, and I went back as it was unfolding — spent some time in Egypt, a lot of time in Bahrain, I was in Morocco, and Jordan during that period. I don't know what you saw here, but in those places there was absolutely a sense of — and I suspect this came across here — there was a sense of possibility. One of the tragedies of 30 years and — depending on the country — decades of dictatorship was the concept of hope was gone. People had no hope or very little hope — many people, not everybody, I'm generalizing — for improving your station in life, that your kids would do better than you, that you could be who you want to be. That hope had kind of disappeared. It wasn't there. There was no sense of self determination and suddenly you had people saying 'We can make a difference in our own lives,' and that was tremendous. It was very powerful.

TT: Were there tangible things that you noticed when you went back to the Middle East that showed that hope?

MS: Yeah, there were, all over the place. There were community groups organizing. When there was an election, people would wait on line in the blazing sun for hours to be able to cast a ballot. It was civic life and civic participation growing in ways that had never happened before in Egypt that I had never seen. Later — see the thing is, it's very easy to know what you want to tear down; it's hard to know what you want to build. And in any society that's divided, when people come together against something, the minute that thing is gone, they have decide collectively what they want to build or it becomes a little bit 'every man for himself.' In the post-Mubarak period, when the military was still running Egypt, life got difficult, the traffic got worse, prices went up, foreign-directed investment tapered off, the economy was tanking, people started to get desperate. And then I went back a year into it and people were starting to get tired. They were still hopeful, but they were worried about the economy. At the end of the day, if you can't feed your family, that's really what matters and there was a level of desperation rising.

TT: There was a really striking video of you being shot at from the helicopter in Bahrain. Could you talk about that experience a little bit more?

MS: I couldn't believe they were shooting at me. I had got to Bahrain — I was only supposed to be there for two days — and I had arranged to spend time with a young man who had trained in human rights work. Before you knew it, we were in the middle of a huge popular uprising. Members of the Shiite community were coming out by the tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — and they were determined to push for their rights. They thought that they had been discriminated against in education, employment, in everything, by the Sunni leadership that was the minority. I was there for a week, and there were highs and lows and there were protests and the police shot people and teargassed people and we witnessed all kinds of events that left people dead. Throughout this, I would go to funerals, so the morning was protests and the evening was funerals.

One of the last days that I was going to be there, there was a funeral, and when the funeral was over, everybody — for a kid who was shot at by the police, a young man — they buried the kid, and a group of protesters started leading the crowd toward the hospital — a couple thousand young people marching up toward the hospital. And I'm standing to the side with my colleague Nadim Audi, and we're walking up toward the hospital, and the road splits, and to the left was Pearl Square and to the right was the hospital. I'll never forget this — Nadim leaned over and went 'Uh oh, this is not going to be good,' because the army had surrounded Pearl Square and decided they would not allow people to gather. Protest movements can't really congeal if there's no public space for people to gather. Tahrir Square — Egypt happened partly because Tahrir Square exists as a physical space. The rulers of these monarchies throughout the Persian Gulf have built cities where there's no public space — people don't interact — except the mall. So they surrounded this space and as the kids — these were kids, just marching, clapping their hands over their heads — and we're standing off to the side and we're walking up and the army just opened fire. They just opened fire, and I ran [one] way, Nadim ran straight back, and the kids ... got shot.

Later, I looked at the video — I never realized I jumped over a wall, but there's a wall there that I apparently jumped over with the videographer, and we stopped a good distance away — you can see in the video we're pretty far away — and I'm talking about it, and this helicopter flies over us and they open fire. I was nowhere near the group that had been protesting. We were way off on the side, and the bullets — you've seen in the movie when they puff in the sand — that's what it was like. We ran — Patrick and I, poor Patrick, he was a newlywed and he'd never been to a conflict zone before — we ran down this alley, and I leaned up against a retaining wall, and the helicopter followed us. This is the only time I ever got scared. At that moment — like when we were being shot at it, it was so stunning that they would — the first time, they shot at the crowd and we happened to be there. The second time, they targeted us, absolutely, but then they followed us and I'll never forget looking up at the bottom of that helicopter thinking ... 'They're hunting us' and at that moment a car drove by and I screamed and the guy opened the back door and we jumped in and we drove away. And the Qatari government has denied ever since then that they shot at us from the helicopter. Maybe they didn't. Maybe they shot at us from the buildings, but they targeted us — they shot at us.

TT: You were a reporter before and are now an editor. What's the most rewarding part about your job now, and what's one thing that you miss most about being in the field?

MS: I like learning new things and the thing is, every step of the way of my career as a reporter, I learned something new and every job prepared me for the next job. I was a local reporter, I was a government reporter, I was a county reporter, an investigative reporter, a state government reporter, and then I became a foreign correspondent. And being a foreign correspondent is a whole different set of skills. It involves everything from understanding how to get places — logistics is 80 percent of it ... And then after a while, you develop those skills, and I remember I got to Warsaw — one of my last [foreign] assignments, and I thought 'This is kind of cool, but I've done this' ... And then around that time, they offered me the job as deputy foreign editor, and I went back and I've just learned so much.

Being a reporter is one of the most thrilling and rewarding jobs you can have. It allows you to experience life through someone else's eyes and in someone else's shoes — to ask people things you couldn't even ask your own family, and they want to share with you, they want to tell you — to give voice to the downtrodden and the oppressed — absolutely, it's awesome — but it's very linear, so it's you doing your story. You get your assignment, you figure out how to report it, you collect the material, you conceptualize, synthesize, write, edit, it goes in the paper.

As an editor, I have to have a much broader view and I have to think in 360 degrees all the time. I can't just think about Egypt and the Middle East. I have to think about what's going on in Latin America — why is Brazil suddenly exploding in protest and what does that social movement mean? I have to understand how the whole area of North Africa has become kind of a free zone for Jihadis and Islamic radicals and what impact the French are having on that area. I have to understand Europe, which in many ways can be very boring, but it's also fascinating as the continent tries to hold onto what it stands for but reinvent itself. How it deals with immigration, how it deals with the rise of Islam. It's fascinating and it's challenging because I have to do it all simultaneously, so it's just different ... Opportunity at my age to do something completely new and learn something new is cool.

TT: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would want the student body to hear?

MS: Don't let anyone ever tell you what you can and can't do. Follow your heart and just, honestly — I had an editor early in my career who pulled me aside and said 'You're not very good, you can't write, and maybe you want to think about doing something else with your life.' And I just thought she was [rude], to be honest with you. But at the same time, I took her criticism to heart and worked at it. Part of it is luck. Part of it is opportunity, but it seems to have worked out. Don't let anyone tell you who you can be. Be who you want to be. That's my message.