How not to write a paragraph about Egypt

The drama in Egypt is rolling on and on, which means that journalists in local newsrooms across America are doing that thing that we do — we search for local angles on the stories.

Everybody say it together: All news is local. Actually, all news is becoming hyper-local, but that’s another issue.

So what are the obvious local stories linked to Egypt?

Several leap to mind. Are there any local citizens, businesspeople and or study-abroad students who are in Egypt? Are they trapped? The other natural story is the flip side of that coin: Does our city or region include institutions that primarily appeal to Egyptians? The other day, the Baltimore Sun did the logical thing and sent a reporter out to a Coptic Orthodox parish. After all, it’s not that hard to find Coptic believers of various kinds in major American cities.

Now, the Washington Post has served up another story linked to the events in Egypt, one with a solid and logical local news hook. Here’s the top of the story:

For days, people have been congratulating Eman Lotfy, a 24-year-old immigrant from Egypt, on her homeland’s uprising.

“I hope your revolution never ends,” declared a Sudanese woman who came in to Lotfy’s family-owned establishment, the Cairo Cafe, in Alexandria (Virginia, not Egypt).

The cafe’s television has been on constantly, flipping between Arabic-language news stations as rapt patrons from across the Arab world sucked on hookahs and excitedly debated whether their own country would be next. … But it’s one thing to cheer a revolution from the sidelines. It’s something else to have the flames licking at your front door.

For Lotfy, whose family moved here from Egypt more than a decade ago, the chaos has been more frightening than inspiring.

“Everyone’s depressed. People are crying, seeing Cairo on fire,” she said. “Alexandria is a disaster. … I have people saying ‘Congratulations on your country,’ which really amazes me. What are you congratulating me on? My country’s on fire, and you come to congratulate me?”

As you can see, this is the kind of local story — it ran on the Metro front — that quite naturally pulls in a variety of voices from Egypt and from other nations and cultures in and around the Middle East. It’s like a sports bar in the Washington, D.C., area that caters to Green Bay Packer fans. It’s a point of contact, a bridge back to the old country.

As you would expect, this cafe appeals both to Muslims from Egypt and to Copts. This leads us to the only snippet of this fine story that gave me pause — a grammatical pause.

Read this carefully:

Although no Egyptians at the cafe expressed sympathy for longtime President Hosni Mubarak, many said they feared that the instability could bring harder times for the country. Coptic Christians said their families are planning to leave if Islamists take control of the government. Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.

Once again, it’s crucial for journalists to stress that Muslims in Egypt do not fall into one simple camp. Clarity is essential.

So what about that paragraph? Note that the Copts (I would ask, “All of them?”) say that their families back home are planning to leave Egypt if Islamists take over. Then we are told that, at this cafe, “Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.”

OK, I’ll ask: This surprisingly united crowd of Muslims are concerned about WHAT possibility?

The way this is set up, this unusually united group of Muslims are either concerned (a) about the possibility that Islamists could take over, or (b) they were concerned that the Copts could be forced to flee Egypt, or (c) that one thing could lead to another so that both things happened. So how are we supposed to read that? There is no way, grammatically, to tell precisely what is being said and this is a very important human-rights issue.

Meanwhile, I do find it hard to believe that there is total agreement among Muslims in the greater DC area over those issues or even total agreement between Muslims who frequent this cafe. Total agreement on such sensitive and culture-shaping decisions and events? Really?

And one more thing. Were readers ever told whether the folks who operate the cafe are Coptic Christians or Muslims? That might subtly affect the balance of who frequents the establishment, especially among Muslims. For example, is the food halal?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Note that the Copts (I would ask, “All of them?”) say that their families back home are planning to leave Egypt if Islamists take over. Then we are told that, at this cafe, “Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.”

    This issue concerns how readers interpret indefinite numbers. “American’s believe…”, “Christians believe…” can be interpreted as implying all as you’ve done. I’m more likely to read that as “a majority” or a “statistically significant majority” rather than implying all. Or perhaps the reporter meant “the ones I interviewed in the cafe”.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you but would not state the objection as strongly as you did.

  • tmatt

    Oh, it’s clear that the frame is the patrons at the cafe. However, there is no clue as to how many that is.

    The question about the ownership is crucial, however. If Christian and non-halal, what can we assume about the patrons who are unanimously worried about an extreme Sharia and the possible exodus of Copts?

    Good story. Terribly vague section on a few crucial facts.

  • Dave

    Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.

    I vote for interprestation (a) because of the word “too,” which makes option (b) less plausible. Option (c) would unusually imbue the interviewees with the powers of analysis.

  • tmatt


    I don’t get your point on the word “too.”

    At the very least, you see my point that the grammatical structure is vague.

  • Dave

    Terry, I took that “too” to be setting Muslim interviewees in parallel with Christian ones, concerned about the same thing.

    Yes, it is vague; that’s why we’re discussing three possible interpretations.