Egypt: It's not just about Cairo

Shaimaa Khalil speaks to farmers in southern Egypt Shaimaa Khalil speaks to farmers in southern Egypt

"Egyptians are quite used to the media by now," observes Shaimaa Khalil.

Hordes of journalists have descended on the country since protests toppled President Hosni Mubarak from power in winter 2011.

Since then the country has featured regularly in the headlines but Khalil, who works as Arab Affairs Editor at the World Service, wanted to look deeper into issues affecting Egyptians.

A pitch for a long-form series proved successful and so she had the "really satisfying" chance to explore different facets of Egyptian society, instead of the day-to-day turmoil.

Khalil was born in the coastal city of Alexandria in northern Egypt but, like many BBC journalists, she had a multi-national upbringing, spending some of her youth in the USA and Qatar.

Following a move to London, she joined the BBC and returned to Egypt, where there are two bureaus - one English, one Arabic - for work and family holidays.

Cairo-centric coverage

But she says that making her new series Egypt's Challenge enabled her to go to parts of the country she had never visited before.

Start Quote

It was like rediscovering my country”

End Quote Shaimaa Khalil Arab Affairs Editor, BBC World Service

"Normally the media's coverage is very Cairo-centric, very big city-centric, but we wanted to go to rural Egypt as well, to see what people make of all this," Khalil points out.

"The problem with the south was that, during the Mubarak era, it was extremely neglected and continued to be neglected.

"So there was a huge sense of disappointment, in that people there said they felt that, with this change, others would pay more attention to the south and understand it's a valuable asset to the Egyptian government. But they still feel quite left alone."

Khalil's mother is originally from the southern region of Upper Egypt although the journalist had never visited there before making the series.

"It was just a privilege to find out something about my country that I didn't know," Khalil adds, "it was like rediscovering my country."

A regular visitor to Cairo, Khalil has also noticed a deterioration in security in the last few years.

She was warned that a trip to the central Tahrir Square would be "at your own peril". Friends and family, especially women, were also reluctant to meet up for evening catch-ups in caf├ęs.

Shaimaa Khalil also visited her old school in Alexandria Shaimaa Khalil also visited her old school in Alexandria

"Taxi drivers are quite antagonistic to police officers - they feel like the officers give them a hard time - but now they told me that they really hope the police come back because they kept the streets safe and now they are not."

Interview access

The six-part series covers issues like the economy and religion but one of Khalil's highlights was interviewing the famous Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who has been compared to the American Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

However, trying to get interviews with government officials proved "quite difficult, nearly impossible", says Khalil.

Unlike talking to Egyptians on the street, who are used to seeing journalists with their cameras and microphones.

"They're still quite suspicious. On many occasions my producers and I would be interviewing someone and people were actually stopping by and asking what channel are you from, what are you saying, we don't want you saying bad things about Egypt, make sure you give a good picture about the country."

She adds: "It's my country and there is an urge in me to tell the story - and not just the day-to-day violence - but to present to the BBC and the world the different facets of Egyptian life and people."

  • The Documentary: Egypt's Challenge, BBC World Service, starts Tuesday 23 Apr 2013, 9am, 3.30pm and 8pm BST


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