Lying, cheating and stealing. It is a perception that many foreigners have of the Arab Middle East. In Egypt, Mr White Man is seen as a cash cow – and when so many Egyptians live in poverty, who can blame them? But when Tim Sebastian, the prominent journalist, host of the Doha Debates and former presenter of BBC HARDtalk, talked about Cairo's rip-offs in a New York Times article, Egyptians were infuriated.
On Facebook, on Twitter and in other forums, Sebastian was called a variety of names, from "imperialist swine" to "arrogant, ignorant foreigner journalist". Some were even more unpleasant. These critics are uncomfortable that a westerner has the audacity to point out the faults of another region and country. Of course, many of the people complaining about Sebastian's article would have little hesitation in criticising American or European decisions and cultural practices. The funny thing, in many ways, is that Sebastian alludes to this in his article:
"An acquaintance at al-Jazeera told me of her experience: 'Stick a BBC microphone in front of people and they'll tell you the version they think you want to hear, replace it with one of ours, and they'll give you the complete opposite. They see no contradiction'."
There is truth to this assertion. One Egyptian journalist told me after reading the article that there are "so many points he got right. Egyptians do want to seem positive in the outside world's vision. This is the reality. And people are greedy." The problem is not so much the reality portrayed in Sebastian's article, but the way this relates to the larger, more nuanced situation in the Middle East.
Sebastian's "on-the-ground" facts – about the way Egyptian taxi drivers try to inflate their charges, especially towards foreigners – are spot on. Taxi drivers are part of a society that is oppressed, poor and sees little hope in the future, so when they come across a bunch of white people on the street, they make the most of that opportunity.
It becomes more problematic when journalists highlight some negative aspect of society – such as the behaviour of taxi drivers – and treat it as a microcosm of the country's ills. Egyptians don't like foreigners speaking badly of their country, and become prickly and defensive. For them, it is something only they have the right to say, no matter how accurate the writer's observation may be.
As the Middle East continues to struggle with the question of who is entitled to talk about "the Arab", it is Sebastian who attempts to do just that, and he is hounded for it. The Egyptian elite, who pride themselves on being different, refuse to acknowledge Sebastian's assertions because of a simple fact: in their everyday lives they don't have to sit in taxis or deal with the millions who struggle to make ends meet.
Sebastian points to this towards the end of his article when he discusses how apathetic Egyptians – and Arabs more generally – have become. He gives the example of four friends who agree to meet for dinner, but no one turns up. They don't even phone each other to make excuses, because none them really expected anyone to turn up anyway.
Again, Sebastian seems to treat this as a parable of the Middle East's stagnation. He writes:
"So what was it [the dinner arrangement] all about in the first place? My strong suspicion: just nice words and the germ of a good intention, believed for a genuine split second by everyone. That pretty much tells you where Middle East peace is right now."
In many ways, Egyptian and Arab thinking is stagnant. There has not been a great cultural revolution in recent history and the governments of today are the same as decades ago. So, when Egyptians get angry that someone called them out, maybe they should start calling themselves out for their apathy.