Category Archives: Politics

In Jordan, Thousands of Syrian Refugees are Under Serious Threat From a New Law

First published in Newsweek in print edition 17/10/2014 and online on 8th October 2014.

women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as  the return from the only market in the camp.

Women and men make the long walk back to their shelters as the return from the only market in the camp

Just 10km northeast of Jordan’s Mafraq city, some 20 tents are pitched next to a plot of agricultural land, the conspicuous greenery breaking up the otherwise flat, sun-bleached desert. In a faded blue font on the side of some of the tents are the words “UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency”.

This small plot of land in the desert is the latest settling ground for Ahmad Al-Obeyd and over 100 members of his extended family, all refugees from the same rural Damascus suburb. For almost a year, Ahmad has been moving his caravan of tents around Jordan, following agricultural harvests in the hope of finding work. For the past five months, they have been based near Mafraq, on a dusty plot just two kilometres from the very country they once fled.

Al-Obeyd and his family all arrived in Jordan between December 2013 and March 2014.  Carrying whatever they could, some of his family paid smugglers while others hitchhiked through dangerous territory, before finally walking the last few kilometres across the border. His family were registered in Za’atari camp. “It was very, very tough,” said Al-Obeyd, “I don’t like to think about that journey, but thank God we made it.”

Now, thanks to a recent change in Jordanian Government policy, Al-Obeyd and tens of thousands like him live under threat of eviction, incarceration, and even deportation back to Syria.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in the early spring of 2011, over 608,000 Syrians have crossed the border, seeking asylum and refuge in Jordan.  A recent economic study by the World Food Programme stated that the sheer number of Syrians coming in had “triggered major demographic shifts; tested infrastructure and pressured social services”.  Today, Syrian refugees make up one tenth of the Jordanian population.

As a result, public opinion has slowly turned on the refugees, and in a speech to parliament on the November 3rd 2013, King Abdullah II stated that unless the international community quickly came to Jordan’s aid, he would “take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.”

The resident of Mafraq, for example, are keen to keep Syrians away from their communities – a September 2012 poll by the Jordanian Centre for Strategic Studies found that 80% of townspeople supported the idea of segregation of refugees inside refugee camps.

Then, in July of this year, the government and its new Syrian Refugees Directorate, SRAD, implemented a new policy. According to the new rules unregistered refugees, and those who choose to leave the confines of the camps without official authorisation, find themselves cut off from any humanitarian assistance, access to public services, and at risk of incarceration, eviction and even deportation back to Syria. The choice presented to theserefugees is simple: stay in the camps, or give up your access to aid.

The reality is more complicated: nearly 100,000 refugees currently live in one of Jordan’s two refugee camps, created in response to the Syrian conflict – around 85,000 in Za’atari camp and an estimated 12,000 in the new Azraq camp, opened on April 30th this year. The rest – the vast majority – live outside the camps; having registered with the UNHCR in urban areas, not registered at all, or having simply left without authorisation.

“If you are not going through the bail out procedure, UNHCR is no longer in a position to renew your documents and to officially recognise your stay outside the camps,” says Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, UNHCR’s Head of Azraq Camp’s Field Office. As partners of SRAD, few aid agency workers are willing to openly decry the new policy for risk of a government backlash that could in turn seriously hinder their efforts with refugees. Nevertheless, many quietly worry that the policy signifies a new hardline shift from the government, presaging a more coercive, restrictive future for refugees without the right papers.

In order for someone to obtain a bailout from Za’atari or Azraq today, Syrians need a Jordanian relative – “not necessarily a blood relation, but there has to be a justified relation” Castel-Hollingsworth adds – who can vouch for you and is willing to act as your guarantor while you try and start a new life outside the camp. She acknowledges that obtaining a bailout permit is incredibly difficult: “It is very restrictive in terms of the criteria you need to meet, in order to be able to apply, and then to actually get the permit,” she says, from her office in Azraq camp.

At the other end of Azraq, sitting in the shade of his corrugated metal shelter, Sabra, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, describes his first stay at the camp: “I arrived in Jordan and came to this camp on May 2nd,” he said. “I escaped the camp on the 28th May.”

It took just two and a half months before police in Amman stopped and questioned him, and, with only Azraq registration papers, he was quickly returned to the camp. Sabra’s story resonates with many like him: “I tried [to leave legally], but I couldn’t,” he says. “I tried to get the bailout [through SRAD], but I don’t have any relatives in Jordan or anybody who could be my [guarantor].”

Azraq camp’s creation was a direct result of the huge number of refugees overwhelming Za’atari camp in 2012. With a maximum capacity of 60,000 Za’atari quickly swelled to 120,000 just over a year after opening. Refugees soon streamed out of the camps and entered Jordanian residential areas. Al-Obeyd and his entire family were among them. As was common at the time, they snuck out in the night. “We left slowly, my son-in-law leaving first, then afterwards, in small groups, the rest of us snuck out,” Al-Obeyd says.

“At that time in Za’atari, there were 2,000 refugees arriving per day,” says Castel-Hollingsworth. “The government and UNHCR realised…Za’atari could not cope.”  In February, the government decided there needed to be another camp. Today, Azraq accepts 96-97% of all new arrivals into the country.

Azraq is unlike almost every other refugee camp in the world. Out of the gently undulating desert in central Jordan, Azraq’s rugged shelters sit in perfect rows. Today, close to 10,000 shelters have been built, each with a 5-person capacity. At 14.7 square km, the camp itself has the feel of peculiarly sparse, under-construction town. Everywhere is orange desert, grey roads and yellowing shelters.

“People say [it’s like planning a city], but yes it is urban planning. Yesterday I was approving the layout for a cemetery,” Castel-Hollingsworth says. Lessons have certainly been learned from the chaos of Za’atari, and Castel-Hollingsworth is proud of the fact there have been “no security incidents in the camp,” a serious issue that continues to plague Za’atari.

Yet there is much to be done. The camp itself has only one supermarket; no electricity save small, solar powered devices; no running field hospital; no floors in the shelters, and unlike Za’atari, practically no business opportunities for the refugees.

Castel-Hollingsworth considers these issues very urgent. “People say that if they get electricity, the hospital and the markets, people will come back from the urban areas to live here,” she says.  Yet, in the mean time, the refugees continue to leave – bailed out or not.

Sabra says that leaving Azraq was a way of restoring his “dignity”. “There is only so long you can live off [hand outs]. I feel I am living half a life here.” It is a sentiment echoed by Al-Obyed: “In order to live in dignity, you have to work,” he says. “That’s why we prefer to live [outside], even with all the risks involved.”

An estimated 13,000 refugees, or around 50% of those registered at Azraq, have already left illegally. Almost all of them will fall foul of the new bailout policy. Al-Obeyd knows his family are at risk by continuing to illegally reside in what are termed “informal tented settlements” (ITS). “When the policy first started, we began hearing of mass evictions of people just like us,” says Al-Obeyd. “We were seriously considering moving back to the refugee camps before they had a chance to move us forcefully.”

To date, ITS evictions have been fairly piecemeal, but one aid agency worker in Jordan warns that, “It seems to be accepted by aid workers that [more wide-scale evictions] will inevitably happen.” Al-Obeyd calls the new policy “devastating”. Nodding in the direction of his family, he notes, “It is the poorest, the most desperate, who are most affected.” He explains that for the Syrian refugees, everyone has lost something, and some have lost everything. “If they evict us, destroy our things and send us back [to the camps] I would ask them to instead return us to Syria.” He pauses to consider what he has just said, before nodding, “Yes. That would be kinder.”

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Filed under Articles, Human Migration, Politics, Rights

City Of Life

First Published in Philanthropy Age Magazine in October 2014.  Tearsheets below.

On the outskirts of central Cairo, in the shadow of the Mokattam hills, some 70,000 Zabaleen (literally ‘garbage collectors’ in Arabic) collect, sort and recycle nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output – all 10,000 tons of it.

Originally from Upper Egypt, this majority Coptic Christian community has gone on to thrive in the one sector that has hitherto only been addressed begrudgingly: waste management.

In the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of Mokattam, the largest congregation of Zabaleen live and work in and amongst the rubbish they collect. Specially built apartments tower over a maze of narrow streets where the ground overflows with the municipal waste of almost 12 million Cairenes. When the wind picks up, the air becomes saturated with a grimy dust while clouds of flies attack any decaying organic matter.

On first inspection, the area seems to be a pungent, anarchic mess of people, buildings, narrow alleys, cars and rubbish. Yet within the apparent chaos, the zabaleen families are able to achieve a diversion rate that would arouse the envy of waste management corporations worldwide.

“The Zabaleen are now recycling about 85% of the garbage they receive.” Explains Ezzat Naem, the head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate. By comparison, the EU is aiming for a recycling rate of just 50% of household waste by the year 2020.

Originally subsistence farmers from Upper Egypt, the Zabaleen arrived in Cairo in the 1940s and began working in coordination with the existing garbage collectors, who hailed from the western Oasis governorates.

“When my people first came here, it was the Wahaya (Oasis people) who were collecting the rubbish.” Explains Naem, “they would simply take it to the outskirts of the city and leave it to dry in the sun before maybe selling it back to people as a fuel for fire.”

With the sudden influx of Upper Egyptians, the Wahaya quickly began contracting the new migrants to specific areas of Cairo. It was a business partnership that persists to this day. “Families have been working the same areas for over 60 years.” States Naem. “For example, my grandfather started by collecting garbage in El Koba Gardens, my father continued collecting the garbage from El Koba and my brothers today still collect the garbage from El Koba!”

Yet while the routes may have remained consistent, the incredible proficiency of todays Zabaleen is the result of a long evolution in their operations of collection, sorting and recycling.

The early Zabaleen would simply use the organic waste as a source of food for their livestock and just ignore most of the inorganic materials, instead preferring to dump them in landfills. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) spotted an opportunity and in the 1960s they began visiting the Zabaleen to buy leftover inorganic materials like paper and metal, which they would then process and resell.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the Zabaleen themselves started recycling proper. Microloans provided in coordination with a World Bank program allowed the Zabaleen to begin their own recycling, thus forgoing the third party SMEs. With advice and help from local NGOs, the Zabaleen entered a new period of efficient recycling that continues to outstrip most European and US cities today.

In Manshiyet Nasser, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) NGO was established in 1984 with precisely this goal. The NGO was determined to help the Zabaleen make the most out of their situation in both an environmentally safe, and economically sound manner.

For over 30 years, APE – with funding from local and international donations – has been offering the residents of Manshiyet Nasser help and guidance through an ever-expanding range of programs and workshops.

“The main objective when we started was to simply help them in the recycling of rubbish,” Says Hany Al Arian, the current director of APE. “Right now we have diversified to: the production of recycled products; programs for women; pre school for the kids; and of course, health coverage for the people.”

In spite of the Zabaleen’s obvious proficiency in recycling, the working conditions remain a major health concern. The Zabaleen and their families spend their days surrounded by potentially infectious, disease-ridden garbage. “We are especially concerned for the women. They are the ones sorting through and categorising the inorganic waste their husbands bring them.” Explains Al Arian. “We have been doing a number of awareness, treatment and prevention programs on good health practices for the Zabaleen.”

Since 2007, Al Arian estimates that APE has spent some EGP 17 million (USD 2.4 million) on treatments alone. “Hepatitis C, Diabetes, Anaemia with the blood, Glaucoma. These are all major problems here.”

On the ground floor of one of APE’s buildings lies their small treatment room. A small congregation of women wait patiently outside to see the doctors, happy just to have a healthcare option so close to their homes.

Outside the main block, a small school is hidden among some recently planted trees. Packed with young children, the small classrooms overlook an eco garden built by APE in 2002, replacing what had once been a large composting plant.

“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets.” Says Al Arian explaining that they accommodate children anywhere from birth up to the end of primary school. “Right now, we have approximately 650 children altogether coming to our schools.”

A common set up found with APE is to have the women working in APE’s recycling facilities, while their children cared for in the school not 200 meters away. “One of the most important things we at APE can do is to empower the women here.” States Al Arian. “But empowering the women is not enough; you have to educate the men. So we are also trying to do some workshops to broaden their minds.”

One woman who found exactly such an opportunity with APE is 38 year-old Aida Ghaly. “After I was married, I became very lonely so I came to APE looking for something to do. I quickly learnt embroidery and now teach it to other girls.”

“My husband was happy because I was nearby, had work that would help our income, and APE were able to help me when I had my children, [post natal] and in providing early education for them too.”

With her embroidery, Ghaly joins around 200 women who help to create recycled products from paper and textiles. Close to the rooms where the women work, a huge array of their products is on offer for sale, from bags and birthday cards, to pillow covers and coin purses. “We have maybe 200 different design styles, but we modify and add new ones everyday.” Explains one of the workers proudly.

“The income made by selling our recycled products should make the program self-sustaining, but since the revolution we have had trouble on that front.” States Al Arian. “Because the local economy is in such trouble, people are less willing to spend and we are having to look more to overseas markets.”

In spite of the successes of the Zabaleen with the help of NGOs like APE, in the early 2000s their community was dealt a massive blow when the Egyptian government decided to instead contract four multinational waste management corporations.

A 15-year contract was signed that stipulated the multinationals needed to maintain a recycling rate of just 20%, while the Zabaleen were told to stop collecting altogether. The income loss of the Zabaleen coupled with the needless waste ending up in landfills meant that only a few years into the contract, the experiment was already considered a desperate failure.

“These multinational companies came with a European attitude, they weren’t aware of what the zabaleen provided.” Explains Naem. “So they placed large [skips] in the streets, instead of going door to door. They asked the residents to bring the garbage down to the street. Of course the Egyptians refused.”

“We are the only people in the whole world who will go into apartments and collect your garbage from your front door.” Says Naem proudly. “Now they are subcontracting the Zabaleen through the Wahaya, adding another layer where income is lost for the average Zaabal.”

However, with the Multinationals’ contracts due to end in 2017 and with APE continuing in their work with the Zabaleen community, Naem is optimistic for the future. “Now the Government is beginning to acknowledge us and we are cared for a bit more. I feel the future could be very bright for my people.”

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‘Trade In Spade’ – Gaza’s Destroyed Tunnels

First published in print with Makeshift Magazine July 2014

Tearsheets below:

Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny, metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”

At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.

Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.

For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank PalThink.

Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”

That has all since changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.

“They must have destroyed some 1,100 [tunnels],” Abu Mohamed sighs, remembering the Egyptian military operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denied that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”

Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that Omar Shaban describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.

Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.

The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this,”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.

“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”

The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from the Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.

“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are, underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”

The entrance to his tunnel, which measures four-and-a-half feet high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.

Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than three feet, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.

“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”

Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”

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August 7, 2014 · 16:55

Orwell’s Nationalism in Egypt

The 25th June 2014 marks the 111th anniversary of George Orwell’s birth, and it seemed as appropriate a time as any to add my own little contribution to the already near-bursting oeuvre of work connecting Orwell to contemporary news.  In my case, Egyptian news.

As the Egyptian state and its institutions continue to bludgeon any dissent or opposition out of the public sphere, one of Orwell’s earlier essays proves helpful in understanding how it has come to this: why the current government is so desperate to enforce patriotic sentiment; how they can get away with obvious lies and brutality; and why even peaceful disobedience and dissent is no longer allowed.

In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, Orwell starts by appropriating and altering the definition of ‘nationalism’ beyond that of everyday parlance, beyond the parochial allegiance to ‘the nation’. Orwell hypothesised there was an associative emotional phenomenon that could be applied to a swathe of constructs outside (and indeed, inside) any nation.

Orwell writes, “It can attach itself to a church or a class,” and importantly adds, “or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty.”

In his simplest definition, ‘nationalism’ is an emotional phenomenon that creates a blinding allegiance to something (positive nationalism), or perhaps against something (negative nationalism).  As a societal construct, attaching oneself to others of similar ideology and agency arises naturally and is almost impossible to avoid – even hermits and misanthropes can and will identify with one another – but Orwell takes it one step further.

The inherent problem, he says, is that nationalism also acts as a perfect incubator of the irrational zealot.  Victories and losses are almost irrelevant to belief and allegiance, as the fanatical nationalist (and for Orwell, they are the rule, not the exception) will not only stand firm, but will actually grow in their stubborn righteousness as a result.

As Orwell puts it, “[The nationalist] persuades himself that [his side] is the strongest [side], and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him.”

They can become either the ‘martyr’ (after a loss) or the ‘noble victor’ (after success) – either way their reservoir of righteousness grows.  In this schizophrenic atmosphere Orwell posits that even the most intelligent person is suddenly willing to “suppress their sensibilities and sacrifice their intellectual honesty for the cause of propaganda”.

In Egypt, this style of ‘nationalism’ can be a helpful lens through which to view recent events.

Suddenly, Egypt is seen as the battleground of vying political nationalist actors:  The Muslim Brotherhood, Youth Movements, Military Trial Activists, Anti Sexual Harassment movements, Business magnates, the Army, the judiciary, and so on.  People may ally themselves to many different groups, and though few of the nationalist groups have anything to do with the nation directly, they all demand one thing: power.  Were any one group to hold a majority mandate, the other groups would immediately feel threatened, and be seen as a threat.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the interim government-backed military approached the problem of the Brotherhood and public relations with a modus operandi akin to the US Straussian neo-conservatives of the 1970s: Scare everyone with a deadly enemy (USSR/Muslim Brotherhood); overplay the enemy threat through propaganda; and promulgate the myth of the benevolent state, thus encouraging an unquestioning patriotism.  But instead of fighting the selfish and immoral individualism of liberalism, as the neo-cons did, the new Egyptian state is fighting a proliferation of political nationalism that threatens allegiance, stability and the power hierarchy.

After all, any nationalist group ipso facto is a threat, irrespective of whether it poses a direct challenge to the incumbent power, because, as stated earlier, every nationalist demands power: power to do business free of restrictions; power to operate with impunity; power to hold a government accountable; power to change a law.  In 2011, power in Egypt was momentarily, and spontaneously, redistributed in an 18-day revolt, much to the chagrin of the deep state.  In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, a President more amenable to the old pillars of power is taking charge, and any further redistribution of power will once again be at the discretion of the old institutions.

Facing the swathe of serious political nationalist groups, the nation state and its institutions are trying its hardest to redirect the varying nationalists back to one overarching allegiance: loyalty to the State above all; overt patriotism over the more exclusive and fractured swathe of nationalist groups.

In the most blatant effort to date, the Egyptian Presidential office recently released a new decree regarding two major symbols of the State: the national anthem and the flag.

In it, the decree repeals two previous laws and demands a more devout reverence to these two symbols.  It stated the Egyptian flag cannot be lower than that of any other state institution flag (such as an army or a state flag), and is not to be on display if damaged, altered, worn or faded.  Egyptians must stand for the national anthem “out of respect” and military personnel must salute.  One line states, “Pre-university education authorities should strive to disseminate the norms and values enshrined in the words of the national anthem.”

To stress the seriousness of this new decree, anyone who insults the flag (by breaking the above rules) or doesn’t stand for the national anthem “shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding thirty thousand pounds ($4200)”.

“We are somewhat telling people “the state is back”.” Was the blunt response of Ehab Ghobashy, the presidential spokesman, when asked what the objective was in creating this new law.  “You could describe Egypt during the last three years as messy… because the state institutions were not able to perform their duties and the state pride was not given its due respect.”

The timing of the decree is key.  The immediate aftermath of the coup last year inspired what seemed to be an unquestioning patriotic atmosphere, akin to Orwell’s positive nationalism, in a huge and loud majority of Egyptians.  This loyalty remained even after the slaughter of over 1,000 people in less than a week in mid-August 2013.  Many cheered the dispersal of Rabaa square where some 638 people were killed and almost 4,000 injured, almost exclusively civilians of an opposing nationalist allegiance: the Muslim Brotherhood.  Even those not overtly pro-Army were willing to perform mental gymnastics in order to avoid calling Rabaa what it was: a massacre committed by their side.

With the Muslim Brotherhood almost completely crushed in just six months, a new enemy was needed by the state to once again unite the masses in fear – mistaking Orwell’s negative nationalism with patriotism.  The list of potential threats quickly increased and the new enemy suddenly became anyone openly dissenting.  An abhorrent protest law was passed and suddenly, the secular activists and youth movements (many of which supported the overthrow of Morsi) ran into trouble.  According to the Interior Ministry, some 16,000 people have been imprisoned since the fall of Morsi in July 2013.  One independent statistics database puts the number closer to 41,000, the overwhelming majority political prisoners.

Furthermore, journalists opposing or questioning the state line have been targeted, harassed, killed and jailed.  Two days ago, after 6 months of the most farcical trial proceedings to grace a courtroom, 3 Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to a cumulative 24 years in prison for doing nothing more than basic reporting.

Despite all this, it appeared that the reverence (in the form of enthusiasm) towards the state was waning as time passed and conditions continued to stagnate for the average Egyptian, and the old institutions were clearly alarmed by this sudden reality.

Turnouts in the recent presidential elections were low, far lower than anyone expected.  After the scheduled two days voting, one poll put the turnout at a laughably low 7.5%, although others placed it closer to the 20% mark.  The Presidential Elections Commission quickly took the extraordinary step of extending the voting to another day in a desperate effort to increase their “mandate”.  After the additional days voting they claimed overall turnout finished at just under 50%.  This sudden and dubious increase prompted the opposition candidate to call the proclaimed turnout percentage “an insult to Egyptians’ intelligence” and yet it was still far short of what the incoming President had hoped for.

The most obvious answer to this sudden indifference was that the overt patriotism of last year was simply ebbing away with time.  Therefore, the logic goes, a more patriotic sentiment needs to be drilled into the Egyptian psyche.  After all, the upcoming period of austerity, of “hard work and self-sacrifice”, could easily stir an angry and resentful crowd unless subconsciously cowed with an undying nationalism towards the state.

Yet through the lens of Orwell’s nationalism, it could just as easily be the case that the apparent patriotic fervour in the immediate post-Morsi period was not an allegiance to the state, but rather a negative nationalism against the Muslim Brotherhood.  If this were the case, then the patriotic reserve the state is relying on has been massively overrated from the start, and the turnout in the elections may be an indicator of such a reality.

In attempting to ameliorate their position and increase unquestioning loyalty, the state is now trying to force ‘reverence’ by law.  An obvious mistake in strategy: it’s difficult to make someone love you if you caveat your desire to be loved with threats of imprisonment and fines.  However, by overplaying the existential threats of terrorism, dominating the press and closing down a major avenue of dissent (through protests and marches), the state is well on its way to a new era of stultifying submission.

This strategy is made especially clear when you realise it is very possible to break all these new laws and still not find yourself in any trouble, so long as you break them the right way.  Scrawl “Sisi for President” on the flag, have an impromptu march along the bridge in support of the army, write outright lies against foreign journalists in you newspaper and you will get on just fine.  Just so long as you belong to a nationalist group that somehow benefits the incumbent powers, you can get away with murder.  Or even a massacre.

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Hobson’s Choice for Egyptian Voters

First published in the New Internationalist on May 30th

 

As polling booths closed late last night, Egyptians ticked off yet another election.  This has been the country’s second presidential election in as many years, and the 7th time Egyptians had been sent to the polling booths in just over 3 years.  Democracy by way of the ballot box abounds.  Yet the only reason these elections could even be called ‘democratic’ was down to one man, the Nasserist opposition candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

With early results from the elections trickling out, the inevitable looks to be confirmed: ex-defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will be Egypt’s next President with a landslide majority, while his only opposition is left far adrift with just a single-digit percentage of the ballots. Yet while the result itself is as expected, the turnout and build up to the election was anything but.

The idea of campaigning against the man considered by many as the “saviour of Egypt” would be a hard, if not impossible, task.  Sisi had, after all, been the “hero” who removed the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi – this was a common sentiment from voters I spoke to.  Other potential candidates quickly opted out of the race, either out of reverence to Sisi, or citing the impossibility of competing in what was termed a “state of fear”.

Since Morsi was overthrown in July last year hundreds of his supporters have been killed.  Over a thousand more have been sentenced to death in the courts.  Journalists have been targeted and harassed.  Activists and members of youth groups have been imprisoned after the passing of a draconian protest law.  The message was clear: dissent and opposition will not be tolerated, and the same seemed to apply with the elections.

So when Sabahi announced his candidacy, he was met with accusations of delusion and backroom cooperation from a fragmented opposition bloc.  There was no way he could possibly win, and by competing he was simply bestowing a veneer of democracy to what was a practical coronation.

Travelling around Cairo, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one candidate.  Sisi’s face beams down from posters and billboards, while Sabahi is apparently neither seen nor heard.  Yet out of the two, it was Sabahi who embraced the campaign period with gusto, while Sisi himself eschewed nearly all forms of electioneering.  Ostensibly due to security issues, the three-week campaigning period ended without Sisi making a single public appearance.

In the first week of campaigning, Sabahi’s headquarters was abuzz with young volunteers oozing an infectious confidence.  The walls were littered with posters of Martyrs from the previous three years revolting, in keeping with the image that Sabahi was trying to portray: he was the candidate of the youth and the revolution.

This belief was apparent in his team, and a sole objective was clearly stated.  Ehab Ghobashy, an organiser in Sabahi’s ‘Street Committee’ who referred to his candidate only as “the President”, held, if anything, a hubristic view as to who would win the elections.  “You wait and see, our President will win.”  He would say with a smile, reasoning apparently superfluous to his “good feeling”.

Further up the campaign echelon, a more pragmatic approach was taken, but the singular hope was still that, with the correct strategy, Sabahi would somehow win.  “We are targeting the youth [18-39], they make up 60% of the voting bloc” explained Hussein Qorshum, head of the communications committee.  “When we travel, we hit the areas we know we have support and tailor our speeches to address the needs of the people there.  This is how we will win – with our policies.  Sisi speaks of energy saving light bulbs?  We talk of solar power!”

However, as the campaign dragged on, the cracks started to show, literally.  The campaign was working on a laughably small budget and that much was clear to anyone watching.  Mid way through the campaigning, Sisi’s team had spent LE 12 million (£1,003,400) including renting a private jet that purportedly cost them £7,500.  In the same period, Sabahi’s director of advertising stated they had spent just LE 100,000 (£8,362).

It was a picture of forced frugality.  A great deal of their resources were drawn from Sabahi’s failed 2012 presidential bid.  Slogans, songs, posters and t-shirts from two years prior were all dusted off and brought back to life.  The campaign team didn’t even have a security officer, as, according to their secretary of the political relations committee, they “can’t afford one”.

The young team of volunteers found themselves harassed, assaulted, arrested and impeded in their work by both pro-Sisi civilians and policemen.  “Just two days ago, we had trouble in Mahalla,” said Ahmed Dowayik, a 22 year-old volunteer with Sabahi.  “They tried to stop our bus and pull us out but we just quickly drove out.”  He shrugs when asked who they were.  “They were dressed like civilians, but you never know.  The police just watched it all happen and did nothing.”

As the campaigning neared its end, it was noticeable that Sabahi’s team were trying to shift the goalposts.  The main objective remained the triumph of their candidate, but another aim suddenly came to carry great importance too.  “What’s most important for us is the spirit of youth.” Said Mohamed Aziz, a prominent organiser with the campaign.

As one of the cofounders of the Tamarod movement that brought about the fall of Morsi, Aziz knows what a successful campaign feels like, and the day after campaigning was finished, he was expert in avoiding a straight answer as to possible success in the elections.  “We’ve gained some ground and we’ve trained a lot of the youth in the democratic way.  The thousands that volunteered for us, work with us, the spirit of hope for a young crowd that believes in a democratic state, for me this is the most important thing.”

Yet on the day, the brutal reality in the turnout of the elections would have left both candidates disappointed.  While Sabahi had hoped for some success among the younger voters, Sisi had called for record voter participation, thus providing proof of his popular mandate.  The first days showing was so poor that it prompted an angry reproach from local television personalities.  The youth were particularly conspicuous in their absence.

On the second, and what should have been the final day’s voting, the turnout was hardly better, despite the best efforts of the state.  Non-voters were threatened with fines (voting is mandatory in Egypt, but this is never observed); a popular shopping mall was closed early; and the day was proclaimed a national holiday.  One studies centre put the turnout over the two days at a staggeringly low 7.5%.  Then, late on Tuesday, a desperate Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) made the extraordinary decision to extend voting to a third day.  The latest state figures now put the overall turnout at between 38 and 59 percent of voters.

The events of the polling period seemed to exactly mirror an earlier episode during the elections. On a trip to Benha, a group of Sabahi volunteers careened around corners in their campaign minibus, blasting songs and handing out posters.  The occasional onlooker smiled and the occasional onlooker gave a thumbs down, but the vast majority watched on with complete indifference, instead returning to whatever they were doing, as if nothing had happened.  As if nothing had changed.

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Gaza’s Tunnel Vision

First published on Vocativ on 14 May 2014

Gaza’s infamous tunnels are at once a lifeline and a deathtrap. They connect the occupied territories with areas beyond their closed borders, freeing up trade and working as a conduit for goods to flow back and forth. But the Egyptian and Israeli governments regard the tunnels as a security threat and work constantly to detect and shut them down, so the risks for those working underground are great. They could be gassed, flooded or bombed out of the passages—if they make it out at all. While the tunnels are a necessity in many ways, the Gaza population is extremely conflicted about their existence.

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May 14, 2014 · 18:55

In Cairo’s Garbage City, Illegal Pig Farming is Coming Back

First Published in Vice ‘Munchies‘ Food Section – April 8, 2014

In Cairo’s ‘Garbage City,’ Illegal Pig Farming Is Coming BackAs I scrambled up piles of cardboard and across varied detritus, I eventually peered over a metal barrier into the porcine enclave beyond.  The two dozen or so pigs on the other side quickly scattered away to the shadows before slowly returning to where they were, munching on orange peels and the other organic materials left for them.

“Welcome to Garbage City!” yells one man below me, before continuing on in his business of compressing and packaging used cardboard. “You like the pigs?” he asks me.

Pigs hanging out on a pile of garbage. All photos by the author.

Manshiyet Nasser, or ‘Garbage City’ as it’s otherwise known, is a sprawling town of mostly Coptic Christians and lies under the Mokattam hills just slightly under five miles (8km) from downtown Cairo. With the majority of the population working in the informal recycling and rubbish collecting business, the area is home to some 60,000 ‘Zabaleen’ (literally ‘garbage people’) and the destination of some 30 percent of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output—all 4,200 tons of it. Walking around the maze of streets, you occasionally pass by openings to the makeshift furnaces used for recycling; the blasts of heat and the whirr of metal reminding you exactly where you are—in essence, a recycling industry. Elsewhere, the smell—as one would imagine—is incredibly pungent. Foodstuffs and other organic matter putrefy under the hot sun, offering up an odor capable of burning the nasal hairs. It only takes about 15 minutes for the body to adjust to it, though, and eventually its power escapes you.

Garbage City is also home to the highest concentration of pigs in Egypt—around 50,000 of them. This is nearly double the number of pigs than there were the year before. It is an immense resurgence from five years ago, when Hosni Mubarak’s government culled most of Egypt’s pig population because of a swine flu scare. But even though pork farming is still illegal today, a few bold farmers are attempting to reform the industry altogether.

On April 29th, 2009, amid the growing paranoia over the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, Egypt’s government, under Hosni Mubarak, ordered the immediate slaughter of every pig in Egypt. At the time, Egypt’s agriculture ministry put the number of pigs in the country at close to 250,000.

Photo by Adam Ramsey

Despite the fact that no pigs in Egypt were found to have the new strain, and that the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that it could not be caught from eating pork that was properly prepared, the decision went ahead. Shortly after the announcement, the government described the move not so much a precaution against swine flu, but a general public health measure. Nearly every pig in Egypt was taken to a slaughterhouse and killed, or, in several reported cases that don’t bear thinking about, either covered in acid or buried alive.

The pig farmers in Garbage City explained to me that it was now legal to own and rear pigs, but against the law to slaughter them to sell for consumption purposes. In other words, pig farming is still illegal. The loophole was an easy one to spot for the business-minded, though, and in the richer and more foreigner-friendly areas of Zamalek and Maadi, a few shops have taken to selling imported items. Slaughtered and processed overseas, the pigs are now sold to a predominantly foreign clientele living in Egypt.

Tucked away along one of Zamalek’s main roads, an otherwise unassuming alcohol shop sells an assortment of German pork products.  In full view of its entrance, a typical meat counter offers foie gras, mortadella, bacon, pork cutlets, and more.

Photo by Adam Ramsey
Above, a liquor store that sells German pork product imports

“Great pork, all from Germany,” says Atalah, an employee of the shop.  When queried on how much of the stuff they sell in a month, he estimates over 220 pounds. “There are a lot of foreigners here and they love their pork!” Assuring me of the legality of the operation, he stresses that he would never risk jail over something as trivial as pork, before continuing, in a whisper, “If you want I can get you good booze? All European stuff: beers, wine, vodka, whiskey. I have it. But keep it quiet, because it’s illegal.”

Back in Manshiyet Nasser, farmers explained the immediate problems they faced as a result of the 2009 killings. “I had around 1,500 pigs before Mubarak’s decision [to cull them].” Says Rezek, a Garbage City resident. “Then they came around and took them all; I must have lost something like 70,000 EGP ($10,000 USD) worth of pigs.”

“But it is more than just the initial money loss,” says Bekhit, an older pig farmer. “It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork.” Barbecue pork is incredibly popular in Garbage City and it seemed to be a phrase almost everyone I met could say in English. “The pigs are great for all the organic materials we have to get rid of. We can recycle inorganic, you know, the plastics and stuff, but any leftover food would just sit there rotting,” adds Rezek.

Sitting at a café that spread precariously into the road, the men chatted about 2009 and the aftermath. “One of the most immediate things that happened was the price of beef went up. Anyone who still had their pigs would hoard them or sell them at way more than most could afford,” says Bekhit. “Before Mubarak you could buy pork from a butcher for something like 25 EGP/kg ($3.60 USD/kg). Now it’s double that.”

“It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork.”

Raafat, a butcher in the area with 20 years of experience, estimates that he is one of six or seven butchers who continue to process and cook pork. “I actually had to start selling chicken immediately after the cull,” he explains. “There just weren’t any pigs.”

Before Mubarak, Raafat was going through about four pigs worth of pork a day. “After, it was maybe one or two a week. It is much better, but right now it’s pretty low, maybe two or three a day, but that’s because people are fasting for Easter, and the economy is a mess.”

One of the major issues he is still battling with is the lack of a certified stamp of approval from a health official. “Some people are afraid because it isn’t stamped so they don’t know what it’s like. Before the cull, there were doctors who would certify the meat—now I have to do it myself. That doesn’t worry people here, but outside of Garbage City it puts people off.”

Walking around Garbage City, it seemed as though almost every ad hoc building now had a few pigs tucked away behind the exterior, either in a makeshift sty in the back, on a rooftop, or under some stairs. “I remember when they first came [in 2009], says Bashai. “I hid two piglets in a small room in my house and had to let the others be taken and killed. It wasn’t until Mubarak was removed that things really got better,” he continued, in reference to the coup that overthrew the Islamist President in July of last year. “Under Mubarak, the government was still looking for pigs, but now there are no problems.”

Photo by Adam Ramsey
Pigs in a building in ‘Garbage Town’

Guiding me through to the back of his building, Bashai walked expertly across an ocean of bottles, cardboard, and—I couldn’t help but notice—at least two needles. I stumbled my way after him, desperately trying to not fall. His youngest son skipped past me and they both helped me into their pigpen. “I now have 60 pigs or so,” he stated with some dissatisfaction while the pigs walked around him, nibbling at his feet. “But I hope to have many more soon. Things are looking better now.”

Photo by Adam Ramsey

Rafaat agrees, saying that with the more comfortable attitude now being afforded to pork, sales can only increase. “I’m not afraid of anyone coming to arrest me over selling this stuff anymore.  I actually think the abattoirs will reopen soon.” He smiles. “I still offer chicken if people want it, but almost everyone wants the barbecue pork.”

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