Arrested In Cairo

First published in Vocativ on November 11th

Two riot police backed up towards us and asked me, “Do you have any cigarettes?”  I handed them a couple of cigs and could see that they were suffering from teargas exposure.  Their hands shook so violently I had to light their cigarettes for them.  They were short, skinny and looked incredibly young.  “How old are you guys?” I asked them. “We’re 20” they replied before giving thanks and leaving.

At that moment, I couldn’t help but feel some pity for these young men, knowing they are conscripts who are treated atrociously by their superiors.  This pity was short lived.

This was the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s “strategic victory” over Israel during the 1973 October War.  With nationalistic fervour already at an all time high thanks to the Army’s help at removing the much despised President, Mohamed Morsi in the July 3 ‘coup-not-a-coup’, this was a day that bordered on the chauvinistic.

The majority Muslim Brotherhood Anti-Coup Alliance had called on four marches to converge on a Tahrir Square that was the setting of unprecedented state security.  My count on the day was at least 10 APCs and a few tanks just for good measure.  All entrances to the Square had several lines of barbed wire and metal detectors – an affront, surely, to a public space that had long been an icon of anti-establishment protest.

Meanwhile the Tamarod group, which had organised the supremely successful campaign that led to Mr Morsi’s removal, had called for a full day of celebration, also in Tahrir Square.  With confrontation predetermined, the bloodshed that came later was just as inevitable.

The day began with a number of fighter jets flying low enough to set off car alarms and shake the dilapidated windows of my flat.  Tahrir Square itself was the scene of a joyous army love-in.  The de jure nationalistic song “Teslam el Ayady” blaring out sentiments so sickly saccharine as to cause tooth decay.

Two officers by a metal detector told me the orders if a Muslim Brotherhood march was to make it to the square.  “We will arrest them,” one said with a shrug.  But if there was any struggle?  The other officer narrowed his eyes and replied in English, “we will shoot them, and we will win”.  I left to cover the Anti-Coup March on the west side of the Nile.

Once the march turned onto Tahrir St, which leads to the Square, the fighting broke out almost instantly.  With teargas canisters flying in from further down Tahrir St, the crowd immediately reversed back onto the street they came from, while the Central Security Forces (CSF) advanced, followed shortly by Army personnel. A fellow journalist and I sheltered in a side alley on Tahrir Street and watched as the riot police passed us by.  By standing in one spot we had moved from the front of the march to the frontlines of the CSF.

Small groups of riot police pointed their shotguns towards the side alleys where cowering men and women withdrew to; occasionally firing what I hoped were blank rounds.  As the teargas subsided, we cautiously made our way out.

Beyond the CSF some 30 meters stood the protesters, waving, shouting and throwing rocks.  Burning tyres were already beginning to obscure my view of them.  The riot police continued to fire teargas towards them, an unholy swirling mixture of black and white smoke engulfing the protesters.  One CSF member who had clearly watched too many action movies started shooting his shotgun into the crowd one-handed; he was smiling.

Then a CSF recruit grabbed me on the back of the neck.  He slapped me on the head repeatedly as his friend took my camera from around my neck and my phone from my pocket.   The gentlemen marched me towards a small alley that leads off Tahrir St where I could see a number of other Egyptian men being penned in by some riot police.

I fumbled in my wallet for my press pass.  Not one month old, my newly acquired pass, issued from the Cairo Press Centre, was shown to senior member of the CSF.  He looked at it and saw that it said “British”.  He looked up at me and back down at my photo a few times before saying, in English, “I’m sorry”.

They gave me back my bag and my camera but the officer held onto my press pass.  Assuming I was free to go I enquired as to the whereabouts of my phone and motioned for my pass.

Instead I received a hefty push in the back and I suddenly found myself with the other detained men. I called to a nearby CSF recruit and told him I was a British journalist and there was some misunderstanding, he told me to put my hands behind my back.  I reiterated my point and received a slap in the face for my troubles.

What has long been a blessing was suddenly a curse.  I have an ability to pass off as Egyptian.  I don’t get any grief when I walk around alone and I tend not to get ripped off by ‘foreigner’s prices’.  The worst that had happened up till then was an awkward exchange at a hotel bar during Ramadan, when the barman refused me service until I produced an Egyptian ID card that betrays your religion.

We were all frog marched in a line down Tahrir St.  I spied the journalist I had been with and he nodded his head to me.  “Thank god someone I know saw this happen,” I thought.

Video cameras appeared from nowhere to, no doubt, document the “successful capture of terrorists by the glorious state security”.  A man in a suit appeared from nowhere and started berating us.  I was genuinely shocked by the look of disgust on his face.  I have never before seen such visceral hatred in person.  He was practically foaming at the mouth, spitting at us, and calling us dogs and worse.  Before departing he ensured to take leave with a slap on my face.  It was unfortunate that I was at the front of the line.

I could see the large blue shell of the police van that was to transport me to the police station, but not before we were told to get on our knees by the sidewalk.

As they started to handcuff everyone with cable ties, I tried again to explain that, “I am a journalist! A British Journalist!”  I repeated it in Arabic and English but the policeman who eventually came to my pleas only proceeded to take my camera bag, camera in tow.  Then they picked me up and started marching all ten of us to the van.

I believe this was the point when I started to panic.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” was all that went through my head.  In a state of panic, eloquence is the first casualty.  I was pretty sure that was the last I would see of my camera, phone and bag, replete with voice recorder and notepads.  That’s a lot of money and work when you’re freelancing.

I was thrown into the back of the van.  There was already one man inside as well as a police officer, the latter beating the former in a repulsively calculated fashion; kicking each leg, then punching the kidneys, then working his way to slaps on the head before starting from the bottom again.  It was somehow more chilling that this all took place in complete silence, no swearing, nothing.

I shamelessly prepared myself once again with the, “I’m a British journalist” that had worked such wonders before.  He gave me a look, but nevertheless he declined me the same treatment.  The others were not so lucky.

We were driven all of a minute to the Dokki Police Station just down the road from where I was picked up.  As the door opened we were ordered to march through a group of CSF, every one of them landing a kick or a slap on us as we passed them down into the basement of the police station.

The basement itself was a sad sight, decrepit and soul sapping, although that is presumably the point.  Filigrees of damp crawled across the walls towards the barred windows where they died in the light.  A comical stand-alone cage is propped alongside one of the walls and we are duly crammed into it.

Two policemen readied themselves by a nearby door, one standing on a table and the other below him.  We were taken out, one by one, and liberated from what belongings we had left on us.  I was the second man to be frisked.  The man on the table kicks me in the hip while his friend below grabs my face and points to my belt.  I remove it without hesitation and am whipped with it.  It’s surprisingly infuriating to be whipped by a belt you provided.

In the room, I’m set to my knees.  There are two women in the room and about twenty men, not one of them without some bruise, abrasion or cut visible.  As the others are poured in, the room begins to fill up.  It’s a tiny room with one barred window that was shuttered off to ground level.  I could just make out the Sheraton hotel through the trees.

Eventually a plain-clothes policeman comes into the room and starts taking down the name, age and address of everyone.  When he gets to me I decide this is the best chance I have at being released.  I put on my best BBC accent and proclaim “Adam Patrick Ramsey”.  I knew my best bet at getting out was now playing the ‘British’ card.  It’s a privilege I knew my fellow detainees couldn’t exploit, but my moral pillars crumbled in the circumstances, much to my disappointment.

The ‘Adam Ramsey’ part of my name is far too close to being an Egyptian name, so I decided to throw in one of my middle names.  I thought it best to omit my other middle name, “Omar”.

“Adam what Ramsey?” he asks me.  “Adam Patrick Ramsey” I say again before continuing, “I’m a British journalist”.  “How old are you?” he suddenly asks in English before rooting through my wallet, where he thankfully finds my UK drivers license.  Before I can answer he leaves the room only to return, incensed and suddenly speaking Arabic again.

“Born in Saudi Arabia eh?”  I completely forgot that for some reason the UK license puts your country of birth.  Rather than explain that I’m half-Malaysian half-Northern Irish and that I had little say in the place of my birth (never mind the fact Saudi is giving Egypt billions in aid), I decided to act coy.  “I don’t understand you,” I said in terrible Arabic.  “Fuck Saudi!” He replies, before throwing my license onto a pile of Egyptian IDs just outside the door.

The door is closed and the temperature slowly rises.  A 50-year old teacher nods his head gently against my shoulder.  I turn around and see a face of genuine sympathy, “I am sorry,” he says.

“Look”, he motioned to a corner of the room.  I had completely missed a man of at least 60 crumpled in the corner.  Both his legs were covered with birdshot, blood slowly pooling around his feet.  I looked at the blood and the smell immediately became unbearable.

Outside the window a couple of CSF recruits looked in but all I could see were their legs.  Suddenly, the barrel of a teargas gun is rested on one of the bars.  When pain subsides and boredom sets in, the imagination plays fast and loose.  I immediately recollect the story I read of the 36 men who suffocated to death in police custody.

Of course, in the end, the recruits simply walked away, but I was still shivering over the thought of what it would have been like, picturing what I would do were they to have fired tear gas at us.  Probably die, was the conclusion I came to.

We could hear screams from outside the door, which would open only to reveal yet another poor man who was being flogged for no reason other than to sate the appetites of these megalomaniacal sadists.  They wouldn’t stop until a scream or yelp was emitted, before then pushing him into the room to join us.  They were practically high-fiving each other at their new and ingenious methods of delivering pain.  In five years at a boy’s boarding house I never witnessed such levels of hyper-masculine pageantry.  They fit the stereotype of despotic state security so perfectly it would have been funny if it were not so depressing.

After around an hour and a half, they decided to move us to another room.  By now we were standing, packed like sardines, sweat beating off us.  The two women had been removed long ago to God knows where and they hauled the birdshot man to get, I hope, some medical attention.

Policemen lined our path and hit us as we passed them into a room some 20 meters away.  Except it was not even a room, rather a miniscule, enclosed courtyard in the middle of the building.  Sixty of us squeezed our way in.

The tiled floors were dusty and covered in rubbish and aberrant marks of dried blood.  I was pushed to my knees once again.  I turned and tried to reason with my captors.  I heard the desperation in my voice, but it was quickly cut off by a kick to the back. “Look straight ahead!” Would be the catchphrase for the rest of the evening.

I found it almost physically impossible to turn from a man who was hitting me, and this only prolonged the smacking.  I finally turned and stayed turned, covering the back of my head.  I noticed that everyone else was in exactly the same position.

This was by far the most painful part of the day.  Far more than any whipping, slapping, kicking or punching.  Kneeling for close to 3 hours left me almost incapable of walking once we were finally asked to stand.  We were so crammed together there wasn’t space for me to put my hands on the floor to help shift my weight.

During this time I studied the back of the man kneeling in front of me.  The different rips and blood stains, the open wound on his upper right shoulder, where the blood began to coagulate, haemostasis working its magic.  I could feel the man behind me resting his head on my back.  As the sun set the call for prayer was heard and incredibly (after asking a guard’s permission) everyone somehow pivoted towards Mecca and began to pray, still crouched.

As time passed, the men started whispering to one another and I took the chance to see where everyone else came from.  They were taken from the same area as me.  Some openly said they were part of the march, while others swore blind that it was just a case of wrong place, wrong time.  All but one was experiencing arrest for the first time.

“Don’t worry, your embassy will help” one said to me.  “Yeah, but only if they know he’s here,” replied the man behind him.  “Just stay… what’s the word?  Optimistic” said the man behind me, his head still resting on my back. I couldn’t believe how well everyone was dealing with it, some even risking  humour.

The man in front suddenly gave that old trope that every visitor to Egypt would have heard a thousand times.  “Welcam to Eegipt” he said.  Everyone burst into laughter.  “Shut up!” was the guard’s reaction.

After an hour or so, someone decided to ask for some water.  With all of us facing the wall in front, we were suddenly pelted with small bottles from behind, the plastic pinging off heads and backs.  These were shortly followed by near inedible packets of knock-off Borios (itself a knock-off Oreo).

“Mohamed Adel Mohamed?” a policeman suddenly asked.  A young man to my left turned around, his face lighting up “Yes! That’s me.”  He said with a look of pure hope.  “Do you live in Imbaba?” queried the policeman. “Yes, yes!” replied the man.  “Ok! Could you please… stay there,” he said.

He would do this every five minutes or so with a different person.  It was a cruel twist moving from physical punishment to the emotional.

Suddenly, I hear “Is there a British national here?”  I immediately twist around, my hand in the air, “Yes!” I replied.  “Oh no, we need someone who was born in Saudi and is half-Malaysian”.  “Yeah… That’s still me,” maybe the embassy had called, I thought.  Maybe they finally realised that I really was a British journalist and are letting me out, “OK thanks, just stay there,” he smiled at me.

Of course he was just deluding me like he had everyone else.  Hope is an incredibly tenacious emotion that can survive a lot of trauma, but can also make you feel immensely stupid for trusting in it.

After evening prayers, I began to resign myself to staying the night.  My legs were numb by now so pain wasn’t a problem.  The smell of noxious vinegar began to grate as more men began pissing themselves – I was happy to realise that this was the one type of relief I was not in need of.

At around 10pm, just over six hours after I was initially arrested, we were suddenly asked to stand up.  I almost collapsed as my knees screamed bloody murder.  Leaning on the man in front of me, I steadied myself and we filed out of the room and upstairs.  We were told to queue up in front of a notice board.  I read the yellowed certificates and newspaper clippings in recognition of the Police station’s valiant work of past decades.

Once again we were pulled aside, one by one, and our details recorded.  Depending on the answer you gave, you were directed to one of two corners of the room.  I readied myself once again.  Same BBC accent, same reply of “Adam, what, Ramsey?” But this time, for a reason I still cannot figure out, I was separated from the rest and placed in a different corner by myself.

I stayed there silently while they sorted through the two groups, one with around 12 men and the other closer to 50.  All looked exhausted, the blood on their shirts now that dull brown colour.

After some paperwork and backslapping the policemen sent the larger group back downstairs.  The smaller group and I were free to leave.  I immediately searched for a man I could communicate in English with.  One man cordially obliged, until I began asking questions like “Why was I detained? I had a press pass issued in Egypt.”  Suddenly, he became a mute, all hand signs, shakes of the head and dumbfounded expression.

I later found out that another foreign journalist had been detained in almost exactly the same area at exactly the same time as me.  Having spoken to him about it, there is a good chance we actually travelled to the station in the same van, but he was sitting in the front.  While I was on my knees, he was being questioned in an office ten meters away.  The main differences between us that I could see were that: he is a little whiter than me; had his passport on him; yet he did not have an Egypt-approved press pass.  The value of a press pass is questionable when it doesn’t guarantee a journalist is free from harassment or arbitrary detention.

The question is not just why a foreign national, or a journalist, can be detained like this, but why such conditions continue at all, for anyone.  What I experienced looks dramatic on paper, but in reality, it was relatively trivial.  I was kept for around 7 hours, that’s it.  It’s a nightmare reality that gets much worse for far too many, far too often.  Think of the Frenchman that was murdered in his cell, the Canadians who eventually went on hunger strike, the Al Jazeera reporters who are still being detained.  Never mind the thousands of normal Egyptians that you won’t have heard of who are still in prison, some being tortured.  These conditions have existed through Mubarak, The SCAF, Morsi and now Sisi.  It’s nothing new.

But in the current nationalistic rapture, the state security can (and do) now point to a popular approval as mandating them and therefore endorsing these methods.  It brings to mind Alexis De Tocqueville’s concept of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, where the sovereignty of this or that majority trumps the sovereignty of mankind – a lamentable state of affairs.

Walking down the street I flag a taxi to take me home.  “Welcome to Egypt” says the taxi driver with a grin.  On the radio ‘Teslam el Ayady’ is playing.

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The Chaotic Start of Mohamed Morsi’s Trial


Morsi supporters gathered outside the court

First Published in Vice on Tuesday November 5th

 

Yesterday, for the first time in four months, Egypt’s deposed Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, appeared in public. Since his ousting on July 3 the interim government and armed forces have gone to great lengths to keep his whereabouts a secret. The inevitable speculation made for some interesting gossip: Was he rotting in jail in Alexandria? Was he effectively being held captive in the Republican Guard HQ? Was he, for whatever reason, in Qatar? Could he even be dead?

If he is found guilty of the charges against him, death will become a very real possibility for Morsi. He, along with 14 other high-ranking members of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, are accused of a multitude of crimes, including incitement to murder.

On December 5 last year, a march staged by supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood intentionally made its way to an anti-Morsi sit-in outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. Predictably violence ensued, with 11 people dead—three of them non-Brotherhood. Reports subsequently emerged that Brotherhood members had set up makeshift torture rooms and graphic stories leaked out over the proceeding weeks. The question now is how much Morsi, or Brotherhood leaders, had to do with any of it.

Less than 24 hours before his trial was due to start, the location of the courtroom was finally released: New Cairo’s Police Academy—exactly where Egypt’s pre-Morsi leader Hosni Mubarak had his trials and verdict announcement about two years ago. The room that Morsi stood in yesterday is exactly where Mubarak had been wheeled out to stand, the courtroom having been specifically built for his trial.

As journalists and lawyers poured into the room, it was clear that this was an ad hoc job. What seemed to have once been a lecture hall had been split in two, one half a jumble of mesh, bars and cage, the other half tiers of benches.

Down in the corner were six leading members of the Brotherhood, their white prison uniforms just visible through the mesh. Once everyone was in place they chanted in unison, “We are not a military state!” and, “Down! Down! With military rule!” The response from the lawyers’ section of the hall was immediate. Some held up the four-finger salute that has become a symbol of Muslim Brotherhood solidarity and joined in with the detainees’ chanting, while other cried out, “Execution!” Simply put, it was the polarization of Egyptian society in microcosm.

After the dust had settled, the judges came out and ordered silence. Presiding judge, Ahmed Sabry, had just about taken his seat when a loud clapping sound could be heard coming from the cells. Morsi appeared to the applause of his arrested colleagues. Having apparently refused to wear the white prison uniform, he instead opted for a dark blue suit, with a white shirt and open collar. He waved, setting off another few minutes of yelling and chanting. A journalist down from me suddenly lost it and started yelling, “Execution! Execution!”

Morsi’s strategy for the trial was clear well before it had even started. He has always clung to the absolute authority of “legitimacy” because he’s certain he has it—this is widely disputed. Astatement released through IkhwanWeb—the Brotherhood’s official English-language website—a week before the trial stated, “The legitimate president and legal team totally reject the trial.”

Morsi remained as defiant in person, not waiting to deliver a statement to the massed judges, lawyers, and journalists. Talking over the judge, he proclaimed, “I am the legitimate president of the republic! This is an illegal coup and I do not recognize the court! I have respect for the Egyptian judiciary, but they are being used as a cover for the coup!” Later, he extended some advice to the security services, warning, “Never let anyone turn you against the Egyptian people!”

The trial was chaotic, with the judges, defendants, and lawyers all yelling at one another, forcing two temporary breaks in proceedings. It seemed to be Morsi and Mohamed el Beltagy (an important Brotherhood member) who were most vocal in decrying the politicized nature of the process they were caught up in and the charges brought against them. Beltagy often interrupted the judge with cries of “Illegal!” and “Illegitimate!” whenever certain topics were touched upon.

After the court was stopped the first time, a fight broke out among the lawyers, which sounds odd but wasn’t all that surprising given they were openly calling for polar-opposite goals. Morsi stuck to the plan and refused any negotiations or interactions with the court. When offered the chance to have his old legal companion Mohamed Selim Al-Awa as his lawyer for the trial, he simply restated, “I am the legitimate president of the republic!”

The lawyers didn’t seem in too much of a rush to get on with things either, begging the judge for more time to read through the 7,000-page case for proper preparation. Eventually, after a second break was forced due to raucous behavior, Judge Sabry adjourned the trial until January 8, 2014.


One of Morsi’s defense lawyers being held aloft by Brotherhood supporters after the adjournment

Outside the huge compound, a congregation of about 300 Morsi supporters waited chanting. Making my way back through the police and onto their side I was bombarded with questions. When they found out that Morsi had not complied whatsoever and had another trial date set for January, there was a mixture of pride and anger among those I spoke with.

“The whole court is corrupt,” declared Mahmoud Suleiman, a Morsi supporter outside the Police Academy. “Why would he agree to do anything with them? He is my president and the legitimate president of Egypt.” As pro-Brotherhood lawyers made their way out they were greeted with cheer, each one surrounded for interviews and occasionally lifted onto the shoulders of the crowd. The odd ant-Morsi lawyer who accidentally came through this exit needed to make a quick getaway or face a beating.

Elsewhere in Egypt, numerous small protests took place and minor trouble flared whenever pro-Morsi met anti-Morsi or riot police. It was the final day of a raft of protests planned by the Anti-Coup Alliance, but in light of Morsi’s defiant actions, they released a new statement that called for a new “million man” march today, naming it, the World Salutes the President’s Resolve.

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Morsi trial adjourned until 2014 after chaos in Cairo court

First published in the Irish Times on Monday November 4th

 

After four months in secret detention, Egypt’s ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi appeared in court alongside 14 other members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Facing an array of charges, Mr Morsi refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, repeatedly shouting, “I am the president of the republic”. After a rowdy two hours the trial was adjourned until January 8th.

Since the military removed Mr Morsi from office on July 3rd, he has been held in an undisclosed location with little external communication. He and his co-defendants face charges of inciting the killing of protesters who massed outside the presidential palace in December last year and demanded he call off a referendum on a new constitution drafted by his Islamist allies.

If convicted, the defendants could face the death penalty.

An estimated 20,000 security personnel were stationed around key areas in Cairo in advance of the opening day of the trial. The court location, in the New Cairo Police Academy, 25km from central Cairo, was not disclosed until Sunday and any person getting in was required to go through five security checks.

No electronic devices were permitted and police set up barriers to the public far from the entry to the sprawling compound. The courtroom was built specifically for the trial of Hosni Mubarak, the former president who was deposed in 2011 and remains under house arrest in a military hospital.

Here it was being used to try Mr Mubarak’s democratically elected successor.

Resembling a lecture hall, the room had been fitted with large ad hoc prison cells and half of it was obscured by the mesh of wire and bars. At one end, six Muslim Brotherhood members, including leading members Mohamed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, waited in silence, dressed in white prison uniforms.

After journalists and lawyers filled the stands, the six suddenly began chanting in unison “Down with military rule!” and “We are not a police state!”

A female lawyer in the crowd shouted back “Execution! God willing.” Other lawyers sympathetic to the Brotherhood held up the four-finger salute that has become a sign of support for the now suppressed organisation.

Chaotic scenes

Mr Morsi eventually made his way into the courtroom to applause from his Brotherhoo

d colleagues and amid chaotic scenes. Journalists and lawyers stood on their chairs, then tables, to get a better look at the man who had managed to create this visceral bifurcation in Egyptian society after only one year in power.

The deposed president, dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt with open collar, smiled and held his hands up to the crowd, looking healthy and resolute.

The judge, Ahmed Sabry, called for calm in order to begin proceedings. But he managed to get only as far as a roll call of the defendants before being interrupted by Mr Morsi.

“This was an illegal military coup. I am Dr Mohamed Morsi and I am the legitimate president,” he began, slowly raising his voice so he could be heard over the loudspeakers, through which Judge Sabry could be heard calling for order.

“I am here against my will,” Mr Morsi continued. “I believe in the great Egyptian judiciary and I don’t want them being used as a cover for the coup.”

Eruption of noise
Once again, the courtroom erupted into noise as some lawyers chanted “Execution!” while others chanted Morsi’s name. After less than 15 minutes, Judge Sabry adjourned the court for an hour and Mr Morsi was removed from the cell and out of view.

In a statement last week, a Brotherhood legal team had also challenged the legitimacy of the charges against Mr Morsi. “We reaffirm now, that no lawyers will be defending President Mohamed Morsi . . . because the president does not recognise the trial or any of the actions and processes that resulted from the coup, such as the politicisation of the judiciary,” it said.

During the enforced break, some lawyers began holding aloft portraits of al-Hosseini Abu Deif, a journalist who was one of those killed during the clashes last December. This provoked an outbreak of shouting and scuffling that required intervention from the courtroom’s security.

Eventually, the court reassembled and charges were read out, but the defendants again challenged the legitimacy of the proceedings. Asked how he pleaded to the charges, Mr Beltagy replied simply, “This is all illegal”.

Mr Morsi had refused to have a lawyer so according to standard legal procedures, will be appointed one by the judge. The lawyers who were present pleaded with the judge to give them more time to work through the 7,000 pages of case papers.

Prison disclosed
After further disruptions the judge temporarily halted proceedings again before finally adjourning the case until January 8th, 2014. The defendants were quickly led out of their cell and state TV later reported that Mr Morsi was now being kept in Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria, the secrecy of his whereabouts apparently no longer a priority.

Outside the courtroom, a few hundred Morsi supporters chanted in support of their president. They carried out Brotherhood legal representatives on their shoulders while chasing away the odd prosecution lawyer who made the mistake of exiting through them.

After news broke of the new trial date, mixed feelings were expressed about the meaning of this first trial. “Today doesn’t matter, it’s just paperwork, I am here to show support to my president, the only president, Mohamed Morsi,” said Ahmed, who had been at the police academy since 8am.

Mahmoud Suleiman, a manual worker from Cairo, was, however, incensed at the prolonging of this “fake trial”. Through a Morsi mask he said: “He is the president, he won elections, he got the constitution, how can he be in prison for so long? How is that possible?”

Elsewhere in Egypt, pro-Morsi protests were held in several governorates, with relatively small clashes breaking out in Cairo, Alexandria and Asyut, where pro-Morsi protesters met riot police and anti-Morsi protesters. Further protests have been called for today.

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A History of Egypt In Graffiti

First published in Vocativ on October 7th 

Violence, chaos, deadly protests raging in the streets of Cairo. These have been the enduring images of Egypt the last three years.

But out of all this turmoil an artistic movement has thrived. Instead of AK-47s and tear gas, spray paint is the weapon of choice for these protesters.

Graffiti persists as a historical reminder, providing vivid vignettes and snapshots of Egypt’s turbulent history.

Cairo Graffiti History 01

The history of Egypt’s past three years is a convoluted, tortuous road of revolution, unrest, protest, revolution, division and more revolution. Since the January 25, 2011, uprising, the chants have changed, the flags have changed and the government has changed, three times.

Cairo Graffiti History 02

The typical lifespan of a piece of graffiti varies wildly depending on where you are in Cairo and the “real estate” value of the wall you intend to paint. Along the infamous Mohamed Mahmoud Street that leads into Tahrir Square, the large works of graffiti have a typical turnover rate of a few months, repainted (or occasionally removed by the authorities), often to keep up with the sentiments of the day.

Cairo Graffiti History 03

Meanwhile, the more obscure areas and the lesser known walls play the role of a historical canvas, their messages untouched from the moment they were stenciled, painted or crudely drawn.

Cairo Graffiti History 04
Cairo Graffiti History 05

The walls are littered with graffiti depicting a jumble of major turning points and different opinions.  As long as you know where to look—and understand a little Arabic—the past three years of revolution is depicted.

Clashes in Cairo Continue for Fifth Day

Small tags demanding justice from the Port Said football massacre trial that took place January 26, 2013—the ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) emblem of hatred against the interior ministry.

Cairo Graffiti History 07

Above, the faces of former president Hosni Mubarak and Hussein Tantawi, the one-time head of the army. This piece was removed, but it only served to inspire another, harsher form of protest graffiti in the image below.

Cairo Graffiti History 08

Occasionally, the graffiti can serve as a healthy reminder of the fickle myopia of memory. During the massive June 30, 2013, demonstrations calling for Morsi to step down, the crowds embraced the army as one of their own again. Chants of “The People and the Army are one hand” reverberated across a packed Tahrir Square.  Nearby, the scrawl of dissent from one year prior (when the army was in charge) can be discerned. “Down with military rule” (seen in image below).

Cairo Graffiti History 09

All images by Amanda Mustard.

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The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood

Anti-Muslim Brotherhood graffiti, directed at ousted-president Mohamed Morsi

First Published on Vice, here, on October 2nd 2013

After last Monday’s verdict from the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to face a future that mirrors the majority of its past: Once again becoming an illegal organisation. 

After some deliberation, the presiding judge proclaimed, “The court bans the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-governmental organisation, and all activities that it participates in and any organisation derived from it.” He also ordered the interim government to freeze the Brotherhood’s assets and establish a panel to administer them until any appeal has been heard.

The court didn’t reveal the grounds for the ruling, but it was apparently prompted by the leftist National Progressive Unionist Party – also known as Tagammu – who claim that the Brotherhood have links to terrorists organisations and are guilty of “exploiting religion in political slogans”. Whatever the reason for the verdict, it seems that the spectacular fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is now complete. 

That alleged link to terrorist organisations would have been bolstered in the eyes of the Egyptian public after the recent failed assassination attempt on Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Although Ibrahim escaped unscathed from the apparent suicide bombing, the attack killed one and left at least ten wounded, with voices on the street instantly pinning the blame on the Brotherhood; “Of course it was the Brotherhood – they are terrorists! Who knows what they will do next?” cried a street vendor in downtown Cairo after hearing the news over the radio. Despite the fact that an al-Qaeda-inspired group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has since claimed responsibility for the attack – and the Brotherhood have vehemently denounced it – they still remain guilty in the eyes of many Egyptians.

After weeks of stringent crackdowns that have resulted in the deaths of over a thousand civilians and the arrest of most of their leading members and activists, the political potency of the Muslim Brotherhood has completely dissipated. 


Muslim Brotherhood supporters

At a time when the numbers you can amass in the streets is a signifier of your strength, the latest public display of Brotherhood support only managed to muster around 100 demonstrators. Meanwhile, the interim government and security forces have capitalised on the anti-Brotherhood sentiment and are now capable of drawing tens of thousands to the streets.

“It has been clear since July the 3rd [when Morsi was deposed] that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it,” explains Nathan J Brown, a professor at George Washington University and author of When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics.

State TV and government-controlled media have launched a relentless and effective campaign to demonise the Brotherhood, and the official line effectively leaves no room for avoiding the issue: it’s very much a case of you’re either with us, or against us. Those watching state news channels are also presented with a permanent reminder of the Brotherhood’s wickedness in the corner of the screen: “Egypt Fighting Terrorism.”

However, you could argue that the Brotherhood has faced more cunning attacks in the past and survived. In January of 1954, after they had resisted some of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies, Naser dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood. His military government launched an extremely aggressive press campaign against the the organisation and arrested scores of their members, sending them into disarray. 

Yet, throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has shown tenacity and a will to survive. “It is, by nature, a very cautious organisation,” Professor Brown told me. “Top leaders feel a tremendous responsibility to maintain the health of the organisation and bequeath it to the next generation.”

Throughout their history are countless examples of the Brotherhood bending their ideologies and their principles to further promote their influence on the social and – eventually – political stage. This is most obvious in their quiet seizure of the 2011 revolution, the founding of their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in April of that year and their unabashed decision to field a presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. Now, following the violence against them throughout August and September, their existence has been threatened once again.


Muslim Brotherhood supporters

“This is clearly an attempt to wipe [the Brotherhood’s] existence from the scene – not just the political one, but the civil society network, too,” says Gehad el-Haddad, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood and a senior advisor to the FJP. “Many [Brotherhood] NGOs have been stormed, looted and its heads or trustees arrested.” A few days after we spoke, Mr el-Haddad himself was arrested.

Alison Pargeter, a political analyst of the MENA region, claims that it was precisely this kind of all-encompassing stifling of the Brotherhood during President Nasser’s tenure that proved the catalyst for a number within the organisation to turn to more radical action.

In her 2012 bookThe Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power, she writes, “The movement was effectively stymied during the second half of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s due to the fact that so many [Brotherhood members] had been imprisoned. However, rather than diminishing these more militant elements’ appetite for action, their spell in prison only hardened them and made them even more determined to challenge the Nasser regime.”

On the 26th of October, 1954 – nine months after Nasser had dissolved the Brotherhood – a tinsmith from Imbaba shot at the president eight times and completely missed him with every single shot. To this day, how much the Brotherhood knew about the tinsmith’s plan is unclear, but the fierce response of Nasser’s regime to the Brotherhood following the assassination attempt essentially crushed them. Six Brotherhood men were hanged and thousands of their members imprisoned.

Nasser’s repression also aroused more militant ideologies, the most infamous of which were the ideas declared by Sayyid Qutb, whose book Milestones – written during incarceration under Nasser – inspired generations in the concepts of fighting against the Jahiliyyah (those of a pre-Islamic ignorance) within the framework of Jihad, in both its mental and physical capacities.

The worry of a similar scenario playing out today is the one that abides most stridently in the minds of many Egyptians, especially after the recent rise of Islamist militants in the Sinai. Commentators such as the Washington Institute’s Eric Trager have suggested that the military’s ousting of Morsi could be a pyrrhic victory and lead to “an undisciplined Islamist insurgency“.

Professor Brown disagrees with regards to an insurgency, at least within the near future, saying, “I think that’s unlikely. The top leadership of the Brotherhood has been committed to a different path for a generation; I think it is well internalised.” However, he does concede that the “top leaders may not be in control right now”.

“Our recorded [Brotherhood] members’ arrests have surpassed 6,000, only including leaders and not including many second and third tier leadership killed in [the massacres of Brotherhood supporters by the army in] Rabaa and Nahda,” claims el-Haddad.

So, if the crucial chain of command that is so central to propagating Brotherhood instructions is disrupted, how much control does the organisation maintain over its members and how much does it know of the actions that some of them may take?

Interestingly, el-Haddad believes that the Brotherhood is still capable of leading its members despite the mass arrests and break in their vital hierarchy. He claims the lack of a visible leadership will not lead to splinter groups breaking away as they did under Nasser, saying, “The world is different now than in the 1950s – social media makes it possible to connect to all youth in Egypt and to all [Brotherhood]. [It] keeps the message consistent and creates a parallel peer leadership momentum on the virtual world.”

Despite this, it is still unclear which members would be taking the role of de facto leaders and spreading the Brotherhood’s commands.

The possibility of radicals breaking away and acting of their own free will – but under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood – cannot be completely ruled out, especially as more time passes and frustration increases. The last two components of the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto are “Jihad is our way” and “Death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspiration”. To what degree members adhere to or understand these components is what leads to anxious conjecture, at home and abroad, of a wholesale “insurgency” materialising.

When I spoke to him, before he was arrested, Mr el-Haddad stated that “there are no radicals in the Muslim Brotherhood” and that the only radicals are those that leave, as the Brotherhood is “committed to non-violence by design”. He continues: “That strategy won’t change, regardless of coup attempts to spark violence, brutally killing our members and even our women and their sons and daughters.”

If one thing is certain, the determination to continue protesting remains. “Nothing has changed with these arrests and killings – we are as determined to bring down this coup whether it takes weeks, months or even years,” Mr el-Haddad asserted. “You can’t kill an idea when its time has come.” But the question remains – exactly who will the actors be, and what forms will their actions take?

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Egypt’s Foreign Aid


(Photo by Mosa’ab Elshamy)

First published on VICE, here, on August 28th, 2013

Following what a recent Human Rights Watch report called “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”, the international community’s response appeared to be just as divided as those within Egypt.

While Western countries condemned the disproportionate actions of the security forces, nations like Saudi Arabia applauded the self-restraint of the Egyptian army and noted their fight against “terrorism and sedition”.

Serious calls were made in the United States to consider suspending Egypt’s $1.55 billion (£970 million) in aid ($1.3 billion of which is part of the US’ Foreign Military Financing scheme). US senators pointed to a 1986 Congress appropriations bill that stated that the flow of funds to a country could be cut if its head of government was “deposed by military coup or decree” – which appears to be why Obama has thus far hesitated to define the social uprising as a coup in public.

Back in the UK, Labour have told the coalition government to “press the US to halt supplying arms to Egypt” just as Foreign Secretary William Hague has declared that “it is not for us to take sides”. The EU, meanwhile, has called for a meeting to discuss whether the €5 billion (£3.2 billion) in loans and grants it has set aside for Egypt will make it there now that Morsi has is no longer in charge.

Clearly, nothing drastic seems likely to happen soon, as the majority of Western states still wrangle over whether to impose economic sanctions on Egypt.

Since Egypt’s initial revolution began in January of 2011, the economy has been rapidly sinking. The budget deficit rose to 14 percent of GDP – the highest it has been for well over a decade – and the government continued to spend its foreign reserves on attempting to prop up a floundering currency, an act that actually left their reserves short in reaching a stipulation for the IMF loan they had longed for. Meanwhile, tourism – an important and well-established sector of Egypt’s economy – continues to suffer from the fallout of constant violence.

The threat of temporary economic suspension from Western states may have once caused concern among the Egyptian government, especially considering the state of the economy. However, the increase of aid from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia has debilitated their influence, at least through the economic route, according to Adel Beshai, a senior professor at American University Cairo.

“It more than negates the money Egypt would lose from any economic sanctions. These countries are lavishing Egypt,” explained Beshai, who also serves as Member of the Supreme Council for Policy in Egypt.

All in all, Saudi, the UAE and Kuwait have pledged to give $12 billion (£7.7 billion) in aid. Meanwhile, Qatar – considered the strongest ally of the Muslim Brotherhood – denied accusations it would cut off aid to Egypt and has continued with the plans it made with deposed President Mohamed Morsi to provide Egypt with $18 billion (£11.6 billion) over the next five years.

Moreover, Saudi’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal promised that any financial gaps resulting from Western sanctions would be filled. Such a pledge immediately makes any case for economic sanctions providing leverage for the West completely redundant.

Beshai notes that, with regards to the $1.55 billion in aid that the US promises, the $1.3 billion that is designated for the Egyptian military is “part and parcel of [the Camp David Accords] and I really doubt they will risk pulling that… anyway, none of that will affect the average Egyptian on the street… it affects Israel and 200,000 workers in America instead”.

Indeed, American pro-Israel lobbying group, AIPAC, has been campaigning to maintain military ties with the Egyptian Armed Forces – yet another example of pragmatic geopolitics creating unusual bedfellows.

All rumours of the US suspending their military aid have been strongly denied by Washington, and their masterful showing of prevarication in labelling Morsi’s ousting a “coup” – they have yet to make an official statement nearly two months after the event – shows their intent in maintaining its strategic ties with Egypt without crossing any legal Rubicon.

Instead, the White House has been toying with the idea of suspending the financial aid that is not military bound, but at only $250 million (£161 million) Beshai believes the Egyptian government would “consider it an insignificant amount”.

In an interview with CNN, President Obama pointed to his “sense” that “the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does”, but assured those watching that there is “no doubt that we can’t return to business as usual” with Egypt’s Armed Forces – though no specifics were given to what changes may be made.

As with the cancellation of the two countries’ joint military exercise “Bright Star”, the point of any punitive economic action is not to damage, but to make a point to the Egyptian military’s top brass; it’s a slap in the face without leaving a bruise.

Last week, Catherine Ashton – the EU High Representative – spoke after their “extraordinary meeting of Foreign Affairs Council on Egypt” saying, “We have agreed… that assistance to the most vulnerable groups and to civil society must continue.” Within their statement, they pointed to the EU’s relationship with Egypt and decided that the best course of action was to continue with their €5 billion (£4.3 billion) of aid due in the fiscal year of 2014.

However, EU member states did agree to “suspend export licences to Egypt of any equipment used for internal repression”.

Rejecting the sympathetic angle of the EU towards Egypt’s “most vulnerable”, Beshai instead pointed to the inherently symbiotic nature of aid: “If you give me aid, you’re not doing it because you love me. It’s mutual – it is not a one-way relationship at all.”

The overall sentiment of the current Egyptian government with regards to foreign aid appears to be one of cautious contentment. Ahmed Galal, the interim finance minister, expressed gratitude in a press conference to the “friends” who were providing aid to Egypt. He even stated that the much-desired IMF fund that shadowed Morsi’s presidential term, “is not excluded [from Egypt’s future], but is not the one that will make or break it for us”.

Beshai explained how the interim government and the army would be “cautious with what they say in public, but behind closed doors they know they will be more than alright for now”. Pointing to the markets in Asia and Latin America, he suggests that there would be absolutely no worry with the armed forces were economic sanctions to be brought upon them, not that they would claim that publicly.

“Alienating the Western states, specifically the US, long-term would be something Egypt would want to avoid,” says Beshai, “but for now they know the Gulf States and Saudi cover them well enough. I mean, even as far as the [Egyptian] military is concerned, we live in a globalised world, and right now buying military equipment is easier than buying certain brands of food. They won’t be shuddering in their boots.”

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Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Day of Anger’ Ends with Scores Dead

Image

An edited version of this story was published on VICE US

After more than 600 people were killed nationwide on Wednesday 14th August, the inevitable “Day of Anger” was called for by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Aggrieved by the massacre of its followers following the crackdown on its 6-week-old sit-ins in Rabba Al Adawiya and Nahda areas, they organised over 20 marches to converge on central Cairo’s Ramses Square as a show of defiance to the military ‘coup’ and its massacres against their supporters.

Egyptian Armed Forces prepared for the protests by upping their security presence.  Armoured Personnel Carriers set up positions all around downtown Cairo.  Tahrir Square, the iconic ‘heart’ of the 2011 revolution had no less than two APCs at each of the streets leading into and out of the square – an unthinkable scenario not two months ago.  The day before the protests were due, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim officially permitted the use of live ammunition by Central Security Forces (CSF) were anyone to attack Governmental buildings.

The scene was set for an ineluctable extension of the bloodshed that Egypt has experienced since Mohamed Morsi’s deposition – at the time of writing, at least 100 people have lost their lives from today’s violence alone.

The protest in Ramses remained peaceful for all of an hour – highlighting the tinderbox like make-up of the political divergence.  Generally accepted reports emerged of armed men attacking the nearby Asbakeya Police Station, thus triggering the violence.  Pro-Muslim Brotherhood protest members staunchly deny any such act and claim that the police started firing without provocation.

“I have been here since the start, I tell you nobody did anything, they [the police] just attacked us…if anyone is shooting it is either police or counter-revolutionary thugs” claimed Mohamed Ali, a lifelong Muslim Brotherhood member.

The palpable change in atmosphere as one neared Ramses Square brought about a sickening anticipation.  The questionable gunshots of before were now very real and very loud.  A metronomic crack of a rifle rings out every 30 seconds or so, interrupting the drumming of the helicopters circling overhead.  Every now and again, a short burst of heavy automatic fire can be heard.  It’s impossible to know which direction the shooting was coming from, or who was doing it, but a group of men start anxiously pointing to a nearby bridge where a couple of APCs are parked.  Still 200 metres from the Square, people were hugging the walls, crowding together behind the corners of buildings for cover.

“Do you see us?” cried Mohamed Ali, “Do you see any weapons?  We are peaceful and they are killing us, these dogs”.  A man across the streets starts a chant of “The Interior Ministry are thugs” and everyone echoes his sentiment with full voice.

Despite not seeing any firearms myself, weapons were apparent and were being used by some.  Egyptian State TV widely broadcast Brotherhood members firing assault weapons on 15 May bridge during a march towards Ramses Square.  Later, the State TV showed the on-going clashes under the running banner “Egypt Fighting Terrorism” apparently refusing to appreciate the existence of any nuance in the chaos.

Not five minutes after speaking to Mohamed Ali I stumbled across two men on the periphery of the Square who were assembling Molotov cocktails from two leftover crates filled with empty, glass, coke bottles, one carefully placing pre-cut cloth into each of the bottles while the other carefully inspected each one.  They reprimanded me as I tried to take a photo and pointed instead towards the police. “Take a photo of them, they’re the killers”.

The closer you were to the square the faster people moved, shadowing the buildings for cover.  A 63-year-old retired Engineer approached asking to borrow my pen.  On his left forearm he began to write a phone number and above it, his name ‘Wael’.  “It’s my family’s number, just in case I am killed,” he explained to me.  “I am not a supporter of Mohamed Morsi you must understand, I am just anti-army and anti-coup.  I was there in Rabaa when they killed everyone, how can anyone support such a regime after seeing that?”

Just past Al Ahmar hospital, about 50 metres south of Ramses Square the gunshots became so loud they sounded like they were being fired from next to me.  After one such bang, a man some 10 metres in front of me stumbled.  A 50p-sized hole had appeared in his upper left arm, blood squirting out.  After two steps, he fell over and in less than 30 seconds had been scooped up; his wound bandaged and he was placed on a scooter that took him to another hospital.

Immediately, people rushed to the locked gates of the Al Ahmar hospital.  “We are dying here!” They yelled to the doctors standing inside.  One man started shaking the gates so violently others had to restrain him, but not before more gunshots were heard, sending the crowd running for better cover.

Across the country violent clashes had endured, acceding to the age-old maxim that ‘violence begets violence’ and questioning the Armed Forces reasoning, that cracking down on the sit-ins was the first step to stability and security.  With every death, another martyr is made and the divide between the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood grows.  At this pace, it is beginning to seem impossible that a peaceful reconciliation can be made anytime soon.

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