Tag Archives: cairo

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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The Rollergirls of Cairo

First Published in INK Global Magazine September 2014.  Tearsheets below:

A plateau of late afternoon sunshine breaks over the top of the small stadium and quietly illuminates the green, acrylic court below. A wall of chairs towers over the court from one side while on the opposing wall, a grand dusty sign reads “International Cairo Stadium”.

Stepping into the arena, the girls assess their surroundings. “Not too bad.” Says one, slowly putting on her bandana. Others in the group smile and head towards the courtside seats, ready to kit up.

With the holidays finishing, it has taken this group of young women 3 months to find a new venue for their sport and their excitement is palpable.

These are the CaiRollers: Egypt’s first and only roller derby team. The World’s fastest growing female sport is now beginning to pick up speed in Cairo. With around 22 Egyptian members, the team has come a long way since its inception 2 years earlier when two Americans, Angie Turk and Shanekia Bickham, founded CaiRollers.

At the start, the group mainly consisted of members of the Cairo expat community, but now it is young Egyptian women who make up the majority.

28 year old Nawal Ahmed was one of the first to join the group after hearing about CaiRollers through Facebook. “There were only one or two Arab people in the beginning, the rest were all foreigners.” Says Nawal. “Now it is almost all Arab girls!”

As time progressed and the expat contingent slowly began leaving the country, the “fresh meat”, as the new recruits are endearingly called, drew in increasing numbers of young Egyptian women. Nawal recalls her first training session, still fresh in her memory.

“It was a tiny track, and there were around 7 or 8 girls. I was so excited; I loved skating when I was younger. When I put on the skates, they were so heavy because I had not skated for years.” Says Nawal. “But then, after half an hour I started racing with them, I was falling, I was learning. It was so much fun. Since then I have never missed a practice.

Two years later and Nawal has progressed from “fresh meat” to instructor, teaching the latest crop of women in the dos and don’ts of roller derby.

The basic gameplay involves two teams of five skating in their pack around the track. The five are made up of a jammer and four blockers. If one pack’s jammer is able to lap the opposing pack, points are scored, and it is the job of the blockers to stop the opposing teams jammer from passing them.

With this being their first practice in over 3 months, the girls are raring to go and quick to kit up: elbow pads, mouth guards, knee pads, wrist guards, helmets and skates all essential equipment. With a long piece of rope, two members carefully mark out the oval roller derby track while the others begin skating around, tentatively at first, before muscle memory kicks in and their speed increases. A couple fall over as trained, taking a knee down to the ground before righting themselves again and continuing round the track.

Twice a week the group would meet up and train in the art of roller derby: blocking, sprinting, jumping, hitting and falling. It’s not a sport for the faint hearted, with bruises and more serious injuries common, despite the protective gear they have to wear.

“It’s bad ass!” Says Lina El Ghobashy, who first heard of CaiRollers on the radio. “You play, get injured, but continue playing!”

Lina smiles to reveal a gap in her teeth, an apparent ‘war wound’ from an earlier roller derby bout. “Well, I gave this girl a hit and when she was falling, her elbow went straight into my mouth.” She explains with a shrug of the shoulders. “I had taken out my mouth guard just before, so I was penalised for that as well! A broken tooth and a penalty!” She laughs with faux indignity. “Don’t worry, I’m seeing a dentist later today.”

Since starting, CaiRollers have managed to organise three official match-style bouts, their popularity increasing with each one. Around 130 people watched their last match, dubbed the “mother of all bouts”. Since no other roller derby team exists in the area, the group is forced to split itself into two teams, the last bout: Isis Crisis vs. the Killa’patras.

In spite of the obvious physical dangers and relative obscurity of the sport, the vast majority of CaiRoller’s members have received nothing but support from family, friends and even complete strangers.

“The first few months my mother was worried when I was coming home covered in bruises,” explains Lina, “but soon she understood what it meant to me and is now fully behind it.”

Some, like Nouran El Kabbany, one of the newer recruits, take great pleasure in the shock value roller derby provides to her friends and work colleagues. “Just this morning a colleague saw my helmet and asked about it. I explained the game and her face was like ‘Woah! Is this here in Egypt?’ I felt so proud at that moment that I am a part of this.”

Yet more than simply fun, fitness and the occasional shock, Nouran thinks roller derby has had an all-encompassing effect on her life, an opinion echoed by many of the other members.

“Roller derby has changed my life for the better. It has given me greater self-confidence and the realisation that you are never too old to do something completely new.” She explains. “I find myself practicing every time I’m on the road. Derby is a life style, not just a game.”

Lina concurs, noting the peculiar contrast in her daily activities. “I mean I’m a pharmacist; it feels like you’re entering a totally different world. In the morning I’m in a suit with my glasses on and now I’m with skates being aggressive. I love it.”

Both Lina and Nouran consider the polar opposite duality of their lives to be a thing of beauty, and with CaiRollers’ prominence growing with every practice, bout and ‘fresh meat clinic’, an increasing number of local women are being given the opportunity to experience it first hand.

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The Cairo Cult of Field Marshal Al-Sisi

First published in Vocativ on February 18th 2014 – photos by myself or Amanda Mustard

One man’s beaming face is omnipresent in the streets of Egypt these days. Most often seen in full formal military regalia, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s image is everywhere. A year into his tenure as chief of Egypt’s military, Sisi facilitated the popular coup that ended the short-lived reign of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013, and it didn’t take too long for a hero-worship cult to emerge.

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 10

It’s hard to think of a genre of merchandise that hasn’t yet featured Sisi’s visage. Posters of him are boosted up on billboards. Key chains with his army portrait are on sale for 1 Egyptian pound ($0.14) on street corners. Opinion articles in some of Egypt’s largest news outlets commend his “Herculean strength” while noting the “ardour of the sun in his veins.”

THE SISI SONG

If the key rings, flags masks and chocolates were not enough, Sisi’s legacy has also been immortalized though song. A self-declared boy band wrote an ode to Sisi called “One Dream,” to encourage the field marshall to run for president. Mission accomplished. The group’s uniform consists of leather jackets and, of course, t-shirts with Sisi’s face on them. Lyrics included such heartwarming phrases as: “Tomorrow is ours, tomorrow is better. Tomorrow Sisi will be our president.”

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 12

Although much has been attributed to the man, Sisi has remained relatively quiet. The field marshal rarely holds press conferences or gives interviews, and he certainly doesn’t have a Twitter account (unlike hispredecessor). Rather, videos and recordings of him are strategically leaked. Yet, rather than provide a clear and honest depiction of the man, they have served only to perpetuate his enigmatic persona, all of which helps the merchandising push.

(ZumaPress.com/Amanda Mustard)

Though Sisi has yet to officially state his intention to run for presidency, it is almost certainly just a matter of time until he does. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has already stated his backing of Sisi for President.) Come the presidential elections in March/April, it is almost guaranteed that Sisi will become Egypt’s next president.

(Polaris/Amanda Mustard)

Sisi’s campaign for presidency arguably started the moment Morsi was overthrown.  Enterprising groups have ensured bridges are adorned with signs asking Sisi to “complete [his] favor.” Immediately outside the High Court in downtown Cairo, a huge poster pleads with Sisi: “Our love is yours, our hands are yours, our allegiance is yours. …Sisi—the president, commander-in-chief and leader.”

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 09

As more time passes, Sisi’s image is cropping up in more and more incongruous settings. In some cafes, your coffee may be accompanied by some Sisi sweets: his face smiling eerily up at you from a bed of fine milk chocolate.

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 04(Amanda Mustard)

At recent rallies supporting the current government, masks of Sisi’s face were sold in the hundreds. A black band across his eyes and an unfortunate distortion of his face combined to create a bizarre resemblance to the McDonald’s Hamburglar.

Sisi Cult Paraphernalia 11

In the touristic area of Khan el Khalili, vendors display Sisi ID cards—under Sisi’s profession it states “Savior of Egypt”—next to their own business cards. More entrepreneurial jewelers have started selling Sisi-themed necklaces and earrings. One businesswoman tells me that she has actually sold out of her “Sisi collection.”

“But don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll be getting some more in soon.”

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Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

First Published on Vice January 16th 2014 

Inside one of Egypt’s polling stations. Photos by Amanda Mustard

For the past two days, Egyptians have been taking to the polls to officially pass judgment on thelatest iteration of the country’s constitution. As with most “yes” or “no” questions, there are only two outcomes. A “yes” majority would force interim President Adly Mansour to call for elections (either parliamentary or presidential) within a period of 30 to 90 days from the new constitution coming into effect. But, incredibly, there are no guiding procedures in the event of a “no” majority.

That might seem presumptuous, but, thankfully for the interim government, they have history on their side—there’s never been a “no” majority for any constitutional referendum in Egypt’s modern history.

The new constitution is widely perceived as an improvement on the 2012 version, which was drafted under ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But it’s not really all that different from its predecessor. Instead of starting from scratch, as was originally expected, amendments were made to contentious provisions in a long, drawn out process that finally ended with Mansour’s declaration of the referendum on December 12 of last year.

Despite the increased clarity about discrimination and violence against women, as well as a lengthened list of socio-economic rights, the draft still contains a number of articles that have worried analysts—like the one that could potentially weaken labor rights and freedoms—and maintains provisions that protect the continued use of military tribunals for civilians. Nevertheless, some are absolutely certain that the contents of the constitution are exactly what Egypt needs.

“I’ve read the entire constitution!” one man exclaimed proudly outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Shubra. “This is the constitution for Egypt. God bless Egypt and God bless [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi! I’ve written my favorite bits from the constitution here,” he smiled, showing off a piece of paper covered in writing.

The bomb-damaged front of the courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood

The opposition Anti Coup Alliance immediately declared their intentions to boycott the vote, worried that pushing for a “no” would somehow legitimize the incumbent powers and their new draft constitution. However, nothing resembling a boycott movement managed to work its way into the public consciousness. Instead, the “Vote Yes” campaign snapped up all the attention and advertising space.

By the first day of the vote, almost every lamppost along Cairo’s major bridges was adorned with a “Yes to the constitution!” poster. And giant billboards tenuously connect a “yes” vote to the 2011 revolution and the June 30 uprising that led to the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The message was clear: this isn’t just a vote for a constitution, this is a vote for the revolution and the martyrs.

The first day got off to a bad start, when an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, some two hours before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning.  Although no one was killed in the blast, it prompted an increased security presence—the worry being that there were similar acts planned for throughout this referendum period.

Despite the violent start, voter turnout for the first day was relatively high, with Egypt’s minister of administrative development claiming that 28 percent of the country’s registered voters had cast their ballot that day alone. However, scattered fighting in various governorates turned deadly for some—the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 12 at the close of the first day’s voting, and 250 were arrested.

Crowds outside a Cairo polling station with a poster of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

On state TV, multiple feeds from polling stations all over Egypt showed long lines, with everyone smiling or waiting patiently.

Outside a school in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, a mother and her two teenagers strolled out of the polling station. Their fingers still wet with the voting ink, they responded to a question about how they had cast their votes. “Of course we all voted yes!” exclaimed the mother, Dina, apparently taken aback that there was even a possibility someone might vote no.

“This constitution is better than the one before. I didn’t vote in the referendum last year, but I knew it was my duty this time. It really is much, much better,” explained her son, Abdel Aziz, before she interjected: “There is justice here,” she said. “There is a future!” Her daughter Noor nodded in approval to what her brother and mother were saying. “We want everything to get better and this is the first step to that. No more fighting, a better economy, some stability,” she said.

“Stability” is a promise that seems to come back around during every voting period, and after three years of turmoil, death, coups and changing governments, the offer is more tantalizing now than ever. “The most important thing for Egypt right now is stability,” explained off-duty officer Mohamed Abdelmaher outside an Imbaba polling station. “Political stability, economic stability, social stability. Stability is absolutely the cure for all of Egypt’s problems.”

He held his young daughter’s hand tightly as he talked about the future of his country, repeatedly bringing up the need for stability and security. “I just voted ‘yes’ in the hope that there’s no more of that,” he said, pointing to the damaged facade of the courthouse. “God willing this is what the country needs.”

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

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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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What Happened to Democracy, Freedom, Stability?

First published in the New Internationalist on 2 July

The day before Mohamed Morsi was sworn into power as Egypt’s first civilian President in 2012, he came to a packed Tahrir Square and opened his jacket to show the jubilant crowd that he was wearing no body armour. A ‘man of the people’, he promised them ‘a new life of absolute freedom, a genuine democracy, and stability’.

His one-year anniversary as president, 30 June, was a date that many had marked in their calendars, but not as one of celebration, with talk of a ‘second revolution’ to overthrow the ‘illegitimate’ president. Egyptians began stocking up on food and fuel, wary of the possibility of an even more turbulent phase in the coming weeks, perhaps months.

As it happened, the date itself drew an unprecedented number of Egyptians into the streets. Numbers in a group can be difficult to judge, but when ‘millions’ seems a safe estimate, you know you are witnessing something historic.

For now, the main opposition groups, themselves an amalgamation of uneasy alliances, have managed to rally around the ‘Tamarod’ (Rebel) campaign’s call for mass protests.

Angry at his mishandling of the economy; his November declaration; and his inability to establish security, they are asking for Morsi to step down and for early elections to be called. In two months they managed to gather 22 million signatories (although this figure is impossible to verify) – 9 million more than voted for Morsi in last year’s elections.

But statements from the Tamarod campaign have caused confusion as to the level of support it actually has. The movement’s willingness to apply the maxim ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ to its full potential has alienated many Egyptians who don’t suffer from such short-term memory loss.

While walls still bear graffiti with sentiments such as ‘Fuck SCAF’ (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) and ‘Down with the military rule’, the Tamarod campaign has been fawning over the military and, incredibly, the much-hated Interior Ministry.

Seas of red cards have been waved around in places like Tahrir. One side reads ‘Red card for Mohamed Morsi. Leave’; the other proclaims: ‘The army, the people and the Interior Ministry are one hand.’ This is a sentiment that leaves many of my Egyptian friends exasperated.

Nevertheless, that so many people are willing to overlook the historically disastrous and often deadly relationship between the army and the Interior Ministry speaks volumes as to how much ire Morsi has managed to inspire in his first year of premiership. ‘As long as Morsi leaves, I am happy. He must leave, for Egypt[‘s sake], that is the most important thing right now,’ says Mohamed Sharif, a protester in Tahrir Square.

Meanwhile, the pro-Morsi, pro-Muslim brotherhood camp is incensed at the idea that early elections could ever be called for. Although many that once voted for him have now become part of the opposition, the majority of his support base see it that Morsi won a fair election and is thus guaranteed four years in office. If the opposition forces manage to annul this constitutionally bound law, then it sets a troubling precedent that may portend a never-ending cycle of constant calls of illegitimacy for succeeding presidents – a point made by Morsi himself.

Were Morsi to stand down and call for early elections, however unlikely that currently is, then a backlash would be almost certain. A very sizeable group, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, would feel aggrieved. Having spent the vast majority of their existence in persecution, they would see this as yet another example of unjust discrimination.

Many of the anti-Morsi groups are wary of calling for military intervention, a scenario that the army has not ruled out. Still others would be happy to see it happen, if only because it seems the only plausible way that Morsi would heed the calls of early elections.

At the time of writing, at least 10 people have been killed and over 500 injured since 30 June. The deaths occurred within Cairo and south of Cairo in the cities of Beni Suef and Assiut, but the overall level of violence, particularly when the numbers are borne in mind, are much smaller than many had anticipated.

For now, the unexpectedly high turnout for the 30 June protests has inspired the Tamarod campaign to send President Morsi an ultimatum: resign by Tuesday, or face a mass campaign of civil disobedience.

Late on Sunday evening the Presidential spokesperson asserted that the only way out of the current political impasse would be dialogue. Inviting all the major opposition parties, he said that ‘dialogue is the only way to reach a consensus’, adding: ‘The presidency aims to reach serious national reconciliation to pull the country out of its current state of polarisation.’ The problem with this route is that calls for national dialogue have been rejected again and again and again in the past.

Then, on 1 July, the head of Egypt’s armed forces, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, took everyone by surprise and issued his own 48-hour ultimatum. Choosing his words carefully (he never said Morsi had to go), he said that the ‘unprecedented turnout’ signalled that the parties must come together to ‘meet the people’s demands’ or face a military-imposed roadmap for the country’s political future.

Morsi was quick to rebuff this statement and labelled it an effective coup d’état that would never succeed without the backing of the Americans. However, as time passes, it seems that Morsi’s future has crossed a Rubicon and those out protesting know it.

Five ministers have now resigned following the protests, including the Foreign Minister. Pro and anti-Morsi groups have met this breaking news with anger and delight respectively so now, as each side becomes more desperate, more clashes seem likely. It seems beyond doubt that the next few weeks will be momentous for Egypt’s future.

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