Tag Archives: cairo

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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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April 6 Youth Movement: Non-violence in Egypt

First published on VICE UK on April 9th

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On Saturday, the Egyptian activist group, April 6 Youth Movement (A6YM), marked their fifth anniversary with a “Day of Rage” against President Mohamed Morsi. The non-violent grassroots movement officially formed two months after helping to orchestrate a general strike in the industrial city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra in the spring of 2008, when – in search of better pay and working conditions – the group implored workers to stay at home on April the 6th instead of go to work. I’m sure you’ll know that’s generally how strikes work, but there was a specific reasoning behind the A6YM’s method.

Mohamed Adel is one of the four founders of the A6YM and was one of the more prominent voices in the lead up to the general strike five years ago. “People were afraid of protesting at the time – it’s dangerous and the thought was, ‘What could it possibly achieve?’” Mohamed told me. “Our message was to just stay at home, as it’s a simple and safe act [of civil disobedience].”

Since its inception, the A6YM has made extensive use of social media and pamphleteering to spread awareness among what, to begin with, was a mostly apathetic, apolitical youth. In an A6YM YouTube video, co-founder Ahmed Maher explains, “We were continuously trying to reach people in university, in cafes and in social clubs – the youth who weren’t interested in politics.”

During the revolution two years ago, the A6YM were an instrumental force in organising and rallying people to help swell numbers into the critical mass that eventually toppled Mubarak. Today, according to Adel, they have around 15,000 “direct members” and command a base of over 100,000 supporters, with around half a million people following both their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

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The group’s strictly non-violent role in the revolution was rewarded with a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. And the date of the sixth of April was chosen in homage to the day in 1930 that Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March started to achieve what it had set out to do: bring a peaceful end to British rule in India. So their dedication to peace is clearly pretty important. The group’s symbol, a raised fist, is “shared with non-violent movements in Russia, Georgia, Serbia, South Africa and so on”, explains Adel. “Our message is ‘We will have revolutionary change without the use of violence.’ It shows that we’re united and strong.”

During the most recent Egyptian presidential elections, the A6YM threw their weight behind Mohamed Morsi, if only to avoid the appointment of Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s Prime Minister and a man considered to be a stale remnant of his rule. Now, after not even a year in office, the group consider Morsi to be their primary focus. “We asked the people to vote for Morsi, but if this first few months were an exam, he has failed – nothing has changed,” says Adel. “He’s not working to the goals of the revolution, but to the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The idea that the Muslim Brotherhood controls the Presidency, who in turn control the police and courtrooms, is deemed a poorly kept secret to most Egyptians, while the separation of powers in Egypt is considered a farce that few continue to entertain.

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For their fifth anniversary, the A6YM organised four marches to set off from four separate suburbs of Cairo, which would all end up meeting outside Cairo’s High Court. A number of other parties and movements joined the marches, including the parties of opposition leaders Hamdeen Sabahi (the National Salvation Front) and Mohamed ElBaradei (the Constitution Party).

The turnout for the marches was smaller than anticipated, but those present remained in good voice. Chants of, “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide” (the Muslim Brotherhood) rang out all around the march, backed up by the constant banging of drums. The demonstrators also chanted for Gaber “Jika” Salah, an A6YM member considered to be the first martyr of Morsi’s tenure after he was killed in November last year.

Men and women handed out flyers that read, “There is no bread, there is no freedom, there is no justice, there is no dignity. The people want the downfall of the regime.” They mocked the Ministry of Interior and the current government, referring to them as “sheep” while holding aloft handfuls of Egyptian berseem clover, a plant used to feed cattle.

The marches passed by potentially incendiary places without incident, and police presence throughout the march was surprisingly low. By early evening, the separate marches converged on the High Court – by now numbering in the thousands – and continued their chanting. Protesters called for the release of detained activists, including several A6YM members, and chanted against the General Prosecutor, who they accused of politically charged rulings.

A few people set off flares and the drums began to beat louder, but there was never the slightest sense that it would escalate into a riot. Then, at around 7PM, police from inside the High Court turned up, ostensibly worried the protesters would storm the building, and fired birdshot and tear gas into the crowds. The crowd dispersed and Central Security Force armoured personnel carriers (APCs) arrived, bringing with them many more paramilitaries ready to help the police goad the peaceful protesters.

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The clashes that ensued followed the now customary back and forth between protesters and police, with the sirens of the APCs one again providing the soundtrack.

Fady, an 18-year-old medical student, said, “Do you see this? This is what happens when you protest peacefully.” Below us, men in civil attire suddenly started to attack the protesters, firing Roman candles directly at them, the fireworks exploding at head height. “Plain clothes policemen,” explained Fady, shaking his head.

The official Ministry of Health figures put the number of injured by 10PM at 18, but it’s pretty safe to assume that the actual figure was somewhat higher by the time the fighting stopped several hours later.

The A6YM released a statement late on Saturday on their official Facebook page that chastised the Ministry of Interior, which they accused of “prostituting” itself out for every regime. Stating their intention to carry on fighting for a better Egypt, they wrote, “We completely reject these unjustified and repressive attacks on peaceful demonstrations… and we insist that we will continue with our non-violent methods in overthrowing this oppressive regime.”

 

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Crisis Control: Morsi’s latest Non-Concession

“No ruler of any kind, qua ruler, exercises his authority, whatever its sphere, with his own interest in view, but that of the subject of his skill.  It is his subject and his subject’s proper interest to which he looks in all he says and does.” – The Republic

That Mohamed Morsi is partial to reading Plato in his spare time is unknown, but his management of the situation – since his ‘power-grabbing’ November 22nd Constitutional Decree until its annulment late on December 8th – suggests, at the very least, an affinity with Platonic sovereignty as well as a sly nod to Niccolo Machiavelli.

After a 9-hour ‘national dialogue meeting’ that excluded both Mohamed Morsi and the main opposition figures of the National Salvation Front (NSF), it was announced that the decree which had caused so much outrage was to be annulled.  International Media celebrated this ‘concession’ as a major breakthrough in the political impasse.

Morsi’s main defence on the appropriation of his vast powers was in a need to protect and speed up the process through which the country’s governmental foundations could be laid, and in so doing, allow Egypt’s real journey towards prosperity and justice to begin.

In other words, he deemed that due process and the concept of democracy outside of the ballot box – never mind public opinion – could take a backseat while he frogmarched the masses towards a future they didn’t even know they all wanted.  Within Morsi’s decree, the most important was the sudden unassailability of the contentious constituent assembly.

The deteriorating, and suddenly untouchable, constituent assembly – almost exclusively made up of old Islamist men – worked long hours to rush through a final draft before the Constitutional Court could pass a verdict on the Assembly’s representative legitimacy.

The question of legitimacy lay in the assembly’s make up: It’s 100-strong members had been proportionally drawn from the lower house of parliament; itself dissolved 5 months prior after it was discovered that independent seats had gone to party-affiliated candidates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

The actual contents of the final draft seemed to invoke criticism from nearly every group bar those affiliated with the FJP. “A constitution that eliminates rights and limits freedoms. No to Dictatorship” was a message printed in 11 independent newspapers.  The full front page of the Egypt Independent newspaper this week simply read, “We object to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity.”

FJP senior advisor Gehad El-Haddad was kinder in his analysis, “It’s not perfect, but I think it s a very good basis from which we can move forward” although even he lamented the “compromising language” in some of the articles.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have overestimated the political torpor of the Egyptian populace and overplayed their hand: a strangely naïve move that may be put down to a sudden surge in hubris after his praised role in the Gaza-Israel peace brokerage.

The masses came out as protests swept through the governorates. Opposition figureheads capitalised on the situation, uniting to create the ‘National Salvation Front’ (NSF) and gaining popular acceptance. In what is a symbiotic relationship, the people give the opposition figures the critical mass necessary to put demands to Morsi, while the protesters could now demonstrate under the political aegis of the NSF and avoid being easily labelled ‘heretical traitors’.

Meanwhile the Pro-Morsi side came out in support of the President.  The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to show the watching world that they too had numbers and outside Cairo University tens of thousands of pro-Morsi Egyptians showed up and duly answered the call.

Both sides rallied peacefully when separated, but the violence that eventually materialised 5 days ago in Heliopolis was inevitable.  The Muslim Brotherhood called on a march to where anti-Morsi protesters were demonstrating and the two-sides finally met – 8 people dying as a result.

The NSF said they would only enter into dialogue with Morsi after an annulment of his 22nd November decrees and a postponement on the referendum.  Morsi began borrowing from Mubarak’s playbook with paranoid conspiracy talk of “fifth columnists” before eventually succumbing to the pressure from the street and rescinding his decree of judicial immunity – but is this really a concession?

Those placated are the armed forces and the judges: Morsi had time to pass a law that grants the armed forces power of arrest and detainment of civilians (effective martial law); and the judges will be pleased that he is no longer above the law (a point that had them initially threatening to boycott supervision of the referendum, thus jeopardising its legitimacy).

The major point to note is that the referendum is still due to take place on December 15th.  What is arguably an illegitimate constitution has bypassed judicial scrutiny via Morsi’s initial decree and is now to be judged by the ballot box in 6 days time.

This is the reason why many in the opposition say there has been no concession.  The main point of contention was the validity of the assembly and any draft they released.  This point remains.  Instead, Morsi has rescinded his powers a week early (for it was due to expire after the voting anyway) and in so doing, offered a superficial misdirect while preserving the referendum.

Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood are, as an Egyptian journalist for Bloomberg put it to me, “very good at the ballot boxes”, the opposition are divided in whether to vote ‘no’, or to boycott what they see as an unreservedly illegitimate referendum.

In a press conference last night the NSF again announced their “total rejection” of the draft constitution and the referendum.  Never explicitly calling for a boycott or a vote saying ‘no’, they instead reiterated their call for peaceful protests to continue.

Therein lies the problem of the opposition forces, whether now or 20 months ago, they are in unison when objecting, but divided when it comes to offering answers, thereby giving the object of their ire more room for manoeuvre.  Room that, in this case, Morsi is fully capitalising on.

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Constitutional Crisis

Banner in Tahrir by Mohamed Mahmoud St reads "Muslim Brotherhood Forbidden Entry"

Banner in Tahrir by Mohamed Mahmoud St reads “Muslim Brotherhood Forbidden Entry”

President Mohamed Morsi’s opposition was given extra impetus today after the hugely controversial constituent assembly chose to ignore their two-month extension to rush through their final draft constitution.  The process was expedited in an uncharacteristic burst of energy from the assembly with more than 50 articles debated since Saturday.  Yesterday the assembly approved all 234 articles, one by one, after a marathon voting session that went on into the early hours of Friday morning.  Under Article 60 of the March 30th Constitutional Declaration, the referendum for the draft’s ratification is due to take place within 15 days.

Morsi has promised to renounce his extra powers once a constitution is in place and a lower house has been elected.  In what many see as yet more political strong-arming from Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, they see the choice offered them as lose-lose situation: vote no and continue to live with a President who holds ‘dictatorial powers’, or vote yes and have a constitution that many feel is unrepresentative and inadequate.

Mass walkouts and resignations from liberals, Christians and the journalist syndicate meant that only 74 of the original 100 members were at the final day’s proceedings, 51 of them from various Islamic groups.  Hossam al-Gheriany, the chairman of the assembly, started the day by adding 11 reserve members to the assembly’s members (the majority from the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi Nour Party) bringing the total up to 85.  Of these 85, there was not a single Christian and only 4 women, all of them Islamists.

At the beginning of the day, the much-discussed article 2, that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the primary source of legislation, was passed unanimously.

There also appears to be inherent contradictions in several of the articles, especially pertaining to freedom of expression.  Article 31 prohibits “insulting the prophets”, article 44 prohibits disparaging the “dignity of the human” whilst article 43 somehow guarantees the freedom of expression.

A praiseworthy edit was made to article 36 with the explicit addition of “torture”.  It now stipulated that the torture and humiliation of detainees would not happen, adding that they must be held in a morally and ethically appropriate place.

In contrast, Article 198, on the military justice system, accepted the military trials of civilians “only in crimes that harm the armed forces”.  The military trial of civilians is a phenomenon many Egyptians hoped would be banished.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt Director, pointed out that the highest number of objections came with regards to Article 219 defining the principles of Sharia.  The Salafis in the assembly wanted it moved to the front of the constitution as an addendum to article 2.  After some discussion it remained where it was.

Many of the articles drew fire from Morsi’s opposition, specifically with regard to the semantics.  But others were more lenient with regards to some of the more obtuse wording.  “Some of the language is compromising, which is unfortunate, but they are trying to appease everyone with this constitution,” says Gehad El-Haddad, Senior Advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party.  El-Haddad conceded that the constitution was not perfect but replied “look at the American or French constitution, were they perfect when first drawn up? How many amendments do they contain?  This constitution is a good basis from which we can move forward”.

Nobel Peace Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei seemed certain the constitution was destined to fail, “It will be a part of political folklore and will go to the rubbish bin of history” he said in an interview on private al-Nahar TV.  El-Haddad, meanwhile, remained “optimistic” of its chances in the referendum.

The schism between Morsi’s proponents and opponents was further highlighted when both sides called for two separate rallies to showcase their support.  The opposition inundated the square once again today.  ElBaradei and ex-presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi made an appearance and announced that they would be sleeping on Tahrir.  The Muslim Brotherhood plan to hold their million-man march outside Cairo University tomorrow.

Initially the plan was for the Brotherhood to come to Tahrir tomorrow, but the obvious clashes that would result meant that they had to make a late change in venue.  The Brotherhood had already been forced to call off a march to Tahrir last Tuesday in the face of the massive opposition rally that flooded the square.  Tahrir Square, the symbol of Egypt’s revolution, has denied the entry to the Muslim Brotherhood twice in a week.

Update: State TV has reported that Morsi went to Sharbatly mosque today for Friday prayers and was heckled.  The Imam attempted to bless the presidential decrees and reportedly compared Morsi to the Prophet, causing outrage in the mosque where Morsi was trapped for an unspecified time.

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Pharaoh Morsi – An Update

A year ago there were clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud St (the street I live on) which left over 60 people dead.  They were fighting with the Central Security Forces (CSF – the paramilitary division of the police) after they were attacked while marching to the Ministry of Interior demanding greater state support for the families and victims of the revolution.  After the fighting, walls were built blocking all the roads – bar one – to the Interior ministry.

Last Monday around a thousand people came to Mohammed Mahmoud for the anniversary and tried to take down one of the walls; they succeeded in taking down two of the 1 tonne blocks in the wall before the CSF intervened and pushed them back.  They are still fighting with the CSF, who are on the roof of the French Elysee building (pictured above) throwing rocks and chairs and firing tear gas down at the protesters, who are replying in kind with rocks, fireworks and molotovs. Gaber Salah, a member of the 6th April Youth Movement was shot and killed in the first night of fighting.

On Wednesday, Morsi and Hillary Clinton managed to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel and Morsi was showered in praise for his management of the situation.  The international praise appears to have gone straight to his head as the very next day he made some constitutional declarations: he removed the Prosecutor General (an old Mubarak appointee who is widely despised and faces accusations of corruption and nepotism) by changing the terms of office; the retrial of everyone, including Mubarak, indicted with regards to the revolution; the immunity of the Constituent Assembly (currently facing mass walk-outs and legal hurdles due to it’s unrepresentative make-up) and Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) from judicial critique and disbandment; and most worrying of all his own immunity from any body, judicial or otherwise, in revoking any edict made from when he assumed the presidency up until a constitution and parliament exist.

Morsi has the mandate for these declarations because he revoked the interim declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in June, thus transferring the authorities they had to the presidency, including absolute legislative authority (which the SCAF only had because the lower house was dissolved due to independent seats being given to Political Parties).

The response to Morsi’s new declarations was immediate.  Mohammed El Baradei (Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the IAEA), Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa (ex-presidential candidates) as well as some other notable public figures, called on the people to march to Tahrir and protest this move, which was widely seen as an attempt at legitimizing the President’s role in the revolution.  On the one hand he has pandered to the masses regarding the dismissal of the PG and the retrials, but on the other he has taken on massive new powers plus issuing the immunity of the Shura council (Islamist dominated) and the Constituent Assembly (Islamist dominated).  As one particularly eloquent man in Tahrir put it, “he has given us honey and poison”.

Tens of thousands were in Tahrir Square last night chanting, “Morsi is Mubarak”, “Down with the regime”, “Morsi is the new Pharaoh”.  They have now set up camp in Tahrir Square with about 20 tents erected when I last looked earlier today.  There were clashes on Qasr El Aini St and Mohamed Mahmoud St last night between protesters and CSF with scores injured and some arrested.  It should be noted that a fair number of people out there just want to fight the police and have no qualms with Morsi’s declaration, but the nominal reason for their being there is just that; Morsi is looking like he’s heading down the dictator route.

It’s no surprise that a people who had a revolution to overthrow a dictator are alarmed that their incumbent is assuming immunity after already having absolute legislative and executive power – his situation is every totalitarian’s wet dream.  The question now is whether Morsi is willing, or able for that matter, to backtrack.  He claim’s he is the “guardian” of Egypt and it’s revolution and is only doing this because these are “exceptional circumstances” (said every dictator in the history of time) and that he is trying to speed Egypt into a new era of freedom and democracy.  If that’s the case, using dictatorial powers seems a slightly perverse way to get there.

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Al-Nakba

http://www.alnakba.org/

Today marks the the 64th anniversary of the exodus of between 700,000-1,000,000 palestinians from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.  15th of May is the day after Israel’s declaration of independence and it is commemorated by palestinians and many others all around the Arab world in what is known as Al-Nakba day (Nakba النكبة meaning ‘catastrophe’ in arabic).  Today’s rally was held outside the headquarters of the Arab League, which lies just off Tahrir Square, and attracted what I estimated to be around 100-150 people.

The rally itself was incredibly peaceful, bar about 5 minutes where someone pulled out apiece of card with the Israeli flag painted on it: que angry stamping, ripping and burning of said flag.  The rally itself was planned from 2-6pm but seemed to peak by about 3:30pm and had died down completely by 4:30pm.  The majority of the rally was held in good cheer, fine voice and better banners, with anti-israeli and arab-solidarity chants resonating through the little crowd of Palestinians and Egyptians.

Around 5pm I was told to head to a cafe where I found a group of people including some from the demonstration.  One of them (second from right in the picture) was telling me how large the Al-Nakba rally was the previous year.  He was an Egyptian who had spent some time in Palestine.  He had unusually blue eyes and on his wrist he wore a black, green and red band with the words “Free Gaza” in bold white.  When he spoke English, he spoke with a strong American accent.

“Last year there were thousands of people who came for Al-Nakba”

I asked him why there were so few people this time.  He seemed ashamed that I had noticed the relatively poor turn-out, before sitting back and sighing,

“Abbasiya”

This seemed a somewhat tenuous connection to me
(http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1097/eg61.htm)

“You think what happened in Abbasiya stopped some people from coming to the rally today?”

“Of course man! What happened in Abbasiya was scary.  Nobody thought that would would happen during a peaceful protest with unarmed civilians.  But the thing about Abbasiya is that its geography is perfect for an ambush.  And that’s what happened, a fucking ambush.  Who knew what would happen today”

Another, far more persuasive, train of thought was that the deal brokered between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority over the hunger strikes was timed to perfection.

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/palestinian-hunger-strike-israel-prisoners_n_1514969.html)

The fact that a deal was made the day before Al-Nakba may have killed any momentum there was.  Perhaps the fact that Egypt itself is in a state of political unrest didn’t help the Palestinian cause.  In the weeks building up to an election that many see as both too early (there isn’t a constitution in place) yet too late (the ruling SCAF military have been in control so long, they wouldn’t really give it up) it would be understandable if the Egyptians had other things on their mind.

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