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Orwell’s Nationalism in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hobson’s Choice for Egyptian Voters

First published in the New Internationalist on May 30th

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gaza’s Tunnel Vision

First published on Vocativ on 14 May 2014

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

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May 14, 2014 · 18:55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Adam Ramsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Adam Ramsey

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

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Access to Education an Added Challenge for Refugees in Egypt

First published in IRIN News Tuesday April 8th


Syrian, Sudanese and Somali refugees study art at a school run by NGO Tadamon

As the number of Syrians in Egypt rises, refugees say it has become increasingly difficult to find places for their children in already overstretched government schools.

In addition, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Egypt complain of unaffordable school costs in private and public schools, bureaucratic enrolment procedures, and a growing atmosphere of suspicion, xenophobia and discrimination in the classroom.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had 179,762 refugees and asylum seekersregistered as of the end of 2013, most of them Syrian and Sudanese.

But according to a report by Egypt’s largest refugee-focused NGO Tadamon, the real numbers could be anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million, based on estimates from local NGOs, some of whom include economic migrants in their definition of refugees. Tadamon blames “differing legal definitions” and “a failure or refusal of many refugees to register” for the numbers confusion.

The right to an education is enshrined in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, of which Egypt is a signatory. However, in 1981 Egypt put forwardreservations to several articles, resulting in diminished refugee rights.

Instead of a free education, refugee families need to apply for tuition grants from Caritas Internationalis through UNHCR partner Catholic Relief Services.

“Registered Syrian refugee families with school-going children receive an education grant to assist families [in] covering the costs of school fees, uniforms, books, stationary and transport,” said Marwa Hashem, UNHCR’s education officer in Cairo. “As of mid-February [2014], some 32,000 children have received education grants.”

” You won’t find an order from the government saying ‘Don’t let refugees into schools’ but you will see it when you go to a school and try to apply there. The doors won’t be open for them “

According to Mohamed El Miligy, an Egyptian-Sudanese activist and communications officer for Tadamon, there is a conspicuously tortuous enrolment process set up to deter refugees from entering into an already overstretched education sector. “The [amount of] paperwork means that many will not be able to start [school] for a year or two.”

“It is difficult for… refugees to enrol in public school if they lack previous educational documentation,” Hashem added.

Despite UNHCR’s advocacy for Sudanese and Syrian refugees to have access to education facilities and services, Miligy says that in reality there are a growing number of cases where the “pretence of acceptance” is removed altogether and the school doors are simply shut on refugees attempting to enrol their children.

“There are many schools that will simply not let refugees in,” said Miligy. “You won’t find an order from the government saying ‘Don’t let refugees into schools’ but you will see it when you go to a school and try to apply there. The doors won’t be open for them.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Discrimination

Hanadi Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, says her children also encounter discrimination in Egyptian public schools. Refugees say the general atmosphere towards them has deteriorated as a result of Egypt’s political upheaval and flailing economy.

“I took my youngest to kindergarten here and when I came back I found the other children calling him names and physically beating him because he was Sudanese. He was crying. I asked the teacher whether she could do something but she didn’t help at all.”

Mohamed ended up having to remove her child from the school. Several parents told IRIN they had little choice but to do the same out of fear of bullying.

Tadamon runs separate refugee schools, under its “Alternative School Initiative” specifically geared to refugees who have no viable access to an education. Tucked away behind unmarked doors of unfinished apartment buildings, the schools often welcome children who have already been subjected to harassment and discrimination from their previous schooling environment.

“Their psychology is affected; they get so down. So the families take them out of the school and take them to us where we can try and deal with them,” Miligy said. “Some of the children become violent as a result, while others are very withdrawn and hardly speak.”

No money

Six months of research into the state of refugee education in Egypt by the UK-based Refugee Youth Project, published in a report at the end of 2013, found over 80 percent of the 400 refugee interviewees cited high school costs and a lack of money as the main reason they could not afford to send their children to school.

Magdy Garas, co-director of Caritas Egypt – a charity that provides financial aid, social support and medical care to refugees in Egypt – estimates there are around 17,000 Syrian families who are in financial need yet receive no support from either UNHCR or Caritas.

“We believe there are around 250,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. We manage a humanitarian plan with 31,000 Syrians and the UNHCR supports a further 138,000, but the remaining 81,000 individuals, around 17,000 families, are still in need of financial support,” he said.

According to a government estimate from June 2013, there are 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. As of 8 March, 134,917 Syrians had registered with UNHCR as refugees.

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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.

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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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Human Trafficking in the Sinai – One Man’s Journey

First Published in the Christian Science Monitor on December 30th

In October a boat attempting to carry refugees, mostly Eritreans, from Africa to Europe sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 people in one of the worst marine disasters in European waters in many years. It put an international spotlight on the plight of immigrants seeking a better life and unmasked harrowing stories of exploitation and maltreatment.

In Egypt, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have made the hazardous trip through the Sinai Peninsula in the hope of reaching Israel, entering somewhere along the 165-mile mutual border. The refugees are trafficked into Israel by various Bedouin tribes at extortionate cost, physically, mentally, and monetarily.

A recent report on human trafficking in Sinai by the European External Policy Advisors found that as many as 30,000 people have been trafficked through Sinai since 2009. About a third of those died in the process, and the traffickers have collected more than $600 million in ransoms.

In 2006, Sinai resident Hamdy al-Azazy made the decision to dedicate his life to the struggles of those refugees who were caught up in the human trafficking business.

“It all started when I was arrested in December 2006,” Mr. Azazy says. “I had a fever, and the police took me from my house when I was wearing next to nothing.”

In prison he found himself among 45 African refugees, mostly from Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, who were caught attempting to reach the Israeli border. “They [the refugees] gave me jackets and warm clothes,” he recalls. “They treated my fever with cold water and looked after me. I felt that they were my family. I thought, ‘Why did they help me?’ I realized, this was humanity.”

He began talking to them and listening to their stories, amazed at how widespread human trafficking was and how little he knew about it.

He heard stories he is now all too familiar with: of husbands and wives and children separated, of kidnapping and ransoms, of organ harvesting, of torture and death.

Azazy had been working at his English-language center in the infamously dangerous capital of Egypt’s northern Sinai region, El Arish. He was born and raised in El Arish, so his ignorance of the pervasive human trafficking in the area took him by surprise.

“I began to hear more about the trafficking that is happening in my region. I was listening and thinking: Where is the [military] intelligence? Where are the police? Where is the Army? Where is the government?”

Shortly afterward he started the nonprofit New Generation Foundation for Human Rights. The organization gives assistance to jailed and hospitalized refugees, providing legal assistance, references, and medical treatment. For those that have been killed, Azazy transports the bodies that he finds to a morgue before ensuring they receive a respectful burial.

“I don’t know if they are Muslim or Christian or what, but I take them to the graveyard I made near my house and give them a proper burial all the same,” he says.

Through his family connections and history of human rights work, Azazy has access to prisons and hospitals that others lack.

“He’s very well connected with everyone. He has family high up in the military, he has a brother who is the main tax collector at the port, and he has a very good relationship with Bedouin,” says Dr. Ellen Rosser, an American peace activist and retired English professor who lived in El Arish for about two years.

Dr. Rosser first met Azazy in 2010.

“We had been speaking, and I volunteered to teach human rights [at his language center],” she says. “He was already concerned about the Bedouin. He was helping one group of Bedouin who were being paid very, very little for their land lease that the government had put a factory on.”

Azazy has since brought tribal leaders together and spoken to them about Bedouin rights, as well as the plight of trafficked refugees. It was through this work that Azazy built trusting relationships with many Bedouin tribes in the area, allowing him greater access and insight into the intricacies of human trafficking.

Now he knows all too well just how it works. “They transport them worse than animals,” he says. Refugees are hidden inside pickup trucks and empty oil and water tankers.

“They often make a false shelf in pickup trucks where the refugees cram inside and then have fruit, vegetables, [and] animals placed on top of them,” he says. “From one ‘torture camp’ to the next, this is how they transport them until they are arrested or killed or make it to Israel.”

The descriptions of “torture camps” become more vivid as Azazy shows video testimonies of African refugees who managed to escape their captors. Documents, videos, and photos that he collects are stored on a computer hard drive he carries with him: They show the horrors that thousands of trafficked refugees go through.

In one folder are documents and images of organ trafficking. In one photo an empty corpse is seen, cut open from just under the chin all the way to the navel, the rib cage cleanly sawn through. Accompanying the body is a postmortem document from the Egyptian doctor. Under cause of death it reads “Under Investigation.”

“Of course, this so-called investigation came to nothing. They know what has happened here, but they do nothing!” Azazy exclaims.

Having family in the military has not curbed his anger at what he sees as incompetence and outright corruption with regards to the Egyptian government and security services.

“It is so difficult to truly deal with traffickers because I know for a fact that many police are getting money under the table,” he says. “At the very least they won’t do anything when you ask; at the most they will try to shut you up.”

“He’s had to go into hiding for several weeks before, after threats from certain Bedouin tribes,” says John Stauffer, president of the American Team for Displaced Eritreans. “He’s certainly drawing attention to the situation, and he puts himself at some risk by doing so.”

Mr. Stauffer first heard of Azazy when an Eritrean friend in the United States told him that there was a man who was visiting refugees in the prisons in Sinai. Since then, they have kept in touch with regular phone calls and e-mail updates. Stauffer also provides some financial backing for Azazy’s work.

When asked how he could provide money to a man he hasn’t even met in person, Stauffer acknowledges that Azazy has a proclivity to make grand statements. But Stauffer stresses the good work Azazy has done.

“If he has one fault, I guess you can say he’s overly optimistic,” Stauffer says. “He’s probably been guilty of making a promise that is near impossible to keep in the past…. Sometimes he spices things up, but, all in all, you just can’t deny all the good he’s doing. I’m convinced that what he’s doing is very good for the refugees, so shame on me if I turn my back on that.”

Ahmed Salama, a Bedouin from the Sawarka tribe and a human rights campaigner with the nongovernmental El Gora Community Development Association, which offers services to thousands of Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula, also notes Azazy’s remarkable ability to help imprisoned refugees.

“We’ve worked together before in coordination,” Mr. Salama says. “I work with the IOM [International Organization for Migration], and he works with various other international agencies. I know he’s been very successful in transferring many refugees back to their home countries or refugee camps.”

Since the Egyptian military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July, an increased military presence in Sinai has somewhat curbed the extent to which human trafficking takes place. However, Salama notes that “we are still talking about hundreds who are being kept with their traffickers.”

Azazy shakes his head and sighs, “I don’t see myself retiring from this anytime soon.”

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Protest and Public Space – Egypt’s Streets

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A less theory-heavy version of this appeared in Vice on December 17th

For close to three years Egyptians employed protest and the occupation of public space to devastating effect.  Almost every Friday, some group, somewhere, would be demonstrating.

In Spring 2011, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown when hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding change.  In Spring 2012, the indolent SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) Military government sped up their transition of power after immense pressure from the streets.  In Summer 2013, Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, was forced out of office and into a cell when huge numbers gave the Army reason enough to remove him from power.

Now, the military-backed interim government has passed an anti-demonstration law that Amnesty said would “pave the way to bloodshed” and Human Rights Watch said was “in violation of international standards”.

Article 7 of the Protest Law especially stands out due to its vague and wide reaching parameters regarding “violations of general security, public order or production…” which, as subjective terms, leaves room for punitive arrests, a jail term of up to 5 years and fines of up to $14,500 USD.

For the current government, which is only in power as a result of demonstrations, to pass an anti-demonstration law is an irony that is not lost on many.

According to Professor Charles Tripp author of, “The Power and the People: Paths of Resistance in the Middle East”, the occupation of a public space is, in and of itself, an act of resistance against the state and can be an incredible tool in challenging power.  Unlike the clearer, often opulent, physical manifestations of government, public spaces aren’t usually under constant guard or omnipresent supervision.  The openness of the squares, roundabouts, parks, streets, etc. often make these sites the ineluctable frontiers of confrontation.

As the name suggests, public space invites citizens into it’s areas, but by virtue of being conceived, planned and built by the state, it can also be seen as an extension of the state: what Tripp refers to as the “built environment of the state”.

By taking to public spaces and occupying them, the demonstrators change the areas’ function.  No longer are they squares, roads, or parks (as labelled by the state), rather settings for dissent.  The occupiers have already challenged the power of the state simply by refusing to use these spaces as designated by the Government.

The dissent is aired openly so that others, including the officials (but more importantly other members of the public), can see and hear what is happening.  Word spreads.  In economic vernacular, what was once ‘individual knowledge’ is now ‘mutual knowledge’.  Where before you may not be sure as to what your fellow countryman and woman thought about the Government, now you and everyone knows, and everyone knows that you know.

The sociologist Max Weber writes of the existential imperative for states in “Politics as a Vocation” stating, “If the State is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be”.  So when crowds disrupt public space, it immediately gives lie to the image that governments the world over, but specifically in autocratic states, attempt to portray: The image of an ordered, obedient, content society that is reverential to power and state public institutions.

Within Egypt, public protest had long been against the state and its institutions.  However, an intriguing change was experienced after the massive June 30th demonstrations that led to Morsi’s removal on July 3rd.

Nathan J Brown, Professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, elaborates, “What is unusual…is the way that key state actors–not only General al-Sisi and the military high command but also the previously disgraced security apparatus–have been able to position themselves on the winning side since June 30.  Indeed, whatever happened on June 30…it has been clear since July 3 that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it.”

In the aftermath of removing a president who had alienated a large proportion of Egyptians, the state and specifically the de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, were able to use their high approval ratings and appropriate public protest and demonstration for their own sake.

No longer was public protest, ipso facto, against the state, it was now a tool being wielded by the state.  This was nowhere made clearer than on July 26th when General al-Sisi called for a “mandate to deal with terrorism”.  The call was answered by the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the streets nationwide in support.  Previous governments had attempted similar calls of support, but the numbers al-Sisi garnered were unprecedented in this regard.

Any major demonstrations of dissent that followed were dominated by the Pro Muslim Brotherhood ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’, who had been effectively demonized as “terrorists”.  They were easily, and brutally, put down without any risk of sparking a national backlash.  Any group opposed to both the Army and the Brotherhood was outnumbered and drowned out by a dichotomised discourse that didn’t provide space for a ‘third choice’ – neither brotherhood nor army.

After approximately 1000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed on August 14-16th by Security forces, a state of emergency and curfew was put in place.  Unlike previous attempts at imposing a curfew, which were largely ignored, the following three months of curfew was largely adhered to.  One of the noisiest areas, Downtown Cairo, became a ghost town in the evenings, all the shops shut with only the headlights of the odd car seen breaking curfew.

As part of enforcing the curfew, Army APCs and tanks were placed strategically around the city, Tahrir Square especially well guarded.  Little in the way of opposition or uproar was voiced in response to the increased security presence, as it was interpreted as a necessary presence.  This could be seen as symbolic of the government’s successful reclamation of public space.

Not long after the military-backed interim government’s popular approval peaked (during the nationalistic October 6th War celebration) a draft of the new protest law was approved by the cabinet and placed under the review of interim President Adly Mansour.

When details of the law were exposed, it was met by a deluge of outrage and disapproval across the societal spectrum: salafists; April 6th Youth Movement; political figures; rights groups; youth revolutionary block; and even the Tamarod group – one of the Army’s main grassroots cheerleaders.  It seemed the army had overplayed their hand and overestimated their carte blanche support.

“Other people were looking after their own interests [before], but after this law, it’s affecting their interests too and violating everyone’s rights.  It’s amazing because what Sisi did has actually united the people.”  Says Deena Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Anti-Coup Alliance.  “[Sisi] has decided to determine the will of the people, even the ones who are with him, to close their mouths and to decide alone, so even Tamarod aren’t really allowed to speak.  People both with him and against him are not allowed to speak now.”

Despite the overwhelming criticism, the interim President went on to pass the law.  The details of the final draft its and heavy-handed application proved worrying enough to prompt the EU High Representative and the UN Secretary-General into voicing their concerns at the law and the events that immediately followed its implementation.

On November 26th, the day the anti-demonstration law went into effect, a protest was planned outside the Shura Council in Downtown Cairo.  Those participating were peaceful and relatively small in number, some 150 people; amassed in opposition to a long contentious aspect of the judiciary – namely the trying of civilians within military courts.

Within 30 minutes, riot police appeared on the opposite side of the street.  A policeman on a loudspeaker gave the protesters 5 minutes to disperse.  As soon as the time was up, they opened with water cannons before charging, beating and arresting any protesters who couldn’t get away fast enough.

Ironically, while arresting several dozen of the protesters, the police accidentally broke a stipulation of the new law they were so fervent in upholding.  Video footage emerged of men and women being harassed by plain-clothes policemen despite Article 11 of the law clearly stating [emphasis mine] “Security forces in official uniform should disperse protests, meetings or marches…”

Some 27 people sat in jail as a direct result, including high profile activists like Ahmed Abdurahman, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Maher.  With regards to those last three, official warrants of arrest were issued for them after the demonstration.  Their charges included: incitement to violence, rallying and “thuggery”, resisting authorities and violating the new protest law.

23 of those 27 have now been released on bail, but the other four remain in detention: Alaa and Abdurahman for the events by the Shura Council, Douma and Maher for events outside Abdeen.  Now the prosecutor general has referred Alaa and 24 other activists to the criminal court for breaking the protest law.

On hearing of his warrant, Alaa Abd El-Fattah (having already been detained under Mubarak, Tantawi and Morsi) released a statement saying “my ever imminent arrest is now a running joke in Egypt”.  Nevertheless, he indicated his intention to turn himself in on Saturday at noon but was not given the chance.

That Thursday, Alaa’s home was invaded by security services.  He and his wife were beaten, their laptops taken and Alaa arrested.  Having already made his intentions of turning himself in very clear, the actions of the security services appear somewhat punitive.

As the ire of the activist community and ‘Third Square’ (supporters of neither the Brotherhood nor the Military) groups increases against the incumbent powers, so do incidences of articles smearing them as sexual deviants, or inhuman (as demonstrated by an article titled “Human Rights? What Human?”)

Nevertheless, as more cases of injustice crop up, more people who affiliate with neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Army are making their voices heard.  In Alexandria 7 female minors were sent to juvenile detention while another 14 women were handed 11-year sentences (longer than many policemen convicting of killing civilians receive).  All for making a human chain and holding balloons sympathetic to Mohamed Morsi.  In the aftermath of disgust shown towards the verdict, the detainees had their sentences reduced to one suspended year.

After the first draft of the protest law, increasingly variegated factions of Egyptians are voicing concerns towards matters of injustice, corruption and reform.  They hint at a future where the theatre of the street and public spaces are once again a weapon wielded against the state and for reform, rather than for the state and the status quo.

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3rd Anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud St Clashes

First published on Vice November 21st here – all photos by Amanda Mustard (@mustardphoto)

The second anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes was a confusing day of demonstration. Hundreds gathered in Cairo Tuesday to pay tribute to protesters killed by riot police during a crackdown on the Egyptian revolution two years ago, but wanting to commemorate those who lost their lives was about as close to an overall common ground as it got. Demonstrators included people who support the army, people who support the Muslim Brotherhood and people who support neither and don’t want to be ruled by either a military junta or Islamists.

Thankfully, the scenes of the 19th of November, 2011 weren’t repeated, but small scuffles did break out near the Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square as pro-army groups exchanged verbal – and then physical – blows with their opponents. For the most part, it was a peaceful day of demonstrations dominated by the “third square” movement that opposes both the army and the Brotherhood.

In the build up to the day’s events, various groups released statements outlining their plans for the day. The pro-Brotherhood “Anti-Coup Alliance” made it clear that they had no intention of going anywhere near Mohamed Mahmoud Street or Tahrir Square, “so as not to give a chance to the conspirators to fabricate violent incidents and blame them on the [Anti-Coup Alliance]“. They kept their word and their protests were mostly confined to areas away from central downtown Cairo.

Overall, it was the incongruous plans of the pro-army groups that seemed to irk the majority of Egyptians. They called for mass demonstrations in remembrance of the martyrs killed in Mohamed Mahmoud, but also in support of the Interior Ministry, the police and the army. Ironically, it was the police who’d killed the martyrs being remembered, but I’m guessing the pro-army groups just chose to forget that minor detail.

A “coffin” of one of the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs

After the deaths of around 50 people in the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud crackdown, the Ministry of Interior released a statement condemning a “third party” in a vain attempt to shift the blame. In response to such a flagrant shot at rewriting history, the groups that identify themselves as the “Third Square” – a mix of Muslims, Christians, Islamists, moderates and secularists who reject both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule – called on their supporters to flock to Mohamed Mahmoud to remember those killed, while also opposing the pro-army groups.

Their work started the day before when a new Third Square group called “The Way of the Revolution Front” held a demonstration in Abdeen, not far from Tahrir Square. Speeches were given and video from the 2011 tragedy was shown on a screen. The mothers of those killed during the fighting also joined the group.

Afterwards, they ventured down Mohamed Mahmoud Street and into Tahrir Square, where a monument “in memory of those that died in the January 2011 and June 2012 revolutions” had just been erected. The monument didn’t go down particularly well. Considering it was built by the current government, many believe it taints the martyrs’ memory somewhat. Less than 12 hours after it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, it was being taken apart and sprayed with graffiti that read: “Down with those who betrayed us: Brotherhood; remnants of the old regime; and the Interior Ministry.”

A man who supports General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – the First Deputy Prime Minister, who led the coup against former President Morsi – watching from the periphery turned to me and whispered, “This is a disgrace, for the martyrs and all Egyptians. These dogs are not real Egyptians.”

On the anniversary itself, a rare criticism of the incredibly powerful army could be seen and heard throughout downtown Cairo. Until Tuesday, the pro-Brotherhood groups had a monopoly on anti-army chants and the pro-army groups dominated the anti-Brotherhood chants. Now, members of the Third Square were – almost in the same breath – chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood andthe army. “Down with military rule!” could be heard alongside calls against former President Mohamed Morsi.

It was noticeable that there wasn’t much of a security presence, especially given that the area is often inundated with police and armoured vehicles (APCs). Clearly aware that their presence would likely cause more problems that it would prevent, security forces had evacuated the area.

A take on the old chant of, “Aysh horreya, adala igtameya (bread, freedom, social justice)” was modified to, “Aysh, Horreya, Tutheer ad-Dakhleya (bread, freedom, purge the Interior Ministry)” in a special mention to the feeling that impunity is rife in the security forces. Mohamed Fatthi, a member of the Way of the Revolution Front, explained: “We won’t allow [pro-Sisi groups] to stain the memory. We want justice and the Interior Ministry needs serious reform before that will be possible.”

The entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud Street from Tahrir had a banner that read: “No entry – army, Brotherhood, remnants of the old regime.” Several coffins lay at the entrance to the street, symbolising those martyred two years ago.

The pink camofuflage graffiti lining the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud

Up on the wall was a large new piece of pink camouflage graffiti – an apparent slight against the armed forces and their supporters who’d intended to occupy the street. In Tahrir itself, there seemed to be a blend of allegiances happily mixing among one another. In fact, it was only clear from the signs they were carrying as to what their affiliations were, with some brandishing portraits of General Sisi and others wearing Third Square T-shirts.

An odd development of the various groups being among one another was the sudden influx of hand-signs depicting allegiances. Occasionally, the famous four-finger “Rabaa” hand sign – a symbol of remembrance to the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp – was held aloft, countered by the two-finger peace sign now claimed by pro-army Egyptians. Meanwhile, the Way of the Revolution Front and other Third Square groups were using the three-finger hand sign, showing an allegiance to neither the army nor the Brotherhood. The sheer amount of hand signs, all meaning representing opposition to each other, made the otherwise peaceful atmosphere slightly surreal.

However, the weirdest part of the day arrived after sunset. As well as being the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, the 19th of November was also the second leg of Egypt’s World Cup qualifying match against Ghana. They had lost the first leg 5-1, so needed to win by a five-goal margin in order to make it to the World Cup. That wasn’t exactly likely – but nevertheless, as soon as the match began on the screens set up around Tahrir, the hundreds of chanting demonstrators suddenly fell quiet, squeezing up against each other to watch the match. Egypt won 2-1, but failed to qualify.

After that, as though the preceding 90 minutes had never happened, the chanting continued and small clashes broke out by the Arab League building on the edge of Tahrir Square. For the first time that day, some tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd, a man was killed after being hit by birdshot and the back-and-forth between protesters and security was once again in motion.

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