Monday, June 14, 2010

Rule of boars

More blundering, crass stupidity from the police yesterday, as they responded to demonstrators protesting police violence with violence, again.

Some 150 people assembled in Lazoghly Square – home of a state security headquarters – at 5 p.m. This number quickly grew as protestors prevented from gathering outside the main gate of the Interior Ministry - as had originally been planned - converged on the square. They managed to circle the square twice before the police were able to get their shit together. The usual black cordon of cannon fodder was quickly formed and we were hermetically sealed in. We were well and truly kettled.

The Pig, Faltas, Sharshar and his brother arrived late and were prevented from approaching the protest by the cops. As it turned out they witnessed most of the violence, in the form of manhandling and punching and (goes without saying) arrests of some 36 peaceful protestors.

Inside the cordon meanwhile energy levels initially remained high. But then an hour, turned into two…turned into three…and eventually four. Sporadic arrests of people inside the cordon were made as the police’s long arm reached in and plucked people out, like a lizard entrapping a fly with its tongue.

More worryingly however the security cordon was gradually getting tighter, forcing the kind of sweaty intimacy with strangers one only really desires after dinner and a Tia Maria. Plus everyone stank. And there was no air. Someone took pity on us however and bottles of water were thrown in, while above us people watched the show from their balconies and rooftops.

Things got really hairy when the cops decided to crush us, on two separate occasions.

For some unknown reason a woman with a child of about 4 years old was in the middle of the crowd, so when the first crush started the tiny girl risked being pulverized underneath us. We attempted to shield her as best we could but the kid was terrified. She was standing right in front of a row of riot police, who could have lifted her above their heads into safety, but didn’t. She and her mother were allowed out afterwards. Afterwards I saw someone holding up a tiny flip-flop she had lost in the panic.

The second squeeze was worse. It followed the failure of negotiations between a state security officer, Hisham El-Iraqi and lawyer Khaled Ali, about letting protesters out of the cordon.

Ali insisted heatedly that protestors would not leave until everyone arrested during the protest was released. El-Iraqi looked at him with some disgust before holding up his hands, saying “bass..baaas keda” [roughly – “it’s like that is it?”] and buggering off.

I was sitting on the ground approximately 10 minutes later pondering the fact that I was sitting in the middle of a road outside a state security investigations headquarters and also the fact that I was starving when someone told me to get off the floor.
“Why?” I asked. “There are plain-clothed officers gathering outside,” she said.

Then I saw the riot police linking arms more securely and a strange sort of silence descended on the scene. It was eerie, like the space between someone hitting the brakes and the crash afterwards.

The next minute my feet were off the floor and Dr Moftases was doing the face he does when he’s driving and looking into the sun, which is not a good sign. I split my energies between breathing and staying on my feet while women screamed, and men shouted, Allaho akbar, Allaho akbar! [God is great, God is great!] and "betmawwetoona!" [You're killing us]

When the crush stopped protestors were left stunned. Everyone formed rows and linked arms while a senior riot police officer and then a state security officer walked along a sort of corridor they had formed between protestors and the riot police and surveyed us, while we stood in silence.

In the final hour as the sun set and birds flew merrily above our heads, tweeting (while we also tweeted below furiously) some of us engaged in conversation with bored members of the riot police before we were eventually let out in groups of three (and photographed by the police as we left).

One of the riot police asked Dr Moftases about his phone and that led on to the revelation that the soldier enjoys using the Internet, has Yahoo email, downloads songs but doesn’t look at news sites. The soldier seemed unusually willing to talk, and said that if he hadn’t been conscripted into the riot police he would be standing where we were standing.

- Why do you obey orders if you know we’re in the right? We asked.

- Because disobeying orders means 10 days in prison, he said.

The last time riot police revolted was in 1986, over threats that their term of service (3 years) would be extended. The miserable conditions in which they spend these 3 years still haven’t changed, and the soldiers we spoke to told us that while they sympathized with our cause, they also hadn’t had eaten all day and were fed up.

But not fed up enough to resist, just like Egyptian society as a whole has been pushed towards the edge for the past thirty years but never quite seems to get there, no matter what – even if the pace has quickened recently.

A huge factor in why the people who watched us from their balconies and the men who crushed protestors below refused to join them - despite their sympathy for the cause - is of course fear. Because the regime has turned the police into a mafia and the rule of law into a rod for our backs. It has stitched it up nicely.

Sidenote: Dr Moftases has discovered that when it comes to the cops, the police does very literally keep it in the family.

One of the police’s very best techniques for watering down the fury and intensity of the response to their actions is exactly what happened yesterday, and is evidenced by the fact that I have just written 945 words at you without once mentioning the words Khaled Mohamed Said.

That was the point of the protest yesterday. An expression of anger at the fact that the police have yet again destroyed another life, and will most likely get away with it because the rot which started (is that when it started? Or was it when it was consolidated?) in 1981 is now so far advanced, and so grave, that policemen feel secure enough to beat people to death in public, saving them the effort of taking them to the police station to do it.

But yesterday the focus was lost, slightly, and Khaled was buried under the arrests and the beatings – as happens every time. Distraction.

Meanwhile, as usual, the Interior Ministry are doing their very best to spoil Khaled’s good name, but I’m not entirely sure that they’re succeeding.

For the first time yesterday friends who have only a passing interest in current affairs and have never been to a protest came. I think, particularly, that it was brought home to young men of Khaled’s age that they are at risk no matter how much they steer clear of “trouble”. So perhaps something good will come out of Khaled’s murder, after all.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Are you shoura?

I experienced democracy National Democratic Party (NDP)-style today in Helwan, where I watched people arguing with the police during the Shoura bi-elections.

The governorate of Helwan is right next door to Cairo, but green where the capital is grey, empty where Cairo is teeming. Both suffer air pollution, but I think that Helwan’s must be worse; virtually everywhere you look is a chimney sending out nefarious-looking clouds of smoke. Helwan is famous for its industrial district and particularly its steel factory, the biggest in Africa I am told. The giant skulking insect of the factory’s machinery dominates the Helwan horizon as you approach from Cairo.

We arrived at the El-Rassas polling station at noon, just as the sun was at its highest. Men assembled around the voting station said that they’d been denied the right to vote by police officers who told them that since they did not have voting cards, they could not vote. For our benefit they went back and tried again. You can see what happens in the video below that I filmed, which makes up for what it lacks in sound with the moment when the policeman pins up the voting regulations on the wall.

The voting regulations clearly state that voters must have in their possession “the pink [actually referred to as red] voting cards”.

The voting regulations also clearly state that where a registered voter does not possess the bloody voting card (introduced this year) he may vote using any piece of ID.

The policeman proudly hung up the poster and then triumphantly pointed to the first paragraph. Disgruntled voters pointed to the second. But then the policeman played his joker card.

Deih el ta3limaat 3andina” [These are the orders we have]

Leaving El-Rassas we drove through Helwan’s hard, unkempt industrial countryside to a courthouse surrounded on one side by a huge heap of stinking rubbish and on the other around 150 angry men and 15 women denied the right to vote. Three small, dusty boys watched the proceedings silently.

Count it properly, count it properly, you’ll find that the result is Muslim Brotherhood (MB) protestors chanted, holding up images of the MB’s Shoura candidate, Ali Fath El-Bab.

As usual with the MB it was strictly organized and segregated, with only a minor brouhaha when someone from the courthouse wanted to close the gates resulting in the taking of umbrage by an MB member.

A cheerful man, Mostafa Mourad who my colleague Jon Jensen filmed in this video, told us, “There is no competition. We’re in competition with the police”.

He and another representative of a different independent candidate both said that they had been denied entry into polling stations in order to observe the election process, despite the fact that they had official accreditation allowing them to do this. The excuse this time was that it wasn’t stamped by the local security directorate.

Later that evening I went to a press conference about the elections given on the 27th floor of what is popularly known as the Television Building. It is the headquarters of the General Information Department, amongst other Orwellian organizations. The head of the General Information Department began the press conference.

He listed all the marvelous ways in which foreign journalists had been assisted by the General Information Department during their coverage of the elections, noting that in a limited number of cases journalists (including Daily News Egypt and The National, both of whom he mentioned) had been denied access to polling stations “because of a disturbance in these polling stations”. This was absolute codswallop. Jon spent twenty minutes trying to get into the polling station in question, and during that time there were no disturbances at all - because the polling station was empty.

Next up was the spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior, a man with a Poirot-esque moustache and gold rimmed glasses who described elections which might possibly have happened somewhere on the planet at some point. They certainly didn’t happen in Egypt on June 1 2010 - lots of MB candidates driving vehicles into polling stations and opening fire on police officers and smashing ballot boxes. None of these incidents – which were dealt swiftly and expertly by the police - undermined the probity of the elections, we were assured.

I had noticed as I entered the Television Building that there was an armed central security forces recruit standing on a sort of bridge overlooking the building’s lobby. This is in addition to the soldiers stationed outside of course. As I left, ruminating on the bullshit I had listened to for forty minutes, the weirdness of this regime again struck me. It is a psychotic librarian. With brutal exceptions, its oppression rarely has any flair or imagination. Like its figurehead, it is utterly uninteresting. It relies on administrative obfuscation and bewildering red tape. Or red voting cards. Or stupid, groundless court cases brought by regime lackeys. And while it does this it puts on press conferences given by men in sharp suits in front of backdrops with dynamic Italic lettering surrounded by majestic views of faraway Cairo.

The worst thing is that it is too stupid, or too complacent, to tie up the ends properly. But that’s ok because its footsoldiers on the ground, when confronted with the inconsistencies can always fall back on the old favourite: ta3lemaat. Instructions.