Sunday, May 30, 2010

Old Egypt

ElBaradei went on walkabout again today, and I went too.

It was Old Cairo that was buffeted with change this time. I descended from the taxi, underfed and underslept to be immediately bellowed at, in English, by a gentleman demanding to know whether I was the girl in the taxi with a camera asking about Old Cairo. I wasn't. I was then apprehended by a man who talked at me about the importance of a memorial to Egypt’s prisoners of war for 10 minutes, including stomach-churning details about bones being carried off by dogs.

On the subject of bones being carried off by dogs, the media scrum was much smaller today than it was during the Dr’s previous appearances. There were notably fewer TV crews, for example. I wondered whether this was the first sign of rust on the shiny change bandwagon.

ElBadz and his (windsurfing) brother Ali arrived and off we all went. The procession was silent as it blundered its way down Mar Girgis street (is that its name?), photographers sending startled tourists flying as they scrambled all over the shop for the ElBaradei money shot.

Call me crazy, but I thought that since it had been advertised on the website, and since ElBaradei was surrounded by about 40 supporters, and since it took place at 10.30 a.m. as opposed to say 1 p.m. (leaving journos plenty of time to write and file our copy while not requiring that we get up too early), the visit might, possibly, have something to do with politics. I threw caution to the wind and tried to ask the doctor a question.

“Hello, Dr Mohamed I’m Sarah from Daily News Egypt,” I said putting out my hand.

He ignored the hand.

“May I ask you a quick question?” I asked.

“No”, was the resolute answer. “Not now”.

Maybe I looked like I had just found out that my husband had been cheating on me with a chair leg, because Nice Guy Ali ElBaradei smiled and said “not now ha ha” in a kindly way.

“This is a personal visit,” Meanie Mohamed said over his shoulder, as he and his supporters marched onwards in their matching T-shirts.

Monsieur Le Change

So that was that. I and other journalists were left wondering what the point of the exercise was, while tourists just wondered who the bloody hell the man at the eye of the camera storm was. I heard “president” said in at least three languages by tour guides during the explanation.

A weird incident happened on the way to the synagogue. A girl was lying on the ground, her foot bleeding. She appeared to be mentally disabled. Suddenly a Coptic monk and a photographer were wrestling over the photographer’s camera, the photographer protesting “wallahy masawwartaha” [honest to god I didn’t photographer her]. The monk was having none of it, and eventually ripped the lens off the camera. The photographer got it back in the end but it was all very bizarre.

There was more walking after that, a spot of light chanting, before everyone went home.

There’s something wrong with the ElBaradei campaign for change, or maybe it’s just that the excitement his initial return generated has fizzled out.

While I think it’s slightly duplicitous (for the reasons listed above) of ElBadz to suggest that his visit today was of a “personal” nature (i.e. media piss off) he isn’t under any obligation to talk to journos if he thinks that this will convince the world that the purpose of today’s exercise was about reaching out to the people. This would have been more convincing however if he had elected to go to an area whose population is not 50% tourist.

Monday, May 24, 2010

House rules

On Saturday morning I had to get up early to cover the first session of the trial of lawyers Ahmed Seif and Gamal Eid and geek Amr Gharbeia, who are being targeted by that bloody ctrl+c judge. Again.

While we waited, a group of us discussed the protests and sit-ins that have been taking place outside parliament for months. Having woken up at 8 a.m. and left the house without breakfast cos of the dodgy alarm on my fucking mobile phone (which refuses to be stolen or confiscated or fall down the toilet or be sold) I was feeling unusually curmudgeon. Alas my interlocutors were subjected to me setting out my stall and forcefully selling my theory that the government has allowed the parliament protests to happen – while forcefully cracking down on other types of demonstrations - because they serve its purposes.

This theory is based on the following:

- The protests and sit-ins have been allowed to happen, which in itself, in Egypt, is evidence of regime approval

- Al Ahram has written sympathetically about the protests at least three times. A change in editorial staff is not enough to explain this radical change in policy from a state mouthpiece.

- When regime stalwart Ahmed Ezz made his appearance on CNN he mentioned the protests, saying something along the lines of “every morning when I go to my parliamentary office I pass the protests” i.e. Egypt is a blooming oasis of free speech and democracy

- The protests are easy to contain and the permanent sit-ins are (to my knowledge) all protesting for economic – rather than the more “combative” political – demands

Twenty-four hours later I was standing in Qasr El-Aini street talking to a worker from the Amonsito company who was rolling his shirt up to show the marks left on his chest and arms by a policeman’s blows. Negotiations about workers’ demands between the government, state-controlled trade union and Amonsito employees failed. Workers left the People’s Assembly where the negotiations had been taking place and security forces attacked soon afterwards. Eight arrests were made and three workers were injured.

Lovely Dr Moftases talked to workers about the injuries they received and the fantastic Philip Rizk was filming the worker who showed us his injuries when a particularly obnoxious police officer, in his early 20s and his summer whites, who has clearly just graduated from the Police Academy, appeared and interrupted the filming. You can see him at the very end of this video. The usual bullshit ensued. We were instructed to produce press IDs before our mobile phones were taken from us.

“They were filming police officers,” the eager young policeman whined to a plain-clothed officer. “No we weren’t”, we said.

The phones – including that of Moftases who wasn’t bloody filming anything – were taken to another, more superior, police officer, with a deep tan and piercing blue eyes and the general feel of someone who doesn’t deal straight. He and Moftases wrestled, literally, over his phone for a bit like rugby-playing schoolboys, before Moftases relented. Meanwhile two policeman deleted all the images and videos on my phone. They did the same to Moftases and I think to Philip. They tore a page out of Moftases’ notepad on which he had written details about one worker’s injuries.

Later that evening they did to the protests outside parliament what they did to our mobiles, wiping out the demonstrations and threatening anyone who refused to leave with arrest.

As usual, I’m left trying to identify a logic in security bodies’ actions when perhaps there is none. Did Amonsito workers get too loud? Is Mubarak expecting an important visitor from abroad? Was this just another attempt to wrongfoot us, the troublesome public? I can’t help but wonder what they’re planning, what changed, why suddenly the demonstrations stopped being a pretext to boast about public freedoms and became a hindrance.

But ultimately what’s the point of analysis when a police officer, on the subject of our shooting a mobile phone video in what is supposedly a public street without their permission, said to Moftases, “feih 7ad bey3mel keda? Elly dakhel bayt yesta2zen el awwel” [it’s not polite to do that. People entering others’ houses should ask permission first].