Saturday, November 27, 2010

War and worship

As we drove into Omraneya yesterday, Sharshar joked that as soon as enters areas filled with Toc-Tocs, he feels that he is no longer under the authority of the Egyptian state. Two events this week proved how wrong he is, and how right.

156 young men were issued 15-day detention orders on Thursday for charges ranging from failure to produce personal identification to attempted murder. They were taken at various points on Wednesday, during demonstrations against an order to stop the construction of a church in the area. The state responded with its usual light-handed approach: teargas, bullets and mass arrests. Two men died, 19-year-old Makarios was pronounced dead on arrival in hospital. Mikhail died at midnight on Friday night according to the Al-Ahram newspaper.

Omraneya reminded me of nearby Mounib and Imbaba where I went Friday evening. In both, entering feels like going into a maze whose pathways gradually become narrower and less well defined. There is a feeling of being sucked into these places, over and under bridges, and above all a sensation that they are cut off and contained, by natural boundaries of foul-smelling canals and rivers, and manmade obstacles, usually over-arching, monolithic flyovers. These are the original gated communities.

The flyover next to Omraneya is the Cairo ring road, a highway that, amongst other places, takes its users to the luxury Carrefour shopping complex, international schools and expensive housing developments. When demonstrators from areas such as Omraneya rise up (quite literally) and block the ring road – and such incidents are not infrequent – the act is hugely symbolic. Car-owning commuting middle-class Cairenes are confronted with an explosion from the under(neath) world. And, temporarily, it is the latter who hold power.

This isn’t surprising given the amount of living that goes on outdoors in Egypt. I don’t want to pronounce on whether this is unusual or not, because I haven’t travelled enough to say whether it is or isn’t, but on the October bridge Friday night I saw two weddings, umpteen number of courting couples and, best of all, a young man standing on the back of a parked pick-up truck dancing with assured abandon the hip-rolling dance of Shaaby music. Earlier on in the evening I saw a man drink Turkish coffee out of a pristine china cup in the middle of mechanics’ detritus and rubbish and the general heave ho of humanity on a main road. It’s not an original point, but life, including the mundane and the mad, happens most vividly on Cairo’s pulsing arteries.

But permanent control of public space is something else. And sometimes even private space isn’t private, as Omraneya’s Copts discovered. And the arbitrating factors in all this are almost always money and influence. Which are the same thing.

When we asked a man for directions to the Marmina Church in Omraneya he said “turn right down the street which has tarmac”. Tarmac is a landmark in this warren of alleys of jaw-juddering surfaces. Further inside, and as we entered an area where two churches lie in close proximity, the demographics changed perceptibly. Virtually every shop displayed pictures of saints or popes or Jesus, the Muslim veil disappeared and on one street strung between houses was a giant picture of Mary. This isn’t remarkable but the sudden change struck me nonetheless.

The Marmina church was filled with agitated people. We were hustled inside by a man who seemed particularly nervous and, after asking the permission of a priest, he allowed us to speak to people about Wednesday’s events.

It was the usual heartbreaking tale of disappeared sons, fathers and husbands. When we arrived relatives had either not spoken to detained for 24 hours or received a fleeting phone call (policemen or other prisoners /paid can be bribed into letting detainees use their mobiles) from their loved ones informing them that they were being held in a place called Kilo Ashara we Noss. There were allegations of mistreatment in police custody. Lawyers had been prevented from representing the detainees during public prosecution office interrogations.

The charges levelled against the detainees by the police are almost identical to the crimes of which some of the Mahalla 49 were convicted after the events of April 6 2008: disturbing public order and security; deliberate destruction of property, illegal assembly, violent resistance and assault of police officers, illegal possession of weapons…In both demonstrations protestors who had come together spontaneously were put down by the security forces. There are pictures from both demonstrations of protestors throwing stones and Molotov Cocktails. In both demonstrations it is alleged that security forces used force first. In both demonstrations people were shot dead.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry in its obtuseness seems unable to comprehend that even if its officers do not regard shooting protestors dead as an egregious violation of the most basic tenets of human rights it is always a stupid mothafucking thing to do in publicity terms and particularly so four days before the elections.

You can see one relative talking here about her husband who was among those taken.

She also questions why the government has been so quick to stop the construction of a church when “there are a million mosques in Egypt”. The background to this is that there are wildly differing rules governing the construction of churches to those that regulate mosque construction. Owners of the Omraneya church are accused of “illegally” converting a non-religious building into a place of worship.

The government has yet to pass a unified law despite years of lobbying by rights groups, presumably because it fears a backlash from religious conservatives. Instead, it addresses these incidents by suggesting that a “hidden foreign hand” is at work trying to undermine the tightly knit fabric of Egyptian society. On this occasion minister Mostafa El-Feqy put the blame on Mossad. I hope he has been administered his pills and been taken for a lie down in a darkened room.

The regime’s response rang particularly hollow this time because unlike previous incidents of sectarian tension this was not Muslim vs. Christian. None of the people I spoke to suggested that their Muslim neighbours had been involved. Rather, it was the usual state vs. the people, sense vs. stupidity, power vs. the powerless.

Crucially, Omraneya as a whole is in informal area whose buildings were constructed without planning permission. The crackdown on the church understandably therefore raises allegations that the (unfair) law only applies to Copts.

There was a very different atmosphere at a “Day of Anger” march against police brutality I covered yesterday in Imbaba. The whole event had been kept top secret, ElBaradei organiser Abdel-Rahman Youssef refusing to disclose exactly where we were going even while we were en route, in a convoy. When we arrived I understood why.

Turning off the ring road we found ourselves in an area with a shockingly unmade road, and proceeded at 10 mph down a main street until we all parked and met other waiting activists. Once assembled, protestors produced whistles and pots and pans that they banged together producing a din matched only by the sound of collective jaws dropping around them. They produced anti-torture posters, of Khaled Said and Ahmed Shaaban, and then began marching and distributing whistles and flags to delighted children who skipped amongst them.

The whole thing was incredibly tense since as it grew bigger the demo blocked traffic. I expected the law to swoop down immediately but for over half an hour the circus went on, watched by bemused and confused residents and shopkeepers (I overheard people asking if the demo was an election rally, or a wedding). It was only after protestors had rapidly dispersed that three people, including an Al Masry Al Youm cameraman were arrested and briefly detained in Imbaba police station.

The lack of police response puzzled me. Careful planning may be one explanation but an important factor is that Imbaba is a working class area, access to which is difficult for large police trucks and where the police presence is less visible than say, downtown (although a network of police informants operates there as was obvious by the end of the demonstration).

Maybe there is something in Sharshar’s theory of Toc-Tocs and independent rule. Maybe these areas don’t interest the government because they are not usually centres of political mobilisation other than that of the Muslim Brotherhood (I’m basing this on the number of reports of political activity which come out of these areas).

The ordinary criminal investigations police have an interest in these areas as a source of young men who can be abused or tortured, either in order to make them confess to crimes they did not commit or for fun, or who can be hired as thugs to be used during protests, or hustled into polling stations on election days for money. Otherwise the physical evidence that government has forgotten, or is ignoring, or doesn’t know what to do with these areas is everywhere, from the unmade ground to the roofs of the unplanned and illegally built buildings which every now and then collapse, killing their occupants. Maybe there is a measure of freedom in the state’s absence, given the cruelty of what it does when it remembers.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Election (cam)pains

I had my first taste of Egyptian election coverage today, and it was foul.

I went to Shubra El-Kheima in north Cairo (although officially it’s in the governorate of El-Qalyoubeya, which should have been a warning – more about that later), a sprawling industrial district of 5.5 million people. 

The metro station consists of a series of elevated pedestrian bridges one side of which is a busy dual carriageway and on the other a mess of market stalls and narrow streets and marauding tok toks, all covered in a haze of pollution and kebab smog.

The market side opens up into a bus station of sorts that then becomes a major road of chaos, startling even by Cairo’s standards. We entered a tall building which houses the clinic of Dr. Mohamed El-Beltagy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (and deputy leader of the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc) who is also the incumbent MP for Shubra El-Kheima.

The clinic’s waiting room walls are lined with a map of Palestine and framed photographs of Beltagy, mostly of him speaking in conferences. One was of him with George Galloway. Another was completely out of focus. Above a desk in the clinic was a sign saying that receipts are not available no matter what the amount paid. A big ferris wheel is visible out of the waiting room window.

El-Beltagy himself was not there, having already hit the campaign trail, and his aides ferried us in two cars to the village of Meet Nima, some fifteen minutes and 100 years away from central Cairo.

We arrived to find El-Beltagy and supporters parading down a main street to the accompaniment of chants blaring out of a portable speaker thrust aloft a man’s shoulder. Laminated banners of El-Beltagy bobbed up and down above a crowd of youths and men. 

This being a Brotherhood affair organisation was tight and conducted by men in suits who directed marchers through Meet Nima’s narrow, unmade streets. El-Beltagy meeted and greeted in that way that politicians do, all teeth and pumping arms. In between these islands of people the march continued through desolate alleys of mud and buildings that looked unfinished but maybe were finished. The chanting died down at this point because only crickets and cats were listening and El-Beltagy put his teeth away and conferred with the suits.

At one café a man seemed intensely irritated by El-Beltagy’s presence. I asked him what he thought of El-Beltagy and he said that he hasn’t seen him once in the five years he’s been MP for the area, and that he hasn’t done anything for it either. At this point I was politely encouraged to move on by an El-Beltagy aide.

A journo friend with me said that she was told that El-Beltagy provides free health care to constituents. I wasn’t able to establish this. Another resident told me that El-Beltagy campaigns vigorously on their behalf but that since spending decisions concerning infrastructure problems etc are taken above, nothing gets done.

At this point I got a phone call saying that there was a problem, two of my colleagues were being detained in a National Democratic Party building. It subsequently transpired that they had gone to interview participants in an NDP counter-demonstration and then found themselves forced against their will to remain in an office, in what was apparently an NDP building, or a building connected to NDP candidate (Megahed Nassar), one of four NDP candidates standing for election in Shubra El-Kheima. The NDP is no stranger to locking journalists up but usually in police stations and/or after a legal process, so this was slightly unusual.

My colleague’s camera was stolen by a man who entered the office and took his bag*. I told Dr Mohamed about what was going on and he said he would put lawyers on the case, but sometime later my colleagues were allowed to leave the building.

The march had ended at this point and two journalists I was with decided to go home while me and someone else planned to go to where my colleagues were waiting. An El-Beltagy campaign aide insisted that he would accompany us, in a tok tok. But there weren’t any, so as he mounted a motorbike which had appeared from nowhere he said he would go and bring them to us in a car. He got onto the back of the motorbike and buggered off, and I can still see his silhouette waving bye.

Two minutes later a man in jeans and dress shoes appeared and began asking bystanders waiting for tok toks if they were “with them” - i.e. us – before shooing them away and I realised that it was our friends from state security investigations. We were told to go down the road to where the two journalists who had attempted to go home had been stopped while in a taxi and been detained.

The usual bullshit then began. We were asked who we were and why we were in Qalyoubeya by the top guy who relayed all this information to “el basha” through his mobile while surrounded by around six men. He told us that we needed to permits to cover the elections (even though the permits we are required to secure only apply to November 28th, the day of elections itself) and that we should have “passed by” them before starting our work. 

There were protestations about the fact that we do not actually need permits to work, which were rejected. All this was delivered in the tone particular to Egyptian state security officers, obnoxious bar flirt meets psychopath. I’m sure they receive formal training in it because the patter is always identical. Alternatively, maybe they are just sent to hang out in South London nightclubs on Friday nights. 

As usual it took approximately 287 years for them to establish that I am a foreigner who is also Egyptian. What was weird though was that I was asked my name and I pointed out that the officer asking me this had my press card in his hand and it bore this information. He said “yes but I’m asking you”. Didn’t understand exactly what they were testing here.

The names of my colleagues’ foreign publications proved even more of a challenge but we got there in the end while all the time our names were being run through their big database of Miscreants and Threats to the Security of the Nation. We were then given another tedious lecture about permits and the importance of “reporting to the local police station so that police can protect you” before covering anything, before being allowed to go in a taxi they flagged down approximately 30 minutes later.

The lessons from all this is:

- I really should never return to Qalyoubeya, or at least not for journalistic purposes. We were stopped in an area very close to where Philip Rizk was kidnapped

- Don’t rely on political figures to help you out in practical ways - i.e. not leg it and leave you - if there’s no political capital in it.

- The regime will make it as hard as possible for journalists to describe the processes by which it has ensured that the results of the upcoming elections have already been decided. Darkness lies ahead.
* I got a phone call at 1 a.m. saying that the bag had been "recovered by the MB". 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Spongebob Tearpants

It struck me yesterday as I watched on television young people destroying Tory Party HQ that Margaret Thatcher is almost exactly the same age as Hosny Mubarak, was elected prime minister only two years before Hosny took the throne and inspires equal levels of vitriol. Imagine if she was still in power 30 years later.

A journalist who has done a series on “Generation Mubarak” (in German. Google translate doesn't bugger it up too much) was at a protest I went to today at Cairo University. There weren’t many Generation Mubaraks there however, and in total not more than 100 activists demanding that the government respect a recent court decision and remove interior ministry security officers from Cairo University, which they have in their grip much in the way they have the rest of the country by the scruff of the neck.

The interior ministry didn’t get the memo about casual dress however and arrived in full riot gear, approximately 150 soldiers on active standby opposite the university and more hidden away in thirty trucks.

How fierce they looked, stacked up all in black with their guns and their helmets, lined up against the green mobile fortresses behind them. Impenetrable and unvanquished.

(As I was going home I went behind the line of trucks and saw a small group of the soldiers sitting on the ground, thin without their bullet-proof armour, tearing into bits of bread on which they smeared bits of cheese, or halawa. These conscripted souls are Generation Mubaraks, too).

One of the state security officers policing the protest was unusually fat. I remember him because he proved to be particularly unpleasant during a protest outside the Kuwaiti Embassy earlier this year. He likes to buffet people around with his very loud voice. He attempted to do so to a man who stopped opposite the protest and watch. The man turned out to be a Cairo University professor, with time to spare between lectures and unwilling to take any of his shit. He stood his ground and I thrust a voice recorder in his face. (Too knackered to translate. If a kind soul wishes to do so, please be my guest. And feel feel to correct Arabic spelling mistakes).

‎أنا بأتمشى كدا قدام جامعتي ‫و كليتي و بأشوف آية المظاهرة دي و موضوعها أيه لأن هي لفتت نظري و أنا عندي ساعة، ساعة و نصف فاضي من المحاضرات‬
‎‫جاي واقف هنا شوية‬
‎‫على جانب‬
‎‫فهو قاللي انت بتلف كدا‬
‎‫عاوز تعمل دور‬
‎‫داخل بيبحث عن نيتي‬
‎‫بيعاقبني قبل ما أعمل الدور‬
‎‫أنا راجل واقف‬
‎‫زي ما هو واقف‬
‎‫يقوللي ممنوع الوقوف‬
‎‫هو كل حاجة في الدنيا بقت ممنوع؟‬
‎‫آية ممنوع الدخول و ممنوع البص و ممنوع التعليق و ممنوع الكلام و ممنوع الكل حاجة‬
‎‫ده سيايته و هو مكلف بهذا‬

Later the fat policeman attempted to push Aida Seif El-Dawla around with his voice but he picked the wrong person to mess with.

Aida asked him something along the lines of, “do you people not respect court rulings?”

“No,” he said, laughing.

He laughed later on, too, when a fellow journalist who I promised I would not out on this blog had an unfortunate trouser disaster in the buttocks area caused during horse riding (!) the previous evening.

“I know this is a weird question but would you mind looking at my backside?” the journalist said, and suddenly things were looking up. But actually I was looking down, at a large tear in his pantalon revealing some very upper thigh.

I confirmed that all was not well on the ranch and together we attempted to think of a solution. Being a professional he couldn’t just bugger off, but at the same time Egypt has enough problems without international correspondents wandering around exposing themselves to students. (Although this hasn’t stopped a certain gifted Guardian writer, ho ho. Only joking, Jack!).

Suddenly my eye fell upon a Kefaya sticker.

There is a use for this group yet, I thought. Lacking alternatives the journalist went for the idea and, while ensuring that Abdel-Halim Qandeel wasn’t looking, I procured a sticker and Kefaya suffered possibly its most ignominious trial yet.

Alas said journalist returned some time later and reported that his buttocks were rejecting popular resistance. By this point the trouser issue had become something of a talking point amongst demonstrators and fat security officers, and a protestor who made no effort to suppress his guffaws kindly presented my journalist friend with a safety pin. That too proved unsuccessful and for the rest of the afternoon my journalist friend walked around valiantly, if rather strained-looking.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

His Story

I had a day of history today at one and a half exhibitions.

1. Men 2aglak anta you ungrateful shit

The first was called “Achievements of President Mohamed Hosny Mubarak” (sub-caption: “He promised. And he delivered”. Like Cook Door) and was held at the premises of the Ministry of Social Development, a large expanse of space ruined by that blancmange type of characterless architecture which might also be included under the list of Mubarak’s achievements.

When we arrived a car park attendant confirmed that the exhibition was indeed on but that the exhibitors were packing up. Strange we thought, since the exhibit was advertised as running for three whole days, but pressed on anyway.

Arriving (at around 1 p.m.) at the door we saw flags being folded up, plants being carried away, display stands being dissembled. In short, all the signs of people wanting to leg it and start the weekend. Still there were some achievements left, visible by carefully avoiding bits of wood with nails sticking out of them and other construction debris.

The first exhibit consisted of pictures of Hosny, BFF Safwat El-Sherif, and boy king Gamal (at a post office counter in a casual shirt, perhaps inquiring about his stamps) surrounded by endless and dull text about the many achievements the National Democratic Party has realized under Hosny’s wise stewardship. It was a powerpoint presentation without the power. I had my picture taken with Safwat above my head, like a sinister hat. Moftases gave Hosny’s extended hand a high 5…etc.

Mounting a gynormous escalator we were conveyed upstairs where a live concert of Mohamed Tharwat singing “We Chose Him” for the president greeted us on a big screen. The concert dated approximately from 1991; Suzie had shoulder pads and Hosny’s jowls were still following orders. It turned out to be an exhibit by the Ministry of State Information. Two bored middle-aged employees watched the screen as a never-ending stream of people in cruise-style oriental fancy dress floated past, shook the royal hand and shared a quick laugh.

Most of the exhibits had gone by the time we arrived or were in the process of leaving. They were mostly arranged by governorate and ministry.

Ismailia had loads of pictures of Hosny. El-Wady El-Gedeed had dates. Minia had crystal. The Ministry of Agriculture had wool and handwritten informational posters.

Interestingly there was also a selection of pharonic artifact reproductions accompanied by a sign headed “Egypt’s Wish List”, like on Amazon. Underneath it were pictures of all the gear that foreigners have nicked and which Egypt wants back. Strictly speaking the failure to recover stolen items is not an achievement but in the context quibbling about this point felt like upbraiding a serial killer for swearing in public.

Downstairs there was a slightly interesting travel section about the 3rd Metro line (which will allegedly be completely finished in 2012) and the railways (which claimed that over 30 train stations have been renovated). This being Mubarak’s Egypt, there was an exhibit about a complicated spaghetti junction type flyover resembling innards, in Malawi, Minya.

For no apparent reason there was also a booth by Jaguar the car manufacturers. Achievement by proxy, perhaps, or is Hosny. The people manning the booth had buggered off by this point, obviously, so we couldn’t ask why it was there.

We left, none the wiser as to Mubarak’s achievements but armed with illuminating literature. One booklet listed all the “achievements” Alexandria has witnessed under governor Adel Labib, including basic infrastructural obligations such as installing a sewage system in Agamy and developing Alexandria’s streets.

Not yet completely sickened by seeing images of the president everywhere we then went up the road to the Panorama 1973 War Exhibit, a rotunda building whose sole purpose seems to be to ensure that visitors leave knowing less about the war than they did when they entered.

2. We’re off to Button Moon

Surrounding the rotunda is a pleasant garden filled with military craft replicas and parties of visiting school and college kids. There is a mural donated by North Korea.

Almost immediately upon entering one is confronted with the “souvenir” shop, consisting of miniature flags, Al-Ahly football club insignia and postcards of an assortment of personages including a wrestler I did not recognise and, appallingly, that army-draft dodging Michael Jackson-impersonating item popularly known as Tamer Hosny.

We were almost immediately ushered onwards by an officious man with a walkie-talkie who informed us that the “show was about to start”. Rounding the corner I was delighted to see full size tanks, and that a crowd of excited young girls in fluorescent colours were assembled on top of it, meaning that I could clamber all over it as well, and I did.

We were then shooed into the rotunda through a hall lined with a last supper type image of Hosny et al at a table doing war, as well as a sign on a door saying القائد COMMANDANT which I wanted to nick.

I couldn’t believe that they weren’t taking the piss with the first show. We parked our arses in a cinema type room, along with a party of college students, it all went black and then a loud voice started holding forth in modern standard Arabic. In front of us were some curtains. These then went back to reveal a miniature war landscape made out of papier mache. The voice boomed on and then stuff lit up and little model planes flew and tanks on sticks tanked and rockets rocketed in a frankly primary school project fashion which reminded me of this:

In fact Moftases and I buggered off early and attempted to go upstairs to the panorama exhibit which we had been told is where the real money is. Alas however the Panorama works on a strict conveyor-belt type system and we were informed that there was yet another show to sit through before we could ascend to the heavens. We had a look inside the cinema and it was yet more grim papier mache. Being extremely bloody hungry, but yet not hungry enough to eat a display of the 1973 war, we avoided the enthusiastic attendants and ate some Pot Noodles sold outside, but were foiled in that by the omnipresent officious man with the walkie-talkie who told us that we had FOUR MINUTES to eat before our party would go upstairs to the panorama. Then he stared at us and pursed his lips until we could stand it no longer and fled.

Inside we were given the rock star treatment and allowed to use the LIFT, (only cos there was noone else around) and we arrived in the darkest mothafucking place I have ever been in since I left the womb. Now I can truly empathise with the Chilean miners. The attendant advised us to sit in the middle (“the VIP seats”) and I experienced a mixture of emotions as I groped my way through the pitch blackness to a seat which a certain high echelon governmental posterior might have once graced.

The college party eventually arrived and sat down and then the bloody thing started to spin as we stared at an enormous scene of fighting in the 1973 war painted on the walls of the rotunda which then turned into a recreation using replica objects, creating a sort of 3D effect. I mean it was well done and everything but after about 5 minutes I started wishing they would either speed the spinning up that we could leg it without being apprehended by the bloody attendants. Particularly given that mix of the booming narration and nationalist songs was singularly uninformative.

In the event we stayed until the end when the booming voice stopped and we were plunged back into darkness like someone had accidentally pulled out the plug. Everyone filed out and went downstairs.

I didn’t expect to see any critical examination of the war but I didn’t expect it to be that chest-thumpingly bad. The worst bit however is that as usual the role of the men who actually fought the war – the men who died - is given only a fleeting reference. The big brass gets all the limelight. And everyone who sacrificed something for that war deserves a better tribute than the Panorama.

P.S. I forgot my camera in Moftases' car and will add photos once I retrieve it. Now go about your business in a state of unbearable excitement until I do.