Saturday, April 18, 2009

Metro and marriage

The Egyptian legal system hasn't been at its best this week. On Wednesday 19 year-old Mahmoud El-Esawy was found guilty of a double-murder and sentenced to death. The case is high-profile because one of the victims was a the daughter of a well-known singer, and the heat the police knew they would get if they didn't find the perpetrator seems to have spurred them to either:

a. carry out a remarkably fast and efficient investigation, or

b. stitch up some poor bastard who doesn't have the connections to buy himself out.

I know which option I'd bet my mother on, if this tragic video is anything to go by. For non Arabic-speakers, El-Esawy was taken to the villa where the murder took place and filmed by the police while he "explained" how he carried out the crime. This unedited version was leaked by a newspaper. El-Esawy is clearly being coached as to what to say, but the most telling part is when – after El-Esawy doesn't perform as required - the agitated, offscreen voice says ya Mahmoud, hatsa7sa7 wala a7'lly 7ad yesa7sa7ak? [Mahmoud, are you going to wake up or shall I make someone wake you up?]

I don't understand why this video, plus the fact that the only thing linking El-Esawy to the crime is a blood-stained vest which he says doesn't belong to him, wasn't enough to make the court dismiss the charges.

Speaking of obscenity, today I spent the morning in Abdeen Court, where the author of a graphic novel and the individual who published it are standing trial for “infringing public morals”. The graphic novel in question, Metro, has a couple of illustrations showing the characters – cover your eyes, ladies – copulating under a blanket. While the comic's presentation of the grim realities of Egyptian society isn't exactly kosher in National Democratic Party terms, it doesn't say anything which hasn't already been said before, either. The backstory to this is that the publisher, Mohamed El-Sharqawy, has done bird previously for his political activity, before his reincarnation as a bookseller, and this would seem to be about settling old scores.

Abdeen court is currently in the process of being renovated, and the courtroom the case was heard in was all shining marble and clean walls. The carcass of half a fan was nonetheless inexplicably strewn to the right of the judge's bench, underneath a desk, together with other assorted crap.

The judge himself has a very good, sonorous voice, which he used almost immediately we went into the courtroom to tell Sharqawy off for talking. I meanwhile spent the court session in battle with a copper who spent the entire time telling people to put away their (silent) mobile phones or in my case a voice recorder, which was also apparently contraband. When not doing this, we fought over the 30 cm square area of land I was allowed to stand in.

The wonderful Sonallah Ibrahim gave testimony today, as did Ahmed El-Labbad, a graphic novel artist. Ibrahim and El-Labbad were asked a series of inane questions about whether they found the two scenes in question offensive, and about the criteria separating a graphic novel from porn. It was all so ridiculous, I waited for the judge to stop at any moment and announce, “right this is clearly a load of old bollocks. Sharqawy, gentlemen, get your coats and let's all go for a round of mini-golf.”

But there we are, in Egypt reality really is stranger than fiction, and fiction depicting reality is wrong, and you'll never believe this but on the way home from court a bloke I had never met before proposed to me.

I heard a cheery saba7 el-foll! [top of the morning!] and looked over to see a spritely-looking gentleman of around 70 in a sharp suit sitting on a chair. I waved. He beckoned me over with his baton sale [breadstick]. I went over , established that his name was Farouq and that he is the proprietor of a furniture store before he got straight down to business.

“Te2o3dy fe masr we tetgawwezeeny?” [How about settling in Egypt and marrying me?] he said, while waving his baton sale at me.

Mana already 2a3da fe masr” [I already live in Egypt]

Tayyeb! Tetgawwezeeny ba2a!” [OK! Marry me then!]

After rebuffing repeated gentlemanly offers of tea and marriage I left. Neharek sa3eed! [Good day! – a charming and now virtually obsolete greeting from another age] he called after me.

Farouq, the future Mr Scarr

Monday, April 06, 2009

April 6, again.

Confirmation that the 6 April Youth Movement's “Day of Anger” was a day of nothing very much at all came when I found myself photographing my own face to see what a friend's sunglasses looked like, through sheer boredom.

The day “started” at noon, when I went to the headquarters of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions and found its entrance surrounded by shifty-looking types in jeans and shirts, moustaches in suits clutching walkie-talkies, and not a protestor to be seen. As soon as I arrived this state security man, Hisham El-Iraqi, greeted me with a cheery saba7 el fol [good morning] before urging me to shove off in a extremely gentlemanly manner because, “there won't be anything here today”.

I crossed the street and stood with the other five journos who had also been shooed away, about 50 metres distance from the Federation. It wasn't long before El-Iraqi and pals descended on us in all their Police-sunglassed glory and the “persuasion” began again. “Between you and me, nobody will be allowed to protest today,” El-Iraqi said. “You mean just here or anywhere in Cairo?” I asked. “Anywhere,” he replied. “The only place where a demonstration will take place is the Journalists' Syndicate”.

(Journalists' Syndicate demonstrations are the baby playpen of the protest world – small, tightly controlled and penned in).

And he was right, although students at Ain Shams university apparently didn't get this memo and violent confrontations took place between them and the police. Some of them were arrested.

As far as I've heard, this was the only violence which occurred today.

With nothing else to do I spent lots of time today pondering the police and state security today, in particular their dress-sense. One officer particularly caught my eye, decked-out as he was in a gangster-style pinstriped suit and long little finger nail. (What is the purport and purpose of this repulsive affectation? Explanations I have heard so far include Cocaine-cutting, earwax-removal, nostril exploration and letting the world know that the nail's owner does not perform manual work. The last explanation is questionable since the long finger-nail is beloved of several carpenters I know).

Pimp suit's every movement was shadowed by one of the widest men in the history of the universe, seen below in the black t-shirt. This is the first time I have seen a state security officer accompanied by a bodyguard. I wondered whether this was yet another affectation, like the finger nail.

The Muslim Brotherhood didn't mobilise today, and the various security bodies present vastly outnumbered protestors. All the usual suspects were there; Kefaya, Socialists, April 6 Youth Movement members, Mohamed Abdel Qodous, El-Ghad. Ayman Nour's arrival created something of a stir, as photographers stepped on each other's heads to get a shot of the man.

Nour today unveiled El-Ghad's “Cairo Declaration”. The Cairo Declaration is a list of ten demands which Hosny has a year to respond to, or else. If he doesn't they'll announce a[nother] national strike on April 6 2010. When Nour mentioned his Cairo Declaration at a seminar recently blogger/activist Karim El-Beheiry launched into a long rant which can be summarised with, “who the bloody hell does he think he is? Saad Zaghloul?” Fair play.

Also speaking at that particular seminar was Kefaya's Abdel Halim Qandil, who suggested that the idea of reform under the current regime is nonsense.

Today's events give credence to Qandil's position, I think. “Only” about 34 people were arrested either today or preemptively in the past two days, and there wasn't the same tension in the air as there was on April 6 last year when hundreds were detained. Today was stage-managed. This is a regime which doesn't have the ability or maturity to deal with surprises, and April 2008 (and particularly Mahalla) was a surprise. April 6 2009 was not, and neither will 2010 be. Today it was business as usual herding the dissent into the Journalists' Syndicate, the only place in Egypt where one can freely chant down with Hosny Mubarak into the ether.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Bread and butter VI

Here I go on about Captain Mamdouh Farag. Again.

Flotilla the pun*

Much is often made of the vitality of Cairo's street life and its grimy, insistent, animation, its business of 24 hour people, cars, donkeys and drama. A never-ending presence has not however, lent Cairo's population ownership over the capital's streets which - like every other aspect of Egyptian public life – remain under the strict control of a regime afflicted with a mania for micromanagement and heavy-handedness.

Which is why I was nonplussed when I heard that singer-songwriter Shady Ahmed had decided to busk in Cairo's streets. The decision was made in the same week that an author faces a trial for writing a comic book in which , amongst other things, the events of May 25 2005 are described. On that day – Black Wednesday – females journalists and protestors were sexually assaulted in downtown Cairo as members of police looked on. Next week, on April 6, demonstrators will again take to Egypt's streets a year after Egyptians in Mahalla had the temerity to take to their own streets and protest rising food prices; three people were killed in the ensuing confrontations between the crowd and police.

Shady chose to start out in the foreigner-enclave of Zamalek, outside the Diwan bookshop. I was there with a DNE colleague, Jon Jensen, who apparently used to inhabit the island. A Maison Thomas delivery guy walked past. “Thomas!” Jon Jensen shouted. “Baaasha!” Thomas replied.

Within four minutes of Shady opening his mouth in song a gentleman in an ill-fitting dull brown jacket, and an ill-fitting dull brown mustache appeared. Unmistakably a mokhber. He was accompanied by Thomas, and one of Thomas' colleagues. The mokhber proceeded to ask the usual, boring questions about Shady's identity, address and alta mater before buggering off. He hung around, looking uncomfortable, for the duration of the performance.

The law's second appearance came in the form of an 3askary ta2meen - a low-ranking uniformed policeman - again accompanied by Thomas - making me wonder whether Thomas gives tips as well as receiving them. The policeman, an officious pompous type requested that Shady stop singing because “people have complained about the disturbance”. (All this was said as the roar of 26 July Street's traffic practically drowned him out).

He was immediately surrounded by two passers-by and a traffic cop. I then apparently had a brief out-of-body episode, because I heard the traffic cop say, “leave him alone, he's not doing anything wrong, this is about personal freedom.” Like Ban Ki-Moon. It was a beautiful moment.

Shady was mostly resolutely ignored by the people at the bus stop in front of which he was performing. The majority of passers-by cast a furtive glance. The exception to this was a bloke carrying a bag of bread. He stopped for a spot of improvisation, delicately picking the right notes out of the air with his thumb and forefinger.

There was something heartening about the fact that Shady was able to sing in the street, and I left with an odd, unfamiliar feeling which I identified eventually as mild joy.

This feeling was quickly dispelled as Dr Moftases and I sat in a queue of traffic waiting to join the October Bridge. After ten minutes of non-movement we decided to get out and walk, and discovered the cause of the delay; a mawkeb, or flotilla. One side of the October Bridge was almost completely empty save for three angry-looking policemen shouting instructions into their walkie-talkies, holding up traffic trying to join the bridge and angrily moving a group of kids on off the bridge, where they had been looking at the Nile.

If ever a reminder was needed that your country is being held hostage by a group of thieving, redundant, gangster pimps, you need look no further than these flotillas. The idea is that 894,000 cars should be forced to wait, sometimes up to two hours, because ma3aaly el wazir Mr. Prick minster of bribes wants to get home in time to watch himself on 90 De2ee2a, or do a spot of pilates, or polish his forehead. Or because he just doesn't want to mix with the hoi-polloi. Entire districts are cleared of traffic for these morons. Here's some empty road at rush hour right here:

The NDP: emptying tarmac since forever.

Interestingly, Moftases sent me this, describing an accident involving a flotilla which may possibly have been the same one we witnessed on Wednesday night.

My translation:

A car forming part of the Interior Minister's security detail hit citizen Mohamed Gamal while the minister's flotilla was passing through Gamat El-Dowal El-Arabiyya street on Wednesday, amidst a noticeably tightened security presence.

Gamal found himself thrown on the ground next to his flattened mobile phone. Security men in the area didn't lift a finger to help him. Rather, they showered him with blame, saying, “why don't you open your eyes?”

The matter didn't stop there. The security men then became suspicious about Gamal – who works in a computer store on Gamat El-Dowal El-Arabiya Street – and demanded to see his I.D and work cards, without displaying the slightest concern about his injuries.

*Geddit?? Apologies.