Tuesday, May 12, 2009

This page cannot be displayed, you naughty boy.

As part of its long-term campaign against common sense swine flu, the government has put up US Aid funded posters inside metro underground trains, advising passengers on what measures to take to avoid contamination. One of the suggestions, after household members' temperature monitoring is, “avoid crowded areas”. I wondered if they're taking the piss.

The other arm of the flu-fighting strategy, is, as the whole world alas now knows, the culling of Egypt's 300,000 pigs. I myself used a similar strategy a while back, when I got a CD stuck in my laptop disc drive. After the fix-all cmnd+alt+esc didn't work, I switched the laptop off and on again. When that didn't work, I did a thing which I thought at the time was logical but with hindsight realise was moronic. I inserted a second CD into the disc drive.

The thinking behind this was that there's no way the bloody thing will accept a second CD, it can't hurt, and this might somehow solve the problem. I anticipate a recruitment call from the ministry of health tomorrow morning first thing.

The health minister has admitted that the cull has nothing to do with the swine flu. Advocates of the destruction of Egypt's pork industry say that is a public health measure necessary to rid Egypt of the vile four-legged health hazards and their stink. Opponents suggest that in addition to being unnecessary and insane, the measure has sectarian overtones.

The administrative court today issued an important judgement. The case was brought by a lawyer who clearly does not use Facebook and therefore has too much time on his hands. He is also clearly too concerned with what other people do with their time, and their hands. He raised a case demanding that the ministry of telecommunications ban 'obscene' websites, and the court found in his favour, goddamit.

Here's an extract from the court's pompous and stupid reasoning:

“Rights and freedoms are not absolute, but rather limited by the [need to] protect the pure essence of the family which in its turn is the basis of society, and whose constituent elements are religion, morals and patriotism. The state and society are obligated to safeguard the nation’s high level of religious upbringing, moral and patriotic values … as well as public morals.”

If someone can illuminate me as to how society should safeguard moral values when society itself is getting busy with the google searches, I would be grateful.

Some ministry of telecommunications suit gave an interview on talk show 90 Minutes this evening, sounding non-loony and quite reasonable. Maybe they'll appeal, or ignore it. Or maybe Egypt's youth will be dusting off their porn collection before the year is out.

The porn decision – issued by a court, OK, but some observers suggest that the government is waiting for any opportunity to control internet activity – forms part of a series of weird decisions taken by state bodies recently.


Porn – spreading depravity. Ban.

Pigs – spreading sausages. Destroy.

Hezbollah cell in Egypt – sending aid. Prosecute.

Caritas – spreading love. Stop.*

Emos – spreading black eyeliner. Arrest.

* To be fair, the campaign against Catholic relief organisation Caritas is being led by newspaper El-Masry El-Youm, which more and more seems to “report” news from another planet.

The common factor in all these cases is that they involve a foreign element (or an element foreign to Islam, as with the pigs), which reminds me of a bonkers front page story published by Al Ahram recently:

The official Egyptian government daily newspaper, al-Ahram, devoted its main front-page headline Saturday to an unprecedented attack against the leaders of Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt, Hamas, as well as the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera television network and Hezbollah’s al-Manar television. Al-Ahram accused those countries and organizations, which have been dubbed by Egyptian commentators as the “Axis of Evil,” of collaboration with the “plot” to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime from power by means of terror attacks inside Egypt.

(This was before Swine Flu, which is why pigs weren't included in the list of mortal enemies.)

I'm stating the obvious, but I'll say it anyway: a paranoid regime which exerts the majority of its energies on rabble rousing against an external threat(s) is trying to conceal its own inadequacies. Which is not to say that suspicion of the other does not exist in Egyptian society. It does. Ask an Egyptian Bahai. But as with xenophobia against immigrants in Western Europe, how much of this antipathy is attributable to deliberate misinformation, and poor education, and media which loves a sensation? Does what is ostensibly over zealous nationalism mask a deep insecurity, even a loss of identity?

A pharoah god, apparently, demonstrating complete disregard for the nation's high level of religious upbringing, moral and patriotic values.

Original picture here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bread and butter VII

Here's an article what I wrote about having my gear nicked.

Two days after World Press Freedom Day, Egypt marked the event in its unique, inimitable style on Monday.

The April 6 Youth Movement - a small group of young activists who are a regular feature at anti-government demonstrations and in police stations – announced at the end of April that their birthday gift to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 4 would be a protest “to let people know that Mubarak isn't holy, and that he's a failure as a civil servant.”

The group planned to hold its demonstration at Cairo's State Council, where the administrative judiciary is hearing the ongoing case against Egypt's gas exports to Israel.

Five of the group's activists were arrested even before they reached the State Council and immediately taken to the nearby Dokki police station. 17 people were detained over the course of the day.

There was considerable activity at the State Council. Mubarak's birthday coincided with two other high-profile cases being heard by the court other than the gas export trial: the banning of aid caravans to Gaza and the constitutionality of interior ministry police officers on university campuses.

The case roster read like a laundry list of sensitive issues for Mubarak.

At around noon some 30 central security trucks surrounded the State Council. Plain-clothed thugs employed by the security forces on occasions like these were spread out on the building's steps. State security investigations officers, who interrogated everyone attempting to go inside, prevented journalists from entering the State Council.

'Yalla, to the police station'

Journalists hanging around outside the building were given a scouring by gusts of sand-filled wind (sandstorms hit Cairo this weekend).

The tedium of waiting was dispelled suddenly when the gas case hearing concluded and activists who had somehow got inside the State Council earlier that morning emerged. About twenty of them now stood on the steps – on the opposite side to that occupied by the plain-clothed thugs.

Approximately two minutes before they came out a particularly zealous state security officer approached me and instructed me to put my camera in my bag. I refused, on the grounds that how I choose to carry my camera when not using it is none of his bloody business.

The protesters then emerged, and people on the steps immediately started filming them with mobile phone cameras.

“Look, they're being allowed to film,” a press photographer complained to the officer, at almost the same moment as police officers and plain-clothed thugs descended on them.

“Not anymore,” the officer said.

Mayhem then ensued as individual protesters were surrounded and attacked. The police apparently gave no thought to the danger posed by the location of the protesters – on the steps - and as a result two people fell or were pushed to the ground.

One female journalist tumbled down on her back, her head bouncing off each of the ten steps. She was helped up looking visibly dazed, and staggered away.

While watching all this, open-mouthed, I heard an officer say, “take the camera” and suddenly found myself in a bizarre tug of war with a man who had grabbed my camera's strap.

This went on for about thirty seconds before he got the better of me, at which point another officer pulled my mobile phone out of my hands.

“Yalla, to the police station,” the officer said. Uncertain as to whether he meant me or just my electrical goods, I legged it.

Police criticize press

I got my stuff back eventually (the few photographs I had managed to take had been deleted, of course) after an hour spent in Dokki police station.

The arrested April 6 Youth activists had been left outside the police station in a locked police truck where they busied themselves with chanting “down with Hosni Mubarak”.

Twenty minutes of the time spent in the police station was spent working out my name. I have Egyptian nationality but a British father, and the foreign middle name and surname apparently caused considerable confusion.

The rest of the time we listened to a bored police station employee (his exact job was unclear) hold forth on the press (“I read all the papers but trust [independent daily] El-Masry El-Youm most”) and press criticism of police violations (“Nobody is above criticism. Even doctors make mistakes and should be held to account”).

“The difference is that nobody takes a scalpel out of a doctor's hand while they are in the middle of performing an operation,” someone said, in reference to my camera.

“You're not going to provoke me,” the man replied.

(Editors note: All 17 of those detained on Monday were released later that night according to sources in Cairo.)

Originally published here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

It's his birthday and I'll cry if I want to

Today is Mubarak's 81st birthday. To mark this, and to mark the fact that he's been in power for 28 years - 1/3rd of his lifetime - here's a list of 28 of the wonderful things which have happened under his beneficent and wise reign rule.

I would have posted this earlier but some of his henchmen stole my effin camera and mobile phone while I was covering a demo, and I spent two hours getting them back. Funny thing is, I wasn't even taking any photographs at the time the camera was taken. I was too busy staring open mouthed as a female journalist tumbled down the steps of the State Council while above her about twenty peaceful protestors were set upon by the police.

The list
  1. Seventy killed in the Moqattam Hill rockslide in 1993.

  2. 37% of Egypt's urban population live in informal housing

  3. Three years imprisonment for Kareem Amer

  4. Four years imprisonment for Ayman Nour

  5. A five-year battle by Bahais for the right not to have to lie about their faith.

  6. April 6th 2008: the death of three people in Mahalla killed by the police has not been investigated.

  7. 85% of rural female household heads are illiterate

  8. 8.7% unemployment rate

  9. Laila Haddad and her two kids detained in Cairo Airport for around 30 hours. Because Laila is Palestinian

  10. Egypt has the highest prevalence of Hepatitis C in the world (roughly 11% of the population)

  11. 12 - 15 million people live in slum housing

  12. 45% of Egypt's female population over 15 can not read

  13. $50 billion in US aid received since 1979

  14. 60% of steel market share owned by Ahmed Ezz with government support.

  15. Between 16,000 - 20,000 people in administrative detention

  16. Seventeen people die after being tortured in 2005 (The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights www.eohr.org)

  17. Activists detained for 45 days after 2006 peaceful protests against constitutional amendments.

  18. A 19th century palace, house of the upper house of parliament catches fire on August 18th 2008. A month later on September 27th, a downtown theatre catches fire, the same month as the Beni Suef theatre fire which killed 45 people in 2005.

  19. February 20th 2002: 370 die in train blaze.

  20. 20% of population below poverty line

  21. Twenty-two people convicted in the widely-criticised Mahalla trial. Sentenced to between 3 and 5 years imprisonment.

  22. Thirty Sudanese asylum-seekers and refugees killed when police violently break up the Mostafa Mahmoud sit-in.

  23. 35% illiteracy rates

  24. 12,000 people live in graveyards in Egypt

  25. 2,000,000 cars on the streets of Cairo. 60% over ten years old.

  26. Seventy-nine cars in Mubarak's flotilla

  27. Twenty eight years of emergency rule.
The President indicating the number of candidates who will be allowed to compete in presidential elections after he steps down in 2050.

The President indicating the number of candidates who will be allowed to compete in presidential elections (without being imprisoned) after he steps down in 2050.

Friday, May 01, 2009


In summer, Cairo's broader bridges become pavement cafes. The perennial huddles of anonymous illicit lovers facing the water are joined by families and groups of friends parked on plastic chairs. A ten year-old in beaded belly-dancer's headgear courses through the crowd chased by her brother and sister, all watched by another kid seated by a cart selling Termes, a cat stalking a fly. Unable to leave the cart he alternates between watching the children play, filling plastic cups with termes and squirming out the precious and relentless energy of childhood, stuck in a plastic chair.

Cars, buses, taxis and motorbikes are the animated backdrop to all this. The bridge shakes with their passage. The ground is littered with the confetti of Termes skins. When the breeze stops briefly the air smells vaguely of vomit and shit. Can it be true that sewage pipes are attached to the bottom of bridges? Why in Egypt does the underworld, the dirt and the darkness, constantly threaten to usurp the happiness above?

On another part of the river Ghanem is shepherding his plants in a nursery. His right arm is full of faded tattoos, a picture of what looks like Christ is bordered with illegible writing on his shriveled skin.

A beautiful plant with pink flowers is selected. How much? 12 pounds says Ghanem. We give him 15. We wait for change. Some baksheesh for us ya basha, Ghanem says. We request the change. Saloo 3al naby [pray for the Prophet] he says, stalling. 3alayh el salah wel salam [peace be upon Him], we say. Money so we can drink tea, he says, something for us, and suddenly it is no longer just business.

In an almost deserted bar downtown an American film is being shown on a television while in the real world below three women work. One of the woman is almost middle-aged, though she has tried to mask this fact with dyed blonde hair and lycra. Another girl seems still to be a teenager. The third is wearing her coat. All are leaning over men, one knee on a chair, suggestive. The man who seems to be in charge says you can photograph anything except the women. Enty fahma tab3an. [You understand why of course].

At one point the youngest of the woman, the girl, addresses the blonde with 'mama'.

Somewhere in Mexico a kid falls sick, a genius somewhere else decides to call it Pig Flu, and that's that for Egypt's pigs who are filthy, dirty, disease-carrying obscenities, and condemned to death swiftly, and without hesitation. Strange that this particular obscenity should take precedence over the hundreds of ages-old others, command this much attention, this many resources.

Every new crisis, every new tragedy in Egypt is a reprieve, a fresh start, another chance to put things right. It's never taken. Things are always and inevitably ballsed up, and back we are dragged to zero. Kids go on wiping windscreens at traffic lights, pensioners beg for your loose change and everywhere there is the sigh of failure and defeat. This is what is really obscene.