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". 

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