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.

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