Rural Egypt – the forgotten heartland

150 miles south of Cairo’s burger bars and imported car dealerships, 15-year-old Sara sits mending clothes in the main room of the tiny breeze-block house she shares with her parents and four younger siblings. The room has a clean cement floor and there are faded cotton covers on the wooden couches that double as the family’s beds. There are posters of Mecca and Medina on the wall, and a faded Mohamed Morsi campaign sticker by the door. Behind the house, a tethered water buffalo noses in a trough while two men slowly break the black soil of the family’s field with mattocks.

It’s stark and free of any modern conveniences except a battered gas stove, but by the standards of rural Upper Egypt Sara’s is a comfortable home. At her neighbours’ house, eight people live crammed in a windowless mud-and-straw room strewn with old clothes and litter. The air is stale and humid and there is no running water, electricity or sewage. The family relies on an old gas lamp for the long evenings and water has to be fetched from tolerant neighbours – a different house each time. It’s a scene from another century.

Cairo may be more visible, but areas like el-Minya governorate, where Sara lives, are the hidden heartland of Egypt, home to the 40% of Egyptians who still work the land. To some, el-Minya, the “Bride of Upper Egypt”, is most famous for its vivid green fields and the rice, wheat and vegetables they produce. Middle-class Cairenes, surrounded by traffic, pollution and corrupt bureaucracy, romanticise its rustic way of life. “This is the real Egypt – fresh air, clean water, real food with no chemicals,” one TV producer told me. “The countryside is where we all came from, and we love it so much,” added an English teacher. “The people are natural and unspoilt, the women have so much hayaa’ (modesty).”

Once, these opinions were also politically fashionable. Under the socialist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, himself the son of a lower-middle-class family, the Egyptian fellah (peasant farmer) became an iconic figure. Nasser’s 1952 land reforms gave poor tenant farmers rights to the land they worked in perpetuity, and 50% of seats in parliament were reserved for those from “worker and fellah” backgrounds – a provision that survives today, though now open to looser interpretation.

But after decades of Cairo-centric, neo-liberal cronyism, this era seems very distant. A 2011 government study showed that rural poverty, already severe, is on the rise, with farmers struggling both to afford essential supplies of seed and fertiliser and to feed their own families. The effects of state neglect in el-Minya are clear. Canals are choked with refuse – local authorities can’t agree whose responsibility it is to collect it – and teenage girls stand ankle-deep in the murky water at their margins, washing clothes and dishes. The reach of even the most basic infrastructure is patchy. “Almost half of the homes have no running water,” says local NGO worker Mohammed Bahr.

The ousting of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, traditionally sympathetic to the poor and needy, at first promised change. Rural Egypt provided much of the support for Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 presidential election – the crumbling mud walls of the el-Minya villages are dotted with old campaign posters – and his manifesto was sympathetic to small farmers’ plight. “I’m one of you in terms of roots and upbringing,” he told farmers last month. But so far his government has done little to address the causes or effects of their slide into even deeper poverty. Unless Morsi can reverse the Egyptian countryside’s neglect, Sara may be as eager to sweep him from power in 2016 as her parents were to elect him in 2012.

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Egypt longs for a hero

I’m back in Cairo – this time for a while – here’s my latest blog from Prospect magazine:

Sultan Mehmet II at the head of the Ottoman army in Fetih 1453

On 6 October evening, I was sitting in a car stalled five abreast with delivery trucks and battered minibuses on the highway beside Cairo’s Sixth of October War Panorama. The traffic was unusual for a public holiday – Egypt’s annual celebration of the 1973 war with Israel. Like every vehicle around us, our radio was tuned to the evening’s don’t-miss broadcast: Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi’s celebratory speech from the stadium whose floodlights glowed behind the panorama building.

The “glorious October victory” is a touchstone of Egyptian national pride, a counterweight to years of oppression and humiliation – in particular the shock of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s defeat by Israel in 1967. 6 October is usually an occasion for unbridled military nostalgia, with parades and reminiscences about heroes and martyrs. But Morsi, his hoarse voice booming out-of-sync from 100 different speakers in the traffic jam, was borrowing its lustre to shore up his own record since taking office in June.

It was a tough brief. First, Morsi had to defend the patchy results of his “100-day plan” to tackle the country’s intractable problems with security, traffic, sanitation, fuel and subsidised food. A few drivers laughed as he said that “around 60%” of traffic issues had been solved: apart from the gridlock that continues to plague daily life in Cairo, the jam that we were sitting in was caused by the hundreds of coaches and minibuses that had transported 70,000 Morsi supporters to the stadium. In addition, the president had to deflect criticism from the Salafi right: a potential IMF loan of almost $5bn, he assured devout voters, would be negotiated strictly in accordance with sharia law. “We would rather starve than eat from riba [usury]!” he proclaimed.

Like Morsi’s account of his achievements, the official narrative of 6 October – as enshrined in the kitsch murals and mosaics of the panorama – is selective. On Yom Kippur 1973, Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israeli troops guarding the Suez Canal. The fortified Bar Lev line was breached, and Egyptian forces made a triumphant re-entry into the Sinai peninsula, which Israel had occupied in 1967. They were subsequently beaten back to within 70 miles of Cairo before a UN-brokered ceasefire put an end to the Israeli advance, but the Camp David accords that followed in 1978 returned the peninsula to Egyptian hands.

Despite the war’s ambiguous outcome, 6 October immediately became the state’s favourite symbol of renewed national confidence. It gave its name to innumerable public works, including one of Cairo’s satellite desert settlements and a monstrous flyover that spans the centre of the capital. It did much to legitimise the military’s continued dominance of public life, and after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 it also cemented public trust in Hosni Mubarak, the wartime air force commander. (His role was remembered on Saturday by a handful of supporters who demonstrated for the “commander of the air strike” outside Tora prison, where the former president is serving a life sentence.)

In addition to its official role, 6 October is surprisingly meaningful to a new generation of Egyptians. As I sat in the Morsi-generated traffic, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of people born 15 or 20 years after the conflict’s end exchanging holiday greetings, posting inspiring stories of war exploits and praising the “glorious youth of 1973”. Their comparisons between the heroic figures of history and Egypt’s current leaders were less than flattering:  how many of the stadium crowd currently applauding Morsi were fully paid-up members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the president’s own organisation, they asked? “50%”, guessed one friend; “75%”, said another, “plus 20% army and 5% people who have no idea why they’re there”. “125%” was the final consensus.

Eventually, Morsi’s speech concluded and the traffic thinned. I continued on to a cinema in Cairo’s largest mall to see Fetih 1453 (The Conquest 1453), an epic Turkish-made account of the capture of Constantinople – and the resulting establishment of the Ottoman caliphate – by Sultan Mehmet II. A self-conscious riposte to the Hollywood caricature of Muslims as terrorists or oil sheikhs, it smashed box-office records in Turkey on its release in February, and is already attracting crowds following its recent release in the Arab world.

The film opens not in the Byzantine capital but in seventh-century Medina, with the Prophet (who is not pictured – the camera adopts his point of view) predicting that Constantinople will eventually fall to a conqueror who shares Muhammad’s own name. It’s hardly unbiased – the (historically ascetic) emperor Constantine XI and his court are sybarites surrounded by pneumatic blonde serving girls, while the Ottomans have a near-monopoly on faith, duty and sacrifice. Twice, tunnelling crews attempting to undermine Constantinople’s walls blow themselves up with shouts of “Allahu Akbar”. But it’s a rousing evocation of a military triumph in which a Muslim-led army could claim the most advanced technology, the most sophisticated strategy and the most humane leaders – the film closes with Mehmet II in Hagia Sophia, holding aloft a blue-eyed child and reassuring survivors they will remain free to follow their own faith.

Like the 6 October holiday itself, the screening inspired mixed emotions in the audience of young people crunching imported sweets: nostalgia, sadness over the Middle East’s current predicaments, disillusionment with Egyptian political manoeuvring and a deeply-felt longing for a lost sense of significance and respect on the world stage. Along with its comforting portrayal of a strong, wise Muslim leader of the kind glaringly lacking in 2012, Fetih 1453 offered another frustrating spectacle: that of an old regional rival on the rise. “Egypt used to be the place where this kind of film was made,” said one viewer despondently as we left the cinema. “Now they’re all Turkish.”

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Tahrir united, Egypt divided

Protesters praying in Tahrir on Friday 25 November

Yesterday 100,000 protesters prostrated in unison on thin plastic prayer mats as Tahrir Square observed the Friday congregational prayer. It was a powerful demonstration of unity from a diverse crowd that agreed on one thing – Egypt’s military council, Scaf, must step down.

“No stages, no political campaigning, no microphones. One voice, one fight,” read a giant banner proclaiming the “rules of Tahrir” that fluttered above the ranks of worshippers.

The rules were largely observed. The liberal presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, who many protesters support to head a council of elders proposed to replace the military council, appeared briefly following prayers. But the generals did not endorse Tahrir’s choice.

Later in the evening, crowds in the square united again in their rejection of the military council’s appointment of Kamal al-Ganzouri as head of a national salvation government. Al-Ganzouri, a former prime minister of the Mubarak era, is 78 and has strong ties with the head of Scaf, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who served in the same cabinet in 1991. “This is more of the same,” said the well-known liberal publisher and activist Mohammed Hesham. “Scaf is taunting us by even suggesting, after everything that’s happened, that we’d accept someone so complicit with the former regime.”

In a rowdy expression of protesters’ dissatisfaction with al-Ganzouri, Ultras – hardcore football fans who were at the forefront of the past week’s fighting with security forces – led processions around the square, let off fireworks and hoisted former Egypt goalkeeper Nader el-Sayyed onto their shoulders to lead anti-regime chants.

But the political consensus was undermined by disturbing changes in the square. With the end of fighting in Mohamed Mahmoud street, scene of the most violent clashes, a current of aggression has spread throughout Tahrir. The atmosphere veered between festive – food and souvenir vendors, banners and tents have proliferated over the last two days – and hostile.

Paranoia and xenophobia spread through the crowds, fed by state television’s talk of “foreign hands”, “spies” and “hidden agendas”. “Are you Israeli? Are you American? Why are you here?” demanded groups of angry youths. “Do you have a contact for the CIA?” they asked my companion. Several foreign journalists were targeted with beatings and smashed or stolen equipment.

On Thursday, Scaf issued a communique warning against agents attempting to sow chaos and encouraging Egyptians to perform citizen’s arrests on “any suspicious individual”. Outbreaks of vigilantism spread even among the Tahrir protesters. At 9pm on Friday an Egyptian woman was dragged through the crowds by her hair by a group of men trying to cover her in a blanket. “She said she was a doctor and tried to get into the field hospital, but she’s a felool [regime supporter] trying to infiltrate us,” shouted one.

Equally damaging to the protesters were the widespread sexual harassment and assault of women in and around the square. Some claimed sexual violence was being used systematically by the baltageyya – thugs in the pay of the regime who have terrorised protesters since the initial uprisings in January – to spread fear and reduce numbers in the square. “They want to scare us into staying at home, and some women have left. But we are strong, we won’t be defeated like that,” said 20-year-old student protester Nisreen.

Reporters without Borders called on international news outlets to stop sending female reporters to cover the Cairo protests, and the local organisation HarassMap (@harassmap) collected tweets from hundreds of protesters who had suffered attacks.

Outside the square, divisions also festered. A march from the west bank of the Nile to Tahrir in support of the protesters was countered by a pro-Scaf march in Abbasiya, north Cairo, that drew around 20,000 who claimed to represent the “silent majority”. “Egypt is a state, not a square,” they chanted, along with “the people and the army are one hand” – a slogan from the February uprisings now rejected by the Tahrir protesters, who prefer to chant “the people and the people are one hand.”
Despite the opposition of many Tahrir protesters, Scaf also announced that parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned. They will now take place over two days, 28 and 29 November, instead of one – a move that may defuse some potential for violence, as the original restricted hours would have left many unable to access polling stations. Whether Egyptians beyond Tahrir will be swayed by the last week’s developments when voting remains to be seen.

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Tahrir Square v the silent majority

Another blog for Prospect magazine:

"Death penalty for Tantawi, killer of the youth"

On the fifth day of protests in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi addressed the nation with the offer of concessions including a referendum on the immediate transfer of power to a civilian government, and the election of a president by July 2012.

His pre-recorded address also angrily defended the army’s record during the transitional period and said they had been “patient” in the face of “insults.”

His words had little effect on the hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Tahrir Square, who responded with enraged chants of “Leave, leave.” An effigy of Tantawi in military uniform dangled from a lamppost on the square.

Activists’ calls for a “million-man march” on Tahrir Square had been effective, with crowds growing throughout the day. As the death toll rose to 36 after fierce fighting in the side-streets, protestors carried the coffin of one man they said had been killed in clashes over the weekend.

In mid-afternoon an army officer was hoisted onto the crowd’s shoulders as thousands roared in delight. Electrified by the prospect of the army turning against its leaders, the entire square united in chants of “the people want the fall of the field marshal.” The officer, Ahmed Shuman, who also called for Mubarak and Tantawi (then defence minister) to step down in February, told al-Jazeera Live that “most of the army are against what is happening now.” Some believed his return to Tahrir was a sign that a second triumph was close at hand.

After the initial euphoria of Shuman’s appearance, however, it was unclear whether the crowds believed him. Trust in the military has been eroded—even destroyed—in the months since they took power from Mubarak in February. “We won’t listen to anything anyone from the army says while we see this happening,” said one protestor, gesturing towards the orange ambulances ferrying the dead and injured out of the fiercest fighting in Mohamed Mahmoud street.

Tantawi’s words were undercut by escalating violence from security forces positioned near Tahrir Square. In Midan Falaki, east of the square, protestors gathered in dense tear gas to push towards the military’s position in front of the interior ministry. Swept up in the adrenaline of the moment, young men raced scooters through the crowds towards the front line, shouting. Masked protestors on the street cheered them on.

But gathered nearby were equal numbers of street children selling tissues and bystanders reluctant to join the protestors in the square, let alone those on the frontlines. “I don’t agree with these demonstrations at all,” said 30-year-old software engineer Mohammed Rasmy. “The economy is in crisis, tourism is suffering—how do these people think we can live without stability?”

Despite the failings of Scaf, the military council, Rasmy and other pragmatists argue that they are the only ones who can hold the country together. “If the army goes, who else can we turn to? None of these candidates or parties have any experience of governing,” said Ayman Wahba, who owns a nearby printing business. “That would be a disaster for us businessmen.”

The idealism of protestors who are unwilling to compromise on a just basis for Egypt’s future is intoxicating. But it has yet to affect the majority of the country’s 81 million people.

Tantawi’s speech was certainly not enough to pacify protestors in Tahrir and other flashpoints including Alexandria, Suez and the delta city of Mansoura. Whether their priorities will outweigh those of the silent majority remains uncertain.

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Egypt: ‘something new will be born from this’

My new blog for Prospect magazine:

Protesters in Tahrir call for the fall of the military government

While Scaf, Egypt’s ruling military council, debated whether to accept the resignation of the Egyptian cabinet, intense fighting continued between protesters and security forces off Tahrir Square.

At the front line on Mohamed Mahmoud street, where an army cordon protects the interior ministry building, crowds jostled in a thick fog of tear gas. A steady stream of protesters carrying crates of rocks and bottles, heads swathed in scarves, goggles and gas masks, shoved their way to the front while others retreated, injured or exhausted.

With their faces streaked white with the diluted antacid now used against the gas, 19-year-old Mahmoud and his friend took shelter behind a wall. “They are shooting us with live ammunition in there—I saw people get shot beside me,” he said. “But we are going straight back in. This time we have to finish what we started in January.”


Just behind them, Tahrir was thronged with protesters determined to topple the country’s military rulers. To chants of “Down with military government,” vendors sold keffiyeh scarves, goggles, surgical-, dust- and rudimentary gas-masks. Men roamed the crowds with spray bottles filled with water and vinegar or antacid solution, ready to treat those hit by the periodic waves of gas billowing from the security forces’ position to the east.

Despite the celebratory atmosphere in the square itself, there was growing anger at the west. “Americans out—you are sending this gas to kill us,” shouted one masked man, holding a canister marked with a blue “Made in USA” stamp. The canisters are manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Combined Systems Inc (CSI).

While support for Islamist parties in the country as a whole remains strong, anti-Islamist sentiment among those in Tahrir was also growing. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, which is expected to perform strongly in forthcoming elections, issued a statement that: “Out of our commitment not to lure people to more bloody confrontations, we… declare that we will not participate in any protests or demonstrations that may lead to more confrontations and tensions.”

The Brotherhood has been heavily criticised for its failure to participate in the protests that snowballed after Friday’s Brotherhood- and Salafi-dominated demonstration in Tahrir Square. “The Brotherhood has left us to die in the streets, and we won’t forget that,” said one protester fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud street. On Monday the Freedom and Justice party leader Mohamed el-Beltagy was forced from the square by crowds angry at the Brotherhood’s failure to act.

The popular heroes of this round of protests are not political leaders, but those who have been killed or injured on the front line. Five minutes from the square, one of Qasr el Nil bridge’s huge stone lions—a symbol of Egypt’s 1952 revolution—had one eye covered by a gauze eyepatch in tribute to the protesters who have lost their sight in the last three days. The best-known is activist Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye in protests against Mubarak on 28 January, and then the other on 19 November. “I would rather be blind, but live with dignity and my head held up high,” he is quoted as saying on activists’ Facebook pages.

Doctors in the makeshift field hospitals around Tahrir confirmed that most wounds were to protesters’ upper bodies and heads. “They are aiming high, at people’s heads,” said one. Field hospitals—some no more than blankets laid down behind a thin tape cordon—have also been targeted with tear gas. The death toll has risen to at least 33, with over 1,800 injured.

The violence has served only to inflame public opinion. “Scaf has made the same mistake Mubarak made on 2 February with the ‘Battle of the Camel’,” said Big Pharaoh, the prominent anonymous blogger and Twitter activist, referring to the day the former regime sent thugs on horses and camels to attack protesters in Tahrir Square. “Up to that point, some people were willing to accept his compromises—but after they saw such cruelty he had to go. It’s the same now.”

Since Friday, there have been no party political stages or platforms in the square and many protesters see the elections scheduled to begin on Monday as an irrelevance. Chants in the square were direct: “No to Scaf, no to the elections.” The consensus in the square was not only that Field Marshal Tantawi, Egypt’s de facto military leader, must step down, but that Scaf itself must make way for a national salvation government, possibly led by presidential candidate and former head of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei.

Although protesters disagree on who should take charge, there is a clear sense that this is the end of the line for the generals. Turkish president Abdullah Gul issued a statement warning Scaf not to cling on to power for too long. “Based on our own experience, the job of the military is not to govern a country,” he said. “If they do that, the masses will turn against them.”

This afternoon’s march may hasten that turning point. “This is the most profound moment since we pushed Mubarak out,” said Big Pharaoh. “Something new will be born from this.”



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Back to Tahrir

My blog post for Prospect magazine today:

As dusk fell tonight, Tahrir Square was packed with thousands of protestors demanding the fall of Egypt’s military government. On the third consecutive day of protests and after 36 hours of clashes with the security forces, there was a lull. Sweet potato, corncob and candy-floss vendors mingled with the crowds.

At twilight, ranks of police and soldiers attacked. The hollow thump of tear-gas canisters echoed from the streets to the south and east. Panic spread among the crowd and thousands took to their heels screaming “the army.”

A teenage girl ran up beside me, limping badly. She had lost a shoe, and her bare foot and her head were covered in blood. “We’ve run from Mohamed Mahmoud street, the army beat us with sticks,” she shouted. Thick plumes of tear gas rose over the running crowd and people began to choke, some vomiting from the stinging smoke. After ten minutes, the square had been cleared of protestors.

In contrast to Friday’s demonstration against proposed “supra-constitutional principles,” which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, the crowd in and around Tahrir today was heavy with the middle-class youth who led the first protests against Mubarak in January. “We’ve come back to finish what we started then,” said Ashraf, a 20-year-old student. “The SCAF [military council] must realise this is the end of the game, this time they will have to kill us to get us out.”

In the run-up to elections scheduled to begin next Monday, tolerance for the military rulers’ disastrous handling of the transitional period has run out. For two days protestors have defied the SCAF to occupy Tahrir square, fleeing from and pursuing security forces in a cat-and-mouse game played out in the square and the surrounding streets and alleyways. The area is strewn with jagged paving stones broken up for missiles, broken glass and makeshift barricades. Police and army have used a mixture of tear gas, baton rounds, birdshot and batons and, reports suggest, live ammunition.

After an hour, security forces pulled back from Tahrir and the crowd, which had retreated to the side-streets, surged back in. Chants began again: ”The people want the fall of the field marshal”—Egypt’s de facto leader Field Marshal Tantawi, and ”The army and the police are a dirty hand”—a play on a favourite chant of the original uprising against Mubarak, “The army and the people are one hand.”

But the evening’s battles had a heavy price. A middle-aged woman rushed towards the square, tears running down her face. “Where is the field hospital?” she screamed at protestors. “My son is there.” After security forces’ retreat from Tahrir this afternoon, photographs emerged of dead or unconscious protestors piled at the side of the square. At least four people are confirmed dead and 800 injured, some seriously, in today’s protests. With tensions continuing to build ahead of the elections, those numbers are likely to rise.


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Tahrir – the next day

After yesterday’s protest, Tahrir was supposed to go back to normal. But as I neared the square this morning, I passed lines of trucks filled with riot police (CSF, central security forces). Ranks of them were surrounding a crowd of protesters who’d stayed on in the square overnight.

Through the afternoon there were violent clashes with the CSF that left scores of protesters wounded. As night fell, shopkeepers on Talaat Harb St (off Tahrir) were pulling down their shutters and wedging corrugated iron sheets against exposed windows, street vendors throwing goods into bags and running. The lights went out on Talaat Harb square. Traffic stopped.

People came running up from the square with bloodied faces and clothes, some in surgical or construction masks against the tear gas. Then the CSF retreated and protesters surged back into the square. At the entrance to Tahrir tear gas canisters and rocks were arcing over the crowd, who were chanting “horreya, horreya” (freedom) and “el shaab yurid isqat el nizam” (the people want the fall of the regime, the original revolutionary chant against Mubarak, which shows how far the military council has fallen in popular estimation).

People had been struck by rubber bullets, many in the face and head (some protesters have apparently been blinded). Ultras (hardcore football fans from Cairo teams who played a significant role in the uprising in Jan/Feb) came pouring down the street and surged into the square.

Now several hours later, Brotherhood and Salafi groups are apparently making their way to Tahrir to join the thousands still there. People are saying it’s similar to 28 January, the Friday of Anger when protesters pushed security forces off the streets. State TV (which incited violence against protesters during the original uprising and on several occasions since, eg. during Maspero attacks on Coptic Christians last month) is denouncing the protesters for destabilising the country and “endangering the elections”.

It’s a serious display of defiance against SCAF, the military council – how will they respond? This looks like it’s escalating, and there are nine days to (supposedly) the start of elections.

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First day in Tahrir

Salafi protesters en route to Tahrir Square obstructed by a car (the car lost)

Earlier today, I watched hundreds of thousands of protesters marching to Tahrir Square to demand an end to military rule in Egypt and protest against proposed “supra-constitutional principles” that would exempt the military from civilian oversight.

Though there was some participation by the liberal and youth revolutionary groups that led the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February, it was obvious that today’s protest was dominated by Islamist groups: the long-established Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots and the various Salafi (more conservative, Saudi-influenced) groups that have emerged since the revolution.

For an hour I watched Brotherhood and Salafi groups marching through downtown Cairo towards Tahrir.  They were extremely orderly – chanting in unison and accompanied by marshals in hi-vis jackets (which look odd paired with robes).

Supporters of popular Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail (formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood) march on Tahrir

One of the most popular slogans (along with “Allahu Akbar”) was “Al-shaab yurid isqat al-mushir” – “The people want the fall of the field marshal” – a play on the original revolutionary slogan “The people want the fall of the regime” that refers to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, the SCAF.

The crush in the square (actually Tahrir is more of a dysfunctional polygon with a roundabout somewhere in the middle) was overwhelming. Activists were distributing copies of a statement calling for power to be handed over to an elected civilian parliament and president by the end of April 2012.

Despite the various different stages and speeches going on, this protest was both one of the largest since Mubarak was forced from power and one of the most unified in its demands. It was a very visual reminder of the shift in the balance of power ahead of the elections, due to start on 28 November.

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Revolutionary writers at the Egyptian embassy

On Monday I was invited to a reception at the Egyptian ambassador’s residence in London for three Egyptian novelists – Khaled AlKhamissi, Ahmed Mourad and Ahmed Khaled Towfik.

Despite the towering ceilings, chandeliers, swagged curtains and footmen, everyone was keen to assert their revolutionary credentials (the ambassador, Hatem Seif el-Nasr, has been in London since 2008 and had to manage a tricky transition of loyalties earlier this year). After champagne, the evening opened with a minute’s silence “for the martyrs of our peaceful revolution” – and the snacks circulating on silver trays included democratic mini-taameyya (Egyptian felafel) sandwiches and shwarma alongside the canapes and petits fours.

What the writers thought of all this was unclear. The three novels they were speaking about – Khaled AlKhamissi’s Taxi, Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo and Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (all newly published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar) – are all products of the years of anger and frustration at the end of the Mubarak era, and all could be said to anticipate the upheavals of 2011.

Taxi, a collection of fictionalised encounters with some of Cairo’s 80,000 taxi drivers, is full of their despair, black humour and rage at the government and the constant struggle for survival on the poverty line (around 40% of Egyptians live at or below this level.)

Vertigo is a political thriller set in the corrupt world of Cairo high society, where a young photographer sees a friend murdered in a fight. Its author, the filmmaker Ahmed Mourad, worked as Hosni Mubarak’s personal photographer for eight years – a period he described on Monday as “living two lives”.

Utopia is a fantasy horror title set in a future Egypt where the rich enjoy lives of idle decadence in compounds sealed off from the bleak world of the poor, who they regard as sub-humans to serve them or be hunted at will. Given the vast and growing divide between Egypt’s rich and poor, it’s not too unimaginable a leap (Towfik said he deliberately set it only 10 years in the future, “not too far from where we are now”.)

One of the ambassador’s guests asked AlKhamissi if his book was popular with Cairo’s real taxi drivers and he responded that reading novels was unimaginable for impoverished people, many of whom are illiterate and all of whom work every hour possible to secure the most basic necessities.

I’ll be interviewing all three writers next week (and subsequently reviewing their books), so it was good to hear their thoughts – despite the strange setting!

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Back to Cairo – and beyond

2010 took me through Egypt, Sudan and India on a WCMT fellowship, which I blogged about here – thank you to everyone who read and commented.

Since then, I’ve been in London writing up my findings, working at the Guardian and keeping track of the amazing events in the Middle East. Now it’s time for a new project.

From next month, I’ll be heading back to Egypt to see the changes that have taken place this year and talk to young people about them. Elections are starting on 28 November so it will be an exciting time.

Further travels in the region to follow!

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