Regardless of the chaos, there are some certainties in Egypt and that is at least once a month an armed personnel carrier will bear down on a group of protesting Egyptian citizens, like some squalid, mechanical bull run. On Sunday night I happened to be one of them.
I had gone to the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam to have a look at the protesters demonstrating against the attack, by Muslim Brotherhood members, on protesters the previous day in the same place. One female journalist was slapped on the face so hard by one of these heroes that she was knocked to the ground.
Moqattam is on a mountain overlooking Cairo, and the MB headquarters is itself at the top of a small hill, and the multistorey villa housing it is taller than its immediate neighbours, like the organisation itself, attempting to be lofty and isolated and above it all and failing. There was a small group of protesters outside its gates when I arrived milling about and demanding the removal of the supreme guide and the regime and such like. Every so often they would all point to the top of the building and demand that the “sheep” they had spotted peering out of one of the villa’s mirrored windows withdraw inside.
A man with prayer marks on both his forehead and the bridge of his nose gently encouraged a woman not to graffiti the headquarters wall and was reprimanded by another man with hearing aids and a giant voice who warned him not to “lay a finger on her”. The first man responded by saying that he had asked her to stop because he “wouldn’t be able to stand seeing another girl or a man or anyone beaten up”. The back and forth continued and ended with both men accusing each other of being Ikhwan.
Further up the road was the usual garrison of Central Security Forces. A middle-aged police officer in full uniform including decorative ribbons and a slightly younger balding man in plainclothes watched the protest dispassionately and we went to talk to them. The police officer’s sunglasses were so opaque and so black that we could see ourselves clearly in them, and his moustache moved up and down underneath them like a ship moving under a night sky on a rocky sea.
The Interior Ministry was there, the officer announced, to “protect lives and property, in that order” and as usual it sounded like a threat. “Look after yourselves,” he said when we took our leave.
Round the back of the headquarters is a huge open area that has been commandeered on one side by even more CSF vans and troops, trying to make the time pass by shooting the shit and horsing around and doing marching drills. Meanwhile, a stream of men entered the headquarters, the majority of them between 18 and 30 with the lightly bearded, sensible trousered look so beloved of this group. Senior or perhaps just richer members alighted from expensive cars dressed in suits and open-necked shirts with no ties.
Two MBers we spoke to were extremely friendly in the programmed, on message way typical of the group. Lots of smiling (think: El-Beltagy) with very occasional and fleeting references to religion – a relevant Quranic verse, say. Much sympathetic inclining of head and jocularities (think: El Erian) and agreeing but actually disagreeing (think: all of them). They are like human automated telephone menus where every number you hit gives you one very polite response and that it that you are wrong.
Sudden CSF activity indicated that things had heated up at the front of the headquarters. The number of protesters had increased, as had the number of TV crews. Two APCs had assumed position some 20 metres away. Demonstrators began removing circular green MB logos affixed to the headquarters’ wall which is when the police officer’s “lives and property” mantra kicked in and they went to the rescue of the property by playing with protesters’ lives.
It was only a mini charge because this was a short street and the driver showed incredible restraint by not killing anyone or even squashing them non-fatally. We asked a copper why the Interior Ministry has this insistence on going Ayrton Senna on protesters and with a straight face apparently because he took us for complete fucking simpletons he replied that the vehicle was moving down a descending slope and thus this kind of speed was inevitable.
The Interior Ministry still uses a pre-revolution tactic of using avuncular, senior citizen officers to shoo away troublesome female/elderly citizens refusing to leave a protest area. A group of about five women were altercating with such an officer who was showering them with affendams and 7adriteks in an attempt to get them to move off. In the end he resorted to announcing that they were about to deal with the protesters down the road “with a new tactic” – i.e. teargas – and the women moved away while one of them roared that the Interior Ministry are “whores who will sleep with anybody”.
Television channels showed scenes from January 28 2011 alongside yesterday’s events and – were it not for how iconic images from the first Day of Anger are – the two would have been almost indistinguishable.
Downtown Cairo is filled with the revolution’s phantoms and with every new battle a memory builds on a memory, layered, like the posters and graffiti that have accumulated on these streets’ walls, each new layer obscuring the old.
Yesterday evening it was the familiar trinity of rocks, teargas and birdshot played out at the end of the Qasr El-Nil Bridge where, on January 28 2011, protesters prayed under water canon. Yesterday Central Security Forces attempted to run protesters over with the armed personnel carriers – another January 28 flashback.Protesters responded by commandeering two APCs and setting them on fire.
On the outskirts of Port Said on Sunday, Indian free zone workers strolled through the empty streets. Further in on one of Port Said’s main streets, small groups of men gathered near the site of the clashes watched by the blank expressions of shop shutters, firmly pulled down.
A Port Said resident who had agreed to take us around, let’s call him Amir, and his friend, who we shall call Abdallah, met us. Reasons for the name change will become clear later. Both were young men in the 20s, Amir a cocky, well-intentioned know it all and Abdallah an overgrown child in a tight tracksuit.
Amir immediately made it clear that it would be very hard to go anywhere in Port Said because we were too foreign, and by which he meant not only my kind of foreign but foreign as in coming from Cairo. Abdallah advised my colleague Lina and me to cover our heads while underlining that this wouldn’t really camouflage the foreignness but it was a start. In fact I think it increased the foreignness by making both of us look preposterous.
After 10 minutes of negotiations during which Amir said that it would be absolutely impossible to meet the relatives of men sentenced to death for crimes committed during the Port Said stadium massacre and pontificated on Port Said affairs, it was agreed that we would meet a local journalist in a shisha café. He was a jolly man, able to maintain the jolliness even as he fielded phone calls updating him about the latest fatalities.
We went to a ministry of health administrative building. As we waited for the doctor we wanted to interview, Amir informed us that all the doctors of Port Said know him because of his work with people injured in the revolution. The doctor walked in and Amir introduced himself, disproving the veracity of this statement.
The doctor, a small round man, dispassionately reeled out figures concerning the dead and injured in a rushed, nasal monotone like an ATM belching out a mini bank statement. He nervously fingered his mobile phone as he told us that most protesters had been shot in the head, neck and torso, that 5 had died that day, and that one man was on his way in an ambulance and was unlikely to make it. We asked him whether we could visit the injured in hospital. For our own benefit it would be better not to, the doctor said, because tensions are high.
Amir couldn’t help himself. “I told them that, doctor.”
We left, and walked back through the deserted streets to the car (Amir and Abdallah had made us park 10 minutes away from the health building “because it was safer”.
It had become apparent very early on that Amir was of a nervous disposition when we went round one corner and encountered an army checkpoint and Amir blurted out, “Oh, shit!” in English and made the driver change his route).
Back at the café we spoke to a member of the Green Eagles (supporters of the Port Saidi Al-Masry Football Club) as well as a former Al-Masry player.
It became clear from them and from other residents we spoke to that they feel alienated from the rest of Egypt. This is a city with something of a frontier mentality both for reasons historical (it fought a war of resistance against tripartite aggression in the 1950s) and geographical (it is a port city, vulnerable to incursion from the Canal), and its demonization in the media and by the Al-Ahly Club following the stadium massacre has made the city turn in on itself.
Lina reached the mother of one of the men sentenced to death; she and others were at a nearby protest. Again we bundled into the car, Abdallah and Amir sharing the front seat, and again Amir made the driver park nowhere near our destination. As soon as we parked a group of young men advised our harried driver to remove his number plates before doing it themselves. There was some mysterious way the car could be identified as being from Cairo, they insisted.
The protest was a straggly group of men, some of who immediately surrounded us when we approached the convicted men’s mothers, angry and suspicious. It was at this point that Abdallah proved useful by standing in their way and talking them down. Amir later informed us that “he had unfolded his knife in his pocket, ready, just in case”.
We spoke to the relatives of the convicted men and uselessly bleated out platitudes as they described one of the very worst things you can imagine happening to your child. It was again clear that they felt betrayed and targeted by all of Egypt and that their sons were the victims of some collective punishment being imposed on Port Said.
Amir and Abdallah insisted on accompanying us out of the city, Abdallah trailing us on his moped, Amir on his own in the now spacious front seat. There was a strange moment in this already strange day when Abdallah got out of the car to get his moped and even before his form had disappeared into the darkness, Amir began complaining about Abdallah’s father who he said, is a senior Interior Ministry police officer and who blames Amir’s “braveness” for Abdallah’s being sucked into revolutionary acts.
“His father is a DISGUSTING man,” Amir blurted out suddenly.
On the way out of the city there was another moment of Amir tension when he and Abdallah disagreed about which way to go at an army checkpoint. Abdallah on his moped shouted through the window that the army checkpoint was open and that we could pass through it. Amir, panicked, told Abdallah to shut up and that we would be going his route. Abdallah cheerfully insisted that, no, we could go through the army checkpoint.
“I HAVE A WEAPON ON ME! I HAVE A BLOODY WEAPON ON ME, ABDALLAH!” Amir bellowed into the driver’s ear at Abdallah, ensuring that not only soldiers manning the army checkpoint heard, but all of Port Said.
On the way back to Cairo, our driver, from Ismailia confirmed the general rule in Egypt that the closer two governorates are, the more intensely its residents hate each other. I had had a similar experience in Qena with a driver who spent 30 kilometres expanding on the many reasons why Qena’s residents were glad to see the back of Luxor when it seceded. Citizens of Assiut have similarly minus zero feelings about the good people of Minya.
Morsi announced a curfew on Monday in the Suez Canal cities. On Sunday Port Said was virtually empty. On Monday, when a 30-day curfew was announced, its streets were full, as were those of Suez and Ismailia. There were jokes on Twitter about Egyptians observing the curfew by going out to have a look at the curfew. It broke the tension, to some extent, after weeks of awful news.
Here is something about the third January 25th.
Commenting on a Brotherhood statement saying “We will not be in Tahrir on the revolution anniversary,” a friend wrote on Facebook, “You weren’t in Tahrir on the original 25 January either.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s absence from the party is one of the few similarities between proceedings on 25 January 2011 and during the 2013 redux. In 2011, during its awkward tango with the National Democratic Party, it announced that it would not be taking part in the demonstrations as an organisation, but that individual members were free to do so.
In 2013 it announced that it would not be taking part because it would be busy commemorating the revolution by planting trees and offering the Egyptian people vegetables at a discount price, which is apt, because it brings to mind a vulgar variation on the popular saying, “The world is like a cucumber: one day it’s in your hand, the other it’s in salad”, where salad is replaced with something anatomical. The MB have been thrusting cucumbers on us for six months now and very few have been anywhere near hands.
Read the rest here.
GIZA: President Mohamed Morsi visited the wheel of production in hospital on Tuesday after a stolen train driven by the Nahda Project hit it.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing the Nahda Project steal the train at approximately 5 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon. It was driven at high speed and erratically from Assiut on its way to Cairo.
It struck the wheel of production in the Giza area of Badrsheen while the wheel was spinning for the good of Egypt.
“I too am a replacement, so I understand how you feel,” Morsi said to the tyre before placing his hand on it in order to exorcise it of demons while former public prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, who is now being a doctor in his retirement as a hobby, watched him.
Morsi promised that $2 billion compensation would be given to the wheel by the state of Qatar. The families of the 1,000 people also killed in the accident will be receiving LE49.67 and a cassette tape, “Abo Ammar’s Top Hits” signed by the singer himself, presidential sources said.
The Nahda Project is suspected of involvement in several recent incidents including an attack on protesters outside the Presidential Palace last year. It has not however been arrested because it is not a messenger pigeon carrying a microfilm.
The Freedom and Justice Party placed the blame for Egypt’s poor railway safety record on the culture of negligence and neglect that developed during the period of Thutmose III. The National Salvation Front alleged that Morsi was driving the train at the time of the accident. Nader Bakkar meanwhile said that he has an iPad. Writing on Twitter, Mona El-Tahawy said, “tits”. Abdallah Badr responded by saying that Elham Shaheen is a low woman.
Before leaving the hospital Morsi opened his suit jacket and said, “I’m not wearing a bullet proof vest”. Army chief Abdel-Fatah El-Sissy rolled his eyes discreetly and the wheel of production told Morsi to fuck off.
While I was outside a polling station waiting to bother voters while covering the referendum a man sidled over to me.
He was unusually tall, his height accentuated by the straight line of his blue galabeya, and was wearing heavy rimmed 1960s type sunglasses.
“See that man over there?” he whispered conspiratorially, pointing at a middle-aged man entering the polling station unaware that he was under scrutiny and who was in no way remarkable other than for the Afghani style hat he was wearing.
“The man in the Afghani hat,” the man said.
“Yes what about him?”
“el balad bazet. Typical en el balad bazet,” [the country has been ruined. Typical [sic]…the country has been ruined] he declared before floating away without any further explanation.
I accompanied a colleague to Zagazig shortly before the first round of the referendum for a story he did on anti-Muslim Brotherhood protests in the Delta city. One MB office had been the subject of an arson attack.
We went to a different MB office in order to meet the head of the MB youth section of Sharqeyya, a cheerful man in the mandatory uniform of suit with no tie and light beard.
On our way into the building the bawwab enquired as to who we are and my colleague joked, “don’t worry we’re just going to set fire to the MB office and leave right away”.
“Do you need a lighter?” the bawwab replied deadpan without missing a beat.
The head of the Sharqeyya MB youth section laughed.
There is a bank below our newspaper’s office, and a middle-aged security guard sits outside it in a little kiosk under the stairs reading the newspapers or playing with his phone.
Morning pleasantries have inevitably descended into a discussion of the constitution and it transpires that the security guard voted yes. My merry friend on Sunday greeted him with, “kharabto el bala!d” [“you’ve destroyed the country”] an expression that in 2011 was the favourite refrain of the anti-revolution camp.
A man sitting next to the security guard riposted with, “so you’re felool!” and there then followed one of those lively and interminable discussions about the constitution overshadowed only by the fact that much of it was spent establishing that we were actually talking about the same draft and also that nobody knows what the final draft looks like.
Read the rest here.
The past two weeks, since Morsi announced his Hitler powers, have been the bleakest since the revolution began.
The day after Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration, the attorney general held an emergency meeting and opponents of the decree gathered outside the high court, where they were attacked by mystery plain-clothed attackers using teargas moments after the police quietly withdrew. When I arrived some 20 minutes later the air was still pungent with the gas and riot police had returned, and were facing off against furious anti-Morsi protesters who surrounded them on both sides. It ended peacefully, for once.
I was filled with an indescribable fear when Islamists announced that they would be protesting in support of Morsi in Tahrir, where anti-Morsi protesters are currently holding a sit-in. It was a decision as terrifying as it was brazen and stupid. The crude binary (Islamist/pro-Morsi vs. “secular”/anti-Morsi) that was produced by last year’s referendum is now at its most pronounced – as is inevitable in a context of long suppressed (political and religious) identities and fear mongering about The Other.
Campaigning between the two camps has been reduced to who can mobilise the most bodies in one place. On Tuesday the seculars organised a huge show of force in their old stomping ground Tahrir Square. Islamists responded by holding an equally impressive rally outside Cairo University.
The two rallies couldn’t have been more different. Now that the opposition movement is going after Morsi it has attracted the Ahmed Shafiq/Omar Suleiman/Amr Moussa crowd, people like some members of my family who aren’t necessarily felool (pro or affiliated with the Mubarak regime) but who have a morbid terror of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam generally. I have a pro-revolution aunt who supported Hamdeen Sabahy in the first round of the presidential elections and then switched to Shafiq in the run-offs when Sabahy lost.
Not all of this group are affluent or from chichi neighbourhoods, but the ones that are were prominent on Tuesday, furiously marching from Zamalek in their velour tracksuits and ugg boots and manicured nails, holding forth in Arabic, English and French about the outrage of it all.
Their appearance has added a new dimension to the binary, with the pro-Morsi camp accusing the opposition of being dominated by felool and atheists who engage in lewd acts in Tahrir, while some members of the anti-Morsi crowd respond with equally vile slurs, calling Islamists uneducated peasants, or sheep unable to think for themselves.
As usual El-Baradei is a convenient shorthand for Islamist criticism of their enemies, especially given his recent visibility, actually in Egypt and actually in public. He popped up in Tahrir on Friday, bustled on to a stage looking uncomfortable as usual where he gave a barely audible speech through the evening’s murk. I’m still undecided about whether he played a shrewd game by being absent, and above, all of 2011’s political yuckiness and base shenanigans. Supporters laud him for not compromising on his principles and for his consistency, but it is easy to do that from the nosebleed seats.
ElBaradei’s name was bandied around at the Islamist rally, too, protesters reminding him and Sabahy that Morsi was elected president and not them.
My friend Adam and I got talking to a man, Mahmoud, at the Morsi rally who said that the president’s political opposition are necessarily against any decision he takes, no matter how prudent, because they reject his Islamic project. Mahmoud was dressed in a neat plaid shirt and casual weekend jacket with the telltale just too short trousers, his chin adorned with a wispy candy floss-like beard. He held a sign above his head demanding the implementation of Sharia, and on the subject of Sharia said that it has never been implemented in the modern age but that the Taliban came the closest to doing so. He added that the media misrepresented the Taliban. He later gave me a polite lecture about how I must think more about God and Islam and that hopefully this will make me want to wear the veil and follow the correct path.
Interestingly, he also said that the Muslim Brotherhood had promised Salafis that they would implement “their” i.e. the Salafi version of Sharia rather than their own version (which Mahmoud described as incorrect). This promises to be an interesting, if messy, showdown in the future.
What was most confusing about the rally is that demonstrators spent much time going on about and defending Sharia when this was a rally ostensibly in support of Morsi, his decree and the draft constitution i.e. to quote Tina Turner, what’s Sharia got to do, got to do with it. Also, many of their political opponents resent the Islamists’ claiming a monopoly on Sharia and point out that they too are Muslims and have no problem with its implementation (but remember that there are different interpretations of what Sharia means).
While I was at the rally looking at placards saying things such as “Islam is light and the Quran is my constitution”, “what have you seen from God in order to hate his law?” and “the people support the president’s decisions” I again, for the 726th time this week, considered my own decision to vote for Morsi in the presidential election run-offs having wasted many bloody hours thinking about it before the actual vote.
The thought that I may have contributed to voting in this avuncular yet megalomaniac individual backed up by an army of devotees is an uncomfortable feeling to say the least, and the word “Ermächtigungsgesetz” keeps flashing before my eyes.
People like me who voted for Morsi not out of conviction but to keep out Shafiq are predictably the subjects of considerable vitriol at the moment, perhaps justifiably.
Here comes a however.
HOWEVER, for what it’s worth, I think I made the right decision as someone non-partisan who doesn’t have any qualms about aligning myself with people I vaguely disagree with against people I strongly disagree with. I voted exclusively to keep out Shafiq and remain convinced that had he been elected we would have been shafted good and proper and absolutely nothing would have changed.
Now as we have discussed above there is an enormous amount of shafting going on at the moment and lots of change what with there never being a dull moment with Dr Morsi. I am anxious about the future, but there was an inevitability about Muslim Brotherhood rule at some point in Egypt’s history and unfortunately, I am alive to experience it. The only positive thing about the Muslim Brotherhood in power is that they are spectacularly shit at it. Just like the Egyptian army and their foray into direct rule they have used up almost all their store of good credit with non-MBers in an incredibly short amount of time.
Every day that passes puts another dent in the legend of this 80-year-old group with its dazzling powers of organisation and moderate Islamic vision and familiarity with the Egyptian street. Snort. Morsi is a dull cheating husband who misbehaves and attempts to make amends by offering surprise dinner invitations after he beats his wife up, where his wife is the Egyptian people you understand. The MB itself are a glorified soup kitchen with excellent logistical skills that end at distributing food to the poor and organising large rallies. They are a charity organisation with a militia that finds itself in charge of a country and which seems to think that its decisions do not need to be backed up by reason or say, the rule or law, but can rely entirely on the Egyptian people trusting Uncle Morsi.
This was most evident in the Constitutional Assembly debacle. Virtually all members of the political opposition – and most crucially minorities (women and Christian representatives) -walked out of the Assembly. Those that remained produced a mess of a constitution, but its proponents see no problem in its having been drafted by a largely homogenous group of males. The thinking seems to be: we have faith in God so have faith in us.
The Muslim Brotherhood are doing what the National Democratic Party did for thirty years, albeit without the God element. The NDP also depended on consolidating their own position by deliberately misrepresenting their opponents, making the law fit their decisions rather than the other way around, a fondness for thuggery* and a paternalistic form of governance that reduces the public’s role in politics to box ticking. The only difference is Morsi’s tedious penchant for moralising (e.g. Morsi suggested that Egyptians go to bed early so they can get up and pray the dawn prayer). The moralising would be tolerable except that they are failing to do anything about the million everyday problems blighting ordinary Egyptians’ lives (despite Morsi’s election grandstanding about making considerable improvements in 100 days) while they have the temerity to think that they can thrust a dictatorship on us because God is on their side and they know best.
All this is very Mubaraky. Good luck to the MB if they think it will work.
* re. the link: The NYT reports that the judges were telling fibs. I have seen one example of the thuggery however when MB supporters attacked protesters in Tahrir Square.
Some people can be real ticks
1. Dr Medhat Abdel-Hady
I came across this individual, who advertises himself as a marriage counsellor, via my El-Nas channel subscription on Youtube.
El-Nas caters to conservative Muslims and anyone else who wants to watch programmes without morally corrupting elements such as music using musical instruments, and women. Its most high profile presenter is Khaled Abdallah, a shrill demagogue who looks Amish and is famous for his “ya wad ya mo2men” quip at ElBaradei. Ever the defender of the faith, he is one of the instigators of the anti-“Innocence of Muslims” film hysteria in Egypt.
The only good thing about El-Nas is Abo Ammar. Abo Ammar is the Barbara Streisand of the Salafi world. When he is not singing the theme song for Salafi party El-Nour he is constantly surprising the devout with unexpected a cappella song .
His moment of glory was when he invaded a studio wearing a silky purple galabeya while Amish Abdalla was live on air with Salafi figure Abdel-Meneim cover-the-faces-of-pharonic-statues-with-wax-for-they-are-sinful” El-Shehat.
If you have never seen a tender moment between robust bearded guys before that will change when you watch this video. Grinning Abdalla greets him with, “el wa7sh dakhal” and heroic El-Shehat has the look of a man trying to ignore a potentially violent drunk on a night bus while Abo Ammar points at him emphatically, eyes closed, and makes the controversial case that El-Shehat lost in the elections because he is a hero and not a douche, and that Alexandria’s discerning voters are the losers not him.
Back to El-Nas and Abdel-Hady. Abdel-Hady is a distinct aberration in the El-Nas presenter stable for he has nightclub written all over him, with his jaunty jumper over the shoulders and slip on shoes and let-me-love-you hair and decidedly non-Sunna chin follicle action.
In this particular episode Abdel-Hady treats the subject of child discipline. Responding to a question from one “Miro Ahmed” about how beating one’s child should differ according to the child’s gender, Abdel-Hady reaches for his white board and pen and brings on the antediluvian.
There are differences between men and women, he tells us, in the form of three principle elements: intelligence, emotion, and instinct and desire, the latter I think is El-Nas code for sexy time-wanting. When dealing with the intelligence category Abdel-Hady is quick to point out that he is NOT suggesting that women have less intelligence than men, simply that they resort to using this intelligence less than their male counterparts.
Abdel-Hady gives men three ticks while the fairer sex get one and a half before he turns to the camera and smiles, and precedes to reverse this distribution in the “emotion” category. Men and women are equal in their desire in the final category Abdel-Hady says, the desire for food and teeky-teek.
All this solid science is a prelude to Abdel-Hady’s assertion that girls should be hit less hard than boys. He urges parents to bear in mind his white board while beating the shit out of their offspring.
After this he draws a brain that looks like an arse and hosts a small child called Mohamed for approximately 20 minutes to no discernable end before hosting the child’s father in the studio and his Russian mother on the phone (obviously). The latter is forced to answer questions about her child-rearing techniques in terrible Arabic.
My main issue with Abdel-Hady and his intelligence theory is that at the beginning of his show he says “welcome to the fourth episode…We apologise but we haven’t had time to complete the titles nor the studio décor”. I became very emotional as I wondered how all these men with their big ticks haven’t got their shit sufficiently together by the fourth episode.
I had to renew my Egyptian passport last week, necessitating a visit to the local police station, a section of which is where bureaucratic matters are dealt with.
There is a system in place at my local police station whereby a solitary cop directs citizens to the correct section and dispenses application forms as relevant. It was he who, a month ago, gave me the devastating news that my ID card had expired and that I would have to renew it before I could renew my passport. Of course I did this on the day that the police station computer system was down, so went to a different police station with approximately 3,000 other citizens where I was summoned by a clerk who called me “Sarah Mary” because my middle name is Marea and since this is an alien word resort is sought to the closest word identifiable to Egyptian officialdom.
Back to the passport renewal. Once at the window a harried clerk took my application and looked through my passport where he discovered that in the notes section “nationality file” is written, indicating that I have committed the crime of acquiring Egyptian citizenship while originally possessing another nationality. He asked me whether I have my other passport on my person – I did not – so he started shouting out “nationality file” at his colleague Madame Fulana and demanded how to proceed with this pariah.
I was sent to an officer in the room at the end of the windows. His bookcase cabinet had tea and coffee and mugs in it and the officer himself, a man of around 50, was consuming a cheese sandwich while he stared indignantly at a clerk and said, “I’m VERY angry with you. VERY angry indeed”. After each full stop he paused and chewed for emphasis.
Then he turned to me and I showed him the nationality file thingie. He smiled and picked up the phone with a certain flourish and introduced himself to “Rushdy Beh”, lavishing lots of affandems on him as he rested his cheese sandwich on my passport. He read out the nationality file number, winking at me, and then as he waited for Rushdy Beh to do whatever the hell he does with that number he moved the receiver below his chin and said, “I always thought the English people were all fat,” while very decidedly looking at my chests.
I was slightly floored by this observation and also by the location of his gaze and afterwards thought of several responses such as “I always knew that police officers are always dicks” or just simply destroying his bookcase cabinet full of beverages on his head but at that moment the bloody man had the fate of my passport renewal quite literally between his hands and I stayed schtum.
After he had written copious and illegible notes in red pen on my application form I went back to the man at the window and presented the form to him and he again asked a million questions about my other nationality. He did not have a convincing answer as to why dual nationals have to be given the bureaucratic OK by Rushdy Bey and the perv eyeball by Mr cheese sandwich, but this is yet another price one must pay for being the product of an Egyptian woman with the temerity to marry another species.
Mohamad Adam and I had a look at the Central Security Forces, Egypt’s paramilitary rabble of young men who didn’t make the cut for the army and who are used mostly to suppress dissent. We were lucky enough to talk to a conscript, Hossam, who served during the revolution. Hossam was philosophical about his brutalization at the hands of his superiors, saying it is necessary to “make men” of the conscripts. He says however that on Friday 28 January 2011 his commanding officers – who had always told Hossam to “be a man” fled and left them.
What stayed me with the most about Hossam’s description of his life in the CSF was his account of the first time he left the camp, 35 days after he had been conscripted:
“I was so happy because I was out of the camp and seeing people. Yes, people made fun of us and swore at us and threw bottles of water at us … but it was still beautiful.”
I used to cover the long-running campaign by Ministry of Health doctors for better conditions and wages, and it was one of my favourite beats. The activist doctors (members of the Doctors Without Rights group) were tireless and inspiring and their struggle brought together all the recurring themes of Mubarak’s Egypt: state security investigations officers lurking in Syndicate corridors, an intransigent ministry, and a sclerotic syndicate run for over a decade by a double-dealing National Democratic Party corpse of a septuagenarian having an uncomfortable affair with the syndicate board of Muslim Brotherhood members who, when they were not being arrested by the regime were very happy not to rock its boat.
The syndicate head has changed (and been replaced by someone equally antique and corpse like; it seems to be some kind of rule) and now the MB find themselves running the country. But other than that everything’s the same.
Last month I went to a small press conference doctors organised at the doctors’ syndicate where mostly leftist political activists came to express solidarity with the doctors’ strike (which today entered its 41st day).
The syndicate board had clearly not been informed in advance that the press conference would be happening, and at one point the door burst open western saloon style and secretary general Abdel-Fatah Rizq strode in, hands on hips, suit jacket off a la Obama. You could almost hear his spurs chinking as, like meat in a mincing machine, he forced out pleasantries through a taut slash of a smile. The whole episode lasted less than a minute, and after he had pissed on his lamppost Rizk returned to his office.
Before the revolution doctors were fighting the government and their own syndicate. Now they have to fight the government, their own syndicate and occasionally patients themselves.
On Saturday I accompanied my friend Ghazala, who is making a video about the doctors’ strike, to Boulaq al-Dakrour General Hospital. The hospital is next to the district police station, burnt down during the revolution. The last time I had been to Boulaq was to watch a protest by Sunni Muslims demanding that Egypt’s Shia Muslims basically be hung drawn and quartered and then killed again. This area of Boulaq is a particularly grim concrete explosion of stacked bridges, fragrant rubbish and evil traffic, and the sagging hospital building watches over it all, sadly.
The hospital’s accident and emergency (A&E) department has been closed in protest since October 30, when a doctor informed relatives of a patient who needed an injection that said injection wasn’t available, and that complaints about this should be directed to the hospital manager. The relatives responded by beating him unconscious. One of his assailants turned out to be a police officer from the police station next door.
There was an eerie silence in the A&E and its dark rooms. Devoid of people, it looked even more neglected and tatty than it presumably usually does. Handwritten signs hung on broken doors and cockroaches crawled up stained walls. A friendly kitten rushed out to greet us but was ambushed by a panicked tailless adult cat who streaked out when we entered. The kitten froze in a comical gros dos. We were shown a prehistoric X-Ray machine that doesn’t work. Luckily however there is another, modern, CAT scan machine that does work but there is rarely any film to print out results. So doctors have to come down to the machine to see patient scans or patients have to provide the film themselves.
Upstairs, patients and their relatives sat in sparse rooms, alternately dark or fluorescent lit. On the almost empty neonatal ward a tiny baby in an incubator lay all alone, his chest fluttering, his eyes seeking out something. The room next door was closed because of a fire. The damage has still not been repaired. Opposite this room was another miniscule baby on a ventilator having light therapy for jaundice, his eyes covered in a mask with jaunty sunglasses drawn on it. A doctor told us that the hospital only has one functioning ventilator, and that when it is occupied parents are forced to seek out ventilators at private hospitals, funds for which they cannot always raise.
Patients are allowed to have one family member with them outside of visiting hours, and this is mostly to assist them with the things that nurses are supposed to do. So you will see people pushing their relatives around on gurneys, taking them to the toilet, bathing them. This isn’t necessarily problematic in theory except that where a relative isn’t available it means relying solely on overstretched and under motivated nurses.
We asked the doctor who was guiding us around to let us talk to hospital cleaning staff, but he couldn’t find any. The doctor asked a woman sitting at a nurses’ station how much, approximately, a cleaner’s salary is – he had heard that they earn something bonkers like LE 2 a day. Of course not, the woman said. They earn something in the range of LE 200 to LE 300 per month. The doctor laughed. “That’s my basic salary,” he said.
There was chaos at the A&R entrance of the Qasr el-Aini Hospital when my colleague Adam and I arrived on Wednesday night.
A group of men were gathered around the door carrying planks of wood, steel pipes and other assorted makeshift weapons. They were anticipating an attack following an earlier fight sparked when visitors of the revolution’s wounded receiving treatment in Qasr el-Aini reportedly objected to paying the LE 5 entrance fee. The previous week there had been a similar confrontation resulting in a huge brawl.
(The ticket system is a way of raising revenue. Patients in Ministry of Health hospitals in any case frequently have to pay for services. Under Mubarak there was a move towards privatisation of the healthcare system and given the Brothers penchant for all things capitalist there is little reason to think that this will change.)
Hospital employees were intensely suspicious of us as journalists, saying that the media has misrepresented Qasr el-Aini hospital’s side of the story by presenting it as persecuting the revolution wounded when in fact, they said, the revolution wounded are given many concessions which they abuse by bringing visitors to the hospital until 2 in the morning and smoking drugs on wards. (It also didn’t help that Adam had elected to cover the hospital wearing shibshib and tracksuit bottoms, the uniform of thugs according to the hospital staff and he was accused of being One of Them.)
(At one point an elderly man with alarming dyed red hair pushing a buggy like he was driving a speeding tank appeared in the doorway and promptly drove the buggy into my leg. Manoeuvring round me he then pushed the buggy away from him in the direction of one of the admin employees and then turned around to leave while muttering about something. Inside the buggy a girl of around two with a puffy face and orange skin sucking on a bottle stared out oblivious to the fact that she had almost just been abandoned. I saw the man later on, still pushing the buggy aimlessly.)
The revolution wounded had a different version of events.
Sayyed is an animated, frail man who was injured in the pelvis on January 28 2011. He appeared tiny in his dreary room. A Qu’ran was propped up next to a certificate of thanks for his revolution efforts. Having learnt to walk on crutches he was sent back to a wheelchair a couple of months ago when, he says, an officer tortured him. He was interviewed by Al Jazeera and insisted that while hospital security and some of the nurses treat him and others badly the hospital admin manager who took us to interview him for example is, “7abeebo”. He said that foreign doctors materialised one day and recommended that he and others be flown abroad for treatment not available in Egypt, but that this hasn’t happened.
Downstairs we found another of the revolution wounded, Osama, in an electric wheelchair holding on for dear life as his friends attempted to repair one of the wheels. They ended up by removing it entirely and assured Osama that it wouldn’t fall over. He moved forward and it listed right dangerously. His friends propped it up they trundled off.
Qasr el-Aini is meant to be one of Egypt’s best Ministry of Health* hospitals. It is vast and in relatively good repair. But there is a sadness about the place typical of anything state-owned and for the poor.
* Moftases points out that it is actually a university teaching hospital. Still public sector, but there is a distinction in funding terms. Doctors Without Rights’ Mona Mina has argued however that while the people who work in university hospitals are paid out of a different budget (Education) the institution itself falls under the Ministry of Health and thus university hospitals should be included in the strike. They are currently excluded.