Brute Force

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.”

Read the rest here.

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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The syndicate head has changed (and been replaced by someone equally antique and corpse like; it seems to be some kind of rule) and now the MB find themselves running the country.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.

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Egypt’s Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud stunned the world on Sunday when he went to work normally after being sent into space.

In a press conference held at the High Court this morning a clearly frazzled looking Mahmoud told reporters that his voyage began last week when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi invited him to his El-Tagomoa El-Khames rented flat.

Mahmoud said that Morsi informed him that he had won a “special prize”.

“I assumed that it was a free trip to the pilgrimage to Mecca, and asked him whether this was it. He did not say otherwise”, Mahmoud said, adding that president told him to bring some warm clothes because he would be going on a “special kind of nahda”.

Mahmoud was told that the trip would start in Italy, specifically at the Vatican. While he thought this was odd, Mahmoud did not question it because as he put it, “I am still exploring the dimensions of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Mahmoud arrived at the Vatican on Thursday evening with his family and was immediately separated from them when judge Hossam el-Gheryany appeared.

El-Gheryany has said in media statements that he invited Mahmoud to knock himself out and then bundle himself unconscious into the back of a van, and that Mahmoud accepted this.

When Mahmoud woke up, he was in space. The Prosecutor General said that he heard a voice in his helmet earpiece that sounded like the president saying, “It’s all done out of love. Long live Egypt. Goodbye.” Mahmoud said he heard a crowd in the background saying “Allaho akbar we lellah el 7amd” [God is great and all gratitude to God].

Mahmoud returned to earth when he launched himself off the space station and plummeted to earth. Sources close to the Public Prosecutor have suggested that, peeved at Morsi’s subterfuge, Mahmoud decided to set a new world record for the furthest jump by a pissed off public servant.

The Guinness Book of Records is currently examining Mahmoud’s claim.

Mahmoud landed at the High Court in the middle of a homosexual disco, where he was met by an emotional Ahmed El-Zind who embraced him warmly.

Responding to Mahmoud’s allegations, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman said that at the time of the events there were no Muslim Brotherhood members in space because they had all left by afternoon prayers.

Commenting, Khaled Abdallah said that any Muslim who goes to space must be stripped of a government position if he returns to earth. Abdallah has requested that this be spelled out in article 3 of the Constitution currently being drafted.

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The end of a thousand myths

Originally published in Egypt Independent.

Amongst the mourners and the angry at the march commemorating the 1st anniversary of the Maspero massacre there was an earnest young man brandishing a sign that read, “Egyptian revolution supports Mitt Romney”.

It was an oddly incongruent forum for this declaration, this sudden injection of the outside, and the now, into the memory being revived at Shubra where thousands gathered just as they had a year ago. But then the memory was being challenged in every way: numbers (smaller), weather (hotter), time march started (later), messages on placards (completely different).

Images from the 2011 march – the good and the bad – are so seared into my memory that to see it “recreated” on Tuesday was strange, a film redone with new actors. At every step I remembered the old: the woman waving the cross at protesters as they prepared to set off, the two men sitting in a boot of a car who laughed and smiled for the camera, the hymns in Galaa Street, the moment the hymns stopped.

I remember the 2011 march as having more Christian iconography than Tuesday’s, which – of course – was dominated by images of the 28 men killed, especially that of Mina Daniel’s whose many friends have ensured that he has not been forgotten. There were also plenty of nooses around pictures of ex Field Commander Hussein Tantawy and his friends, and in a new twist, anti-Muslim Brotherhood proclamations.

Approaching the Ahmed Helmy tunnel where last year protesters were pelted with rocks by unknown assailants, protesters demanded that the march stop and regroup, that it take a deep breath and move forward en masse. It did, and a chant of “the people want the execution of the Field Marshall” rattled around in the tunnel.  Last year the demand had been limited to, “the people want the removal of the Field Marshall” – but that was before the unimaginable happened.

 It had been a popular fallacy amongst some that the army would act as the Coptic minority’s protector against Egypt’s Islamic currents. And then churches were destroyed and Copts driven out of their homes on Tantawy’s watch. During Tuesday’s march furious young men burnt crude effigies of Military Council members, army uniforms stuffed with paper and topped with a cardboard cutout of the unfortunate men.

The legacy and legend of the Egyptian military is just one of the myths that has been challenged by the January 2011 revolution. Egyptian citizens have discovered that Egyptian soldiers will kill Egyptian citizens, and that at times the “one hand” slogan used to describe Christian and Muslim unity conjures up a pummeling fist, such as when individuals were attacked or arrested by groups of citizens on the night of October 9 because they are called Peter or because they were wearing a cross.

The real horror of Maspero was that it exploded so many myths at once in this almost dreamlike frenzy of violence: religious harmony, army gallantry…A boil was lanced, and the pus erupted, but the wound was never given air to heal. It was covered up, and left to fester, as is generally the way.

The physical blood and the debris had been removed from the (crime) scene by the next morning.

A group of protesters and unlucky Christian passersby were arrested and punished twice. The first time was in a room on Maspero’s ground floor, with army boots and batons, and one wonders what the cleaners made of the aftermath when they arrived the next morning. The second time, the cruelty disguised itself in legal process and involved zany charges (including against Mina Daniel) and judicial sophistry that subjected these men to three months as part of an attempt to repackage events.

When Vivian Magdy grasped the hand of her dead fiancée in a morgue in Cairo, surrounded by the blood and guts of other dead men shot or crushed to death and screamed with grief it was difficult to imagine that nobody would be held to account for their killing. But a military court earlier this year found three junior soldiers guilty of “manslaughter” for their role in driving the armed personnel carriers that killed 15 people and handed them brief prison sentences.

The trial was essentially an exercise in pummeling the truth until it resembled something more palatable. The military line was that the soldiers panicked when confronted by thousands of protesters descending on them, and drove into the crowd while trying to escape.

I had never seen people be killed before Maspero. Maybe that is why I am regularly visited by the image of the APC that climbed over an island in the middle of the road and crushed the people in its path, of the way it slowly and serenely went up the October Bridge while below it another APC circled under the same bridge and returned to the protest driving in a strange zig zag fashion at high speed, competently ploughing into anything in its path. Panic free.

Maspero was a thousand myths short-circuiting. State apparatus, notably the media, managed to contain the damage but truth can be annoyingly persistent even when it is just presented in the form of cardboard cutouts of the faces of 28 dead men and a chant, fel ganna…ya Mina. In heaven, Mina.

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The temporal world

The Sayyeda Nefissa mosque is surrounded by chaos, chaos that laps at its walls and occasionally seeps inside its doors.

The woman’s section is entered via an alleyway running along one side of its walls, an obstacle course of ever decreasing human need. From beggars, supine and supplicating, to an insistent seller of single flowers wrapped in plastic and tied with a ribbon (a gift for Nefissa), to the relative self-sufficiency of a small stall selling religious bric-a-brac.

Inside, women lie prostrate or sit or pray in the shrine’s anteroom, buffeted by the voices of three rambunctious cleaners who are as much concerned with cleaning out the pockets of the faithful as the faithful are with cleansing their souls, busily sweeping/blocking the mosque exit as they extol the beauty of the “moons” in front of them.

At the shrine itself women touch its walls as they recite Quran while on the other side of a trellis-like structure dividing them men do the same. At the end of a room an officious man in his sixties oversees proceedings, occasionally barking out orders at the squawking cleaners and even the devotional themselves.

There is a constant stream of people on this Friday early evening. A small boy wanders through the supplicants, lost in his own reverie – of crisp eating. Another woman, dressed in a black baggy tunic reclines against a wall, cheek in palm staring into the middle distance. She interrupts this to suddenly and without warning prostrate herself in prayer, almost throwing herself flat onto the ground until her thin form is submerged in her clothes so that she resembles the wicked witch of the west met her comeuppance.

There was a drama inside the mosque this Friday evening. With great bluster a woman – still wearing her shoes –  swept into the anteroom and declared that she had been robbed while at the shrine. One of the cleaners, a particularly active woman in her early 70s wearing a green khimar matched with a long necklace of prayer beads immediately launched into action and declared that she would find the thief. The doors to the shrine room were shut, to no clear end. The thief had gone. The officious man, armed with a long metal ruler began imperiously demanding that women at the shrine leave, and was mostly ignored. He focused his attention on a woman sat on the floor.

– Stop begging and get out, he said.

– Don’t push it, the woman replied.

The man declared that he would summon someone to remove her. The woman looked the other way and continued eating.

There is a donations box next to the shrine. A woman opened up her purse and moved the single note of LE 10 out of the way to get at a few coins, which she dropped in the box. Another woman gave guavas to the officious man and the cleaners and anyone else who crossed her path.

The cacophony of it all was pierced by the call to the 3isha prayer, beautiful but loud, pumped out on the mosque speakers. But even at top volume it could not drown out the sound of the fight coming from the alleyway outside. The cleaners took their brooms and immediately went to inspect it.

It was two robust matrons, eyeballing each other, screaming threats and invective. One of them worked on the stall they were standing at. A group of people watched. A young girl of around 16 sat on a stool at the stall and became increasingly agitated until suddenly a youth of around the same age or younger suddenly flung himself on her and viciously attacked her, dragging her out of her seat and along the ground. One of the matrons hit her on the back with both hands. She was punched and pulled across the narrow alley until one of the cleaners, a determined septugarian, intervened and led her into the mosque, sobbing and distraught, seeking refuge. It was impossible to tell how the fight had begun or what it was about.

The robust matron sat on a plastic chair and answered a mobile phone call as if nothing was happening, interrupting it only to entreat the young man not to follow the girl into the mosque as he took his shoes off. He went in briefly anyway.

The cleaner who had rescued the girl appeared.

– Come inside again and I’ll give you fucking hell, she promised the boy. He skulked away.

The fury lingered as the prayers began. A man had watched the violence impassively – he started reciting Quran halfway through while spectating. He left. The robust matron took up her sentry position at the stall again as the sound of the prayers floated out into the tormented night and disintegrated above a young woman who emerged from the mosque in tears and pressed her face into the wall, arms by her side, perfectly still apart from the sobs rippling her body. Opposite her, somebody had twice written in a strange curling font on the mosque wall, “I seek forgiveness from God”.

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Video: Humiliation of the President’s member

749 Muslim Brotherhood youths and nearly 1,000 angry citizens gathered on Thursday to peacefully express their fury at the humiliation of the member and testicles of President Mohamed Morsi.

During an official visit to the United States, President Morsi met the respectable lady, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia. The President’s member was subjected to an excessive assault when he shook hands with his member, one of the most important guests of the meeting and in conformity with international protocol. A television camera approached within three metres of the President’s member, a clear violation of international norms.

During the demonstration, held outside the wing dedicated to the President’s member of the presidential Ittihadeyya Palace, protesters chanted against the humiliation of the member and held up banners bearing slogans such as, “your member is a red line” and “we love you, oh member”.

Demonstrator Fakhry Ezz Eddin said, “we cannot be silent about what happened and we will sacrifice all our members for the President’s member”. Muslim Brotherhood lawyer Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud meanwhile said that the group has decided to raise legal action against the camera in international courts. Abdel-Maqsoud warned of probable attacks on the satellite dish in Maadi as well as Hollywood studios, and warned that every camera in the world will be destroyed. The lawyer emphasised that the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with these attacks, which will happen on Friday.

MB spokesman Yasser Ali meanwhile reaffirmed that there is no link between the President’s shaking hands with his member and the presence of the honourable lady PM Julia Gillard next to him.

Doctor Safwat Hegazy accused the camera and studio employees of trying to stall the President’s success and stated that it is the right of the president to adjust his testicles at any time and in any place, whether in Egypt or abroad. Hegazy added, “it was very clear that the President was sitting on a chair made of polyester”.

Speaking in a video uploaded to his Youtube channel, preacher Wagdy Ghoneim expressed his anger at the constant war targeting Islam.

“If it was Obama who had adjusted his testicles nobody would have said anything. But when it’s Morsi – defender of the Sharia…” Hegazy said.

Ghoneim added that what Morsi did is not forbidden religiously because, “he shook hands with the member and adjusted the testicles without looking into the eyes of the profligate woman sitting next to him. I only blame Morsi for one thing,” Ghoneim said, “I say to Dr Morsi, ‘Dr Morsi, how could you accept to sit with this woman exposing her knees like Ilham Shaheen?” Ghoneim asked, a reference to the Egyptian actress.

The Salafi Advisory Council of Clerics meanwhile issued a statement broadcast by Khaled Abdallah on the El-Nas satellite channel in which they reaffirmed their rejection of such acts impinging on the President’s member and demanded an international law criminalising such acts, which diminish the standing of Morsi’s member, unacceptable since it is considered that Morsi will probably be the next Caliphate of the Muslims in the modern era.

Disgraceful video here.

Arabic news source here.

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A letter from Dr Ahmed Shafiq


Hello, my dears,

Dr Ahmed Shafiq here.

Well, as you know I am on the doorstep of victory. In fact, I am inside the house of victory but I mustn’t say anything about that just yet. That presumptuous upstart terrorist claims that he is in the house of victory, even before official results are out. He entered through the back door and thinks he can make all the furniture face Mecca. Are we not Muslims too??

Yesterday, in between phone calls with my campaign team I took a short break to go the club. I had woken up feeling headachy and a bit nauseous, as I often do, and also I wanted to make contact with the Egyptian people. I took my friend Madame Shoushou with me. On the way I talked to my driver, Gomaa. He could hardly drive because of the tears of happiness running down his face when I told him that I have, in fact, mostly won. Now I am President. Hussein just needs to sign off on it after Farouk and Bagato have spent some time with the numbers.

I am excited about being president; it will take me back to the old airport days. You may have gone through the new airport terminal and seen my handiwork. It is five stars. I modeled it on the gazebo in my summerhouse and a Turkish company built it for me at a very good price.

Anyway I was talking about going to the club. I took over driving because as I said, Gomaa was too emotional so he sat in the back and Madame Shoushou, a Christian lady, sat in the front because I believe in a civil state of rights for all.

Madame Shoushou told me about problems her daughter was having with their new maid. The complete economic collapse of the country caused by constant Muslim Brotherhood riots means that they can no longer afford their previous nanny, a woman from Eritrea. They have been forced to employ an Egyptian woman, a peasant from Boulaq Abol Ela who has given them no end of problems. The children now all speak in the most vulgar way and it has been agreed that she keep conversation with the kids to a minimum.

Gomaa was emotional because Egyptian people are often like this, especially when they are illiterate. As I was driving we were confronted by a horrible sight. A microbus full of the urban poor driving the wrong way down the highway!! I was forced to swerve the Mercedes into the hard shoulder at breakneck speed. As I did so, the foul microbus driver caught and maintained eye contact with me.

He gave me a look as if to say, “what you going to do about it, you cunt?!?” What could I say!? Madame Shoushou by this time had completely collapsed and was lamenting the lost days of Habib. We have been at the mercy of a tidal wave of crime and chaos for 15 months. And the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists plan to turn the Interior Ministry into a madrassa! God help Egypt.

We recovered on the side of the road with a restorative drink. We noticed that we had almost been killed in this incident due to a flat tyre and so another drink was needed. Gomaa took over the driving from thereon in, Madame Shoushou told me later.

My dears, things weren’t like this so long ago, and they can be better. Here is a secret: the revolution didn’t begin on January 25 2011, it was interrupted. It began in 2010 when Gamal started doing his revolutionary televised town hall meetings with Egypt’s youth. Young people are impetuous and impatient however. If they had waited I think we could have gone from A to Z without all the painful letters in between. Gamal never wanted to become president – Hussein would never have allowed it in any case – he was a visionary who saw that things needed changing, but gradually.

We are 7,000 years old. Egyptians are an obedient people but they have been led astray by certain characters like that yob Essam Sultan. Essam is a cheap security agent licking his wounds after he was thrown out of that terrorist organisation the Muslim Brotherhood. I will make him realise his true size within 24 hours of being declared (officially) president. Him and that dentist, Alaa, who I humiliated on television last year.

I will fix traffic within 24 hours of becoming president. Egyptians deserve better and they have nothing to fear from me unless they are being troublesome. I open my heart and also my office to members of the revolutionary youth like Hussein Ghandour and Ahmed Zbaydar, and I will build youth clubs for the Ultras.

My campaign team has been giving me very positive feedback about my television appearances on Egypt’s satellite talk shows. If I am honest, I find these appearances gruelling. It seems that I have an allergy to certain materials found in TV studios that make me sleepy and cause me to slur my words. Still, my message got through to the Egyptian public as in the first round I beat that Communist and that Islamist and also Amr, who displayed shockingly bad taste in running against me

I have faith in my campaign spokesman, Sarhan, who is under constant attack from thugs because of his relentless speaking of the truth in the face of liars and also Al Ahram election result figures. El-Ayyat’s riffraff in Tahrir Square think they are fooling us. They are in for a surprise, Hussein told me yesterday.

My dears, this is the end of my message. I was up all night last night celebrating with my followers and also worrying about Hosny, who had another of his brief turns. But I want to leave you with a piece of advice I read in one of my Sufi spiritualism books.

“If you tried to bring people over to your artificial side today, you might make some elements hate you more, just because they’re not on your side today”.

Lieutenant General and also Doctor and mostly President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Ahmed Shafiq.

PHd, The National Strategy of Outer Space.


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Long & never ending, just like the transitional period itself

1-0, mothafuckers.

On the way to Baharmos on Wednesday, lost in Giza’s rural fringe, I saw a group of three men attacking a single man, one of them armed with a plank of wood. They were crossing the road as they did this, all the while pounding their victim insistently. Nearby, a group of men sat on chair outside shops observed with their arms crossed.

It was an inauspicious start to the day. In a polling station in Baharmos – home town of Hazem Abo Ismail, the Salafi sheikh who had his presidential dreams crushed because his mother had American nationality – we found a group of Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh campaigners in matching fluorescent orange safety vests gathered around a laptop.

We asked them how things were going, and they immediately launched into an impassioned complaint about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they said were influencing female voters by telling them that a vote for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi would take them to heaven.

A man on a motorbike who overheard the latter part of the conversation interjected, calling them liars, and the inevitable back and forth ensued until we buggered off inside the polling station.

A woman who had just finished voting told me she chose Morsi, “because he is a man of the book and will serve us”.

At the men’s section of this polling station I asked a queue of voters who would get their tick, and it was non-stop Morsi and Aboul-Fotouh, Aboul-Fotouh and Morsi with the occasional Ahmed Shafiq thrown in for variety. This was repeated at almost every polling station I went to in these rural parts other than one in Manashey, El-Qanater.

Voters in this polling station were extraordinary, and not only because I stumbled across the lyricist for Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, the multiple-watch wearing singer famous internationally for “I hate Israel” (the lyricist, a cheerful man in a red baseball hat voted for Shafiq because Shaaban is voting Moussa. “That way we have all bases covered,” he chuckled).

Almost every candidate got a vote in that polling station. A group of four friends were voting for Aboul-Fotouh, Sabahy, Shafiq and Khaled Ali. Elsewhere in the queue there were Moussa and Morsi fans. I found no explanation for the variety of political views in this ordinary countryside town.

Leaving behind the fields we went to Imbaba, the urban conurbation on the edge of Cairo that has spilt into Giza’s countryside.

There we found a group of women in a queue who half-smilingly refused to disclose who they were voting for with a sort of flirtatious resentment. “These are our secrets,” one of them said as she bustled away a child.

I found a lone Mohamed Selim El-Awa supporter in that queue, who said that he was supporting him because he is a good person. There was also a Shafiq man, voting for him because he “has promised to restore security and can do it”.

Security and God were recurring themes in the queues – and they found their expression in the final result. In Sudan Street on the edge of Imbaba a man told me he voted Moussa because “Egypt is a nest around which 5 or 6 eagles are circling” and it needs an “experienced, strong, leader”.

It was halfway through the day that I realised that most of Egypt – or at least my acquaintances and political commentators who had pontificated on his chances –  had been fooled by Ahmed Shafiq. He had been dismissed as a buffoon, and the reception he had been given during public appearances (shoes launched at his head, mobbed and forced to seek refuge in a mosque in Qena) had been interpreted as representing voters as a whole.

On the evening of the second day I attended a count in a polling station in Dokki, the same polling station I voted in. This polling station, a classroom in the El-Medina School, was presided over by a well-groomed, tall judge with an Errol Flynn moustache and a handgun strapped to his waist. He kept a tight ship, barking out instructions at his staff in a sonorous voice while keeping things light with the occasional joke.

He insisted that the count be carried out in complete silence from start to finish, and it was. Anyone who knows Egypt will realise what an achievement this is. The count was attended by campaign representatives (Morsi, Sabahy, Aboul-Fotouh and Moussa) and NGO monitors from a local group and the Arab League. A couple of army soldiers and police observed at the classroom door.

The judge chose an unorthodox method for the count, if the counting I saw subsequently on TV is anything to go by. The votes were firstly unfolded and laid flat on top of each other in piles. Then they were arranged into bundles of around 100 and tied together with some black string. This took about half an hour (there were nearly 3,000 votes). Then he sat down at the teacher’s table and grasped the first bundle of votes in his hands. He announced that everyone should shut up because he wouldn’t repeat himself. He cut the first string. Ready? Go.

He read out candidate numbers. Everyone had drawn up a chart with the candidates’ names and we put marks next to their names every time a number was called. Sabahy was 10. Shafiq 9. Moussa 4. Aboul-Fotouh 5. Khaled Ali 12. Morsi 13.

The judge went at breakneck speed, and the silence with which it was conducted leant it the solemnity of a religious ritual. We paused after every bundle, a couple of times for a cigarette break and once for the Aboul-Fotouh representative, who fussily requested that she be allowed to move closer to the civil servant noting down the official count.

A rhythm was soon established, variations on 4, 9, 5, 10. There was the occasional Khaled Ali, El-Awa and two Abol-Ezz El-Hariris. It soon became clear that Moussa, Sabahy and Shafiq were leading. I saw that on one vote a voter had written “yes” instead of a tick next to Shafiq’s name, referendum style.

Attending the vote was one of the most wonderful moments of the election, better even than voting.

To witness it was deceptively empowering, and I left with the feeling that this was democracy made tangible through the corporality of these votes carefully indexed by the strict judge. In the Mubarak days counting took place in central polling stations, giving much scope for funny business and fights as the ballot boxes made their precarious journey to them. I left the polling station abuzz – even though my guy Hamdeen did come second to Moussa.

Everything came crashing down the next day when the disaster of the Shafiq numbers became clear. The bumbling, uncouth, irate idiot had come second to Morsi. Sabahy was third. I spent Friday alternating between soaring hope and searing desperation as results trickled in and for the first time in 16 months experienced that special brand of fear that the National Democratic Party inspires, the sense of some imminent evil.

Events in Egypt appear absurd, often tragically absurd. How is it that a mediocre septuagenarian, a former prime minister appointed by Mubarak and removed by Tahrir Square protests, who was publicly roasted during a television appearance in 2011, is now in the runoffs?

In between the hand wringing and cheek slapping a host of theories have been put forward the most popular of which is that it was a vote against political Islam. But why didn’t they vote for Moussa, whose ran on the same stability, security and secularism ticket? Another is that Shafiq is the army’s candidate, with all the advantages attendant on this. There have been allegations of fraud, but none that I have come across have been substantiated.

The idea that people voted for Shafiq of their own volition is distinctively unsettling, both cognitively and emotionally – but only if you believe in January 25 2011 and are willing (or able to) to ride out the ups and downs that have come in its wake because you have a conviction that something better is on the horizon. For everyone else, Shafiq has marketed himself as a safe harbour in a storm, the man who will restore law and order within 24 hours of being elected.

I felt this most acutely on the second day of the elections in Fayoum. In one petrol station the queue for fuel (there has been a fuel shortage for some months now) was longer than any of the polling stations queues of voters I saw.

In a hotel on Fayoum’s beautiful, still lake, in the broiling early afternoon heat, we stopped for sustenance and sat by the lake to have a cup of tea. A man in a rowboat appeared, the sad-looking little vessel fitted out with a canopy of old sheets to keep out the sun.

He invited us to go on a ride around the lake, we could take our tea with us. It was a tempting offer, to briefly escape it all on that serene water. The hotel waiter came out and said that we weren’t allowed to take our tea on the rowboat, resolutely ignoring the rowboat man’s protests that he would return everything intact.

There being zero other customers, the rowboat man, Farag, stuck around and shot the shit with us. He was a gentle man somewhere in his 30s who said he wasn’t sure he would go and vote, but if he did he would vote for Shafiq. He rejected the idea of voting for an Islamist candidate because he had heard that they would “attack tourism”, and tourism is already on its knees, he said – nobody comes to the lake anymore.

Crime had increased in the area since the revolution. He mentioned no positive change in his life since February 2011.

In the old days he voted for “the camel” (the NDP symbol). We suggested that he should vote, giving him the spiel about making a difference and his voice being heard and all that bullshit. We advocated voting for anyone except Moussa or Shafiq because they were connected to the old regime.

Farag sat there, being rocked up and down gently on his decrepit boat, politely listening to us. Without meaning to present him as representing anyone other than himself, the election results show that Farag’s priorities are shared by at least 5 million other voters. He wants food on the table, security and enough money to pay both rent to the boat’s owner and the fee demanded by fire services officials for their services.

He didn’t during our 15-minute conversation mention freedom or living in dignity or democracy or human rights or military rule. His only mention of the old regime was to say that some of its members used to build illegally on the shores of the lake before the revolution.

Now all these things might matter to Farag but they don’t seem to be his priority. Shafiq, who has continually bored us with his security rhetoric, addresses his priorities in a way that other candidates fail to do.

It’s not that Aboul-Fotouh and company told voters that they must put up with their homes being looted and their womenfolk raped in the streets while we turn Egypt into Switzerland, rather that the emphasis was different.

Another, crucial, factor is Shafiq’s connection to the old regime. There is a critical mass of Egyptian voters who regard this as an asset, rather than a fault. For them, Shafiq is the strongman who understands Egypt and Egyptians and knows how to keep them in check – unlike the refined diplomat Amr Moussa and the Tahrir Square and Muslim Brotherhood upstarts.

A couple of people on my Facebook have talked about Shafiq’s “experience” as qualifying him for the job. Shafiq was Minister of Civil Aviation for 10 years and is constantly crowing about the Cairo Airport terminal built on his watch. Read this for more about that marvel. As Kamal El-Ganzoury and Essam Sharaf have demonstrated, previous government experience is no indicator of capability. By “experience” these people might mean that Shafiq is a wide boy who knows how the system works in Egypt and will get his hands dirty to keep it ticking over.

Keeping the system intact is obviously what the network of individuals who benefited from the Mubarak regime want. More importantly Shafiq has tapped into the fears of the millions of people who didn’t necessarily benefit under the Mubarak regime but whose situation hasn’t improved after the revolution, either.

To dismiss Shafiq supporters outright as felool (regime remnants, a disparaging term used to describe anyone connected with the old regime) is a fundamental mistake. It alienates them. I don’t think Farag is felool.

The real problem is that The Former Regime is spoken of like it is an inanimate object, some lurking monster growling in the corner when in fact – and this isn’t breaking news – the regime is the people themselves.

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I was on the metro the other day when there was a kerfuffle; shouts and screams. This was in the women only carriage, so it was a high-pitched mass shriek that cut through the usual human and mechanical cacophony.

A loose circle had formed, concealing something at its centre. Suddenly a furious-looking sweaty youth appeared in the middle, his clothes worn and filthy, his body humped over crutches, his face on the border between fury and tears. He raised one hand and attempted to strike a girl in front of him. The crowd went ooooh. The girl pushed him back, so he raised one of his crutches and bashed her with it, rather unsuccessfully. Each time his crutch went up, the spectators said laaaa2 or oooh or aihhh until it came down, and it was as if he was conducting a choir. Eventually the object of his anger was persuaded by her friend to retreat. As she did so she screeched, “ezzay yemed 2eedo 3alaya ya Shayma!” [How dare he put his hand on me, Shayma!]

When the train pulled into Demerdash Station the women begin banging on the windows and doors and signaling to bemused commuters to apprehend the young man, who was now moving through the horrified passengers Moses and Red Sea style. He calmly got off the train, went along the platform and got in the next carriage. The doors closed on the tragedy and he and the singing ladies were gone.

I had witnessed a happier Metro scene a few months earlier and it stuck with me. I was again in a crowded carriage when a middle-aged man appeared and began talking to no one in particular. I thought he was nuts, because he didn’t immediately to be selling anything (vendors are legion on the metro). He was talking in a strange mix of Arabic and English (“in this bag there is a surprise” and “this is a great commodity”) and picking out individual commuters to address his spiel to. It was completely baffling.

My friend suddenly leaned over and said to me, “3assaleya” [a type of sweet made out of honey].

“Oskot ba2a!” [Be quiet!], the man hissed out of the side of his mouth, barely breaking rhythm, as my friend smirked.

He recommenced the strange sales spiel and then he produced some 3assaleya. It turned out that 3assaleya promotion was his job, and that he had been at it on the metro for years.

There is all kinds of industry on the Metro. In the Sadat station the chaos of the informal settlement above ground in Tahrir Square has seeped down into its tunnels. There is a row of sellers offering commuters white wind up toy cats, tissues (5 packs for LE 10, a good deal) mobile phone paraphernalia and men’s clothing, arranged on blankets or heaped in suitcases. The tissue sellers build tissue walls around themselves and sit in the middle waiting for customers. The wind up cats go round in circles, like the commuters.

Inside the carriages all kinds of shit is sold, from ladies’ tights to hairbands to booklets containing illustrated stories of the prophets’ doings. The other day two men got on the train I was in and one produced a courgette that he held aloft before proceeding to gut, using a coring device. He was a natural born seller, and I bought one with the intention of one day overcoming the skin-tingling disgust I feel during the gynecological stage of vegetable stuffing.

So there is this little thriving underground market in parts of the Metro, operating in Egypt’s famous post-revolution security vacuum, perhaps the only consistent feature of Egypt’s transition. It is unorganised and chaotic and the vendors are usually the poorest of the poor. Despite all the negative aspects, I like that they have reclaimed public space and are using it to good purpose.

I’m going on about this because I want to remember these little scenes, Cairo’s extraordinary ordinariness, when I look back and reflect at these mental two years in Egypt (and wonder how it all went so wrong).

Since February 2011, Egypt has been hurtling down a motorway at night with the headlights off, in fog. It has frequently been an unpleasant, nausea-inducing, journey but we had some good laughs on the way, even during the tragedies, and that is largely thanks to firstly, the fact that SCAF and politicians are clueless, bumbling wankers and, secondly, Egyptians like to have a laugh.

Sometimes things have been really surreal, like when I was In Abbaseyya during the recent clashes and as gunshots echoed around us and a stampede of fleeing protesters charged down a residential street behind us a man on a motorbike said to no one in particular, “the best thing about the Egyptian people is that they like to run”.

Now, of course, everything is elections, and surrealism has reached danger levels. Last month I stood outside a law court as hundreds of jubilant men released fireworks and hugged each other in celebration of the news that the Interior Ministry had no record that Salafi sheikh Hamdeen Hazem Abo Ismail’s mother had American nationality, and he could therefore run in the elections.

Except that she did, and so then he was out. And then there is that dimwit Ahmed Shafiq, who we could ignore if he didn’t actually have a fan base of individuals who think that he will take them back to the good old days when you could walk down an Egyptian street without fear of crime because somebody, somewhere was having the shit kicked out of them in a police station.

Last week I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally for Mohamed Morsi, the man chosen to replace Khayrat El-Shater when he was eliminated from the presidential race. It was full of families on a day out buying Morsi badges and Morsi caps and Morsi flags.

The noise and crowd were intolerable so my friend Adam and I buggered off early, but before we did, we recorded a video of Adam doing his 7ag Fakhry persona, in which he imitates a middle-aged man who mostly has no clue what is going on but attends political rallies in the hope of getting LE 50 or free food. So far el 7ag Fakhry has been to rallies for Morsi, Mohamed Selim El-Awa and Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotooh. El-Awa actually did have a free open buffet but alas he still doesn’t have a hope in hell. El 7ag Fakhry is voting for Amr Moussa because his men hand out cash most regularly.

Anyway at this rally we finished recording the video and were set upon by a gentleman brandishing a mobile phone who accused Adam of “imitating the Muslim Brotherhood” and threatened to put his image online, presumably so that unsuspecting members of the public do not entrust him with their votes, or their souls. After establishing that the man was not taking the piss, Adam told him to do as he pleased and an altercation developed until it was interrupted by a man in white trousers and deck shoes who repeatedly kissed Adam on his forehead and led him away.

The man in the white trousers turned out to be an MB organiser, disguised as a liberal. He apologised profusely for what had happened, and there then followed half an hour of apologies and discussion. I was accosted by a woman called Madame Marwa, who was also very nice and emitted a series of apologies.

She gave me a little flag bearing Morsi’s image, and wanted to write on it “with best wishes from Madame Marwa” but neither of us had a pen. She made me promise to remember her; Madame Marwa, who wishes you all the best in the world.

The funnest election experience so far however has been at the hands (ahem) of Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahy. Hamdeen has an open top double decker bus that he has converted into a Hamdeenmobile. He invited journalists on it on Sunday.

First there was endless hanging around in his headquarters (mostly painted green, apparently his favourite colour) as his campaign staff ran up and down stairs. There was a sign hanging on the stairs reading, “going up is absolutely, categorically prohibited” and I hoped this wasn’t somehow a statement about his election chances.

We eventually got on the bus and it was lovely to feel Cairo’s clean air rushing through my hair as the not at all too hot sun pounded down on my cranium. The campaign kids immediately started playing this song, which I liked at first but had reservations about three hours later:

I asked a young man why he was voting Hamdeen and he said because he is honest, and decent and has always made sacrifices to defend people’s rights. He thinks that labour lawyer and presidential candidate Khaled Ali is too young and inexperienced for the job but is otherwise a good geezer.

Loads of people I’ve spoken to have echoed this idea that Hamdeen is decent and honest and politically clean. The man himself eventually appeared an hour into the trip and was followed up to the top deck by a pack of about 7 thousand photographers who immediately raised some physics questions about the bus’ stability.

Hamdeen was his usual, smooth self, all smiles and winks and waves. In addition to being impressed by his activism (although not his partiality to certain Arab dictators), I have a teeny weeny little crush on Hamdeen, who is arguably the most charming presidential candidate. At least his trouser waistband is at a normal height, Doctor Abdel-Meneim Aboul-Fotouh.

I ended up (god knows how but it might have involved me requesting this) having my photo taken with Hamdeen but this mutated into me becoming the future first lady:

This photo is by Robert Stothard and I hope he doesn't mind me using it.

Out of a concern that this picture may be used by remnants of the former regime against Hamdeen (he keeps company with female foreign spies) let it be known that that hand which may or not be my hand was on Hamdeen’s arm because I was being crushed against the bus’s stair rails and Hamdeen was leaning in dangerously close in the crush of the crowd which wasn’t altogether unpleasant.

I will likely vote for Hamdeen, but this is largely a vote against (felool, Morsi) rather than a positive vote for anything. Democracy is crap and unsatisfying and the army will likely bollocks something up again, but every time I see an election poster, or a debate, or people arguing over which candidate is least crap I feel genuine excitement at the possibility that at last, now, there is the possibility of something different. Maybe even something better.*

* Although it looks like Moussa or Morsi will win.


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It never fucking ends 3

Thomas Friedman’s theories on the Middle East have never been relevant. He’s been a guest columnist before for Inanities and we’re lucky enough to have another contribution from him today, an expansion on this.

Shuttling between luxury hotels in the woken up Arab world I have been struck by how few new moustaches have emerged from the really huge ginormous frying pan fire here. By new moustaches, I don’t just mean facial hair that sits idly on top lips forgotten about, I mean MOUSTACHES like mine – hair that bears witness to me telling the Arab people the truth over and over and over and over and over again in the hope that eventually they will take notice and move their backwards societies forward.

Discussing this problem with my Arab fixers, I am always quick to note in a way that tells them “hey, this guy is not patronising us” that my own country – not to mention Europe – has a similar problem. There is a global Thomas Friedman moustache vacuum. But in the Arab world today it is particularly problematic, because Arabs always fuck everything up worse than white people, especially when they don’t listen to my Thomas Friedman moustache and me. Every one of these countries that was fast asleep but is now awake in case you haven’t noticed my sleep theme needs to make the transition from empty top lip to Thomas Friedman moustache without getting stuck in beard.

Why has the Arab awakening produced so few moustaches? It’s partly because important and complicated stuff is still happening in Egypt and Yemen the nuances of which would ruin my tinpot theory so I won’t get into it here. They are technical explanations, but I find they ruin an opinion piece. There are deeper factors at work based largely on my own ignorance and prejudice. Let’s take a look at them at length.

One is the big hole that was made while these societies were sleeping. A big, deep hole formed under the yoke of dictatorship. I once saw it while reporting from my hotel room in Cairo in 1987. As I looked at it, and looked at Arabs scuttling around it going to smoke their shishas and beat their multiple wives, I thought, who will tell these people how much time has been wasted on the reading and writing of my columns? Who will tell these cretins that for the last 30 years I have peddled a theory that oppression and dictatorships are alright as long as people – ALL people – can buy iPads and everyone has a Thomas Friedman moustache?

Now that dictators are being swept away, Islamist parties are trying to fill the void. Who will tell the people that while Islam is a great and glorious faith as long as it is not practiced by Muslims it is not “the answer” for Arab development today?

The answer is that my Thomas Friedman moustache and I will tell them that duvets are the answer. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both very hot countries and people sleep in Air Conditioning which requires a duvet. They are used to using duvets. Egypt and Tunisia have very little duvets, they use threadbare blankets. They will need to acquire duvets from Ikea, and this needs money. Will the rising fundamentalist maniacs be prepared to cut back on rockets to bomb Israel in order to purchase these duvets?

Who will tell the people that, yes blankets are a form of duvets but their most corrupt mutation, but the correct answer now is not to go back to fleece lined pyjamas. The answer is a system of properly managed duvets.

Who will tell Arabs that they have as much talent as young people anywhere? The answer is me. They weren’t wondering about this but I – a middle-aged swindler whose only talent is massacring the English language in unthought-of of ways – will tell them anyway, because I was put on this earth to plague Arabs.

And then there is the Sunni-Shiite divide in Syria, Bahrain and Iraq, or the Palestinian-Bedouin divide in Jordan, or the Muslim-Coptic Christian divide in Egypt. I won’t mention the Palestinian-Israeli divide here because that would involve censuring the region’s only democracy. In any case Israel has a lot on its plate at the moment: Palestinian terrorists keep throwing themselves in prison without charge and peacefully refusing to eat. The very existence of Israel is under threat.

Without a Thomas Friedman moustache there is too little trust in the room (a room I have conjured up from nowhere because my columns require at least four awful analogies) to do big, hard things together, and everything that these Arab societies need to today is big and hard like my moustache in a snowstorm and can only be done together. Who will tell these fucking people that Arab societies have no time anymore to be consumed by these sectarian divisions because there are New York Times columns to be read?

The new-generation leaders in Morocco, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates DO have the legitimacy to pull people together even though if I bothered to inquire I would find that this in fact, complete shite. A recent report found that more young Arabs want to live in the United Arab Emirates than any other state because it has quilts and its leaders have a penchant for moustaches like mine.

Moustaches matter. Who will tell the people? The answer is me and my Thomas Friedman moustache, again and a fucking gain.

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