Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Egypt is ablaze with conspiracy theories

-Cairo - August 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'

As fires go, this one was as farcical as it was spectacular. Egypt's Shura council building, a magnificent 19th century palace now home to the upper house of parliament, stood engulfed in flames, belching thick black smoke over downtown Cairo as helicopters ferried buckets from the Nile. Firefighters at the site were paralysed by a lack of water, only to be drenched from above as the choppers missed their target. The thousands of Egyptians who had thronged into sidestreets to witness one of the country's most venerable political institutions descend into a raging inferno were highly amused. "I'm just sorry parliament wasn't in session," remarked one bystander.

A week on and the embers have finally died down, but Cairo remains ablaze with conspiracy theories about the fire and an explosive cynicism about the government's role in the events. The majority of Egypt's citizens have long been scornful of their pseudo-democratic institutions, which are generally viewed as toothless rubber-stamps for the autocratic presidency of Hosni Mubarak, an American-backed "ally" of the west who has become one of the Arab world's longest-serving rulers. But the destruction of the Shura council building, which played host to the famous trial of nationalist hero Ahmed Orabi in 1881 and the signing of Egypt's first constitution in 1923, has galvanised the country's growing opposition movement and left Mubarak's regime on the defensive.

Question marks over the official version of events – the government initially claimed that an electrical short circuit sparked the blaze – began to emerge even while the council still smouldered. By the next morning, controversial claims were flowing thick and fast into independent media outlets and the blogosphere: no proper fire-protection system was installed in the building; fire trucks permanently stationed within five minutes of the site allegedly took two-and-a-half hours to begin tackling the blaze; a group of engineering workers in the council ran upstairs with fire extinguishers when the fire first broke out only to find their way mysteriously blocked by state security officials. The most incendiary allegations were splashed on the front page of the left-leaning daily newspaper al-Badeel, which linked these strange occurrences with the destruction of the building's parliamentary archive. Among the papers reduced to ashes by the fire were documents relating to high-profile and ongoing corruption cases against business figures with close links to the president. The state-owned printing presses were ordered not to print al-Badeel and the newspaper never made it on to the street, although pdfs of the banned edition soon spilled on to the web.

One of the highest-ranking former members of the state security apparatus – General Fouad Alam, who now works as a counter-terrorism expert – soon fanned the flames by observing that the cause must have been arson, contradicting the establishment line. Every possible other motive has spread around the city's network of loquacious taxi-drivers, with some claiming the government wanted to sell off the council's land to developers (impossible before the fire as the building was listed as an historic monument by the Supreme Council of Antiquities) and others insisting the fire was meant to distract from the resignation of another unpopular dictator, the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf. "Hosni asked his aides, 'Which authority in Pakistan endorsed Musharraf's resignation?'" runs a joke currently doing the rounds. "They replied, 'The parliament.' Mubarak shouted, 'Burn ours down.'"

Claims that the parliament was destroyed as part of a valuable land-grab are believed because the government has spent the last decade selling off so many national assets in scandal-ridden privatisation deals. Using the fire as a distraction from Musharraf also seems a plausible strategy for a leader who continues to keep his one-time presidential opponent Ayman Nour locked up in jail on trumped up forgery charges.

But it is the tale of the incinerated corruption files that has gained the most traction, largely because corruption has been a particularly hot topic in Egypt ever since the courts' decision earlier this month to acquit Mamduh Ismail, a ferry operator with strong ties to the Mubarak regime, of any responsibility for the sinking of one of his boats six years ago, in which more than a thousand Egyptians drowned. The decision produced a wave of popular outrage at a time when the government is facing a huge increase in strikes and protests over the rising cost of living and the failure of political reform. "There is a different, more radical mood in the country today," observed Hamdi Qenawi, an activist speaking at a recent meeting of tax collectors who are trying to form an independent trade union. "Fear from the regime is much less than it used to be."

For Yaser al-Zayat, managing editor of al-Badeel, the importance of the fire lies not in the truth or falsehood of the conspiracies, but in the insight they offer into the nature of the Egyptian government's relationship with its people: "The regime is getting weaker. That's why the government is resorting to indirect censorship."

If nothing else, last week's blaze should be a wake-up call to the west of just how volatile this nation has become under Mubarak's stifling rule.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Conspiracy claims after Egypt parliament fire

-Cairo - August 2008
-Taken from The Times

When the first flames began to lick the walls of the Shoura building, a 19th-century palace in the heart of Cairo, only a few passers-by noticed. Two hours later the palace, which houses the upper assembly of the Egyptian parliament, was an inferno and thousands watched helicopters ferrying buckets of water from the Nile as black smoke bellowed over the capital.

By the time the fire was beaten, leaving one fireman dead and 16 injured, Cairo was filled with conspiracy theories.

The official account, which identified an electrical short circuit as the cause, has been contradicted by a stream of evidence leaked to independent newspapers and blogs, leaving the Government's credibility in tatters.

Some specialists — including General Fouad Alam, a former high-ranking state security official who now works as a terrorism expert — have suggested that only arson could have been the cause, provoking fierce debate over who would have gained from the burning of the palace.

One answer could lie in the ashes of the parliamentary library, where papers related to a series of corruption cases were held. Business figures linked to President Mubarak have been implicated recently in scandals ranging from the supply of contaminated blood bags to hospitals to a train fire in Upper Egypt that killed 370 passengers. Last month the courts acquitted Mamduh Ismail, a ferry operator and member of the upper house, of any responsibility for the sinking of one of his boats in 2006 that led to more than a thousand people drowning — a verdict that caused outrage.

“Arson is a safe way in Egypt for corrupt officials to get rid of important documents and files,” claimed Mohsen Radi, an MP for the Muslim Brotherhood organisation.

The daily newspaper el-Badeel claimed that the building had no adequate fire-protection system and witnesses were quoted as saying that fire crews took up to two and a half hours to begin tackling the blaze, even though there were many fire engines stationed permanently near by.

It was also revealed that engineers inside the building had attempted to reach the third floor with fire extinguishers, only to find a group of state security officials barring their way on the stairs. The state-owned printing presses were ordered not to print the paper and it never reached the streets, although The Times has obtained digital copies of the banned edition.

The Government has dismissed allegations of arson. “Please let us focus on the problem without misleading people with those worthless rumours,” Abdel Azim Wazir, Governor of Cairo, said. Stung by accusations of incompetence and deception, the Government has formed a committee to investigate the fire. It is hoped that the building will reopen for the start of a new parliamentary session in November.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Egypt Waiting

-Cairo - August 2008
- Taken from

Towering over the polluted chaos of one of Cairo’s main flyovers is a huge advertising billboard. Sandwiched between colourful posters for Pizza Hut, Coca Cola and Doritos, the billboard features nothing but a giant red question mark, accompanied by the words ‘Wait For It’.

Tens of thousands of cars sweep under the sign every day, many of them middle-class Egyptians grinding their way impatiently through gridlocked traffic as they flit between the wealthy enclaves of Zamalek Island, Nasr City and Heliopolis. Relentlessly trying to keep pace with the frenetic demands of Egypt’s increasingly materialist consumer culture, the frustration of these drivers is etched on their faces as they are indeed kept waiting – waiting for job opportunities, waiting for foreign visa applications, waiting on the cusp of a ‘Western’ lifestyle revolution that has been dangled in front of them ever since President Sadat’s economic reforms of the 1970s claimed to be ushering in a new era of economic growth.

Down in the shadows of the flyover, propped up on rickety chairs scattered around the metal base of the billboard, poorer Egyptian men have perfected waiting as an art form. They sit nursing a shisha pipe, whiling away the hours armed with little more than a pack of dominoes and endless cups of tea. Despite promises to the contrary, little of the obscene wealth concentrated in the hands of Egypt’s political and business elite is trickling down from above. As ever, this community remains disenfranchised from many of the political and economic processes that govern their lives; now, the social welfare institutions that used to provide a safety blanket in hard times have also been dismantled, a victim of the neo-liberal orthodoxy aggressively pursued by the Mubarak regime and his Western allies.

Amidst scenes like these, it is no surprise that Egypt is often characterised as a ‘nation in waiting’. Indeed, that was the title of a recent Al-Jazeera documentary on the country, which assigned the Egyptian masses a purely passive role in the modern history of their own country. It quoted Abdelhalim Qandeel, a journalist, who argued that Egyptians are simply accustomed to being ruled by a centralised government – a product of the nation’s Pharaonic past in which the political leader was also considered divine. Galal Amin, a popular academic and author, agreed. “So many Egyptian writers, journalists and intellectuals think that revolution is around the corner,” he told the programme. “I don’t adhere to this view. I think the Egyptian people are very slow to revolt. They are not a revolutionary nation at all.” The documentary ended with shots of sad-looking Egyptians crouched on sidewalks and bus-stops. “As they have done throughout the ages,” concluded the narrator, “Egyptians are just waiting”.

Which would all be very well, were it not profoundly untrue. The notion that Egyptians are psychologically incapable of actively shaping their own society may be fondly held by the present ruling clique, but it is belied by realities on the ground. From the peasant insurgencies in Upper Egypt that shook Mohammed Ali’s rule in the early 19th century, through the anti-colonial uprising on the streets of Cairo in 1919 that was defeated only by a hail of British bullets, and to the country’s own 1968 revolutionary fervour which saw students take a state governor hostage as the army occupied university campuses, Egyptians throughout the ages have consistently challenged state power and forced concessions from their political masters. In the past few years, Egyptians have been more assertive than ever in demanding an expansion of their political and economic rights, a trend which has been most visible in the wave of industrial action currently seizing the country. The latest United Nations Development Programme report notes that, “The longest and strongest wave of worker voice since the end of World War II is rolling through Egypt.” The newspaper Al-Masry Al-Yom has suggested that the number of annual strikes back in 2006 was around 200; this year they estimate at least two new labour actions are breaking out every single day.

Many of these strikes have been inspired by the success of the Real Estate Tax workers in Giza, who occupied their offices for eleven dramatic days at the end of last year and in the process faced down both the government and their own trade union, which was vehemently hostile to the workers’ action. Tax collectors in other governorates followed suit and the Ministry of Finance eventually caved in to their pay demands, setting the precedent for a wave of civil-servant action taking its cue from the industrial militancy spreading out of factory towns like Mahalla. And protest isn’t only limited to work stoppages; a flick through the independent and opposition newspapers on any random day show the incredible spatial diversity of dissent in Egypt today, from schoolyards to train stations. Of course apologists for the ‘Egyptians can only wait’ line have tried to play down the significance of heightened social protest, even whilst being forced to acknowledge its increased frequency and scope. Thus we often see actions like that of the tax collectors rejected by commentators as ‘parochial’ (and hence apparently not ‘political’), whilst others write-off the demonstrations and mobilisations as futile because they have so far failed to topple the Mubarak regime. But as the female Egyptian blogger ‘Baheyya’ has eloquently argued, such fables are disingenuous. Protests cannot be assessed solely by their impact on regime stability; nor can citizens addressing predominantly local concerns be ‘isolated’ from the growing consciousness of direct political action that is unfolding throughout the country. “Politics has always been about local constellations of power, and bread-and-water issues of survival,” writes Baheyya. The idea that supposedly ‘docile’ social groups like farmers or doctors only engage in protest when they have own interests at heart – and hence can’t be classified as part of the ‘general’ protest movement – is “one of the oldest canards about ordinary people’s collective action, a hoary myth that refuses to die.”

Given the impediments faced by those who stand up to the system, it would indeed be easier for most Egyptians to simply sit back and wait for change rather than to stand up and demand it. The physical geography of Egypt has led to a tradition of strong, centralised government that brooks little dissent; on the streets of Cairo today there is one baton-wielding representative of the state (including policemen and members of the security services) for every 37 Egyptians, possibly the highest police-citizen ratio in the world. Add to that the constriction of severe poverty – 24% of the population fall below the World Bank’s main two poverty lines, with a further 20% classified as ‘near poor’ – and you have a substantial majority of people for whom the financial costs of striking or protesting (which can so often lead to jail) are dangerously high. From this perspective, what is so fascinating about the response of Egyptians to social hardship is not, as the documentary talking-heads suggested, that a lot of people are following that instruction on the advertising billboard and merely waiting for something to happen. Rather, it is that so many are embracing collective action, in spite of the barriers they face when doing so.

Ibrahim Aslan’s seminal novel ‘The Heron’ depicts a neighbourhood in the poor district of Imbaba, set on the eve of the 1977 bread riots that almost brought the government to its knees. As with the drivers stuck in traffic jams up on the flyovers, or the old men sitting motionless beneath them, the book’s characters appear initially to exist in something of a static world devoid of any political dynamism, pre-occupied with ‘parochial’ concerns like love affairs, job opportunities and the fate of the local cafe. These, after all, are the Egyptians, who have been merely ‘waiting’ throughout the ages. By the end of the story, the neighbourhood is in flames and crowds of locals are battling the army with rocks torn up from the streets.

Somewhere in the middle of this transformation, Aslan warns the reader against conflating stillness with apathy, using a fishing analogy. Like the Heron of the book’s title, the main protagonist “learned that fishing depended on precise timing, on when you pulled the line ... How many times have you been fooled and tensed your whole self, and the moment almost arrived, but the fish had finished the bait and swum away? But how many times did you seize the moment, the moment of pouncing, knowing that if you had jumped one second sooner, or delayed longer, the fish would have gotten away? This signal should become an inspiration for us all.” Those who dismiss Egyptians’ ability to effect change for themselves from below, those who believe this is a nation only capable of waiting and never seizing the moment, should pay close attention to Aslan’s words.