Thursday, June 4, 2009

Huge security clampdown in Cairo for Barack Obama's big speech to Muslim world

  • President wants to restore America's battered image
  • Bin Laden attacks US for 'sowing seeds of hate'

-Taken from 'The Guardian' (with Ian Black)
-Cairo - June 2009

-Live updates on speech day from the Guardian here

The biggest security operation ever seen in Egypt was under way tonight as Cairo prepared to welcome Barack Obama for his landmark speech to the Muslim world after a warning of revenge against the US by Osama bin Laden

Unprecedented security measures are in place for Obama's big day in Cairo, of which the centrepiece is a 50-minute address at the city's university tomorrow. He will also hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak and tour the pyramids and a medieval mosque.

But as the president arrived today in Saudi Arabia, where he wants Arab gestures to coax Israel into revived peace talks, Bin Laden – in a broadcast – attacked US pressure for a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction" that had prompted the exodus of a million Muslims in north-west Pakistan.

"Obama and his administration have sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America," the al-Qaida leader said in a message that was aired by al-Jazeera TV. "The number of these seeds is equal to the number of displaced people from Swat Valley."

Obama, however, will seek to reach out to 1.5 billion Muslims and Arabs in the much-awaited speech in Egypt, which has generated huge expectations about improving America's battered image across the region.

The president has to walk a fine line between improving that image and abandoning goals shared with the Bush administration.

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues we confront here in the Middle East," Obama said while standing next to 84-year-old King Abdullah in Riyadh.

The president has spoken of easing "misapprehensions" between the west and the Muslim world, where many have high hopes of the son of a Kenyan Muslim who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. "I am confident that we're in a moment where in Islamic countries, I think there's a recognition that the path of extremism is not actually going to deliver a better life for people," Obama told NBC News before he left Washington.

The White House has been working to lower expectations about the speech, which comes after visits to Turkey and Iraq, a Persian New Year video and a town hall meeting in Istanbul, warning specifically that it will not include detailed new initiatives. Iran's top diplomat in Egypt has been invited to attend.

Parts of Cairo were in a state of lockdown last night, with tens of thousands of police lining the streets and military helicopters circling overhead. Major traffic arteries were sealed off and businesses in many neighbourhoods have been ordered to shut and residents told to stay at home and not look out of their windows.

"No corner has been left out," said one security official. "There will be security members on roofs, in houses, everywhere."

The huge security presence – which has reportedly been bolstered by up to 3,000 CIA operatives – is provoking resentment in Cairo, where tomorrow's speech has already divided opinions.

"What they're inflicting on us is haram (religiously forbidden)," complained Mohammed Iman, a computer shop employee. "Our livelihoods are being assaulted, and for what? Obama will bring nothing to this country; if they spent a fraction of all this security money here on giving people bread then we'd all be much better off."

Iman's sentiments were shared by students at Cairo University, where exams have been suspended. "It's ironic they spend all this cash now repainting the railings and sweeping the pavements, but don't bother with us the rest of the year," said Salman Fuda, a 22-year-old undergraduate.

Obama's itinerary for the day will include trips to the Giza pyramids and the 14th-century Sultan Hassan mosque, as well as bilateral talks with Mubarak, who is facing a wave of opposition over his economic policies and ties with Israel and the US. Mubarak will not attend the speech, fuelling speculation that the 81-year-old's health could be fading. But members of the formally banned Muslim Brotherhood will be there.

Despite the grumbling, some Cairenes are taking advantage of the visit's business opportunities and looking to cash in on a localised bout of Obamamania.

Gamal Shosha began churning out T-shirts likening Obama to the pharaoh Tutankhamun as soon as he heard news of the visit. He has since sold 30 from his shop in the historic Khan al-Khalili market, as well as copper plaques inscribed with Obama's name in hieroglyphics.

"When the boy king Tutankhamun took power, he was young and there was a lot of unrest in the world," explained Shosha.

"Obama is also young and the world is very disturbed at the moment; we are hoping that – like Tutankhamun – he can bring peace."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Discontent in Egypt's heart

Murders may be grabbing the headlines, but the enmity the public feels for its corrupt leaders is the real talking point in Cairo.

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - June 2009

Khairy Ramadan is living in a constant state of fear. "I'm afraid," explained the popular Egyptian TV presenter in his weekly newspaper column. "When going to work or when coming back. When I wake up or when I'm sleeping. When my kids are late at school or the club. Throughout the day, I'm really afraid."

When an adult man with decently broad shoulders is suffering from such a severe bout of unreconstructed terror, it's always worth inquiring into the cause. In this case the culprit is Egypt's latest crimewave, a gory spate of murders sweeping the country – or at least its newspaper front pages – with grim determination. "The danger is everywhere, and killing has been taking place lately for the most trivial reasons," observed Ramadan. "It's not only in the street, but it can reach you at home ... killing has become a daily routine"

Has it? Well, violence has certainly been in the news a lot in recently; there was the man killed on an Alexandria street in front of shocked passers-by, a father who threw his two children down a well to spite his wife, another who murdered his ex after learning she was about to remarry and, perhaps most disturbingly, a boy who killed his two young cousins to "burn the heart of my uncle" (the latter had just fired him from a job). And all of this in the shadow of the most high-profile murder case in a generation – the trial of mega tycoon and political insider Hisham Talaat Mustafa, who was sentenced to death by hanging last month for ordering the killing of a former love interest, Lebanese pop diva Suzanne Tamim.

All of this has prompted a great deal of soul-searching amongst the Egyptian chattering classes. The state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights has labelled the homicides "barbarous" and "unprecedented", whilst newspaper pundits like Tarek Abbas argue that they are evidence of a fundamental shift in the Egyptian psyche. The murders, insist Abbas, are part of a new and different Egypt, "as if I woke up to find myself not by the Nile I know, but instead breathing different air and dealing with different people, becoming scared of things that didn't use to frighten me."

Yet despite the media frenzy, Egypt in general remains a strikingly safe place. From swindles on the street to fraud in the boardroom there's certainly no shortage of people being conned, corrupted or creatively relieved of their money, and sexual harassment is also a serious issue for women, but violent crime itself is a genuine rarity – which partly explains why it grabs so many headlines when it does rear its ugly head. Cairo is one of the very few cities in the world where I feel comfortable walking alone in pretty much any neighbourhood at any time of night, content in the knowledge that strangers in dark alleys are more likely to corral me into sharing a few cups of sweet tea than they are to pull out a knife.

Now it's possible that, having grown up in east London, my perception of what constitutes "normal" urban crime levels is slightly skewed. However the figures bear me out; according to the latest UN development report, Egypt has the lowest annual murder rate in the world with a distinctly underwhelming 0.4 homicides per 100,000 of the population (that's compared to 2.03 in Britain and 5.8 in the US). El-Dostour reports gravely that no less than 150 murders have been committed in Egypt since the start of this year, yet amongst a nation of over 80 million people that's hardly remarkable. Statistically the same time period will have seen almost two hundred murders carried out in Jordan, Egypt's stable regional neighbour – and Jordan's population is 13 times smaller.

All of which suggests that Khairy Ramadan's perpetual state of alarm is somewhat unjustified, and Egypt's "unprecedented" crimewave – tragic exceptions aside – exists chiefly in the minds of prominent columnists and tabloid editors rather than the real world. What's interesting is why the moral panic is spreading now; this spate of murders may not be out of the ordinary, but the prominence they have received does reveal something else about Egypt, something both Ramadan and Tarek Abbas were close to putting their finger on. It is that Egypt is a country with a fundamental disconnect between the state and its people, a legitimacy gap that affects not just individuals' attitudes towards government itself but also its official organs of authority, right down to street level. And when people no longer trust the state to look after them, they take the law into their own hands.

Flick past the lurid murder coverage in Egypt's newspapers and, buried on the inside pages, you can see why. A government-sponsored investigation into popular attitudes towards officialdom reported its findings last month; 50% of those interviewed had been the personal victims of injustice at the hands of officials, 83% said such corruption was becoming more endemic. Half said they felt desperate in the absence of any official instrument to remedy corruption, and unsurprisingly 40% admitted to resorting to personal connections to secure jobs or basic social rights. "Egyptians have reached a stage where nepotism and bribery are seen as the only reliable defence mechanism in the absence of social justice," commented one academic on the report. Over two-thirds of the 2,000 respondents identified themselves as poor; not a single one of them cited "qualifications" or "recourse to the law" as effective ways to improve their position.

It's no surprise that in a society where money and wasta (influence) prevail over hard work and honesty, families and communities often prefer to deal with disputes on their own terms rather than getting the bureaucratic apparatus of the state involved. And if the middle-ranking police officers and civil servants of this country are more interested in lining their own pockets than treating those who rely on them fairly, it's only because of a corrosive culture of greed and venality instilled from the very top, starting with the president, Hosni Mubarak. His regime has done its utmost to subvert the rule of law in the interest of protecting its wealthy friends (the guilty verdict for Hisham Talaat Mousafa was an interesting exception) while promoting a headlong rush into neoliberalism that has venerated wealth creation for an elite minority over the basic safety and security of its citizens – most of whom, in the survey, listed the gap between rich and poor as a primary cause of frustration.

Some local community activists are now stepping in where the state has failed; one programme, run by a former actor named Tarek Ramadan, seeks to train local conflict mediators who are elected from their neighbourhoods and are endowed with the credibility and respect which are conspicuously absent within the police force and security services. Ramadan's mediators step into that chasm between the state and its people and try and resolve local and family disputes at an early stage, before they get violent. As long as the present government remains in place with its brazen lack of popular legitimacy, demand for Tarek's work will keep on growing. A government minister recently conceded that Egypt's government was hated by its people, "as if we belong to an enemy state". Murders may grab the headlines, but that enmity is the real talking point in Egypt – something Barack Obama may want to consider as he makes his way to Cairo for Thursday's speech.