Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Three held over Cairo bombing as conspiracy theories circulate

-Taken from 'The Independent' (extended version)
-Cairo - February 2009

Egyptian security services are continuing their search for the bombers behind Sunday’s attack on a Cairo tourist hotspot that left one French teenager dead and at least 24 wounded.

French officials have confirmed that the victim was a 17 year old schoolgirl on a class trip to the Egyptian capital. She was killed after a home-made bomb containing TNT and explosive black powder detonated in the heart of one of Cairo’s main squares, home to the 650 year old Khan el-Khalili bazaar and flanked by some of Egypt’s holiest Islamic monuments.

Yesterday French president Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his “deep sorrow” over the incident, which also injured many of the girl’s schoolmates from the Parisian suburb of Levallois-Perret. Egyptian police say they have arrested three suspects at the scene, which remains cordoned off amidst a high security presence.

As traders at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar began to return to their stalls last night, conspiracy theories were circulating about the identity of the bombers and whether elements of the Egyptian security services could have been involved. Although there have so far been no claims of responsibility, local media outlets have been poring over a long list of potential perpetrators, ranging from disaffected Bedouins from the Sinai Peninsula, which has recently witnessed clashes between police and local tribespeople, to Pakistani militants whom it is claimed may have fled the country soon after the attack.

One particularly contentious allegation came from the Member of Parliament for the area hit by the blast. Haider Baghdady, a member of the ruling NDP party, told Al Jazeera television that Iran may have been responsible for the attack, an accusation which is sure to exacerbate long-running tensions between Cairo and Tehran.

More worryingly for the Egyptian government, which has been under a great deal of domestic pressure for its handling of last month’s Gaza crisis, some commentators have been drawing links between the attack and a parliamentary debate scheduled for next month over whether Egypt’s 28 year old ‘Emergency Law’ should be renewed. The unpopular legislation has been permanently in place since the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and enables police to detain citizens indefinitely without charge, block public demonstrations and censor the media.

“I find it very strange that each time a renewal of this law comes around we always find a ‘terrorist attack’ crops up immediately beforehand,” said Ahmed Salah, an opposition activist. Last week the government released from jail Ayman Nour, a former high-profile rival to President Mubarak, in a move interpreted by many as a sign of weakness within an Egyptian regime recently hit by the country’s largest strike wave in half a century as well as a plethora of corruption scandals.

“I think the recent release of [Nour] should be considered evidence of the panic roiling the upper echelons of this dictatorship,” observed one local blogger who also found the timing of the attack ‘suspicious’. “It seems the ageing Mubarak regime is getting nervous and finds little option to maintain its grip on power but to resort to a strategy of tension.” The Egyptian government has been accused of manufacturing terrorist attacks for political purposes before; in 2007 a Human Rights Watch report said there were reasons to be “deeply sceptical” about an alleged planned bombing in Cairo the previous year by a group called ‘The Victorious Sect’, suggesting the terror cell may have been fabricated by state security officers. The Egyptian government refuted these claims.

Others such as leading independent daily newspaper Al-Dostour have dismissed conspiracy theories, arguing that the amateurish nature of the explosive devices points the finger at isolated individuals or a small group with little organisational support, possibly protesting against the government’s perceived lack of solidarity with the Palestinian people during Israel’s 22-day assault on Gaza last month. In recent years most of the country’s larger terrorist networks have either been dismantled or have renounced violence, most notably the Jamaat al-Islamiya group who were responsible for some of the country’s worst terrorist atrocities in the 1980s and 1990s.

Regardless of who carried out Sunday’s attack, the bombing is expected to deliver a major blow to the Egyptian tourism industry, which is the country’s biggest source of revenue. 12 million foreigners visit Egypt each year but there are fears that Sunday’s events combined with the global credit crunch may encourage potential holidaymakers to travel elsewhere in 2009.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Deadly blast hits Cairo

-Taken from 'The Guardian' (with Anil Dawar)
-Cairo - February 2009

At least one tourist was killed and 21 people injured when a bomb exploded in a crowded Cairo marketplace yesterday, Egyptian police said. The explosion happened in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, which is popular with tourists, in the centre of the capital.

Last night, the Egyptian health ministry reported that a 17-year-old French girl had been killed. Officials said at least 21 people were hurt, including 13 French, one German and three Saudi tourists, and four Egyptians.

The blast happened shortly after 5.30pm last night. Around an hour after the first explosion, police found a second explosive device and detonated it safely. Security officials said three people were in custody.

Different sources reported variously that the bomb had been thrown from a passing motorcycle or a hotel window, but a government statement said the attack involved a homemade device placed under a bench in the main plaza.

A police colonel at the scene said the bomb went off outside a cafe, sending stone and marble fragments into the air, wounding bystanders.

Magdy Ragab, 42, a waiter at a nearby cafe, said: "We were serving our customers and all of a sudden there was a large sound. We saw heavy grey smoke and there were people running everywhere. Some people were injured by the stampede, not the shrapnel." Witnesses reported seeing blood on the marble paving stones in front of the historic Hussein mosque.

Riot police cordoned off the area and sniffer dogs could be seen as worshippers were evacuated from the mosque.

"I was praying and there was a big boom and people started panicking and rushing out of the mosque, then police came and sealed the main door, evacuating us out of the back," said Muhammad Abdel Azim, 56, who was inside the Hussein mosque at the time of the explosion.

Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who has represented Islamic extremists, told the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera that the attack might be linked to popular anger over the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip last month. "The nature of the explosion looks like an act carried out by young, inexperienced amateurs whose emotions were inflamed by the events of Gaza."

One of the country's highest religious officials, Sheikh of Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, said of the attack: "Those who carried out this criminal act are traitors to their religion and country and are distorting the image of Islam, which rejects terrorism and prohibits the killing of innocents."

The Khan el-Khalili, which sells tourist souvenirs, gold and silver jewellery and traditional handicrafts, was last attacked in 2005, when a suicide bomber detonated a homemade bomb and killed two French tourists and an American.

There have been a number of attacks in recent years against resorts in the country's Sinai peninsula, including one in 2005 that killed more than 60 people.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Can Egypt bring Cleopatra's palace back to life?

-Taken from guardian.co.uk
-Alexandria - February 2009

Artist's impression by Jacques Rougerie Architect

Some of the world's most exciting sunken treasures could soon be on view after Egypt confirmed plans to build a giant underwater museum in the Mediterranean. But as preparation begins on the site of Cleopatra's Palace in Alexandria, funding and technical problems are proving as divisive and controversial as the famed queen herself.

Ancient Alexandria was one of the world's great centres of civilisation, and since excavations in the eastern harbour began in 1994, divers have unearthed thousands of historical objects. These have included 26 sphinxes, several vast granite blocks weighing up to 56 tonnes each, and even pieces of what is believed to be the Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse, one of the seven classic wonders of the world.

Remnants of Queen Cleopatra's palace complex are also submerged beneath the waves, after the island on which it stood fell victim to earthquakes in the 5th century.

Now ambitious but controversial plans are under way to open up this unique site via an immersed fibreglass tunnel which would enable close-up viewing of the underwater monuments. Described as a "beautiful dream" by the director of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, Dr Zahi Hawass, the proposed museum complex features both an inland and submarine gallery space.

The latter will supposedly be crowned by four striking 'felucca sails' rising from the ocean, echoing the traditional sailboats that have long journeyed up the Nile. The designs were drawn up by the French architect Jacques Rougerie, a veteran of water-based construction projects, and have been backed by the United Nations cultural agency Unesco.

Next month a detailed technical survey will be launched. "If all goes according to plan, construction will begin in early 2010 and be completed within two and half years," says Ariel Fuchs, a scientific director at Rougerie's firm.

The idea is also being promoted by the high-profile marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, who is currently touring Europe with a selection of artefacts already dredged up from the Alexandrian coastline.

Yet before a single foundation stone has been laid on the ocean floor, the project is already running in to a host of obstacles. Funding for the museum, which will cost up to $140m, has not yet been secured; the government is hoping that with the help of Mr Goddio it can persuade private companies and organisations to foot the bill in exchange for a share of future revenues, but a member of the architectural team admitted privately that, "at present, nobody is clear about where the financing will come from."

Even if money does come through, a series of formidable technical challenges await the museum's builders, including the question of how to combat the bay's notoriously murky waters to improve visibility in the tunnel, and the problem of ensuring the structure is strong enough to withstand underwater currents and sea surges.

More worryingly the project has been accused by sceptical locals of being little more than a 'corporate theme park', with many doubting it will be built at all. "As an idea it's perfect," says Dr Ashraf Sabri, who runs a local dive centre specialising in marine heritage sites. "But you can't build an underwater museum in hotel meeting-rooms. You have to get down there and do the scientific work to see what is practical and what isn't. And month-in, month-out, this has not been done"

A local specialist in the local archaeological scene, who preferred not to be named, concurred: "The water down there isn't just difficult to see through, it's poisonous. And the designs put forward at the moment are for an underwater Disneyland, not a place where people will learn about heritage. If these corporate sponsors want to build a sunken theme park then fine, but don't try and pass it off as a serious archaeological endeavour."

Both the Egyptian government and Unesco have rejected charges that the museum is commercialising a site of great historical importance. "Culture can contribute to economic value, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," argues Ulrike Koschtial, from Unesco's underwater division. The UN agency held a convention in 2001 which concluded that sunken artefacts should where possible be left in situ on the seabed, rather than be carried up to shore; it's hoping that the Egyptian project will serve as a model for the development of similar sites around the world.

"Alexandria is such an important region for marine archaeology that the project here could set out some key international principles for how different countries deal with their underwater heritage," explains Ms Koschtial. "So it's obviously vital we proceed prudently, and that's why ethical considerations will be a key part of the technical study."

For Egypt, the stakes are high. Alexandria, the country's second city, has been long overshadowed by Cairo and Luxor, and the government wants it to become a new focal point for the 12 million foreign tourists that visit each year. "For too long Alexandria's great history and multicultural background hasn't been sufficiently respected," says Naguib Amin, local site manager for the Supreme Council for Antiquities.

Amin rejected claims that money would be better spent giving a makeover to the city's crumbling downtown buildings, most of which feature stunning colonial-era architecture. "We view the museum as an integral component of revitalising the city as a whole," he said. "Yes, Egyptology does make money but our only concern here is to produce the most captivating and beautiful experience for visitors whilst ensuring maximum safety for both the guests and for the artefacts themselves."

As the wrangling over Alexandria's seabed riches continues, residents of this ancient city are retaining a cynical approach to the whole saga. "The problem with Egypt is that we never work for the future," observes Dr Sabri. "Sustainable planning here works on the basis of 'I'll only have this job for a few years, so which vanity project can I use to impress the President today?' But look at the pyramids, they were made for eternity. We need to look back into our past to remind ourselves how to build for future generations."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A market of the living amidst the tombs of the dead: Inside Souq el-Gomma

-Taken from '
-Cairo - February 2009

-Original photography by Jason Larkin

From the highways gliding above it, little of detail can be discerned. At this height the frothing jaws of a dog straining on his leash are too small to behold; the sharp roll of a dice on a clandestine wooden table too distant to hear. You will, perhaps, catch the sun reflecting off an old gramophone here on the railway tracks, a rusting bathtub there on the horizon by the tombs. Certainly you’ll note the heaving clusters of human flotsam expanding and contracting through the alleyways, now shrinking into tight balls of energy, now scattering away in every direction like a shimmering school of fish. But as your eyes range across this vast anarchic arcadia, you’ll comprehend nothing of importance from above. To understand this strange beast you must descend down from the sun-blazed highway and deep into its bowels.

Cairo and its teeming mass of twenty million inhabitants have been described as an essay in entropy, which is the study of the degree of randomness and disorder within a system. “What keeps this plane in the air,” asks American author Maria Golia of the urban sprawl she has made her home. “How goes the city, when it looks and acts like it’s held together by rubber bands?” If Golia’s characterisation of Egypt’s capital is correct then no corner of the metropolis better illustrates her point than the frenzied sub-world of Souq El-Gomma, a city within a city where infinite and intertwining networks of commerce and crime, socialising and spirituality collide together and expand with a seemingly endless elasticity. It is, quite literally, a universe unto itself; a market of the living that rises up out of the tombs of the dead, defying all attempts to fix it in space or time.

Souq El-Gomma, ‘the Friday Market’, began almost half a century ago as a ragged assortment of faded silverware and broken antiques laid out in the shadows of the Sikket Hadid El-Suweis road-bridge. These were the days when each corner of the capital boasted its own daily street-stall extravaganza – Munib on a Tuesday, Mataraya on a Thursday, and now this dusty land under the Moqattam cliffs on a Friday. As presidents and policies came and went and Egypt’s economic fortunes ebbed and flowed, so the other markets faded, driven out by over-zealous officialdom or a dwindling customer base. Slowly but surely the vendors – of pigeons and puppies, carpets and sinks, telephones with no handles and shoes with no soles – made their way to Souq El-Gomma, which started to spill out from the underpass across disused train tracks to the east and into the narrow alleys of a huge cemetery to the west. Today it is believed to be the largest street market in the Middle East, where anything from camel hooves to second-hand toilet lids can be obtained for the right price, offering a dirt-streaked window onto the realities of contemporary Egypt.

Ayman Mohammed Rafat Hashush works during the week as a contractor for a firm doing restoration work on old houses. The fifty year old and his wife are still waiting for God to send them children, but until then he throws his energies into his stall at the Souq. Ayman first started visiting the market two decades ago, and soon became addicted to its chaotic charm. Eleven years ago he made the transition from customer to stall-holder, paying an old woman ten guinea a week for the sandy ground in front of her home and another 150 guinea a month to store his wares in her building. Back then Ayman’s trestle table of vintage film posters, out of date calendars and broken games consoles stood on the fringes of the market; today it has been enveloped by Souq El-Gomma’s unstoppable growth.

He waves his hands at the frenzied hum of buying and selling all around him. “It’s the economic situation that has driven these people here,” says Ayman. The current government has pursued an aggressive programme of economic liberalisation and privatisation in recent years, claiming they are dragging Egypt kicking and screaming into modernity. The result has been a widening of the already vast chasm between rich and poor and an inflationary explosion, leaving the legions of Egyptians on government fixed-salaries sliding into poverty as a result. “Half the sellers here are respectable government employees who are forced to supplement their salaries with work at the Souq,” observes Ayman. “Many more are downtown shopkeepers whose goods won’t sell in the economic climate. They come to get rid of their stuff here, hoping to earn a few extra guinea for their families.” The political establishment’s efforts to ‘liberate’ Egypt from its old socialist structures have consigned millions of its citizens to the margins, and Souq El-Gomma, itself on the margins of this once great city, welcomes them all.

A scuffle breaks out on the edges of the junk stretch, a side street drowning in rubbish laid out on mats by tired-looking men. They have purchased these mountains of waste from the Zabaleen, an army of rubbish collectors who gather the city’s unwanted dross and welcome it into the nearby ‘Garbage City’ neighbourhood they call home. Individuals pick through the debris, offering a handful of piasters for any gems they unearth. One young man is searching for smashed lightbulbs so that he can make decorations for Ramadan; another seeks broken cassette tapes, hoping to find some which can still be recorded over. As the local municipality announces to great fanfare that it is farming out recycling contracts to multinational companies, Cairo’s occupants quietly get on with reprocessing and reusing every item that passes through the city’s clogged arteries. Far from the prying eyes of the authorities, Souq El-Gomma is the capital’s large intestine, stubbornly digesting and spitting back out all the items that pass into its frenzied passages.

The fight dies down as the combatants are dragged away from each other. “This place is fucked up; full of thieves and thugs,” scowls one ageing mother who rents out space to stall-holders. But for many, part of the attraction of the Souq is its darker underbelly – the illicit canine market where bulldogs are goaded into frothing madness by their owners in an effort to attract potential customers; the ramshackle gambling tables that spring up and disappear in the blink of an eye. But the absence of the police from Souq El-Gomma does not mean lawlessness and in this most anarchic of urban villages there is a strict hierarchy in place. “Ceramics are over there, furniture on the other side” says Sharkaya Fouad Mohammed gravely, a wrinkled 59 year old whose corrugated iron cafe lies at the heart of the souq. “Some parts of the market are mixed up but here everything is compartmentalised.”

To reach the future of Souq El-Gomma, you must descend into the past. Down past the metalwork stalls and through the collections of old gramophones and leaking fridges, you find yourself in a city of the dead, where Cairenes have made their homes amongst the gravestones. With nowhere else to go, the Souq’s tentacles are now spreading through these small mausoleums as well, with first-time sellers arriving every week to set up shop against the walls of the deceased. Newcomers pay one guinea for a floor spot and three more for a chipped wooden table on which to display their goods, handing over their money to a benevolent mafia who in return keep the alleys free of trouble and the stall-holders protected. People bring ill-fitting jackets and family photos from their apartments to lay out in the sun; used batteries vie with plastic imports from China and the Emirates, the wheels of globalisation turning slowly through the tombs.

As spectacular as it is repugnant, the contradictions and commotions of Souq El-Gomma inspire the full spectrum of emotions in its visitors. Yet to the inhabitants of the Friday market, it remains a simple economic necessity. “It’s the bread that we eat,” sighs one veteran as he surveys the bedlam. “How can anyone hate it?”