Friday, September 24, 2010

Khaled Said death protests renewed as trial of Egyptian police officers begins

Alexandria expects more street demonstrations over alleged fatal beating that has become flashpoint between government and opposition activists

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - September 2010

The Egyptian city of Alexandria is bracing itself for a renewed outbreak of street protests tomorrow, as the trial of two policemen accused of beating a civilian to death in broad daylight finally gets under way.

Awad Suleiman and Mahmoud Salah are charged with illegal arrest and brutality following the death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in early June, an incident which sparked demonstrations throughout the country and has become a political flashpoint between the government and opposition activists.

Numerous witnesses claim that Said, who had earlier posted an online video of local police officers apparently dividing up the spoils of a drug haul, was attacked in an internet cafe by the two plainclothes officials who kicked and punched him before eventually smashing his head against a marble table-top. His body was dragged into a police car and later dumped by the roadside.

Graphic photos of Said's injuries circulated online and became a rallying cause for activists opposed to Egypt's 29-year-old emergency law, which suspends many basic civil liberties and provides effective immunity for the security services before the courts.

Cases of police abuse and torture have been exposed with increasing frequency in recent years, and the death of Said garnered extra attention after former UN nuclear watchdog chief and prominent dissident Mohamed ElBaradei joined protests against the killing.

Government officials initially said that Said was a wanted criminal and produced two state postmortems which concluded that he had died from swallowing a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue. But following pressure from the US and the EU, as well as local and international human rights organisations, Suleiman and Salah were eventually arrested for brutality and will face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Said's family have called for the pair to face charges of murder and want to see the officers' superior in the dock as well, but so far their demands have been ignored.

"It's an important trial for Egypt, but with responsibility being limited to these two officers alone we're not optimistic that justice will be done," said Mohamed Abdelaziz, a lawyer with the anti-torture El-Nadeem centre who has been in close contact with Said's relatives.

The court case has struck a chord with the public in a country where police corruption and the unaccountability of security officials is a highly visible part of everyday life. "Khaled Said's death has caused public outrage in Egypt, which means that if the evidence is sufficient then it's very important a strong conviction is made," said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch.

"There is a culture of impunity for police in torture cases, with officials quickly jumping to the defence of officers suspected of abusing their power and superiors not being held accountable. That has to change; the Khaled Said case has shown that it is possible for public pressure to override the initial instinct of the authorities to cover-up these incidents."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Violence on Cairo's streets as Egyptians say no to Gamal

Hundreds of protesters clash with riot police over widely held belief that president's son is being groomed to take power

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - September 2010

-Watch the Guardian video here

Clashes broke out in central Cairo today after hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets to protest against what they claimed were plans for the president's son to assume power.

Lines of riot police encircled and attacked demonstrators opposed to Gamal Mubarak outside Abdeen palace, the site of a 19th-century nationalist revolt against monarchical and colonial British rule.

It is widely believed that Gamal, now 46, is being groomed to succeed his father, Hosni, 82, as Egypt's next ruler. The younger Mubarak accompanied the presidential delegation to peace talks in Washington this month.

Parliamentary elections, which some elements of the oppostion want boycotted, are due in November and presidential elections will be held in September next year.

The protest also spread to Alexandria, where it was reported that 30 demonstrators were arrested and women had their clothes torn. In Cairo journalists were among those beaten.

"They have been beating us. You can see the blood on my neck. We are a republic, not a kingdom," said a supporter of the prominent dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, who formerly ran the International Atomic Energy Agency and is considered a potential rival presidential candidate to Gamal Mubarak.

"If Gamal Mubarak becomes president, this country will go to hell. He cares only about businessmen.

"The people of Egypt are all dying. We are dying of poverty and we are dying of a lack of freedom."

Referring to the 1882 uprising, when Ahmed Orabi declared that Egyptians should no longer be slaves, the protester said: "After 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's rule we are saying the same thing today: we should not be slaves.

Later protesters tried to break out of the security cordon. Sympathetic bystanders threw in water bottles to trapped demonstrators.

Another protester said: "I am 30 years old and I still have not got enough money to marry. I can't find a job. Tell the world to help us. We are dying under Mubarak. Send an SOS." He then set fire to a picture of Gamal Mubarak. "We are supposed to be a democracy even though everyone knows it's a sham. We will not stand by while the presidency passes from father to son."

Gamal Mubarak has long been associated with a series of neoliberal reforms which have proved unpopular with many Egyptians.

Sadat's daughter to sue over claims he poisoned Nasser

President Nasser died three days after drinking coffee made by his successor, hints former aide on al-Jazeera television

Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - September 2010

The daughter of the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is going to court to defend her late father against allegations that he murdered Gamal Abdel Nasser, founding father of the modern Egyptian republic.

Sadat, most famous for his controversial peace deal with Israel at Camp David, took over the presidency after Nasser's unexpected death in 1970 from a heart attack that some doctors attributed to poisoning.

Last week, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a veteran Egyptian journalist and former Sadat aide, used his show on al-Jazeera television to give an account of Nasser's final days, which included several hints that the second president's death might not have been natural.

In what the Egyptian press have dubbed a "40-year bombshell", Heikal recalled an incident at a Cairo hotel where Nasser was meeting the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. According to Heikal the two leaders had a heated argument, after which Nasser looked so nervous that Sadat, who was vice-president at the time, offered to fetch him a cup of coffee.

Heikal alleges that Sadat ordered the president's private cook out of the kitchen and made the coffee himself, which Nasser drank. Three days later Nasser collapsed and died, bringing several million mourners out on to the streets of Cairo and leading one best-selling Arab newspaper to declare that "one hundred million people – the Arabs – are now orphans."

Sadat's family have responded angrily to what they see as an attempt to link Sadat, who was later assassinated by radical Islamists, to his predecessor's death.

One daughter took to the airwaves to dismiss the claim as false, while another has filed an official complaint with the Egyptian prosecutor-general, accusing Heikal of libel and slander.

"What Heikal said has inflicted tremendous damage on me and my family and hurt our feelings deeply," wrote Ruqaya Sadat in her submission to the courts.

Offering an intriguing insight into the detachment of political leaders from their people, Sadat’s family have argued that Heikal’s account cannot be true – because Sadat was incapable of making a cup of coffee on his own.

On the same TV show Heikal, one of the oldest and most high-profile public commentators in the Middle East, went on to say that he thought it "unlikely" Sadat had poisoned Nasser's coffee, but that qualification has failed to quell the storm. Many observers believe that the commentator's on-air statements, which included the line, "there's no proof [that Nasser was murdered], but a lot of speculations," were deliberately designed to cast suspicion on Sadat.

"This is a brawl between celebrity and senility," said Hisham Kassem, a prominent Egyptian publisher. "Heikal has had nothing to say over the past four decades and his TV show has become increasingly insignificant, so he's trying to drum up some publicity.

"Ruqaya Sadat wants to sue practically anyone who mentions her father outside the context of a god. The fact that so much has been made of this story is a sad reflection on the state of the Egyptian press."

The controversy has erupted just as extra attention is being heaped on the legacy of Nasser, a towering historical figure who styled himself not only as a revolutionary leader of the Arab World but also as a global champion of developing and post-colonial nations throughout the 1950s and 60s.

The Egyptian government recently announced that Nasser’s former Cairo home would be turned into a national museum; in an ironic twist of fate that reflects the transition Egypt has undergone since the demise of its socialist talisman, the construction of the museum will be contracted out to a private company.

Tackling sexual harassment in Egypt

A new mapping project seeks to highlight abuse and transform social attitudes in the process - but the biggest harassment hotspot is inside people's minds

The 'veil your lollipop' campaign hit Cairo in 2008, stating: 'You can't stop them, but you can protect yourself' - part of a wider public discourse that has attempted to shift the blame for sexual harassment onto female victims themselves


-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - September 2010

Suzanne Mubarak, First Lady of Egypt, is a woman who treats criticisms of her country with a generous dose of scepticism. Take sexual harassment, a phenomenon that has indisputably been on the rise in recent years. It's an issue in which Mrs Mubarak, as head of the government's National Council for Women, might be assumed to take at least a passing interest.

"Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women," she gallantly informed a pan-Arab television station back in 2008, a few weeks after a series of sexual assaults marred a major public holiday. "Maybe one, two or even 10 incidents occurred. Egypt is home to 80m people. We can't talk of a phenomenon. Maybe a few scatterbrained youths are behind this crime."

Those "few scatterbrained youths" must have been extremely busy. In the same year that the First Lady took to the airwaves to accuse media outlets of "exaggerating" reports of sexual harassment, a Cairo-based NGO released the first major survey of women's experiences in this area; it concluded that 83% of Egyptian females and 98% of foreign females had been exposed to some form of sexual harassment in Egypt – almost half of them on a daily basis.

The report, which was issued by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), also revealed that two-thirds of men admitted to carrying out harassment – defined by the survey as "unwanted sexual conduct deliberately perpetrated by the harasser, resulting in the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of the victim regardless of location". Examples cited by respondents included groping, verbal harassment, stalking and indecent exposure.

As several bloggers observed at the time, Suzanne Mubarak – wife of an authoritarian leader whose corrupt regime has turned detachment from reality into an art form – is hardly the go-to woman for an insight into what's happening on the ground. The blogger Zeinobia, a keen analyst of Egyptian affairs, memorably pointed out that Mrs M had never walked alone on a street that hadn't been cleaned of everything – including humans.

It's the attitude of those like Suzanne Mubarak, who refuse to believe the evidence and automatically dismiss any discussion as a nefarious plot to tarnish Egypt's reputation, that has ensured no specific legal prohibition on sexual harassment exists on the statute book (though three draft laws in this area are currently making their way through the country's glacially slow parliamentary process).

Now though, a group of volunteer activists is launching a project that aims to prove sexual harassment sceptics wrong – and help transform social attitudes towards women in the process.

HarassMap, which will launch later this year if it can find a funding partner in time, is a web-based system which allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment via SMS. Victims will receive an immediate text response, offering them support and practical advice and a centralised list of organisations that can help – something that isn't available at the moment. More importantly, the reports will be used to build up a publicly available map detailing harassment hotspots, partly so that women can take extra care in those areas and partly to shame the authorities into tackling the problem head-on.

It's based on an open-source mapping tool called Ushahidi which is more commonly associated with humanitarian disasters and election monitoring.

"HarassMap will offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with," explains co-creator Rebecca Chiao. "As someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."

The team behind HarassMap – a mix of Egyptians and foreigners, most of whom have a background in women's rights campaigning – have an ambitious set of ideas to go with the basic map. In places where harassment is revealed to be rampant, they want to encourage shopkeepers to offer their premises as "safe spaces" where women can come if they feel threatened. In the long term the team would even like to connect their system to the police network to allow the forces of law and order to react quickly and catch offenders (although in the ECWR survey, foreign women identified policemen themselves as the most likely perpetrators of sexual harassment).

It's not a catch-all solution – for one thing sexual harassment here is not so much localised as it is psychologically internalised, existing in mobile places like buses and tube trains as well as away from the streets, in the workplace and behind domestic walls. But it's a start.

In order to get the project off the ground they'll have to tread a fine line between raising awareness and stirring up debate while simultaneously dodging accusations of being unpatriotic and ruining Egypt's reputation.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project, though, is the question it raises: why is sexual harassment such a problem in Egypt? Anecdotal evidence suggests that 20 years ago this simply wasn't an issue on the same scale; when cases of harassment did occur other people on the street would often step in to help. These days such assistance is rarely forthcoming.

Many different explanations have been put forward, with varying degrees of credibility. Some blame Islam's (highly contested) attitude to women, though harassment levels in Egypt seem to far outstrip those in other Muslim countries. Others point to sexual frustration, which is certainly a factor in a country where economic pressures are forcing many young people to wait longer and longer before they can afford to marry – but this doesn't account for pre-pubescent children and married men being among the harassment repeat offenders.

HarassMap's Rebecca Chiao offers another perspective: "Egyptians today are exposed to a great many pressures: unemployment, inflation, urban overcrowding, pollution … pressure from all directions. And one of the ways that pressure manifests itself is in the targeting of the weak and marginalised; in the news we see negative attitudes towards refugees, sectarian violence, and of course harassment of women – who are a social minority, despite making up 50% of society."

It’s certainly true that this is an age when clashing cultural perceptions of women are taking centre stage; in a media market dominated by Saudi-style Salafist Islam on the one hand and western MTV culture on the other – both of which objectify females as sex objects and deny agency to both men and women over the way ideas about gender are constructed – women can all too easily find themselves being cast as 'fair game' targets for street harassment in what remains an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Whether the HarassMap can make a difference remains to be seen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Women in Egypt get hi-tech aid in battle against sexual harassment

Harass Map allows women to instantly report incidences of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - September 2010

A hi-tech weapon has been unveiled in the battle against sexual harassment in Egypt, where almost half the female population face unwanted attention from men every day.

HarassMap, a private venture that is set to launch later this year, allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer. Victims will immediately receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and the reports will be used to build up a detailed and publicly available map of harassment hotspots.

The project utilises an open-source mapping technology more commonly associated with humanitarian relief operations, and the activists behind it hope to transform social attitudes to the harassment of women and shame authorities into taking greater action to combat the problem.

"In the last couple of years there's been a debate in Egypt over whether harassment of women on the streets is a serious issue, or whether it's something women are making up," said Rebecca Chiao, one of the volunteers behind the project. "So HarassMap will have an impact on the ground by revealing the extent of this problem. It will also offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with; as someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."

Harassment of women is believed to be on the rise in Egypt. The only significant recent study on the phenomenon was a survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights in 2008, which revealed that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment, including groping, verbal abuse, stalking and indecent exposure.

Contrary to popular opinion, incidents do not appear to be linked to the woman's style of dress, with three-quarters of victims having been veiled at the time. But efforts to curb the problem have met with resistance.

Although a number of draft laws dealing with sexual harassment are under consideration by parliament, there is still nothing on Egypt's statute books that specifically prohibits harassment – blame for which is often placed on the victim rather than male perpetrators. Just weeks after a series of sexual assaults marred a public holiday two years ago, Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, accused the media of exaggerating the threat posed by sexual harassment, and concerns about tarnishing the country's image have continued to stifle debate on the subject.

"We have to transform the social acceptability of sexual harassment and open up a discussion about solutions," said Chiao. "Egypt is our home. When you have a problem in your home then you fix it because you're proud of it.

"You don't cover it up and hope it goes away. We're not trying to ruin Egypt's reputation, we're just trying to address this problem in a constructive and progressive way."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hosni Mubarak left red-faced as doctored red-carpet photo goes viral

Embarassment as Egyptian newspaper photoshops image of president to put him at the head of peace-talks procession



-Taken from the Guardian (with Haroon Siddique)
-Cairo - September 2010

There are those who lead and those who follow, and the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram clearly feels that President Hosni Mubarak fits in to the former category.

When he was pictured with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, trailing behind Barack Obama on the red carpet at the White House recently, it was nothing Photoshop could not fix. So, on Tuesday, state-run daily Al-Ahram published the same photo, taken at the launch of the latest Middle East peace talks – but with Mubarak now switched to the front of the procession.

The doctored picture was exposed by Egyptian blogger Wael Khalil and quickly struck a chord with Egypt's vibrant network of online opposition activists; spoof versions have since appeared depicting the 82-year-old Mubarak landing on the moon, breaking the 100m world record, and hoisting aloft the World Cup.

The controversy comes as the government gears up for parliamentary elections and amid rumours the authoritarian leader, who has ruled Egypt for nearly three decades, is seriously ill.

"I think what's significant is that Al-Ahram, the regime's mouthpiece, is clearly very sensitive about the way Mubarak appears to the general public in the current climate," Khalil told the Guardian. "People have picked up on the photo because it's such a good insight into the way the government operates in Egypt; whenever there are problems or failings they simply try and gloss over them – you can see that in this photo, and you can see it in the way they run the country."

Al-Ahram is the most widely-circulated Arabic newspaper in the Middle East and is known for its largely fawning coverage of the Egyptian government.

Its market share has been challenged in recent years by an increasingly bold crop of independent newspapers willing to adopt a more critical tone towards the ruling NDP party, a stance which has landed many independent editors in court.

By contrast Al-Ahram and other state-run publications have a track record of subtly 'improving' pictures of Egypt's political elite, although usually in a less obvious manner than this week's example.

The scandal will come as a blow to Al-Ahram director Abdel Moneim Said, a former Egyptian senator who was thought to have presided over a slight revival of the 135-year-old newspaper's fortunes since taking the helm last year, following decades of mismanagement. Al Ahram has so far failed to issue any response or apology for its actions, although the offending photo has been removed from the paper's website.

Although the incident has caused plenty of mirth at the president's expense, some are not amused. The anti-government 6 April Youth Movement said: "This is what the corrupt regime's media has been reduced to." It added that the newspaper had "crossed the line from being balanced and honest," and accused it of unprofessionalism.

The publication of the photograph coincided with the arrival of Abbas and Netanyahu at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh for the second round of talks under the current peace process.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Egypt's energy conundrum

Power shortages are fuelling popular protests - and a desperate search for new energy

-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - September 2010

Anyone who has passed through the Middle East during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan will have taken one visual memory home with them: the sight of row upon row of lights – flashy, fizzy, gaudy and kitsch – dominating the streetscape at every turn. After sunset in Cairo, when the day’s long fast finally comes to an end and families join together to eat a giant iftar (breakfast) and settle down in front of the TV, it often feels like the whole of this ancient city has been draped in neon. But this year the festive bulbs weren’t quite so ubiquitous, thanks to a series of power cuts that plunged parts of the Egyptian capital into total darkness – and which has left the country’s beleaguered government scrambling around for a new set of energy solutions.

The outages, which brought protestors out onto the streets in many parts of the country, were partly a result of 2010’s exceptionally hot summer (temperatures regularly topped 40°c in major cities, driving up the use of air-conditioners), and partly a consequence of Ramadan, when a great deal of economic activity shifts to the night-time hours. But they also underlined a long-term crisis at the heart of Egypt’s energy policy – the growing gap between domestic demand for power and the country’s ability to supply it. With a demographic explosion increasing electricity usage up by 13% this year alone, it’s becoming painfully clear that the existing energy infrastructure, which has been underfunded for decades, in creaking dangerously under the strain.

That’s why government ministers have spent the last few weeks unveiling a blitz of controversial new energy projects, including the construction of a $1.5 billion nuclear reactor on the Mediterranean coast in an area that had been earmarked for luxury holiday resort development. They’ve also thrown open Egypt’s waters to deepwater drilling, of the kind that led to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill back in April. Shut out of US oil and gas fields by President Obama’s moratorium on deepwater drilling, many companies are now setting up shop in Egypt instead; Transocean, the firm that owned the fateful Deepwater Horizon oil rig, has already been operating in Egypt for years, whilst BP has just inked a fresh deal with the Egyptian government that will see it extracting 900 million cubic metres of gas a day out of the Mediterranean seabed from 2014 onwards.

It’s all happening a bit too swiftly for the likes of Issandr El Amrani, a blogger and columnist who thinks there hasn’t been enough scrutiny of the potential environmental risks involved with deepwater drilling. Earlier this year an oil rig accident near the Red Sea resort of Hurghada gave Egypt a brief taste of the damage that can be caused by offshore energy extraction; because Egypt lacks the economic clout of the US, argues El Amrani, “it is all the more urgent to have a serious debate about the costs and benefits of deepwater drilling.”

But there could be an alternative way forward in Egypt’s drive for energy security, and it lies in the baking sunshine and fast-blowing winds that sweep across this desert nation with remarkable consistency. “Egypt’s potential to be a centre of renewable wind and solar energy in the Middle East is huge,” says Engineer Samir Hassan, Director of RCREEE, an independent renewable energy think tank based in Cairo. Wind speeds in the Gulf of Suez average 9-10 metres a second, far higher than those recorded at similar sites in Europe, and the World Bank has just approved a $210m loan which will help Egypt develop 10 GW of wind energy by 2022. Meanwhile the country’s first solar farm should connect to the grid within the next six months. With Egypt’s current reserve of fossil fuels set to run dry within 30 years, there’s no time to waste when it comes to the expansion of alternative energy.

“We’re not a rich country and we don’t have the luxury to sit around talking about this issue,” warns Engineer Hassan. “We need to develop new sources of energy now.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei urges election boycott

Nobel Laureate threatens campaign of mass civil disobedience if his demands for political reform are ignored

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - September 2010

Former UN nuclear weapons chief and prominent Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei has called on Egyptians to boycott next month's parliamentary elections, threatening a campaign of mass civil disobedience if his demands for political reform continue to be ignored.

In his most provocative speech to date since making a high-profile return to Cairo earlier this year, the Nobel Laureate warned that the poll would be marred by fraud, and that "anyone who participates in the vote either as a candidate or a voter goes against the national will".

He went on to claim that the three-decade rule of president Hosni Mubarak was a "decaying, nearly collapsing temple", and promised activists that regime change was possible in the coming year.

Mubarak, 82, is believed to be in poor health, and there is speculation his son Gamal is being groomed to succeed him ahead of next year's presidential ballot. ElBaradei's intervention comes at the end of a tumultuous few weeks in the race for the presidency, during which the 68-year-old accused the government of waging a smear campaign against him following the publication on Facebook of photos purporting to show his daughter posing in a swimsuit alongside bottles of alcohol.

The creator of the Facebook page, entitled "Secrets of the ElBaradei family', said the images proved ElBaradei's family were atheists, a politically devastating accusation in a predominantly Muslim country. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) denied involvement.

The Facebook controversy is the latest development to shake up Egypt's traditionally stagnant political landscape as rival forces begin jockeying for position in anticipation of Mubarak's reign – which has been criticised for human rights abuses – coming to an end. In a sign of potential splits within the NDP, posters backing intelligence chief Omar Suleiman for the top job were recently pasted anonymously on top of placards bearing the face of the president's son, only to be removed by security services the following morning. Egyptian newspapers were banned by the government from reprinting the images.

ElBaradei's National Association for Change, which is among those campaigning against inheritance of power, announced this week it was nearing 1 million signatures in support of the former IAEA director's call for constitutional change. ElBaradei has insisted he will not stand in next year's presidential elections unless reforms take place to ensure the vote is free and fair.

In the meantime, he is trying to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest organised opposition movement, to join the boycott of next month's parliamentary elections.

"If the whole people boycott the elections totally it will be, in my view, the end of the regime," he told supporters yesterday.