Thursday, January 27, 2011

Inside Mubarak's security apparatus: Eyewitness account of arrests and beatings


On the early hours of January 26th I was detained and assaulted in Cairo by Egypt's state security services. Ecaping with minor cuts and bruises, I was one of the lucky ones. Human rights organisations have extensively documented the systematic torture and abuse of prisoners and political activists in Egypt for several years, and public anger at the deaths of Egyptians in police custody was one of the triggers for this week’s remarkable uprising – the energy of which continued to fizz amongst protesters in the police truck throughout our nightmarish journey.

I recorded the events inside the truck, and our beatings beforehand, not to highlight an exception but rather to cast light on a rule, the rule of brutal and unaccountable violence at the heart of Mubarak’s security apparatus.

Today hundreds of Egyptians remain in custody after being arrested during this week’s unrest; thousands more of their countrymen have remained behind bars for far longer, their locations unknown, their basic legal rights suspended by Egypt’s perpetual ‘Emergency Law’. An account of my experiences last night may offer a very limited and shallow taster of what these prisoners of one of the Middle East’s oldest dictatorships live through every day.


-Listen to the audio recordings from inside the police truck here

-Other journalists remain in detention - follow #jan25 on Twitter for details and spread the word


In the streets around Abdel Muni Riyad square, it was immediately clear that the atmosphere had changed. Earlier there had been an almost carnival-like vibe in nearby Tahrir square, which demonstrators succeeded in occupying for most of the day; now at 1am the air was thick with tear gas and thousands of people could be seen running out of Tahrir towards me. Several hundred regrouped and rallied in Al Galaa, a main road that leads up towards Cairo station; spotting an abandoned police truck, a few dozen protesters immediately set about attacking the vehicle, eventually tipping it over and setting it ablaze. Through the smoke, lines of riot police could be seen charging towards us from the south.

Along with nearby protesters I fled back down the street before stopping at what appeared to be a safe distance. A few ordinarily dressed young men were running in my direction, and I assumed they were demonstrators also escaping the oncoming security troops. Two came towards me and suddenly threw out punches, sending me to the ground. I was then hauled back up by the scruff of the neck and dragged towards the advancing police lines.

My captors were burly and wore leather jackets – up close I could see they were ‘amin dowla, plain-clothes officers from Egypt’s notorious state security service. All attempts I made to tell them in Arabic and English that I was an international journalist were met with more punches and slaps; around me I could make out other isolated protestors also being pulled along, receiving the same brutal treatment and choking from the tear gas. We were all being hustled towards a security office on the edge of the square, only two streets away from my apartment. As I approached the doorway of the building other plain clothes security officers milling around took flying kicks and punches at me, pushing me to the floor on several occasions only to drag me back up and hit me again. I spotted a high-ranking uniformed officer, and shouted at him that I was a British journalist. He responded by walking over and punching me twice. “Fuck you and fuck Britain,” he yelled in Arabic.

One by one the captured protesters and I were thrown through the doorway, where a gauntlet of officers with sticks and clubs was awaiting us. We queued up to run through the blows and into a dank, narrow corridor where we were pushed up against the wall. Our mobiles and wallets were removed. Officers stalked up and down barking at us to keep staring at the wall and not look back, whilst the sounds of more protesters being shoved inside could be heard behind us. Terrified of incurring more beatings, most of my fellow detainees – almost exclusively young men in their twenties and thirties, some still clutching dishevelled Egyptian flags from the protest – remained completely silent, though some muttered Quranic verses under their breath and others were shaking with sobs.

After what seemed like an age we were ordered to sit down, though there was barely any space in the little strip-lit hallway to do so. Eventually a senior officer began dragging people to their feet, sending them back out though the gauntlet one by one and into the night, where we were immediately jumped on by more police officers – this time with riot shields – and shepherded into a waiting green truck belonging to Egypt’s central security forces. The steps up to it were small and rickety, whilst the entranceway to the rear body of the truck – pressed into use as a portable metal prison – was barely wide enough to accommodate a single person at a time. A policeman smashed my head against the doorframe as I entered; inside dozens of protesters were already crammed in and crouching in the darkness. Some had heard the officers count us as we boarded; our number stood at 44, all packed into a space barely any bigger than the back of a Transit van. A heavy metal door swung shut and locked behind us.

Inside, conditions were horrendous. As the truck began to move, brief flashes of orange streetlight streamed through the thick metal grates on each side; with no windows, it was our only source of illumination. With each glimmer, bruised and bloodied faces were revealed; we were sandwiched in so tightly that the temperature quickly soared, and a number of people fainted. Snatched fragments of conversation began drifting through the truck, as the inmates exchanged anecdotes.

“The police attacked us to get us out of the square; they didn’t care who you were, they just attacked everybody,” explained the man next to me breathlessly, who turned out to be a lawyer named Ahmed Mamdouh. “They took everybody’s wallet and cell phones and they hit our heads and hurt some people. There are some people bleeding, and we don’t know where they’re taking us. I want to send a message to my wife; I’m not afraid but she will be so scared, this is my first protest and she told me not to come here today.”

Despite the demeaning violence meted out to all those in the truck, the protesters held together with remarkable strength and solidarity; those who collapsed were quickly helped to their feet, messages of support were whispered and then yelled from one end of our metallic jail to another, and when it emerged that a couple of people had managed to hide their mobiles from the police the phones were quickly passed around so that as many as possible could call their loved ones. “As I was being dragged in a police general said to me: ‘Do you think you can change the world? You can’t! Do you think you are a hero? You are not’,” confided Mamdouh. “What you see here – this brutality and torture – this is why we were protesting today,” added another voice close by in the gloom.

Denied anything but scattergun glimpses of the outside world through the grates, speculation was rife about where we were heading. The truck veered wildly round corners, sending us all flying to one side, and regularly came to an emergency stop, throwing everyone forwards. “They treat us like we’re not Egyptians, like we are their enemy, just because we are fighting for jobs,” said Mamdouh through gritted teeth. I asked him what it felt like to be considered an enemy by your own government. “I feel like they are my enemies too,” he replied.

At several points the truck roared to a stop and the single door would clank open, revealing armed policemen on the other side. They called out the name of one of the protesters, ‘Nour’ – the son of Ayman Nour, a prominent political dissident who challenged Hosni Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and was promptly thrown in jail for his troubles. Nour became a cause celebre amongst international politicians and pressure groups; since his release from prison Egypt’s security forces have tried to avoid attacking him or his family directly, conscious of the negative publicity that would inevitably follow.

His son, a respected political activist in his own right, had been caught in the police sweep and was in the back of the truck with us – now the policemen were demanding he come forward, as they had orders for his release. “No, I’m staying,” said Nour simply, over and over again and to thunderous applause from the rest of the inmates. I made my way through the throng and asked him why he wasn’t taking up the chance to get out. “Because either I leave with everyone else or I stay with everyone else; it would be cowardice to do anything else,” he responded. “That’s just the way I was raised.”

After several meandering circles which seemed to take us out further and further into the desert fringes of the city, the truck finally shuddered to a halt. We had been trapped inside for so long that the heat was unbearable; more people had fainted, and one man was now collapsed completely on the floor, struggling for breath. By the light of the few mobile phones that had made it into the truck, protesters tore his shirt open and tried to steady his breathing; one demonstrator had medical experience and warned that the man was entering a diabetic coma. A huge cry went up inside the truck as protesters began thumping the sides and bellowing through the grates: “Help, a man is dying.” There was no response.

After some time a commotion could be heard outside; fighting appeared to be breaking out between police and others whom we couldn’t make out. At one point the whole truck began to rock alarmingly from side to side whilst figures, hidden from view through the grates, began banging the metal exterior, sending huge metallic clangs echoing round our ears as we clung on for dear life. We could make out that a struggle was taking place over the opening of the door; none of the protesters had any idea what lay on the other side, but all resolved to charge at it whenever the door yawned open. Eventually it did so, to reveal a police officer who began to grab inmates and haul them out, beating them as they went. A cry went up and we surged forward, sending the policeman flying; the diabetic man was then carried out carefully by protesters before the rest of us spilled gleefully onto the streets.

Later it emerged that we had won our freedom through the efforts of Nour’s parents, Ayman and his former wife Gamila Ismail, who had followed the truck at breakneck speed and fought with officers for our release. Shorn of money and phones and stranded several miles into the desert, the protesters began a long trudge back towards Cairo, hailing down cars on the way. Most said that they would be back on the streets again in the morning. “They beat the fear out of me,” said Mohamed Abo Awad, a 21 year old. The diabetic patient was swiftly loaded into a vehicle and taken to hospital; I’ve been unable to find out his condition since.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mubarak regime in crisis as biggest anti-government demonstrations in a generation sweep across Egypt


-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - January 2011

- See all the Guardian's live updates on the protests here, including audio footage

Central Cairo was the scene of violent clashes tonight, as the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a generation swept across Egypt, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.

Shouting ‘down with the regime’ and ‘Mubarak, your plane is waiting’, protesters demanded the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship and said they were fighting back against decades of poverty, oppression and police torture. The protests had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce police response, as teargas and water cannons were fired into the crowd and rocks were hurled into the air by both demonstrators and security forces.

In the capital thousands of protesters from separate demonstrations converged on Tahrir Square, the central plaza. Demostrators waved Egyptian and Tunisian flags, hauled down a billboard for the ruling NDP party and chanted "depart Mubarak" at the 82-year-old leader, who will face elections later this year. One policeman died in the Cairo violence and two demonstrators were reported to have been killed in Suez, east of Cairo.

"This is the first day of the Egyptian revolution," said Karim Rizk, at one of the Cairo rallies. The protests against decades of poverty, oppression and police torture had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce response. Teargas and water cannons were fired into the crowd and rocks were hurled into the air by both demonstrators and security forces.

"We have taken back our streets today from the regime and they won't recover from the blow," said Rizk.

Protests also broke out in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where posters of Mubarak and his son Gamal were destroyed. Roads were also blocked in the Sinai peninsula, and large rallies were reported across the Nile delta and the Suez canal region.

The protests were called by a coalition of online activists, who promised 25 January would be a "day of revolt". Apparently taken by surprise at the size of the crowds, police initially stood back and allowed demonstrators to occupy public squares and march through the streets, unprecedented in a country where political gatherings are outlawed and demonstrations normally shut down quickly.

But as the marches grew, the government moved to isolate them. Access to internet, phone and social media networks was shut down, spreading confusion among protesters and temporarily sealing the largest Arab country off from the rest of the world. Access was later restored, although services remained intermittent.

"This is what freedom feels like. What a great day for Egypt," said Ahmed Ashraf, a 26-year-old bank analyst attending his first ever protest. "It was impossible to rally like this before, but today I knew I had to come out. This is our Tunisia." Demonstrators excitedly urged passersby to join them; many obliged. "Egypt is waking up," shouted one coffee shop owner who spontaneously merged with a throng of protesters in Shubra, northern Cairo.

Breakaway groups attempting to reach the parliament building fought running battles with armed police, whose cordons were broken several times. Police fired teargas canisters into the crowd and released sound-bombs to try to disperse protesters. Many demonstrators were seen with blood pouring down their faces. The clashes came on a public holiday dedicated to saluting the achievements of the police force.

Today's events were a litmus test for the strength of a new generation of anti-government activists, who have rejected the moribund landscape of formal politics and begun organising online.

After parliamentary elections in November which handed the ruling NDP a 93% majority and were widely thought to be rigged, this "day of revolt" was seen as the best chance yet for youthful dissidents to prove they could command widespread support on the streets.

As reports came in of large rallies breaking out around the country, several different demonstrations in Cairo headed towards Tahrir Square, where a carnival atmosphere quickly took hold despite violent skirmishes with police breaking out on the fringes. Tahrir Square was last occupied during protests against the Iraq war in 2003, but witnesses declared today's rally to be even bigger.

As night drew in the security forces intensified their teargas bombardment and begun charging protesters on Qasr el-Aini, one of the main roads leading to the square.
Protesters surged forwards again and again in the face of attacks, at one point causing hundreds of police to flee leaving riot shields, helmets and barricades in their wake, which were soon commandeered by demonstrators.

Government forces quickly regrouped and took back the street, forcing protesters back into the main square – now littered with rocks that had been thrown back into the crowds by policemen and pools of water fired in by police water cannons.

As sound-bombs rang out by the Nile, demonstrators chanted "terrorists" at the oncoming police, though also called on them to join their ranks.
"What is happening today is a major warning to the system," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst. He said the uprising would continue to gather momentum unless the government swiftly addressed demands for reform.

*12.25 AM UPDATE*

As midnight approaches in Cairo thousands of protesters are still occupying Tahrir Square, vowing to remain in place until the government falls. News has reached Egyptians here of deaths in Suez and the capital, as well as unconfirmed reports that Gamal Mubarak – the president’s wildly unpopular son and presumed heir apparent – has fled to London, and they appear more determined than ever to hold their ground.

“We will stay here all night, all week if necessary,” said Youssef Hisham, a 25 year old filmmaker. “There are too many people on the streets for the police to charge – if they did, it would be a massacre. I came here today not as the representative of any political party, but simply in the name of Egypt. We have liberated the heart of the country, and Mubarak now knows that his people want him gone.”

As fresh waves of protesters broke through police cordons to join the throng in Tahrir, a festival atmosphere took hold – groups were cheered as they arrived carrying blankets and food, and demonstrators pooled money together to buy water and other supplies. “The atmosphere is simply amazing – everyone is so friendly, there’s no anger, no harassment, just solidarity and remarkable energy,” added Hisham.

Drums were banged and fires started as night moved in; having established their lines, hundreds of security forces stayed put and kept their distance, although alarmingly police snipers were seen to be taking up position on nearby buildings. “They are waiting for numbers to dwindle, and then they will switch off the street lights and charge,” warned Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist.

“We must hold Tahrir through the night and tomorrow, so that every corner of Egypt can take us as an inspiration and rise up in revolt,” claimed Salah. “It’s a matter of life and death now – what happens over the next 24 hours will be vital to the history of this country. It’s a very emotional moment for me.”

Pamphlets widely distributed amongst protesters declared that ‘the spark of intifada’ had been launched in Egypt. “We have started an uprising with the will of the people, the people who have suffered for thirty years under oppression, injustice and poverty,” read the Arabic-language texts. “Egyptians have proven today that they are capable of taking freedom by force and destroying despotism.”

They went on to call for the immediate removal of President Mubarak and his government, and urged Egyptians nationwide to begin a wave of strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations across the country until these demands were met. “Long live the struggle of the Egyptian people,” the pamphlets ended.

Cut off from telephones, the internet and social media – all of which have been shut down by the authorities in an attempt to isolate protesters – several of those rallying appealed to the foreign press to make their voices heard. “We want you to broadcast what is happening here to the world,” cried Haisam El Tawed, a 26 year old software engineer. “This is my first protest, but it won’t be the last. The social suffering of our people cannot go on, and the Tunisians have shown us that change is possible. The parliamentary elections were a fake, our only option is to stay here until the regime falls.”

His colleague, Mohamed Mamdouh, went on to criticize the government’s attempts to restrict communications on the ground. “It’s futile; in the 21st century, you can’t stop people sharing and organising information,” he said. “It just shows to the world how desperate and afraid Mubarak is – closing down telephones and the internet is a last resort, the act one carries out when he is preparing to flee.”

News continued to filter through of other occupations throughout the country, where offices of the ruling NDP party were said to have been stormed. A huge cheer swept through the crowds as the first editions of Al Masry Al Youm, an independent Egyptian newspaper, passed into the square – its front page carried a single photo of protesters massing in front of Mubarak’s security forces, with the headline: ‘Ultimatum’.

A remarkable day in Egyptian history, one that could have vast ramifications within the Arab World and beyond. Observers are now asking themselves how long the international community will continue to back Mubarak – a key western ally, despite his penchant for torture and human rights abuses, and the recipient of more US financial aid than any country in the world except Israel. However things play out tomorrow, it’s clear a crucial fear barrier has been broken today in Egypt; if that emboldens the millions of Egyptians who have long harbored latent hostility to the government and yet who have thus far been too afraid to confront it openly, then regime change could be closer than we think.


The death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in the port city of Alexandria in June last year has proved a potent rallying point for the opposition in Egypt and human rights activists elsewhere. Graphic pictures of his injuries after a fatal beating allegedly by police quickly appeared online. Witnesses claimed Said, who had earlier posted a video of local officers apparently dividing the spoils from a drugs bust, was assaulted at an internet cafe near his home.

He was kicked, punched and had his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of a building next door. His body was dragged into a police car and later dumped by the roadside. Security officials at first claimed Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue. The United States and EU called for a transparent investigation. A trial of the two police officers charged with brutality is expected to resume next month.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Egypt braced for 'day of revolution' protests

Youth activists, Islamists, workers and football fans to hold rallies and marches against Mubarak government

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - January 2011

-Cartoon by Carlos Latuff, featuring Khaled Said and Hosni Mubarak

Egypt's authoritarian government is bracing itself for one of the biggest opposition demonstrations in recent years tomorrow, as thousands of protesters prepare to take to the streets demanding political reform.

An unlikely alliance of youth activists, political Islamists, industrial workers and hardcore football fans have pledged to join a nationwide "day of revolution" on a national holiday to celebrate the achievements of the police force.

With public sentiment against state security forces at an unprecedented level following a series of high-profile police brutality cases and the torture of anti-government activists, protest organisers are hoping that a large number of Egyptians will be emboldened to attend rallies, marches and flash mobs across the country in a sustained effort to force concessions from an increasingly unpopular ruling elite.

In a move that suggests the uprising in Tunisia may be spreading to other parts of the Arab world, Tunisian activists announced they would be holding their own protests in solidarity with their Egyptian counterparts, while many Egyptians plan to wave Tunisian flags. Parallel protests are also scheduled to take place outside the Egyptian embassies in London and Washington.

Demonstrators are calling for the sacking of the country's interior minister, the cancelling of Egypt's perpetual emergency law, which suspends basic civil liberties, and a new term limit on the presidency that would bring to an end the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, one of the Middle East's most entrenched dictators.

State security officials have branded the protests illegal, and said that those taking part will be dealt with "strictly".

"I'm answering a call that began online, a call to stand up against police brutality on the day the regime wants us to celebrate their so-called achievements," said Salma Said, a 25-year-old activist and blogger who plans to protest in Cairo.

"Of course demonstrating against police brutality means demonstrating against Mubarak himself and his whole regime, because they are the ones who created this system. Momentum is gathering really, really fast; friends I haven't spoken to in years have been ringing me up, promising to come down."

Tomorrow's events, dubbed a "day of revolution against torture, corruption, poverty and unemployment" by protest leaders, were initiated by two dissident movements, both based online. One is dedicated to the memory of Khaled Said, an Alexandrian man beaten to death by police last year, while the other, "6 April", is a youth group named after the date of an uprising two years ago in the Nile delta town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, in which three people were killed by police.

After initially dismissing the protests, the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's largest organised opposition force - has now said it will back the demonstrations symbolically, although it has not called on its supporters to take to the streets. Strikes are expected by workers in several parts of the country, including Mahalla, and a number of Egypt's traditional opposition parties and prominent public figures have pledged support.

Mohamed Adel, a spokesman for 6 April, said the broad range of participants distinguished tomorrow's action from previous protests. "It will be the start of something big," he told the Egyptian news outlet Al-Masry Al-Youm.

In a sign of how seriously the Mubarak regime is taking any challenge to its authority following the downfall of Tunisia's president Ben Ali, counter-protests are being organised under the banner of "Mubarak: Egypt's security". Organisers say they want to express their rejection of the "destruction of state institutions" by the opposition, raising fears of violent clashes on the ground.

"Regardless of how many people turn up, these protests will be highly significant," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Research Centre. "Those confronting the regime on Tuesday will be the sons and daughters of virtual activism - a new generation that has finally found something around which they can unite and rally.They are the product of a government that has never offered them any ideological vision to believe in, and now they have themselves become a symbol of contemporary Egypt."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Egypt's young wait for their lives to begin - and dream of revolution

In Cairo, as in places up and down the country, all eyes are fixed on the drama that is unfolding in Tunisia. Jack Shenker travelled across Egypt and heard people increasingly asking: could it happen here, and if so, when?

-Taken from the Observer
-Cairo-Mahalla-Alexandria - January 2011

News of Egypt’s latest act of self-immolation reached Waleed Shamad whilst he was sitting in the bourse, a dense warren of outdoor shisha cafes tucked away in the back alleys surrounding Cairo’s old stock exchange. An unemployed man had just set himself alight in the middle of a busy street – the twelfth such incident this week. According to a television newsreader, the 35 year old moved to the capital some time ago in the hope of finding work and saving enough money to buy a home and get married, but lack of job opportunities had driven him to despair. “That could be a description of any of us,” said Shamad, pulling his scarf tighter against the cold. “These human blazes are coming so fast, it’s hard to keep track.”

Cairo is a city built for sunny days and balmy nights; come winter-time the wind can lash downtown with a ferocious bite, chilling passers-by to the bone. But that hasn’t stopped Waleed and his friends gathering for their customary late-evening tea out on the pavement to talk through the day’s gossip: the Friday sermons devoted to Islam’s disapproval of suicide, new government restrictions on the purchase of bottled petrol, and of course all the latest from Tunis – where developments have kept the whole group glued to Al Jazeera for days.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes,” grinned Shamad, recalling the sight of Tunisia’s ousted despot Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing a land he had ruled for 23 years. “I’m so proud of the Tunisian people. When you see a friend or brother succeeding in some great struggle, it gives you hope, hope for yourself and hope for your country.”

In common with two-thirds of Egypt’s population, Shamad has lived his entire life under the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, a key western ally whose three-decade grip over over one of the most pivotal states in the Arab world has looked marginally more shaky following the events at Sidi Bouzid. At 27, Shamad – university-educated, getting by on scraps of informal work here and there, and still living at home with his parents – is part of a demographic bulge that accounts for nine in ten of the country’s unemployed, and whose simmering frustration, according to some analysts, could tip Egypt towards its own intifada – and unknown consequences for the rest of the Middle East. “Not having a regular job affects every aspect of your life practically and psychologically; almost everybody I know of my age is still unmarried and dependent on their families – it makes you feel hopeless,” he explained.

Last year’s UN Human Development Report for Egypt declared that many of the nation’s young people are trapped in ‘waithood’, defined as a prolonged period “during which they simply wait for their lives to begin.” “It’s not as if we want to sit here passively and accept the situation,” Shamad added. “The problems come from the government, but the instinct of our generation is to avoid the state, not confront it. I know that there are big demonstrations planned for next Tuesday, but we’re taught from birth to be fearful of the police. They know how to hurt you, and hurt the ones you love.”

Tuesday’s ‘big demonstrations’ will take the form of a nationwide set of anti-Mubarak protests, dubbed ‘revolution day’ by opposition activists who hope that Tunisia’s uprising will embolden the vast number of individuals like Shamad – young people whose latent hostility to the Mubarak regime has never yet translated into action on the street – and persuade them that the time is right to come and make their voices heard. “In every neighbourhood in the country there is a pressure point which the government is afraid of and which will be brought to the surface on Tuesday,” insisted Ahmed El-Gheity, a 23 year old doctor and one of the regional organisers of ‘revolution day’. On the event’s facebook page, tens of thousands of supporters have posted comments suggesting that Ben Ali’s departure could be the precursor for Mubarak’s downfall. “If Tunisia can do it, why can’t we?” read one. “We will either start living or start dying on January 25th.”

Weary of the formal political arena, where even superficial opposition parties now find themselves blocked off from legitimate avenues of dissent (last November’s blatantly-rigged parliamentary ballot delivered a 93% majority to supporters of the ruling NDP), urban young Egyptians are instead carving out their own spaces in which alternative voices can be heard. If all 70,000 of those who have made an online promise to attend actually show up on Tuesday, it will represent an organisational triumph for the youthful activists and provide a dramatic boon to Egypt’s fragmented anti-government forces, who rarely muster more than a few hundred when demonstrating in the open. But such an outcome appears unlikely.

“At the informal level – blogs, chat shows, social media – there’s been an explosion of political activity, entirely disconnected from the official mechanisms of government,” observes Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. And yet this dynamism has largely failed to spill out onto the street, where Mubarak’s ubiquitous security apparatus still maintains near-total control, facilitated by a perpetual emergency law that suspends basic civil rights and provides officers with effective immunity when combating any form of resistance. The only sector of society that has consistently succeeded in physically occupying areas controlled by the state is Egypt’s beleaguered workforce, who have confronted the regime over a range of economic grievances, from privatisation to the ludicrously inadequate minimum wage (unchanged at £4 GBP a month since 1984) – and succeeded in extracting concessions.

“This is where the regime is most fearful; they don’t want the young, online activists with their political demands linking up and inspiring the labour force who are campaigning for a better standard of living,” claims Gamila Ismail, a dissident politician who unsuccessfully challenged the NDP in the recent elections. “If youth in Cairo and Alexandria are connecting with Mahalla then the government knows it is in trouble.”


Sixty miles north of the capital, the textiles town of El Mahalla El Kobra has been the militant spearhead of an unprecedented wave of strikes and sit-ins sweeping Egypt over the past five years; in April 2008 a walk-out by factory workers in the town led to three people being shot dead by police. The road out to Mahalla passes through Cairo’s urban hinterlands which bleed messily into the Nile Delta and surrounding desert – here the high walls of sealed, fast-proliferating gated communities for the rich look down upon the redbrick clusters of ashwa’iyat, informal slum areas that are now home to 60% of the city’s population and offer a clear window onto the defining hallmark of Mubarak’s reign – a colossal appropriation of land and capital by the political and business elite, whose members have become increasingly indistinguishable.

Young residents of the private compounds live in a parallel universe from their counterparts in the ashwa’iyat, but both share a fundamental detachment from campaigns for political change of the sort planned for January 25th. “Of course we are all excited about Tunisia; the people there threw off their shackles and I pray we could do the same – rising prices are hurting all of us and something had to change” said Mahmoud Abdel Halim, a 29 year old construction worker from the far reaches of Imbaba, one of the biggest informal neighbourhoods in the capital. “But I don’t see how we could repeat Tunisia here. I haven’t heard about any protests and even if I had, it’s not like I can afford to stop work and go and get arrested.”

Omar Kandil, former student union president at the American University in Cairo, one of Egypt’s most prestigious and exclusive educational institutions, said many of his colleagues were equally unplugged from grassroots political activity, though for different reasons. “Most students here are happy with the current system. They’re not particularly aware of what’s going on politically, they just know that in their own circumstances they don’t need any kind of change to the status quo.” But, he argued, a recent strike by domestic staff at the university had punctured the bubble of privilege. “There’s a lot more engagement now,” he added. “The strike commanded huge support from the student body.”

Off Mahalla’s main square, through a narrow doorway partially obscured by mobile phone adverts and up five dimly-lit sets of stairs, a group of young people from across the Delta spent Friday morning carefully preparing a series of Tunisian flags, pinning each to a short wooden pole. Others sketched out placards expressing Egypt’s solidarity with Tunisia and condemning government corruption, police torture and poverty. They boasted a broad range of political backgrounds, though some had no affiliations at all. When around fifty of them took to the streets in the late afternoon, handing out pamphlets advertising the upcoming protests on January 25th, they were met with a bemused but generally positive response from passers-by, a handful of which joined in with the campaigning. A group of local political elders, all veterans of the more established opposition parties, watched proceedings from a nearby window. They had advised the younger activists not to hold a demonstration today but, following a chaotic internal vote, the latter had gone ahead with it anyway.

“I’ve never been on anything like this before, although my brother’s friend was attacked by police back in April 2008,” said one 26 year old motorbike driver as he stopped to see what all the commotion was about. “Circumstances have got pretty bad now, and I think changing the big sharks at the top is probably the only way we can make things better. I’ll try and make it.” The demonstration ended with a recital of the Tunisian national anthem, which concludes with the words 'When the people will to live / Destiny must surely respond / Oppression shall then vanish / Fetters are certain to break.'

Back in their 5th floor offices afterwards, the activists whooped and high-fived each other, their faces flushed with excitement. “Yes it was very small, but it showed that other young people are receptive to our energy,” beamed Yasmeen Hamdy El Fakharany. “I think January 25th will be a great success.” Ahmed El Gheity insisted that links with Mahalla’s working class had been established, the exact thing which Gamila Ismail believes the government is most fearful of. “They too will be walking out on Tuesday,” he said. “It’s going to be a very important day.”

Not everyone agrees. Another seventy miles northwest, in a wood-panelled Alexandrian coffee shop facing out to the Mediterranean, Hossam El-Wakeel shook his head angrily at the suggestion that his own organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, was betraying the anti-Mubarak movement by refusing to participate in Tuesday’s ‘revolution day’. “Will those coming out on Tuesday bring down the regime? I think not,” said the 23 year old journalist. “The Muslim Brotherhood believes that change must come from below, that we must rebuild society layer by layer as part of a gradual process, not chase revolution and impose new leaders from the top.” Earnest, cardigan-clad and sporting a trim black beard, el-Wakeel explained why he has thrown his lot in with the only opposition movement that actually has the capacity to bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets – and yet persistently refuses to do so.

“As an Egyptian, you have no voice – at least not under this government. But the Brotherhood gifted me an awareness about the world that gave me the strength to stand up and articulate how I felt; their view of what’s wrong with society and how we can change it is a holistic one, and that was very important to me.” El-Wakeel is engaged to a fellow Muslim Brotherhood member, selected from a shortlist drawn up for him by one of the organisation’s senior ‘sisters’. “We have so much in common, you might call it love,” he smiled. “I wanted to find someone who was on the same ideological path as me, someone who could bear the pain of me being jailed for my political activities. Neither of us have any money but she’s a struggler, like me. We will get through. Our problems are nothing compared to many Egyptians who lack even the most basic supplies, and the Muslim Brotherhood is helping all these people directly, in every neighbourhood, every day. We’re busy doing that instead of throwing all our energies into spectacular protests which aren’t likely to amount to much.”

El-Wakeel’s vision of political change in Egypt is far removed from that of the Tunisian-flag waving activists in Mahalla. Yet both share a commitment to direct confrontation with the Mubarak regime, something which Cairo’s Shamad – along with many others like him – still considers too risky, despite his deep anger at the government. The young inhabitants of the ashwa’iyat buttressing Cairo’s ring road and their gated neighbours also feel severed from any process of political reform or regime change, although, like Shamad, if a spark was to set off a mass mobilisation in the streets there can be little doubt that many of them would quickly join in – especially if the regime’s worst nightmares come true and youth activists begin acting in tandem with the industrial working class. It seems doubtful that protests on the 25th January will provide that spark, although anything could transpire on the day. But when the spark does come, there can be no question as to who will be leading the way.

“The real story of Egypt’s future is not in what’s happening at the top; rather it lies in the dynamics amongst Egypt’s youth,” says Tarek Osman, author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak. “Most international (and many local) observers see that social segment afflicted by poor education, enjoying limited exposure to world-class technology, thinking and processes, and being mired in a coarse, uncouth, culture. These ills are true. Yet there are many positive trends amongst young Egyptians. The young are acutely aware of the need for serious and quick progress. They reject the sad present they inherited from the previous generation. That drive for development is a potent positive force, and Egypt’s future depends on which of these dynamics – negative or positive – shape their actions.”

Sidi Bouzid, an Egyptian intifida, and why Mubarak's plane may be waiting


-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - January 2011

If Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak thought that his country was insulated from last week’s remarkable events in nearby Tunisia, a quick glance at twitter would have set him straight. Ousted dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali had barely left the airstrip when news of his departure began clattering around Egypt’s vibrant online community, and it didn’t take long for dozens of unflattering messages to go viral. “Tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too,” read one. “I send my sincerest condolences to President Mubarak for the ousting of his brother, his identical copy, his relative, his apprentice who exceeded his master. May God show us similar outcomes for our despot,” said another.

But could the so-called ‘jasmine revolution’ really spread east towards the Nile?

Egypt certainly boasts many of the same conditions that helped tip Tunisia into an intifada, including rising prices, widespread unemployment and decades of oppressive, single-party rule. This week no less than nine Egyptians attempted to set themselves on fire – apparently in an effort to replicate Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation provided the spark for his own regime’s downfall. Amidst rising public anger and growing panic at the top, the Egyptian authorities quickly flagged up a series of crowd-pleasing ‘poverty-reduction’ measures and were forced to deny that the country’s Supreme Defence Council – summoned only in national emergencies – had just been convened.

“[The self-immolations] are an attempt to imitate things that won’t happen in Egypt,” claimed the Finance Minister, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, as international investors took fright and Cairo’s stock market dived. “Egyptians are different from Tunisians.”

Any parallel uprising in Egypt would have an electrifying effect on the Middle East; at 80 million, Egypt’s population is eight times larger than Tunisia, forming the biggest nation in the Arab World. And as a key western ally – despite his penchant for torture and human rights abuses – any threat to Mubarak would be viewed with trepidation in London and Washington, particularly because there is a widespread belief that Egypt’s political Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, are waiting eagerly in the wings.

Concern about what might replace the current regime is one of the reasons why some analysts believe events in Tunisia are unlikely to be replicated here. “I think that while the grievances in Egypt may be similar to Tunisia, the framework is quite different,” says Issandr El Amrani, a prominent blogger on Egyptian politics. “First you have a higher degree of fear of the chaos that might ensue from an uprising, especially amongst the elite. Secondly it's hard to see the army intervening against Mubarak. Thirdly you have a much worse societal anomie than in Tunisia, but yet at the same time there are greater opportunities to vent frustrations.”

But with nationwide anti-government demonstrations scheduled for this coming Tuesday, no one should be placing bets on the status quo. “One could see a ‘perfect storm’ of domestic and regional events that would lead to a real street uprising in Egypt,” adds El Amrani. “You never expect the Spanish Inquisition, after all…”

Friday, January 21, 2011

ElBaradei: The critics are wrong

  • Egyptian dissident insists he hasn't lost momentum
  • Mubarak's 'authoritarian dictatorship' has created a 'failed state'
  • Smear campaigns are taking their toll on family
  • Wikileaks has 'undermined credibility' of the US

-Taken from Monocle
-Cairo - January 2011

The following interview took place at Mohamed ElBaradei's Cairo home in mid-December 2010, just over a week after Egypt's parliamentary elections but before the Alexandrian church bombing and the intifada in Tunisia (which he later gave his views on here). An edited version of the interview appeared in Q&A form in this month's edition of Monocle.


Jack Shenker: What has your reaction been to the recent parliamentary elections?

Mohamed ElBaradei: As you know I called on everybody not to get involved with this charade. Even if the election had been ‘transparent’, the whole structure would have inevitably led to a parliament that was not representative of the people, a parliament that maintained the distortion of the constitution, maintained the laws that regulate quotas for women and farmers and labourers and so on, quotas that do not represent any of these people. Plus the fact that the president appoints some part of the legislature, the fact that the parliament does not get access to full budget, and so on. The whole thing just has nothing to do with democracy, and you don’t go like a bunch of sheep into a slaughterhouse and then complain that you got slaughtered. The writing was on the wall, and it said ‘don’t come nearby’.

But anyway, I hope they, the opposition, have learned lessons – either you continue along the path which Einstein defined as insanity, i.e. doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, or you learn from your mistakes. This is really the basic question now we have to ask ourselves as Egyptians, and it requires heavy lifting. I understand that people are desperate and anxious for change to happen overnight, but it won’t– unless people mobilise and understand how to go about it. Because we are dealing with a police state and it doesn’t require rocket science to work out that you cannot really work within the system, within the so-called political institutions. They are not institutions; they are a bunch of laws that are basically designed to perpetuate an authoritarian system in power.

JS: Opposition parties emerged with almost no representation in the legislature; did the results leave you feeling vindicated in your previous call for a boycott?

MEB: What good does it do to feel vindicated? I’ve been vindicated so many times before on so many more important issues, but that’s not what matters. The issue for me is to see whether the Egyptian people can think rationally and strategically on issues, not emotionally. And so far it has really been a burst of emotions: fifty people going to a demonstration here, a declaration coming there, and these are all well and good but they are not going to change the system. And as I said you look at the system, you look at the experience of other countries around the world, and you see that to change a system similar to that which existed in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union you have to work completely outside the system, and through unconventional means, and you have to rely on the power of the people.

We need united opposition in numbers, and I still believe that is the only way to do it. If you get five or ten million people signing this petition, which nobody should be afraid to sign, all it does is strip legitimacy from the regime and say to the people of Egypt and the world that Egyptians want change and want to start a process of democracy.

JS: But isn’t that clear already? These parliamentary elections stripped the regime of any last shred of democratic credibility, yet the ‘world’ has done nothing about the situation.

MEB: Everybody knows that the regime has no legitimacy, but at the moment the opposition cannot go to Mubarak and speak. Whereas if I go to Mubarak and say ‘we have 20 million signatures behind us’ that completely changes the equation; he will not be able to argue against the fact that change has to come, and he will either have to cede power or start implementing the demands of the opposition.

So the petition is not just symbolically valuable, it has a very real impact – it gives you a platform, it gives you a mandate in the face of a regime that doesn’t want to see or hear any opposition. It gives you something concrete, and in my view if you get 20 million signatures – and these are not signatures for me, these are signatures supporting demands that everybody knows are common sense – then that matters. And if you have a united opposition, which we should have today – everybody from the Marxists to the Muslim Brotherhood to the liberal social democrats – saying yes we have our differences but we agree on one thing, and that’s a system where the people make the final call. And if people are willing to go into the street to demonstrate in large numbers, on social issues, political issues – well, these are the tools we need to work with.

JS: You said in your recent video message that the Mubarak regime must realise that if it continues repressing peaceful protests then there will be violence on the streets.

MEB: Well, my fear is that we will reach a tipping point, and quite frankly I see that coming. People say the Egyptians are patient but you go around the streets of Cairo – you don’t even have to the countryside when you have 81 slums in the capital and half the city’s population is living within them in subhuman conditions – and you’ll see the tipping point coming. I fear that at some point we will see a revolt, not over human rights issues specifically but a revolt of the poor, a melange of everything. I was thinking yesterday about how many Egyptians already sacrifice their lives to try and reach Europe; if they don’t drown and die the first time they will try again. They have reached the point where their life is not worth living; if they have even just a 5% chance of making it to Europe they will take that 95% risk of dying in the process.

If Egyptians are already doing that then why does anyone not believe that it may come to a point where those same people are saying ‘my life is not worth living unless there is change, but we are not able to effect change through peaceful channels’? Then everything could explode. And nobody wants that because then everything will go.

JS: What do these parliamentary elections say about the state of Egypt’s political institutions, and the regime’s intentions over the coming year?

MEB: Egypt is a one-party state and an authoritarian dictatorship. If you have overall opposition with 14 seats in parliament … tell me any state in the world that even pretends to be democratic and is in a similar position. If you have the Muslim Brotherhood going from 88 seats to zero, if you have three Copts out of a population of ten million in parliament, if you have only three women in parliament and have to invent a quota system to produce more, if you have former army generals who are in the parliament under the rubric of being labourers, then you have a parliament that is totally unrepresentative of the Egyptian people, a parliament that has come about through a completely rigged process where violence has been used.

The outcome we have is the best example possible that we are going from bad to worse. At least in 2005 there was some effort in taking shy steps towards democracy; this time the corruption is in your face. And I don’t understand – if you want to rig the elections then you have to be intelligent, yet there is not even a sense of intelligence because there’s not a single person in the world today who could look at this system and think it a democracy, or even a system marching on the way to democracy. Everybody can see it’s a regression.

JS: Given that, do you think the regime is trying to send a message about its tolerance of opposition in the run-up to presidential transition?

MEB: I don’t really know whether they have the ability to articulate a message; they appear to be fighting all over the place, between young and old and who knows where else. But if there is a message then it’s definitely the wrong message; they are telling people ‘you will continue to be enslaved, you will continue to be poor, there will be no change in policy, there will be a continuation of what you had in the past thirty years’. I see Egypt as a member of the party of sixty or so global failed states, and I see Egypt rock bottom on measures of transparency, corruption, human development – we have 40% living on less than two dollars a day.

JS: So has Egypt become a failed state?

MEB: According to the ‘Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace’ tables it has become a failed state. People use different criteria but if you’re looking at the ability of the state to provide a minimum and decent life for every human being then of course it’s a failed state. If you look at the ability of people to feel free and express their basic rights of religion, expression and so on, then of course it’s a failed state. If you look at Egypt’s ability to influence the region through soft power then of course it’s going backwards. A state is not just borders and government, at the end of the day a state is supposed to serve its people, it’s ultimately a territory where people live and where ultimately the sovereignty lies with the people, who live together under the benefits of a social contract. And if you look at the people in Egypt, you will get 95-99% of the people saying ‘the state has failed us’.

JS: Do you have any insight into the succession battle going on within the [ruling] NDP – especially reported struggles between Gamal and forces within the military that oppose his presidency?

MEB: I don’t concern myself with that, and I keep saying it doesn’t matter who it is that comes into power, what matters is how he or she comes to power. That’s why I boycotted the parliamentary elections and that’s why I’m calling for a boycott of the presidential elections, because you cannot be half-pregnant – either you are a democracy or you’re an authoritarian system, and to try and put up a façade of democracy… well that façade is now long gone, indeed has been gone for some time. The NDP itself is a continuation of the failed state; if they had any sense they would say ‘we have tried, we have failed, and we would like to give a chance to other Egyptians’. For the love of this country, I’d love them to do that. They keep talking about 5-6% [economic growth] but it didn’t trickle down – the rich got richer, the poor expanded.

JS: The Madinaty land row seems to have exposed – even more blatantly than normal – the blurring of lines between power and wealth in the higher echelons of Egyptian society. Is it a symptom of national malaise?

MEB: There’s a linkage between lack of good governance and poverty, a sense of marginalisation, radicalism, violence, social decay, sectarian strife, and so on. All these are linked, and that’s my greatest worry. Egypt used to be at the forefront of the Arab World, the other nations looked to it as a model, and in the ‘40s and ‘50s it was a bastion of moderation, tolerance and culture. People used to listen to Egypt’s perception and views. Right now all that has gone, and the region is pulverised – there is no worse region in the world when it comes to civil war and to violence. My greatest worry is that steady radicalisation in the region; Egypt could be the one to reverse that trend, get people to get back to where they should belong – part of the international community, pursuing political participation and social justice. Or we could continue to see the extremism that’s growing everywhere. And that is where I turn to the west; the west doesn’t realise that stability is not based on short-sighted security measures – stability will only come when people are empowered, when people are able to participate.

When I see the statement by the High Representative of the European Union, or by the State Department about the Egyptian elections, I not only feel disappointed, but I feel that they are losing every ounce of credibility in the region because actions speak so much louder than words. And even those words are so sheepishly pronounced – they express ‘regret’ and ‘dismay’, and they end by reaffirming that Egypt is a major ally, which is a way of saying ‘forget about the fraud, we will continue to work with you’. If they think they are buying themselves stability then they are completely misguided; don’t then be surprised if this increasing fragmentation, radicalisation, marginalisation, anger and humiliation that’s brewing in the region comes back to haunt them.

The west is losing all credibility when it comes to convincing people here that they are serious about their basic values: democracy, freedom, justice, rule of law – all of that is out the window. There’s a lot of anger and distrust from people towards the west, not just over the elections but also over the Palestinian issue, Iraq, Iran; you’re losing credibility and the west’s policy towards the Middle East has been a total failure. And then compare that to elections in Zimbabwe where sanctions were applied and the opposition is now power-sharing at least, or to the situation in Burma or to Iran. The reaction of the west at present is based on political hypocrisy rather than deep-rooted values, and now what I see here is a feeling in the street that we need to wash our hands of the west, that the west is not interested in our freedom, or our social justice, or our endemic conflicts. The feeling is ‘if they don’t give a hoot about me, why should I give a hoot about them?’ And people don’t realise that if you are not going to solve the problem of radicalism by going through this bubble at airports; the issue is much deeper and you have to take a long-term view.

No government from outside can change the regime in Egypt, and I’ve said that many times, but as people – and the governments of the west are supposed to be representatives of their people – the people should express deep condemnation for the deprivation of human rights anywhere, the way it is expressed over Burma, Iran or anywhere else. There should be a sense of human revulsion – if I see someone losing their freedom in Timbuktu, it will provoke a reaction in me; forget about the ethical dimension for a moment, even just from the selfish perspective of wanting a world based on global stability, you have to have a reaction. And you won’t have global stability if you send the message that freedom and democracy is good for us, but not for the barbarians (as the blacks were called in apartheid South Africa). You have to send a message to the people that we care about your freedoms – we are not interfering in your internal affairs, but we are sending a message to the regime as people, not as governments, that we care about your freedoms and this is an issue we take extremely seriously.

JS: Is the international community receptive to your message?

MEB: Tremendously; I haven’t met one single leader who does not understand the plight of the Egyptian people.

JS: And yet the US continues to fund Mubarak’s security apparatus to the tune of $1.3bn a year.

MEB: Well none of these people can influence what is happening here or change the system, but they can react as people to what is a blatant violation of human rights. The way we reacted to Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, so we should react to everyone who is denied his or her freedom. I’ve started a process, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. It might take a year, it might take longer, but change is inevitable here, and when I finally retire – and my wife wishes I had done that yesterday – I will feel quite satisfied.

JS: You’ve faced criticism from your own supporters about your persistent absences from the country and the perceived loss of momentum that’s gone with that. One Al Masry Al Youm columnist said recently that your involvement in Egyptian politics turned out to be half-hearted, and that as you retreated, ‘so many of the substantial gains he made were wasted… his popularity diminished, along with his credibility.’ Is that fair?

MEB: The critics don’t have any point, and the credibility of these critics is open to question – many of the criticism is coming from within the ruling party. I have been vilified in every possible way, from supposedly being an agent of Iran, an agent of the US, responsible for the war in Iraq, hacking my own daughter’s facebook page… so we have to ask about the credibility and the honesty of some of these criticisms. And I happen to take a completely different view. I have said from day one that there is nobody on a white horse that is coming to liberate Egypt; the bad news is that that person does not exist. All I wanted to do was start a process, and tell them ‘we need to catch up with the 21st century, we need to defend our rights, and we need to think about ways in which to defend our rights – this is a police state, so don’t play their game’.

And there have been a lot of people – and there continue to be a lot of people – who are responding to this message, because there is little credibility to the established opposition, who might be well-intentioned but they haven’t achieved anything. People are looking for a different way to go about achieving change. My tactics have been firstly to say ‘you need to work outside the system’, and secondly ‘you need to provide me or people like me with a mandate to have a strong foothold from which to confront the regime’, and that’s through the petition, and thirdly to strip all legitimacy from the regime by boycotting elections. Imagine if that election had been completely boycotted and we had 30 million people signing the petition – the regime would have gone, in my opinion.

JS: But what does working outside the system mean in a practical sense, apart from the petition? What about mobilisation on the street?

MEB: The petition is the easiest way is to break the culture of fear, which is still in place. We have one million signatures, many of which are from the Muslim Brotherhood because they are the most organised, but when you have one million out of 80 million then you still have a way to go. But I understand that, I think that’s down to a culture of fear and I keep hammering at this – you have to take one single step to start with, and what you are really saying by signing the petition is ‘I want to restore my humanity’ – we shouldn’t be afraid, the regime will not be able to detain and torture 80 million people. But it takes time; we have a background of 58 years of total repression and total dictatorship under three different rulers where everyone, from Marxists to the Muslim Brotherhoods, has been excluded. People are afraid – if you go in the street there is 90% support for what I am saying, but if you ask them to sign the petition it’s different so we have to take things gradually.

So signing the petition is one thing, uniting the opposition is another; I’m now calling on the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Wafd, Al-Ghad and all the major opposition parties to unite. We have a lot of different views on a lot of different issues but let us at least unite on saying ‘we need democracy, we need to change the constitution, we need to have fair and free elections, and we commit ourselves in every way to not participating in the presidential ballot – and if the regime doesn’t listen we need to go to the streets and agitate, through peaceful demonstrations. In every movement for change the grassroots have to be at the forefront, labour must be at the forefront, young people must be at the forefront. There is of course an increasing number going to the streets but we need to see that snowball growing.

These are the tools I have; people don’t understand that in a police state, people need to be educated that everyone has to participate to change the system, I can’t do it alone, and a lot of this disappointment is coming from the myth that if I’m here things will change, and if I’m outside things are not going to change. Also people must understand that they can’t just think emotionally; they must plan together, unite together, work together – but the tools available are very limited.

JS: But I think many people accept that there is no knight in shining armour riding in to save the country; what they’re looking for is a figurehead around which people can rally, and who can inspire momentum on the ground, galvanise the grassroots. And the problem is that when those people are being dragged away by state security at demonstrations, or tortured in police stations, and at the same time they see you on book tours in Brazil or Japan or wherever, they feel let down – can you understand that?

MEB: Well I see this as part of the process of education, because even if I’m here – and I’m here now – that’s not going to stop the police from torturing people. Nor am I going to attend – and I don’t think it’s my role to attend –demonstrations of 30 people. When Khaled Said was killed, you’ll remember that I did go on the demonstration at Alexandria, and this was the largest demonstration we’ve seen, about four or five thousand. Of course there was an equivalent number of ‘amin markazi [central security] present, and it’s the first time I saw that – I was absolutely stunned.

But these are not the numbers that are going to affect change; this was a test, and it showed that people are still afraid. Because you have this most egregious violation of human rights, a young man tortured to death, and yet you’re getting less than 10,000 on the streets; in normal circumstances, in somewhere like Thailand, you’ll see a million on the streets, and then you can start talking about change. So the message to the people is ‘don’t just hide behind me and think you will be protected – you need to protect yourselves. You have to be large in numbers, and you have to understand that you must take risks for your own liberty.’ And I think this is succeeding now; after lots of outcry about me being outside the country, they are realising they will have to work on their own whether I’m in or out.

Another issue is that I have no access to the media here. And an important part of this is my visibility, credibility and my continued focus of putting a floodlight on the atrocities of the regime, and much of the time I am able to do that more from the outside, through my contacts, my media exposure, and so on. Interestingly not a single Egyptian television station has asked to see my face.

JS: I think many people still aren’t convinced, they still feel let down.

MEB: Well let me explain further why I’m in and out of the country. I’m in and out because this is my access to the world; I need to continue focusing attention on the Egyptian regime and creating empathy for the Egyptian people – not amongst governments but amongst ordinary people. I want to show that Arabs are not the stereotypes they imagine; I want them to see an Arab, an Egyptian who is a commissioner. When you say I was in Brazil signing books, actually I wasn’t – I was there as a commissioner on HIV/AIDS, something no one even wants to talk about here. I was in Hiroshima because I was fighting for nuclear disarmament, an issue of major importance in the Middle East. I was in Mauritius talking about African economic integration and making it clear that we, North Africa, are a part of black Africa. So we have to show that we are not the stereotyped, isolated group of fanatics that some people imagine. And that’s a very important role, to continue to work with the rest of the world.

In addition I have certain legal obligations, I have a book coming out in May – in the middle of all this I get sent chapters to work on and revise, and this to me is very important because it tells my story. It’s called The Age of Deception and it talks about the deception I’ve seen right, left and centre in big countries and small countries. But it doesn’t impact on my campaigning because my physical presence is not the issue, it’s the ideas that count. And as you know I use twitter, I use facebook – geography is irrelevant. People need to shed themselves of the idea that I’m their protector; at the deep level they think if I’m here they’re protected, but they’re not protected – I myself am not even protected. I live here without any security, and of course there is a risk, not from the regime necessarily but there are so many people who would like to see me removed from the scene. However I am following every day what is happening in Egypt, and I want people to understand that I am with them all the time.

JS: The writer Tarek Osman says you have a colossal liability: you’re ‘a liberal who represents the classic Egyptianism that combines Islamism and Christianity in one identity’. He describes you as part of a 1950s and ‘60s generation of Egyptians ‘shaped by traditions of cosmopolitanism, secularism, and social leniency’, and argues that today this is at odds with the ‘potent religious-conservative wave that has ridden over much of Egyptian society’. Does that worry you?

MEB: I don’t think so, no. I think part of my mission and those of others is to get Egypt back to being a cosmopolitan, tolerant, open society, and not a blinkered, extremist, fractured society. So I’m proud to be all of the above, and it will take time, but I’m not here to perpetuate the status quo that I see in Egypt today – if that was the case then I wouldn’t be here at all. I have a mission vis a vis myself which is yes, I’d like to bring Egypt back to when it was on the right track, before it got completely distorted.

JS: But in this day and age, are many Egyptians receptive to that argument?

MEB: I think so. Of course this is a very fractured society; if you go to the Copts then naturally they are receptive to it, as are Muslim moderates. And of course there will be a lot of opposition. I have been accused of being anti-Islam and anti-everything Islamic – obviously these people have magically got into my heart and discovered what I secretly believe! I laugh at all that stuff, I’m like ‘Teflon’ Reagan – nothing sticks! In Egypt the challenge frankly is that it’s not just about restoring democracy, rule of law and basic freedoms, it’s about restoring values which we used to have. Values like tolerance, social solidarity, respect, decency, transparency. And all these values exist in every religion.

JS: What's your take on current sectarian tensions in Egypt?

MEB: My take is that this is a symptom of a decaying society. Alright so I’m an old man, I lived in Egypt through the ‘50s and ‘60s, I dealt with Christians, Jews, Italians, Armenians, you name it, and it never occurred to me or anyone at that time what your colour or religion or creed was. We were all part of Egypt living together. Everybody I dealt with was a different nationality. Sectarianism is a symptom of poverty and repression, which bring out the worst in people. None of us are born as Mother Theresa, or as a suicide bomber. So the conditions are producing this; if it’s not Copts and Muslims, it will be Nubians and the Cairo government, or Sinai Bedouins and the Cairo government. People express their frustration in different ways.

I don’t want to get philosophical but Jean-Paul Sartre said that people always want to feel superior, that someone’s below them, but that doesn’t exist when everyone in society is protected by law, is treated like a human being and is taught to be tolerant, understanding that you can believe in whatever you want to believe in and that is your own business. These are values we lost. And when I see three people from the Coptic community elected to parliament today, what does that say about where we are?

JS: Yet you’re willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, elements of which are hostile to the idea of a Copt becoming president.

MEB: I want to see all the parties working together, going to all parts of the country to spread the message; we need united, not fractured opposition at the moment. My tactic is a united opposition, where we are all working for the same goal and can be seen together, giving a clear-cut commitment not to participate in the presidential elections, everyone doing their best to sign the petition and get a mandate – because if we have 5 or 10 million signatures we can go to Mubarak and say ‘we are representatives of the people, and here is the paper to prove it’. And this is the most elegant, peaceful way of doing things. They [the opposition] lost a golden opportunity to push this during the elections, but anyway. And people who have lost their jobs, who are living on ten [Egyptian] pounds a day, people who have social grievances, they have the right to go into the streets to call for the economic and political rights, and they should go into the streets. These are the tools available to us. But neither I nor anyone else has a magic wand.

When people talk about the Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood] being banned, it’s like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand. No matter what you say, the Ikhwan have the sympathy of probably – and we can’t say exactly because we don’t have polls for this sort of thing – but at least 20% of the people; after all they got 20% of the seats in a rigged parliamentary election. My first ever encounter with an Ikhwan person was with [former Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary leader] Saad El-Katatni when I arrived back in Cairo this year, and I made it clear that we agree on the big picture need for democracy. He agreed on the need for civil society, that they’re not looking for a religious society, which I thought was a good thing to hear from them and we need to pin it down in the constitution and make that a red line.

I keep saying everywhere: I will work with every single Egyptian who wants change, but there is a red line, which is that all Egyptians have the same rights and obligations. And I’ve said in public and in private that although I work with the Ikhwan, I would be very happy to see a female Copt as president of Egypt. So working with the Ikhwan or with Marxists… I’ll work with every Egyptian, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion – let’s build a democracy and let the people decide.

JS: Have the attacks on your character and your family by the state-run press taken a toll?

MEB: On my daughter yes, though not on me – I’ve become so used to this stuff that it’s laughable. It’s ironic that I’m the most decorated Egyptian wherever I go in the world, and the most vilified within my own country. But I take that as another decoration, a sign that I’m fighting for the right cause. So it doesn’t affect me personally, but of course it takes a toll on my family and on our security. My daughter lives in London and is married in England and of course she was extremely offended at the intrusion into her privacy [following the publication of her facebook photos on the internet], something that isn’t necessarily understood here. And I must say that the British were extremely supportive and took all measures necessary to protect her. Of course these are issues I have to take care of, it’s about my family.

It just shows the level of desperation, the level of debasement that the regime has sunk to in order to vilify me. It’s interesting that until today I haven’t seen one single discussion [within the state press] on the actual things I’m talking about – nobody is explaining why the constitution is good as it is, why the election regulations are good as they are, why Egyptians abroad cannot vote, why we should not have international observers. There was never a single discussion on a substantive issue, it’s all vilification which makes me the devil incarnate. But what they don’t understand is that this continues to add to my credibility everywhere else in the world. I was with a famous black African singer recently – I won’t say his name – and he said to me ‘take back the country’, so [the regime] are not helping themselves with any of that stuff.

JS: You talk about the limitations of operating inside a police state. Social media like twitter and facebook seems to be an important tool for you; how effective do you think you’ve been in exploiting those mediums?

MEB: As I’ve said, we don’t really have many tools, so we have to use the tools we have intelligently. I can’t have even a headquarters, raise funds, hire a conference room to give a speech. So in many ways I am the leader of a virtual opposition.

A year ago I had no clue about tweets, now I’m an expert in how to write something in 140 characters! They always say old horses don’t learn new tricks, but I’ve been forced to learn new tricks.

JS: Does the existence of these alternative forms of media change the paradigm of how information is controlled and disseminated in a country like Egypt?

MEB: Social networks are excellent, facebook and so on. Printed media isn’t ‘objective’; you can see a variety of underlying ideologies. Why is it that the conservative Washington Post has had ten recent editorials on Egypt, but there’s been none in the liberal New York Times? It is remarkable. So social media has become important because it gives you raw data, it gives you information. And it’s important in Egypt because of the context of media repression. I have on my facebook fan page around 300,000 supporters which is remarkable in a country where internet penetration is only about 17-18%. I’ve been told that this was more pro rata than Obama had before the election, which shows how thirsty young people are for an outlet.

Now I can record a video at home without even going to a studio, put it up on YouTube, and by the end of the day it’s running in full on Al Jazeera. We’re in an age where you cannot restrict people, and I’m sure the regime is agonising that messages can be spread everywhere. But there has to be a division of labour in that process of change, and I see my point of strength as exposing the regime, creating empathy for the plight of the Egyptians, and that requires me to keep up my contacts outside and inside the country, and that’s something local politicians and young people don’t always understand. And I can appreciate their enthusiasm, but I think they’re gradually getting the message that they’re protection lies in their numbers, not in sitting behind one person.

JS: Looking at some broader issues, what are your thoughts on the current talks between Tehran and the west on the former’s nuclear ambitions?

MEB: I’m very optimistic about the current talks. Western policy towards Iran, as with the Middle East as a whole, has been a complete failure. Iran is a question of competing ideologies, east and west, and it’s about a confidence deficit and a complete lack of trust on both sides. The only thing people are worried about is Iran’s future intentions, and Iran’s future intentions depend on trust, which you need to strengthen through confidence-building. And that will never happen until the Iranians and the Americans sit around the negotiating table.

You can try sanctions, isolation, covert operations, stuxnet worms, or whatever, but that is not going to resolve the situation – in fact it takes it in the opposite direction because it empowers the hardliners, reinforces the us vs them mentality, which is something we need to get rid of. My gut feeling is that Iran is not really interested right now in having a nuclear weapon, and they don’t need a nuclear weapon – they might have thought of it when, with the support of the west, Iraq was using chemical weapons against them, but they want to have the technology which will allow them to produce a nuclear weapon in a very short span of time and in that respect they’re no different from Japan or Brazil.

And you can ask your own country [the UK]: why you are spending billions of dollars modernising Trident [Britain’s nuclear weapons defence system]? [Tony] Blair talked about the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] but he completely misread the NPT because the NPT says ‘yes Britain has nuclear weapons, but you have to get rid of them’. Or when I hear [David] Cameron saying ‘Britain will always have a nuclear deterrent’ – what message is he sending to the rest of the world> The message is that if you have nuclear deterrence it brings you an insurance policy, it brings you power, it brings you prestige. But then you turn around to Iran and tell them ‘don’t even think of touching that technology’. Again it comes down to us vs them, the moral equivalency factor – unless you sit down, reconcile your differences and agree on a modus vivendi and live by it, there is no other way. I know both Iran and the US understand that, I know that both Obama and Ahmedinejad firmly believe it is the only way, sitting down and negotiating – just before I left office I had talks with them to that effect.

I am optimistic, but I hope that the west finally looks at the big picture and understands that psychology and respect is important, and I hope that Iran finally understands that they need to address the concerns of the west and take confidence-building measures. There was an excellent opportunity provided by Brazil and Turkey, a variation of the proposal I made before, but the west decided the cup was half empty whereas in my view the cup was more than three-quarters full. But I am optimistic, there is no other option.

JS: Does the recent aggression on the Korean peninsula worry you?

MEB: Of course it worries me – everywhere there is nuclear material I worry. With 23,000 warheads don’t you think I worry that one of them will be used, either by computer error or human miscalculation or whatever? Especially when many of them are on hair trigger alert, where the US or Russian presidents have half an hour to respond to a reported nuclear attack, when you have all this material alongside an illicit trafficking network – the greatest worry is that an extremist group will get hold of radioactive material, and then forget about any deterrence because for these guys deterrence has no meaning, they are willing to sacrifice their lives in the name of whatever ideology they have.

North Korea is no different from Iran – it needs security assurances, economic assistance, it’s an impoverished country. You have to talk to them, give them incentives, and in both cases in my experience, incentives are much more important than sticks. Try to use a stick and in most cases it doesn’t work – it certainly didn’t work in Iraq. Instead what happens when you apply these draconian sanctions is you end up committing the most egregious violation of human rights, in the name of human rights, as happened in Iraq where many people – old and young and vulnerable – died whilst Saddam continued to enrich himself.

JS: As a career diplomat you must have written your fair share of private memos – what was your reaction to the Wikileaks release of secret American diplomatic cables?

MEB: I’ve always said in public what I’ve said in private, so at a personal level I’m not worried about any of my own memos coming out! But overall I think the release of these cables has undermined the credibility of international institutions, shown how they have been manipulated – by the US at least, and by other major powers. And it undermined the credibility of the US when you see a cable, relevant to me, that they have been wiretapping every conservation I have in order to see if I have some sort of secret deal with Iran. It’s done a lot of damage to international institutions and countries that publicly preach the rule of law and right to privacy, and it has added a good dash of public cynicism towards politicians and the mechanisms of international politics.

JS: Are you therefore saying it’s a good thing that these cables have exposed the duplicity of certain countries, or would it have been better for them to have remained secret?

MEB: Well frankly I have mixed feelings on this. In diplomacy you have to have space to have confidential discussions, as [former UK foreign minister] Malcolm Rifkind has argued recently, and a lot of diplomacy, especially the prophesising, has to be confidential, at least until you reach the outcome. Of course you are a journalist so you’ll love to have everything out in the open, but a private space has to be reserved for diplomacy because if you really want to succeed in resolving the Palestinian issue, the Northern Ireland issue, you need the space to brainstorm ideas freely and you’ll never be able to do that if everything is in the newspaper.

However, it does send a message to those quislings who are saying one thing in public to their people and a completely opposite thing in private. They will have to think twice now. It’s fine to have confidentiality, but you have to be honest with your people.

JS: What about Wikileaks revelations that suggested your IAEA successor Yukiya Amano was ‘solidly in the US court’, presumably in contrast to yourself – what did you make of that?

MEB: I can only talk about my record, I can’t talk about my successor – it’s a question of decorum.

JS: Returning to Egypt, do you see yourself as part of the lineage of Saad Zaghoul and other great Egyptian resistance leaders?

MEB: I don’t know and I don’t care, to be frank. That’s not meant to sound arrogant, but what matters to me is seeing Egypt moving forward. Whether I’ll be remembered as someone who initiated change is not important – I’ve had enough recognition in my lifetime; it’s nice to be recognised but it’s not the most important thing for me right now.

JS: Do you ever regret having launched yourself into the mire of Egyptian politics?

MEB: I don’t. I don’t regret anything. My family would have liked to have seen me at my age doing the things I like. And I love my work; this is something I try to teach people – there is life beyond Egypt, there are major issues that concern us all as a human family. I wrote my wife an SMS from Brasilia saying ‘I feel fulfilled, I feel satisfied being part of this HIV/AIDS campaign’. In Brazil I saw a two month old baby infected with HIV. Maybe it’s because of my formation, but for me humanity is indivisible, so I work on issues like HIV/AIDS, arms control, nuclear disarmament which I dedicated many years of my life to – it’s all about the sanctity of human life. I know that there are ten million poor people with no access to HIV drugs even though they are available – these are issues which go straight to my heart and they are issues I will continue to work on.

I want to say again that I am starting a process here. We have been all emotions, and the Egyptians now are hopefully starting to understand that change will come through rational thinking and not through just emotion. I think I have managed to do two things which are quite significant. First create the environment where everyone understands the need for change – if you talk to anyone, and they know they’re not being listened to by the security apparatus, they will tell you of the need to change. And secondly I’ve created an alternative. The regime has always acted on a concept of dualism: military repression or an Al-Qaeda style religious state. I have at least proven to the people here, and to the world, that Egypt is full of alternatives, that the country can be run with modern management techniques and commonly accepted human values – respect, tolerance, democracy, transparency, what have you. These two are there; what is left is how to connect these two, how to turn this yearning for change into reality.

We just want to come back to the basics – which we had. In the 40s and 50s Egypt was at the same level of economic development as Korea, as Spain – and when I visited Korea recently my heart ached because I saw the way that country has developed and the way Egypt is today. We are just going backwards. I can’t look at myself in the mirror and think about the country I grew up in – seeing how it was, seeing how it is now, and then just sit back and let it go down the drain. That’s not how I want to end my life. Egypt is not the epicentre of the world but it’s the land I know the most, and I’d like to see its people respected, enjoying a minimum standard of life and holding no fear of walking down the street and demonstrating for their causes.