CHRISTMAS IN CAIRO (Notes from a visit)

Having worked with Egyptian journalists before and after the toppling of Mubarak, I had little idea how brief the ‘new democratic era’ would be.

“Please, please tell people it’s safe to come here!” The parting words of a young woman journalist I worked with in Cairo, just before Christmas 2013.

She is not the only one who fears that that constant coverage of the increasingly impatient and violent demonstrations for and against President Morsi are giving western eyes the wrong impression. Others are ashamed that the world can see that ‘their revolution’ is sputtering out in the dusty gutters of overcrowded cities like Cairo and Alexandria. 

“We voted for Morsi because we could not vote for Mubarak’s man, Ahmed Shafik,” said one young radical. “We could not believe that he would turn on us like this. We have replaced one dictator with another.”

During the week between the two days of voting on a referendum to accept or reject a new constitution for the country, most people I met were opposed to it but resigned to the near absolute control it will give to the Muslim Brotherhood, their Salafist allies and the army. 

If that were not an alarming enough prospect for the urban secularists who brought on the 2011 revolution, they now face weapon-wielding thugs when they protest, as well as the tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. For women there is an additional risk – targeted assaults designed to keep them off the streets. 

Thousand of those arrested and imprisoned so far have been tried in military courts, including juveniles according to Human Rights Watch. 

The disappointment and anxiety of young people I met was echoed in the bewilderment of tour bus driver Mohammed, whose six year old daughter won’t play outside anymore having witnessed violence on the streets from her window. Like several a businessman I spoke to, his greatest wish is a period of stability. 

Since the revolution, confidence in the once admired military, has withered, and there is no sign of the disenfranchised and long discredited police on the streets. Hundreds of illegal stall holders now block the roads and metro stations desperate to earn money before the Egyptian pound collapses. Rumours abound that the rich, Muslim and Christian, have already shifted their money and families to safer havens abroad.

Tourism had already slumped before the Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline Salafists won more than 70% of seats in the first democratically elected Assembly since the fall of Mubarak. Morsi’s presidential win was the icing on the cake for Islamists, even though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which controlled Egypt during the inter-regnum, dissolved parliament after the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ruled it unlawful – because the National Democratic Party, power base of disgraced president Mubarak, had been excluded from participation. 

Morsi slapped down the both the SCAF and the SCC but it was clear that new parliamentary elections would have to be held. But first a committee of 100 elected by the dissolved Assembly had to draft a new Constitution. Supposedly representative of the full range of political and religious interests in Egypt, it had only six women members, and secular parties objected to its inevitable Islamist bias. It too was dissolved by the courts. 

A new Constituent Assembly fared no better. Although President Morsi declared that it could not be dissolved by the courts, it was boycotted by most opposition parties, and Christian and other civil society groups also withdrew. The rump of the committee, meeting over 19 hours on 29 November, produced a lengthy document, which acknowledged special rights for the military and indicated a preference for Egypt to be ruled in accordance with Sharia law. 

Overseas voting began a week later. Domestic voting was spread over the following two weekends, since the Judges Club had declared against the President and there were insufficient judges available to preside at all the vast country’s polling booths on one day.

Morsi’s opponents felt, with good reason, that the electorate were ill-prepared. Illiteracy is high in the countryside and few people anywhere had time to absorb or discuss the 234 Articles of the proposed constitution. 

“People were unsure whether they would be fined if they did not vote,” explained one journalist who covered the referendum. (Men who do not vote in parliamentary elections risk a fine that is hefty for the poorly paid.) “In the mosques they were being told that good Muslims should vote Yes.”

Of almost 53 million people eligible to vote, in Eqypt and abroad, fewer than 32% actually did. The 68% majority who favoured the Constitution according to the official outcome, amounts to less than 21% of the total electorate.  In Cairo 57% voted against it. 

Numerous violations of electoral procedure are under investigation. Four different women, who had gone to vote at the women-only booths in different parts of the capital, told me there were long queues, and anger when polls opened late, or shut early. 

“There were about 2,000 women stretched out around the block,” one young woman told me. “The doors remained shut for hours. When we protested the presiding judge said he could not handle such large numbers. I think he was scared that we would all vote ‘no’.” 

Another had a similar story. “Women were banging on the doors demanding to vote. They wanted to vote ‘no’.”

Yet another decided not to vote. She saw the referendum as sham. “Voting would legitimate an illegitimate process,“ she insisted.”We were caught out once when we no option but to vote for Morsi. I wasn’t going to be conned again.”

Several claimed they had evidence that the men supervising the booths were not judges at all. None of these women would thank me for publicising their names. One said even her husband did not know about all the protests she had been on, especially when she had taken her child along.

No-one I spoke to believed that that the referendum had legitimised the new constitution under which fresh elections should take place within by March 2013.  

Constitutional expert Ramy Mohsen explained Egypt’s complex election rules which continue to favour the largest parties. 

Each of 83 constituencies elects two Representatives to the lower House, at least one of whom must be a ‘peasant farmer’ or ‘trade union member’. Voters must also express a preference for a political party under a ‘list’ system. The remaining 272 seats are then parceled out on a proportional basis to party appointees. 

A similar system exists for the 270 seats of the upper chamber or Shura Council, except that that one third of seats are appointed by the President. Only 7 per cent of voters bothered to vote at the last election, and 56 of Morsi’s appointees are Islamists, so few would consider it representative. Yet this is the body now charged with making laws until a new parliament is elected. Small wonder that protests continue.  

The slightest hint of criticism of the powers that be excites a counter reaction. This may explain the lassitude that some have observed among middle managers on state newspapers. 

“Once they examined carefully every word before it went to press, now so long had headlines and intros won’t cause offence, they don’t seem to care,” said one veteran. 

No-one really knows where the balance of power will settle, so they do as as little as possible to alienate either side. This may change now the new year has brought worrying signs that Morsi will brook no criticism from the media. 

It is not an easy time to be  a journalist in Egypt, wherever your sympathies lie. While I was on Cairo the headquarters and newspaper’s offices of one of Egypt’s oldest liberal political parties was attacked by gunmen and set on fire. Each day I passed the massive building that houses Egyptian State TV, surrounded by barricades and barbed wire reminiscent of Belfast at the height of the Troubles.

A few days before I arrived, photo-journalist Al-Husseini Abu Deif 33, was shot in the head while filming an opposition sit-in outside the Presidential Palace. When he died in hospital a few days later, journalists held silent protests about the attacks on press freedom. His funeral in Sohag, Upper Egypt turned into a protest against the Muslim Brotherhood. His brother Salem announced regret at having voted for President Morsi. Yet the President’s Freedom and Justice Party website blames Al-Husseini’s his death on anti-Morsi thugs. Ten members of the Brotherhood were killed during the clashes that night.

Al Husseni’s friend and colleague Abeer Al Saady, 37, vice-president of the Press Syndicate, sees little chance of stability returning to Egypt while the constitutional hiatus continues. 

“Our revolution started in Tahrir Square, but I wonder if we shall see the freedom we are seeking in my lifetime,“ she said. She is appalled by the predicament that now faces Egypt, but believes that the struggle against political corruption must continue regardless of the consequences for individuals.

“What is happening now is depressing. The Brotherhood may consolidate their hold on power in the new elections, but we must have faith that justice will prevail. Eventually we shall have a government that reflects and respects the rights of everyone regardless of gender, religious or political beliefs.”

One of the encouraging developments since my first visit to Egypt four years ago is that more journalists are reaching out to those whose voices are rarely heard. Projects like Mandara Online are providing opportunities for new generations of journalists from Upper Egypt to publish the experiences and aspirations of people far removed from he centres of power. Over time such initiatives bode well for the future.  

So is it safe to go to Egypt? I can only say what I saw and heard. I only felt at risk when careening through the chaos of Cairo’s streets in cabs with devil-may-care drivers behind the wheels. But then I was a pampered hack passing through for a week. I am not sure how safe I would feel if I were part of the social upheaval that is tearing the country apart.


Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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