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Archive for October 2011

Are Egypt’s youth forgetting landmarks in their history?

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First published in The Caravan on Sunday October 3o, 2011

There is a famous mantra about the failure to know one’s history. “He who knows only his own generation remains always a child,” Roman scholar Cicero once said.

As Egypt rewrites its modern history in the wake of the January 25 Revolution, its successes and failures of the 20th Century become more crucial than ever.

One of Egypt’s most pivotal events in the past 40 years – and which was recently marked with much fanfare by the government and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – is the October 1973 War.

The war changed the military and political balance in the Middle East, established Egypt as a diplomatic force du jour and led to a chain of events that bring us to where we are today.

But many AUCians do not know the key dates and events of the October 1973 war.

The Caravan carried out an extensive survey which among other things asked: When did the October 1973 war start? When did it end? Why was it fought and on what fronts?

In a polling of 360 students, 30 percent said they were not aware the war started on October 6 and 50 percent could not tell when it ended.

The fact that the war was fought on the Sinai and Golan fronts was unknown to 43 percent and over 17 percent could name neither the Bar Lev line nor the Camp David Accords, which were the culmination of the late President Anwar Sadat’s military and political aspirations.

A total of 33 percent were unable to correctly answer the 11 questions asked by The Caravan last week.

Sherene Seikaly, a professor who teaches modern Middle Eastern history, says these results are cause for concern.

“I think it should be worrying for the community at large,” Seikaly told The Caravan.

“I think people [should be more knowledgeable of their history] especially at a time when it is very easy to look up this kind of information, we have so much access to information, it is literally at our fingertips,” she added.

Ali El Banna, a mechanical engineering senior, said he was shocked to learn of these statistics.

“Only now do I understand the importance of the core curriculum,” El Banna told The Caravan.

When asked how to raise interest in Egyptian history on campus, El Banna said there was nothing to do but urge students to learn about their history.

“We don’t have a [student] organization on campus fully dedicated to this type of thing,” he said.

He added that their should be an Egyptian history course in the core curriculum before saying: “I didn’t know you had to take a college class to know the October 6, 1973 War started on the October 6.”

Seikaly said she had grown up discussing history at home and assumed 1973 would be something regularly discussed in most Egyptian households.

She said, however, that the results of the survey are not unheard of and that a lot of people are ignorant of national history all over the world.

“For a lot of these people [the October 1973 war is] 20 years before they were born and mediated through nationalist narratives,” said Seikaly.

Additional reporting by Adham Haddara.

Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

October 30, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Posted in Analysis, AUC, Egypt, Middle East

Khaled Said helped the revolution, it did not pay him in kind

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The trial of Khaled Said’s killers last Thursday, where they received seven years of maximum security imprisonment, only served to reaffirm what many Egyptians already know: the system is flawed beyond reform.

The argument presented to us is that seven years is the maximum the judge could have sentenced the defendants to considering the charges put forth against them.

However, if it weren’t for a corrupt prosecutor general and interior ministry, the officers charged with killing Said would have been charged with murder through torture, something in accordance with international anti-torture legislation Egypt is signatory to.

A state where police officers who torture citizens to death receive lighter sentences than political activists and people who break curfew is not one in need of reform, it needs overhauling.

A new minister of interior selected the usual way, from a pool of retired officers, will not fix the human rights violations routinely taking place. Neither will deploying military police in place of civilian police, this makes things worse.

A civilian minister with a human rights or legal background given enough power to completely revamp the MOI, coupled with the removal of most senior officers and the actual disbandment (read: not renaming) of State Security, might actually help though.

Yet reform seems to be the extent to which the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces are willing to go. The generals wish to restore Egypt to a pre-2001 era where there was no Gamal Mubarak and hiding corruption was achievable.

The council, who seemingly intend to stay in power till at least mid-2013, are undoubtedly part of the Mubarak regime, saying otherwise would be fooling ourselves.

Mubarak hired them all and their most senior official, Field Marshal Tantawi, spent 20 years as Minister of Defense and the military’s commander-in-chief.

More importantly, the military (and thus its leadership) controls an estimated 25–40 percent of the Egypt’s economy. They achieved this by having the military production sector make and sell goods like cooking utensils and pasta, using conscripts as cheap labor.

The theoretical solution then becomes clear: elect a transitional assembly like Tunisia. Easier said than done, however. The military has guns, and besides, “the people and the army are one hand.”

Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

October 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Egypt, Opinion

More than 50 percent of AUCians favor ElBaradei for president

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Clockwise from top left: El Baradei, El Awa, Bastaweesi, Moussa

First published in The Caravan on Sunday October 23, 2011

Over 72 percent of AUC students polled by The Caravan said they intended to vote in Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections in November. Some 73 percent, said they would vote in presidential elections.

Almost 75 percent of students said they followed political analysis and discussions in the media with 17 percent classifying themselves as “very politically aware” and a further 58 percent saying they were “somewhat politically aware.”

As elections draw nearer, one political party stands out with over 30 percent of students who say they identify with or intend to vote for the liberal Free Egyptians Party co-founded by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.

“I like the Free Egyptians. They are a liberal party that advocates social freedoms and they believe in market values which would lead to Egypt’s development,” Omar El Sheikha, a computer science sophomore, told The Caravan.

“Among all the new parties, I see them as the ones who are doing the most work on the ground, advertising and getting their name out there,” he added.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party trailed in second with over 10 percent while over nine percent said they would support far-left socialist and communist parties.

Five percent said they supported the centrist Justice Party and only three percent support the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Around 27 percent of students did not support any of the 23 parties listed.

There was less indecision regarding presidential candidates, with more than 50 percent saying they identify with or would vote for former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

Former Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa garnered over 13 percent of the AUC vote in our poll while five percent picked reformist judge Hesham el-Bastawisi.

Mariam Hamad, a political science senior, told The Caravan she intended to vote for ElBaradei in the presidential elections because he was the only person who really opposed the Mubarak regime from the start, even before the January 25 uprising.

“ElBaradei provides Egypt with a vision of the future that is very progressive but at the same time moderate. Other candidates I see have the same mentality as the old regime. I think he provides this new insight that is much needed at the moment,” Hamad said.

“It would have been nicer if he were younger but these are the options we have and out of all of them I think he is the best,” she added.

Islamist candidates Mohammad Salim Al-Awa and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail received three and two percent respectively.

Almost 17 percent did not express support for any of the candidates.

Mohamed Sami El-Masry, an economics sophomore, said he identifies with Al-Awa because of his Islamic leanings.

“I believe he is a thinker and has written a lot of books on Islamic thought. He is a strong man, but at the same he is not a dictator,” El-Masry told The Caravan.

“He is a lawyer which is important [. . .] we are at a time where we need men of law because the state is in a legal void and at the same time he has political experience,” he added.

Most students do not believe in a religious state with almost 50 percent saying [that] religion should play no role in politics.

Hamad believes the state should be completely separate from religion. She feels that religion is interpreted differently from one era to another depending on social circumstances.

“For there to be an equitable and social system there has to be a system that is fair to everyone. You can’t have a country that has a Muslim majority and a Christian minority and then ask them to follow your rules. That is undemocratic,” she said.

Around 33 percent of students polled believe the morals and guidelines of religion should influence politics, and only two percent believed the countries political system should be completely based on religion.

“I believe that the state, and its laws, should be based on the general principles of religion because these principles benefit society. Politicians should also adhere to the morals and ethics of religion,” Sami told The Caravan.

He believes that there is a phobia of religion mixing with politics and that it is not something to fear.

“We should just treat [religion] as a source of legislation and that the majority are electing politicians to legislate on the basis they see fit. Personal laws would only be applied to Muslims, non-Muslims have the right to choose not to be subjected to them,” he said.

“The general principles of Islam are accepted by the entire society, even non-Muslims,” he added.

As for the economy, 40 percent of the polled students believe the state should be expected to regulate the market and offer some sort of re-distribution of wealth.

Over 25 percent said they believed the freer the market, the freer the people, while just seven percent said the state should plan and control the economy.

“If you have a free market that is self-regulating, as long as there are laws against fraud and corruption, then you will create more jobs and wealth will trickle down,” El Sheikha told The Caravan.

Hamad disagrees. She believes there should be a balance and that the market needs to be regulated, but that the state should not have absolute control over the economy.

“If you give the state too much control it will ultimately be corrupt and undemocratic. If you give the private sector, which has not even been elected too much control then that is even more corrupt and undemocratic,” she said.

“For there to be a balance, both have to exist. Yes you can have this capitalist model everyone loves but you have to regulate it because it needs to be manipulated in a way that makes it more about equity than just efficiency because efficiency is not enough to have a fair system.”

Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

October 24, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Posted in AUC, Student Journalism

Egyptian state television: beyond reform?

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On October 9, 2011 clashes between protestors and the military near the Maspero building left 36 people dead, 25 of which were Coptic protestors. The protest was against the tearing down of a church in Aswan and discrimination against Copts in general.

The Maspero building near which the clashes took place is the state television building. State TV’s coverage of Sunday’s events has come under severe criticism from many newspapers, other TV channels, activists and politicians. This post will attempt to offer a detailed analysis of State TV’s coverage of the Maspero events.

Egyptian Channel 1 coverage of the events started with anchor Rasha Magdi introducing the topic with a plea to the Egyptian people to remember the victory of their army in 1973 (the clashes took place three days after the 38th anniversary of the October 1973 war) and to protect their army.

A clip of Magdi can be seen here:

Magdi claimed that three military personnel had been killed and 30 injured in the clashes but provided no sources to back either fact up other than “reports”. These claims have not been verified to date and state TV itself later reported that there were no deaths within the military’s forces.

She went on to claim they were and injured by groups of armed Copt protestors, a claim that was by the testimonies (click to read in English and Arabic) of several activists and journalists on the ground, live footage showing the protestors were unarmed and that the army had instigated the clashes.

Videos of the military attacking first can be seen here:

Channel one later ran a report showing a soldiers calling Copts “sons of bitches”:

The next day several news outlets criticized state TV and Magdi for the coverage. Magdi phoned in several talk shows and admitted there were mistakes in the coverage and that it was one-sided. She also said “an important” official” was responsible for the news headlines that day before backtracking and claiming that everything she said she had read from MENA wire copy.

MENA vice president refuted these claims and said his agency had not written or distributed any of the material Magdi read out:

The public backlash was not just against State TV’s bias and unprofessionalism, with several people claiming the coverage was also discriminatory and incited hatred towards Copts. There were calls for Minister of Information Osama Heikal’s resignation. Heikal dismissed the notion and even claimed he saw nothing wrong with the coverage.

Heikal was originally hired with the mandate of reforming state-owned media.

In an interview (in Arabic) with Rosa Al Yousef magazine (also state-owned) Heikal said that he did not view the coverage as discriminatory and claimed that the inaccurate reporting was a result of the chaotic situation and the inability to send reporters into the scene.

The clashes took place, literally, on the doorsteps State TV headquarters, however.

Heikal also said he viewed nothing wrong with Magdi’s biased tone. He said that in “the face of the nation’s destruction” objectivity was impossible.

The cabinet has formed a media committee to verify whether State TV’s coverage of the Maspero clashes was biased or discriminatory but it is unlikely to find State TV guilty with members of the country’s ruling military council going on record and saying that State TV played a “heroic role” in Maspero’s events by their “truthful” coverage.

Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

October 24, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Posted in Media

Egypt’s days of rage – Tahrir: protesters insistent, “SCAF must go”

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First published in The Caravan on Sunday October 23, 2011

After a nine-month hiatus, the revolution continues, with Egyptians returning to Tahrir Square in unprecedented defiance of the ruling military council.

The sickening smell of their “new and improved” tear gas filled the air as they directed their rubber bullets, buckshots and live ammunition against their own countrymen.

“That will teach you to revolt you son of a bitch!” screams an officer as he guns a man down.

I was not close enough to see what became of the man – I hope he is alive – but such was the vitriol coming from the officer I heard him all the way from my relatively secure spot. This was not a political conflict; the sheer brutality of police onslaughts led many to believe they were exacting vengeance.

Bloodstained youth hurried down Mohamed Mahmoud Street carrying their fallen comrades on their shoulders as the Health Ministry updated the death toll to 30. Lies.

But the protesters’ resolve remained unbroken, with hundreds of thousands eventually flocking into Tahrir Square and hundreds of brave revolutionary youth heading into Mohamed Mahmoud to stop the police and CSF’s advances.

And stop them they did, for four days straight.

The protesters clearly had the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in their sights; they wanted it removed from the political sphere. That was the main and very obvious sentiment expressed by the hundreds of thousands occupying Tahrir Square over the past week.

The atmosphere swung like a pendulum from ecstatic as more protesters joined in and melancholic as the body of a martyr or injured protester was brought in from Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a war zone, every few minutes.

Not an ordinary protest

One thing I felt for sure, though, this is not another ordinary protest; this is the continuation of the January 25 Revolution that seemed to have ground to a halt in previous months.

Some even considered it a failed revolution, since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 and the military took over.

Last week’s anti-SCAF demonstration started out as a customary Friday protest held almost regularly since Mubarak’s ouster, with different groups heading to the square with their own demands.

Revolutionary youth were calling for SCAF to hold presidential elections immediately after parliamentary polls and to hand over power in April 2012 as they initially promised.

Islamists were there protesting Deputy Prime Minister Aly El Salmy’s supra-constitutional principles document, specifically articles nine and ten, which gave SCAF too much power over the process of writing the constitution and even after the handover to civilian rule.

As I toured the square on Friday, I felt cynical and defeated. Between the large numbers of Islamists after secular parties decided to boycott the demonstration, and the sense futility as another protest went on unaddressed and barely acknowledged I was beginning to think this revolution was truly over.

Word went round of a sit-in, comprised mainly of martyrs families and injured victims from last January. Numbers were low and predictably the police went in to disband them late at night and early morning using tear gas, rubber bullets and buckshot.

What was not predictable, however, was the backlash that use of force generated. As the police were dragging the dead body of a man across the street for a few meters, thousands made their way to Tahrir to take part in a battle that would rage on till we went to print on Wednesday.

An old trend re-emerged, especially on Saturday, as the police made a point to shoot protesters in the eyes. One prominent blogger lost an eye; another protester lost his second eye after losing the first on January 28.

As I walked through the square on Monday, I heard that Sharaf’s cabinet resigned. The protesters were fired up by the news; it did not satisfy them, but spurred them on.

“The people demand the removal of the Field Marshal,” they chanted. “Down with military rule,” they screamed.

“We are not here to oust Essam Sharaf, everyone knows he is useless,” an old man told me.

“It’s the military council that’s calling the shots, and they must go,” he said.

Tensions begin to rise rapidly in the square. Once every half an hour or so protesters come running from Mohamed Mahmoud, sparking massive panic among the rest, thinking the police have finally broken through.

When that isn’t happening, ambulances or motorcycles drive through the square carrying the scores of injured. Once in a while a body is brought back to the square carried by blood-stained protesters.

Two of the people I’m with ventured into Mohamed Mahmoud; a man standing between them was shot directly in the chest and died immediately.

A few hours later, I reluctantly followed as they attempted to check out Mohamed Mahmoud close up, we get to AUC’s main campus when people start running and a stampede unfolded.

The gas was so bad that I couldn’t breathe – face mask and all. When we finally reached the main square again I went into a coughing fit. I sneezed black mucus. And I only got as far as AUC.

Protesters announced holding a million man march the next day under the title of “national salvation.”

A reported two million people flocked to the Square protesting SCAF’s rule and demanding a civilian government.

Things in the Square were relatively uneventful with the exception of the ongoing battle in Mohamed Mahmoud street.

State TV announced Field Marshal Tantawi was to make a speech shortly at around 3 p.m. He made it at 10 p.m.

After a long introduction about how the military only wants to hand power to a civilian government and that “unforeseen events” were always derailing that goal, Tantawi announced accepting the cabinet’s resignation and that a national salvation cabinet would be formed.

He did not apologize for the scores of dead and injured, saying SCAF would only go back to their barracks as a result of a popular referendum.

Later that night, word broke out of the police using a new, third type of tear gas, with some claiming it was nerve gas.

What was sure though was that it left dozens suffocating, spasming and unconscious.

At press time, a battle continued to rage in Tahrir after police broke a ceasefire they had agreed on earlier in the day.

Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

October 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Analysis, Egypt, Opinion