From the September issue of Rolling Stone Middle East.
From the September issue of Rolling Stone Middle East.
Cross posted from The National.
CAIRO // The Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, yesterday tried to calm tensions that have gripped the country since his seizure of new powers.
Mr Morsi met with members of Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council, which on Sunday condemned the declaration as an “unprecedented assault on the judiciary and it rulings”. Mr Morsi’s advisers expressed confidence that yesterday’s talks would resolve the impasse.
A presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, said that Mr Morsi assured the judges that the decrees did not in any way “infringe” on the judiciary.
Mr Morsi’s justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, said a resolution to the crisis was imminent.
Mr Mekki said that Mr Morsi’s declaration could be amended to stipulate that “the irrevocable decisions of the president apply only to issues related to his sovereign powers and not administrative decisions”. Mr Morsi’s declaration on Thursday gave him nearly absolute political power until a new constitution is approved.
Mr Morsi defended the unilateral act as essential to realising a full democratic transition that they claim has been stalled by a politicised judiciary dominated by appointees during Hosni Mubarak’s time as president.
The judiciary responded vigorously at the weekend.
In addition to the Supreme Judicial Council’s rebuke, Egypt’s Judges Club appealed for a general strike by judges and prosecutors, although the judicial council rejected those calls, and they do not appear to have been widely followed.
Mr Morsi’s declaration has also sparked a series of violent outbreaks throughout the country. Anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators torched several of the organisation’s offices on Friday. On Sunday evening, a 15-year-old Brotherhood member, Islam Masoud, was killed after protesters attempted to storm the group’s headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Damanhur.
The instability rocked the stock exchange, which plunged more than 9 per cent on Sunday. Stocks rebounded slightly in yesterday’s trading.
On Sunday, Mr Morsi emphasised the “temporary nature of the said measure”.
Cross posted from The National.
CAIRO // Egypt’s top judges yesterday accused the country’s president, Mohammed Morsi, of promoting an “unprecedented assault” on an independent judiciary.
On Thursday, Mr Morsi granted himself nearly absolute power in the country, including over the courts, in what he said was an effort to speed progress and to protect the transition to constitutional democracy. After an emergency meeting, the Supreme Judicial Council, the highest court in the country, said in a statement released by Egypt’s official news agency, Mena, that Mr Morsi’s decision was an “unprecedented assault on the judiciary and it rulings”.
The court called on the president to “distance himself from the declaration and all things that touch judicial authority, its specifications or interference in its members or its rulings”. Hundreds protested outside a downtown courthouse against Mr Morsi while awaiting the court’s statement.
The judges join a widening list of leaders and activists from Egypt’s political factions, including some Islamists, who have denounced the decree.
Mr Morsi’s order temporarily strips the courts of oversight of the president and the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting a new constitution. It also removes from office the country’s prosecutor-general, a holdover from the former president Hosni Mubarak era, whom Mr Morsi unsuccessfully tried to fire last month.
The president’s opponents see the judiciary as the only remaining civilian branch of government with a degree of independence, because Mr Morsi already holds executive power and as well as legislative authority due to the dissolution of parliament in June.
Since assuming office in June, Mr Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country’s first freely elected president, has repeatedly butted heads with the judiciary, which is dominated by Mubarak-era appointees and viewed by Mr Morsi’s supporters as an obstacle to his political agenda.
The edicts Morsi issued mean that no judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the current assembly writing the new constitution, which are also both led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Supporters of Morsi feared that courts reviewing cases against these bodies might have dissolved them, further postponing Egypt’s transition under the aegis of a new constitution. Mena also reported that judges in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, announced they would strike in protest of Mr Morsi’s declaration.
In Cairo, sporadic clashes between young protesters and police around Tahrir Square continued for a sixth consecutive day. The relatively low-grade clashes on Mohamd Mahmoud Street followed a night of some of the most intense violence of the last week between rock-throwing protesters and police, who unleashed a torrent of tear gas and birdshot on the protesters.
Mohamed Kamel, a doctor at a field hospital set up inside the square, said that he had treated 45 injuries the previous night, including one serious chest wound from a rock thrown by police.
On the muddied centre lawn inside the square, hundreds of demonstrators had heeded calls from at least 15 different opposition groups to participate in a sit-in against Mr Morsi’s declaration. About two dozen tents had gone up overnight, many marked with the insignia of liberal and secular political parties and activist groups.
Tamin Heikel, 35, a member of the El Adl Party, vowed to remain in the square until Mr Morsi repealed his decree.
“Of course [Morsi] will respond to the pressure, but not right away,” he said. “We will have to stay for a long time and escalate our activities.”
Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud, a 37-year-old civil engineer, went even further, saying he was prepared to “stay here until Morsi falls off his chair,” adding, “a country without laws is not a country”.
Like many of the other protesters, Mr Mahmoud said he had voted for Mr Morsi in the presidential election this year and that he had never participated in political activism before. But he said that Mr Morsi’s most recent action convinced him that the president’s pledges were all lies and that he had instead led the country to a dangerous precipice.
“Civil war is coming very soon,” he insisted, pointing to the violence on Friday between Muslim Brotherhood and non-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in cities across Egypt, “because we have Egyptians fighting Egyptians”.
He was unimpressed by Mr Morsi’s speech on Friday, in which he justified his actions as essential to preserving the gains of last year’s revolution.
“It didn’t convince anyone older than 12,” Mr Mahmoud quipped.
Cross posted from The National.
Protesters run from riot police during clashes at Tahrir square in Cairo on Friday. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
CAIRO // Thousands of Egyptians rallied against the president, Mohammed Morsi, and torched Muslim Brotherhood offices across the country yesterday in a show of anger at the sweeping powers he has decreed for himself.
Supporters and opponents clashed across the country in violence that left 100 people injured.
But in an address to thousands of his supporters outside the presidential palace, Mr Morsi insisted he was steering Egypt towards “political stability, social stability and economic stability”.
“All the revolution might be in danger by those still loyal to the old regime,” he told them. “If I see my country and Egyptians are in danger, I will act.”
Mr Morsi lashed out at protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir, where violent confrontations between anti-government youth and police raged for a fifth consecutive day. He described them as “paid thugs”.
Liberal and secular groups massed in Tahrir Square and across the country to protest against decrees giving Mr Morsi power to operate without judicial oversight and insulate the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly from legal challenges.
In Cairo, thousands of young men threw rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail at police positioned behind the walls of a local private school and inside residential buildings. They responded with tear gas and birdshot.
The Egyptian health ministry reported 16 people hurt, and the official Mena news agency reported eight policemen were seriously injured by Molotov cocktails.
A banner hung above the entrance to the street from the square declaring: “No entry to the Brotherhood.”
The offices of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political arm, were also burnt in the cities of Alexandria, Ismailiya and Port Said, according to state television, as the protests spread across the country.
Egypt’s divided opposition, which heeded calls from the country’s Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Amr Moussa, for a protest after Friday prayers.
The 6th of April Youth Movement, which played a central role in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak last year, had a visible presence in Tahrir.
One member, Ahmed Mohamed, wearing the group’s trademark black headband, said Mr Morsi’s new powers reflected Egypt’s transformation into “the Muslim Brotherhood’s country”.
Many others said they had formerly supported, or at least tolerated, Mr Morsi’s presidency but had grown alarmed by what they called his dictatorial tendencies.
Amr Tolba, 40, a salesman, said he had voted for Mr Morsi in the June presidential run-off and this was his first political demonstration since the revolution.
“Today for the first time, you will see people like me,” Mr Tolba said.
“I was concentrating on my job, my profession. But now I am here to protest a dictator that is coming up.”
Mr Morsi’s backers, led by the Brotherhood, gathered outside the presidential palace in a show of support for his decrees. “The people support the president’s decisions,” the crowd chanted.
A branch office of the FJP was set on fire in Alexandria and protesters were heading to the group’s main office in the Mediterranean city’s Sidi Gaber neighbourhood, security officials said. “The situation in Alexandria is tense and security forces are eager to exercise self-restraint and maintain security and protect vital establishments,” said Gen Abdelmawgud Lutfi, the head of Alexandria security.
In the southern city of Assiut, ultraconservative Salafis outnumbered liberal and leftists, such as the April 6 youth groups. The two sides exchanged insults and briefly scuffled.
Hundreds also took to the streets of the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El Sheikh against Mr Morsi’s declaration, chanting: “No to merging the revolution with authoritarianism.”
Cross posted from The National.
Keith Lane for The National
CAIRO // Girgis Abu Habib Sidrak says he watches professional wrestling 10 hours a day but would watch “all 24 hours” if he could.
Every night, without fail, body slams and chokeholds light up the TV at this elegant rooftop Cairo bar.
It is 9.30 on a Sunday evening and in between taking drink and shisha orders, Mr Sidrak and his co-worker, George Milad Abib, are flipping through the five different channels all broadcasting World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fights.
On one is an old bout featuring Dave Batista and his partner in crime, Rey Mysterio. “Look, look,” Mr Sidrak repeatedly interjects, jabbing his index finger towards the screen. At one point, Batista flattens his opponent by launching himself feet-first into his chest.
Mr Sidrak, 21, and Mr Abib, 20, explain that they have been tuning into professional wrestling for more than a decade.
They watch the fights and WWE-produced films. Mr Abib is a member of a WWE Facebook group. Sometimes they practise the moves they see on each other.
Their obsession with a quintessentially American entertainment genre, often derided as gratuitously violent and misogynistic, is anything but an oddity here.
Professional wrestling is everywhere in Egypt - from televisions in dingy Cairo cafes and Bedouin huts in the desert, to merchandise hawked on the streets, to online message boards.
WWE made its live debut in Cairo last month with three performances. More than two hours before the 8pm start on Friday, thousands of fans streamed into the arena inside the Cairo Stadium complex, many with homemade signs bearing their favourite wrestlers’ likenesses.
WWE, which rakes in almost US$500 million (Dh1.84 billion) a year and broadcasts in 145 countries to more than 600 million households, has found the Middle East a fertile frontier.
It launched an Arabic site, WWE Arabia, six months ago, and has held live events in Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the past 18 months.
Ed Wells, the senior vice president and managing director for WWE International, declined to provide exact television viewership or revenue figures for the region, but touted the inroads WWE has made lately.
“WWE’s programming in the Middle East, and Egypt in particular, has very strong audience figures and we have seen steady growth of the popularity of the brand in these markets in the past 12 months,” he said. Its Cairo Facebook page is one of WWE’s most popular internationally.
By the time the first wrestlers pranced into the ring to blaring music and flashing lights, the crowd had stirred itself into a frenzy. The vast arena was only about a third full, owing no doubt to the high ticket prices, which ranged from about 250 Egyptian pounds (Dh150) in the nosebleed seats to 3,000 Egyptian pounds ringside.
Yet the noise was almost deafening, as alternating spells of cheering and derision rained down on the performers below, the throngs of young fans in attendance lending the cries a distinctly high pitch.
While professional wrestling strikes many in Egypt as a crude western import, the WWE’s styling of itself as wholesome entertainment rang true among the parents with small children in tow.
Ahmed Hussein sat in the upper deck with his wife Radwa Gadou, 8-year-old daughter Malad, and 6-year-old son Mazen. He said his children have been watching WWE since they were 2 or 3.
“They first got into it on PlayStation,” he said. “They would know every player, every movement.”
The expensive tickets were too much for many devotees, such as Mr Sidrak and Mr Abib, but the crowd was well-versed in the ways of WWE. They cheered on the heroes and taunted the villains with chants while responding on cue to the wrestlers’ patented gestures.
Menna Mohamed, 13, who was joined in the stands by at least five members of her extended family, showed off the signs she had made, including one with a caricaturised rendering of Dolph Ziggler alongside his catchphrase, “It’s not showing off if you back it up.”
Menna said she has been watching WWE for years. She used to stay up until 3am to catch airings of Monday Night Raw. She explained that she loves Ted DiBiase, but not so much Zac Ryder, whose biography she dismissively rattled off while anxiously inquiring if anyone knew who was up in the ring next.
“The programming and storylines are based on the age old story of good versus evil, which is a narrative everyone can relate to globally,” said Mr Wells, trying to explain the WWE’s diverse appeal.
“In addition to that, the product is family friendly – and is presented in a fun and engaging way.”
For many young men here, who comprise much of the core audience, professional wrestling seems to offer something else: a rare image of pure masculinity. Mr Sidrak says he wishes he could go to the gym to get ripped like the fighters he idolises.
“Of course,” he replies, when asked if he would like to be a professional wrestler. “That is my dream.”
Unfortunately, with his scrawny frame, Mr Sidrak cuts an unlikely candidate to become Egypt’s first professional wrestling superstar.
Ahmed Hussein offered one more explanation for WWE’s allure. “I think Egyptians like to do things that the American and Europeans, and the developed world in general, do.”
It is not quite the image the US is looking to export. In March of last year, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, lamented that America was losing the information war in the Muslim world.
She recounted a meeting with an Afghan general to the Senate foreign relations committee. “The only thing he thought about Americans was that all the men wrestled and the women walked around in bikinis.”
Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who has publicly expressed his disdain for “naked restaurants” in the US, is unlikely to be a big fan of WWE and its scantily-clad “divas”.
Still, at least one online enthusiast was prepared to give Mr Morsi the credit for the last month’s spectacle. “Anything is possible in the age of President Morsi” a commenter wrote on the WWE Arabia website.
The Egyptian Football Association’s postponement last week of the professional league’s resumption for the third time in less than two months has triggered a new round of fireworks in Cairo. This time, it was a group of players who marched on the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis to demand that the league be allowed to go ahead. The protesters were led by the Zamalek captain, and international football’s most-capped player, Ahmed Hassan. Events really reached a boil, though, when the demonstrators parked themselves in front of the nearby hotel where Al Ahly’s African Champions League semifinal opponents Sunshine Stars were staying, in an apparent attempt to keep the Nigerian side from reaching the stadium for their Sunday evening match and thus force Ahly’s disqualification from the tournament. Ahly’s diehard supporters, Ultras Ahlawy–whose threats to storm stadiums if the domestic league resumes before the resolution of the Port Said trial are widely viewed as behind the Football Association’s reluctance to restart the league–sprang into action, this time to ensure that the night’s match would proceed as scheduled. Following clashes between players and fans outside the hotel and reported police interventions of tear gas, Sunshine Stars were able to make their way to the stadium. The game, delayed by a half-hour, ended in a 1-0 win for Ahly, who will now play for the championship next month against Esperance Sportive of Tunisia.
Cross posted from the Forward.
CAIRO — Sitting in a Cairo coffee shop, with his boyish face and gaunt physique, Amir Ramses looks at first glance like someone half his age. But the prominent 33-year-old film director has already directed three major commercial films and several acclaimed documentaries. His new film, the independently produced “Jews of Egypt,” Ramses says, is his most important feature film to date
“There is all this offensive, racist stuff you hear about Jews in Cairo,” explains the Egyptian filmmaker as he sips a cup of coffee. “We managed during 40 years to combine or relate the concepts of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli into one word and create an enemy out of that word, although they’re not necessarily related.”
The documentary, about 90 minutes long, premiered the night before his coffee shop sit-down with the Forward, and it will not be mistaken for an olive branch to Israel. A self-described secularist in the mold of Egypt’s most famous director, his late mentor, Youssef Chahine, Ramses opposes Zionism for the same reason he opposes the concept of a Christian or a Muslim state. “I don’t believe that any country in the world should be based on religion,” he says. But he is equally adamant that hostility toward Israel or Zionism is a lousy excuse for anti-Semitism.
The goal of the film, Ramses says, is to disentangle Judaism from Zionism in a country whose enmity for its northern neighbor has long served as the lifeblood of widespread anti-Jewish prejudice. The film does so by recreating the years in which some 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, amid Muslims and Christians in a cosmopolitan potpourri that seems impossibly distant today. And it does not shrink from describing the brutality with which these natives of Egypt were expelled en masse, as recalled in their own words.
The October 6 unveiling of Ramses’s film at the week-long Panorama of the European Film in Cairo coincided with a hallowed date in Egyptian history. On that date in 1973, Egypt’s army crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israeli forces that produced its most celebrated modern military triumph. Even as the film opened, Egypt’s new, democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was commemorating the attack in a major address before tens of thousands inside Cairo Stadium. But the lobby of the Galaxy Theatre in Cairo’s Manial District, was also packed to the gills, albeit with a smaller crowd, well before the film’s 6:30 p.m. start time. In fact, so many flocked to the theater that organizers had to scramble to organize a second screening later in the evening.
There was a touch of the taboo in the event — a chance to engage a piece of Egyptian history long suppressed and ignored, and vaguely shameful, in contrast to the loud declarations of pride that characterized the larger gathering.
The film highlights a substantial Jewish community in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century for whom Zionism held remarkably little appeal. A heterogeneous mix, Egypt’s Jews had roots in the country that predated Islam. They included Mizrahim, descended from Jews who had lived there since ancient times; Sephardim, who emigrated in large numbers from Spain in 1492, and Ashkenazim, who came to Egypt fleeing persecution in Europe during the 19th century. There was also a community of Karaites — Jews whose forbears had rejected the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis in the early Middle Ages, and who hewed instead to a Judaism based on the Torah alone.
Egypt’s Jews considered themselves full-fledged members of Egyptian society. Those Ramses tracked down in Western Europe, where many ultimately migrated, recall an almost idyllic Egypt in which diverse faiths easily coexisted, particularly in centers like Cairo and Alexandria.
Comfortably ensconced in society, Egypt’s Jews eyed the Zionist project warily. Many were aware of the potential repercussions for them of burgeoning tensions in Palestine. With Israel’s founding, those fears were quickly realized as thousands were expelled and others intimidated into flight.
And yet, the vast majority did not head for Israel. “For us, Israel was the country for the oppressed Jews,” says one émigré in the film who now resides in Europe, “and the Egyptian Jews were not oppressed.” Instead, they headed en masse to places like France and Italy, from where many retained close ties to Egypt. In France, the exiled founder and leader of Egypt’s Communist party, Henri Curiel, even got his hands on a copy of the Israeli-Anglo-French plan to attack Egypt 20 days in advance of the 1956 strike and forwarded it on to President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser dismissed the Egyptian Jew’s warning as implausible.
Except for the opening shots of the film, in which a few Egyptians on the street share their thoughts on Jews and Judaism (“They are damned,” says one; “[They are] enemies of Islam in everything,” inveighs another), Ramses steers clear of the contemporary. “Jews of Egypt” is an ode to a lost past. And yet, implicit in that nod to the past is a searing indictment of the present.
“I guess the comparison is really there without saying it,” Ramses reflected. “And also the contemporary part is the part we’re living, so I guess the film indirectly makes some comparison with the situation that you are already seeing around you and the one you are seeing in the movie.”
Today, Egypt’s Jewish population numbers no higher than a couple of hundred, and possibly as low as a couple of dozen. Meaningful discourse on Judaism and the history of Egypt’s Jews is hard to come by. Trying to nudge his way closer to the front of the line as he waited to enter the cinema, Nader, a 21-year-old university student in Cairo who asked that his last name not be used, said that he had devoted time to studying the subject on his own. This included reading “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” a 2007 memoir by the Egyptian-American Jew Lucette Lagnado. The book vividly recounts her family’s expulsion from Egypt in 1963. This film, however, marked the first real public platform addressing Jewish issues that Nader could remember in his lifetime.
Ramses was heartened by the turnout. And while he reported some angry emails and ignorant comments on the YouTube trailer for his film, the response overall has been unexpectedly positive. In a question-and-answer session after the screening, audience members praised the film for tackling a subject that remains hard to talk about.
One spectator named Randa commended the film’s boldness as she emerged from the theater. “It’s good to look back and reconsider mistakes you might have made,” she said. She disagreed, however, that anti-Semitism is a major problem in Egypt. “Anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, maybe. But not anti-Jewish,” she said.
Despite his satisfaction with the premiere, Ramses acknowledged that the audience — middle- and upper-class, well-educated and largely secular — was hardly representative of most Egyptians, with whom his film is likely to encounter more resistance or never be seen at all. But he insisted that he was committed to engaging whoever will listen. Ramses said he hopes to secure a television deal soon so that he can reach a wider audience.
He could use the money to recoup his costs. The film, which took four years to make, was a labor of love that he and his producer almost entirely self-financed to the tune of more than $100,000. “We didn’t want to have any person inclined to impose any prohibitions on us, considering the subject,” he said. “We were already expecting to have a certain point of view that we wanted represented in the movie.”
One film alone, Ramses acknowledged, cannot fundamentally change perceptions. But he is hopeful that his work can at least be a catalyst.
“We’re talking about a subject that has been neutralized for like the last 30 to 40 years. I expect the movie to provoke discussion,” he said. “Maybe the movie will provoke someone to write a book about it. Or maybe a feature film. It’s just like the first stone thrown at the subject. I’m not hoping to change how Egyptian society sees things, but at least I hope it [lights] the first spark.”
Cross posted from The National.
Eight months after a deadly stadium riot in Port Said brought domestic football in Egypt to a grinding halt, the spectre of renewed violence looms over the imminent resumption of the Egyptian Premier League.
Ultras Ahlawy, the hard-core supporters group of Cairo’s Al Ahly, has issued a series of conditions for accepting a new league season, slated to begin in military stadiums on October 17.
Those conditions include a resolution of the ongoing trial of those implicated in the Port Said deaths, the resignations of the minister of sport and board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and a purge of certain media personalities.
Dozens of Ahlawy members were among the 74 killed last February, when armed thugs invaded the away stands after the final whistle of a match between Al Ahly and Port Said’s Al Masry.
The trial, which began in April, has plodded along with no sign of a verdict soon.
One senior member named Rani, 21, issued an ominous warning of what would take place should officials forge ahead with the season.
“Violence, which was the last option,” he said. Pressed for specifics, he added, “simply breaking into the stadium.” He added that no final decision had yet been taken by the group, but that he could not envision any other course of action, “because it will be the only available way to stop the league”.
Ultras Ahlawy have been joined in their opposition to beginning the season by at least four other Ultras groups—Red Devils, an Alexandria-based Ahly supporters group; Zamalek’s White Knights; Ismaily’s Yellow Dragons and Ittihad’s Green Magic.
The government of President Mohamed Morsi has initiated dialogue with the Ultras, who have a history of clashing with police, in an effort to head off any violence.
Mohamed Fouad Gadallah, a legal adviser to the president, hosted representatives from Ahlawy, White Knights and Yellow Dragons at his house a few weeks ago.
Ahmed El Kelaya, 21, a Yellow Dragons member who attended the meeting, described Gadallah as receptive to the Ultras’ concerns. The groups’ staunch opposition to resuming the league, however, remains a sticking point, though El Kelaya cautioned that Yellow Dragons and others would not necessarily be willing to resort to violence.
“We agree on the same principles and the same mentality,” he said, “but we don’t have to do everything they do because [Ultras Ahlawy] are the ones involved, not us. They are the ones whose people died, not us.”
Ultras Ahlawy have escalated their campaign against the new season in the last month, storming two separate Ahly training facilities, EFA headquarters, and the television studios of a major Egyptian broadcaster.
They also threatened to storm the Egyptian Super Cup match between Ahly and ENPPI in early September, which was held behind closed doors at a military stadium in Alexandria. They backed off amid rumours that the police had hired local Bedouin tribes to confront them outside the stadium, although the sports ministry did postpone the start of the league by a month.
Rani vowed that these actions would continue.
“As long as [the government and media] spread [lies] about us, there will be no mercy,” he said.
But EFA spokesman Azmy Megahed insists that the season will begin on time. In his office at an EFA headquarters bearing no sign of the recent attack, he dismissed the prospect that the Ultras would cause a crisis.
“As long as the law is enforced, there will be no problem. As long as there is a state that has laws, I think everything will turn out all right,” he argued, pointing out that the military stadiums where the matches will be played are “like barracks”.
He urged the Ultras to pursue their demands through peaceful channels. “The case is still in court,” he said. “And we have to wait until the court returns its verdict. But they’re rushing. They’re attempting to rush the courts. And that’s something we don’t need.”
Egyptian football figures are desperate for a return to normal activity. The long hiatus has had debilitating financial consequences for the clubs, players and the thousands of other Egyptians – from stadium workers to souvenir vendors – who rely on football for their livelihood.
Dozens of players demonstrated in front of the sports ministry on Monday to demand the resumption of the league.
In a press conference last Wednesday, national team head coach Bob Bradley also made the case for a prompt return to domestic competition. Forced to rely on repeated training camps in a bid to stay match-sharp, the Pharaohs have struggled, opening World Cup qualifying in June with two wins, but dropping a play-off tie to lowly Central African Republic to miss out on qualification for their second consecutive Africa Cup of Nations.
“The league is very important,” said Bradley. “We must be optimistic that the league will start and that the players will be back playing every week.”
Ultras Ahlawy held a peaceful protest of their own in front of the sports ministry on Tuesday. They also saw one of their major demands met the next day as former members of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Hani Abou-Reida and Ahmed Shobeir, withdrew their candidacies from the upcoming EFA presidential election. But with no verdict in the Port Said trial forthcoming and neither the Ultras nor the EFA willing to budge, confrontation looks increasingly likely.
And El Kelaya fears that whether or not the start of the season ushers in clashes between Ahly’s faithful and police, the government’s failure to address key Ultras priorities – namely, reforming the loathed ministry of interior, which many blame for the events in Port Said – augurs trouble down the road.
“The ministry of interior is the same – the same people, the same way as before,” he said. “They did not change … That’s why the revolution was made – because of the police officers, because of what they have done to us, to the Egyptian people. So nothing changed.”
He added this grim assessment.
“We believe that an incident like Port Said will happen again in our current atmosphere. That’s why we don’t want football to be back now.”
It is a sordid tale: A 16-year-old girl is groped while walking along the street. She responds by spitting in her attacker’s face, vowing to take back her rights. He, in turn, guns her down with an automatic weapon.
That is what is alleged to have happened to Eman Mostafa two weeks ago in a small village in Upper Egypt’s Assiut Governorate. While details of the incident have only slowly trickled out, the monstrosity of the alleged crime suggests a frightening increase in gendered violence following a spate of well-publicized cases of harassment and assault in recent months.
The suspect, Ramadan Nasser Salem, is now in police custody after having fled for more than a week. In an interview on Al-Hayat TV channel Saturday, he denied the version of events offered by witnesses.
“I was riding my motorbike and I saw her,” he said. “I said hello, and she thought I was harassing her and started cursing at me and spat in my face. I mistakenly fired my gun, and a passer-by told me the bullet hit a wall. We thought the girl was afraid and fell on the ground, but then people told us that the bullet hit her. I never meant to kill her.”
Salem’s denial notwithstanding, Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, warns that the reported circumstances surrounding Mostafa’s death reflect a disturbing trend in sexual abuse against women.
“It’s becoming more violent, and this Assiut incident is a very vivid example of this,” she says. “He killed her. He killed her just because she defended herself. The mere fact was that she just didn’t accept what’s very accepted in society. When you don’t accept the norm, society punishes you. And he punished her.”
A 2010 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women have experienced harassment. In response, advocacy groups have pressed the government to tackle the issue.
Their efforts have produced an occasional glimmer of hope. In 2008, the government — for the first time — sentenced a man to three years in prison on a sexual harassment charge. In late 2010, 23 NGOs and human rights organizations teamed up in what was hailed as an unprecedented initiative to amend the Penal Code to more effectively address sexual harassment and assault, although their momentum was upended by the revolution.
And yet, by most accounts, the situation has only gotten worse. Some feel that in the past, perpetrators would flee the scene of the crime out of shame or fear of public backlash, but today’s perpetrators feel no such compunction.
Instead, silence by both the government and the public has enabled a much more virulent strain of abuse to take root.
“What is most disturbing and alarming is that there is a paradigm shift, and sexual harassment now tends more to be assault,” Abd El-Hameed says. “It’s more intrusive, it’s more bold, and I think this is the result of immunity and impunity that the perpetrators have from both the society and the police.”
More than that, she adds, police themselves have frequently been among the worst offenders.
The political and social instability of the last year and a half has also been an important factor, says Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Alliance for Arab Women, as “women are more vulnerable than others to violence.”
Indeed, several high-profile sexual assaults have taken place at political rallies, most notably in Tahrir Square. But Badran argues that the situation is slowly improving as stability has gradually returned since the presidential election.
Activists working on the issue also point to small but substantive gains. The high-profile attacks in Cairo over the last few months helped spawn several grassroots initiatives aimed at bringing public awareness to the problem.
Their efforts were on display Sunday in a rally in front of the presidential palace co-organized by the social advocacy organization Basma and Nefsi, a Cairo-based anti-harassment group, to decry Mostafa’s death and demand a law specifically targeting sexual harassment and assault.
About two dozen protesters lined the sidewalk along the main boulevard at rush hour, holding signs bearing messages such as “I don’t want to be afraid when I walk in the streets,” and “Morsy, Morsy, where are you?” in reference to President Mohamed Morsy. Basma has also organized patrols in metro stations to identify sexual harassers and report them to police.
There is no shortage of idealism on the activists’ part.
At the rally Sunday, many passing motorists signaled their approval by giving protesters the thumbs up. Others were less impressed; several stopped to argue that women brought the problem onto themselves with their immodest dress.
But even as the activists wage an uphill battle to effect a measure of progress in Cairo, Mostafa’s case underscores the daunting breadth of the problem. In spite of the incident’s obvious shock value, it has generated scant media coverage and, with the exceptions of a demonstration at Assiut University last week and this week’s protest in Cairo, almost no public reaction.
That has not surprised Abd El-Hameed.
“Since we are a very urban-centric country, what happens in Upper Egypt doesn’t necessarily grab the attention of Cairo residents and the government, and so on. This is the first thing,” she says. “The second part is the socioeconomic status of the victim, and I guess it’s typical for people from the lowest wealth quintile to not be taken care of or to not get enough attention.”
Or, as she put it more simply: “[Mostafa] was poor, she was young, she was a girl and he’s from Upper Egypt.”
Mostafa’s father, Mostafa Salama, appealed directly to the president in an interview with Al-Hayat.
“I call on President Morsy to look at Upper Egypt and take care of it,” he says. “This is the man who spoke of God and the Prophet Mohamed, and we voted for him. Now he should take care of us.”
Although efforts at top-down reform have so far failed, recent legislative initiatives in Pakistan and India to protect women from harassment in the workplace suggest possible paths forward for Egypt.
In 2010, Pakistan for the first time defined sexual harassment in the law and required employers to create inquiry committees to look into allegations of it.
Earlier this month, India’s lower house of parliament passed a similar bill that would require employers and local authorities to establish grievance committees to investigate complaints of sexual harassment. It is expected to become law in the coming months.
While women’s rights advocates in Egypt have tended to eye Morsy warily, some still harbor hopes that he can deliver similar reforms.
“I think that Morsy wants to do something about the problem because it affects all women — secular, Islamist — but he faces a lot of obstacles and opponents,” says Nahil Zaghloul, an organizer with Basma.
But laws alone are unlikely to do much. Critics have lambasted the Pakistani government over its failures to effectively implement its statute.
Last year, the Asian Human Rights Commission complained in an open letter to Pakistan’s president and others that high-ranking government officials, including from the prime minister’s office and the lower house of parliament, were working to protect a well-connected university professor who had been found guilty of sexual harassment by two separate inquiry committees.
Huma Yusuf, a Pakistani commentator, underlined the magnitude of the challenge in Dawn newspaper.
“To take the law’s spirit and implementation seriously, the Pakistani state and activist network must overcome the cultural prejudices not only of the Pakistani public, but also of the world at large. It’s a tall task, but one that should not be neglected,” Yusuf wrote.
Likewise, Egyptian activists readily acknowledge that the root of the problem is not deficient policy — sexual harassment and assault are already technically illegal — but prevailing social norms that subjugate women and stigmatize those who speak out. And while the revolution’s aftermath has created additional challenges for women, it has also freed up grassroots organizations to more effectively wage a battle for public opinion.
“What happened now is that by mobilizing society as a whole during the revolution, you have a mobilized mass — part of it is being mobilized against sexual harassment and assault,” says Abd El-Hameed. “We have girls who make protests against sexual harassment, we have posters, we have graffiti — so we have diversity in the actors and the tools that are being used. And this can lead to addressing the root of the problem.”
Cross posted from Forward.
CAIRO — Just days before recent anti-American protests broke out around the U.S. embassy here, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, the recently appointed head of Egypt’s new Islamist government, looked out at an audience of 100 American businesspeople, all comfortably ensconced in a well-appointed meeting room at Cairo’s four-star Conrad Hotel, and assured them of his government’s eagerness to welcome foreign investment.
The group — the largest American business delegation to visit Egypt since its 2011 revolution — included high-powered female executives and representatives of firms with important plants, research centers and other investments in Israel.
“We want you to come here to invest and make a profit,” Qandil told the American executives September 9. “We want you to come here, and enable you with an easy entrance and easy exit.”
Nineteen months after the rebellion that sent shockwaves through the Middle East and the Egyptian economy cascading into crisis, Egypt’s government, dominated by the staunchly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, is ardently wooing desperately needed international investment.
That courtship reached its apogee in early September with the visit of the U.S. business delegation, just before riots broke out in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East in reaction to a deliberately offensive anti-Muslim video screed that shadowy figures in America produced, dubbed into Arabic and uploaded to YouTube earlier in the month.
The sequence of events seemed to give ballast to critics who warned the business leaders they could be falling in prematurely with a government still hostile to Western interests, religious freedoms and Israel. Initially, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi failed to speak out strongly against the unrest, which saw violent protesters battle Egyptian police and breach the embassy walls. But following a phone call from President Barack Obama warning him that his country’s strong ties with the United States were at stake, Morsi condemned the attack and ordered police to put down subsequent violent gatherings.
Still, no one could say where that left the business leaders who, just days before, sounded so hopeful that Egypt was emerging as a safe place in which to invest.
“We remain strongly committed to continuing to invest and grow our business here as well as investing in the Egyptian community,” said G. Steven Farris, chairman of the U.S.-Egypt Business Council and CEO of Apache Corp., the largest American investor in Egypt, at the business gathering.
Thomas Nides, America’s deputy secretary of state for management and resources, also voiced optimism. “Egypt is open for business,” he told the delegates, offering the official Washington view. Members of the delegation, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, represented 49 of America’s largest corporations, including Boeing, Citigroup, ExxonMobil and Microsoft.
The newfound confidence derived, ironically, from an unlikely source: Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed president. Morsi, a longtime member of the Brotherhood who resigned from the group’s Freedom and Justice Party only on assuming office at the end of June, became Egypt’s first head of state to be elected in a competitive democratic election. Since his June 30 inauguration, he has consolidated his power with breathtaking speed. After militants in Sinai killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in August, Morsi wrested back executive prerogatives from the country’s military, which had ruled Egypt since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president in February 2011. He forced the retirement of the country’s two top generals and nullified a constitutional declaration issued by military leaders minutes after the close of voting in June that neutered the incoming president’s authority.
The clarified political landscape has, in fact, triggered a flurry of investment from abroad. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pledged billions of dollars. China is expected to pour billions more into Egypt in loans and investments following Morsi’s visit to Beijing late in August. Meanwhile, Egypt is negotiating the terms of a $4.8 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund.
Now, the United States, Egypt’s largest single trade partner, is eager to get in on the act despite a Muslim Brotherhood-led government that it likely hoped to avoid. The Chamber of Commerce visit is just the latest evidence. America’s ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, opened dialogue with the Brotherhood last December in the midst of parliamentary elections that the Freedom and Justice Party dominated. In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held talks with Morsi during her visit to Egypt. The United States also welcomed a Brotherhood delegation to Washington in April as part of a much publicized charm offensive.
The Obama administration is currently negotiating with Egypt to eliminate about $1 billion of Egyptian debts. And Nides, the deputy secretary of state, announced during the Chamber of Commerce mission that the U.S. Overseas Investment Corporation will partner with the Egyptian investment group Abraaj Capital to invest $150 million in a fund aimed at boosting small and medium-sized Egyptian businesses.
Egypt is in urgent need of outside capital. The transitional period has seen its foreign currency reserves drop by more than half as foreign direct investment and tourism have nose-dived amid ongoing political turmoil.
Eric Trager, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a sharp critic of the Brotherhood, argues that U.S. encouragement of business development in Egypt without laying out clear expectations for the new Egyptian government is a mistake. “The administration’s general approach towards Egypt has been as if Egypt is a charity, not as if Egypt is a strategic partner from which we expect much in return,” he said.
According to Trager, Brotherhood leaders’ rhetoric on issues such as religious freedoms and relations with Israel should raise serious red flags. “When you ask them ‘Are you pro-business? Are you going to keep the qualifying industrial zones?’ — joint ventures with Israel that bring in roughly $2.3 billion a year — they say: ‘No, no, no. It’s more politically costly than economically beneficial.’”
But American government and business officials insist that a quick economic recovery is critical to political stability in Egypt and, by proxy, U.S. interests in the region. “A strong, successful Egypt is good for the region, good for America, good for the world,” Nides said.
Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at The American University in Cairo, likened the Brotherood’s neoliberal policies to those of the former president Mubarak. He added that he could not envision the current government altering Egyptian foreign policy in a substantive way. Any changes, he said, will be purely cosmetic.
“[Morsi] wants to have a relationship with Israel, but instead of having the Israeli officials photographed coming to meet him, now Israeli officials visit, but without the camera,” Sadek said. Likewise, Sadek dismissed concerns that Brotherhood officials would resist doing business with Jewish or female executives, pointing to the Brotherhood leadership’s long-standing ties with a wide range of American business and financial institutions.
The Brotherhood, from which Morsi and many of his top advisers hail, has advocated a free-market and free-trade agenda that, while controversial in Egypt, has helped ease foreign investors’ concerns. Its leadership is populated by wealthy businessmen like chief strategist Khairat El-Shater, a millionaire who made his fortune in textile and furniture trading. Shater memorably told Bloomberg last year, “We believe in a very, very big role for the private sector.”
An agreement on the $4.8 billion IMF loan would go a long way toward further reassuring investors. In his Chamber of Commerce presentation, Qandil expressed confidence that the loan would be finalized within the next couple of months.
But in fact, discussions have been held up since last year over internal rifts within the Egyptian government. The loan faces stiff domestic opposition. In order to obtain it, the government would likely have to agree to deep cuts to popular subsidies on which many poor and working class Egyptians depend.
That indecision is just one reminder of the uncertainty that still pervades Egyptian politics. Despite Morsi’s recent actions, question marks abound. The precise relationship between the civilian and military leadership remains unclear, a constitution has yet to be drafted and the country is without a parliament after it was dissolved in June under court order. New elections are expected later this year.
Qandil acknowledged this reality when he remarked that while he considers Egypt’s “confusion period” to be over, the transition continues. But the promises of calm waters ahead are clearly still tentative, as demonstrated by the hundreds of outraged Egyptians who swarmed around the U.S. embassy just as the U.S. business leaders were departing.