Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Devastating Day for Doha

I'm still trying to digest the news about the fire in Villagio shopping mall in Doha. I think part of me is still in shock... When I heard the news yesterday I took a deep breath called my mom and made sure my sister, my niece and my brother in law are all OK. They were and I forced myself not to think about it.

Of the 19 people who died in the fire 13 were children. Trapped inside a nursery it seems that neither the children nor their teachers could get out and no one could get in to help them! When the firefighters eventually got in through the roof it was too late...

All I wanted to know was that this wasn't the nursery my niece goes to.. It wasn't. Relieved but still shocked.

It was only when I saw the entrance to the charred nursery and spoke to my sister this morning that I  broke down. She told me about an acquaintance of hers whose daughter was in the nursery.

More details about the story here.

I've lived and worked in Doha for ten years and my fear for my family and friends was indescribable! Doha's is a very small community and a fire like that will affect a vast number of lives!

Doha holds a very special place in my heart, so many fond memories of happy days there. One of the things I loved about Doha is how quite and peaceful it is. Yesterday was a painful contradiction.

I pray for the families who have lost loved ones and hope for justice and a proper investigation.

Photos of devastation all from WGO-Qatar

The Tahrir Spirit --- Khallas? Part 2

A long school year in Cairo

It's almost the end of the school year in Egypt. Exam preparaions are normally the dominant subject this time of year but the chatter is different among the students here in Cairo. Nowadays when students talk about ‘results’ they often mean those of the presidnetial elections.

For the students of the Jesuites School in Cairo this has been a very eventful school year. I was invited to spend a day with a group of secondary students and discuss how they feel about the current political situation and who they hoped would rule their country.

The Jesuites is one of the oldest and most prestigious schools on Cairo. It also has a mix of Muslim and Christian students.

It is a boys’ school , situated in the neighbourhood of Faggala, about two minutes away from Abbasiya where the latest clashes between protesters, armed individuals and military forces have left at least eleven dead and hundreds wounded.

 The Jesuites boys

All classroom pictures courtesy of Jesuites Cairo students

It's also five minutes away from Tahrir square the epicentre of the Egyptian revolution and the many sit-ins and demonstrations that followed after.

We could just look out of the window and see it all happen.Marches , demonstartions everything. ” Fawzi Al Asmar, one of the lead teachers told me. “It’s all right at our doorstep.”
A lot has changed since January 25th 2011 for these students.Politics is no longer a boring subject their parents talk about. It has touched them closer than they’d ever thought possible.

The Jesuites Cairo students I was speaking to have a lost a friend last February. Karim Khouzam was one the 70 people killed when violence broke in Portsaid after a game between the popular Al Ahly club and the city’s home team of Al Masry which many blamed the securty forces for.

This gas mask from days of protesting in Tahrir
hangs in students' classroom
Karim Khouzam was a student at Jesuites Cairo .
He died in the Portsaid  Stadium violence. 

Before February, I felt that the protests, the violence ... all of this was happening to someone else. But when Karim died , I thought, this is my friend this could happen to me” Raymond Bolous, one of the students, told me.

The next day the studnets did not go to classes and left school early to attend the funeral. After that they went on marched to Tahrir Square denouncing the violence and the army’s rule of Egypt.

"A fresh face"

Most of these young teenagers are not old enough to vote but they have very strong opinions about the thirteen presidential candidates.

I don’t feel that any of them are competent enough to be president. They are either Islamists or Folool (Arabic word for remnants of the old regime)” Ali Shihata told me.

We need someone who represents the revolution – someone young. A fresh face” Mustafa Sadek another student said.

Of all the eight students that I met Mustafa Sadek was the most involved in politics. He’s part of a new student movement that he and his friends from other schools organised mainly to spread political awareness among school students aroumd Egypt.

An ambitious project, but chose to start with his friends.

Now we talk politics during our lunch breaks and after school we go on protests and join marches” Mustafa told me.

Mustafa had encouraged us all to get into politics” Rami ,class mate of Mustafa’s said.

It’s not just in school”Mustafa added. “We try as much as we can to talk to the general public get their opinion about what’s happening in the country.”

For example, when I’m in a taxi with a friend we start up a conversation deliberatley so the driver can near us and get invloved.

You find out really interesting things. For instance now most taxi drivers I talk to are fed up with the Muslim Brotherhood and tell me they regert voting for them in the parliamentary elections” Mustafa said.

Note your average classroom: Students have filled the walls with revolutionary posters and Tahrir  memorabilia

Ahmed Harara (on the left) has become an iconic figure for protesters. He lost both his eyes on two different clashes in
Tahrir Square: the 28th of January and the 19th of November..Both in the same year. 

The growing anger with the current political situation is palpable everywhere I go. At best it’s expressed in heated discussion between political rivals. At worst it’s deadly violence.

But many people see these students as a sign of hope and say that as long as they are engaged in what’s happening in the country there's still a chance for real change.

At the end of the school day the students take me for a walk around their school.

They are so obviously proud of it and its heritage.They take me to their classroom. At first glance it looks like any other classroom but a second look at the walls and it feels like a piece of Tahrir square!

Revolutionary posters against military and Islamic rule, A strip of an article with the title R.I.P Karim, a gas mask hanging from one of the boards and pieces of a guitar which broke in one of the protest. 

I asked them if their teachers object to these heavily politicized posters. 

"Not at all!" Mustafa told me. "They love it. They encourage us and I feel they respect us more . Our French teachers are really interested in it all!" He continued. 

 I asked them once more about the elections. What if someone that they really did not want took office... what can they do about it?

Ali smiled and said. “That’s easy. Tahrir Square is five minutes away remember!”


Since I met the students of Jesuites, protesters did indeed take to Tahrir square after the announcement of that the presidential run-offs will be between Mubarak's last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

Mr. Shafiq's campaign headquarters was set ablaze last night. t's not know n who exactly is behind the attack but it seems to be in an angry response to him making it to run-offs.

The numbers in Tahrir Square are still no parallel to the thousands that showed up throughout the last fifteen months  but there's enough anger and confusion in Egypt to promise more protest and possibly more violence. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Tahrir Spirit --- Khallas! -- Part 1

With the run-offs set to be between Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, is there anything left of the Tahrir Square spirit?

As much as I love visiting Egypt as often as I possibly can, (and I do miss Cairo in particular more than I care to admit) my heart would grow heavy at the end of every visit.

Every time I go back and catch up with  friends and all the people I met in Tahrir square back in July I'm convinced the Tahrir days are gone.

Nothing like Jan25

Graffiti by Omar Fathy. Drawn on AUC wall on Mohamed Mahmoud street. Downtown, Cairo. Photo by Jonathan Rashad
Back in July, or Tahrir 2, as it was called , the revolutionary zeal was still some-what intact. The victory over Hosni Mubarak's thirty year rule was still fresh in people's memory.

Fresh too was their discontent with how the army was running the country and the human rights violations that bagan to surface.

If the first half of 2011 was defined by 'Yasqot Yasqot Husni Mubarak' (Down, Down with Mubarak) the second half of the year was defined by 'Yasqot Yasqot Hokm EL Askar' (Down, Down with Military Rule).

'This is nothing like January!' I remember one protester telling me .. 'Back then the spirit was different.. We felt like one person , we all wanted one thing for 'him' to go'

'Now as you can see , they are all arguing and fighting.'

Same Tahrir - Different voices

Tahrir Square July 29th 2012 (Also known as Salafi Friday)

The arguing varied from those saying the army should go back to the barracks and hand power to a civilian presidential council to others asking for better pay and working conditions.

Strikes were the flavour of the month (well the three or four months )

The following became obvious as the Arab Spring went from a hot summer into a chilled winter:

1- Despite being in the same place, those who went to Tahrir square for the second time spoke in many different scattered voices and demanded different things. Different enough to confuse everyone and diffuse energy. The chants may have been in unison-- The demands were not.

2-The revolutionary voices which defined Tahrir Square in January were drowned out by the political noise of new parties still finding their feet and established ones looking for deals to make and niches to carve in this new and very illusive political scene-- Specifically the Muslim Brotherhood who were quick to form a political pary - The Freedom and Justice.

3-The ruling Supreme Council of The Armed Forces - SCAF- had no idea how to politically handle the country and were operating on crisis management mode-- All the time.

4-The Islamists will rise to power. There's no stopping them - a) Because they had the initial backing of SCAF  b) They've had a massive following for years of tireless rallying and a limitless budget and c) There was no obvious and equally powerful alternative.

5-The hard-line Islamists known as Salafis were rising to the surface at an alarming rate-- Where did they come from? Where were they all these years?

By the end of July the army and a large sector of Egyptians were fed up of Tahrir. The revolution went from being viewed as a catalyst for change to a hurdle in the face of production and economic prosperity.

'3agalet El Entag-- or -- The Wheel  of Production' would be the term used to discredit any revolutionary motion. And to be honest there weren't many and they were never coherent .

On the first day of Holy month of Ramadan (1st August) the army cracked down heavily on Tahrir , taking all the tents down and arresting hundreds of protesters (including yours truly!)

 Patterns of violence

February 5th 2012: Thousands of Ultras Ahlawy took to Mohamed Mahmoud Street outside Egypt's Interior Ministry to protest against what they called police camplaicency in Portsaid violence. Photo by Jonathan Rashad

The pattern of violence would be repeated numerously in the months to come, the most prominent of which are:

May 4th 2012 : Clashes outside the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Abbasiya. Photo by Jonathan Rashad

"Khallas! What do they want" a taxi driver shouted when we passed through the neighborhood of Abbasiya two weeks ago. "The army said they'll go in June after the elections. What do these people want. They just want to burn the country. They were paid to destroy it. "'O'mala !" he told me -- "Agents"

It was a day after violence had erupted between protesters including Salafi supporters of Hazem Abu Ismail and the military police.

If there was a picture for 'state of emergency' Abbasiya would have been it on the day. Military police officers of different ranks dotted the place .. armorued vehicles parked back to back on both sides of the long street running through the neighbourhood.

Tension was high but the message from the military was clear.. 'We're in control. We'll go at the time we've said we will-- Not sooner'

"we ba3been?--Then what??"

Cairo Graffiti saying 'Now What my country?' on 26 July bridge in Zamalek
Later that night I met a group of friends in a Cafe in Zamalek, ( a neighbourhood in Cairo that has become very close to my heart). Most of the people at the table I'd met in Tahrir Square at one point. They were full of life and anger back then--now they almost disagree on everything.

The Abbasiya violence and presidential elections are the centre of discussion.

"Some people are angry at me for saying that Abbasiya was a stupid move" Adbullah said. "I get non-stop insults on twitter , but I stand by it! What the hell are they doing"

"I was there to support the protesters against those thugs!" Ahmed replied heatedly..

"Support who, Abdullah said-- "The Salafis , what have the Salafis ever done for you?" Abdullah said.

"And by the way --you all were chanting 'Down, Down with military rule' fine, so who do you want to rule now?" Abdullah asked.

Ahmed is silent for a moment then says-- "No one can answer that question"

"But  Ahmed, some of the protesters were armed. Residents of Abbasiya said so themselves " I said.

"Yes." Ahmed replied

"You say they were attacked by thugs -- but it can also be Abbasiya residents fed up with people carrying arms on their doorstep-- besides isn't Abbasiya a SCAF supporters stronghold AND the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense?" I said.

I asked him."What were they thinking? -- that they could just storm the Ministry of Defense?"

Ahmed shrugged.

"I've always said there's no use taking to the streets now." Masry commented

Masry was a member of the security committees team whoch was responsible for securing the entrances to Tahrir Square. He,  more than anyone elese at the table knew what it was like to spend days and nights on end in a sit-in.

"Ana Te3ebt-- I'm Tired"

"Khallas -- sit-ins are no use now. They're the wrong tactic. Everytime it's the same thing we take to the streets they screw us over , people die and we go back to our homes." Masry said.

"we ba3been?--Then what??" Masr asked.

No one really had the answer to that. The obvious one is to let the ballot boxes decide, I suggest.

"Why beacuse you trust those sons of bitches when they say elections will be fair?" someone says from the end of the table. He'd joined us later and I didn't really know who he was.

That's the beauty of those 'Tweet-ups' anyone can join. You're guaranteed to meet someone new everytime!

Another debate errupts on which of the presidential candidates is more incomeptent than the other.

(This very debate will become a distant memory very soon-- Those very people will find themeselves between Ahmed Shafiq's rock amd Mohamed Morsi's hard place")

Some people at the next table hear us talk. I overhear one of them saying -- ' I can't listen to this shit anymore-- let's move to another table' and they do.

Masry and his fiancee drive me to my hotel. On our way out everyone is in a thoughtful sombre mood.

Tahrir Sqaure was five minutes away from the cafe we were in but its spirit was a million miles gone.

As I get ready to go Masry asks me.. "Do you know how many friends I've lost in the last fifteen months. How many are in hospital? How many lost their eyes."

" Look at me Shaimaa! I've aged! I feel old! I shave my head so people won't see the grey hair!"

"I was in Tahrir day in and day out-- But now I want a life. I want to get married and have kids. I want to live. Ana te3ebt --I'm tired. Khallas!"