Friday, April 12, 2013

Chickens, Stabbings and Economic Decline

I returned to Alex a couple of weeks ago following a not uneventful month in the UK. My first Friday back at church found me greeted on almost every front by ‘we saw you on TV!’, and from one of the leaders an observation that they would need to find a new church celebrity when I left… But any fears of my life back in Egypt being mundane were swiftly dispelled: riots and gas continued as if I’d never left (though my landlord tells me that they weren’t gassed in all the time I was away); I witnessed a stabbing; I managed to get lost in hitherto undiscovered (by me, at any rate) labyrinthine back streets of the city.

The riots started early last Friday, and with no apparent order. They started over by the train station around 3.30 (or first came to my attention then) with a carelessly thrown petrol bomb coating the wall in flame, and continued on and off through until about 10pm. Things would be calm for an hour at a time, and then suddenly out of nowhere there would be gas and fire. We managed to escape the worst of it: apart from the general tinny smell of the tear gas in the air, only one canister landed particularly close, but the wind blew it all into our neighbours’ building. About 7pm I went shopping with my landlord; in the back streets life continued much as normal, with the melody of sirens, percussion of tear gas launchers, and chorus of yelling and chanting added to the general soundtrack of street sellers and livestock. It was livestock that we were after – chickens, in particular. Now I’ve only ever bought chicken that has already had its doings done to it, so this was a bit of an eye opener. Essentially, the process works like this:

One chooses one’s shop. There are quite a few to choose from, and one knows when one is nearby: they stink. One chooses one’s bird: turkey, pigeon, goose, duck, chicken and more. If one doesn’t fancy bird, rabbit is always an option, and no wild bunnies these: sleek, in a variety of colours and patterns, large, small, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter - one would have thought one had walked into a pet shop. No rabbits for us though. Apparently they’re expensive. The price is determined by live weight, so three chickens are selected, and thrown roughly onto a scale. Oblivious to their doom, poor things, they look around in the inquisitive way chickens seem to have. One caught my eye; I stared him down. Price determined, they’re taken into the butcher’s room, heads held back, and throats neatly slit, before being dropped unceremoniously into a big barrel. I wondered for a split second what the purpose of this was – but then the barrel started to shake violently, and continued to for about three minutes. I take it that the birds were unhappy with their lot… Three blood soaked carcasses are duly taken out of the barrel, and thrown into a big metal contraption in the corner, which starts to whir and gush out quantities of water. When it is done, it emerges that the chickens have, by some act of sorcery, been entirely plucked. They’re then gutted, quartered, vigorously scrubbed with salt water, and bagged. Nothing going to waste, there is a whole army of cats waiting to snatch the scraps. The whole process takes about ten minutes – now that’s what I call fresh chicken.

The next day I had arranged to meet a friend to go exploring the area that best equates to old Alexandria. (It isn’t really an ‘old city’ in the proper sense, mostly because the British, as was their wont, flattened the place in 1882 to teach a local ruler a lesson.) As I walked down from my flat to the seafront a chap started out in front of me across the road. This could turn into an object lesson in looking both ways before crossing the road; certainly there was a squealing of breaks, and something that came very close to the classic action sequence chase involving the protagonist taking a shortcut across a car bonnet. I was preparing to give an internal tut-tut and carry on when I noticed a man and a woman attempting to hide behind a palm tree. Now the classic image of a palm tree as tall and thin is not far from the mark; this would not be an apt description for the couple in question. As a hiding place, it left something to be desired... As the first fellow managed his negotiation with a moving car, the other man let out a yelp, and made a run for it. He slipped, a knife appeared in the hand of the former, and a struggle ensued on the ground – again not dissimilar to a film in which the victim struggles valiantly to hold off the wrist of the chap trying to force a knife in. The victim’s wife jumped on them both, but to no avail – a scream, and the scuffle broke apart. Bystanders came and took the knife from the first fellow, and kept him there; the victim’s wife went off and talked to another bystander; and the victim himself sat on a kerb clutching his blood soaked leg, and letting out frequent shouts. Deciding that the volume of the shouts probably meant that he was okay, I carried on my way. When I came back a few hours later there was no evidence of any quantity of blood on the ground, so I presume all was well.

This unpleasant little episode is a small example of a widely noticed decline in security over the time that I’ve been here. This doesn’t include the riots – they’ve been going on all the time I have been here – but rather individual petty and violent crime. Egyptian friends, and others who have lived here for a long time talk of pick-pocket gangs, drug crime, and muggings on the increase. This could have various causes. One is that the police are feeling bereft of support since the revolution, and have frequently been on strike – with the obvious consequence that fear of consequences of crime declines. Another would be that it is a response of individuals to an insecure feeling in the country: all the old certainties have toppled, and very little has replaced them. This kind of thing can conceivably lead to societal breakdown. A third could be the fact of the revolution itself. The driver of the revolution was a sudden falling away of fear of the authorities, including (indeed, largely) the police. One of very few advantages of an authoritarian regime is that only the really desperate will run the risk of incurring its displeasure. Apart from in cases of more general social breakdown (authoritarianism combined with incompetence or pure rent-seeking), this generally equates to low crime rates. Of course, the disadvantages of authoritarianism may be said to counter this.

The decline in security accompanies a continuous and increasing decline in the economy. There are constant queues at petrol stations; it becomes impossible to get hold of dollars, pounds or euros from official sources; the black market in both thrives. The state can’t afford the subsidies it offers on fuel or food, but nor can the government afford to stop them if it wants to survive – and yet if it doesn’t move some economic reforms, it won’t be eligible for the IMF loan it has negotiated, which would in turn open up loans from other sources. The government instead turns to the rich Gulf states, appealing for loans and aid in the name of Muslim unity. Qatar has stepped in offering large loans and a guarantee of a natural gas supply, but this itself arouses suspicions among Egyptians, with a rumour, among others, of their demanding a twenty year lease of the Suez Canal in exchange for their help. (I am certain that this is untrue. Given the British acquired it in a not dissimilar way, a government that acquiesced to such a deal would be risking their lives as well as their posts.) All together, this contributes to a depression in the country, destroying the optimism that I found post-revolution.

On that rather pessimistic note, I shall leave this edition of Alexandrian Notes. I shall be leaving Egypt for good before the end of the month, and will endeavour to write another before then. But no promises…

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Room with a View

I moved to a new apartment last week. The son of my previous landlady wanted the flat (so that his children could play in the garden); good tenants as we were, we didn’t stand a chance. My flatmates and I went our separate way – one to Morocco, and one back to an old housemate. I moved in with an Egyptian family that I know from church. The rent is higher and the living space smaller; this countered by the total immersion in Egyptian Arabic and the fact that someone cooks for me. Another consequence is that I have ended up opposite the main train station, overlooking a large open space that is ideal for protests. Whilst I have seen such things previously (they’ve been hard to avoid over the time I’ve lived in Alexandria), this Friday was my first opportunity to watch one from beginning to end.

I’d been warned earlier in the week that a big protest was planned for Friday. It wasn’t terribly surprising: they happen most weeks, to a greater or lesser extent. People started to gather early in the afternoon, after the Friday prayers. For their numbers and demeanour, they might as well have been waiting for a train as a protest. For a couple of hours they were simply sitting on convenient pieces of street furniture; the only real clue that there was any political motive to the gathering was a girl spinning round and round holding an Egyptian flag. Her, and the tea seller who set up shop on the other side of the road, evidently expecting something bigger.

Around three, this warm-up act for the main event started. They numbered about fifty, and there was plenty of space for them to protest without disrupting daily life, but they decided that the road (one of two arterial routes running the length of the city) was the obvious place. The whole thing was peaceful, and rather lacklustre. It spluttered along for a couple of hours, before the participants, deciding that the real stuff must be going on elsewhere, drifted off in different directions.

About eight o’clock the main body of the protest arrived. They marched down the road holding a very large flag between them and chanting anti-government slogans, coming to a halt in front of the station. It was hard to estimate in the dark how many there were, but it was a fair number. The organisation degenerated fairly swiftly, and something of a street party commenced, with everyone hanging around in gaggles, several of which had music playing at loud volume. History does not relate who claimed the flag… The tea seller had clearly been anticipating this, as he had not packed up his stall from earlier in the afternoon, and had, indeed, been joined by a hot sweet potato seller (that is, a seller of hot sweet potatoes. I make no claim to an opinion on his looks…). These two appeared to be doing a fairly brisk trade.

Presently, it became apparent that the real action was still taking place elsewhere. The mosque directly below my new apartment had been turned into a makeshift casualty clearing station, and there was a fairly regular stream of motorbikes coming in with the wounded. These agile ambulances were clearly organised: the driver would weave his way through the crowds with his finger permanently on the horn; behind him would be the casualty, and at the rear would be another chap holding the casualty upright. Occasionally a real ambulance would arrive to take someone away. There was also a scent of tear gas in the air: from a distance, this is manifested by a tinny tang, and a slight propensity of the eyes towards watering. Not exactly pleasant, but not sufficient to drive me inside.

Meanwhile, aside from the casualties in the mosque and the gas (neither of which have featured heavily at most parties I’ve been to) the party atmosphere seemed to continue. The police were nowhere to be seen (though occasional cracks from their gas launchers could be heard in the distance). The tea and potato sellers continued to do a roaring trade. This all changed very suddenly, and with no apparent provocation. There was a general panicked surge in the crowd which turned to flight as gas canisters started to land among them.

The protestors regrouped very swiftly, and the mood became rather grim. The chanting started up again, and rubbish bins were set alight and rolled (with little success: most fell over) in the direction of the police lines. Rock throwing prompted another police advance, this time past the mosque-cum-hospital. At this stage, it was apparent that anything in front of the police was fair game (apart, curiously, from the tea seller, who manfully stuck to his post); an ambulance backed away from the mosque under fire, and a protestor who’d been hiding behind it was shot in the leg. From my distance, it was hard to tell what he was shot with, though given the general lack of bodies I suspect it was a gas launcher. He managed to limp away.

The protestors regrouped again and, galvanised by the latest advance, launched a counter attack armed with fireworks, rocks and petrol bombs. The police retreated, and the protestors proceeded to ransack a police station attached to the mosque which had hitherto been ignored. There was an attempt to burn it, though another police charge put a stop to this (something I was rather glad for, not particularly wanting the smoke to fill my apartment). This charge revealed an interesting fact: namely, that the ‘police’ were not all in uniform. There were a number in ordinary clothes, covering their faces with scarves, and armed with machetes, clubs and other makeshift weapons (including the apparently ubiquitous plastic crate). Some friends have suggested they were plain clothes police; others that they were pro-government militia. Either way, they were destructive and indiscriminate, and had no regard for the wounded in the mosque.

A curious feature permeated the charges and counter charges. As the police prepared to charge, there would be a banging of the shields, designed to strike fear into the hearts of the protestors. A charge from the protestors would be preceded by an animal-like shrieking, presumably designed to do the same to the police. The strategies seemed to work, up to a point; certainly, each charge would cause the opposing side to fall back in some disarray. But neither side really followed up on the advantage, or turned retreat into rout.

However, the tide gradually turned against the protestors, and though there remained some surges back and forth, the tea man’s trade was now dominated by those behind the police lines. However, things grew a little too close for comfort for me at this stage when a tear gas canister, whether misdirected, fire deliberately, or hurled back by the protestors, landed at the foot of my apartment building. I was on the balcony at the time, and got a face full of the stuff; even having beaten a retreat inside, it seeped through the window frame, and filled my bedroom and the sitting room. We withdrew to the kitchen. For those of my readers who have not previously experienced tear gas up close, I shall try to describe it. Imagine that you have chopped some chilli, and that it is frying and filling the kitchen with smoke. Meanwhile, you’ve taken the most pungent onions you can find, and chopped them (perhaps, for good measure, wiping your eyes with your chilli and onion soaked hands). To while away the time while the chilli continues to cook, you create lines of ground black pepper on the table top, and snort them. And to complete the picture of eyes, nose and throat, you go into the garden where a bonfire is burning, and take a few good deep breaths of the smoke. Now combine these sensations, and multiply them. You probably haven’t quite reached tear gas (which also produces a slightly burning sensation on the more sensitive skin of the face), but I’ll warrant it sounds quite unpleasant… (For reference, if one is unlucky enough to get caught by the stuff, one should put a couple of drops of vinegar on a wet flannel, and hold it over one’s nose and mouth. And get out of the gas.)

Once the gas had cleared from my bedroom, I decided it was time to go to bed. Curiously, the whole protest finished fairly promptly at midnight, leaving me with relatively undisturbed sleep. For those of my readers concerned that I may be in great danger, I should point out that the closest I got to death or serious injury yesterday was when I fell down the stairs in the morning thanks to my attention being directed at my phone. Fortunately, my landlord was below me, and caught me just before my head careered into a wall. The worst I had to show for it was a couple of grazed knuckles. And that could have happened anywhere…

(For pictures, please take a look at my twitter account: @pdcwelby)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Constitutional Crisis

The main reason for the gap between these last couple of posts and the previous one is that daily life simply has become too normal for me to make aspects of it particularly interesting to anyone else. You may have noticed on the news over the past couple of weeks that this is no longer the case; we have returned to the kind of unpredictable excitement that greeted me when I first arrived here about fifteen months ago. Though I will talk about it, I must direct you to better equipped and more directly involved news agencies for any detailed analysis. The caveat to all I say is that this isn't sound or trustworthy analysis, just my opinions based on the limited observations I make living here.

This latest trouble all started a couple of weeks ago with President Mursi's decree that was meant to deal with the challenges of the judiciary to his government. There are two things to note here. The first is that I'm pretty sure that this had nothing to do with his role in the Gaza ceasefire. Mursi is fairly calculating, and won't have done something like this off the cuff just because he was on a diplomatic high - especially as the Gaza ceasefire really didn't make much difference to the way he was viewed at home. Those who liked him previously continued to like him, and those who didn't, didn't. Secondly, one of the key parts of the decree - removing the public prosecutor - is something that he has been trying to do for months, and in which he has been blocked by the judiciary. Both the senior judges and the public prosecutor are hangovers from the old regime; getting rid of them, or curbing their powers, had been something that a lot of people had wanted for a long time.

What really brought people out on to the streets is the way in which he brought about this little victory. He destroyed the judges' power to block his removal of the public prosecutor by removing their power to overturn any of his decrees (someone he can do as, under the interim constitution, in the absence of the parliament, his decrees are legislative). Of course, that removed the only check that had been acting on his powers, making him a dictator, albeit, so he says, a temporary one.

Making matters worse was the publication of a draft constitution. There had already been trouble in the constituent assembly. Judges were preparing to rule on its legality (it is viewed by many liberals as unrepresentative, due to the way in which it was formed). Being dominated by Islamists, it was making no attempt to write a particularly balanced constitution anyway, and this had prompted almost all its liberal and Christian members to boycott it, though they weren't enough to prevent it from reaching quorum. After Mursi's decree, it reportedly engaged in a mammoth sixteen hour session, and produced a draft. This has come under predictable, though not entirely unjustified attack from those who boycotted the assembly for its provision of rights and equalities (or rather, lack of provision). In my view, that isn't the key problem. The bigger problem is that it mined previous constitutions heavily, and so produced one that is a gift to authoritarian rule. It is excessively long (236 articles), and in crucial parts vague and contradictory (for example, insults are forbidden, but freedom of thought and expression are guaranteed). As far as I can see, it is more important that it makes sure that the government can't force the courts into interpreting vague articles in their favour (what's to stop them from interpreting a political attack from a rival presidential candidate as an insult?), than to make sure that all western rights and freedoms are included. I also fear that the opposition will lose the referendum in a couple of weeks’ time, because they will be focussing on the fact that it is illiberal, when a pretty conservative country will probably be more concerned with the threat of a new dictatorship.

Whatever the result of the constitutional referendum, it is now clear that Egypt has become a very divided country. It has been moving in this direction for a while. Various (liberal and/or Christian) friends have been engaging in foolish talk of the need for another revolution. (One is compelled to ask: if the previous revolution, started by people like you with a united populace behind you, didn't produce a result that left you confident in the future of your country, why do think that another revolution, with a divided populace, will produce a better outcome?) It remains to be seen whether, should the constitution pass in a demonstrably free and fair referendum, things will settle down again. My entirely uneducated hunch is that it will pass (I'd guess 60-40); however, it is perfectly possible that protests will continue on the basis that the process that led to it illegitimises the outcome. Some friends speculate, perhaps hopefully, that if it doesn't pass the embarrassment will force Mursi out. I don't see that happening: if it doesn't pass, he keeps the powers that he granted himself in this decree. Without a parliament, there is no obstacle to his legislative will. And unless he is forced from power by protests of the scale that toppled Mubarak, there is no reason for him and his supporters, members of an organisation that has sought power for eighty years, to surrender it.

Whether Mursi departs or not, and whether the constitution passes or not, there seems to be a high possibility of some violence. My dentist, having kindly performed root canal, followed up by a suggestion that I leave the country. At this stage, and on this information, I think that would be premature. But it goes some way to showing just how nervous people are.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Winter Weather

I should perhaps start by saying that I have no particular love for the Egyptian summer: it is hot, humid and dusty; the lack of any particular air movement causes the pollution to hang around like an unwanted guest who keeps bringing friends. And then, of course, Ramadan currently falls in the summer, causing some minor inconvenience to any non-Muslim who happens to be resident. The weather of the winter is by and large preferable. On some days, especially in the autumn and the spring (which, given their length here, might better be described as the beginning and the end of winter), one gets balmy blue-skied days in which (assuming one is not working) one can sit in one of the cafes along the corniche and pretend one is anywhere other than Egypt. This does require some skill in the suspension of disbelief, given the ever present sulphury haze, the rubbish that mysteriously never finds its way into a bin, the mangy cats, and the roar of traffic (and blare of car horns) immediately behind. However, as cheap opportunities for escape in Alex go, it's one of the best on offer. Even on days less ideal than these, it's much easier to wrap up warm than to try to escape the blistering heat of the summer.

There is, however, one huge inconvenience of the winter. I was reminded of it by my journeys to and from school yesterday. It's the rain. This may seem petty. After all, I'm English. I should welcome the rain as a taste of home. Anyway, given most of the year it's dry as a bone, I should be grateful that it rains at all: I'm sure the people of Jordan or Yemen would welcome the volume and regularity of the yearly rain that comes here. Well it isn't the rain as such that's the problem - in fact, so long as I can stay at home, I quite enjoy the occasional hour-long thunderstorms that presage the closure of the autumn - it's what happens when it rains.

The core problem is that the infrastructure can't cope with it. To a certain extent this is inevitable: when the ground is so dry, it isn't going to absorb terribly much, and so the water runs off everywhere. Fair enough. But I'm certain that if the drains were not absolutely clogged with rubbish (where does it come from...?) then the water would have somewhere to go. A minor second problem is the volume of the stuff. The rain here doesn't have English nuance. Don't bother trying to explain drizzle... Here we generally have heavy, dollopy rain, or no rain. And the heavy stuff isn't usually a short sharp shower - one can expect it to continue for hours.

The rain day starts perfectly pleasantly. One wakes up to the sound of the pitter-patter that is always quite calming (and of course car horns, but they form the background music to every form of Egyptian life). Then one realises that the all-pervasive smell of old cars with inefficient engines is still there, like a prominent food stain on a shirt that one has now washed three times in a row, but stubbornly refuses to budge. The morning routine is the same as ever, except that one makes oneself late for school by sitting looking out of the window in the hope, which you know to be false, that the rain will miraculously stop and it will be a lovely day. Having resigned oneself to the fact that this isn't going to happen, one makes ones way outside, having managed to persuade oneself that a raincoat isn't necessary - it isn't going to be that wet. One decides one is going to get a taxi, as one is late already, and anyway one doesn't want to walk all the way from the bus stop in the rain - unfortunately everyone has had this idea, so one waits for a while, getting increasingly damp, but too stubborn to go back into the house and get that rain coat. Finally a taxi pulls up, but around a metre away from the curb; that is, on the other side of a small, but as it turns out surprisingly deep lake. (It's important to remember, for later, that taxis here are not the personalised transport of the west. Where one gets out is the result of a negotiation between the driver, the first passenger, and any other passengers who get in subsequently. The driver has the upper hand. And one is expected to pay pretty much wherever he drops you, so long as one is closer to the destination than one was at the start.) As the journey progresses, one observes one's surroundings. The road is now a shallow, scummy river, though that hasn't deterred any of the drivers. Potholes become something of a surprise - especially as many are new thanks to the water combined with the state of the tarmac. Not that this encourages the drivers to be more careful. Stopping distances? What are they? That question could equally be applied to tire tread, wing mirrors, lights, and even windscreen wipers. It is not unusual to see a driver with his hand out of the window, holding a rag and wiping the rain away. Even where they do exist, they are used sparingly. One's taxi journey ends somewhere short of the intended destination; the driver wants to turn down to the corniche, as that is where the second passenger is headed. But he's disappointed only to be given the usual fare. It's raining, he indicates. Precisely, one replies, and proceeds to run through what may now be better described as a waterfall than 'weather' towards school. It's only five minutes away, but when one arrives one is greeted with gales of laughter from the receptionist. Fortunately, there is also a towel... Alas, one knows that this scenario is to be repeated many times over the next few months.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Presidential Election

It having been so long since I posted, I thought that the day of the Presidential Election results would be a good time, and provide a good topic (in case I’m accused from the start of being confused, this was written yesterday – the actual day of the results!). I don’t profess to know more than you could have found out from the BBC, or any other half-decent news organisation – but I do have the advantage of having followed things quite closely here, which my readers may not have. If you have, then you may find this account a little simplistic; I may even be accused of ignorance in some facts. But please give me your indulgence: this is not a painstakingly researched, intellectual account of events over the past couple of months, but simply the perspective of a vague foreigner with less than perfect Arabic.

On to the topic of today’s post: the election. For a little background, it took place, as in the French system, in two rounds, though here they have been divided by a month. Though by the time you get this, you will probably have heard the final result, I am going to go through events chronologically, as I experienced them, so allow yourselves to imagine that we are in late May. There are quite a few candidates, but most of them aren’t important and won’t get anywhere, and anyway, I don’t know their names. These are the important ones:

Mohamed Mohamed Morsi (this is not a mistake – I refer you back to an earlier post in which I explained the Egyptian system of names), the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. He was the Brotherhood’s second choice, the first having been banned, is not well-known outside of the Presidential race, and is quite uncharismatic.

Abu el-Fotouh used to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but sat someway further towards the political centre than the leadership, was rather vocal in his opposition, and was finally expelled from the organisation when he announced he would run for President as an independent (this was in defiance of a Brotherhood decision not to field a candidate for the Presidency. Apparently, they changed their mind). In contrast to Morsi, he is very charismatic, and had a large following among the Islamist-ly inclined who weren’t affiliated to the Brotherhood. Curiously (being a relatively liberal Islamist) he also had quite a following among the Salafists, after their own candidate was also banned (more on that below). He was considered to be one of two main ‘candidates of the revolution’ – those who had been involved in the revolution itself, and were largely supported by the revolutionaries.

Another candidate in the relative centre-ground was Amro Moussa, the former Foreign Minister and head of the Arab League - he lost some support for being a former-Mubarakite (though I believe that he wasn’t too popular with Mubarak by the end).

The second ‘candidate of the revolution’ was Hamdeen Sabahi a charismatic Nasserite who is particularly popular among the youth (and bearing in mind Egypt's demographics, 'the youth' is quite a lot of people). His policies looked somewhat horrific for the economy – at their most basic, he wanted to legislate for wages to rise and prices to fall, as well as nationalising various industries and introducing new subsidies here and there (the subsidies are already a problem: The Economist noted on 19 May that if Egypt were to abolish its fuel subsidy, its 10% budget deficit would be wiped out – though I’m not sure whether they included in their calculations what happens to the economy when a large proportion of the population can no longer put petrol in their tanks, or gas in their oven).

Finally, among the main candidates, there is Ahmed Shafiq, the ‘stability candidate’. He was Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, a former Air Force general, and is thought (unsurprisingly) to be the favoured candidate of Egypt’s ‘deep state’. He is particularly popular among Christians (who persecuted by official Egypt already, fear Islamist power), the upper-middle class (who did rather well out of the former regime), and many of those who weren’t really bothered by the revolution in the first place, and feel that things have just got worse since.

If you’re wondering why I have gone into such detail on a raft of candidates most of whom didn’t even make into the second round, it is in the hope of providing some background to the tensions that followed for the second. As you probably know, only Morsi and Shafiq made it into the second round, with about 47% of the first round vote between them. Abu el-Fotouh and Moussa, who came fourth and fifth respectively, were widely thought to have a very high chance of making it through to the second round, but ultimately occupied too close a position among the field of candidates, and split the moderate vote.

Sabahi came third, but won Alex, and about 20% of the total vote. He was very quick to claim foul play, and on the night of the first round result I stumbled into three different protests by his supporters whilst walking around Alex. Other candidates also cried foul, but unlike in the parliamentary elections (in which I heard several first hand accounts of dodgy practices) there didn’t appear to be a great deal of evidence, and the electoral commission dismissed the complaints out of hand. (This is not to say that they were without basis, just that I don’t know, and am sceptical. I probably would have ordered an investigation, had I been the commission – not to do so looked suspicious in itself.) There were two key disappointing outcomes to the first round. The first was the protesting the result. I felt that, especially coming from those who had launched the revolution in order to bring about democracy, to protest the result of a democratic election (as opposed to the policies of a democratically elected leader) because one doesn’t support the winners is hypocritical. However, the second was the result, which left an unpleasant choice for many people (particularly those who had risked their lives to bring about the possibility of an election in the first place). On the one hand, a vote for Morsi was a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood – he is very much a creature of the organisation, and it is feasible that he wouldn’t ultimately be taking some of the decisions supposedly taken by the President. On the other hand, a vote for Shafiq would have been a vote for the old regime, for the army, and specifically for a man with blood on his hands. If he had won (which rather gives the game away that he didn’t), the army and the ‘deep state’ would have viewed the revolution as a brief hiatus in their natural rule – and I wouldn’t have been surprised for there not to have been a free election when the next is due. Of course, the same may be true with Morsi in the Presidential Palace – especially if the army decides that the Brotherhood is no threat to its power.

Between the second round and the result, another unpleasant twist in the drama occurred. The voting took place over two days. At the end ofthe second day the military announced that Parliament was to be dissolved (this was the result of a case in the Supreme Court which challenged the results in a third of the seats, because they were meant to be reserved for independents and were won by party candidates – it was expected that there would be by-elections in those seats, but the military appears to have taken the opportunity the judgement provided), that the constitutional assembly was dissolved, that they were assuming all legislative power, and the power to appoint a new constitutional assembly. In essence, this was a coup (though against what, it’s hard to see – they don’t appear to have done anything illegal, given the powers that they assumed after the revolution), and severely circumscribes the power of the new President. This in itself put people on edge; the tension was further exacerbated by the election results (due last Thursday) being delayed. Initially, it was announced that this was so that the Electoral Commission could address irregularities; then the army said it was to prevent civil unrest. The change of explanation prompted a gut feeling that the delay was in order to rig the vote, and the protests (which were already quite large) grew. I fear that this is essentially the end of the road for the revolution; though with Morsi as President, there will be some remaining pressure on the military to concede its powers back to the Parliament or the President – or to launch a full-fat coup.

The feeling in Cairo today was exceedingly tense. When I went out at ten this morning, things were relatively normal, though the traffic was light. When I returned to the centre of town at two, the traffic was exceedingly heavy, which (though Cairo is usually quite congested) seemed abnormal. And then, by 3pm, there were almost no cars on the street at all until the result was finally announced (after an interminable speech by the monotonous head of the Electoral Commission) when the streets exploded in relief and celebration. Morsi had won by 13 million to 12 million. Those who aren’t celebrating remain indoors. They include the staff of my hostel, who are miserable – but they would have been miserable with either result, and possibly see this as marginally preferable to the other outcome. Those I have spoken to either spoilt their ballot or did not vote in the second round. The younger of my friends in Alex were also deeply unhappy about the choice they were presented with. The older, by and large, voted for Shafiq. Both groups will be disappointed and nervous following the result.

Update: 25 June

Things today are much more relaxed, and pretty much back to normal. The prevailing sense seems to be relief. We shall see how long that lasts…

The "ida'afa"

I initially wrote this post as an email circular on 27 April. I'm not sure why I posted it then. But here it is, for your delectation. Health warning: it contains a fair amount of Arabic grammar.


The news in brief, since my last post. Significantly, my Korean housemate has returned, almost entirely recovered (apart from lingering pains in the neck, and a foot that doesn’t always do what it’s told). Furthermore, as a result of the accident, he will likely stay longer than he had previously been intending to, to make up for lost time. On the downside, his parents (who were quite happy for him to come immediately following the revolution) are now entirely opposed to his being in such a dangerous country, and have withdrawn his funding.

I have abandoned my study of a’mir (colloquial Arabic) on the grounds that to study the grammar and vocabulary of fus’ha (formal) and a’mir together was too confusing to be helpful. And for other reasons – more on that below. Against that, however, I have finished my first textbook. This may not mean much to you, so I give the additional information that it is about 400 pages long, and that students at Leeds University (chosen as an example only because I met one of them who told me) take 18 months to do the same. But then, they are studying other things too, as well as having a social life, so are probably more well-rounded and have more friends…

Final piece of quick news is my new teacher. My previous teacher left (most inconsiderately!) to have a baby – but before, she made an arrangement with the manager that I was to be given the ‘best teacher in the school’ (I thought that this was just her trying to make me feeling fine about her leaving, but others have independently verified this fact). My new teacher is, indeed, incredible. My previous teacher was very good, but her skills pale in comparison to my new one. Though she can speak English, I only discovered this after several lessons, when we reached a total impasse in explaining a new grammatical concept, and she had to resort to a couple of words of it. As a result of being forced, for two and a half hours a day, to speak and listen to Arabic only, my capacity has come on in leaps and bounds. There are only two problems: 1) it is fus’ha, which no one on the street speaks (though laughter is a common response – fus’ha often appears in films to mark out a comic character with a geekish nature…); 2) even if they did, my teacher speaks to me very slowly so that I can understand her – most people aren’t so considerate.

Given the length of my ‘news in brief’, the remainder of this post will be brief, and consist (sort of) of a short lesson in Arabic grammar. This will, I suspect, be completely useless to you in your general lives.

There is a strange piece of formal Arabic grammar related to case endings. Basically, nouns and verbs will end with a different sounds (though they’re not spelt differently) depending on whether they’re the subject or object, or come after a preposition, or a host of other factors. This applies to all nouns and verbs (though sometimes it seems only to happen in one’s head – I presume this little trickery will become clearer later), including names. Hence much childish fun was had talking about George-oo Bush-aa, or Tony-oo Blair-aa (or, for that matter, Peter-oo Welby-aa). There seem to be a variety of problems, however, with this whole arrangement. One of these would be that whereas foreign names (of people or places) have this ‘oo-aa’ rhythm, Arabic names have an ‘oo-oo’, or possibly ‘oo-ee’, for a reason that will follow (I’m not entirely clear on when it is what – I tend to guess – and why Arabic names are different. It seems that a lot of the time, Arabic grammar rules come about largely because some authoritative text wrote in the way that the grammar prescribes, and it was the hard job of some unfortunate soul to come up with a reason why…). But a difficulty was hit upon in my teacher trying to explain to me the reason for this structure in names, which is derived from the way that Arabic names follow a set form. Part of the whole problem is that names come into a structure calledidhafa (or, something of the something), as Arabic names follow the structure your-name father’s-name grandfather’s-name family-name (so to take the example of a chap called John, whose father was Michael, and whose grandfather was Charles, he would be John Michael Charles Family-name), which fits into the form name of father of grandfather of family. The family name, to add to the difficulties, is the name of some distinguished ancestor – which led to the plaintive cry from my teacher, when trying to use my name for her example, “but who was Welby?!”. Of course, my middle names didn’t help either – it was quite an effort to convince her that my father was not Douglas. The point of all this is that in an idhafa, the case ending on the second (or final) word is always ‘ee’. Except that it seems from all I’ve just written that this doesn’t seem to quite work for names. And thus I bring this little narrative round in a circle, no further enlightened than I was at the start – and having confused my audience in the process, I fear. Maybe it would be better if we just forgot this whole thing and moved on…

I promised earlier that I would write more about dropping a’mir. There isn’t a great deal more to it than what was stated above – learning botha’mir and fus’ha together is very confusing. It was, however, exacerbated by my teacher having been very apathetic for about three weeks before the decision (as it turned out, she had a good reason – an arranged engagement, with a man she hardly knew, who turned out not to be all that she hoped for. She broke off the engagement, and now seems much happier again). This was not, however, the reason that I gave to the school. It was quite a complicated process: first I went to the administration girls. “I’d like to stop studying a’mir and focus on fus’ha.” Ah, this might be a problem – I’d need to do a placement test to work out where I’d fit in the fus’ha textbook. “No, I’d like to continue studying from the same textbook” (it is essentially a fus’ha textbook in any case, with half a page of a’mir in every ten). This is also difficult, it seems – they call the Director of Students. Oh no, she says, quite impossible – my textbook is for a combination, not for fus’ha by itself. I argue my case a bit further, and am told I need to see the manager. I explain my position to her. “Good idea! Fus’ha and a’mir is too confusing to study together!” I felt slightly aggrieved that she hadn’t told me this in the first place, but I got what I wanted, so I make no complaints…

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Walking Through a Riot

I write this sat waiting for breakfast in a hostel in Cairo, after four hours sleep, and at what I hope will be the end of quite a hectic couple of days. In this issue: football riots, without the football, and friends in intensive care after 17 car pile-ups (just one friend, and just one pile-up).

You may have seen in the news that on Wednesday night there were 74 people killed in football riots in Port Said. I watched affairs unfold on the television, thinking it was very sad, but isolated. When I spoke to my teacher the next day, she was full of theories about counter-revolutionary forces trying to bring down the government – I’m not convinced by that, and rather think that it was a fight between ‘ultras’ that got out of hand. The police were attacked, and reacted in the only way that they really know in public-order situations: overwhelming and violent force. My experiences on Thursday rather bore this out.

I was taking a stroll in the evening towards my local supermarket, and noticed a bit of a commotion up ahead of me, followed by a small gaggle of youths running past looking excitable. However, the supermarket is on a busy pedestrian street, and commotions are not uncommon, so I carried on walking. The next thing I noticed was shopkeepers beginning to pull down their shutters. In the spirit of honesty I shall reveal that my brain was clearly not functioning on full capacity: my reaction was simply that it was odd to be shutting up shop so early in the evening, and I carried on. The next thing that I knew was that I was surrounded by a large crowd of youths, carrying steel rods, broken bottles, machetes (and in one, rather curious case, a plastic milk-bottle crate). I was still not firing on full cylinders: I thought I’d walked into a protest, and failed to register the lack of flags and chants, and the excess of weaponry and angry looking youths. I’d also failed to register another crowd of similarly angry and armed youths facing off against them. I was enlightened when the clash started, and beat a hasty retreat into the nearest side-street, where I stood (for lack of anywhere else to go) with a small group of other bystanders who were watching events with a mixture of anger, interest, despair, and plain annoyance at their evenings being disrupted in such a way. I spent ten minutes or so a good deal closer than I would have liked to a guy on the floor viciously being beaten with metal rods, to people hacking at each other with machetes, and to a chap who, still for unknown reasons, was waving his plastic crate around with no apparent purpose – but then the riot disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and I continued my progression to the supermarket.

My shopping was uneventful, until I got back towards the front of the shop and realised that the shutters had been pulled down and there was much excitement among the cashiers. And a minor clue to something going on was the sound of gunfire outside… I had the longest conversation with one of the cashiers in the shop I have ever had (they’re usually very grumpy, with good reason: it is a soulless place), in English. Apparently there were “bad men” outside, who were shooting. However, they had a “secret” back entrance (for emergencies such as this!), and I was ushered back through the supermarket with all my shopping to an inconspicuous door on a back street.

Having completely lost my bearings at this stage, I took a guess as to which direction went vaguely towards my house and set off with purpose. Before long, however, I was surrounded by my friends from before, complete with their various accoutrements (Crate-Man had disappeared somewhere; perhaps to a secure facility), and many of them covered in blood (whether their own or another’s was unclear in some cases). But this time it was apparent that the game had changed, as they were very definitely fleeing from the gunfire that was erupting on all sides, though thankfully not on my street. Although it had finally dawned on my (far too late – never choose me as your guide in a crisis) that the situation was rather serious, I had very little choice but to carry on in the direction I was going. Not quite knowing what street I was on, and given the gunfire seemed to be coming from all points of the compass (though still unseen), one direction was as good as any other, so I walked determinedly, clutching my shopping (it held the makings of a crumble – I wasn’t letting that go to waste!). I finally emerged close to my house without further incident, and resolved that I was stay home for the rest of the evening.

To bring this little story back to its origin, and the conspiracy theories about counter-revolutionaries, it must be noted that the police were nowhere in sight, and the riot looked, in its initial stages, like an organised fight between rival groups. I don’t believe this to be any more than sheer criminality, born of a country which, post-revolution, has had very weak crime-fighting capacity.

There is one aspect of this country that fits in with the rest of the Middle East, and brings me back to the dominant theme of my first Alexandrian Note: the traffic. My housemate, H, was travelling to the airport in Cairo early yesterday morning for a flight to London. I got a call from him in the early afternoon: “have you heard what happened?” (an ominous way to start any conversation). I hadn’t. H had been in the initial crash of a 17 car pile-up in thick fog on the Alex-Cairo road, where cars travel in excess of 90 mph whatever the weather, and whatever the road conditions. He was asleep in the back seat when his car was hit from behind, and had woken up a few hours later in intensive care. My other housemate and I rushed to the station, and got the first train we could to Cairo. Thankfully, the hospital had called an upper-class Egyptian friend of his shortly after he arrived, and he had reassured them about money, and made sure that he was getting proper treatment. This was particularly helpful in H’s case, as he doesn’t have insurance…

My other housemate and I arrived at the hospital at 11pm, well after visiting hours, and blagged our way in by asking to speak to his doctor. The doctor seemed very good and competent, told us all that had happened, and all that they were going to do. He was in intensive care for observation, but he was stable and lucid. He’d had a very bad concussion, and they had to wait until the swelling had gone down a bit before they could tell whether there was any more serious damage. We were then allowed in to see him – remarkably his external injuries were limited to minor cuts and bruises (his Egyptian friend had told me that the car was in pieces). I’m exceedingly lucky to still have a housemate.

I suppose there are two morals to this story. The first is that if one is in this country for long enough, one is almost guaranteed to be in a car accident. Almost everyone I know has been – major or minor. But the biggest is never, ever travel without insurance, especially in this part of the world. Nothing here works without a little currency-shaped lubrication – doctors concerned about payment will not treat, or if they do, they won’t care. If it wasn’t for H’s friend, he’d be in a very much worse situation now.

A final point of interest came on the journey back into downtown Cairo from the hospital. We went through Tahrir square, in my first time there. It looked rather like a fair: if fairs were routinely held in the middle of big roundabouts, and in which people wore surgical masks as a defence against tear gas. The traffic was being directed by protesters, while within the encampment youths sat chatting around big kettles of tea. Of course, it must be noted that this was a protest in its down stage – there were no apparent police around, and it mostly looked like young people having fun. I’m reliably informed that it’s very different at other times… Hence the surgical masks.

Final apologies for the long gap between my last post and now – and the depressing nature of this one. I will try to be more upbeat next time!