My piece in The Nation on Western Sahara filed from the Dakhla refugee camp in southwestern Algeria.
Tchla Bchere has visited Western Sahara, the land she calls her rightful home, only once. Born and raised in a refugee camp in the remote desert expanse of southwestern Algeria, the 30-year-old activist has always clung to the promise of an independent homeland, free from Moroccan control. Yet in the entwined contradictions of hope and despair that have shaped her life as a Sahrawi refugee, Bchere never wants to have children—to have them grow up like her, in a state of permanent displacement and consigned to a life of waiting in the harsh desert.
“My hope has no limits,” she says. “But I don’t want to raise a child in this situation.”
Bchere is a refugee of Africa’s last colony, the site of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts and one of its most invisible.
Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco since 1975, when Spain, the former colonial power, signed an agreement handing over control of the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, allowing the two countries to invade. The United States and France supported the forced annexation.
The Moroccan army carried out brutal attacks against civilians, including bombing, strafing and dropping napalm on those trying to escape the fighting. The violence prompted nearly half the Sahrawi population to flee on foot and cross into Algeria, where they were allowed to settle near the town of Tindouf.
For close to four decades, nearly half the native population of Western Sahara has lived as refugees in Algeria; the other half lives as a minority population under foreign rule. Two parallel societies, one living in exile, the other under occupation.
The Dakhla refugee camp lies in a remote corner of southwestern Algeria. For nearly four decades, tens of thousands of refugees from Western Sahara have lived in exile here after Morocco and Mauritania invaded their homeland. I had the opportunity to spend several days there with the FiSahara international film festival organized by Spanish activists every year to raise awareness of the plight of the Sahrawis.
Jail conditions improve for detained Canadians in Egypt: lawyer
More in the Toronto Star:
In a sign that the Egyptian authorities are moving the case of two detained Canadians up their priority list, lawyer Marwa Farouk said that “an aide to the minister of the interior personally visited them” on Wednesday.
Farouk’s law firm, meanwhile, confirmed that John Greyson and Tarek Loubani have ended their hunger strike in Cairo’s grim Tora Prison where they have been detained without charge since Aug. 16. They were arrested during violent clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Friends and family had feared for the two men, who consumed only juice and water for two weeks to protest their jail conditions and detention without charge, which was extended by 45 days to mid-November.
The Canadians’ detention has brought embarrassment and unwanted attention to Egypt’s military-backed interim government, which earlier this week announced to world leaders at the UN that it is on a “road map” to democracy.
My latest for The Nation is a longer analysis of the different and shifting positions towards the Muslim Brotherhood, the army and civil liberties by the various non-Islamist political groups and movements:
Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.
His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition—the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as “liberals,” despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.
The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others—like Dawoud—stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a “war on terror.”
The military—which formed a coalition of convenience with the Brotherhood for much of 2011 to manage the post-Mubarak landscape and hold revolutionary aspirations and unfettered popular mobilizations in check—successfully co-opted the movement against Morsi and, along with the security establishment, emerged as the clearest winner from his overthrow.
Egypt considering murder charges against Canadians
Latest for the Toronto Star:
The handwritten document, in scrawled Arabic, ends with a thumbprint and the signature of Toronto filmmaker John Greyson.
It outlines an alarming, and wide-ranging, list of allegations — among them murder and “intention to kill” — against Greyson and London, Ont., doctor Tarek Loubani, who have been detained in a Cairo jail since Aug. 16. The pair were arrested during a week of violence that followed protests against the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The authorities have not yet laid formal charges against the men, but their detention was extended on Sunday by another 45 days to allow for ongoing investigations by the Egyptian attorney general. For the first time, the Star is publishing a detailed list of the intended charges the authorities are pursuing against them. Similar charges are also being sought for 140 Egyptians scooped up during demonstrations in the heart of Cairo that left dozens dead.
Canadians held in Egypt have detention extended for another 45 days
I filed a short update piece for the Toronto Star on the case of John Greyson and Tarek Loubani who have been imprisoned in Egypt since mid-August.
A prosecutor in Egypt has ordered two Canadians detained in a Cairo jail since August 16 to be held for an additional 45 days, prolonging any hope of their release until mid-November.
Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and emergency doctor Tarek Loubani were arrested in mid-August in the midst of a week of violent clashes between security forces and supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi that left hundreds dead.
Up until today, their detention had been extended over three 15-day periods. The decision to extend their detention by an additional month and a half is the most severe ruling yet.
“This is the worst possible outcome,” said Marwa Farouk, the lead defence counsel on the case. “They are dealing with them in the same way they are dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said, referring to the government-led crackdown on the Islamist group that has seen thousands of its members imprisoned.
My piece for The Progressive filed last month is finally published online:
The corpses lay in neat rows on the floor of al-Iman mosque—more than 230 of them, wrapped in bloodied white sheets with names scrawled across in felt pen. Clusters of portable electric fans and the occasional spray of air freshener did little to overcome the smell of death that pervaded the summer heat. Family members gathered around the bodies of their relatives. Some stood in silence, others wept openly, their wails of grief rising through the halls of the mosque that had been transformed into a charnel house.
Osama Said, a skinny nineteen-year-old in a T-shirt and track suit bottoms, knelt over the body of his older brother. He gently pulled the shroud aside and stared at his face. A thin line of caked blood ran from his brother’s nose to the top of his ear. Abdel Rahman Said, twenty-three, was shot and killed on August 14, taking a bullet to the heart when army soldiers and security forces stormed the encampment at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the epicenter of support for the deposed president Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another large sit-in at Nahda Square was also stormed the same day in a display of brutal force that Human Rights Watch described as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.” At least 638 were killed across the country, according to official tallies, though many suspect the toll to be higher.
My piece for The Nation on Syrian refugees in Egypt who find themselves targeted amidst the country’s political upheaval:
Abu Shihab recalls when armed police officers in full riot gear barged into his cramped apartment and led him away in handcuffs, along with a dozen other Syrian refugees. “They were dressed like they were ready for a war,” he says. He stands in the sun-washed courtyard of Masaken Othman, a cluster of cracked reddish-brown residential buildings rising from the dust in Cairo’s desert outskirts. Trash and car tires float in fetid green water seeping from a drainpipe onto the sand.
Abu Shihab arrived with his wife and children in May, fleeing his hometown of Hama after his 12-year-old son was killed in an airstrike by the Assad regime. They now live in this isolated apartment complex alongside some 240 other families, among an unprecedented wave of Syrians who have fled the fighting at home only to find themselves trapped in the cross-hairs of Egypt’s political upheaval. Those who have not been turned away at the border have been detained in large numbers by police and vigilante groups. Dozens have been deported. Meanwhile, members of Egypt’s established Syrian community face increasing harassment, their businesses attacked and looted.
More of a commentary than an article for my latest in The Nation:
Cairo at night has become a city of silence. Once among the world’s most crowded and raucous nocturnal metropolises, it is now home to ghosts, a place haunted by fear and despair. Never ones to abide by past military-imposed curfews, Egyptians stay indoors after sunset. The night is owned by helicopters roaming the skies, fat army tanks sitting heavily in the streets and bands of men wielding knives, clubs and guns at makeshift checkpoints. The occasional crackle of gunfire rings out, a reminder that the violence has only slowed, not stopped.
Most of the killing is done during the day. Over 1,000 dead in three days of carnage. As a reporter covering conflicts over the years, I have seen many dead bodies—but never have I seen so many people dying before my eyes. The last gurgling gasp of air, the eyes turning lifeless, the rising wails of grief.
As Egypt plunges headfirst into a deadly downward spiral with no end in sight, many of its citizens are baying for still more blood. Both sides leading the conflict, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, are playing a zero-sum game, based on a false binary demanding that Egyptians choose one or the other. Both are defined by hierarchy, patriarchy, secrecy, mendacity and a blinding sense of their own superiority. Both are juggernauts in the Egyptian body politic that have heedlessly clawed away at Egypt’s social fabric in their struggle for power, proving time and again that their own political and economic interests trump all.
My article for The Nation after the deadly raids on the pro-Morsi Rabaa el-Adeweya and Nahda sit-ins:
The raids began shortly after 6 am, according to witnesses, with security forces deploying bulldozers, helicopters, snipers, shotguns and tear gas. The smaller of the two sit-ins, at Renaissance Square in Giza, was cleared within hours. But the raid of the much larger encampment, at the Rabaa al-Adeweya mosque in Nasr City, a neighborhood in eastern Cairo, lasted far longer.
In Nasr City, the crackle of intermittent machine-gun fire punctuated the rhythmic clang of metal poles the protesters were beating to warn of the ongoing attack. Tear gas mixed with black smoke rising from burning tires and branches pulled from trees on the sidewalk.
To enter or exit the sit-in, protesters were forced to sprint across a road exposed to sniper fire. Some took to writing their names and a number to call on their arms should they get shot. I saw one man scream as fell in the street after being hit in the head with what appeared to be birdshot.
Protesters mostly responded with rocks, though there are reports that some used firearms as well against security forces.
It was a scene of chaos and bloodshed inside the Rabaa medical facility, a four-story building near the central mosque. Wounded protesters were carried in every few minutes, many of them shot in the chest, neck or abdomen. The floor was covered in grime and, in places, slippery with blood. The heat was stifling, since the windows had been closed to prevent tear gas from entering.
The corpses emerge from a field hospital near the Rabea al-Adeweya mosque every few minutes in a grim routine. First, a man on a megaphone strides purposefully out into the sun, announcing the name of the dead to the waiting throng of mourners—the Grand Marshal of a macabre parade. Behind him come the medical workers carrying the body on a fluorescent orange stretcher. The white shroud is invariably splattered with blood, the name and hometown of the deceased is scrawled across the front. Hands and feet have been tied together to prevent limbs from flopping out. Two lines of men with linked arms form a thin passageway through the crowd that leads to a waiting ambulance. Pleas to God fill the air, rising to a crescendo of grief and anger as the body passes through. The commotion subsides until the next body is brought out, and the scene repeated.
This was Cairo on a scorching Saturday morning after predawn clashes between supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi and police and armed men that left scores of protesters dead and hundreds injured in the deadliest attack by security services since Mubarak’s ouster. The Health Ministry puts the official toll at seventy-four. The Muslim Brotherhood says sixty-six were killed and an additional sixty-one are “clinically dead.”
The bloodshed plunged Egypt into a deepening crisis with a highly polarized population, an unresolved standoff between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, spiraling levels of violence that have left more than 200 people dead since Morsi’s ouster and a coercive security apparatus reconstituting itself under the guise of a “war on terror.”
My latest piece in The Nation about the rise of the conservative wing within the Muslim Brotherhood and what options the movement has after the overthrow of Morsi:
It took the Muslim Brotherhood eighty-five years to reach the pinnacle of its power in Egypt—culminating in the inauguration last year of one its members, Mohamed Morsi, as the country’s first elected president—only for the group to lose it all twelve months later.
After a wave of popular anger led to an unprecedented mass mobilization on June 30, opening the door for Morsi’s sudden overthrow in a military coup, the Brotherhood went from controlling the presidency, the legislature and the cabinet to finding itself thrust out of office, its members protesting in the streets and hounded by security forces.
This was neither predicted nor preordained. Although it faced immediate political opposition upon winning at the ballot box, along with a declining economy and stiff resistance within the judiciary and state bureaucracy, critics largely blame the Brotherhood’s precipitous fall on the organization’s unilateral decision-making and an exclusionary style of governance—marked by hubris and a winner-take-all logic—that left it politically alienated, engendering open hostility from most sectors of Egyptian society.
Q&A with leading Muslim Brotherhood member Amr Darrag
I recently interviewed Dr. Amr Darrag, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood who most recently served as minister of planning and international cooperation in former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil’s Cabinet. He formerly served as secretary general of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the 2012 Constitution. The interview was for an article on the Brotherhood for The Nation but I thought the conversation brought up some interesting points so the full Q&A was published in Mada Masr. A sample:
Mada Masr: The military appeared quite comfortable with the constitution that was passed in December; it granted them their privileges. Why do you think the military is targeting you now? Is this something you foresaw?
Amr Darrag: To be honest, I don’t think we expected that the military would make such a move, and I don’t think the military made such a move without a clear green light from the United States. The problem is that although the constitution seemed to be quite satisfactory to the military at that time, they knew quite well that that was a transitional period. The more time that would pass, the less benefits they would get, and the less authorities and power they would have. They wanted it all, they wanted to go back and have complete power.
By definition, at least some of the military leaders cannot stand to be in a democratic environment — they are not used to it. It’s not just the military; the military is the tool. It is mainly the old regime in full, with all of its tools, supported by the United States. This is the combination that led to the development of such a coup, which we believe was being planned for some time.
My piece in The Nation on the clashes across the country:
Zakaria Ibrahim was only several yards away when his younger brother was shot dead. It was just before dawn on July 8, and the two men were outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, along with hundreds of other supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi. They stood in neat rows as they observed early morning prayers, facing away from the phalanx of armed soldiers guarding the gates.
They were still praying when the chaos began. Zakaria remembers the tear gas first, repeated volleys of hissing canisters that filled the air with poisonous white clouds. Then came the crackle of machine-gun fire and shotguns. He ran from the army bullets, blinded and spluttering, unaware that his 24-year-old brother, Gamal, had been hit in the chest with a live round that exited through his back and left him dead on the street.
“I only found out he had been killed hours later, when someone who saw his name on the casualty list called me,” Zakaria says, holding back tears as he waits for his brother’s body in the courtyard of a squalid state morgue. The two brothers had come to Cairo from Beni Sueif, their hometown in southern Egypt, ten days earlier to take part in a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adeweya mosque to support Morsi in what would become the final days of his year-long presidency.
My piece for The Nation on the latest developments:
Just over one year ago, on June 29, Mohammed Morsi chose Tahrir Square to deliver his first address as president-elect of Egypt.
“There is no power above people power,” he declared. “Today you are the source of this power. You give this power to whomever you want and you withhold it from whomever you want.” But twelve months later, Morsi would be unable to set foot in Tahrir, his words coming back to haunt him as millions took to the streets calling for his ouster in the largest protest in Egypt’s history.
The mass mobilization on June 30 eclipsed even the 2011 demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak; a few days later, on July 3, the army forced Morsi out of office, in what amounted to a military coup. His year-long tenure ended with a televised address by the head of SCAF, Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, himself appointed by Morsi less than a year earlier.
Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir, jubilant at the news. The incessant drone of vuvuzelas mixed with a cacophony of drums, whistles and cheering, as the sky lit up with fireworks and green lasers. “Morsi’s gone and we are finally taking a step forward,” said a man named Shady, 38, who lives across the city but came to join the celebrations. “I don’t see this as a military coup,” he added. “The army is not trying to take control. The people are the source of all legitimacy and they took the power away from the president.”
That a popular revolt facilitated Morsi’s ouster is undeniable. But it has also solidified the military’s role as the final arbiter of power in Egypt.
As Morsi-Army Showdown Grips Egypt, Protesters Reject Authoritarian Rule
My interview on Democracy Now! hours before the President Mohammed Morsi was forced out of office by the military following the massive popular uprising against him and his group, the Muslim Brotherhood:
My latest in The Nation on the highly anticipated June 30 protests against President Mohammed Morsi:
Egypt is bracing for June 30. Anticipation for the first anniversary of the inauguration of President Mohammed Morsi has reached a fever pitch, as millions prepare to take to the streets to demand his removal from office. Fears of a showdown between protesters and the president’s supporters have led people to stock up on food and fuel supplies. The military and police are deploying extra forces and barriers around public buildings and army tanks have reportedly taken up positions outside the capital.
One year ago, many Egyptians had hoped the inauguration of the country’s first-ever democratically elected president would mark a turning point following decades of autocratic rule and a turbulent transition. Yet since Morsi took office, the political quagmire has only deepened, the economy has been in decline and daily life has become harder for most Egyptians.
The country is plagued by frequent fuel and diesel shortages that create long lines outside gas stations and cause incapacitating traffic jams. Electricity blackouts have become a daily routine during the hot summer months. Prices for food, medicine and other staple goods have sharply risen as the Egyptian pound has lost 10 percent of its value leaving already impoverished families less to live on. Unemployment is growing, tourism and investment are down sharply, the stock market hit an eleven-month low last week, while insecurity, crime and vigilante violence are on the rise.
The Black Bloc and the Ongoing Campaign to Quash Dissent
My first piece for Tahrir Squared is about the government crackdown on street protesters:
In Egypt, brutality, intimidation and legal harassment have long been the blunt tools wielded by the state in its futile effort to quell citizens into submission. In the year since the country’s first democratically-elected president took office, the tactics of Egyptian authorities to quash dissent have changed little. Mohamed Morsi appears content to follow the same playbook as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Mubarak regime before it in dealing with grassroots opposition to his rule.
The police violence that left scores of protesters dead and hundreds more wounded in the days following the second anniversary of the revolution has given way to a less bloody yet more sustained and pervasive crackdown.
Authorities are pursuing a twin-pronged strategy of dragging prominent activists into successive court cases on dubious charges in what appears to be a government campaign to hound and subdue them. Meanwhile, ordinary protesters on the street, often poor and marginalized youth, are being rounded up, mistreated and often handed harsh prison sentences and steep fines.
On March 28, Egypt’s former trade minister, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, was removed from an arrest list after he paid back a total of 15 million Egyptian pounds (approximately $2.2 million) to the state as part of a reconciliation program under President Mohamed Morsi. Rachid, who served as minister from 2004 to 2011, fled just before the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak and was tried in absentia for profiteering and squandering public funds during his time in office. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison and fined over 1.4 billion Egyptian pounds (approximately $202 million).
The deal struck between Rachid and the Morsi government came amid accelerated efforts by Egyptian authorities to reach out-of-court settlements with former regime officials and businessmen accused of corruption and cronyism. “We will reconcile through a legal process with anyone who did not corrupt or was somewhat corrupt but did not spill blood,” Hatem Saleh, the current trade minister said in January.
The sale of state assets, mainly land for housing and tourism developments, to crony businessmen at prices below market value became a hallmark of the Mubarak regime, particularly during its last decade in power. In the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, cases were brought against numerous businessmen and regime officials. But in January 2012, just days before Egypt’s newly elected parliament was to hold its opening session, the military council that ruled in the interim period issued a decree amending an existing investment law to allow charges to be dropped if the accused paid back their illicit gains. In an attempt to reinvigorate the process, this year the Muslim Brotherhood–led cabinet voted to allow defense lawyers to plea bargain for clients convicted in absentia.
My second article on Bahrain has been published in The Nation after some delay:
The second anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising on February 14 was marked by street protests, tear gas, shotguns and Molotov cocktails. Two protesters and a policeman were killed and dozens of people arrested. The scenes were not unfamiliar in Bahrain, which has gone through two years of upheaval since demonstrators first took to the streets in early 2011 to call for major political reforms.
Since the uprising began, more than eighty people have been killed and hundreds more wounded. Scores of people have been arrested and sentenced before military courts—many of them human rights advocates, political opposition figures and physicians who treated wounded protesters. Reports of systematic prisoner abuse and torture are widespread.
The Obama administration has been relatively low-key in condemning human rights violations by the Bahraini government over the past two years and has largely looked the other way as the monarchy has sought to quash the uprising. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, through which much of the world’s oil passes.
In January, ProPublica revealed new details of the weaponry sold to the Bahraini government by the US over the past two years, including ammunition, Black Hawk helicopters and a missile system.
“The US says they support democracy but under the table they do something else entirely. This is America’s politics, they look to their interests and that’s it,” says Taimoor Karimi, a 55 year-old lawyer who was arrested in March 2011 and spent nearly six months in jail—where he says he was tortured—on charges of “spreading false news” and “participating in [an] illegal gathering.”
“Our hope is in the American people. They can pressure their government to pull their hand away from under dictatorship,” he says.
Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Jaziri helps lower his son’s shrouded body into a grave as dozens of mourners crowd around. Many cover their noses and mouths to ward off the sting of tear gas wafting nearby. On the outskirts of the graveyard, hundreds of young men and boys armed with rocks and molotov cocktails are confronted by a phalanx of security forces in full riot gear, backed by armored cars and SUVs. The booms of firing shotguns and tear gas canisters punctuate the buzzing of a police helicopter surveilling the scene below. This is a Bahraini burial.
“I want retribution for my son,” Al-Jaziri says calmly. “We want real accountability, not like what happened with the other martyrs.”
Sixteen year-old Hussein Al-Jaziri was killed on February 14, the day marking the second anniversary of Bahrain’s 2011 uprising. Eyewitnesses told The Nation a police officer shot him twice from a distance of just three or four yards at a street corner in Daih, a village west of the capital. The claims are supported by photographs taken at the morgue showing birdshot wounds clustered tightly together on Hussein’s upper right abdomen—proof of the shooter’s close range. The Bahraini government says it has launched an investigation.
The circumstances of Hussein’s death are especially poignant. On the same date two years earlier, 21 year-old Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima suffered a strikingly similar fate in the same village, where he was fatally shot in the back by police. He would become the first martyr of Bahrain’s uprising; since then, nearly ninety people have killed in Bahrain according to local human rights groups, though some put the number at more than 120, a high toll in a population numbering just 600,000.
I just returned from a reporting trip to Bahrain where I covered the two year anniversary of the February 14 uprising. I was one of the few foreign reporters on the ground. Click on the photo to see the full slideshow:
My report for The Nation from Port Said, where more than 40 people were killed and some 1,000 wounded over the span of four days:
Port Said has become a city of numbers, its narrative punctuated by a grim arithmetic: twenty-one sentenced to death in a trial for seventy-two killed in a soccer riot, thirty-two killed after the verdict was announced. Seven killed in a funeral march the next day. Four more shot dead the night after that.
In a struggle to make sense of the toll, residents resort to macabre calculations. “Maybe when the number of dead reaches seventy-two, like in the stadium last year, the shooting will stop in Port Said,” says Adel Shehata.
Shehata’s 21-year-old son, Mohammed—known to friends and family as ‘Hommos’—is one of twenty-one men, all of them local soccer fans, who were sentenced to death by a judge in a Cairo court on January 26 on charges relating to the deaths of seventy-two people in Port Said’s soccer stadium last year. Fans of Port Said’s Masry club stormed the field after a match on February 1, 2012, and attacked the vastly outnumbered visiting supporters of Cairo’s Ahly club. The majority of those killed were crushed to death in a stampede. As the massacre unfolded, security forces and riot police looked on and did nothing to intervene.
The second anniversary of Egypt’s revolution has been marked by rocks, firebombs, tear gas and bullets. More than fifty people have been killed and over a thousand wounded across the country. The army has been granted arrest powers, and military troops have been deployed to the three cities where President Mohamed Morsi has declared a state of emergency and ordered a curfew.
This outbreak of rage has laid bare the precarious state of a country plagued by a disfigured transition process, a lingering sense of injustice and the repeated failures of an entire political class that has forsaken a host of popular grievances in its scuffle for power.
Much of the vitriol has been directed toward Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Using a highly contentious decree that granted him near-dictatorial powers, Morsi forced a controversial constitution through a referendum process last month. The move sparked mass protests and deadly clashes and left a deep national rift in its wake. It also bolstered fears of the “Brotherhood-ization” of the state, namely that the group was asserting control over the regime left behind by Hosni Mubarak rather than reforming state institutions.
In the weeks since, the economy has edged closer to the precipice with the Egyptian pound plummeting to record lows against the US dollar causing a rise in the price of staple goods like sugar, rice and cooking oil and exacerbating the economic burdens of the poor.
After a hiatus, I have a new column in the Egypt Independent:
It is important to consider the story of Qursaya as the second anniversary of the revolution approaches. It’s a story of violence and imprisonment, of the powerful targeting the marginalized, of ruling interests trampling over the rule of law, and of an ongoing struggle against a state that regards its poorest citizens as a bothersome nuisance impeding plans for progress.
The island of Qursaya is a rarity in the crowded cacophony of Cairo: an undeveloped stretch of lush agricultural land near the west bank of the Nile in Giza. With no bridge tying it to the mainland, Qursaya is only accessible by boat or a manually operated chain ferry. The island is home to a community of roughly 4,000 farmers and 1,000 fishermen who have managed to stake out a rural life in one of the world’s most congested cities.
Generations of families have grown up on the island. They built houses, cultivated the land and fished the surrounding waters. They set up basic infrastructure, bringing in electricity and water, paid for alongside taxes for real estate and farmland. While the government never granted the residents ownership rights, to them, Qursaya is home.
Yet the community was sitting atop prime real estate in the heart of Cairo. In 2007, the government issued an eviction order and ordered that farmers’ land contracts not be renewed, claiming the island was state property, in what was seen as a prelude to selling it to wealthy developers.
Political Turmoil, Torture & Fatal Clashes in Run-Up to Referendum
My video report on events leading up to the referendum - as well as voting day itself - ran today on Democracy Now! Unfortunately the last 30 seconds were cut off (the perils of live television) so it ends a little abruptly:
Report: Unrest, Polarization Before Egypt’s Referendum
I have a long report on Democracy Now! today about the latest developments in Egypt that I produced with videographer Hany Massoud.
It includes interviews with: Gehad El-Haddad, senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood; Khaled Fahmy, the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo; Ahmed Shokr and Egyptian writer and activist; Lobna Darwish, a longtime Egyptian protester and Khaled Dawoud, the spokesperson for the National Salvation Front.
Street Fights Rock Cairo as Supporters and Foes of Morsi Clash over Constitution
My latest for The Nation, unfortunately it was published just a few hours before President Morsi delivered a speech where he offered some concessions which are being criticized by the opposition as being merely cosmetic and a case of too little, too late.
Thousands of supporters and opponents of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi clashed in the streets around the presidential palace Wednesday, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and firing birdshot at each other in the largest outbreak of violence between rival political groups since the revolution began. Seven people were killed and more than 670 injured, according to the Health Ministry, as Cairo’s affluent Heliopolis district was transformed into a scene of chaos and bloodshed.
The clashes spread outside of Cairo, erupting in Alexandria and Mahalla. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were set ablaze in Suez and Ismailia.
The street battles marked a major escalation in the crisis that erupted on November 22, when President Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a constitutional declaration that granted him near absolute powers and placed him beyond the review of any court until the ratification of a new constitution.
The decree united Morsi’s fractured non-Islamist opposition and sparked some of the largest street demonstrations in Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square and launched a mass sit-in to oppose Morsi’s seizure of power. Meanwhile, thousands of judges—including the leaders of Egypt’s highest appeals courts—launched a strike in protest.
Morsi and the Brotherhood responded by doubling down on a strategy to force the transition process and hastily called for a final vote by the Constituent Assembly on the draft constitution. Nearly all of the 100-member body’s non-Islamist members, including representatives of the Coptic Christian Church, had already withdrawn from the assembly.
In a marathon, seventeen-hour session broadcast on state television, assembly members—nearly all of them Islamist—passed each of the 234 articles of the constitution in near unanimity, finally ending at 7 am the next day. Critics blasted the process as reminiscent of the Mubarak era, when the regime would ram legislation through the parliament. The text itself has come under criticism for restricting certain freedoms and containing vague language that lawmakers could use to curtail rights.
My latest in The Nation on Morsi’s constitutional decree and the Muslim Brotherhood’s forcing through a Constituent Assembly vote on the constitution:
Egypt’s turbulent transition is in the midst of one its most chaotic and divisive periods since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The leaders of the assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution are hurriedly forcing through a final document amid an uproar by the body’s non-Islamist members. A quarter of the assembly has withdrawn in protest and a growing national strike by judges threatens to bring the country’s judicial system to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets, culminating in one of the largest demonstrations in post-Mubarak Egypt. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood in several governorates have been ransacked and firebombed and protesters have faced off against police amid clouds of tear gas in downtown Cairo.
President Mohammed Morsi ignited the political firestorm on November 22, when he issued a controversial constitutional decree granting himself sweeping and unchecked powers. The declaration stipulated that, until a constitution is approved and an elected parliament in place, all presidential decisions since taking office in July are “final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity.”
The decree puts Morsi—who already had executive and legislative authority—beyond the reach of the judicial branch, adding, ominously, that “The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” The decree also denies judges the power to dissolve either the Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing the country’s constitution, or the Shura Council—Parliament’s largely toothless upper house. Both bodies are dominated by Islamists, with the Muslim Brotherhood holding the most power.
In two moves viewed more favorably, Morsi also replaced the public prosecutor—a longtime revolutionary demand—and established a new court to try those responsible for violence against protesters. (To date, almost no one has been brought to justice for the killing of over 1,000 protesters during the revolution.) But these actions are like a “drop of honey in poison,” as Egyptians say, given the larger power play by the president.
In a joint statement, twenty-two Egyptian human rights organizations condemned the decree, saying Morsi, “who now possesses authorities beyond those enjoyed by any president or monarch in Egypt’s modern history, has dealt a lethal blow to the Egyptian judiciary, thereby declaring the beginning of a new dictatorship.”
As Gazans Recover From Israeli Attacks, Trauma Mixes With Tentative Hope
My piece for The Nation telling the effect of Israel’s assault on Gaza through the stories of ordinary Palestinians:
The traces of the Israeli drone strike that killed 28-year-old Samaher Qdeih are all around her family home. A large indentation in a sandy courtyard marks the point of impact. Shrapnel is etched in the trunk of a lemon tree and the side of the house it stands next to. Water drips slowly out of a cracked pipe around shards of glass and plastic that litter the floor. A nearby concrete wall is stained with blood.
Samaher died on November 17, day four of Israel’s assault on Gaza, when she rushed home with her brother, Nidal, at 9 pm, after hearing the bombs begin to fall in their neighborhood in the southern town of Khan Yunis. The drone strike hit as the two were crossing the family courtyard to seek shelter indoors. Samaher was killed instantly, her family says. The blood-soaked blanket they covered her with is still piled in a corner. Twenty-seven-year-old Nidal’s leg and arm were badly wounded and he was eventually evacuated across the Rafah border crossing to Egypt for medical help, escorted by his father.
Forty days earlier, Samaher had given birth to her first daughter, Mayar. When the motherless baby is brought out wrapped in a blanket, her great uncle—who had been standing quietly to the side, resting both hands on his cane—begins to sob heavily, kissing Mayar on the forehead before being gently pulled away and consoled by family members.
“We have seen death with our eyes,” says Samaher’s sister.
Samaher is one of more than 160 Palestinians killed during Israel’s eight-day assault on Gaza. Of those who died, more than 100 were civilians, including thirty-four children, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Some 1,000 were wounded, all but thirty of them civilians. Meanwhile, countless others—who do not figure into most casualty figures—are suffering from deep emotional trauma.