Archive for February 2011
Since the March 8-imposed collapse of the Lebanese government last month and the ousting of Saad Hariri from his prime minister post, momentum has shifted in Lebanese politics to say the least. As the March 14 coalition finds itself in the opposition, its strategy has not yet been made clear. Supporters of the alliance have also remained quiet, shying away even from Martyrs’ Square on the anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s death – an anniversary that acted as a popular show of force for the party in previous years. The question is does this show waning support for Hariri and March 14 or is this simply a change in tactics?
In today’s International Herald Tribune I look a little deeper into this topic. Link is below the few introductory paragraphs I have included here.
The Balance Shifts in Lebanese Politics
BEIRUT — On the sixth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut was largely empty, in striking contrast with past anniversaries.
In the early afternoon drizzle on Monday, the crowd reached only into the hundreds as the son of the slain leader — the outgoing Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri — paid his respects at his father’s tomb beside the blue-domed Mohammad al-Amin Mosque on the edge of the square.
On previous anniversaries, Martyrs’ Square has had tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of supporters of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the March 14 Alliance that he led, itself named after the date of mass anti-Syrian protests in the square a month after his father’s death on Feb. 14, 2005.
Last night, Omar Suleiman appeared on television to announce that Hosni Mubarak would step down and that power would be handed to the Egyptian military. Today is a new day for Egypt. Though my time in Cairo was brief this time around, covering the revolution was one of the most intense and inspiring things I have ever done and I am glad that I got to see some history in the making. Best of luck to the Egyptian nation and the Egyptian people.
Since last Wednesday, the words “pro-Mubarak” have largely come to refer to the legions of thugs who stormed the peaceful protesters at Tahrir Square, colluded with the police and mukhabarat and violently targeted and attacked foreigners, journalists and anti-government Egyptians throughout Cairo. Such hostility has largely made it difficult to get a picture of those who stand behind the Mubarak movement.
A week ago on February 2, Sam Tarling and I went to a pro-Mubarak rally in the upscale neighborhood of Mohandiseen on the western side of the Nile before things ratcheted up. This was the first day that Mubarak’s supporters really came out in force and we were eager to see the other side of the story.
Sam has a post about it here so I will be brief.
As we headed to the center of Mohandiseen from Dokki, the crowds amassing were (relatively) friendly to journalists and eager to shout their slogans for us and get in front of the cameras. In the square in Mohandiseen where they were marching to, the mood was a bit different. Many people shouted either expletives at us or simply to “go home”. At a few points I was circled up by some rougher youths who pushed me and tried to instigate trouble, but there were usually somebody who understood that journalists are not Mossad agents or foreign instigators as state media had been saying who would intervene. Lots of mukhabarat were on the scene as well.
The people I ended up speaking to mostly ended up being the well-off. Logistically, it was safest after I had a few interviews that quickly spiraled towards chaos after I asked more pointed questions. The main thing that most of these people stressed was stability – that Egypt’s future without Mubarak could be chaos and that the economy could suffer. Not all necessarily liked Mr. Mubarak as much as their fellow protesters (like the ones who shouted that he was “like a father” and professed their sadness that he was to be stepping down) but judging by their Lacoste sweatshirts and Blackberries, they certainly did well under his rule. In a country where business is muddied with politics through corruption so much, an end to the Mubarak era could mean that a lot on the upper fringes of society lose big time.
The question of Mubarak’s support base is a big one and I really want to look in to the mobilization of the “thugs” along with take a look at why some “average” Egyptians might support him, but am lacking the time now. I hope I will post a bit more on Egypt up here soon.
In the meantime, check out the video below by Al Jazeera English (which, I must say has provided some really fantastic coverage of Egypt) which dives a little deeper into the fears of Cairo’s elite.
Thursday was a glimpse of hell.
As the reports filtered in of foreigners coming under attack and arrest across the city as the regime and Mubarak supporters vehemently tried to silence the media, my colleague Sam Tarling and I were heading across town, from Dokki to the edge of Midan Tahrir. We were previously staying at one of my friend’s places in Dokki but for unclear reasons his landlord gave us the boot around noon time, screaming at us to get out of the apartment. My friend was not at home, there was little to be done. On the street outside, our luggage drew a bit of attention, not in the good way. We quickly got a cab, as we got in some men in the street yelled at the cab driver for assisting foreigners.
We took the cab across Dokki to a hotel where we had stayed our first night in town on Tuesday. As we arrived, it was quickly apparent that the police had moved back into the neighborhood. The vigilantes on the street who I had come to know were nowhere to be seen.
With reports of arrests of journalists and attacks against foreigners, this did not seem to be an ideal situation.
We checked in and quickly checked out, opting to join a friend who had recently been able to get to a hotel on the edge of Tahrir Square without hassle thanks to a driver who could navigate through the new convolutions of the city. Tahrir, with its journalist and foreigner friendly anti-government protesters seemed relatively safe (so long as you could enter the square), despite the clashes on its edges. At the time, it didn’t look like reporting from the street in Dokki or other areas would be a possibility given the circumstances.
When the car came, we whizzed through checkpoints on the Giza side of the Nile, still manned by the community watch groups. On the other side of the Nile going around the backside of downtown, it was a different story.
I can’t remember how many checkpoints we had to go through. It was a lot. Spotting us as foreigners, the car would be pulled over, our passports snatched up and our bags searched.
Two checkpoints were particularly sketchy. The first was next to the newly reopened (and now reclosed) Museum of Islamic Art. A police officer spotted us a ways down the road from the museum and hopped in the car, ordering the driver to the checkpoint. Pro-Mubarak thugs armed with machetes and blunt weapons were on its outer ring. They circled the car, jeering and yelling at us as we pulled in. We were ordered out by the policeman who ushered us by some army tanks and armored personnel carriers to where the mukhabarat and police were set up, many out of uniform holding AK-47s. One of the mukhabarat in charge gave me a seemingly friendly pat on the back before shoving me forward hard. They interrogated us standing there. They asked if we were press. We said no, not wanting to get arrested and insisted that I wrote about culture in Beirut and had come to Cairo to visit friends. They searched our bags, dumping them on the ground. They were perplexed by my contact lenses (as were many other checkpoints). At one point, they made us stand by a group of detainees who stood with their hands bound behind their backs staring at the road divider. At this point we thought we would be arrested. The men were eventually bussed off, who knows what happened to them. The mood was very tense, but eventually they let us go – as with other checkpoints we told them that we were going to pick up a friend near Tahrir and then proceed directly to the airport.
From what I could tell, the mukhabarat and police were working directly with the pro-Mubarak thugs at this checkpoint and a number of others.
Not long after we were released from this checkpoint, we ran into a mob-run checkpoint. Our passports were grabbed through the window as the car was encircled entirely. My backpack disappeared from the trunk, spirited around the corner. The crowd became more and more agitated, yelling that we were spies and encouraging more people to come and see the foreigners. They wanted us out of the car. Our prospects were not looking good – there was no escape route through the mass of men and their machetes, knives and clubs. Unlike at other checkpoints, our driver’s charm was doing nothing to calm the situation and there was seemingly no authority figure to bring the crowds under control. I was fairly certain we were going to be ripped from the car and beaten if not worse as the men on my side started screaming to open my door. On Sam’s side of the car, a man spat on the window. There were no prospects of escape – at least 20-30 armed thugs held the perimeter of the car and the street was narrow and traffic locked. More thugs kept arriving, seething with anger. Frankly, it looked like it might be the end.
A tank sat around the corner with soldiers on top and around it, who seemed unconcerned with the situation initially. Finally one soldier came over with his AK and pushed through the crowd, getting them away from the door and screaming at them. He poked his head in the front door and apologized for the situation. He kept the mob away from my window and door with his body. Finally he hopped in the front seat with his rifle and had another Kevlar-wearing soldier with a chambered pistol in hand hop into the back seat with me and Sam. They drove with us through a few similar checkpoints, making sure we were okay.
I think I may owe my life to these soldiers.
We got out with our lives and our health. I only lost $600 stashed in my backpack that the thugs apparently found and took.
We never made it to Tahrir. We pulled over at a backpacker hotel off of Talaat Harb Street just blocks from where we had run into trouble. This was as far as we’d go. We were only blocks away from where we had escaped. The idea of moving in Cairo seemed impossible, for we would most likely have to traverse these same blocks. I had no clue who to trust anymore.
We were not in a position to continue reporting and unable to reach a secure location. The airport seemed to be the only safe option in the morning. Luckily, the Opera Square tunnel connecting to the airport highway was in sight and we were able to make it through unmolested. The decision to go to the airport remained daunting too, given that just the day before a television news crew had run into a life-threatening situation where an angry mob threatened to behead them.
I am not a rookie to life-threatening situations, but this was by far the scariest thing I have ever seen. I now realize that there is a clear difference between having a chambered pistol being put to your head and being at the hands of a mob with machetes.
In the end, we were lucky. Many have not been so lucky. The Egyptians have been the unluckiest of them all. Many are dead, many more are injured. Few receive the preferential or sympathetic treatment that the army officer bestowed on us for being foreigners.
There is much more to say about Egypt and I will continue to write as much as I can. In the meantime, please check out the following two stories about similarly scary incidents, one by two New York Times journalists arrested and the second by an Egyptian Bloomberg employee caught up in some trouble:
Earlier today (well technically yesterday now I guess) I departed Cairo and have arrived safely in Beirut.
In short, the Mubarak regime’s campaign against journalists coupled with the dramatic xenophobia and paranoia that it instilled in segments of the population made it impossible for me to properly do my job. Partially out of bad luck, I found myself last night hunkered down in an area that I could not feel safe in (narrowly escaped thugs a few blocks away) with seemingly no way to a secure location (for fear of traversing the same streets). I no longer could tell who was who on the street, making safety hard to separate from danger.
Apart from the safety aspect, there was little reporting that I could do save for report when gunfire nearby intensified. As a freelancer, much of my work revolves around stories. I rarely get the opportunity to tackle the main story. The stories that I had come to Egypt to work on did not involve the relative safety of Tahrir Square and the foreigner-friendly anti-government protesters. Unable to move freely in the city anymore, I was unable to work.
I will update soon with some details of the hairier situations I found myself in on February 3 along with some notes about the significant things I saw in Cairo. For the moment though, I am wiped. With only a few hours of sleep my entire time in Cairo, now I need to rest.
Sincere thanks to everybody who helped me out, reassured me, voiced concern and supported my work while I was in Egypt. I continue to be seriously concerned about the safety of my many friends and fellow journalists still in country and the Egyptian people, who have suffered the most.
I arrived in Egypt on Tuesday morning with photographer Sam Tarling to cover the ongoing crisis. So far things are crazy here and Cairo is a very different than the city it was a short while ago.
One of the most profound visible changes are the neighborhood vigilantes who in the absence of police forces, have taken to protecting the streets with whatever weapons they can muster. They check IDs of those entering their neighborhoods and search cars for weapons. While initially shocking to see young men hanging around street corners casually holding everything from machetes to hunting rifles, the vigilantes have been able to keep looters and other troublemakers out of many Cairo neighborhoods.
Last night Sam and I spent the evening hanging out with some of them. The story for International Herald Tribune below or available in Thursday’s print edition.
Internet – which had been blocked by the government for much of the crisis – is back online for now. I’ll try to provide updates as much as possible. For more timely updates, please follow me on twitter.