‘Arab Uprisings’

There’s plenty of attention here on the economies of developed countries but events in the Middle East and North Africa are not far from the minds of those here in Davos.

They were the subject of a keynote address by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

BAN: “I’d like to use this platform today to use a call to action on two immediate crises: the death-spiral in Syria and the widening turbulence in Mali and the Sahel.”

Mr. Ban said the international community needed to come together to end the ongoing violence in the two countries and ensure assistance is available to those in need.

But he also highlighted the wider uncertainty regarding the so-called “Arab Spring.” Continue reading “‘Arab Uprisings’”

Part 5: ‘People have changed, the government hasn’t’

Power

Before leaving Cairo, WRS’s Tony Ganzer gathers the views of people across various sectors in Egypt, including those with organizations headquartered in Switzerland, to find out whether they think the country is on the right course:

Despite the constant din of Cairo traffic and residents, there are still quieter spots in certain parts of the city.  Occasionally one finds a place along the Nile. It’s also relatively calm in the southern Cairo neighborhood of Maadi.  It’s where the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross has its offices.

SPREYERMANN:  “The transition is not yet over. It has changed to a large extent from the demonstrations, frequent demonstrations, and related to that clashes with the police.  It has changed from that to the more political process.”

Klaus Spreyermann is the head of delegation for the ICRC in Egypt.

SPREYERMANN: “Many services and  decision makings are slowed down, if not blocked, due to the fact that nobody knows today, and that is really a new perspective, nobody really knows exactly where the country is going on a political level.  We have seen 70 percent of Islamist parties actually being represented in the new parliament.  How this is going to affect the country, where it is going, these are things we can’t clearly see.”

The ICRC has been in Egypt since at least 1935, Spreyermann says, giving it much time to watch Egypt’s changes over the years, but it’s unclear what the country will soon look like.

Spreyermann is convinced the next great challenge here will be economic.

SPREYERMANN:  “With the tourism down, not surprisingly with all this bad or disturbing news that people get from Cairo too often, this is very practically influencing the possibility for income for the population.  You add to that, for example, the return of hundreds of thousands of people who used to work in Libya, due to the conflict.  These remittances are not coming back.”

These economic challenges, and those particularly affecting refugees in the region, are some of the biggest concerns of the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR.  Karmen Sakhr is the Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR Cairo office.

KARMEN SAKHR: “I have to say that the situation is not very ideal, because socially, economically it is challenging for the persons of concern, so we deal with a lot of frustration.  I think that colleagues have been doing a great job in managing, at the same time, the changes, the political changes in the country, and with our persons of concern here.  It has been a very, very exhausting year.”

Sakhr says things in Egypt aren’t as bad as some might think they are, though there are problems.  Some observers, like the Swiss government, are offering aid in the time of uncertainty.  Benjamin Frey is the deputy head of the Swiss Programme Office, in the Swiss Embassy in Cairo.

BENJAMIN FREY: “Well I think it’s fundamental to understand that this country does not necessarily have a democratic past.  It means that there is, of course, a potential here. There is a civil society that had very much trouble functioning under the Mubarak regime.”

That means the Swiss are aiding NGOs, the media, but also the Egyptian government to understand democratic systems.

But some problems could be institutional. Khaled Fahmy is the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY:  “It’s business as usual, but people are not as usual.  The people have changed.  The government hasn’t changed.  It is up to you, and to your listeners, to make up their minds on whether or not the revolution has succeeded.  I think that if people change, that is the most difficult thing.  We see a very determined effort on the part of the regime to stay in power, this is a very, very well-entrenched regime.  So it’s not easy, it’s not going to be dislodged in a day or two, or indeed, not even in a year or two.”

As Egypt continues to feel its way toward a new type of governance, Fahmy thinks the most confusing, and dangerous actor is the ruling military council.  It is inherently undemocratic, like any military, he says.  He disagrees with but doesn’t worry about the rise of political Islam in Egypt.

But the lack of control and oversight over the ruling military, Fahmy says, is a grave danger to democracy.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry

Part 4: A walk through Cairo’s revolutionary streets

Khan el Khalili

Zurich social worker Hamed Selim has been in Switzerland more than 20 years. He is a Swiss-Egyptian, but says he still feels more Egyptian than Swiss, despite having a Swiss wife and children who have grown up here. WRS’s Tony Ganzer returned to Cairo with Selim, who takes us on a tour of his hometown as he surveys for himself how the revolution has changed it:

The senses can easily be overloaded in Cairo’s Islamic quarter, and the bazaars of Khan El Khalili. Shopkeepers eagerly bark for customers for bright and colorful tapestries, fragrant spices and incense.

Before the revolution Hamed Selim says there were always illegal activities in parts of the market extending seemingly for miles.  But now things have changed.

HAMED SELIM: “Yeah okay, I didn’t see electro-shock before, you know, in the street.”

TONY GANZER: “Stun guns and things like that?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I didn’t see this, or these knives. Farther, before the revolution, if you walk with a knife in your pocket, and a police officer stop you, you are in a big problem until jail, you know? But now you see, they sell everything.  You couldn’t see it before.”

GANZER: “Do you think that’s good? Was that what the revolution was for?”

SELIM: “No, not at all.  The revolution is not for such things.  You know like, they would like to have, you know like, students should have a decent job.  Or to see that we have hospitals, or we have good schools, or such things.”

The many parts of Cairo were Selim’s playground and education.  He’s proudly from downtown, but could find value in many of the city’s corners. Even at the Swiss embassy, long before he thought of becoming Swiss.

SELIM: “The embassy: it’s just side to side to my school, you know.  And every day you pass by, you know, since I am 6 years old. You know like, ‘Hi,’ and try to play with the dog.  And you try to steal the Birnen?”

GANZER: “Pears?”

SELIM: “Yeah, yeah from the trees in the garden from the other side, you know.  It’s really nice.  I’d never think that I could go to Switz…it didn’t come. It didn’t come in my head.”

Selim met his wife while she was on vacation in Cairo, which turned into his moving to Switzerland, working for a time for Caritas, for politicians.  But these Egyptian streets remain a place of comfort.

SELIM: “It’s called the old Islamic part, you know.  Here you find a lot of mosques from the Mamaluk time, you know.  And, yeah, they restored the whole area, it’s really nice. Here you see behind you, these people who, yeah, make these souvenirs. It’s really nice, you know. It’s really peaceful, yes.”

GANZER: “How do you think things have changed for this part of Cairo since the revolution?”

SELIM: “I think the people here [are] suffering, because people say because of revolution we don’t have lots of tourists now.  Yeah, they would like to have always this easy-coming money, you know.  And I think the revolution did lots of things good, even for them. Because I expect it will be always [better], not as bad as in Mubarak time.”

The area around Cairo makes up a mega-city, with a population of about 20 million people.  40 percent of those people live at or below the international poverty line.

Still, politics dominate conversations here in cafes, and in just about every taxi.

SELIM: “A lot of opinion floating around?  No, only two. ‘Revolution good’ or ‘bad,” and we speak about both. Who says revolution is bad saying ‘look around you, there is no police here, and there is this and that.’ The people saying the revolution is good, you know like, they say, ‘OK, we are patient. We are optimists.’”

Far from the markets, and far from inner-city politics, Hamed Selim still finds quiet at the feet of the pyramids.  He lives not far from the Alps in Switzerland, but comes here for peace.

SELIM: “As I was a student, and as I was young, I came here around four times a week riding horses, sleeping here, eating in the desert making a grill, such things. That’s a part of my life I really do love, you know.  Lots of memories, you know.  Wake up the stable guys at 5 o’clock in the morning and tell them, you know, like, ‘Hey, I would like to have a horse now.’ You know, and just riding, riding horses you know. Feeling, being free in the desert and the pyramids.”

It is but a slight respite from the many unknowns in a still evolving revolutionary Cairo.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry

Part 2: Back home again in revolutionary Cairo

Imagine you’ve been living in Switzerland for more than 20 years, when news breaks that a revolution is underway in your home country—and only steps away from where your family is still living. That’s what happened to Zurich social worker Hamed Selim. A little over a year later, WRS’s Tony Ganzer returns with him to Cairo, to Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution, and discovers that the people have taken the square back for themselves:

January 2011 brought conflicted emotions for Hamed Selim, a Zurich social worker in Switzerland more than 20 years. Egypt’s revolution had landed in front of his childhood home.

SELIM: “It started. I live downtown, you know, just a couple minutes from Tahrir Platz [Square].  I really, really was worried. Second thing was happy.  But my family there, and really a little bit afraid.  All of these things, you know, and always thinking what can I do to be a part of it.  As an Egyptian, yeah.”

Selim took leave from work immediately, to take to the streets where he still feels at home, wanting to show how serious he felt the revolution is, despite some protestors seeing only a chance to perform.

SELIM: “The 28th of January I saw it on TV.  And it was like, for me, like, from TV, it’s a joke.  You are going with camels and horses, you know, like is it a joke? Or what’s happening now?  I didn’t see it as dangerous, but I wasn’t also there between them.”

Tahrir was filled at that time with millions of Egyptians, urging change and reform in what they saw as an oppressive system under Hosni Mubarak.  Despite mostly peaceful protest clashes erupted, notably and recently on Mohamed Mahmoud Street just off Tahrir. Tear gas thick as fog filled the area, while protesters threw rocks.  Activist footage documented security forces using buckshot and pellets to disperse the crowds.

Even now there are sporadic protests, but those remain mostly peaceful.

SELIM: “They are…against the military regime.  And a couple of women sitting in the car seems like mothers from children who died in the demonstrations, you know, like in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and Tahrir Square. They are not satisfied with what’s happening now.”

KHALED FAHMY:  “I studied the history of that place, of Tahrir itself as a site, because I study urban planning.  Tahrir has been transformed under Mubarak into a very weird place.”

Khaled Fahmy is the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo.

FAHMY: “They cut off trees that gave shade; they put very slippery marble tiles that made it very difficult to walk in the square on the sidewalk; and then they erected these very, very thick and high fences that prevent people from crossing streets, supposedly for safety, but in fact, and this is in all big squares in Cairo, there was a deliberate attempt, and it doesn’t take a genius to find this out, to prevent people from congregating.”

Tahrir Square looks now more a carnival than hub of revolution.  Large tents and groups of people camp constantly in the square, while traffic pushes and crawls through the round-about, cars moving in every direction.  Souvenir and food vendors now stand where millions protested a year ago.

FAHMY:  “People are now feeling that the country belongs to them, and that’s not to be taken for granted. We did not feel that it’s our country.  For people to turn Tahrir Square into a circus, that is very political. That’s a very interesting transformation of people taking the very core of the city, the very heart of it, and turning it into their space. They do whatever they want to do in it.  The amount of conversations, and deliberations, and very, very serious political debates that took place in Tahrir over the last 13 months now, is something Egypt has not witnessed in 60 years.”

SELIM says:  “They are not satisfied. They are not satisfied.  And they are now walking through to Tahrir Square it’s around 100 meters.”

Small groups voice their disapproval in the streets of Cairo, using their public space as they see fit.  Hamed Selim is entranced by the revolution and what it has done to his country, and he is optimistic.  Just as optimistic as his family is, living 12 to a small home on the rooftops of downtown Cairo just steps from Tahrir.

This story was part of a 2013 Edward Murrow award winning entry

Part 1: ‘We don’t know who is manipulating whom’

Cairo

More than a year after Egypt’s revolution, the country is still finding its footing. Millions of Egyptians flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir square in January 2011, and subsequently all over the country, pressuring President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Since then, Egypt has been ruled by a controversial military council, and streets have sometimes been filled with violent clashes between security forces and protesters unhappy with the regime. Before heading to Cairo for a look at the situation on the ground, WRS’s Tony Ganzer stopped by a restaurant in Zurich where Swiss-Egyptians gather each week and found a group unanimously unsettled by politics and unrest in what used to be home:

On any given Friday night in Zurich Arabic is a common language heard at this Asian restaurant. It’s where a dozen or so Swiss-Egyptians come to meet, talk about family, business, and, of course, Egyptian politics.

MAN 1: “We talk about each other personal things, about our kids. And we’re kidding, making jokes, but if you’re looking into the actual situation in Egypt, of course we’re talking about that. That’s business number one.”

None of these men wanted to give their names, but they readily offered their opinions. Most of them are Muslim, though at least two are Coptic Christians. Many are academics, doctors, engineers, businessmen. A common thought among all the guests on this night is how opaque Egypt’s political situation really is.

MAN 2: “The things of revolution are unclear. We don’t know who is manipulating who. We have a wave which tells there is an influence from outside like countries which finance movements in a religion direction, and others who want to tell that the army want to take the power.”

The views expressed at this table over tea and bowls of noodles remain political and secular, with not much concern for religious influence in revolutionary Egypt. The Coptics here, and Muslims, are first and foremost eyeing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and how it wields its current control over Egyptian government.

MAN 3: “We are all worried about the whole situation in Egypt. We are all worried and we want the best for Egypt. We love our country very much. If there is a situation that I could go, I would go. I would go and share with them the revolution and do something.”

Across Zurich at a Coptic church, Maher recalls his time in Cairo’s streets in the heat of the revolution.

MAHER: “I had to stay on the street and protect my house because the police had fled the country, more or less, or they were going home to protect their own homes. At the same time all the criminals had escaped from the prisons. And at that time we were thinking okay, this is the end of it, it’s going to be a civil war.”

Maher asked that only his first name be used as his wife and children remain in Egypt afraid to leave other family members. He’s worried that the military is continuing the heavy-handed rule implemented by Hosni Mubarak, all the while so-called Islamist political parties are gaining clout.

MAHER: “What is more worrying is that the moderate Muslims are already fleeing the country, it’s even more than the Christians, because they know that if it turns into an Islamic state, they will not have the same rights. I expect every party to try to kind of gain the power by itself. And the only solution to this anarchy would be a second revolution so to say.”

Despite the time and distance separating those in Switzerland from the revolution in Egypt, the emotions are strong and the concern is real. It’s enough to drive some men to return to Tahrir regularly to check in on the revolution, and to help the family living it day-to-day.