Friday, June 29, 2012

Kafka Tourism

There is much in Cairo that cannot be seen in a few days or a week, not because you run out of time, but because the people who manage time seemingly try to trick you. Museums open and close with the whims of whomever is in charge. At one, you can’t take pictures. At another, it costs double the ticket to take pictures. A friend arrived at the Museum of Islamic Art a half hour before closing time. The workers turned her away because they wanted to go home early. At the 6th of October War Panorama, I went back three times before I got in. 

If you’re diligent, you’ll unearth wonders. I went to two museums during my last week in Cairo, both of which we’re closed more than once when I tried to go in the past. They are dust-saturated mausoleums for old objects and old ways of seeing the world. At the Postal Museum, housed in the modern-day central post office, you pay roughly thirty cents to see displays of Ancient Egyptian “postal technology” (hollowed out coconuts and pigeon straps), stamps from around the world and hundreds of old signing seals for wax. There is a mosaic made of 15,000 stamps. There are old uniforms of Ottoman postal workers and their leather bags and hundreds of letters and models of trains, boats, and airplanes.

The Ethnological Museum is even more obscure. You can’t take pictures because it’s housed in the Wes Anderson-esque Egypt Geographic Society, on the same property as the national Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. The museum was founded in 1895 by Khedive Ismail, whose bust is proudly displayed next to his successors, to display objects collected by the Egyptian army as they roamed below the Sahara The old colonial museums of this sort in Europe were likely closed down out of new definitions of distastefulness. In Cairo, they expanded to include an even bigger crowd of objects reflecting, “the habits and customs of the Egyptian countryside.” It’s like the Agriculture Museum, but more colonial: elephant feet, turtle-shell shields, all manner of spears, crusty plate photographs of central-African ‘natives.’

The true gem of this house of dust is a machine designed by French engineers that mimics a trip through the Suez Canal. The old man leading us through the museum had us stand in front of a giant piece of glass. Behind it we saw a diorama depicting a cruise ship circa 1920, with men and women in starched Victorian outfits. He disappeared behind a dwarf-sized door and flipped a switch. The great machine started up into a whir, and the background , which had depicted the opening of the canal, began to move, slowly, evenly, through a painting that must have been 40 feet long and depicted the entirety of the Canal’s East and West banks, from Port Said down through Qantara to Ismailia to Port Tawfiq. “The machine has been here for eighty years,” the guide said, “and it’s never once broken.”

Sunday, June 24, 2012


In about a week, Mohamed Morsi will be sworn in as the fifth president of Egypt. The streets of downtown Cairo are filled with dancing, smiling, ululating, shouting, and jumping people. Even in quieter neighborhoods, micro-buses and taxis honk in rhythm while their passengers wave Egyptian flags out of the windows. Others are singing, shooting guns and launching fireworks. Some news channels have already unearthed old archival footage of Morsi as a weirdly cherubic young man. On others, text messages are flooding the bottom of the screen. In translation: ‘a hundred congratulations to Morsi,’ ‘a thousand congratulations to Morsi,’ ‘congraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatulations to Morsi,’ ‘a trilllllllllllllion congratulations to Morsi.’

But really I’m struck by the noise, the way cheering wafts over the buildings for at least a mile and coats the air with energy. For the 24 hours preceding the announcement of the results, there had been a hushed sense of foreboding and doom. At caf├ęs, I would hear ‘3pm’ and ‘6pm,’ the two rumored times for the release of the results, poking out of quiet conversations. Most news in Egypt this year had been sudden. It was rare to have a long, nervous build-up, and nobody knew what to expect if Shafik were declared the winner. Would there be massive protests? Would Shafik crack down with security forces? Luckily, those questions won’t be answered.

Something else, less tangible, is going on too. What has bothered me about English-language journalism in Egypt, and the Middle East generally, is not the stereotypes or the simplification. In some ways, those are unavoidable. My problem is more with the endless, fruitless, and pretentious speculation about the designs of shadowy groups like the Brotherhood and the military council. There is a cottage industry of political science professors, think tank fellows, and correspondents who spend hours in person and online debating all of the possibilities.

They relish in the prospect, but rarely the reality, of having insider information about who is plotting what, and in the absence of that information they speculate. I had trouble articulating why I didn’t like it, until my partner Emily compared the analysis cycle to sports commentary, to the endless speculation that accompanies drafts, playoffs, and rivalries. The SCAF, the Brotherhood, and other political players are treated as competing teams in a game, not as potential representatives for the needs of millions of people. Egypt ends up sounding to us undemocratic because these analysts treat everyone as chess players who only want to consolidate their own power and win the game. They aren’t given a chance to be for anyone other than themselves.

I’ve met more than a few Egyptians who find this style of dinner party conversation infuriating. “Every time an American says ‘This is interesting,’ an Egyptian friend told me, “I want to tell him to shut up! That doesn’t mean anything."

Tonight, for the first time, that endless buzz has finally paused. Tomorrow Egypt will descend back into questions about who will be in control in a week’s time, what kind of deal the Brotherhood struck with the SCAF, and who is winning the game for the moment. It’s unclear whether Morsi will be able to do very much. The SCAF remains in control. The New York Times just called it a ‘Symbolic Win.’ That story will unfold tomorrow. Today, just for once, there’s celebration.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

Observations #10

61. Near Al Azhar mosque,  a man sells live chickens and turkeys, which you buy and then take to a butcher (unless you want to do it yourself). One day, he had two ducks. As we walked by, he pointed to one and said, “This is Mubarak,” and then the other: “This is Bashar al-Assad!”

62. An art gallery sits downtown among mechanics’ shops. There is a stray dog who has been adopted by the mechanics and gallery employees, who feed it and let it sleep under the cars. She has a light brown color, but has grown dark from the car exhaust, and when you pet her, your hand turns black.

63. A taxi to the airport costs anywhere between six dollars and twenty dollars. A micro-bus costs forty cents.

64. Most Egyptians have never been to the Pyramids. Like New Yorkers with the Statue of Liberty, Parisians with the Eiffel Tower, or Israelis with the Wailing Wall, they’ve just “never gotten around to it.”

65. Egyptians of an older generation all remember Dallas. For a decade, they joined Americans in following the ups and downs of the Ewing family on T.V. An senior newspaper editor heard I came from Texas, and said, “Texas! Who shot J.R.?”

66. When my friend was sick, we paid two dollars to get to the hospital and thirteen dollars to see a doctor. We waited thirty minutes and then went to his office, rather than waiting in another room as one would do in the U.S. After a five-minute examination, we went to the in-house pharmacy and paid sixteen dollars for medicine, and then another two dollars to get home. The final sum was 33 dollars. I looked up ‘average Egyptian salary’ and a believable figure is 130 dollars a month.

67. A waiter sees my mother’s postcard, bearing a photo of former president Anwar El Sadat in military uniform. “Put that away,” he says, turning it face down. “He is like Hitler to me.”

Photo: The Sound and Light Spectacular at Karnak Temple, Luxor, by Emily Smith

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


There are two judges in the room to oversee the counting of votes. One is a young man with a baggy white button-down and a thick black tie. His eyes are puffy, and he wipes his face with both hands in the way people do when they are exhausted. The other judge is a woman in the midst of pregnancy. She issues orders curtly.

A young soldier from the countryside with dark skin and a slight mustache uses a cigarette lighter to burn off four plastic cords that have been holding the ballot box closed. Several mattresses are tucked up on a side- wall. The female judge tells an older man to place a mattress on the ground, and then sends another to bring the box of ballots. He dumps them in a big pile on the mattress. She uses the arm of her black suit jacket to wipe the sweat from her forehead as she delegates. Trash fills up the corners of the room.

The ballots make a small mountain on the mattress, quivering in the breeze from the fan overhead. Everyone, except the pregnant judge, smokes cigarettes. She reaches into the pile and pulls up a small stack of ballots. She flips through them one by one, handing each to a man on her right or left, depending on which candidate the vote is marked for, or to a third man on her far right, if the vote has been marked incorrectly. Many voters have purposefully invalidated their votes by making check marks next to the names of both candidates.

There are splotches of blue ink on the floor from earlier in the day, when people stuck their pinkies in the little bottle and dripped as they plucked them out. A sticker on the wall reads, “Raise your head high. You are Egyptian.” A representative for one of the candidates leans on a bar with one arm and writes notes to himself on a scrap of paper, nearly dropping the pen as he dozes off. He has a bushy, black beard.

The young male judge works quickly, motivating himself by pretending he is in a race with the other judge. He looks over his shoulder, notes how far ahead he is, and smiles to himself. He pinches and slips the ballots to two men along the flower-print table, unless they are invalid, in which case he tosses them hand over hand into a bin. Every time he grabs a new batch, his free hand contorts and his index finger rises in a semi-circular arch.

Most of the work happens in silence, except for the flip and slap of paper. Each time a phone rings, nobody answers and the short, winding melody snakes to its end. A lot of men are milling around and looking on. Outside, a row of young conscripts stands in perfect, rigid formation. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

If I Were President

Several weeks ago, an artist named Amado Alfadni began to post stickers and posters around downtown Cairo. His design was simple, with an abstract border framing a short sentence and several dotted lines. The sentence, split into two versions to address both men and women, reads in calligraphy: “If I were president…”
The dotted lines solicit whoever passes by to fill in their own answer. Alfadni had picked the stark design over others with eagles and Egyptian flags, believing that they would distract people from writing on them. He started placing them around downtown Cairo, where most public art has been found since the 2011 uprising, before traveling around the city and handing them off to people to post in Alexandria, Minya, Mansoura and Port Said.
There has been a massive proliferation of public art since the uprising of early 2011, largely due to the retreat of security forces from Cairo’s streets. Arrests for painting graffiti were common under Mubarak. “With the revolution, the ability for artists to create their work in public opened to a scale not seen before,” American artist Jenna Crowder explains, “because the policing fell away to other, more immediate concerns.”

Read the rest here at The Egypt Monocle

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Secrecy of the Syrian Refugees

By necessity, the work proceeds in secret. A small group of activists and refugees are collecting and distributing goods to Egypt’s growing population of Syrian refugees, who have escaped increasing violence as the Free Syrian Army battles Bashar Al-Assad’s government.
“We can no longer shoulder the amount of people coming in,” they say in a statement that circulates online. “There are approximately 2,000 Syrians in Egypt that have fled the violence and the number is slowly but steadily growing.”

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Agriculture Museum

There are plenty of other places to read about the current political crisis in Egypt. Here's something completely different:

Egypt doesn’t have a natural history museum. Instead, there’s a museum of agriculture, a weird and wild hall of wonders tucked into a residential district that demands to be heralded with the bark of a 19th century circus huckster shouting, “Step right up!” 
Until 2009, the entrance fee was the same as when the museum opened, less than one cent. Now you have to pay fifty cents, and it’s worth every one.

There are no one-eyed men or bearded ladies. Instead, you’ll find hundreds of taxidermy animals, thousands of varieties of corn, barley, wheat, and cotton, from all over the world, canned goods from the 1940’s, over fifty plaster models of different cultures’ bread loaves, hundreds of dioramas depicting agricultural and industrial work, doll house factories, and a life-size statue-filled Syrian market (One jazzed visitor has written, ‘They are actual human size and they seem so real that one feels they would suddenly begin speaking’). There are also reliefs and monuments depicting Egyptian farmers sweating and toiling in glorious socialist steeliness, looking farm more muscular and unwrinkled than any Egyptian farmers I’ve ever seen.

The museum was founded in 1931 and opened in 1938, and it seems to have been in a constant state of decay and restoration ever since. There is a great deal from the 1950’s, when Nasser tended towards socialist glorification of the farmer. The Syrian market was clearly built around 1960, because that’s when Syria was part of the United Arab Republic with Egypt.

In every other hall, dust caked high on every glass case and yet men also seemed to be drilling and pounding and remodeling against the creep of time, like scruffy, paint-splattered Sisyphuses. Random junk was scattered in the corners of each room.

As we entered the hall of animals, a short old man in a galabiya approached us and yelled over the whir of drills. “It’s closed.” I made a face of disappointment. “Go right upstairs and don’t let anyone see you.”

His name is Mohamed and he has been tending the hall of animals for thirty years. He showed us a whale’s skeleton under the eerie view of a hundred taxidermy deer heads. There is a chicken coup, frozen in dead time, and a secret room full of lions, tigers, and bears (Oh my!). 

We saw a camel’s stomach, various diseased organs, human and animal, sitting in formaldehyde jars, and mummified crocodiles. After a while, it felt like I was looking at what might happen if a mad collector had been given six buildings, unlimited funds, and a loose mandate to leave paths for visitors. Everything smelled like mothballs.  The typography on most of the signs looked like that stereotypical Wild West font.

Mohamed used a wooden stick to point at various things, telling us what was real and what wasn’t. He had a devious grin.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Election Train Rolls On

This went out in Sunday's Austin American-Statesman

 — As the polls were closing on the second day of Egypt's presidential election, I stopped by a street performance by a small group of artists. They had designed a giant puppet named Bakaboza, dressed him in a red cap and Harry Potter spectacles, and described him as the "perfect presidential candidate." To the cheers of a hundred screaming children who were unfortunately below voting age Bakaboza promised jukeboxes in the streets and an end to corruption. He promised that men would learn to cook and sew while women learned to fix motorcycles. He promised anything anyone asked of him.
In the last few weeks before the first round of voting May 23-24, it seemed like each of the real candidates had become a receptacle for hopes, fears and grievances. Voters were supporting one because they were afraid of another, or because he promised security or came with strong backers or promised Islamic law in the constitution or simply because their family was voting for him. It didn't seem so different from the U.S. Instead of buzzwords like "hope" and "change" and "maverick," we saw a different set: "Islamic law," "stability" and "security."
Despite the similarities to U.S. campaigns, where the buzzwords often mean little, there is a feeling in Egypt that this election will have far-reaching consequences for both the country and the broader Middle East. On Saturday, Egyptian voters will return to the polls to choose between two runoff candidates: Ahmed Shafiq, one of former President Hosni Mubarak's ministers, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. Since the first round of balloting, pro-revolution protesters have returned to Tahrir Square, bitter over the results after splitting their numbers between several campaign-season front-runners. The polling had been mostly calm and genial, marked by a lack of negative campaigning and widespread confidence in the process. But the shock of the results, combined with Mubarak's controversial verdict, has brought back uncertainty and street protests to Egypt's sputtering political transition.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

In the Press Archives: The Last Newest President

At the used book market, I found a bunch of old newspapers from  the last major political transition in Egypt, the last time a President was ousted (by a bullet, not protests) and another took his place through an election, in October 1981. It felt like the right moment to look through them, as Egyptian journalists deal with how to cover the election and the rise of a new leader. This is, cynicism aside, the first time journalists are confronting a mystery about who will become the next leader of Egypt. In 1981,  there was no mystery at all. 

Whenever you look for a famous event in history in the newspaper, you look for the day after, because of course that's when it became news and not just something that 'happened.' This might seem obvious, but it still feels strange to look at a date that has absolutely no historical importance, the 7th of October for example, the 12th of September, the 8th of December. It makes the steady tap of modern time feel all the more cold and unflinching, and makes you realize just how much news is made by newspapers.

On the 7th of October, if you paid the 3 'irsh (less than a cent today) to purchase the state-owned Al Gumhoria,  you would have seen these words above the fold:

 "Sadat martyred on the day of his victory. Treacherous and evil shots. Assassinated between soldiers and heroes. Hosni Mubarak mourns the hero: He died a hero of war…and a hero of peace. Egypt stands in a united, cohesive front on her continuing journey with resolve and determination."

If you opened up the paper, you'd see pictures of the chaos that followed the assassination. Underneath, the editors (who had once been lead by Sadat when he was Editor in Chief) had selected two photographs of order as well. Against the chaos on top, you saw a young, unknown military man named Hosni Mubarak calmly leading a group of National Democratic Party leaders through one meeting and a table of cabinet ministers through another. 

On page 3, you saw memorials to the fallen president, framed with black bows. You turn the page again. Now Mubarak is on the top of the fold. He looks firm and calm (and so young!), his jaw jutting out slightly in the fashion of Sadat's predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. Next to his face is written, “The people of Sharqeya [a governorate in Egypt], with all of its leadership, popular and political, executive and secretarial, pledge their allegiance absolutely in choosing the path of confidence in the hero Mohamed Hosni Mubarak for President of the Republic.”

Three days later, another state-owned newspaper called Akhbar El-Yom published a full page illustration by the famous cartoonist Mostafa Hussein depicting, with a great deal of artistic license, Sadat’s funeral. Sadat's ink-shaded face looks straight ahead over a procession of hundreds, wheeling his flag-draped coffin through the street where he was killed, in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which would now be his tomb as well.

When you look closer, you see that Hussein has decided to make each member of the crowd a little anonymous Sadat. It’s like the scene from Being John Malkovich where everyone has Malkovich's head. The goal here was a sort of cult-of-personality meets a man-of-the-people message of “We are all Sadat.” The meaning is double: he's one of us, and the assassins have targeted all Egyptians, our security, our stability, our chance at national dignity.

The many Sadats
Then on the back, a strange and cartoonish image of Sadat standing firm in the face of the gunman, under the words 'The leader's courage.' Along with the army of Sadats, it was an echo of October 26th, 1954, when a Muslim Brotherhood member shot eight stray bullets at Nasser. He didn't flinch and then he started shouting, "Let them kill Nasser. What is Nasser but one among many? My fellow countrymen, stay where you are. I am not dead, I am alive, and even if I die all of you are Gamal Abdel Nasser!" 

It was a subtle reference, but the newspapers were fitting Sadat's death into a long national narrative, with motifs of Nasser's near-death and a calm continuity flowing towards Mubarak. Although the events had been shocking, the press response felt like a knee-jerk reaction: assuage the public, prevent chaos, hand the reigns off gracefully. 

Sadat stands firm as he's shot

In the early 1970’s, Sadat eased restrictions on journalists as part of his general strategy of shifting his foreign policy agenda from Russia to the U.S. In order to send the journalists a message that this new freedom shouldn't be abused, he suspended a large group of them for a period of months. When he reinstated them he said, “I meant and still mean to give a warning. It has not been my aim nor is it my nature to harm any person in his work, profession or livelihood…I want freedom of the press. At the same time I want it to be a dedicated press.” 

It worked for a while. Then in September 1981, two months before his assassination, Sadat ordered the arrests of more than 1500 opposition figures, many of whom were journalists.

On October 13th, the day after Sadat’s funeral coverage and Mostafa Hussein’s drawing of the many Sadats, Al Akhbar told its Egyptian readers that they now had a great choice to make. Or, rather, the choice was made and they needed to approve it because that was the patriotic thing to do. Mubarak appeared on the front page, again looking firm and calm and youthful and nothing like the old, bitter dictator you see on TV these days. A handful of journalists and others who were alive at the time told me that Mubarak, until that point, was not well known to the Egyptian public. “The things that he did publicly seemed to suggest that he was more pluralistic than Sadat,” said editor Rania Al Malky, who was ten years old. “There were great expectations.”

The headline on Al Akhbar read, “Yes to stability…yes to democracy and prosperity.” In slightly smaller type, it continued, “The people declare their support for Hosni Mubarak as President of the Republic to complete Sadat's journey. Thousands of telegrams from the governorates and official bodies and trade unions and citizens back Mubarak.”

“Millions of supporters agree: the referendum is a symbol of the Egypt's unity…and Egypt's strength. The election ensures stability and safety.”

The sense of optimism lasted long into Mubarak’s rule. In 1983, the International Press Institute declared that the Egyptian press under Mubarak was the most free it had been since Nasser came to power in 1952. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

After the Revolution in Guernica

I just published this short piece over at Guernica, on the presidential elections and the protests that followed.

For a brief moment on May 28th, when the results of the first round of the Egyptian presidential election were announced and the run-off was just two weeks away, anything seemed possible. More than a thousand protesters were marching and shouting in Tahrir Square. A smaller set had stormed the campaign headquarters of one of the remaining candidates, Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister and had built his platform on restoring security and order. They returned to Tahrir triumphant, tossing hundreds of Shafik’s campaign stickers into the air, letting them float down to be trampled by the traffic.

A young girl in a bright pink dress sat on the curb, swinging her arm and shouting, “The people and the army are one hand!” It was the exact opposite of the sentiment everyone else was expressing; the others called for the end of military rule. But she was so excited and so cute that nobody stopped to correct her.

A moment later, the crowd started running. Shafik’s supporters were attacking with sticks. For a few minutes we were reliving November, when security forces volleyed tear gas in high arcs over the square, sending thousands scurrying into side streets. I felt the same surge of adrenaline, a visceral memory of the mental command run! I ducked into a storefront and watched as the tension dissipated, the attackers retreated, and the protesters returned to the square, now chanting with a little less gusto. An hour later, few remained. The afternoon was like a highlight reel of the last year and a half: a moment of glamorous jubilation followed by skittish violence.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Fragments from Mubarak's Trial

Over the last few days, I’ve been addicted to reading accounts of Mubarak’s trial verdict. Most news reports repeated the same facts: the crowds outside, the judge’s speech, the verdicts, the celebrations, the fight that broke out in the courtroom. I found myself drawn to the details, to the moments where the reporters narrated what they were seeing and tried to capture the drama, and not just the information, of the moment. There were no big-picture writers like Hannah Arendt or Rebecca West in attendance, so we'll have to wait for someone creative to treat the moment like the literature of fact it is. 

Modeled on this blog post about October 9th, here is a sampling of what I pulled from those accounts, with a few videos from the trial. You don’t need to understand Arabic to  feel the emotional power, and in fact not knowing the language allows you to focus on everything else: the tense gestures of the officials, the nervous tone of the judge, the stony faces of the defendants. Most Egyptians witnessed the trial on television, as if they were watching a movie. But what was it like to experience the moment with all five senses?

Lina El-Wardani: The courtroom was less than quarter full, with the smell of stale cigarettes, sweat and urine making it almost unbearable.

Policemen flanked each row of seats, with some even standing in front of the judges.

Ahram Online: Outside the academy, the sun's sweltering heat is forcing some protesters to take refuge in the shade.

Yasmin Wali: Security was tight. Areas were designated for Mubarak sympathizers at a minimum of 500 meters away from anti-Mubarak protesters to avoid clashes.

Wali: A gaggle of teenage boys began chanting and playing music with drums. "Revolution from the start, until you wear the red prison suit and die.”

Leila Fadel: Mubarak arrived in a hospital gurney

His eyes were masked with sunglasses and his sons stood around him to cover him from the cameras.

Egypt Independent: Relatives of the martyrs killed during the 18-day uprising are holding up pictures of the deceased inside the courtroom.

Zeinobia: The families of the victims have set a ladder , the symbol of presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik on fire.

Wali: Victims' lawyers began lifting photos of slain protesters in front of the cameras and judges. A few lawyers with long beards raised placards reading, "Execution is the people's verdict," and, "Execution is God's verdict."

Zeinobia: Judge Refaat called the defendants and Mubarak answered “I am here”.

Listen to the tone of Mubarak’s voice as he says ‘I am here’

Zeinobia: The watch Mubarak wore in the trial is interesting , some believe it is a 50 Fathom 18K Rose Gold Blancpain watch worth $21,600.

Wali: The judge began by giving a long speech praising the revolution and the "great people of Egypt" who revolted peacefully against tyranny and poverty and were helped by "God and the angels to clear the darkness.”
He went on to describe Mubarak's three-decade rule as "thirty years of black; pitch-black hopelessness."

Bradley Hope: Judge Ahmed Refaat went hoarse. But then, in a booming voice, he sentenced Hosni Mubarak to life in prison

Abdel-Rahman Hussein: People crowded around vans in the large sun-baked parking lot, listening to stereos blaring Judge Ahmed Refaat’s long and flowery pronouncement of the verdict. When Refaat read out that Mubarak was sentenced to life, a huge roar erupted,

Fadel: Egyptians outside the courtroom rejoiced, setting off firecrackers and waving the Egyptian flag in the air.

Hussein: The Mubarak supporters were also angry. They chased photographers and anyone who approached them. One irate man attacked a car.

Hope: As Mr. Refaat finished his speech, the hushed courtroom erupted into a tumult of fights

Dina Zayed: Moments later, the courtroom dissolved into chaos, as the plaintiff lawyers chanted slogans against the judiciary in one area and unrelated fistfights breaking out in another.

Egypt Independent: Lawyers representing the families of the martyrs explode in protest inside the courtroom, angry that Adly's aids have escaped conviction. They chant: "The people demand the purging of the judiciary!" and "Illegitimate!" A fight breaks out in the courtroom.

Fadel: A brawl broke out in the courtroom, with men pushing each other and jumping on benches after Mubarak was wheeled out.

Wali: As the judges departed the courtroom soon afterward, lawyers began to shout, "The people want an independent judiciary!" and "Down with the regime!"

Hope: For those pleased with the verdict, the joy melted away when it sank in that seven others on trial had been acquitted. Thousands poured into Tahrir Square to demonstrate and there were other protests across the country.

Here is a reading of the verdict. The judge to the right looks totally affect-less. The judge to the left shifts in his chair constantly. The lips of Mubarak’s sons twitch subtly. Starting at 6:25, the court erupts. Everyone waves their arms. A man stands on his chair and bends as he screams. Mubarak is wheeled out, his face totally devoid of emotion.

With live translation:

Friday, June 1, 2012

Interviews with Egyptian Journalists #6: At Mubarak's Trial

Nearly a year ago, Ahmed received the assignment. He would be covering Mubarak’s trial, the ‘Trial of the Century’ as people were still calling it back then.  But because of the vast, complicated security clearances involved, he would be the only one from the agency able to enter the court. He would have to go to every session, with no back-up. If he got sick, the world would have one less set of eyes and ears in one of the most important events in Egyptian history. One day he arrived with a cold at 9am. The judge, not wanting to draw things out indefinitely, hoped to get as much done as quickly as possible, and kept trying to squeeze witnesses into the day. Ahmed got sicker and sicker, ‘near death’ as he put it, when the judge finally let everyone out at 10pm.

Around the world, people were expecting the Egyptian revolution’s success in toppling Mubarak to lead to a sort of Truth and Reconciliation trial. But from the second Ahmed entered the courtroom, he realized this was a false hope fed by the spectacle of the old dictator being wheeled in, seemingly helpless on his white hospital bed. The courtroom was filled with police for security, the same police accused of killing protesters on Mubarak’s orders. The public prosecutor was appointed by people appointed by people appointed by Mubarak. The judge was appointed by people appointed by Mubarak. The trial was held in the Police Academy, where a picture of one of the officers charged with murder still hung in the hallway leading to the courtroom. Until only a few months before, this entire Academy itself had been named after Mubarak.

And here they would try to prove that the decision to kill protesters had come from a chain beginning with Mubarak. There were over 400 plaintiffs. The Ministry of the Interior, whose former Minister Habib El Adly ranked as one of the most reviled of Mubarak’s appointees, would act as the investigator as well as the accused. Tossed into the same trial were Mubarak’s two sons. They would be tried on corruption charges. What did this have to do with the deaths of protesters? Everybody seemed to be asking, and then they stopped asking, because regardless of the answer, this is the way it would be. The regime would be trying itself in its own court.

Ahmed watched as Mubarak, with dyed hair and mafioso sunglasses, was wheeled in from the luxury hospital that was serving as his personal gilded prison. His lawyer, Farid El Deeb, casually smoked a cigar. Over five days, Ahmed watched as he puffed and declared that in fact a revolution had not taken place. The laws had not changed, after all. Hosni Mubarak was still technically the President of Egypt.

The revolution, El Deeb announced, had been created by ‘foreign elements’. These ‘elements’ had infiltrated the country by way of Sinai, aided by the local Bedouins. The security forces who shot and killed protesters from atop camels and horses on the tragic day of January 28th, 2011, had only been defending themselves against the Bedouin-aided foreign elements!

And corruption? Hardly. Mubarak’s fortune, El Deeb contended, never exceeded a million dollars. 

Ahmed was furious. This was the embodiment of what had gone wrong in Egypt. This was the perfect symbol of the mess Egypt had gotten itself into: a revolution without reform, a dictator being judged by the people he had groomed to be loyal.

So Ahmed began to write a feature article about the trial, and his lead would be the most farcical moment of the whole thing, when El Deeb had claimed that Mubarak was still the president. This is how the Egyptian tabloids had covered the story, with big letters splashed across the front page: “MUBARAK IS STILL THE PRESIDENT!”

But in order to defend this lead, it would take a lot of background, a lot of context. Right after El Deeb’s bombastic quote, Ahmed would have to spell out for an international audience with little to no prior information, in a few clear sentences, how the laws had not changed, how the people had not changed, how the trial had been perceived in Egypt, and how it had been perceived by Mubarak’s regime. He would have to explain the legal system, which allows for plaintiffs as well as public prosecutors, and then Egyptian expectations for the trial, and how they had been dashed.

He wrote it up this way, and took it to an editor, who said ‘I don’t get it.’ There was too much background too quickly. Too much explanation was needed, and by the time you got through it, the lawyer’s jab about Mubarak still being President would not have the same sting.

Then Ahmed remembered a man he met at the trial, the father of one of the young protesters shot by police. This man was horrified by the farce of the proceedings. His son’s death had not led to any real changes, like the revolution, a cathartic moment of violence invested with expectations that were then dashed. After a few sessions, he stopped showing up. Ahmed decided to lead with him instead: a father forced into disillusion, a nation’s aborted revolution told through one man’s grief for his murdered son.

Mubarak’s trial verdict is due tomorrow. 20,000 policemen and 160 tanks will be deployed to defend the courtroom.