CAIRO — Heshan Amin, a 24-year-old student, sits with his head in the hands, just a few hundred feet from Tahrir Square, where he and his friends fought the police during the Jan. 25, 2011 revolution. He had broken the government-imposed curfew to come here when news reached him that Egypt’s toppled leader Hosni Mubarak would be released from prison.
“I feel like I stabbed myself in the back, I didn’t know going to the streets to protest would give me such false hope,” Amin says bitterly. “I have been protesting for change for two years and look where we are. Mubarak is walking and the country is on fire.”
Egypt’s prosecutor general announced Wednesday night that the release of Egypt’s longtime autocrat is final. However, state media reported that the country’s prime minister quickly ordered that Mubarak would be placed under house arrest — part of the “emergency measures” instituted in the country after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsy last month.
Mubarak’s release from prison is ill-timed: Violent battles between security forces and Morsy’s supporters have rocked the nation in the past week, leaving hundreds dead. But however politically charged Mubarak’s release may be, there is a solid legal justification behind the decision.
More than two years after Mubarak fell from power, he still has not been found guilty of a crime. In June 2012, a court did find him guilty being involved in the killing of protesters — but that verdict was overturned when the court of appeal found procedural errors in the case.
As the aged autocrat awaits a retrial in that case, he ran out the clock on the maximum time in pre-trial detention allowed under Egyptian law, explains Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
“Two years is the maximum period allowed for defendants accused of committing a crime that carries the death penalty, in his case the killing of demonstrators,” says Nasrallah, who has represented protesters killed during the January uprising.
Since April 15, Mubarak had been detained based on other cases against him, such as profiting from export of gas to Israel, appropriating funds for the upkeep of the presidential palaces, and receiving gifts from state-owned press institutions. But at some point, Nasrallah said, those endless extensions had to come to an end.
By this week, the only pending case was the charges against him for receiving gifts from state-owned media. “His lawyers contested his detention, as he had repaid the value of the gifts [that the] state-owned news outlet Al-Ahram had given him,” Nasrallah says.
Mubarak could still be re-imprisoned as the cases against him proceed. But whether or not that happens, his trial has still been a signature disappointment for those who hoped that the 2011 revolution would usher in a country governed by the rule of law.
“It has been a sham trial since day one, there has been a lack of political will and a commitment to justice,” says Karim Ennarah, a member of the criminal justice team at EIPR, who has closely observed the case. “Thousands of testimonies were dismissed from the 18 days. We also have structural problems with the judiciary.”
One of the issues, Ennarah continues, has been the judiciary’s lack of faith in technology. Videos, Ennarah explains, are not trusted as reliable evidence by the judges, who fear they could be doctored. “They still get government experts to comment on the videos, who can be biased,” he said.
Nasrallah says the case was quickly taken to court “to please the people in the streets” without collecting enough evidence, a move which hampered the trial from the beginning. Nor is it easy to prove that Mubarak was directly involved in the police crackdown during the uprising — his defense team, after all, insists that he was unaware of most of the actions his own security forces were taking.
“They can prove that he didn’t know about the security forces’ plan from the beginning,” Nasrallah says.
The largest problem has been that the same police force tasked with collecting evidence in the trial was the body largely responsible for the killings. This conflict of interest, Nasrallah said, meant that the police hampered the investigation at every turn. “[T]he prosecution had to do the investigating, which is not their job,” she says. “They are not trained nor have the political will to do it.”
Other state agencies have been just as obstructionist as the police. Egypt’s General Intelligence Service sent the prosecutor general tapes that did not have any evidence on them, claiming the relevant recordings had been “taped over.”
Nasrallah relates another disaster: A senior police officer said he “accidentally” wiped a crucial CD containing calls from the operations room of the Central Security Forces. Without such information, it is impossible to prove that the police crackdown on the street during the 18 days of revolution in 2011 was ordered by the top political officials of the Mubarak era
Even if he walks, Mubarak is due back in court on Aug. 25 for another hearing of his retrial. The timing provides an insight into the tumultuous period through which Egypt is currently passing: On the same day, six top Muslim Brotherhood leaders will also be in the dock – placed there on charges arising out of their opposition to the new government.
This has led many to fear the legal system is once again helping out the old regime. For the protesters who have been fighting for a new Egypt, it is hard news to swallow.
“Mubarak will be acquitted, it’s clear. If that happens, I give up,” says Amin. “To be honest, I don’t think protesting brings anything anymore. In the end, it’s just people sitting in the street.”
Women at Egypt’s protests often must fight more than the political cause that brought them into the streets.
It is the night of July 3, and on the streets of downtown Cairo thousands are celebrating the ousting of Egypt’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. But below ground, in the police booth of Tahrir Square’s metro station, Joanna Joseph is attempting to comfort a young girl.
She had been surrounded by dozens of men in the square, stripped and sexually assaulted. And now, on the request of her family, a medic is trying to conduct a virginity test on the floor of the police booth.
“I was shouting at the doctor not to touch the girl. The girl couldn’t even cope with hearing the crowds,” says Joseph, who is a volunteer with the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign (OpAntiSh), a grassroots organisation set up in November 2012, which sends teams of volunteers to protests to intervene in mob assaults. “The policeman said he had received four or five girls in this state every day,” she adds.
Since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian president, attacks like these have become an epidemic in Tahrir Square, the site of many of the protests. And in the week surrounding the ousting of Morsi, 150 such cases were reported. Many others, of course, go unreported. The level of violence involved is often extreme – in January, two teenage girls were raped with knives.
Thirty-year-old musician Yasmine el-Baramawy, who was attacked in Tahrir Square last November, describes the pattern: Men surround the woman, rip off her clothes and then perform manual rape, while an outer circle fends off anyone who might try to help her with sticks, blades and belts.
“They were taking photos of me and laughing,” Baramawy says. “They pinned me naked to the hood of a car and drove me around.”
Vocalising sexual harassment in Egypt
The speed, efficiency and ferocity of the attacks imply that they are orchestrated, and many believe they are used by political factions as a tool to deter women from protesting while simultaneously discrediting demonstrators. But the fact that the assaults occurred under Mubarak, the military, Morsi and the current interim president, Adly Mansour, suggest the problem may have far deeper roots.
And while the attacks are most prevalent and brutal in Tahrir, they also occur outside of a political context: In May, rights groups reported similar assaults at a pop concert in the coastal city of Ain Sokhna.
“The problem of sexual harassment and assault has been evident for a very long time,” says Amal Elmohandes, the director of the Women Human Rights Defenders programme. “They took place as far back as 2006 during Eid celebrations, at the metro stations or near the cinemas.”
In fact, a study by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released in April reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 96.5 percent have been subject to harassment in the form of touching.
But activists say the number of sexual assaults has increased post-revolution as there has been a surge in the number of women present in public spaces. Furthermore, Elmohandes says, “as society is more brutalised, people are increasingly expressing themselves through violent actions”.
‘Blaming the victim’
Increased opportunity and a traumatised population, however, does not fully explain the extent of the problem in Egypt. And the language used to describe the assaults reveals just how deeply embedded the problem is.
The word “taharush”, which means “harassment”, was only adopted in the context of sexual assault in the last decade. “Instead, people used to say ‘flirtation’ [‘mo’aksa’] – they sugar-coated the problem,” explains Mariam Kirollos, a women’s rights activist and volunteer with OpAntiSh.
The use of the term “flirtation” rather than harassment implies a consensual act, and contributes to an already entrenched culture of “blaming the victim”, as women are perceived to be somehow complicit.
Consequently, answering back is widely considered inappropriate in Egypt – and can, in some instances, provoke a violent reaction. When, in 2012, 16-year-old Eman Mostafa spat at the man who groped her breasts, her attacker shot her dead.
The roots of the problem, women’s rights activists say, are in the home. And with domestic violence and marital rape not considered crimes under Egyptian law, it is hard to change attitudes on the street.
Women’s rights groups had worked on legislation to criminalise domestic abuse, but this was shelved when Mubarak’s parliament was dissolved post-revolution. Since then there have been two further attempts. El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an Egyptian NGO that offers legal and psychological support to victims of assault, drafted a law addressing domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence against women. But the effort was abandoned when the parliament was again dissolved by the then-ruling military council last year.
Similar umbrella legislation put forward by the state-run National Council for Women this year was also put on hold when the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, was dismantled after Morsi was ousted. “Egypt is never stable enough for us to introduce these draft laws,” explains Farah Shash, a psychologist and researcher at El-Nadeem Centre.
As it stands, under Egyptian law sexual harassment is not criminialised, and rape by objects or hands is only classified as assault.
Shash says young boys are rarely reprimanded by their parents for harassing girls in public, and that it is not uncommon to see children speaking inappropriately to women as they mirror the adult behaviour around them. “Often, families will just laugh,” she says.
The issue is not addressed in schools either, where the curriculum reinforces traditional gender roles. “You’ll see textbook examples of girls helping their mother in the kitchen, while the boys are with their fathers at work. It sets this idea in kids’ minds that women are meant to be at home [and] men on the streets,” Shash says.
Talk to Al Jazeera – Ragia Omran : Abused in Egypt
These attitudes contribute to a sense that men have power over women, who in turn become commodities, activists say. “Women are dehumanised, their bodies can be tampered with,” explains Elmohandes.
A culture of impunity
There is also a culture of impunity at the state level, with assailants rarely facing any consequences for their actions.Baramawy filed a joint complaint with six other women about their sexual assaults in Tahrir before the Qasr el-Nil prosecution in March. Prosecutors were reportedly cooperative but they had no evidence: they kept asking women to identify their attackers, an impossible request with such large mobs.
And, according to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, the security forces compound the problem. “Both the police and the military have been involved in sexual violence against women. They get away with it, so there has been no accountability,” she says, noting that the military conducted forced virginity tests on female demonstrators in March 2011. Elmohandes says it has become socially unacceptable for a woman to even enter a police station because of the fear of being sexually harassed.
Successive governments have failed to prioritise fighting sexual violence against women. “The problem is always postponed until the political situation ‘settles down’,” notes Morayef.
In February, on the one occasion that sexual assault was addressed by the human rights committee of the Shura Council, members of the council blamed women for the attacks in Tahrir, suggesting that they should not attend protests. One committee member from a Salafist party, Adel Afifi, even declared: “The woman has 100 percent responsibility.”
For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.– Enjy Ghozlan, Anti-Sexual Harrassment Campaign spokesperson
Activists are pushing for streetlights to be placed in locations like Tahrir and are requesting that dedicated security forces units be set up to tackle the problem. But these are just partial steps. “This is not something that can be addressed from a piecemeal approach. It has to be a comprehensive strategy on behalf of the government,” Morayef says.
In the meantime, volunteers in grassroots campaigns are left to plug the gaps. The male and female volunteers at OpAntiSh not only attempt to rescue women from sexual assaults, they also run hotlines and document cases. Societal awareness campaign Harassmap tracks sexual harassment across Egypt using an online interactive map. Meanwhile, Kirollos says, a coalition of rights groups are working on drawing up key articles focusing on the protection of women for the country’s new constitution.
Although Tahrir has become a no-go area for some women, and protesters now cordon off those who do attend into gender-segregated pens, many survivors are joining movements to combat the violence. But they fear that without effective state institutions as Egypt again finds itself in political limbo, the issue will continue to be ignored – with devastating consequences for the country’s women.
“It is becoming more violent and increasing in number,” says OpAntiSh spokesperson Enjy Ghozlan. “For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.”
On the anniversary of the brutal police murder which inspired the Egyptian January 25 Revolution, Khaled Said’s family prepare for retrial
In a small bedroom in Alexandria adjacent to the sea, the belongings of a young man: new trainers, a computer console and homemade speakers are quietly gathering dust. Three years of dust, to be precise.
On 6 June, 2010 their owner a 28-year-old called Khaled Said left his desk to walk to an Internet café across the street and never came back.
He was beaten to death by police officers in broad daylight. A photograph of his face on the autopsy table, mutilated beyond recognition, was the breaking point for the nation. Khaled became a symbol: on 25 January, 2011, his story brought millions of Egyptians to the streets.
Exactly three years on, following a revolution, his family are back where they started in 2010.
The two police officers Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud and Awad Ismail Soliman sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in jail for manslaughter are free, after they appealed against what they called a “harsh” verdict. The retrial begins next month.
However, Khaled’s lawyer, Mahmoud Afify, maintains the ruling is not severe enough.
Under Egyptian law, a member of the police force beating someone to death is automatically classified as “torture”, Afify explains, because they are “expected to know better.” This carries a heftier sentence of 15 years, which is what Khaled Said’s family are pushing for.
“I feel like he died yesterday,” says his mother Laila Marzouk sitting in Khaled’s living room, islanded by pictures of her dead son. “We’ve been fighting this for years and we’re are back at the beginning. We still haven’t seen justice.”
Afify believes the ruling was just seven years because, post-revolution, the very people spearheading the investigations are part of the institution under scrutiny: the police force. “Same people, some practices. Nothing has changed.”
With only three police officers serving jail sentences for killing or injuring civilians since the start of the January 25 Revolution and President Mohamed Morsi publically praising the security forces, the fear is that the very killers whose brutality sparked the uprising, will not be found guilty for the crime they committed.
Marzouk says she can only hope that the new judge will be fair.
“I’m trying to believe in him, we see Egyptian people coming to the streets and fighting for an honest judiciary and fair court cases every week. Perhaps all of this will do something for us.”
It has been a struggle from the start, Afify explains, listing a catalogue of obstacles.
Immediately after the murder, officers from the local Sidi Gaber police station took the eye-witnesses’ phones and deleted all videos and photos of the crime: a damning blow to the prosecution’s case.
Those planning to testify and their families were subsequently threatened or bribed. The police attempted to prevent Khaled’s lawyer from attending the investigation sessions. The initial forensic report said Khaled died from swallowing a packet of drugs.
“I lost hope in the system then. There were people with pictures of Khaled outside the courtroom saying he was a drug addict,” his mother explains, “The authorities offered to pay for my family to go on the Hajj pilgrimage if we dropped the charges.”
Then, she continues, the police stationed themselves outside the door of their flat and building. “We used to throw water at them from the balcony. They even temporarily detained Khaled’s brother Ahmed.”
It wasn’t until the Alexandrian judge Ahmed Omar bypassed the police and personally carried out investigations himself, lawyer Afify explains, that key eyewitnesses, like the owner of the Internet café where Khaled was killed, felt safe to come forward.
With mounting pressure from the street, the court brought in medical experts from the Universities of Alexandria, Cairo and Ain Shams who rejected the initial forensic report. The evidence began to fall into place.
Marzouk talks of being bewildered as she watched the cult of her son grow. The iconic portrait of a young, confident man in a grey hoodie, which is stencilled on hundreds of walls across the country, hangs above her head as she speaks.
“I remember walking down the street and hearing ‘we are all Khaled Said’ for the first time,'” she recalls, “Everyone was shouting my name. I was suddenly responsible: they began calling me the mother of all Egyptians.”
Since the revolution, she describes attending most of the funerals of young men tortured to death or killed in clashes with security forces: “I have a close connection with the mothers, we keep in touch, they are all my sons.”
Although public opinion changed after the revolution, the police have not, she adds.
“When the first verdict was announced on 26 October 2011, police fans destroyed the court and attacked anyone supporting Khaled including activists and journalists. They threw cigarettes, papers and rubbish at us,” Marzouk, her son Ahmed and his sister Zahara describe.
A photo of Khalid’s two siblings together was circulated as evidence Ahmed was an American spy married to an Israeli girl. The family received threatening phone calls calling them terrorists.
When the presidential elections kicked off in 2012, Khaled’s mother started to be courted by would-be presidents who, she says, saw political capital in her, as a revolutionary icon.
The then-hopeful Mohamed Morsi phoned her up during the final run-offs.
With the retrial taking place next month, Khalid’s court proceedings will have spanned three regimes: Hosni Mubarak, the military and now Morsi.
Despite promises of security sector reform from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the president, analysts have seen no change.
“There has been very little progress, aside from personnel appointments at the highest level in the Ministry of Interior… Mubarak’s state security was superficially rebranded,” explains Mara Revkin, a civil society researcher and Yale law student, working on new Egyptian police legislation. “The police force need to shift from protecting the state to protecting the people, which is a massive challenge that will take a while.”
It is essential to change the culture of fear and intimidation that is pervasive in Egypt’s law enforcement and justice system, Revkin continues, which requires serious institutional reform and commitment from the ruling elite.
Instead, new legislation, like the Witness Protection Act, is being drafted by Egypt’s upper house of parliament the Shura Council, she adds, which if ratified would see the very police force who terrorise witnesses put in charge of their safety.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the president maintain change is happening but it will take time.
“Reforming and purging of the police was one of the main goals of the January revolution and still is because Egypt is in dire need of security, but not on behalf of the freedoms and dignity of citizens,” FJP leading member Essam El-Erian said in press statement in February.
Morsi himself put security at the top of his agenda during his first 100 days in office and has repeatedly pledged reform.
Back in Alexandria, as the family prepares to go through the grueling court process again, promises of change give little reassurance.
“One of the last things Khaled told me before he died was the he was planning great things, he never told me what but it happened,” Marzouk says, “People have told me his death destroyed a wall of fear the country faced and so the street moved. This movement forward cannot be stopped.”
Foreigners are, apparently, at it again: threatening the stability of Egypt by implementing destructive foreign agendas.
This February, 29 foreign aid workers face trial and an Australian journalist was threatened with deportation and now faces a travel ban while his American student friend has been detained, all for allegedly being involved in conspiracies to ‘destabilise’ the country.
Fears of a foreign-led plot against Egypt are not new, nor are they accidental.
“All successive Egyptian governments, since 1952 onwards, have used xenophobia to create a sense that there is a conspiracy in Egypt,” explains Hossam Abdalla, an Egyptian political commentator and activist. “They rule in the name of defending the nation and condemn anybody who is anti-them as pro-foreigner or acting with a foreign agenda.”
The “foreign hand” – in particular a financial one – remains one of the key weapons the state uses to shift blame, discredit a movement or justify heavy-handed security measures.
Mubarak honed this tactic during his 30 years in power and first used it against the revolution on 1 February, when he hinted at unknown spoilers who had “exploited” honest protesters. State media then broadcast bizarre phone-ins from people claiming to see Turkish-Iranian intelligence, Afghan spies and Israeli agents.
As the telephone networks were shut down, the army sent text messages to the public urging “local men to… protect our precious Egypt.” The revolution was portrayed as a foreign invasion.
On 2 February, Omar Suleiman spelt it out to a panicked nation. In a televised interview, he said that protesters had been manipulated by “outside forces” and that the revolution was a conspiracy.
“This was the turning point,” explains Josh Leffler, an American TEFL teacher based in downtown Cairo. “After the Battle of the Camel, I was detained by our local people’s committee, who know me and lived next to me. I see them every day.”
The BBC, Channel 4, Al Jazeera and ABC networks reported that their journalists had been attacked or detained. Groups tried to storm the Hilton hotel while “foreign-looking” people – including Egyptians – were being rounded up off the street.
“After my flatmate was chased through downtown by thugs with knives, I spent two days at home in my flat. My friends called to say don’t go outside,” recalled Kristin Jankowski, a German writer for the Goethe-Institut in Cairo.
However, as soon as Mubarak stepped down, the atmosphere changed. “It went from this hostility to being welcoming again,” Josh added.
Since the 18 days, suspicion of foreigners and “foreign looking” Egyptians continues to peak and trough in correlation with what is being peddled by the state media. One word from the military regime or state media and the xenophobia on the streets escalates with a bewildering ferocity.
But why, in a country where tourism is one of the most important industries – generating at its peak over $12 billion in revenue – can the state trigger xenophobia so easily?
“Our issue with foreigners is as long as Egyptian history,” explains Abdalla, tracing the problem back to the Pharonic era. “There has always been an entrenched sense that everyone around Egypt is a threat – they want to take what is ours, the riches of the Nile. This fear is embedded in us.”
This is not without reason. Egypt was subject to hundreds of years of foreign occupation, including Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, French and British – all of whom exploited Egypt’s natural resources.
“In the early 1880s, there was a feeling that Egypt was becoming dominated by foreign influences,” explained AbdelAziz EzzelArab, professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo. This, he says, was partly due to the international debt crisis of the 1870s.
During this time, Egypt was spending two thirds of its revenue on servicing its debt, allowing disastrous deals like the £4-million purchase of Egypt’s share of the Suez Canal by the British.
When Egypt became a major player in the world market as a supplier of cotton, this feeling was intensified. Foreigners based in Egypt largely controlled its exports, contributing to a feeling of “encroachment” and financial jealousy from local landowners who called for “economic nationalism”, EzzelArab said.
This led to the creation of Bank Misr in 1920 (a bank run by Egyptians for Egyptians operated using Egyptian money) and the 1947 Egyptianisation laws, which attempted to impose limitations on foreign capital and foreign employees in companies operating in Egypt.
International influence on the Egyptian economy has had perceived – and very real – negative consequences for the country. One example was the 1991 injection of cash from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The implementation of the provisos to the loan, called the “structural adjustment programme,” resulted in the percentage of people living under $2 a day doubling and levels of absolute poverty rising from 16.7 per cent to almost 20 per cent. Egypt is due to accept another LE3.2 billion IMF package this year, which many critics oppose.
“When Egypt was the richest of all the Arab nations, we always absorbed foreigners,” said Abdalla, adding that economic insecurity only seems to encourage xenophobia.
Fear of invasion has also been a contributing factor, particularly as Egypt has been invaded several times within living memory, including Israeli troops getting within 120 kilometres of the capital in 1973.
The creation of the self-proclaimed Jewish state in 1948 was a major turning point. “As long as you have two great world powers, the European Union and the USA, whose primary foreign policy objective is to protect Israel,” Abdalla explained, “Egyptians will remain suspicious of foreign motives.”
When you combine a real threat with decades of Egyptian rulers returning to these historical events in order to cultivate imagined threats for their own purposes, the result is explosive.
Nationalism plays a part in xenophobia. In the creation of an “us,” there must be a “you”: globally, national identity is never separated from the fear of the other.
A specifically Egyptian sense of national identity, EzzelArab says, was trail-blazed by late president Anwar Sadat, who “wanted to reclaim the name of Egypt and relieve the Arab burden,” a holdover from Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s unification with Syria.
During the 1970s, the fledging state media peddled Sadat’s party line, which emphasised the sacrifices Egypt had made for other Arab countries.
National Egyptian pride was defined alongside mistrust of outsiders who had exploited and deceived her.
Fast forward to the January 25 Revolution, when there is another major shift in national identity.
The “nation” becomes a fully functioning informal community living together in reclaimed public spaces in which Egyptian cultural norms were rethought and reworked.
Tahrir Square in the early days was “a million people… in one city square who were together trying to imagine a different country… entering it was like crossing a border,” late journalist Anthony Shadid said in April 2011. Egyptian identity, he said, became “broader.”
Rather than focusing on a selfhood determined by geographical borders, the people in Tahrir Square were united by universal human values. National pride was redefined as a humiliated people fighting for their rights, against those who spent decades advertising themselves as the true Egypt.
It’s no coincidence then that protesters wave the Egyptian flag, the ultimate emblem of nationalism, despite the fact that the original design is a military one instated by Nasser in 1953 and updated by Mubarak in 1984 (Egypt did not adopt a revolutionary flag like Syria and Libya).
The ongoing revolution became, and continues to be, a battle for the Egyptian identity: the regime versus the revolutionary collective.
This was complicated, after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, by the state’s co-option of the inevitable outpouring of national pride. State radio stations played nationalistic songs ad nauseum. Official billboards cashed in on the heroic revolutionaries.
The ruling military council also used Mubarak’s tactic of denouncing the street protests as foreign plots.
In mid-2011, foreign funding became the main excuse to target other revolutionary frontlines. The current crackdown on NGOs started in August 2011, when the government threatened to charge foreign-funded groups with high treason, conspiracy against the state and compromising national security.
Following comments made by International Cooperation Minister Fayza Abul-Naga that US funding of civil-society groups represented a desire to “abort any chance for Egypt to emerge as a modern democratic state,” state-run media ran front page pieces entitled “American funding aims to spread anarchy in Egypt.” The Arabic word for anarchy also means “chaos.”
The irony that the Egyptian Armed Forces receive $1.3 billion in annual military aid from the US was apparently lost on them.
Protesters, who continued to face a torrent of state media accusations that they were “thugs,” “spies,” or not the same revolutionaries as those of the 18 days, had to prove that they were Egyptian to avoid being discredited. The fear non-Egyptians often feel is that their presence in protests, as a foreigner, could undermine this.
How to show solidarity with the ongoing revolution without becoming that distraction, is a painful dilemma outsiders face, particularly when friends or family are in the frontlines.
“A march is a very important visual sign that a real movement is out there. If onlookers are already confused by the revolution, it’s not helpful to see a foreigner participating,” explained Sophie Fahmy, 29, a British filmmaker who is married to an Egyptian. “Even though my children will have Egyptian citizenship, so this fight over the future of Egypt is of personal importance to me, if people might misinterpret what I’m doing, I won’t chant.”
Some foreigners do take part in the clashes. One British activist based in Cairo, who wished to remain anonymous, explained how he clears tear gas canisters and picks up the wounded. “International solidarity has a role in defending the revolution,” the activist said. “Insular struggles are more likely to be defeated or co-opted, while internationalised struggles can be more transformative.”
However, getting too involved can backfire. In November, three American students were paraded in front of Molotov cocktails on state television, after one of them tweeted about joining the clashes with Egypt’s security forces on the flashpoint Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
On Wednesday, former minister of interior Habib El-Adly, in the midst of the ongoing Hosni Mubarak trial, said that “foreigners,” not the security forces, had clambered onto buildings and shot at protesters during the 18 days. Hamas and Hezbollah, he insisted, were to blame.
Last week, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim claimed that unknown “third parties” were responsible for the excessive birdshot injuries in February clashes between protesters and security forces, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
For the moment, it seems, the Egyptian government will keep blaming the “third man” and imagining ever more creative conspiracies.