Monday, September 12, 2011

Egypt on the brink of change, 2010

Cairo, May 8, 2008

Oh, Egypt. Where do I even begin?

I have been struggling for a long time to put the experience of observing and documenting the Egyptian uprising into words. I saw things that I never imagined I'd see--sometimes I still can't believe it.

First, the background:
(Take notes, there will be a quiz later.)

For most Americans, at least before the uprising, they heard "Egypt" and thought "pyramids." The Egyptian government has been very successful in exporting Egypt's heritage and drawing in foreigners, and their money. Millions of tourists have come to see Egypt's antiquities and experience a bit of the flavor of modern Arab culture.

The Egypt tourist track belies the discontent that has been simmering just under the surface for years, even decades. When Hosni Mubarak first stepped into the presidency, after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, many Egyptians saw him as a savior. He instated the Emergency Law, a set of security measures for a nation in crisis. He brought stability and ushered Egypt into modernity.

But Mubarak, not unlike a long list of dictators throughout the world, and his regime were corrupt. Bribery and conflicts of interest were not just common in the government, they were systemic. Political opposition was crushed by the political machine built by Mubarak and his friends in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Mubarak and his friends used the Emergency Law to cling to power, a law which allowed police to imprison and torture unknown numbers of dissidents and opponents without bringing formal charges against them.

When I arrived in Cairo in 2008, I quickly learned that Egypt's stability, the crowning achievement of the Mubarak regime, was an illusion. A fury brewed just beneath the surface. Egypt was in the middle of a bread shortage and extreme inflation, with nearly half the population living on $2/day or less. In April, workers in the industrial Nile Delta town of Mahalla el-Kobra held a demonstration that devolved into a riot. In following days, I watched a planned protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square crushed by thousands of riot police deployed to break it up. Activists and journalists were detained and harassed.

In the years preceding the revolution of 2011, journalist acquaintances and Egyptian and expat friends of mine speculated on change in Egypt. Mubarak was 80 and ailing. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties were gaining strength as a political entities. Unemployment and poverty were high. Underpaid workers were striking on a regular basis. The emerging generation was more educated, tech-savvy and outspoken than the one before.

The question was not whether change would come about, but when. And how.

Egypt was changing, but imperceptibly. Life continued day-to-day as before. Many Egyptians were discontent with Mubarak and with the status quo, but had been living with the same system for so long.

As the November 2010 parliamentary elections approached, I had the great privilege to work with Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson from National Public Radio on a series of stories about Egypt, essentially on the cusp of some great change, although we had no idea then what that change would look like. The series looked at the stark class divide, the economy, tense relations with Christian and Bedouin minorities and the future of the Mubarak regime. Soraya jokingly called it the "Whither Egypt" series. (Scroll to the end of this post for links to the stories on

Here are some photographs of Mubarak's Egypt on the eve of revolution:

The Egyptian stock market, said to be the oldest in the Middle East.

The bustling Egyptian black market.

Black market vendors carry a table-top full of merchandise. They keep the goods mobile in case they are chased off by police. But they always come back.

The black market is surrounded by shops, where merchandise is more expensive because the store owners have higher overhead--rent and taxes, for instance.

The upscale City Stars shopping mall.

To say that Egypt is a poor country is inaccurate. It is a wealthy place full of oil and tourists, among other industries, but the wealth is unevenly distributed.

Diners at Sequoia, one of Cairo's top-end restaurants in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek.
Sequoia asks a hefty minimum charge of 150 L.E. per person. $25--a lot of money to most Egyptians. Heck it's a lot of money to me, a lowly freelancer, for one meal. (Full disclosure: I live in Zamalek and have eaten at Sequoia on numerous occasions.)

Cairo Jazz Club in Mohandiseen, where foreigners and, for lack of a better term, "liberal" Egyptians dance the night away.

Students at the American University in Cairo's new campus.

A home in the rich Cairo suburb of Katameya Heights.

A woman displaced by a rock slide peels potatoes outside of her plywood shack in the Duweiqa suburb of Cairo.

Impoverished people built their homes on the sides of cliffs in Duweiqa, essentially squatting on the land. Hundreds of people were killed in 2008 when boulders and dirt buried scores of such homes.

Children play among the houses built into the cliff.

Side note: it was around this time that I was approached by two police informants. They extorted money from me by threatening to tell the police that I was there taking photographs "without authorization." Ah. The joys of working in Cairo. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but I could easily have spent the rest of the day at the police station pleading my case, instead of shooting pictures.

Rasha Hashim in her living room. Many homes in Duweiqa, built on shifting and unsteady ground, show signs of distress--huge cracks in the walls, crumbling bricks.

A bedroom in Rasha Hashim's house.

Attyat Ali, 55, lives with her family and three other families in a tiny, crumbling house on the cliff.

Sameah Gamal Bakri hangs laundry on the ruins of a demolished house in Duweiqa.

Aida Abdel-Fattah, 50, lives with her family in a shanty right next to the area buried by the rock slide. The government told her she would be relocated. But she's still in the same place.

One of Abdel-Fattah's grandchildren on top of a mound of dirt and rock next to their home.

The area of the rock slide, where part of a cliff collapsed, was smoothed over with a bulldozer.

Abdel-Fattah's grandchildren play at home.

Another source of tension is the Egyptian government's treatment of minorities, especially Christians. Christians and Muslims have clashed numerous times over land, family and women in the past several years. While many Muslim Egyptians will openly profess their love for their Christian brothers and vice versa, some trouble is inevitable when religion is bound up in the state.

In the Coptic Christian church, divorce is rare. Couples who want to divorce must get special permission. Divorce is usually only granted in two extreme cases: adultery or conversion. This contributes to all sorts of troubling situations, such as the following:

Camillia Lufti's husband converted to Islam so that he could divorce her. Despite their protests, the couple's 16-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Ramses automatically became Muslim when their father converted from Christianity to Islam, under a tenant of Egyptian law. Islam is the "dominant" religion in Egyptian law, so in a religiously-mixed family, the Muslim has the power.

Left to right, Andrew and Mario sit down to supper with their older brother George and their mother Camilla.

George Ramses, the older brother of Mario and Andrew Ramses.

And then, there is the sticky situation with the Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsula.

The Bedouin are fiercely independent, sometimes armed and a few are involved in smuggling across the border with Gaza. Consequently, Bedouins are treated like outlaws by the Egyptian government. However, Bedouins also take the blame whenever anything goes wrong in Sinai--they make a convenient scapegoat. Barred from military or police service, and discriminated against for other types of civil service jobs, many eke out a living on tourism and can easily run into trouble with the authorities, even if their businesses are legitimate.

Sheikh Ashish Aniz, owner of Kum Kum beach camp near Nuweiba.

The modest home of Faraq Suleiman, a tour company manager, in Nuweiba.

Faraq's wife Maliha, mother of four.

Faraq Suleiman and his wife Maliha inside their home.

Faraq Suleiman's daughter Amal, 6, plays with a homemade white flag.

Awad Mubarak raises camels, sheep and chickens in the village of Bir Sgher.

(Gratuitous camel picture.)

Despite the fact that the Mubarak regime outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, support for the organization continued to flourish. The Islamist movement created social programs throughout Egypt, benefiting young people, families and the poor, and they spoke openly in favor of political reform, despite the very real threat of arrest by Egyptian authorities. They soon became one of the few viable alternatives to Mubarak's National Democratic Party machine.

In 2005, Egyptians voted in a new parliament. Members of the Brotherhood ran as independents and, shockingly, won a quarter of the assembly's 454 seats. This despite election fraud, intimidation, massive arrests of Brotherhood members and vote rigging by Mubarak's henchmen. (Click here to read an informative take on the Brotherhood's parliamentary gains in this Council on Foreign Relations report by Sharon Otterman, Dec. 1, 2005.)

Fast forward to 2010. It is the eve of another parliamentary election. Sobhy Saleh, a popular independent PM affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood campaigns in the streets of Alexandria, ducking Egyptian State Security in a game of cat-and-mouse.

With the election just a couple weeks away, Saleh sticks to the areas thick with Brotherhood supporters, quickly surrounded by crowds of well-wishers.

Saleh makes a barbershop stop.

A crowd following behind, Saleh moves quickly, hoping to out-race the possibility of a confrontation with State Security.

Enter Muhammad El Baradei. The former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency returned to his native Egypt as a reformer and presidential hopeful. He founded the National Association for Change movement. Among the organization's chief activities was a petition drive seeking seven reforms that would change three articles of the constitution, for a more democratic and open political system.

Volunteers listen to an activist during a petition drive training session in Cairo. At that point, the group had gathered nearly a million signatures.

They had planned a petition drive in early November after Friday prayers in Nasr City, a suburb to the east of downtown Cairo. What could be more harmless than a secular, peaceful, quiet, request for signatures in a middle-class neighborhood on the weekend?

Judging by the response of the Egyptian government, you'd think the National Association for Change was planning a full-scale insurgency.

Well before Friday prayers ended, trucks of riot police lined the streets. Hundreds of black-clad grunts stood in formation, blocking all side streets from the main drag. The most menacing and everyone's least favorite, plain-clothed State Security officers stood on the corners, eyeing pedestrians and motorists warily. Participants of the petition drive were adamantly prohibited from gathering for this peaceful activity. "Please," security agents warned, "don't make us angry."

The petition drive was canceled in the face of the overwhelming police presence.

Were it not so depressing, it would have been comical. And a measure of the absolute denial Mubarak and his regime had surrounded themselves with.

It made me angry. I wanted document this--to show what life is like for Egyptians, not allowed to seek change through any means in their own government. I cautiously took a few photos from a nearby building. When I knew I had at least a couple of photos documenting the event, I pushed it just enough to get caught.

It was this picture. I was exposed and State Security could easily see me. I pretended not to see them until they were in front of me, with their most intimidating, you-are-in-serious-shit looks on their faces. (God I hate those guys.)

I identified myself as a journalist and followed them outside to talk to their superior. With help from an Egyptian friend and colleague I managed to talk my way out of it after a few minutes. I'm sorry, I'm an accredited journalist, what exactly did I do wrong? I was prohibited from working in the area or else...

I returned to the restaurant where I had ordered some food and shakily drank some water. The photos aren't that great and probably not worth getting arrested over, but sometimes I feel the need to do it anyway. Otherwise why am I here?

Not fun though. For anyone who thinks what I do is glamorous, you can forget it!

So, finally the unanswered question of succession to Mubarak. Although he hadn't officially announced yet, Hosni's son Gamal seemed a likely candidate to take over the reigns. Posters advocating a Gamal Mubarak presidency were already plastered all over downtown Alexandria. So at least they could keep it all in the family, you know, like the best dictators do.

National Democratic Party spokesman Ali El Dean Hillal in his office at NDP headquarters. After agreeing to talk to us, he refused to talk about the 2011 presidential election and whether or not Hosni Mubarak would run again.

Two months later, in January, his office and the NDP headquarters building would be burned to a crisp by rioters at the beginning of the Egyptian uprising.

To listen to and read Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson's Novemeber 2010 Egypt series for NPR, click on these links:
"Life in Egypt Today" Egypt Series table of contents

"Discontent Swells in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt" Nov. 22, 2010

"As It Shifts, Egypt's Economy Retains Some Oddities" Nov. 23, 2010

"In Cairo Slum, Little Hope for Change" Nov. 24, 2010

"Egypt's State Security Gets Very Interested When Reporters Talk to Bedouins" Nov. 25, 2010

"Will He? Won't He? Egypt's Voters Focus on Mubarak" Nov. 26, 2010


bplonka said...


Your work is full of courage and passion. The new website is edited to the "T". Be safe and keep the drive alive.

Holly said...

Thanks so much Brian! Means more to me than you know.

il sognatore said...

Magnificent article, just magnificent. Full of insight to the Egyptian condition before the revolution with such expressive photos that have the ability to tell the story on their own.

I've been always been saying that we, Egyptians, were living in multiple countries within the same country; one for the rich, another one (much bigger) for the poor, one for Muslims, another for Christians, one for the educated elite, another for the illiterate masses, and the walls between these countries were getting higher and higher and it was inevitable that these walls would fall one day. May of the conflicts nowadays in the post-revolution Egypt is a direct consequence of this phenomenon.