Counter-revolution!

Ali the Shoeshine doesn’t live on the street, or even in Alexandria. He leaves home in Buheira, the Nile Delta, at 6 every morning to be here by 8.30 am. He’s 30, has two toddlers, and has to fight to keep his family going. He charges one Egyptian pound for a spit and polish and hopes for more. He might get 25 customers a day and he takes Fridays off. His take home, once he’s paid for travel and other work expenses, varies between 500 and 800 Egyptian pounds – $90 to $130. That’s what he has to feed four mouths for a month.

I asked him how he ended up on Midhat al-Yazel Street and he tells me how, one day 12 years ago, he pitched up in Alexandria, the big city. He just came wandering, without a clear idea of what he was going to do or where, until he ended up in the next street along, where a guy said, come and help me in my shoe-shine business. The next day he came back and decided to strike out on his own. He moved a street along, pitched to the cafe I found him in and 12 years later here we are.

Did you join the revolution, I asked. His answer is just a tut, the jerk of the head up, Middle Eastern body language for no. Why not, I asked.

Ana mish bita al-hagaat dee, he said, roughly translatable as “I don’t go in for that sort of thing”, or “It’s not for me”. Why, I persisted.

“God created us and gave us what we have. We should be satisfied with it,” he said. But what about all the corruption and police brutality, I say. “We should be satisfied,” he repeats. “Those ministers, they shouldn’t have been stealing the country blind. And the lads, the protesters, they shouldn’t be turning the world upside down.” Quietism. The other rural migrant I had met on the street, Ramadan the concierge, had also shown traces of it. It’s impossible to know exactly how many but Ali’s world view – provide, do not aspire, and trust in the Almighty – is certainly shared by millions of his fellow countrymen and women. Mostly from rural and poor backgrounds.

Hussein is a different story. Middle aged, tweedy and paunchy with an ill-advised starched yellow shirt and sun glasses, he overhears my conversation about local history with Mohammed Shawqi, the cafe owner, and stops to grace us with his incensed views on the world. He’s not impressed with our literary flights of fancy.

“Don’t write about Naguib Mahfouz. Write the real story,” he says, having taken my pen up from the table, unbidden, to stab the air with it. “The army are dying every day. We can’t have democracy here in Egypt. Not now. Every time we concede a demand the protests make a new one!”

Hussein runs a factory in the industrial belt behind the city which makes up a third of Egypt’s manufacturing. But he professes worry about those on the breadline. “There are nine or ten million people in this country living hand to mouth, from day to day. We have to get the ‘wheel of production’ running,” he says, parroting a phrase bandied about by the state newspapers which have curiously become the opposition. “And don’t talk to me about Khaled Said,” as he realised why I was hanging around on this street in particular. “If they try and change the name of this street I will be the first one to stand up and oppose it. Midhat al-Yazel was a hero who gave his life for the country. What did Khaled Said do? Smoke hashish and who knows what else.”

Mohammed sat, deeply sad, repeating “No comment”, “no comment” while Hussein fulminated about Khaled. Among people with traditional manners in the Arab World, “no comment” can be more an expression of disgust than neutrality. What Mohammed meant was more like “that’s so low, let’s not even go there”. After Hussein had gone, he said: “Whether Khaled Said was a martyr, that is between him and his God. But we should remember the words of Abu Bakr, who said he would not be sure of entering Paradise even if he had already had one foot inside it.”

Abu Bakr was the first caliph to succeed the Prophet as leader of the early Muslim community. It was a cultured way to say Hussein should be more humble. We all live in glass houses and shouldn’t throw stones.

Two things happened which ensured that civil opposition to Egypt’s revolution was muted. First, the revolution happened so fast it was over before there was much concerted reaction to it. Second, those who supported Hosni Mubarak and the regime expected the police state to take care of things as they always had. But the army stayed neutral and the police, after having tried and failed at intimidation, stayed at home in a kind of calculated sulk.

This left it to emerge piecemeal after Mubarak had gone. First there was the issue of whether his last appointee as prime minister Ahmed Shafik should stay on. A huge banner hanging from the girls school opposite Tawhid Mosque read: “Ahmed Shafik man of experience, needed by the country”.

You couldn’t calibrate counter-revolution by social class. Many in the establishment were disaffected with the Mubarak regime by the end, whether it was someone like Mustafa Ramadan, a clever lawyer who resented the attempt to allow Gamal Mubarak to inherit the presidency, or even businessmen and army officers. One Friday I attended Alexandria’s Automobile Club, a social club frequented by the city’s old elite. The clubhouse sits on the Corniche, dating back to the time when its traffic load would have been mostly horses and traps with the occasional stylish Bentley. Ten lanes of traffic came crashing past it now, and colonial villas had been replaced by 20 story skyscrapers along the seafront. But inside old buffers still sat by a swimming pool, looking out to sea. One conversation was between a retired admiral and a successful businessman, whose name I didn’t catch, about the New Year’s bombing of al-Qiddisin Church. Both were convinced that rumours suggesting the interior ministry had itself staged the attack, which killed 21 people, were true. No starry eyed idealism about the regime there. Another thread was from a retired businessman who asked me if I thought the revolution was just against Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign, or rather the whole 60 years of the republic since the Free Officers’ coup d’etat led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. His own view was the latter, on balance, and rightly so, he felt, since it was the deprivation of civil liberties and the atmosphere of nationalist emergency installed by Nasser which started the rot in the first place. That afternoon at the club was an object lesson in how autocracies can appear to be monolithic when stable and yet conceal a multitude of resentments, equivocations and plan free thinking among people you would figure for its most committed supporters.

At the heart of the counter-revolution lay the police. A friend of mine lived in the district of Smouha, a mile down the road from Midhat al-Yazel Street, and I went to visit. The street was built just a few years ago and everything still works, as yet relatively unexposed to entropy, eight-story apartment blocks with clean lobbies, liveried staff and new cars outside. Straight opposite the blocks was an old house with gardens, a police house dedicated to a career officer. During the revolution, the men of the neighbourhood had manned a barricade here, outside his house, and a spirit of camaraderie was thrown up, tea round the fire. We went to see him, one thing led to another, and we ended up sitting outside again, chewing the fat.

When Colonel Mohsin found out I was interested in the case of Khaled Said, he wanted to brief me, explain how autopsies create disfigurements similar to the one we saw in the photo on the Internet, give me the phone number of the lawyer, tell me the effects of hashish in the blood. Maybe, he said, maybe, the two agents had lied about bringing the body back. But that was just their inexperience.

Since he seemed up for it, I said, with all due respect, hadn’t the case caught everyone’s imaginations because it hit a raw nerve. People in this country think that police brutality is systematic – isn’t that the power behind the Khaled Said case, whatever the specifics of the case before the law?

“I blame the media over the last four to five years,” said the colonel. “They have the legal right to lie and they boast about it. As the government I need the power to stop them lying, and to have my own media which tells only the truth.” Hmm, I thought. Isn’t that pretty much what the last regime tried?

A couple of the men of the street came to join us as we sat out. The talk expanded. I was in favour of the revolution, Islam said, until they got rid of Mubarak. But now it’s enough. And I’ll tell you another thing. They talk about work. But people don’t want to work. We have jobs posted for 500 or 600 Egyptian pounds a month – about $100. But nobody applies for them. It’s the 25th of Losses, not the 25th of January, Mohammed said, a play on words in Arabic since Losses, khasayir, rhymes with January, yanayir. My company’s losing half a million dollars a day, that’s just in production, Islam said. It won’t be long before their entire investment is at risk.

Usama, who had lived in New Jersey, spoke archetypal American – “Hey buddy how are ya?” He said crime was spiralling out of control, now. Well, wouldn’t the police staying off the streets be something to do with that, I asked colonel Mohsin. He smiled at me as though I was naïve.

“We can’t go back until it is clear we have the authority to do what we need to do,” he said. “We need a law.” It wasn’t clear what he meant, I said. Egypt was full of laws. But people aren’t aware of what they are, he said. It was confusing. He seemed to be suggesting that the solution to a crisis of confidence in the Egyptian police was to give them more authority and power. He was all scare stories, about how an officer had been attacked by a nutter with a sword in Cairo and then attacked again by a crowd when he fired into the air in self-defence, how lots of police and army had been murdered during the revolution but it had all been hushed up.

What you don’t realise, he said, is how the Muslim Brothers are all influenced by Iran. The way they divide themselves up and slip into a crowd, each encouraging those around them to shout slogans? That’s pure Iran. Islam, Usama and Mohammed listened in silent respect. The Mubarak regime pedalled the Iranian hypothesis for years. When I was a correspondent based in Cairo in the early 90s Iran was behind everything last incident that happened. But it was surprising this particular meme could have lasted into the second decade of the twenty first century. Hadn’t the last few years seen the sharpening of a Sunni-Shia division across the Arab World?

As we sat talking he kept getting calls and texts on his two phones. What’s going on, we asked? They are raiding state security headquarters, he said. We all knew who “they” were. Where, we all asked, Cairo? No, here, he said. Alexandria? Let’s go there, I said. The colonel shook his head. It’s very bad. There’s an exchange of fire. My friend didn’t look keen so I sat back down.

You see, he said, turning to me. You see how organised they are? This is the Muslim Brothers who’ve gone to the police station to find their own records and expunge them. Because in the future they’re going to be in high office and they don’t want anyone to know what they were up to. And yet the newspapers tomorrow will be full of stories about how they opened fire from inside the buildings, as though the officers were responsible.

It was fascinating to be taken into the mind of a master conspirator. Mohsin could already spin all possible fall out from what was happening in real-time, in a way which kept his world view intact. The newspapers were indeed full the next day of reports that police inside the building had opened fire on demonstrators. Because they had. I spoke to three people separately who were there, who all said the same thing, none of them Muslim Brothers. This was, in fact, a new stage of the revolution. For some days, there had been reports of document bonfires inside police stations, particularly the hated state security, the political police. That day demonstrators in Alexandria decided to go to the buildings, supposedly abandoned because the police weren’t at work, to check it out. And police inside opened fire on them. It was the political police, not the protesters, who were shredding and burning documents. Colonel Mohsin’s version was a kind of neat anti-matter of the truth.

Didn’t the police store files in a central database, I asked. Well yes, he mumbled, the important stuff. But there were a lot of low level files at local level. It sounded like he didn’t really know what he was talking about but I let that pass.

With every call and text from police headquarters, under attack from determined fanatics, the group was getting edgier. Do you remember, Islam was asking Mohammed, the night we caught the thief and had to hold him down? Tales of car jackings and handbag snatches. Oh and look at those buildings over there, Usama said. I swear they’ve built three stories in the last three weeks. The building in question did seem to lean out precariously with some impromptu scaffolding applied to its upper floors. The group explained how since the revolution – sigh, tut – nobody even pretended to respect building regulations and more. Everyone was building floor extensions just as fast as they could, to be finished by the time law and order were re-established.

Other street residents were passing, with increasing haste as curfew drew near. Several mothers with children, all greeting us fulsomely, like we were fine, strong, decent men they could count on. Heady stuff.

Then there was a car passing with something on megaphone that we couldn’t catch. Colonel Mohsin sent off one of his bodyguards to check what the story was. He came back saying a small girl was missing and her family were distraught. We stood up, ready to break into groups and head off into the night to rescue her. But before we could, the bodyguard came back again to say she’d been found again.

I probed with the colonel what a solution to the security impasse might be. But it was hard to pick up from his answers and reactions anything other than a professional sulk. How about full powers back to the police, together with the undisputed right to citizens to film, I asked. Citizen media was a massive part of the revolution and everyone had mobile phones. If the right to film was explicit and acknowledged it would be widely practised. That won’t work in current circumstances, he said, because there will be excesses and when they are filmed they will get blown out of proportion. Almost as if he were demanding a police right to abuse power. What about if police all wear unique IDs on their shoulders, as they do in most of Europe, I asked? We don’t need that here because everyone knows who the police are, he replied. I was stumped.

Well come on, I said to Colonel Mohsin, there’s got to be something you think went wrong and needs to be done better next time. He went silent for a moment. And then came back with a chilling response. The old minister and spin, in effect. We didn’t spin well enough.

Habib al-Adly, he said, the now disgraced minister of the Interior, was too close to Suzanne Mubarak, the president’s wife. Because she liked him too much, the other ministers didn’t like him and left the door open for him, and the ministry, to be attacked. Plus, he was old school and arrogant. He would never issue denials which meant the media was fed with the opposition version of events and that went unchallenged. We need a proper media department.

That’s it. After twenty years on the force, Colonel Mohsin’s analysis of what went wrong with policing in Egypt is a fragment of palace scuttlebutt and bad public relations. Oh by the way, he said, as we parted. If you’re interested in finding out about Khaled Said’s neighbourhood, there’s a cafe on the corner of the Corniche you might want to go to. What’s it called? He pretends to rack his brains for a moment. Ah, yes. Qasr as-Shawq, the Palace of Desire. Yes you could find out a lot there.

He was telling me he knew where I had been. I had told my friend who presumably, quite innocently, had told him. Now he was telling me. The we know where you live gambit. Old habits die hard.
A key part of the philosophy of counter-revolution is faith in the School of Hard Knocks. A businessman, Mahmoud, largely self-made through links to the regime, has spent an afternoon telling me how everything is going to pot, how the high profile businessmen now being questioned over sweet land deals, some of them his sponsors, are misunderstood – who else would have got land development going along the Northern coast? But then he suddenly lapses into reminiscences about national service and the time he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for desertion because he’d been a week late back from leave. He’d already started a successful career when he was called for service, and, after a week of farcical exercises in the desert, almost absconded altogether in horror at the thought of two more years of hunger, discomfort, excruciating boredom, sitting in the middle of nowhere in a uniform that never fitted.

So I was up in front of the court, said Mahmoud. We have a distant cousin who I’d never met with the same family name, a general. The colonel barked at me, why were you late? At that time he could have sentenced me to six months, a year even, I was really sweating. I told them I was ill. I had food poisoning, I said. My mother took me to the hospital. Why didn’t you go to the military hospital, the colonel shouted? Because I didn’t. Because I was ill and my mother just took me to the nearest hospital. Then he went silent, Mahmoud said. He was thinking what to do. Did you ask the general, I asked him, General Metwalli? Silence, he shouted, but I could see what I’d said weighed with him, he was thinking it over. Finally, he said, I’m going to send you to the doctor to find traces of this food poisoning. If you’re lying, I’ll put you away for six months. But when I got to the doctor, I treated him as a conscript, like I was. He said he couldn’t find anything but I said, well, you can take my word for it that it hurts, can’t you? So I got the paper from him and only had to serve 30 days – and half of those were in the military hospital.

Then, when I got out, I managed to pull strings to get to a desk job in Cairo. I only had to turn up half the time and they proposed me a week on, a week off. But I said, how about 10 days on, 10 days off. I wanted to create a schedule they wouldn’t follow so they didn’t come to rely on me, to know when I would be there or not. The officer agreed. And then I found a conscript I could bribe to let me sign the attendance book whenever I wished. I didn’t bribe him outright. That would have been too dangerous. I just asked him to buy stuff, sugar, coffee etc, and always made sure to give him three times what it cost and never ask for the change. It was over soon enough.

Just as I was thinking what a nightmare, to have that hanging over your head from the time you reach college age, how are you going to get through it, how are you going to get over it, Mahmoud said contemplatively: “It was a great experience. I learned so much. How to work with people, project what you need to, work the system.”

I began to see why he might hate the revolution. He’d spent all those years learning, working and yes, suffering here and there. And they, these kids, were going to render that all worthless. He’d been clever. But they were going to best him, effortlessly, just like that. A friend of Mahmoud’s, the same age but of a more liberal persuasion, turned to me and said: “You know. If we’d only known the regime would collapse if you just blew” – he breathed out like a child blowing out candles on a cake – “we’d have done it ourselves twenty years ago”.

A couple of days after the evening with Colonel Mohsin, I was back on Khaled’s street, when Hisham and Ahmed turned up. They were bloggers and revolutionaries and had come to talk about the documents they had found in the state security headquarters that night I had been over at Smouha.

“We’re calling it Revolution 2.1,” said Ahmed, grinning at his own bon mot. He told me the story of a friend of his who had had a run in with a state security agent in college who had forced him to change his studies, and the night of the storming of the headquarters had come face to face with his tormentor.

How could an agent make you change your major, I asked. Long story. Basically state security police were also on the campuses of all colleges and universities, the friend had got into an argument with the agent and he had simply decided to demote him. Like many countries, you need particular grades in your high school exams in Egypt to be allowed to study particular subjects. The friend had scored high and was in the engineering faculty. Afterwards, he was forced to switch to commerce, a middling catchment subject.

“And that’s it right there. You’ve got to understand there’s a big element of envy in the story between the police and the activists,” said Ahmed. “For example, I scored 99% in my high school exams and the average state security agent got between 50% and 60%. If he sees me on campus, he wants to show me I’m not so special.” The example wasn’t theoretical, I sensed. Ahmed really had scored 99 percent in his tawgihi, the high school exams.

It would be easy to label Ahmed as arrogant as he talked about how awful the prime minister Ahmed Shafik was with his 3,000 Egyptian pound pullover, as though that made him a worthy statesman, and how he’d said just that to a cabby who’d taken him somewhere the day before who was full of common man praise for him. Hisham too, as he recounted how he’d told a friend off who supported Shafik because the friend had said he was afraid to voice his opinion. “’You’re afraid? And you think we weren’t when we went up against the bullets of the police?’ I said to him!”

Both of them were lightning fast, funny, rapier sharp, unafraid of anybody and could be bruisingly direct. Ahmed, who was dark, also had this retro Black Panther look going on, huge, heavy glasses, white T-shirt on sticky rib cage, Afro hair cut, and perfect grunge jeans. He was a hero of the revolution at 20. Forget your average police conscript, I was a little jealous of him.

But he wasn’t arrogant, he was 20. He had no experience of power and didn’t expect deference. He simply expected others to be as smart and principled as him and was impatient when they weren’t. He had no concept he could be intimidating.

“This is the first revolution that wasn’t about bread,” said Ahmed. “It was about freedom, not bread. You know what they say: revolutions begin with risk takers, are completed by the brave, and then ridden by cowards”. So, alright, maybe he was a bit cocky.

I told them an experience I’d had in a cab the day before. The radio was on, the news had come at the top of the hour and the presenter read, “the new prime minister Essam Sharif greeted and congratulated the noble leaders of the January 25 revolution…”, monotonously, without conviction, just as she had, presumably, one month earlier, for the comings and goings of Mr President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak. The cabby was one of those unsettled by the police absence from the streets, worried everything was about to go belly up. Surely they, Hisham and Ahmed, could understand that many people thought they were a simply new National Democratic Party, a new clique that was going to appropriate the Egyptian state?

“But the last thing we would do is be one party,” said Hisham. “That’s what we fought the revolution about.” Though he added: “Now that you mention it, I remember the day Mubarak left there were a couple of us who quite unexpectedly became unhappy. They wanted to stop. We do need to protect the revolution. But we also need to build, now, in society.”

So what about those on the breadline, I asked. The fellah, or peasant, the petty official, all those struggling to make ends meet?

“There’s a simple solution to the economy,” said Ahmed. “Some time ago lawyers representing the unions put forward a proposal for a minimum wage in the public sector of 1,200 Egyptian pounds. I think that would be a simple way to let everyone understand the revolution is for them too.”

Twelve hundred pounds, or about $200, was about six times the current effective minimum in the public sector. Ahmed’s “simple” solution was to raise salaries six-fold. It also didn’t address the tens of millions who worked in the informal sector, prey to both poverty and insecurity. Like Ali the Shoeshine. We were sitting at one of his cafes. I looked up and down but he wasn’t there just then. In my mind’s eye I saw him, though, giving his latest pair of shoes some elbow.

College Boys, he said, tutting. He didn’t bother to look up.

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Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Read All About It – Egypt’s state propaganda machine

Here, look at this, a friend said. Al Ahram is doing exactly what you are – a take out on the world of Khaled Said. Sure enough, there was an inside spread, with a large picture of Khaled set against a wide shot of Manshiet Nasser, one of Alexandria’s famous tourist spots, and the legend “The key to the revolution”. I was interested to see how a feature like this would turn out in the Arab World’s oldest newspaper, in its 136th year now since the Takla brothers, themselves Lebanese, had launched it.

Al Ahram had seen the British Protectorate, King Farouk and Abdel-Nasser come and go, had reported on everything from the Titanic to the Tea Party – the two world wars, Palestine, Suez, the Six Day War, the Iranian Revolution, Sadat’s assassination, the implosions of Lebanon and Iraq, 9/11. TE Lawrence had pored over it as an obscure subaltern, looking for clues in its pages as to where, in the great tectonic shifts of empire in the First World War, a chink might lie for a man to go and forge his legend. Fifty years later, spooks and analysts across the region parsed every word of its editor Mohammed Hassanein Haikal, seeking to know the mind of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the future of the Arab nation. If it had in more recent years descended into mere, cheap propaganda organ for the regime, maybe the revolution could change its fortunes, restore its greatness.

It would be hard to be more disappointed in the end result. There’s a paragraph at the beginning which somehow succeeds in trivialising the death of Khaled Said by its penny shocker tone, a reference to his face as captured by Ahmed’s photo at the morgue and its features “disfigured by the brutality of Habib Adly’s schooled torturers that sad, melancholic day”. And then he, Khaled, disappears along with his world. No reference to the street or even the neighbourhood. The rest is a soup of tired cliches about Alexandria the city that could have been pulled out of a guide book. A list without purpose. The poet Cafavy and his friend Lawrence Durrell. Nasser’s speeches at Manshia. The tram built “by the Italian architect Antonio”. The world famous singer Demis Roussos. Anfoushi district, next to the port, bombed by British gunboats in the Orabi revolt. The old fort at Qait Bay. Sultan Ibrahim Mosque. Saad Zaghloul Square with its gardens “distinguished by their simplicity and beauty”. I was staying on that square, as it happened, at the Cecil Hotel, and, as I’d crossed the gardens that morning, had noticed how threadbare the grass was and how the gutter reeked of piss.

A five thousand word feature untarnished by a single piece of original reporting, even its imagery as old and shabby as an organ grinder with a monkey.

I went down to Cairo from Alex for the day, to a conference on the future of the media in Egypt. What to do about Ahram and the other newspapers, and most of all the state TV was the burning question. State media had long been the propaganda arm of the regime but it took the revolution for them to distinguish themselves with a level of incitement and disinformation that was simply without moral compass. Day Four of the protests brought the Battle of the Camel, when the baltagia, hired thugs supporting the government, broke into Tahrir Square riding horses and a camel, all captured on camera. It was supposed to play as noble Arab manhood, the knight on his steed, the bedouin with their camels, against a base rabble, and was covered at face value by the state media that day. A narrative of mind-boggling poverty. This was Cairo, a groaning concrete jungle of 15 million people. The animals had been rounded up from tourist rides near the Pyramids. All of the “uncouth rabble” were peaceful, and a huge number were college graduates, the cream of their generation, auto-didactically steeped in the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, baring their chests to live ammunition and chanting witty slogans.

“I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that you can’t really reform these media,” said Hafez al-Marazi, former Jazeera correspondent to Washington and now dean of a faculty of journalism. “You’d go in as the reforming director and face a bunch of old faces. And they’d say ‘I covered the protests on the third day’, ‘well, I did on the second day’, ‘I never joined the NDP’. That’s what you’d have to manage while meanwhile there’s a whole new world to cover. Seniority. Self-justification. It would be better to scrap them all and start again.”

As if in unconscious confirmation, various journalists from Ahram and state TV stood up to declare their own clean, personal pasts, the essential role of the “national” sector as they called state-subsidised media, and the need for balance, not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Groups of young bloggers who had reported the protests to social networks sat looking on, a little ill at ease in the ballroom of the Semiramis Hotel. In a matter of weeks, they had first circumvented, then exposed, and finally forced a change in editorial direction of Egypt’s huge media organs, but without a game plan, all just as spontaneous reaction to what they saw was needed. Now this arcane debate left them befuddled.

It was the sheer scale of Egypt’s state propaganda effort that was hard to grasp.

“The only part of the government budget, apart from defence, that has remained secret, is the information budget,” said Hisham Qassem, publisher of the independent daily al-Misry al-Yawm, which has gained a strong reputation since hitting the new stands in 2003. “I believe that when those accounts are opened up, they will show the regime spent more on media than on health and education combined.”

He estimated the Egyptian state could have been spending 25 billion pounds, or $4 billion a year, on telling the people how great Hosni Mubarak was. State media employed 80,000 people. The al Ahram group alone employed 17,000 people.

Chief architect of this empire for a long time was Safwat el-Sherif, founder member of Mubarak’s NDP. Safwat had worked for military intelligence. Despite a year’s jail term in 1968, when he was convicted of extortion and blackmail for his own benefit, one of Mubarak’s first acts on becoming president in 1981 was to appoint him as minister of information. There he stayed for many years, eventually graduating to become speaker of the upper house of parliament.

The 180 degree volte face by the state media was reminiscent of a story of Mullah Nasruddin, a joke figure across much of the Middle East. Nasruddin, often portrayed as the village idiot, was appointed judge and had to hear a complicated case. The prosecutor stood up and denounced the man in the dock as a dangerous criminal guilty of a heinous crime. “You’re right!” exclaimed Nasruddin and prepared to sentence the condemned man. “But, mullah,” said the clerk of the court. “You have to hear the defence yet.” The defence got up and delivered a scathing attack on the prosecution for impugning this poor, innocent, upright citizen. “You’re right!” exclaimed Nasruddin again. “But, mullah,” the clerk of the court intervened again. “They can’t both be right.” “You’re right!” exclaimed Nasruddin once again.

Headlines in the government newspapers referred to “the uprooted president”, a phrase used by the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square. Footage appeared, apparently shot on mobile, showing one of the highest profile Mubarak-era businessmen, Ahmed Ezz, being pushed around in a prison courtyard and insulted by his jailers, like some bizarre tribute to the execution video of Saddam Hussein by supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the same mobile verite shakes, the same feeling, perhaps real, perhaps part of the production, of footage shot by stealth. Virtually every item talked of the January 25th revolution, or the youth of January 25th.

“I insist on media respecting values,” said Marazi. “Mubarak is not ‘the dictator’ or ‘the deposed president’. He is ‘former president Hosni Mubarak’. And Ahmed Ezz is innocent until proven guilty.”

Funnily enough, the basis for independent media began to operate in Egypt several years ago. Perhaps prodded by the satellite TV revolution to think of a media opening as inevitable, some say under the liberalising influence of the now reviled Gamal Mubarak, seeking the role of great moderniser, the regime began to grant licenses to newspapers and magazines that edged towards independence, story by story, taboo by taboo. They covered the Kefaya protest movement in 2004-5, began to carry stories of individual abuse of power by the police and others, and formed a tactical alliance with the blogosphere, in which each broke stories carried by the other.

Khaled Salah is editor of al-Yawm as-Saab’, the Seventh Day, a news website established in 2007 which is now backing into print. The operations is jammed into about five apartments at the top of a skyscraper in Cairo’s Mohandisin district, some 250 journalists in total, buzzing with that newsroom feel. His own office is invaded non-stop as any managing editor’s should be. At one stage he is discussing wording with one of his lead reporters – “Not the cause of the revolution, Hala, we can’t say that. A cause of the revolution perhaps!” – negotiating with a Jordanian colleague come to enquire about plans to expand investigative reporting, and chatting to me.

A reporter, Mirette Ibrahim, takes me round the operation. It’s heaving. They take sports seriously. They have translation services into and out of not just English, French, Spanish but German, Dutch and Farsi. I never thought I would pass the time of day with someone in Farsi in Cairo.

The site got a license as a weekly print publication and now, after the revolution, as a daily. But their roots lie in the web. When I ask Mirette how they rate themselves, she says number of unique visits. They get five million a month. They’re the sixth highest traffic site in Egypt, but once you take out the generics – Google, Yahoo, YouTube – they’re the top Egyptian content provider, she says.

But if the future belongs to Hisham Qasssem’s al-Misry al-Yawm, and Khaled Salah’s al-Yawm as-Saabia’, there is one genuine and deep aspect of Egyptian life the old state media have always known how to serve up – the crime pages. When I was a Reuters correspondent in Cairo, twenty years ago, whoever was on the morning shift had to “read in”. This meant getting through three newspapers and filing any “pick-ups”, stories of note that it was worth paraphrasing to the world, that there might be on… the Middle East peace process, the IMF reform program, what the Islamists had been up to… before you could get on with the business of your own reporting, what was going on out there through the window. And I remember memorising their formats, isolating the pages and writers that might need to be picked up, and speed reading the headlines so I could get through those three newspapers in 40 minutes. So I could get onto the crime pages.

Because they were fascinating. You had a hard time, as a foreign correspondent, converting these stories into material you could use since they neither affected Egypt’s place in the world nor its ruler’s place on his seat, and they rarely mapped onto the other story lines that tickled the things readers already knew – Egyptology, flailing bureaucracy, faded grandeur. But I loved them because, if you lived in Cairo, you were constantly passing through this huge city along pre-set vectors that barely touched the throbbing humanity you saw out of the window. I was a foreign correspondent, I loved the culture and spoke the language but I rarely felt like I knew what drove most people’s lives. And these pages yielded just a glimpse of what you passed by several times a day.

So I spent a couple of train journeys between Cairo and Alex trawling through the crime pages of the state newspapers, and discovered that, revolution or no revolution, this Egypt had not changed in the least. Maybe it’s not so surprising there should be so much violence – these are the crime pages after all. It’s the instability and hyper-anonymity of life that throws the rest of what we know about Egypt into relief, particularly what we might be tempted to describe glibly as its religiosity or moral conservatism. It’s chaos out there. You don’t have to be crazy or weak minded to look for something to hold onto.

One day, two newspapers.

A man in the Alexandrian neighbourhood of Montaza kills his friend for not paying back 20 Egyptian pounds, or $3.

A girl gets pregnant at 15. She flees her family and, walking the street, finds a man who takes her to the middle class Cairo neighbourhood of Madinat Nasr to work as a maid for an elderly lady. But the lady keeps her under lock and key. Eventually she escapes and is walking the street again. A man of 30 takers her back to his flat and rapes her so violently she loses the baby.

Safa, from the Cairo slum of Imbaba, waits until her family are asleep and then, at midnight, buys acid from a local petrol station. She waits for her neighbour Emad, aged 15, who comes back in the early hours from his job delivering pizzas on his moped. And throws the acid in his face for verbally harassing her. He denies that, and says the two families are in a land dispute.

Ahmed A, 20, came from Upper Egypt to Alexandria, jobless and sleeping in the street. He befriends Chico, the driver of a tuk tuk and when he discovers Chico earns 30 Egyptian pounds a day, decides he’s going to kill him to take the tuk tuk. He invents an excuse for them to drive out of the city along the coastal road, persuades Chico to get out of the tuk tuk, and stabs him to death. Chico is 13 years old.

A man gets a phone call from his friend that his wife is having an affair. He puts the phone down and kills her.

A 32 year old divorcee from the Nile Delta has been caught distributing self-made porn videos.

A young husband kills his wife because he’s impotent.

A son kills his father because he won’t give him the money to buy an apartment.

A married man with two kids stabs his lover to death on a bridge in Imbaba, late at night, and then stages an attack on himself. The investigating policeman gets him to confess by telling him she survived the attack and has testified against him.

A hairdresser kills his wife, a former employee, when she asks for a divorce.

A father drowns his son, 7 years old, in the lake at Fayyoum after taking him for a visit from his estranged wife. He is sentenced to ten years in jail.

A brother kills his sister on the command of her husband because he’s convinced she’s had an affair.

A team of eight people are caught digging for antiquities in the old Alexandria neighbourhood of Gumruk.

A gang are caught in Giza counterfeiting $100 bills. One of them is an accountant, the other is a driver who works in the tourist industry, both in their early 30s.

A 28 year old man kills his father when he taunts him that he is illegitimate. But meanwhile is living a fantasy life that he is an undercover policeman, already at the rank of colonel, about to depart on a secret mission to southern Egypt, hotbed of extremism. He’ll be disguised as a fruitseller. “Satan whispered to me,” he says. “Obviously I’m upset because I have ruined my glittering future.”

A man of 63 goes to call on a young colleague in a village near Damietta. Only his wife is there but the man says he has brought supper and asks to come in. She goes to the kitchen to make tea and when she comes back he is stark naked. She screams for help. Her husband and a friend rush to the house, beat the old man to death and dump his naked corpse outside, making no attempt to hide it.

Maryam is woken by her father, brother and uncle to be strangled in her bed for going out too often and staying out too late. They dump her body in a different part of Cairo but the police trace her by her T-shirt, one of a limited number given out by an Italian charity as part of a project.

A gang are caught at Marsa Matrouh with 250 kilograms of hasish.

The head of a petroleum distribution company is reported missing after two months. Police trace his mobile phone down to a shop in Ismailia, then his car. Two men and a woman lured him into a honey trap, killed him, then wrapped his body in a carpet and dumped it on the desert road at kilometer 75 between Cairo and Ismailia. The body isn’t discovered until after the murderers confess. The woman, 17, is married to one of the men, who is 32.

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

We are all Khaled Said

“It was about 11 o’clock in the evening,” said Hassan al-Misbah, sitting at the desk of his Internet cafe. “Khaled came in and saw two of his friends. Two plain clothes police came in after him, held him back with his arms to his head and began beating him.” He got up, walked round the desk, and took me down a short flight of stairs to the front door, the actual scene. “They smashed his head down against this mantelpiece.”

“Well I wasn’t having that. We pushed them out, me and my son Hisham. By the time we’d calmed everyone down inside, we heard they’d gone into the apartment block next door. I went out, to carry on the argument, to be honest. Come on!” We went out onto the street, walked 10 metres past a barber’s shop and through a doorway.

“They were inside, here, with Khaled. But they had this door shut and wouldn’t open to me. Then a police car turned up, a single officer and a driver. The two agents opened the door and carried him out. But he was dead already,” said Hassan. “This is where Khaled died.”

The marbled lobby bore no trace of Khaled Said’s last moments. A man shuffled by with some plastic shopping bags, past a lift which didn’t work and up the stairs. The street gave off regular low grade bustle.

All probability at that point, mid-June 2010, were that the violent death of Khaled Said, aged 28, in the hallway of an apartment block in Alexandria, would be just another case of police brutality in Egypt. His friends would mourn him. Local and international human rights groups might or might not get enough evidence to pick up the case, but anyway the police would be exonerated, if there any proceedings at all. There had been thousands before and there would be thousands after. Life in the 30th year of Hosni Mubarak’s securitised rule of Egypt would go on as usual.

Instead, Khaled’s death became the rallying point for protests which escalated until Hosni Mubarak’s rule was shattered. A series of protests in the weeks after his death drew national attention to the case. And when, a few months later, pro-democracy activists felt ready to emulate their Tunisian cousins and take to the streets, it was under his image. A young Internet executive called Wael Ghoneim organised a demonstration for January 25th in Cairo’s Tahrir Square through a Facebook page entitled We Are All Khaled Said. Fifty thousand people came, not just the dedicated hard core but fresh faces, old and young. They came back the next day, and the next and the next, swelling to millions, and the rest is history. Just eighteen days after the start of the protests Hosni Mubarak had retired in disgrace to a secluded villa on the Red Sea coast.

If Khaled Said was not the cause of Egypt’s revolution, he was its banner and icon. I had come to Alexandria to find out how and why he was killed, how this one had counted – and to experience what I could of Khaled Said’s world.

Back to Hassan al-Misbah, standing where Khaled died: “They took him out. And then eight minutes later – more than five, less than ten – they brought him back. Not the one car that had left. Ten cars, fifteen, maybe more. As if the world came down on our heads. I couldn’t even count the uniforms. They closed the street down, brought Khaled back and put him in the lobby. Lifeless. What were they doing in those eight minutes?”

The cover up had begun. It was just before midnight on a Monday evening, but in June this part of the street is normally still full of life. Average weather would now be a clement 18 degrees centigrade, perhaps a pleasant salt breeze rising off the Mediterranean just 100 metres away, across the Corniche. Ten metres across the street, two cafes side by side were doing brisk business. A small crowd had already gathered when the two policemen had taken Khaled into the apartment block. Dozens of eyewitnesses saw them carry his inert body out to the car, then the police invasion which followed when they brought him back.

Khaled’s brother Ahmed was nearby and got to the scene in time to follow the ambulance taking Khaled to the morgue. They refused him entry and told him to go to the police station. He did and the police gave him the runaround. By the time he left, it was three in the morning. But then he did something which changed history. He went back to the morgue to give it one more try. There was no longer anybody guarding it, and he got in.

“That was their biggest mistake,” he told me sitting in the family apartment. “They’d set the guard to begin at six in the morning.”

Ahmed used his mobile phone to take pictures of his brother, laid out in the mortuary, and posted them on the Internet.
Two pictures of Khaled Said lie side by side across the Internet. If you can, right now, I’d like to suggest you use Google Images to search for “Khaled Said”. Be warned. It could make you cry and it’s not for kids. But it will show you why there was a revolution in Egypt.

One is a standard pic of a clean cut young man, hoodie down, slightly slicked hair, just the tiniest quiff escaping what would have been a widow’s peak come middle age. Fresh skin, level expression. Everything about him says regular guy. The other, taken by Ahmed four hours after he died, is gruesome. His whole jaw has been dislocated to another part of his face. He’s missing at least three teeth. Blood trickled and has dried on his mouth, his nose and a cut near his eye. His open eyes stare blankly at the ceiling. Worst of all is the rictus, his mouth gaping. It must have been a horrific death.

The pictures sparked an outrage which reached beyond Khaled’s family and the usual small groups of activists and human rights campaigners into middle class, middle of the road Egypt. Whatever the details of the affair, there was a certain incontrovertible truth to them. Before and After.

“There are two things which made the Khaled Said case different,” said Ismail Alexandrani, one of the leaders of the protests which followed. “The first was the pictures. For the first time, we had an image of police brutality in Egypt. The second was the strong reaction of the family.”

The night after Khaled died, a small group of committed leftist activists held a demo outside the district police headquarters in Samouha district which was handling the case. A couple of dozen people turned up but were dispersed without fuss. On the following Saturday, though, protesters tried something new: a Prayer for the Departed in the Sidi Gabr mosque, one of Alexandria’s landmarks and a few hundred yards down the road from Khaled’s street.

From the first hours the police had issued a counter story. Incredibly, the two agents, Mahmoud Salah and Awad Ismail, denied attacking Khaled, and that they had brought back his body to the street, contradicting dozens of eyewitness accounts. The official version of events said Khaled Said had died from suffocation, not beating, when he tried to swallow a lump of marijuana as the policemen detained him. They had stopped him because he had been sentenced in absentia to a month in prison for a street fight. It was a tragic loss of life, but the police were just doing their job. An official coroner’s inquiry confirmed this story.

The Said family, Ahmed and his uncle Ali hired lawyers and spoke to the press. Khaled was targeted for assassination by the policemen, they said, because he had uploaded a video to the Internet showing police implicated in a drugs haul. They raised a civil case and demanded trial for premeditated murder rather than manslaughter.

In other countries, even a corrupt police force might start to weigh the case differently now. The locale, this slightly run-down street, the cramped apartment where Khaled lived and the sha’abi, or popular Internet cafe where he was attacked, was deceptive. His family were well connected and well-off. I was told of three properties that they owned or used, two in Alexandria and another one in Cairo. Ahmed had lived in the States for the best part of 20 years and was actually visiting when Khaled was killed. Normally he runs an industrial cleaning business in Philadelphia. His uncle owns some agricultural land. Put it together and it is not inconceivable that Khaled’s immediate family owns assets worth over a million dollars. His uncle Ali, briefing the press, had been active in the opposition Wafd Party, the preserve in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt of people with enough standing to brush off low-level police intimidation. A more distant relative had been a member of parliament’s appointed upper chamber, the Shoura. And Ahmed, particularly, was unshakable. He would not take prisoners and he would never surrender, and he’d blown the case wide open. He had obtained American citizenship in his 20 years residence there and got the consul in Cairo involved within 24 hours. Lawyers from the embassy travelled up to Alexandria and visited the apartment in the first few days. Egypt’s strategic relationship was in play, however marginally. It was impossible to just do Ahmed in down an alley, like his brother, and set up some low grade criminal for a mugging gone wrong. Though it’s hard to believe nobody in the bestirred anthill that was now Alexandria’s police force thought of it.

So a more flexible police state might at that point have served up Mahmoud and Awad on a platter, vowed stern justice always and everywhere for bent cops, affirmed the unswerving core commitment of the police to the service of society, and moved on.

But Egypt’s repression industry, with its 1.7 million men, was nothing if not Pavlovian, treading the only wheel it knew. The ordinary folk of Cleopatra district lived the confusing experience of two official Egypts in those few days. There was the legal and judicial arm, which in response to public outcry had commissioned a review of the coroner’s report and was making highly publicised attempts to gather more witnesses. And then there was the security apparatus, the only executive arm that really mattered in Egypt, deploying its uniformed officers, plain clothes agents and baltagiya, hired thugs, to intimidate those same witnesses. Several of Khaled’s friends were mysteriously beaten up down dark alleys but nobody was ever caught. One particularly strong witness, a 13-year old boy called Haitham, gave a powerful interview on Dream, one of Egypt’s private TV stations, which convincingly damned the policemen. But then his father changed his mind about him giving testimony and he disappeared from public view. The same official newspapers and TV which carried earnest appeals from officers, spic and span in front of the mike, for anyone who knew anything to come forward, also carried, on deep background of course, a swirl of rumour and insinuation.

Khaled was already dead but now they were killing his character. He was a druggy with previous convictions, he was high on hash when he died, he was high on Tramadol, he and his brother were in a deadly battle over the family’s inheritance. Amid the general cloud burst of defamation there was a very specific target. Ahmed’s pictures, which had not been denied early enough to take out of the equation, were after the post-mortem, of course! That’s what happens in a post-mortem, dozens of articles explained. The head is opened up from the back and, especially if there’s any question of ingestion, you have to break the jaw to see what’s down there. The package of marijuana was found in his lungs.

It’s hard to convey how effective these kinds of campaigns can be. I met maybe a dozen people who, when they heard I was following the case of Khaled Said, gave me a nudge nudge wink wink and said: “Let me tell you what he was really like.” What followed was nearly always about the drugs. And when you quizzed them, it turned out they didn’t really know Khaled. They went to school with a guy who lived on his street. Their brother once played football with him. They would then, in their second breath, go on to say how that in no way justified. Etc etc. Mostly they would mean that but sometimes it was grudging or even bilious, as with one of his neighbours who, after paying lip service to Khaled Said’s right to stay alive, then went on to say he would start a petition against any official move to rename the street he lived on after him, since he was a no-good out of work druggy. But even without malice, the yearning to be on the inside in a society awhirl with gossip runs deep.

The family held their own in that propaganda war. Khaled didn’t have a job because he was an entrepreneur, they said, working with his brother on import-export. He didn’t take drugs. In fact he was a martyr and the victim not of a savage police beating that went wrong but a targeted assassination. The agents hunted him down, they said, because Khaled had just uploaded a video to the Internet which exposed their commander, a young officer called Ahmed Osman, as complicit in a drugs deal. Osman is known in the district as young, late twenties, the same age as Khaled, and ambitious both in terms of his career and extra-curricular activities. In his short time at Samouha he had already muscled in for a percentage of some of the local illegal cable TV companies that flourish all across urban Egypt.

Independent witnesses who saw the video said it showed a drugs haul. A team of police, smiling and triumphant, are counting wads of cash at a table, holding packaged bags of drugs and forcing the suspects to lift their heads and show their faces to camera. Khaled might have acquired it by Bluetooth, simply through being in the same room as a policeman who kept it on his phone and hadn’t password protected his wireless data channel.

The video, like Ahmed’s pictures, became something which could not be denied so had to be incorporated. The official response concentrated on the fact there was nothing incriminating. It was perhaps tasteless, against internal procedures, even. But nothing in the video showed any illegal action, so it would be illogical to target someone for uploading it. Arms stretched, palms of the hands turned out, gentle, be-reasonable smile. But that in turn ignores two other possibilities. First, the video might show nothing incriminating in and of itself, but what about in conjunction with other facts as we know them? Like if some of the drugs and cash you could see in it later went missing? Second, even with nothing incriminating, if you’re someone like Ahmed Osman, it’s true you might not want to kill someone like Khaled on the street simply for posting your trophy video to the Net. But you might want to beat the sorry little fucker – with apologies, Khaled – within an inch of life to scare the shit out of him. In this scenario, the hapless Mahmoud and Awad could easily have had orders to go find him and to make sure they went in heavy when they picked him up. The knocking about in Hassan al-Misbah’s Internet cafe, in front of twenty civilians, would have been quite unembarrassed.

As these allegations and counter-allegations swirled, another thing was happening to lift Khaled’s death out of private tragedy and make it part of Egyptian history. The protest movement which was crystallising around it used their imagination.

The Prayer for the Departed service that Saturday after his death at Sidi Gabr mosque was chaotic. Ismail Alexandrani at that time was Alexandria coordinator for the political activities of Mohamed el-Baradei, the Nobel Peace Laureate who had recently retired from his post as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency to return home and campaign against Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. He described how the service descended into chaos as the protesters clashed, unwittingly, with an unrelated funeral procession that had turned up at the mosque at the same time. Despite the deadly stakes, some of what Ismail narrates falls frankly into the hilarious, and he is unable to resist a smile from time to time.

“The khutba, or sermon, is normally about twenty minutes or half a hour. But the police had told the mosque’s imam to carry on until past two o’clock. For over an hour. He ran out of things to say and kept repeating himself. The crowd was getting bored and started muttering “shame on you” under the breaths to the imam,” he said.

There were over a thousand people inside the mosque and in the compound outside. The organisers had succeeded in drawing way more than the usual crowd of core activists by staging a procession to the mosque which passed along Port Said Street, past the intersection with Midhat al-Yazel Street, where Khaled Said had lived and died. Beyond the crowd hundreds of police ringed them in. When the other cortege turned up, the press was so intense that scuffling broke out between the protesters for Khaled Said and the other mourners.

“I stood up to announce that there would be prayers for the deceased first, for the other person, and then the demonstration for Khaled,” he said. “That was the way to resolve it. And also we declared that nobody would speak. There were a lot of factions and parties there. If one of them spoke, all the rest would want to.”

Some of the factions raised their own banners and slogans, against the common agreement they had all reached beforehand. The demonstration broke up in tumult, leaving the organisers wowed by the turn out but dismayed by their failure to produce a more solid event.

But it was only the start. The following Friday they held prayers at the Sultan Ibrahim mosque on the seafront. It’s a more august, traditional venue. By this time the case had attracted national attention and top opposition figures like Elbaradei and Ayman Nour, leader of the Ghad party who had contested the last presidential elections against Mubarak, made the three hour trip from Cairo up to the coast. Afterwards, Elbaradei and the others attended a meeting at the house of an old leftist activist called Ikram Youssef. The meeting started to criticise Elbaradei for not visiting Khaled’s family. He was under intense media scrutiny at the time, having returned to Egypt not long before, and Ismail says he had already planned to visit the family but privately. Now, however, he was forced into declaring a visit publicly, with the result that he dragged the other opposition figures and media circus along with him.

“We were there in the apartment and it was so crowded there were cameramen climbing over the furniture, trashing it, just to get the pictures. At one stage Elbaradei went to the toilet and a cameraman followed him,” said Ismail. “I had to stop him otherwise I swear he would have followed him in.”

Later that day, though, was the first in a series of waqfat, periods of silence where hundreds of demonstrators stood at chosen spots all along Alexandria’s busy Corniche, the city’s main thoroughfare. They all wore black, faced out to sea and wore pictures of Khaled on their backs so that thousands in the city’s frantic traffic would have seen them and registered something about that nice looking boy who’d died. It was dignified and effective.

Not that they were left to demonstrate in peace.

“Just as we got ourselves into position, about 200 kids turned up in buses,” said Ismail. “They were from one of Suzanne Mubarak’s charities, an anti-tobacco campaign to make Alexandria a smoke-free city. We were there for a silence in mourning and there they were in their buses, honking, blasting messages and music through loudspeakers. We asked the kids why they were there, exactly, and they didn’t know. I have to admit, it was a good play.”

But by the third such silence the protesters had drawn in perhaps 5,000 people – more than for any other general cause or action since the main opposition Kefaya movement had collapsed in 2005.

After a few weeks, the protests lost a little impetus. But picked up again with the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which began in 2010 in August. An old open air theatre stood opposite Khaled’s apartment on Midhat al-Yazel Street. Nobody played there any more but special iftars, the early evening meal which breaks the day’s fast, were staged there during Ramadan. Khaled’s family and their activist supporters organised one such supper there on the tenth day of Ramadan. Hundreds of people came to the supper and, once again, phalanxes of police invaded, cordoning off the theatre from the rest of the street.

By this time Wael Ghoneim had launched his page on Facebook, We Are All Khaled Said, from his residence in Dubai, where he was Google’s marketing director for the Middle East, and was quietly gathering followers.

Meanwhile, Ahmed was doggedly building media support wherever he could. In the family apartment, he showed me a fat pile of business cards from journalists all over the world. And local copies on his laptop of videos. A Swedish politician declaring solidarity. A punchy video from Amr Khaled, a superstar Muslim televangelist, on a beach somewhere, raising his arms and shouting to the skies for justice for Khaled.

There was another lag with no obvious moments or events to ride. Then the court case began. Because by this time the pressure had had enough impact that Mahmoud Salah and Awad Ismail, the two plain clothes agents, were indeed put on trial. Not for murder or manslaughter, but for unlawful arrest and excessive use of force. The charges, in other words, did not challenge the police story that Khaled had died by suffocation as a result of trying to swallow a drugs stash.

Busloads of Mahmoud and Awad’s relatives magically turned up from their home towns in the Nile Delta and noisily protested their innocence outside the courthouse. While Ahmed was busy in court, Ismail and the protesters realised they were outflanked and looked for other channels. They ended up chalking slogans on the ground at Sidi Gabr railway station, the main terminal for the tens of thousands who arrive in Alexandria from Cairo every day.

“Most people by now did not believe the government propaganda,” said Ismail. “We had won before the court of public opinion.”

That still didn’t mean a whole deal in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. But for the first time the nation had a face and a name to match their anger at police brutality. Even the ageing and isolated president would have heard of the case himself by now. Given Ahmed’s connections and campaigning it would have made it, somehow, as an item into an agenda of a meeting with the US ambassador, or visiting dignitary from the State Department, somewhere along the line. He, Mubarak, might even know Khaled Said’s name. Although if he did he might feign vagueness, as he sometimes did, to emphasise the insignificance of others: “that young lad from Alexandria”.

Then came Tunisia. And Tahrir Square. And it turned out the momentum was not lost just parked. There were of course a mass of issues that led even the long-suffering Egyptian people to go down into the street. But it was Khaled’s name that united them initially. His smiling face was everywhere you looked, occasionally the gruesome death mask too. His mother Leila went to Cairo and was greeted as a national hero by hundreds of thousands. She called Wael Ghoneim her son and two embraced in Tahrir Square after his release.

Meanwhile, the court case was adjourned and adjourned. Mahmoud Salah and Awad Ismail were held indefinitely. And Ahmed was pressing for the criminal charges to be upgraded to murder.

I went to see the lawyer defending the policemen, in a well appointed office in Samouha District. Mustafa Ramdan’s mind and suit are sharp. He is watchful – he monitors his law practice constantly via a web of security cameras from the screen of his PC. And proud of what he has achieved. I counted twelve separate framed certificates on the wall declaring success at various stages of his studies and career. He was at least the second lawyer to take on the defence of the two policemen. The previous one had withdrawn and wouldn’t tell me why, simply giving me Mustafa’s number. He seemed like a police lawyer. A couple of times he got the roles mixed up, referring to the other side, Khaled Said’s attorneys, as the “defence”, forgetting that it was the two policemen in the dock.

I asked him what the defence position is and he was mock indignation and smiles: “That they are not guilty of any of the charges. That despite the tragic death of this unfortunate young man, there is no evidence which proves the case of the prosecution, and a lot which contradicts it.”

He gives me Khaled Said’s previous, from memory. He is smart enough to avoid obvious character assassination, interrupting himself frequently to remind me that none of this means he, Khaled, deserved to die. But the case file he has built leads you inexorably to the impression he will serve up to the court: no-good waster. Khaled Said was first arrested for possession of hashish while doing his national service in the police force, and sentenced to 30 days in prison. He fled national service and was sentenced to a year for that, serving some time before being released one October 6th, the anniversary of Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel and traditional date of presidential amnesties of hundreds of prisoners. Since then he had been sentenced three more times for, respectively, drugs, possession of an offensive weapon, and public disorder. It was this last case which led Mahmoud and Awad to arrest him when they spotted him on the street. He was on a list of some 120 people kept by the Samouha district branch. Not that they were seeking him out, you understand.

“None of this was serious stuff. Khaled Said was a normal young man, a regular guy, not the sort that the police would turn the street upside down for,” said Mustafa, who had a way of smiling after almost everything he said. “The tragic fact is that if he hadn’t resisted arrest, he would probably have gone to the police station, signed a statement appealing the rulings, and gone home that night.”

Khaled’s brother Ahmed told me later this charge sheet, submitted by Captain Osman, he of the trophy video, was false. A separate case was ongoing against him for fabricating evidence.

It is conceivable Khaled had some brushes with the law. But the broader point here is not Khaled. It’s what the nature of a brush with the law was in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Mustafa’s summary of his own charge sheet, or rather Captain Osman’s charge sheet, is that with five convictions on a range of charges and prison time attached to all of them, Khaled Said could be thought of as a normal young man. And the weird thing about that is it’s true. The repression industry, operating under emergency law, systematically and proactively criminalised millions of Egyptians through appallingly low standards of evidence and trials in absentia.

A friend of a friend, Dr Fawzi, lives in the posh Cairo district of Maadi. A few years ago, just after he retired from his practice, he started playing the stock market and got into debt. It all went bad and he ended up sentenced to a three years jail term for some aspect of his financial dealings. Now he lives under self-imposed house arrest and shouts at visitors through his front door for them to identify themselves. But nobody has come to get him to serve his term and probably nobody will. We think of something as serious as a three year jail term as being handed down face to face, perhaps delivered by a jury, certainly by a judge, to a man or woman standing in the dock who is then taken down by police to the cells beneath the court for transfer to jail to start their term. As far as I know Dr Fawzi wasn’t in court when he was sentenced. Khaled was not in court for the charge that he was nominally being picked up for that night in Cleopatra. The system convicts you first, so mechanically fast you may not even know it’s happening, then allows you to appeal.

This approach provides a huge pool of suspects, informers and candidates for extortion as and when needed. When a huge bomb exploded in a Coptic church in Alexandria in January, killing 21 Christians, police simply hauled in Sayyed Bilal and made him the suspect, because he was a salafi, a confirmed Islamist with “previous”. Nobody in Alexandria believes Sayyid had any connection to the outrage. I remembered from my days as a Reuters correspondent based in Cairo watching a police captain in a village station in upper Egypt, who had forgotten I was there, tell his men to go round up “anyone with a record” from a particular family that it would be particularly convenient to blame for an attack that risked being labeled as sectarian, thus enflaming Muslim Christian tensions in the village.

Mustafa Ramadan himself, when we progressed onto more general discussion of legal process and politics, described the emergency laws which have underpinned this guilty-until-proven-innocent approach as corrupting.

We moved on to the specifics of the case. There had been not one but two autopsies confirming that the wounds Khaled sustained were light and not life-threatening, Mustafa said. Only if you accepted that the major disfigurement of his face was caused by the first autopsy not by the beating in the street, I said. Mustafa shrugged as though this were obvious. But that would mean that the police claimed that a formal autopsy had been carried out between midnight, when Khaled’s body first arrived at the morgue, and three o’clock in the morning, when his brother managed to sneak in to photograph it. He shrugged again.

Most of the details were similar. There’s an innocent explanation for this, would be Mustafa’s defence posture, in response to the reasons for Khaled’s arrest, testimony of the beating, or forensic evidence. And the explanation would be reasonable for just as long as you accepted a logical argument at face value, or a new piece of supporting evidence, from the same impugned security forces, as unimpeachable. As soon as you didn’t, it toppled over like the clever house of cards it was. Pre-revolution this approach could work, all the way from street to scaffold, nine times out of ten. But not now. Not with Khaled Said.

Why did you take this case, I asked Mustafa. First, they have a right to defence, he said. But, despite his mastery of the brief, he had struggled to remember the full names of his clients and didn’t know which provinces they came from. This wasn’t about Mahmoud Salah and Awad Ismail. Second, said Mustafa, sometimes you aim high to get half way. Manslaughter, then. I wondered what would that mean for him, Mustafa, this smart lawyer, still young, well connected to the security apparatus, helping it now in its hour of existential crisis.

As if he read my mind: “You know I could have thought about aiming to be a minister. But not with Gamal there,” he said, referring to Mubarak’s younger son, who had been groomed to succeed him. “I can forgive Mubarak many things but not that. Gamal wasn’t suited, he didn’t surround himself with smart people. I decided to stay in private life.” Then hovered there, unspoken.

Your weakest point, I said, returning to the case, is that your guys deny bringing Khaled back to the apartment block. There are scores of witnesses to that. Ah, he said, in a long drawn out way, as though he’d got me. He was rehearsing for court. Even if that were deemed false it would do nothing to prove they killed him. Not directly, I conceded. But it destroys their credibility. They’ll have been caught out in a big lie. That’s your opinion, he said, smiling back. The court may take a different view. The most important thing is the ‘aqida of the court, its orientation. They could decide it doesn’t matter. Was this some arcane legal point about discarding questions of character? About the relative weight of evidence between police and others? I couldn’t tell.

I left Mustafa Ramadan’s office wondering if I would see his name in lights some day. He’d be a gifted representative of the thinking right, natural ministerial material. Smart enough, pragmatic enough, political enough. Bold enough. It wasn’t just anyone who would defend the policemen on trial for the death of Khaled Said. The forces of conservatism should reconstitute themselves in time, as the old left had in eastern Europe in the 1990s. A couple of elections later, when the normal wear and tear of a working democracy had spent down all revolutionary credit and the playing field was more level again, who knew?

That night I went back to Khaled’s apartment for the third time. There’d been no answer the first two times and the bawab, the concierge, had said Leila, Khaled’s mother, was in Cairo. I was beginning to lose hope. But as I climbed the cramped stairs I heard loud TV and raucous laughter inside. I knocked on the door.

Ahmed opened it wearing a dressing gown. I explained who I was and he ushered me in. I half expected him to be weary of talking to journalists but he turned off the TV and offered me tea. He had three friends with him and we sat on the strange arrangement of furniture near the front door. He explained that nobody lived in the apartment now. He was staying round the corner with his wife and children but just came to hang out here with his friends in the evenings. That explained the bachelor pad feel, the bare lighting, the haphazard arrangement of pictures on the wall, a large one now of Khaled looking like your heart would break to think of what happened, another large one of the Kaaba at Mecca, for Leila, their mother, perhaps. And maybe also why it was chock full of furniture, as though either the family shifted stuff they weren’t using from other places to this one, or they’d brought in extra seats in the last few months when it had become a campaign headquarters.

Ahmed wasn’t physically imposing. Late thirties, five foot eight maybe, nearly bald and a little overweight, sitting there in his dressing gown and T-shirt smoking. He looked like a hard liver. But he was also a born fighter. If in Tunisia it was Ali Bouazizi who had made his cousin Mohammed the icon of the revolution, in Egypt it was Ahmed who had transformed the death of his brother Khaled into a cause which could lead to Tahrir Square. You just knew his response to an anonymous death threat would be to scream fuck you back down the line and carry on. He gave the impression of being someone who had learned to manage a hot temper better as he got older. We spoke mostly in English.

“I wanted to get the bastards,” he said, simply. “But from the beginning I had friends phoning me from the States, telling me to keep cool, to do everything right so I would take my rights.”

I asked a little bit about the family. Not with the expectation of finding out what kind of person Khaled was, really. His character had become a battleground in a deeply conservative society. But any bit of context would help.

Ahmed, Khaled and their sister had been brought up abroad. Their father, who died many years ago, was a civil engineer who built airports and they had lived in Nigeria for several years while he worked on Abuja Airport, then South Africa. Ahmed had gone straight to the United States from Africa. He showed me a business card for his cleaning company with an Americanised name, Alexander Stefan. The family had been in the Cleopatra district for a long time and he remembered the street as a kid, a lot less built up, gaps between the houses, the people who lived here mostly well off. But it seemed like the place they came from. Not the place they grew up in. Khaled had an application for emigration to the States pending when he died. I wondered how much he had thought about his future life, in Philly, say, or somewhere else, in those days and weeks before his death, if a vision of it lifted him out of the dirt and stress of the street, the struggle to fill his days, the countless confrontations with petty bureaucracy that are the lot of the Egyptian citizen.

“I didn’t really remember what it was like to deal with this place,” said Ahmed. “We came here as visitors and brought our own money. It was only during this process I understood, oh this is how it is here,” he said.

But he might have been born for this struggle. Ahmed went on the attack, filing civil suits, connecting to the activists ready to turn Khaled’s case into a protest movement, building the profile with international media.

Once they understood they couldn’t simply bury the case, or Khaled’s family, “they” – the police? the government? the presidency? Maybe just “the power”, as the Algerians say – tried to buy them off. Ahmed said how various envoys, well connected but never quite revealing their official rank and role, visited this small apartment to offer a free pilgrimage to Mecca for Leila, their mother, or a lot more land for Ali, their uncle.

“They wouldn’t talk about it by phone. They came here in person and sat where you are,” he said.

At one stage, he managed to turn one of the policemen guarding him, paying him to inform on the ongoing campaign by the police. He showed me a picture of him on his laptop. But then the police caught on to that and transferred him to Cairo.

“I think he’s still alive,” he said, ruminatively, as though posing the question to himself.

He destroys Mustafa Ramadan’s case. The package of marijuana that Khaled choked on? “Yes, did he tell you they said it was 7.5 centimetres long by 2.5 centimetres wide? We made a mock up of it. You can’t possible swallow something that size. The only way you can is if you’re already dead and someone sticks it down your throat. And even then it gets stuck in the gullet. There’s no way it can get down to your lungs, as they said in the report.”

“Did he also mention they’ve never produced it?”, he said. What, I exclaim, feeling blind-sided. The defence claims Khaled died by swallowing a package of marijuana into his lungs, which they removed in autopsy but then lost? Yup, he nods. I wondered what else Mustafa left out of his careful presentation.

It’s late now, and the conversation is drifting away from the specifics of Khaled’s case. One of his friends, Mohammed, is 20-ish and film star handsome. A young Clooney. Not only that but he has a sling because he was shot in the arm during the revolution. How glam can you get? I’m not surprised when he mentions he’s worked in the tourism industry and just got married to Jenny, from Liverpool. I introduce him to the word Scouser and we try it out, gently, in a text message to her as she’s driving home from a business meeting in Manchester. That small world thing.

“What do you think about the World Trade Center, 911?” Mohammed asks. Usama bin Laden’s great, he says, a guy defending a cause. But he didn’t do 911, that was the CIA. Do you know how many Jews… Here we go. Ahmed takes me aside and tells me not to listen to Mohammed. You know how ignorant people are here, he says. He’s nervous about looking bad.

There’s one question left to ask. What happens if you lose, I ask Ahmed. We appeal immediately, he replied. His “best case” scenario, by contrast, is that the court accepts his petition to upgrade the charges, from illegal arrest and excessive force carrying a possible 15 years, to murder by torture used to extract a confession. If found guilty, Mahmoud Salah and Awad Ismail could then be sentenced to death.

“Would you take if you could get it?” I asked. What? he replies.

“The death penalty. Would you take the death penalty if you could get it?”

Everyone’s silent for a few moments.

“Yes. Yes I would take the death penalty,” said Ahmed.

And I want to say to him don’t. You don’t need it. You’ve already won. You have achieved something extraordinary here. This revolution, Tahrir Square, this new hope for 85 million people, is some kind of justice for Khaled. And it wouldn’t matter if he did smoke hash, and it wouldn’t matter if he were a dreamer, or didn’t conform to some model of Calvinist or Islamist puritanism. He was a normal, harmless, innocent young man brutally murdered for no reason at all. That’s all that matters. And you’ve already made it count.

But I don’t. I bid him good-night and dash down to the Corniche to catch a minibus back to the hotel before the midnight curfew.

Allah yarhamu Khaled Said. God rest the soul of Khaled Said.

Published in: on April 22, 2011 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  

The Repression Industry: “We are all Ben Ali’s sons”

Sometimes the most striking things about profound subjects are the trivial, almost casual details. I was deep into a day of discussion about torture, with torture victims, in the town of Kairawan, in the centre of Tunisia, half way between Sidi Bou Zid and the capital Tunis. The young men I was talking to had been picked up during the revolution, when protests were spreading nationwide and the security apparatus wanted to find the ringleaders. Taken from a friend’s house, Abdullah, Ali and Yasin had been transported to Interior Ministry headquarters in Tunis, Torture Central, some 100 miles away, and beaten and tortured for two weeks until they were magically saved because the revolution won. Otherwise, who knows? I had been asked by Hamed, a blogger friend, to help them piece their statements together to depose as a first step towards justice and was interviewing them, as gently as possible, one by one.

The fact that, weeks later, some of them were only just holding it together, trying to hide the shake in their hands by fiddling with an endless cigarette, embarrassed to pick their tea cups off the saucers in case you heard the clatter, was hard enough to see. But the truly disturbing stuff came out as small talk.

There was the doctor all three talked of from their time at Torture Central, who came in between sessions. He was a real doctor alright, white coat and stethoscope and little brown bag, who took their pulses and blood pressures. And then gave the torturers medical advice on whether they could carry on or not, for all the world as though they were examining sports injuries.

There was the badinage of the torturers, reported by the victims often without any particular sense of resentment, as if it were natural conversation. When you were hung, naked, in chains, on a metal bar laid across two tables, it was called arroti, “the spit” being the closest word in English, the image being of a trussed chicken on the roast. Being beaten on the top of the head with two sticks is darb ad-dabboukeh, a local percussion instrument like the tabla, the intelligence man an enthusiastic drummer. The torturers not only used code names to avoid being identified, but applied a certain wit to it. You could be strung up naked and beaten by a man named Tito, or electrocuted by another called Camera. If you were particularly uncooperative they would take you out of the standard torture chambers for a special encounter with Ammar Zabda, “Ammar Butter”, the department’s most accomplished maestro of pain.

But most shocking, because most banal, was Yasin’s chance encounter with an old class mate in the Interior Ministry.

He, Yassin, was in a heap of prisoners collapsed in the middle of a reception area and recovering from their official welcome to Torture Central, an orgy of beating by the plain clothes policemen standing round them in a ring. They were about to be hauled off one by one for interrogation with whips, chains, electricity, the works.

His friend was a plain clothes policeman – torturer – who happened to be passing by. They greeted each other warmly – Salaam aleikum, how are you, how is your family. Then the classmate made the mistake of asking what are you doing here. Not by way of provocation, just as part of the normal exchange of greetings. They both knew it was a booboo as soon as he blurted it out. But it fell to Yassin to correct the situation. A comedy of manners so exquisite as to be almost baroque. He might be an innocent victim but his first instinct was not to want to embarrass his torturer friend by spelling out why he was there. He shrugged and gave an awkward smile. You know. Less said…

The building was bulging with hundreds of politicals, bussed in from all over the country by central order of the ministry in the previous few hours, enraged that its regional intelligence services had failed to spot the conspiracies obviously being hatched by the usual suspects, they felt, in front of their dumb eyes. They were not as yet fully attuned to the faceless conspiracy that is Facebook. Yassin and his friend shook hands, through the ring of agents guarding the heap of prisoners, all of whom had blood on their faces. The friend went on his way, to what kind of work load we can only imagine. But it is unlikely he went home that day without someone else’s blood on his hands.

What all this tells us is that torture was schooled in Ben Ali’s Tunisia.

Abdallah al-Souissi is perhaps the strongest of the three I informally deposed. Thirty three years old, tall, well-built, smart and highly articulate. He was picked up as a known activist in the provincial branch of the Committee to Defend University Graduates, a growing organisation in Tunisia in recent years active on the issue of unemployment. Abdallah has pronounced Leftist views, including the conviction that the USA and Britain had played a key role in maintaining the Ben Ali dictatorship.

“They picked us up at 8.30 pm on January 9th. We were at a friend’s house watching the news. There were 13 of us and they must have been tipped off because they hauled us out into at least three police trucks that I saw,” he said.

They were held overnight in the police station on edge of Kairawan. There was a lot of brutal beating and name calling but it was less systematic than what was to come. Some of the local plain clothes political police had identified the targets and they supervised the beatings of the prisoners, who were all herded into one building overnight. I asked Abdallah if he knew their names and where they were now. Yes, he said, Moez and Makram and Waheed. They’re still in town and as far as I know still on the force.

The next day, January 10th, they were transported, manacled and blindfolded, to Tunis, Abdallah said, to the main Interior Ministry building. How do you know that, I asked, intent on reaching maximum clarity for the sake of future justice. They made a mistake with me, he said, they opened the door of the police van and helped me down while we were still in the street. They took off my blindfold, and after a few seconds I realised we were on Habib Bourguiba Avenue just opposite a cafe I had spent many hours in as a student. Then they bundled me back in the truck, hitting me to cover their mistake.

After their joint “welcome”, the prisoners were then taken off to torture one by one. The rooms were ordinary but for the fact they had no light. Abdallah faced one interrogator and two or three enforcers. For hours they suspended him from an iron bar set between two tables and beat him with a cosh. All the while the interrogator, whose real name, Nabeel, he found out when one of his men inadvertently called him it, asked leading questions. Any silence was treated as further provocation. Finally, they stripped him naked and made him stand most of the night in freezing January temperatures before taking him down to a cell in the early hours.

Abdallah thinks he slept for four hours before he was woken by another interrogator coming into his cell. He had pulled his file and wanted him to know it, citing where he had studied, who he was friends with, what he had said one Tuesday eight years ago. A quarter of an hour later he was hauled off to another torture chamber – beatings with implements, suspension, “the usual”, as he put it. The doctor came into the chamber four times during all this to examine him: tongue out, look at the swinging pendant, say “ah”, flex your arm for the blood pressure reading. Each time the doctor told the torturers they could carry on. Abdallah was strong and still had mileage in him.

But he was beginning to lose track of time. Both the torture chambers and his cell had no natural light and his watch had been taken with all his possessions on entry. He was taken for two or three more sessions. The techniques were becoming more diverse, in both torture and interrogation. Major Nabil, clearly a college graduate, would sometimes play nice cop, now, saying he knew Abdallah wasn’t really “one of them”. If he would just sign some papers saying he made some small mistakes, they could let him go. After a few days the beatings became less severe, the interrogations less frequent, the treatment in the cell marginally better.

But that was actually the scariest time. He could hear the rat tat tat of automatic gunfire very close and shouts of “Allahu Akbar”. He thought the regime had managed to quell the uprising, and was now executing prisoners en masse.

What Abdallah didn’t know, because his captors hadn’t told him, was the fight was over and his side had won. The change in treatment a few days earlier was because Ben Ali had already fled the country. The gunfire he had heard had betokened first the regime’s final hours, as the regular army staged a show down with Ben Ali’s Republican Guard and won, and then celebration, as rebels rode shotgun down the main boulevards of the city. All this time he had been held, along with hundreds of others, while his captors tried to figure out what to do with them.

On Monday January 17th, a uniformed policeman came to his cell and took him to a large hall. He was handed back the possessions he had surrendered, nothing missing, and told to sign a declaration not to demonstrate again. Then he was released through a throng of people in the hall and corridors.

It was only when he got to the street that someone told him Ben Ali had gone.

“It was the best moment of my life,” he said.

What did you do? I asked. “I smoked a cigarette and watched life. Just normal life on the street,” he said, a big smile creasing his face.

He found his colleagues and they travelled back to Kairawan on the train together, arriving late that night. Back home, some of the local policemen involved in picking them up, and in beating them that first night before they were sent to Tunis, have approached them since the fall of the regime. In cafes where they sat dranking coffee, or calling them anonymously on their mobile phones, using that peculiar mixture of instant camaraderie and self-pity common to the bully revealed. Come on, man, we were just doing our jobs, we had to do it you know, and anyway it wasn’t me it was Moez, Makram, Waheed – each of them incriminating the other. There may be honour among thieves but not among torturers. Be reasonable. Illi faat maat – what’s gone is gone, no? No point dwelling on the past.

At the point he told me his story, nearly a month later, no action had been taken. To be fair it’s not as though the transitional government had nothing else to do and the new interior minister, Farhat Rajhi, had a healthy reputation as an independent-minded judge who had tried to resist the incursions of the Ben Ali regime into the sovereignty of law. But Abdallah, Ali and Yassin are faced with the bizarre situation where the men who beat and tortured them are still on the streets, maybe still working, unpunished, and know where they live and their mobile phone numbers. Abdallah is also sure he could recognise Major Nabeel from Tunis if he saw him. His torturers felt enough impunity to not wear masks. But it’s far from clear that justice will be done.

With each of the three – Abdallah, Ali and Yassin – I interviewed them twice, once on audio for something like 90 minutes each, with all the meanderings and the missing time sequences, and the details that didn’t quite add up, and once on camera for 10 to 15 minutes once the story was straight and we’d rehearsed the order of questions that would come. We put the videos up on Youtube. The recordings were in the local branch of the trade union federation that somebody had an in with, itself a nest of conspiracy in the days after the revolution, with lots of good old-fashioned smoke-filled conference rooms. We were constantly interrupted by people sticking their head round the door, rounds of tea and coffee, and all the normal bustle of a crowded administrative building in the Middle East.

Ali and Yassin’s stories had enough commonalities with Abdallah’s to begin to sketch out the general elements of how the repression industry worked. The same sequence from the “warm welcome” in the reception area to the solitary interrogations. The first time longest, sleep deprivation in the cells, the good-cop bad-cop routine, the smart interrogator and stupid muscle, the doctor, the “chicken” suspension between two desks, the stripped naked and cold water routine, the sleep on the floor in your own filth technique. Naturally there were some minor differences. But they were minor. Generally, it seemed the cogs moved fairly standardly in the machine.

But I was still mesmerised by Yassin’s chance encounter with his old class mate at Torture Central. Just how much of a coincidence was it, I wondered? The night before, I had been prompted by some coverage on Jazeera to scribble down some very rough calculations of the political economy of the police state.

In Egypt the security state employed something like 1.7 million people, all in all, armed forces, regular police, traffic police, general security, state intelligence, uniformed and plain clothes informers, and baltagiya, or officially sanctioned thugs called in as the occasion required, in networks that tentacled down to neighbourhood, if not street level. They were nearly all men. Of the 82 million population, there were somewhere between 20 and 25 million men of workforce age. That made for roughly one in every 15 Egyptian men of working age working for, or with the security state. Multiply that out by five or six for the families and there were something close to 10 million people with a direct material interest in the continuity of the regime. That would help explain some genuine, if painfully small, demonstrations in favour of Mohammed Hosni Mubarak that we were seeing in those last dying days of the Egyptian regime.

In Tunisia the numbers were strikingly similar, proportionally. Some 165,000 men worked full-time or part-time with the security apparatus out of a male workforce of perhaps three million. That made for roughly one in every 16 men of working age.

Hamed and I were at lunch with Yassin after we’d finished the interview, eating a tuna piquante omelette that was much better than I had feared. How many boys were in your class at high school? I asked him.

He surprised me by saying thirty five, about the same as in the grammar school I had gone to in England. But then middle income Tunisia is not imploded Egypt, where classes of 40 or 50 are crammed into classrooms with barely enough space to put chairs for them all, despite that the schools still have to work in two sessions to accommodate all the pupils, and your kids will probably never even get to decent literacy unless you somehow find the money to pay their state school teachers, on the sly naturally, for private lessons.

“So apart from the friend you saw in the Interior Ministry, how many of them later went into the security services?” I asked.

“Most of them!” he replied with a sweeping gesture of the arm. Hamed’s wry smile next to him implied this could be poetic license.

“And how many in your class, Hamed?” I asked.

“Oh not so many,” he replied. “But then I come from Monastir, on the coast. It may be only a 40-minute drive from here but it’s a different world. More people go to college, there are more jobs. It’s more like the Mediterranean. Actually, what am I talking about? It is the Mediterranean.”

He had a point. Hamed was one of a group of bloggers who had been instrumental in spreading word of the spreading protests, helping them to spread some more. I had met him at a conference in a five star hotel in Tunis for political and activist groups that felt excluded from Tunisia’s transitional government and were formulating their list of demands from said government. He was also an archaeology student involved in a project for the virtual reconstruction of multi-storied houses in Pompeii. We had spent the previous evening discussing the difficulties of ancient Greek epigraphy since they used too many acronyms and neglected punctuation, comparing the first line of the Iliad as found on the Perseus classical collection website with how it would have been in the original manuscript. His conversation divided its time between Arabic and French, with occasional forays into English and the odd flourish in Spanish, from some cherished time spent in Barcelona.

Whereas Yassin came from Kairawan. Although it is one of the earliest seats of Islamic civilisation, with a seventh century mosque and a mediaeval walled town, now pedestrianised and on UNESCO’s roster of World Heritage sites, Kairawan today is an inland town in a developing country, holding little in common with the Mediterranean feel of Tunis and the coastal towns. Tunisia’s interior is famously less developed than the coast.

Like Clydeside in the UK or Chicago South Side in the USA, there are a lot fewer options than national averages suggest. An ambience of deprivation, marginalisation and rent social fabric means more people go to prison. And more people go into the army, or some other wing of the police state.

The “zero huits” of the Tunisian interior, as the Tunis bourgeoisie once called them, proving that social classification by telephone code is not unique to class ridden Britain, have disproportionately supplied the rank and file of the security apparatus. General Ali Siriati, the head of the presidential guard, who instantly entered folk lore when he placed snipers on the roof of the presidential palace and frog marched Ben Ali to a waiting helicopter with a gun to his head, is from this part of the country. The head of the traffic police nationwide, apparently an enormously influential position, is from Sidi Bou Zid.

So the national average of one in 16 could easily be doubled in the region of Kairawan. And doubled again in Yassin’s school, depending on the precise neighbourhood and degree of relative privilege or deprivation. The high school class he graduated in could feasibly have had four, five, or six boys who became security men, the “sons of Ben Ali”, while he became a student organiser and oppositionist. But they all lived in the same town and would see each other on the streets.

I tried to imagine what that was like.

When I was a teenager, the hardest boy in the whole school was Fint Krieven, a couple of years older than me. He was fighting Irish, flaming curly red hair, not particularly tall but broad sloping shoulders and a kind of fizz about his eye and step that made you stay out of his way.

Fint was not a bully but he had a temper on him and knew how to step up to a fight. I was once on the top deck of the bus on the way to school when six boys from the secondary modern school across the road cornered him in the back seat. He conceded nothing, stared them down and when the blows started just threw himself forward and gave it all he had. Just before he was overwhelmed he bolted, diving headlong rather than stepping down the winding staircase and jumping straight out of the open door at full speed. I just had time to see him tumble over, pick himself off and dust himself down before the bus turned a corner. When I saw him in the playground at morning break, he winked at me, with just the flicker of a smile.

Fint Krieven left school at 16 but I will never forget the last time I saw him. It was a couple of years later and I was out in Bromley town square at about ten o’clock on a Friday night, walking past the new MacDonalds, where the exciting rumour had it they had to install blue lights in the toilets to stop people shooting up. There was a commotion. A couple of policemen were grappling with a couple of lads my age. As I walked past I saw that one of them was Fint. He appeared to be holding one of the suspects off the ground with a single arm and threatening to hit him with the other.

I hasten to say – in case he reads this book! – I have no particular reason to think that Fint Krieven has ever done anything wrong. It’s about the numbers. St Mary’s Grammar School Sidcup may well have supplied a few more policemen. But nobody from my class, and not anybody that I was aware of from my whole year.

If I try to understand what it has been like for Yasin and Abdallah and Ali to live in the Arab national security state these past 50 years, I try to imagine five boys from my class, and Fint’s class, and every other class in St Mary’s Grammar School Sidcup joining the police or the army, or the secret police, or just being informers.

Who would they have been? Paul Legett, because he was just so physically imposing? Peter Todd, because he was class boss for a while? Paul Conlon because he liked being officious? Not me, of course. I am too bookish and argumentative, as anyone will tell you. Not Simon Elvin or Quentin Darcy whose backgrounds were too refined. John Sweeney? Mark Ostrowski? Andrew Preece as a chief constable one day because he was both smart and practical and disciplined?

And then we need to try and imagine a different kind of police. One where thuggery is encouraged, obedience must be blind, and Daddy is always on the wall. Because – with the spectacular exception of Libya, which we will come to – it is Daddy not Big Brother, this iconography that has pervaded the Middle East for the last generation, the endless posters of Mubarak and Ben Ali and Saddam and Asad and the kings Abdullah.

In a way George Orwell did us a disservice with Nineteen Eighty Four, fixing our meme of a police state so well that it endures to this day, past its time. In the novel, there is a veneer of egalitarianism because Oceania is a modern industrial state, fully mobilised, which not log ago went through an ideologically driven revolution. Citizen Smith, Citizen O’Brien. Orwell perfectly captured the Soviet Union, the looming totalitarianism of 1948, when he wrote it. Stalin as Big Brother.

But the ideology of the Arab national security state, if it ever was tight, became flabbier and flabbier as time went on.

Perhaps it is because we were used to thinking of police states as having some purpose, some ideological integrity if you like, that we in the West were very slow to grasp what was so obvious to the people who live there. Egypt and Tunisia were police states, even if you could go on holiday there and sunbathe and windsurf and drink espresso and eat at Thank God Its Fridays and get on the Internet and the locals wore jeans claiming to be the same global brands, and Manchester United team shirts, and fiddled with their mobile phones just like we do. Dimly perceived through the membrane of tourist resorts, hire cars and luxury apartments, the bumbling, badly-dressed, often barely literate police seemed like Keystone Cops. If you were an ordinary Tunisian or Egyptian they were a lot more sinister than that. Because, with five boys each class, it’s a lot more intimate.

So take these five toughest boys. Remove them at an early and impressionable age from any real learning environment. Put them in a world where they learn, at the outset of their careers, how to serve Daddy and the Homeland but progress on to how to get what’s theirs. Because at the end it was mostly about “the cake”. Then let them loose on the rest of the class as police, judge, jury and prosecution in one, full of contempt if you, for whatever reason, ended up poor, or spite and envy if you were smarter than them but didn’t translate that into pecking order. That’s what it might be like to be Yassin.

But with the special twist, if you were Yassin or Abdallah or anyone else who had gone to the street, that they hated you personally – for your disloyalty to Big Daddy.

Because it’s just too flat to dismiss ideology in a police state, even in a failed one like Tunisia, as mere conscious hypocrisy. Maybe the more enduring contribution of Nineteen Eighty Four is doublethink, to portray how passionately human beings can be made to believe something they simultaneously know not to be true. That is what O’Brien shows Winston Smith when he teaches him to believe that two and two are five. If interest and ideology were no longer fused, as they had been in the tight skype:joshinastanautocracies of communism and perhaps early stage Arab nationalism, they remained inextricably intertwined. And at the end, when earlier dreams of social and economic progress had withered to become mocking memories, the last fragment of anything left to believe in was simply veneration of ar-Rayyes, the President.

“Why do you hate the President?” Major Nabeel asked Abdallah again and again, in his darkened chamber off Habib Bourguiba Avenue, often enraged, occasionally genuinely mystified. “We are all the sons of Ben Ali. We will always defend him.”

Published in: on April 20, 2011 at 8:14 am  Comments (1)  

Tyranno-anarchitis: a tale of two checkpoints

By chance I got the chance to experience a little of police intrusiveness that Bouazizi suffered his whole life while driving down to Sidi Bou Zid. It all started when I picked up a hitcher on the road from Kairawan as the sun was just starting to dip in a cloudless, pale winter sky.

Mourad, about my age, was returning home from Tunis where he had been to plead his case for reinstatement at the state television and radio station. He was not a happy man.

“I’m back in the village where I was born. Every day I have to ask my father for pocket money. It’s embarrassing,” he said.

Mourad turned out to be a non-stop bundle of need. There was a long and involved story, which I have to confess I only caught the gist of, about how he had been kept freelance at the station and never given a proper contract with the dates of particular injustices recited from memory like historic events – “On November 12, 2003, the station director informed me that my services were no longer needed…”. Once he knew I was a foreign journalist, he wanted me to go to the TV station and intercede. He rummaged in his battered brief case, found some papers, and waved them across my line of vision. I must come and drink tea, stay the night, review his CV, work out an employment strategy, sing him Irish folk songs. He needed me and I was brilliant.

We arrived at a cross roads. I was supposed to turn left but Mourad asked me to drop him in his village, down the road straight ahead of us, so we continued on. The paved road ran out and we were on dusty track now. After a mile or two, he caught sight of a mini-van rumbling along the road in front of us.

“That’s him! That’s the man who was supposed to pick me up! I was standing right there and he went straight past me. Go on, catch up with him!” he said.

What better way to get the feel of a place than a brief car chase? I jammed my foot down and settled into the tailwind of the minibus which was clocking considerable speed up the gentle slopes that led off the central plains into the mountains, towards the Algerian border. We pulled alongside some five miles later and Mourad flagged him down. He got out and went over. For a couple of minutes I could see the driver waving his arms palms out, shoulders pushed back, the global “that’s life” gesture. He was sorry but not very. Then Mourad got back in the car.

“He said he didn’t see me. I don’t believe him,” he growled and told me to turn round. At this point I thought Mourad must live in one of the two villages behind us and had just wanted to catch the driver to teach him a lesson. But once we had passed through those villages and come all the way back to the main road, it turned out he was taking me to some cafe many miles further down the road, where his idea was we would drink tea – because Tunisians are hospitable people! – before I took him back to his village, further up into the mountains, along the same road that we were now coming down. Confused? Imagine how I felt! The light was fading and I wanted to be at least off the side roads before dark. So, amid much protestation, and promises of future cups of tea, back we went up the track.

I had expected his village to be just beyond where we had caught the minibus. But we kept climbing and climbing, through one, two, three more villages. I kept thinking about the route back. It was turning dark and I turned the headlights on.

We came not so much to a police station as to a police camp, a huge square compound whose perimeter lights we saw from miles away, sitting on the main road, monitoring all traffic further up the valley. But the road was tree-lined, it kept popping in and out of view and I had not quite expected to run into it so soon when I turned the corner, and still had the headlights on full. It was a fatal breach of checkpoint etiquette.

“Why did you have the lights on full?” the old policeman snarled. Mourad explained I was just a stupid foreigner but he was not assuaged. “Wait here” he barked as he took our IDs and disappeared inside the barracks. He was gone for a quarter of an hour. His embarrassed younger, junior colleague tried to make small talk. Meanwhile, we could hear drill in the parade ground, a new cohort barking, their joint voice clanging into the empty, echoey valley. The sign outside read “School of Keepers of the Peace”.

The older man came out, ordered us out of the car and told me to lay all my bags out on the stony ground and open them.

“What is your name?” I asked him. “Could you tell me your name, please? In Europe, all policemen have numbers on their shoulders.” He just walked away. I followed him. Mourad became so agitated by this he chest bumped me to stop me. I realised the only way in and out to the villages was through the checkpoint and, revolution against police brutality or no revolution, he was shit scared. I had gone too far and had to back off.

Another ten minutes passed and the camp commander came out, explaining there had been a misunderstanding, that his subordinate had thought I was going to stay the night in the village. I was not sure what difference that made but by this time was past caring. The elder policeman gripped my hand in a shake and pulled me forward to kiss me on the cheeks. There had been some interaction inside, he was under pressure from his boss now, and he needed to square me.

“We are all brothers,” he said, as he leant in to peck me on the cheek.

“No we’re not!” I said, pulling back. “It doesn’t have to be like this, either sharp and rude, or the brother routine. You could try just being civil.”

“Brothers,” he repeated, pulling me in to him again with some force. I could not hold out. We air kissed. It lent a whole new dimension to the iconography of Arab leadership photo opps, Saddam and Arafat, Hussein and Asad. And I had thought the power handshake of Western politics was complicated enough!

I took back my passport and we got in the car and carried on to Mourad’s village – another 5 km beyond the checkpoint. Is this the only way in and out for all the villages, this road, I asked? He said yes. I pondered the implications of that, how you live your life when every day, to go to work or school, or shopping, you have to stop at two police checkpoints. And they know where you live.

It was pitch black by the time I returned from Mourad’s village and crossed back through the checkpoint – all smiles and waves now. I carried on the bumpy road until I came to the next village but had to pull up sharply. There was a barricade of rocks which had not been there an hour before.

A boy, no more than 16, came up: “Show me your ID card,” he said.

“If you are police or army I will show you my ID card,” I said. I was probing him. It’s a fine balance. I’m a firm believer that often the best way to get through situations where nobody knows what the rules are is to pretend that you do, and act authoritatively. On the other hand that can go badly wrong.

It got ugly fast. His friends arrived. Five, six, seven of them crowded round my side of the car. One or two others were on the other side and one of them tried to open the passenger door. It felt like I could be seconds away from something pretty nasty. They were mostly teenagers, but there was an older man with them, early 30s, who lent in through the window. He was so drunk he could not actually articulate though it was only seven o’clock. He stuck his head through the window, inches away from mine, repeating the same phrase which I couldn’t understand.

What happened if they told me to get out of the car? My gut screamed that would be suicide. Could I just plough into reverse and break out of the cordon back to the police camp, which seemed a good deal more appealing now than it had a mere five minutes ago? But there were too many of them to be sure of getting out of the crowd without running someone down. I knew my limits: I couldn’t drive through someone as though they weren’t there. Whatever the situation and rationale, I just didn’t have it in me. And if I clipped someone, even by accident, and then crashed, or didn’t make it back to the station, these boys would probably finish me off with rocks or anything else that came to hand. Talking was my relative strength. Find a leader and talk to him. All of this passed through my head faster than you’ve read this last paragraph. But it still seemed like there was plenty of time. Time slowed down. I wasn’t scared. That came later.

Just then, one of the young men in the crowd apologised, explaining the police had empowered them to act as a militia in the neighbourhood because of a spate of recent robberies. He was calm and sober.

An apology. A better nature to appeal to. I zeroed in on him, ignoring the others. I needed to hand my passport to someone to get through this so I stretched my arm out of the car window, twisting it through a small forest of outstretched hands, swaying like a sea anemone. He looked at it with the screen light of his mobile phone. As he did so, I tested the ground again.

“I appreciate you need to do this. But you should sort your boys out. They shouldn’t be drinking,” I said. He nodded without looking up from the passport.

He had shown he wanted respect and recognition for what he saw as real public service. He had also shown leadership. I was acknowledging both, at the same time as trying to establish my own moral authority. I was trying to make him leader. I had no way of knowing if that meshed with their group dynamic. But I needed a leader to deal with, right there and then, that second. Any leader was better than none.

“You know I’ve come a long way to Tunisia, as a guest,” I said. “I know you don’t want your country to get a bad reputation.”

He looked up, handed my passport back, and told some of the other boys to shift the rocks and open the road for me. It took an aching ten seconds for the boys to move their rocks in front of the bumper. As I drove off, I caught his tone, telling them off. It took all my self-discipline not to jam the accelerator down to speed away as fast as I could. And then I was out of it as quickly as I had been in it.

The entire incident took probably a minute.

But for the rest of the trip, another two hours, I was as razzed up as I can remember being in a long time, including three years in Afghanistan. A car nosed up behind me. Anxiously, I slowed down, hoping it would pass. When it did, I swung out behind it and for the next 50 miles used it as my checkpoint shield, keeping a steady 100 metres behind it. Close enough to speed up towards it for protection in numbers if, say, there was a problem with another car. But far enough away that if it got into trouble, or was surrounded at a checkpoint, I would have enough space to turn round and get the hell out of there. I had no idea whether the reasoning was sound, I just needed to take some action to not feel completely at the mercy of events. Somehow a road safety sign saying: “Why hurry? We’ll still be waiting for you” had me in stitches.

In the space of an hour I had tasted the Arab police state, and anarchy on the streets. It was a sobering experience. I realised that, for all my liberal enthusiasm, if I had to choose between them, I would choose police state. For perhaps the first time, I could not just intellectualise but feel in my bones why the police states had endured so long. An old Arabic proverb says “Rather sixty years of tyranny than one day of anarchy”.

Any reasonably analytical view, of course, says different. Not that the proverb is wrong but that it only tells part of the story. The police state promotes itself as the Devil you know and somehow, organically, fosters anarchy and extremism as the alternatives to itself. Those kids at the checkpoint were not revolutionaries. If you could attribute any political impulse at all to why they were there, in that state and attitude, it is more likely to be closer to counter-revolution. Why them? Why blind drunk? What “spate of robberies”?

But when it comes to the crunch, we human beings are not reasonable and analytical. Sitting in pitch black in some village I didn’t even know the name of, seconds away from serious trouble, I was down with the police state if it would let me see my family again, keep me alive for another day, or even the next ten minutes.

Mine was a short, acute attack of tyranno-anarchitis. Tens of millions of Arab men and women have suffered its chronic form, day in and day out, these last fifty years.

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm  Comments (1)  

Libya: of oil, revolution, and complicity

Every hour or so, in free Libya, you hear this phrase: “The richest country in the world and the poorest people in the world”. Statistically speaking, there’s poetic license on both sides of that equation. But it would be a harsh judge that denied its essential truth.

From the Egyptian border at Salloum to the city of Tobruk is nearly 180 miles. In each of the dozen small towns and villages we passed through, we peered up the side streets – not one was asphalted. Many Libyans are functionally illiterate. Walking through the streets of Bayda one night, a crowd of 50 people were gathered at a kiosk which normally distributes concert tickets, waving ID cards, trying to get stamps which would give them access to basic commodities at subsidised prices or for free. When I asked the nearest man in the queue exactly what would be handed out, he said: “I don’t know. But whatever it is, we want it!”. Public building projects in most of the cities of the east all but ceased in the 1990s. The modernist housing estates that the urban poor live in are 20 years old but already decrepit, cheap plasterwork crumbling, man-sized piles of rubbish, marauding packs of wild dogs, no paved pathways or car parks, large families crammed into small blocks. Libya seems like some weird combination of Middle Eastern rentier oil state – Asian construction workers, East European doctors – and African subsistence economy – divoted, muddy roads and street stands still selling tape cassettes.

You can hardly begin to imagine where Gaddafi’s trillion petrodollars have gone.

So, one morning when a Libyan friend invited us to visit the oil company where he worked, I jumped at the chance. The Arabian Gulf Oil Company, or Agoco for short, was one of the largest oil companies owned by the Libyan state, employing 8,000 people or more. Before the protests started, Agoco was producing 440,000 barrels of oil a day out of its fields in the south west of the country, perhaps one barrel in every 100 traded on markets around the world every day, worth in the region of $15 billion a year. Agoco was at the heart of the engine driving Gaddafi’s regime. A few days before I had been sitting with an Egyptian friend watching the Arabic TV channels. The rolling banners at the bottom of the screen showed oil spiking. The price of a barrel of Brent rose ten dollars within one cup of tea, and it was mainly fears that fighting in Libya would close off the country’s oil industry to world markets that was pushing the hike. What would happen now Agoco and other companies like it fell under rebel control?

When Khalifa drove through the main gate flashing his employees’ ID card, I had no expectation of what journalists call ‘hard news’. I would be happy just to hang around in the offices for a couple of hours, talk to whoever was up, and get the feel of the place. As it turned out, though, we were to stumble over a market moving story within ten minutes – only to sit on it for hours because we had nowhere to file it to.

The company’s headquarters were calm and orderly, in striking contrast to the rest of Benghazi, a sprawling complex of well-maintained office blocks unscathed by the recent fighting. The only evidence there had even been a revolution was an A4 poster in the reception area of the hospitality suite, to where we had driven, commemorating Mahdi Mohammed Ziu, employee and martyr of the revolution, who had played a key role in taking the army garrison when he drove his car, packed with home made explosives, into the main gate.

Other than that it seemed like a smoothly running corporation. Well-trained receptionists staffed a phone bank at the entrance. We were shown through to a large lounge and sank into deep armchairs to wait for whoever had time to see us. Liveried waiters approached to ask what kind of tea or coffee we would like. The chaos of the streets outside seemed like a different world.

The contributed books on the shelves declared their allegiance to middle-aged middle England and America – thrillers by John Le Carre and Dick Francis, Wilbur Smith and James Clavell, a popular science explanation of the causes and treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. It became clear that the hospitality suite was mainly for use of expat oil executives.

A slim man wearing a jacket, V-necked jumper and tie, introduced himself in good English as Hassan Bolifa, a senior manager and member of Agoco’s management committee. What would we like to know, he asked, the same deliciously naïve attitude to media we had experienced with investigators at the courthouse.

Oil is actually my day job. I had taken three months leave from my post at the United Nations advising on the public policy aspects of the industry in the Middle East in order to cover the Arab Spring. So faced with a senior manager, I immediately seized the chance to grill him about all aspects of the industry in Libya, from nerdy basics up – where the producing fields were, what recovery techniques are used there, pipeline and refining capacities and so on.

Bolifa went straight into an explanation of how the company would honour its commitments to international markets for shipments of crude oil. Two tankers were approaching Tobruk even as we spoke, he said, to take on 1 million and 750,000 barrels of oil respectively, worth some $200 million. Who’s going to get the money for that, I asked.

“Good question!”, Bolifa replied. “The shipments are on the standard 30-day or 45-day terms. We would hope problems between Benghazi and Tripoli would be resolved by then.” In other words, that the rebels would win, and management of Agoco and its parent company in the capital be re-unified. And if not? “My own suggestion is for the United Nations to set up and handle an account similar to the one for Iraq.” And if that couldn’t be arranged in time? “Right now, we need to send a signal to the markets that we are serious about doing business,” added Bolifa. “Even to the extent of honouring agreements reached before the revolution.”

So Agoco, under rebel control, was prepared to pump oil which allowed some $200 million to flow into Gaddafi’s coffers to show the world it was business as usual? “There is no embarrassment about this. Producing Libya’s oil is a mutual interest between us and the international community,” said Bolifa.

Business across ideological divides is common in the oil industry. Hugo Chavez shouts little about the fact that the United States continues to be a major customer for Venezuelan oil. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his Kurdish enemies had a deal for years which allowed oil to flow through pipelines in the north of the country for export into Turkey, in defiance of UN sanctions. Libyan oil itself had long flowed to countries in Europe that decried the excesses of the Gaddafi regime.

But there was yet another complicating factor in Agoco’s case, that we learned later from one of the expat technicians hanging around in the suite. Once you’ve started producing oil in a field, it’s hard to stop overnight without causing permanent damage to the reservoirs. Agoco’s fields were quite old, which meant that a lot of the initial pressure in the field which drove oil up to the surface spontaneously had dissipated. The company, with its international partners, used submersible pumps in some fields and water injection in others – pumping huge amounts of water into the hydrocarbon bearing strata of rock to make the oil, which is lighter than water, rise to the surface. Many of the internationals, who were employed on these enhanced recovery techniques, left the fields in the first days of fighting.

Agoco, in fact, had employed best practice and simply offered them the choice of leaving. Hundreds had made epic trips across hundreds of the Sahara, their jeeps crawling over sand dunes at ten miles an hour and God knows what if they broke down, rather than wait and see. I was to meet Britons, Algerians, Libyans and Vietnamese, on boats, hotels and in immigration areas who had fled the fields in the early days of the uprising, although most of the fields are deep in the desert and were not touched by either side.

All that led to a sharp drop off from normal production levels.

Nevertheless most of the fields were still ticking over. Even now, Agoco was producing 180,000 barrels a day from residual pressure within the fields and some skeletal continuation of enhanced recovery. But the oil, produced deep in the Sahara Desert, needed somewhere to go. From the well heads, it was being pumped as normal into the pipelines, 500 miles long, that connected the fields to the export terminals at Tobruk and Ras Lanuf. But now, nearly two weeks after the fighting started, the pipeline was chock full and so were the limited storage terminals on the coast. Some other executives told me storage tanks at Tobruk were close to their five million barrel capacity.

Agoco, in other words, desperately needed to offload some oil, almost regardless of who got the money. The company had scoured the world’s shipping markets to find any kind of tankers prepared to come in the current turmoil. It wasn’t even certain the tankers could be insured against damage and loss on the markets.

This story was screaming to be told. Back in the days when I worked for Reuters news agency, I would have sweated blood to get to a phone line and pump it out on the wires as a one-lined bulletin – “Agoco managers – tankers near Tobruk to ship 1.7 million barrels”. The import of Bolifa’s casual train of conversation was that the rebels controlled one of Libya’s largest oil companies and were keen to do business with world markets as usual. At a time when a major open revolt had been going on for ten days in one of the world’s largest producers and nobody had any direct input from the industry on the ground, this could make the price of oil dip by as much as a dollar per barrel, maybe even more. Billions of dollars could change hands in deals based on this one piece of information, delivered by Mr Bolifa in between fond reminiscences of his pre-Gaddafi childhood, and graduate studies at George Washington University, against the backdrop of a flat screen TV showing football highlights on mute.

But we now had nowhere to take this story because neither of us worked for a real-time news outlet. Later, we watched with a mixture of awe and stupefaction as a pack of journalists followed our trail from the hotel to the Agoco hospitality suite and the company’s management called an impromptu press conference.

Knowing what the main story was, I was able to observe first hand the distorting effect of the breaking news view of the world. Faced with the press conference format, the managers suddenly became didactic and uninformative when minutes before they had been open and concise in response to questions. They weren’t trying to conceal, they were simply conforming to their impression of what a news conference should be. Early on, a passing reference to past management failures provoked a prolonged search from the journalists for an expose. They grilled the Agoco managers on what previous management had done wrong, who was to blame, who was in control now, what their connections to Gaddafi had been and what their plans for the future were. By the time we left, nobody had asked how much oil was being produced or where it was going and none of the managers had thought to say. Eventually I ran into the Reuters correspondent late in the afternoon and just gave him Bolifa’s phone number and the story. He rang, confirmed, and ran the story.

Bolifa and his team exemplified the weird and wonderful fact that behind almost every long-standing dictatorship such as Muammar Gaddafi’s or Saddam Hussein’s stand phalanxes of competent technocrats – oil executives, civil engineers, perhaps even army officers – who are fundamentally decent men just doing their duty as they see it, without wishing harm on anyone. Through sanctions, air-strikes, coup d’etats and outright war, they go to work out of professional pride and simple patriotism.

Given the chance, they had organised a coup inside the company as the wider uprising in Benghazi unfolded, getting rid of the old director Saad Abdel-Mouis. But they took great care to frame it with due process, persuading Abdel Mouis to resign rather than be marched out of the building, replacing him immediately with a management committee to avoid a power vacuum, and respectfully informing the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli of events on the ground. “It was not like a big revolt. He was very understanding,” Bolifa said.

The speed and decisiveness of Agoco’s recognition of the new political order had been remarkable. The company declared its support for the revolution within hours of the city falling and, one week later, commercially produced banners three metres high sponsored by the company festooned buildings all over town, urging everyone to keep the city clean and avoid random acts of vandalism.

Like many of the Middle Eastern oil companies, Agoco runs an extensive network of social services for employees, and communities in the areas where it is producing, all the more important for being set against a background where service provision by the Libyan state is pitiful if it exists at all. It acts as a centre of excellence. These services were kept going where possible.

Later, when international intervention occurred, the burning question was whether it had happened because Libya was an oil state. Chavez said it most nakedly: “They want to seize Libya’s oil. Once again the warmongering policy of the Yankee empire and its allies is being imposed.” But many shared the suspicion in quieter or softer language. The Iraq war had created a default assumption among large sections of international public opinion of hidden agendas, disingenuous public debate and “blood for oil”.

On the surface, the Libyan intervention was very different to that in Iraq. It was mandated by an UN Security Council resolution, and the Arab League supported a no-fly zone. Nevertheless, there was no getting round the fact that it had been pushed along by the Western powers, notably France, Britain and the United States.

There is also a rich seam of technical information about Libya’s oil industry which favours conspiracy theory. Just like Iraq, Libya is in the unusual position of being both oil rich and yet considerably under-exploited as oil prize.

At 43 billion barrels, it has the highest reserves in Africa. But isolated for many years by UN and American sanctions, investment was very low and the pace of exploration only started to pick up after the first international bidding round in 2005 following Libya’s reintegration into the international community. Several new fields have been discovered. Some companies say they can produce crude oil for a dollar a barrel, one of the lowest extraction costs in the world. Repsol and Total are stepping up production from the Marzuq Basin while BP has completed a survey off the coast that was regarded as ground-breaking in the oil industry for its unprecedented deployment of sophisticated 3D visualisation techniques over 70,000 square kilometres, an area the size of the Republic of Ireland. Survey ships installed huge supercomputers to carry out primary data processing on board, and new offshore drilling and production is expected to follow. Most of the new production is of the same grades of “light” and “sweet” oil, for which Libya is famous in the industry, crude oil that is easily and cheaply refined into petroleum, unlike the heavy and sour grades that are increasingly coming on line as a result of the rising scarcity of easy oil. And that’s before you start to look at natural gas and Libya’s perfect positioning to pipe it to the growing European market. There’s no question that, at the end of age of easy oil, Libya represents potential for growth perhaps second only to Iraq.

Ultimately, though, a conspiracy theory would require torturing the evidence. First, the most likely impact of a no-fly zone was prolonging the stand-off between Gaddafi and the rebels, whereas an “Oil First” strategy would favour decisive victory by either side. Second, of the two sides, the Gaddafi regime is a known quantity to global markets over four decades whereas the rebels are entirely unknown. The scale and depth of commercial relationships has varied according to the political weather but there has never been a time under Gaddafi when Libya has not been as engaged on global oil markets as it was allowed to be. The list of companies doing business in Libya in early 2011 reads like a Who’s Who of Big Oil, including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, ConocoPhillips, Occidental, Statoil, Repsol, Eni, OMV, Hess and Marathon. Third is the issue of proportionality. The loss of Libyan oil to world markets would be serious but not catastrophic, especially since Saudi Arabia offered to step in as swing producer to replace its 1.5 million barrels a day exports. Against that has to be factored the financial and political cost of another Middle Eastern neo-colonial war.

Of course, a die-hard conspiracy theorist could argue that those planning to take over Libyan oil under-estimate the cost, as the Bush and Blair administrations so clearly did with Iraq. But this is harder to maintain in 2011 than 2003.

Nevertheless, if it just niggles too much that the first intervention in the Arab Spring, driven by Western powers, should happen in Libya, there is another, subtler way to scratch that itch. It is about oil because it’s about Gaddafi, and in the most fundamental sense Gaddafi wouldn’t be Gaddafi without oil.

The UN Security Council resolution was, technically speaking, humanitarian, directed only against the way in which Gaddafi chose to repress the protests. But this repression was always inherent in the nature of Gaddafi’s regime. In addition, the degree of momentum that could be built to support it depended largely on his own foreign adventurism. With one or two opportunistic exceptions, nobody on the international scene would be sorry to see him go. Gaddafi is not just a common-or-garden dictator like two dozen others around the world, or even one who has acquired notoriety but only operates within his own borders, such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He is a petro-dictator.

It is oil which has determined the nature of Gaddafi’s regime. The length and degree of his hold on power and his foreign adventures, would have been unthinkable without Libya’s oil wealth. Over the years, his assassins have struck in Hamburg and London, Scotland and Cyprus, killing not just players but innocent civilians of 20 nationalities. Militias have waged war on his petrodollar from Beirut to Ndjamena and Kinshasa.

Inside Libya, the regime used petrodollar patronage to buy compliance. Like many oil states, Libya has a state-dominated economy. IMF statistics suggest the state employs at least a million of the 1.8 million workforce, or over 55%, and the dream of most young Libyans entering the workforce is still the government job, or wazifa. In this they show no difference to the cultural expectations of their Egyptian and Tunisian neighbours. The difference is, the oil rich Libyan state can deliver.

Several people described how in 2007-8 the government responded to the world food crisis by raising basic civil servant salaries something like 60%. A teacher in Tobruk went from 210 dinars a month, or $190, to 340 dinars, or $300. But as elsewhere, a government job is not only about salary. It is about status and benefits, in particular, access to subsidised loans and mortgages. Interest rates on these dropped and borrowing limits rose at the same time as the salary raise.

For sure, the Libyan welfare state is subject to heavy expectation pressure: “A twenty year old dreams of getting a government job,” said Youssef, a medical orderly from Tobruk. “And maybe, if you’re extremely lucky, a loan to buy a small car.” And economists will probably soon map how critical stresses in the economy in the 12 to 24 months before the revolution – the peaking of the oil price after a five year boom and the global down turn – helped prepared the ground for it. One graffito on a wall in Benghazi read: “Gaddafi leave so I can get married”, a reference to economic stagnation delaying the marriage age, as young men could not build the careers and resources they needed to start a family.

But that’s in the immediate run up to the revolution. The longer term view, the big picture, is current accounts surplus rather than deficit, year in year out; an immigrant work force numbering over 10% of the local labour market; and a sovereign wealth fund, the Libya Investment Authority, that has used ingenious financial engineering and minority shareholdings to circumvent sanctions and build a global portfolio worth perhaps $70 billion, with stakes in everything from banks in New York and Hong Kong, real estate in Britain, petrol retailing across Europe, hotels across the Mediterranean and parts of Italian fashion houses.

Oil is what makes Gaddafi Gaddafi. Just as it is a large and inseparable part of what we really mean when we talk about Ahmedinejad, Chavez, Putin, or Saddam Hussein, their personalities and ideologies, their impact on the world. Or Osama bin Laden come to that, the ideology of al-Qaeda birthed in the easy millions, sense of command and closeted xenophobia afforded by being heir to a Saudi construction empire. This is not to be deterministic. There are, of course, dictators without oil and oil without dictatorship. But it is oil which often creates the perfect storm, allows the dictator to project further, last longer, and never grow up.

This is one of the biggest reasons why the political economy of Libya, and therefore its revolutionary dynamic, is different. In Egypt and Tunisia, the Arab nationalist paradigm at independence, of the all-providing state running a central command economy, slowly imploded under bad management and lack of accountability. In an overall environment of scarcity, the institutions of state then began to be used for extortion and bribery. Officials used the state to steal from the people but, like any parasite, they needed to limit what they took in order not to kill the host. Even at their most depradatory, the regimes needed a textured state and society to prey on. They were in that sense civil dictatorships.

In Libya, the same lack of accountability occurred but in a state formation that was much less developed to begin with and which didn’t run out of money. If you overlook the grand larceny of a trillion petrodollars at source, straight out of the well head, resource flows still trickled down from the top down. It was easier for Gaddafi to buy well-armed loyalty and, unlike resource poor countries, there was no imperative to encourage enough private sector growth to steal from. All of that stuff sounded good and it might be fun to talk to the IMF from time to time about privatisation. It gave sheen to Libya’s Naughties re-entry into the international community. Fundamentally, though, Libya’s economy and society, just like its politics, could be all Gaddafi all the time.

Petrodollars bought social engineering, in the form of wedding grants paid to Libyans to marry African nationals and build an entire social stratum owing its very existence to “Muammar”.

It also paid huge blood money, systematically.

In Benghazi, residents told me of a human rights organisation run by Saif Gaddafi. If your relative had died in Abu Salim prison, you could go to this organisation and sign a paper which exonerated the authorities from any liability, implied that your loved one was in some way responsible for his own death, and walk away with $170,000. In the district of Luheishi one house was pointed out where the family had two torture deaths, signed, and immediately bought the large compound on the back of it.

As I travelled round eastern Libya, taking in the enormity of what the Gaddafi regime had wrought over the last 40 years, a chilling thought occurred. The Libyan leadership had not been trapped, like Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt, by a political economy that was ever tighter as the population grew, resources shrank and there were tough decisions to make about how best to keep military and technocratic elites happy. Gaddafi and sons had enough money to turn the tap on or off, according to inclination. Saif could drop $170,000 for every corpse dumped in the prison morgue, in between giving interviews to satellite TV in his polo-necked jumpers. The government could raise salaries by 60% overnight. If the Libyan people suffered economically, it was because the regime wanted them to. While the other regimes fell into behaviour patterns that were venal, selfish and arrogant, Libya’s was, quite simply, cruel.

So if the no-fly zone was not “blood for oil”, do we in the West bear any complicity for Gaddafi’s petro-dictatorship?

I met Trevor from Middlesborough at the Agoco headquarters, waiting to be evacuated on the HMS Cumberland. Mid-50s, balding skinhead, overweight, he was one of the company’s expat workers and my first thought was to wonder if he had contributed, or read, any of the Le Carres or Wilbur Smiths on the shelves behind us. What was it like where he had been, I asked?

“Yeah, not so bad, you know,” he said in Geordie sing song. “The locals got a bit excited and trashed a few buildings at first but then they teamed up with the police, like, and guarded the pipelines and refineries. It seems OK now”

So why are you evacuating, I asked? “Well it’s the end of me shift. Twenty five days in, seventeen out.”

He told me he had been working in the Libyan oil industry for 13 years. What’s that been like, I asked? “Well it’s changed a lot.” There was a pause and I wondered where he was going with this. “In the beginning you couldn’t even bring in a pocket calculator, could you, Ernesto,” he said, turning to a Portuguese colleague for confirmation. “They had no supermarkets, you had to bring in everything yourself.” He then told me what kind of music system he had, how you could get booze although Libya was dry, and what British TV channels you could get by satellite.

In other words Trevor was a regular bloke, with normal preoccupations, engaged in making a living. The fact he’s spent time working in the oil industry in Libya is pretty much irrelevant. If you were to start into how he’s abetted Gaddafi, he would reply that if he didn’t someone else would, find some glaring inconsistency in your own lifestyle, and you’d end up at an impasse with Trevor and 99 percent of humanity on one side, and you and a few unbearable fanatics – and rogues probably – on the other.

On the other hand a few days later I met Mike, a senior oil exploration engineer, and he had a different story to tell.

A couple of years ago, he had been working with a foreign company in Libya, he said. He declined to say who it was other than to specify that it wasn’t BP, his current employer. The company did a large deal with Libya’s National Oil Corporation, working out profits and cost recovery, and all the other dozens of revenue streams which make oil industry accounting so fraught, on the assumption that oil was $45 a barrel. Libya’s share of revenues were maximised below that price. If it rose above it, the oil company would gain most or maybe even all of the windfall.

Now there was a moment that year when the price of crude oil on world markets dipped below the $45 mark, falling to $38 a barrel in February after it had hit an astonishing peak of $147 the previous summer. But it rapidly rebounded, and major international institutions such as the World Bank later averaged prices at over $70 for most grades of crude across the year. Moreover the rebound was predictable, as was the new normal of $70 to $80 a barrel, created off the back of a five year boom. Talk of peak oil and deep offshore drilling was widespread and it was industry consensus we were nearing the end of the “easy oil” era. Finally, more crucial than any particular price point was whether the contract, a long-term arrangement for development of a new field, built flexibility of terms into itself so that it did not have to be renegotiated every time the market dived or spiked and one or the other party felt short changed by existing arrangements. These kinds of mechanisms have become standard in recent years and would certainly have been within the knowledge horizon of a negotiating team like the Libyans, where there has been an oil industry for 60 years.

The natural conclusion is they short-changed the state to profit the foreign company, and themselves with a kick back. Mike was startled when I put it to him in those terms, and I should mention that he had no hand in negotiating it. But he had himself mentioned the deal in the context of a discussion about corruption within oil states and ways to minimise it, as an example of the kind of thing to be avoided.

The major beneficiaries of this deal were Gaddafi and his family on the one hand, increasing their store of purely private largesse, the yachts and planes and football teams, and the company’s shareholders on the other, adroitly tax- and time-smoothed, presumably, by clever accountants, to attract as little attention as possible.

But a lot of oil is produced in deals which are similarly and deliberately opaque, and the dictatorships that are on one side of these deals are not profit maximisers, at least not within the formal terms of the contract. Is it possible that we were all benefiting marginally from this opacity? That even as we belly ache about rising petrol prices and politicians hurry to assure motorists that they will be protected, Big Oil and dictatorships they do business with collude to keep the price of oil lower than it should be to the end consumer? That we are all, by fractions of cents and pennies, complicit in the blood money paid to the victims of Abu Salim?

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Searching for mercenaries in Libya

I was in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, liberated from the tyranny of Muammar Gaddafi for a week now, and had sought out its poorest neighbourhood, Luheishi, to get a haircut. It is an old ploy. Like eating – slowly – whatever comes to hand, slurping tea, or getting your shoes shined. Any transaction that helps you blend into the street. And there are few things you can do with strangers as intimate, as conducive to shared confidences, as to bare your throat to their strop. Besides, I needed it, and a barber in the Middle East will shave you, clip and tweak your facial hair, give you a short back and sides and rub your shoulders and still give you change from five bucks.

Most of the barbers shops in Luheishi had been run by Egyptians who even as I walked past their shuttered doors were at that moment headed back home through the border post at Salloum, 400 miles to the west. But one was open and staffed by young men from the neighbourhood. Luheishi has the reputation in Benghazi of being rough and sha’abi, working class. The kind of place cabbies sometimes refuse to take you to, especially at night. And there were a couple of young toughs hanging around inside the barbers, all taut faces and jerky body language. But it was the middle of the day and everyone was sober and polite.

Wael was taking a long time with my hair cut because he was busy explaining how he had been among the thousands of protesters who had overrun the Fadhil Bu Omar building, the headquarters of Gaddafi’s dreaded Katiba security apparatus for the whole of eastern Libya, just ten days before. He would break off for hand gestures, the revolutionary guards levelling their rifles at them, them lobbing Molotov cocktails inside the battlements and baring their chests to machine guns.

Then this man wearing a military jacket walked in, searching for a socket to recharge his mobile. I watched him through the mirror as he took an empty seat between the others and lit a cigarette. I never learnt his name.

“He was there!” exclaimed Wael with a big grin. “He was at katiba. Weren’t you?”

The vibe had changed. The new man nodded curtly at Wael’s words but nothing about him seemed rebel. He had a thin, military moustache, was older, perhaps in his early thirties, and full of self-important bustle, ordering tea, fiddling with his phone. But surely Wael could not mean he fought on the other side? Over two hundred people died in that battle, not five miles away in the centre of town, including two of Wael’s friends. They could hardly be exchanging pleasantries a few days later.

“Well I only fired in the air, and the Africans were behind me with a gun to my head,” said the other guy. “I fled as soon as I could.”

So, yes, the other side. And still wearing fatigues. I wondered what the deal was but it didn’t seem my place to ask. Military Man got up and went outside to stretch his legs for a moment.

“Fired in the air… gun to his head… fled when he could,” muttered Wael as he ran the shaver over the back of my neck, clearly disgruntled.

“What, you don’t believe him?” I asked.

Wael started a little at my question and instantly switched discourse.

“Oh yes, of course I do. He is from the neighbourhood, we know him well. He’s not bad like the others,” he replied.

Wael carried on cutting my hair while Military Man, back on the bench, talked about all the weapons that had been snatched from the army depots when the rebels overran them. And thousands of regular prisoners – criminals – released from jail overnight.

“That’s the real danger,” he said, shaking his head woefully. “Frightening.” Nobody said a word.

Later, one of the lads from the barber’s shop invited me back to lunch at his house round the corner. Ali, just 20, was repeating to his father Mahmoud the story of how the guy walked in and he and Wael had exchanged words, kind of, and how I found the whole thing hard to understand.

His father yelled. “He had nothing to do with it!” A little shocking as Mahmoud was a gentle man, the overwhelming impression he gave being one of grief for a wife that had recently died, as Ali had told me. “They didn’t like Gaddafi! Nobody liked Gaddafi!”, he shouted.

At that moment Mahmoud did not seem to care about the truth of the man’s guilt or innocence. The story of the murtazaqat, Gaddafi’s African mercenaries holding a gun to every Libyan head, were a release valve, a way for everyone to live together afterwards. All it took was one meddling outsider like me to plant a seed of doubt and a cycle of retribution could begin. And then who knew where it might end?

It put the obsessive nature of the search for the mercenaries in a new light. It was the supposedly ubiquitous presence of foreign mercenaries that gave Gaddafi’s men a huge, collective alibi, that allowed the rebels to forgive all but the most egregious cases of brutality among their fellow Libyans. Blame the outsider, it always works.

Earlier, sitting in the courthouse in the centre of town with a colleague, we had met another of Gaddafi’s fighters, a Libyan, who blamed the African mercenaries big-time. We sat in one of the hundreds of small offices of the sprawling complex, on the second floor, overlooking a winter’s storm on the Mediterranean 100 yards through the window, white-tipped waves crashing against the seafront, watching a team of prosecutors, mostly women, grapple with a case load of possible war crimes cases that was expanding by the minute. Clerks brought files and scribbled notes, whispered exchanges were followed by hurried exits. It was one of those revolutionary moments, beautiful to the reporter, where the new newsmakers are too polite and inexperienced to realise they should just kick us the hell out. Instead they offer us tea and biscuits and, because they don’t want to deliver any African mercenaries to interview, give us one of Gaddafi’s special forces instead.

He comes in with a blanket over his head. No photos, no name, he says, not even his age. One of the prosecutors leaves him in a side room with us and a couple of volunteers, rebels in their early 20s, dressed casual, with the ease of young men who know they are on the right side of history.

Our man takes his blanket off his head, revealing a shaved head, tired, slightly buzzed eyes, mid-20s, both rib cage skinny and built. His voice deep and slightly cracked. Wired but with no sign of ill treatment. He is anxious to tell us how much he loves the revolution. Flashes a V-sign, picks up the pre-Gaddafi flag on the table and waves it. There is no pressure from his guards to do this since they, endearingly, have nothing to prove and are leaning forward to catch a kind of conversation they don’t normally access. The door opens and close every minute or so, someone looking for someone not here. Nobody yet knows who is using which room for what.

Talk us through it, we say.

“Nothing much to say,” he shrugs. “Major General Abu Bakr Younis saluted the forces of the revolution in the main square on the 20th February.”

But you, we ask. How were you taken?

“I wasn’t taken,” he said, chin out, lips out. “Nobody took me. I was there at the katiba on the Friday. The Africans were at my back. A gun here,” he points to his temple. “Then the shabaab, the rebels, they overran the camp. I changed into civilian clothes, took my gun, went home and stayed at home. Then I came here and handed over my weapon.” He nods to the guards, as though they should nod back.

He makes a show of bumming a cigarette off one of the heads that poke round the door. Every little ingratiation a complicity, a tiny step further away from the status of enemy. What did you do during the four days of fighting, we ask. He takes my pen to draw a diagram, showing how far back he was from the front line.

“I shot in the air mostly. But I shot someone in the leg. That’s why I’m here. I came to hand in my weapon and confess” he said.

Tell us about life in the revolutionary guards, we say. He talks of three years away in Tripoli although he is a local lad, from Benghazi, learning how to handle weapons. “You can’t step forward and use the Betrayer, just like that,” he says, clicking his fingers.

The Betrayer? Erm, machine gun, he says. Why Betrayer? Because if you don’t know how to handle it, it can jump, fall on the floor and fire randomly or blow up. You wouldn’t want to be there when that happens.

Did you ever meet Gaddafi? “He came to the parade ground twice. I saw him. But I didn’t like him. He was a liar and a cheat. It was all bullshit.”

Why did you join? Because I didn’t have a job, he says, genuinely surprised at the question. How much did you earn? He appraises his guard-friends. Oh I don’t know, he says, 320, 380 dinars a month, something like that. The pay of police, or regular army, or an average civil servant, about $300. Even though we’re hearing the special forces and revolutionary guards and intelligence – the fellow travellers – make twice that.

Do the murtazaqat, the African mercenaries, speak Arabic, we ask. Oh no, he replies. Then how can they be telling you what to do? With the gun, he says, fingers to the temple again. But that’s a yes-no option, I say. They can use a gun to make you carry on doing that thing you both already know they want you to do – like shooting into the crowd. They can’t use the gun to make you understand new orders: retreat to this point, maintain radio silence, look to the left. How would the murtazaqat actually command Libyan forces. Erm… translators, he says. They use translators. A few.

We leave him after an hour. He’s anxious to please and would talk all day. After all, the people who will decide his fate put him in the room with us. But his own personal story is already tightly formed. And ultimately, he’s just some bloke who ended up in Gaddafi’s special forces. We’ve got what we can.

Outside, I ask Azzedine al-Awami, one of the prosecutors handling his case, what might happen to him. He says the law provides up to three years in jail for cases of bodily harm like shooting someone in the leg – “If we believe his story.” And if not?

“Under the old criminal code, which we are referring to,” he replied, “premeditated murder carries the death sentence.”

Awami also arranges for us to meet some Africans who are being held on the top floor of the court complex. There’s a throng at the entrance to the building, trying to get in for all sorts of reasons. Every so often a new African is brought in amid tumult, roughed up, sometimes bloodied.

Inside, though, the treatment we see is gruff but correct. We are shown into an empty room and shortly afterwards four young Africans are herded in, Ethiopians and Eritreans. We all sit on blankets on the floor while Awami takes the swivel chair.
They are all young construction workers, trying to save money. In a story I’m to hear repeated over the days, the Eritreans can’t go home because they are part Oromo – part Ethiopian in other words, caught in the middle of another big man’s quarrel, since Ethiopia and Eritrea are still at war. Awami explains their stories are being checked out. When they are confirmed, they will go free.

“He’s already free to go,” he says, pointing to Ermias Degefa, an Ethiopian. “Our investigations are complete. But he doesn’t want to be back on the streets.”

Degefa nods. The Africans are all worried about being photographed. If their pictures get onto the Net as detainees – suspected mercenaries – they may never be safe again.

They’re tired and stressed, probably not sleeping or eating well, or getting the chance to wash. Their life has just nose dived and they know it. They have no jobs to go back to and their savings are gone. But they show no signs of abuse and are not cowed. Salah Jaber, from Eritrea, speaks Arabic and asks Awami directly why he can’t phone his friends just to let them know he is OK. You can, says Awami, nobody’s stopping you. But they smashed my phone when they took me in, Salah replies. Why don’t you lend him your phone, I ask Awami, who is sitting on a swivel chair above us. He hands it over and Salah retreats to a corner of the room and makes a call.

There is no definitive picture to be drawn, of course, but I am convinced that Awami and the other prosecutors I met are committed to legal process. Later, accounts from other reporters and the Human Rights Watch representative give similar impressions. It’s hardly pretty. But a new leadership is fast emerging from the ranks of Benghazi’s lawyers, engineers, doctors, and businessmen which is as constitutionalist as it is revolutionary. And at that moment, these professional elders have the ear of the street.

As I was to discover, in Libya, in fact, to be constitutionalist is to be revolutionary. For thirty years, since Gaddafi introduced the Green Book, he has cynically maintained tyranny through a combination of puerile, Che-like personality cult and a form of supposed anarcho-syndicalism. To be in favour of system, to support institutions with declared, and therefore circumscribed, remits, is to be against Gaddafi’s system of no system. The Great Libyan Socialist Arab Jamhiriyya, c’est moi.

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

ICG policy note on Libya is a serious mistake!

Dear Ms Arbour,

I have long been a fan of ICG but, having just returned from Benghazi, I have to say I think your policy note to trhe UN security council on Libya, suggesting a political solution through negotiations leading to a consensus transition to legitimate government, is a serious error of judgement.

Its biggest defect is that there is no back-up plan on the negotiations. What happens if a political situation doesn’t work (and having just returned from Benghazi I can tell you the chances of it working are very, very slim)?

Time is not neutral in this case. Qaddafi will play ball enough to ensure a process that takes days and weeks, his forces in the mean time will advance towards Benghazi – and the city will certainly not fall without the large scale bloodshed that the ICG policy is meant to prevent. (In my opinion it won’t fall at all, since after a wobble Qaddafi is now playing international media well and creating an impression of much greater strength and resolve than he actually has).

It is precisely the ICG suggestion that would invalidate the other option of military support (of some kind) to the rebels – hand Gaddafi a much greater chance of victory, and result in greater, not lesser loss of life.

It is fine for ICG to disagree with this scenario. It is after all only one scenario. But as a responsible policy making institution, ICG should not be proposing a policy which carries this risk without factoring it in and, as I say, explaining a back up plan, and analysing the potential cost of the suggestion. Otherwise it does not present policy options in an apples-for-apples comparison.

Also, the policy is wrongly framed. The only large scale atrocities against civilians have come from the Gaddafi side. To adopt a position which assumes equivalence is to send a strong message to the rebels that they cannot count on international support. And this with a regime that has broken virtually every agreement it ever made over the course of decades. Even from a human rights perspective, we also cannot sit on the fence when we know that a Qaddafi victory over the rebels would also result in huge loss of life in retribution killings, whereas the reverse is far less likely to be true. Media reports which may appear to give the impression otherwise, of some kinf of moral equivalence, by covering persecution in the free areas of Libya of migrant labourers, for example, are unanalytical and sensational. Certainly there have been individual cases but overhelmingly in the heat of the moment, unsanctioned by civil leaders in the rebel areas, and nothing like on the same scale of oppression as the Qaddafi regime.

The policy note asserts that Qaddafi is achieving superiority on the ground rather than through the air but offers no evidence for this. In my view, and I repeat I am fresh back from Benghazi, this is far from clear. In any case the impact of his air superiority, as in so many cases, can be implicit rather than explicit – and this would certainly be much more true for the densely packed areas of Benghazi than for the small towns (Bregua, Ras Lanuf, Misrata) where the fighting has concentrated to date. If the million people of Benghazi believe they will not be bombed from the air, they will resist Gaddafi forces – and they will win imho. If they believe there is a possibility of severe aerial bombardment, that belief need not even be objectively true for it to have the impact of lessening their resolve to fight, and risk changing the outcome of the struggle.

Equally, the assertion that a no-fly zone therefore would not stop large-scale killing is unproven. It certainly would not stop all killing – there is a low intensity war going on. And since we don’t know how effective it would be I certainly agree that an intervention on the side of rebels needs to be ready as of now to move beyond a no-fly zone, to at least arming the rebels.

But the crucial factor that is missing is also the oil industry. Qaddafi has lost control of it, cannot regain it, and so will run out of money. This means that a stand-off is not necessarily the worst option. There would be continued casualties but Qaddafi’s position would be gradually weakened until he falls.

All of which adds up to ICG’s suggestion – which would give a bloody regime diplomatic cover to play for time in its own tyrannical interests – being downright dangerous.

Yours

John West

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Once Upon a Time – the Arab Revolutions as a children’s story

(the illustrated version is here in doc and here in pdf)

Once upon a time, not so long ago, millions of people living not far from here, on just the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, were unhappy. The main reason was because they were not free. There were two countries called Egypt and Tunisia, where bad men ruled them for a long time. Their rulers were called Ben Ali and Mubarak.

They thought they were better than everyone else and could just do anything they liked. In the beginning they had got to be boss because everyone else agreed, more or less, and they had friends that they asked advice from. But as time went on, they became more and more arrogant and thought they always knew best, and never asked anyone else.

And although in most countries, rulers are only supposed to stay for a few years at a time to give everyone else a chance, in these countries these men stayed for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, even 40 years. They became very vain and made everyone put their pictures up everywhere… on the walls of big buildings, hospitals, inside school classrooms, even in shops.

It got so that entire families growing up could never remember life before Ben Ali or Mubarak. And they tried to make people think they could go on forever. They would dye their hair black when it had gone grey, and have special operations to try and make themselves look younger, so that people would forget how long they had been ruling them. Not only that but they turned themselves into kings, and made their families very rich by taking money that wasn’t theirs, while a lot of people stayed very poor, and had to eat just bread and rice most days.

But unlike the nice kings and queens you sometimes hear about in stories, these new kings didn’t do anything for anyone. They took all the nice things for themselves and lived in big, fancy palaces while lots of people lived in houses that were so small and cramped they hardly had enough room even to lie down and sleep at night, and which didn’t have proper walls or roofs, so let in the rain and the wind. The rulers didn’t allow children to go to school, and then called them stupid because they grew up unable to read and write. Many ordinary people couldn’t even afford to see a doctor when they were sick.

But the worst thing of all was, nobody could say anything about it. If anyone tried to complain, or even just suggest how things could be better, Ben Ali or Mubarak would send bullies to beat them up, and take them to prison. And the police were not like police in most countries, where they look after people and stop criminals. Instead, in these countries the police themselves were often the criminals! They would rob people, or demand some of their money just to keep their shops open. They would make people say nice things about Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, and hit them if they didn’t. Like most bullies, they often pretended they had to do this for some good reason but the real reason was they enjoyed treating people badly and bossing them about.

Well all this went on for years and years. It was as though these men were old wizards who had cast a spell over the people. Even though they wanted freedom and good schools and dignity, to hold their heads up high, like people in other countries they were afraid. Wherever they went, the ruler was staring down at them from some huge poster, and his bad men were right there in the street, ready to hit them if they tried to change anything.

Until one day, somebody said enough is enough. Just before Christmas, a young fruit seller called Mohammed protested when Ben Ali’s men in his town hit him. The next day, his friends and family protested. The day after that the entire town protested. The day after that all the other towns in the region protested, and a few days after that the entire country of Tunisia was protesting in the streets. The peaceful revolution spread like wildfire, and many of the protesters went every day to the Internet to post what they had seen or witnessed during the day, so that everyone would know. The most important thing was for everyone to be in it together, and to know that although it might be scary to go out and face bad men with weapons, they were not alone.

People went down into the streets to find each other and the courage to say enough is enough! Ben Ali sent all his bad men against the people, but the more they were beaten up, the more the people became brave. They had no weapons and didn’t attack anyone but they refused to go home, and refused to stop protesting in the streets, telling Ben Ali to go away. They started to tell each other jokes about him, pointing out the silly things he said, drawing cartoons of him, and singing songs about their own freedom.

The spell was broken. Winter turned into spring and after just three weeks of this, Ben Ali fled his palace in disgrace and went abroad.

Just a few days after that, the people of Egypt did the same thing with Mubarak. They had heard what had happened in Tunisia because, like the Tunisians, Egyptians are Arabs and so they speak the same language and share the same culture. And they said to themselves, “if our cousins in Tunisia can do it, why can’t we?”.

They gathered first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in millions, in the main squares of the big cities and sang songs and shouted for Mubarak to leave like Ben Ali did. Just like Ben Ali, Mubarak also had rotten police, not like normal police, who beat up the peaceful protesters, but just like their cousins in Tunisia, every time they were beaten up, the people in Egypt became even braver.

“We are staying and you are going,” they sang, and “Go, Pharaoh, go!” a joke about how Mubarak was making himself a god like the old Pharaohs of Egypt. Mubarak kept making speeches on TV telling the people how lucky they were to have him, what a hero he was, and how only he knew how to take care of them. But the millions and millions of brave men and women knew different. Mubarak’s spell over them had been broken just like Ben Ali’s in Tunisia, and they too told jokes about him and made funny cartoons. And everyone in Egypt put their stories on the Internet too, so that everyone else would know, just like in Tunisia.

Mubarak tried to get the soldiers in the army to beat up the people even more. But the leaders of the army were wise and refused, saying the people in the streets were their brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters, and they would never treat them badly.

And so the people won by sheer force of their peaceful bravery. Mubarak could no longer get anyone to obey him and had to leave his palace, just like Ben Ali had in Tunisia.

And the people had the biggest street parties ever in their countries, and strangers hugged each other and laughed and cried all at the same time they were so happy. It was like a dream. Nobody could believe that they had beaten the tyrants! And although before, people from Tunisia and Egypt had been embarrassed to say where they were from, now they became proud. You are Egyptian, lift up your head, they would say to each other, and they wore badges and put stickers on their cars to show they had been part of The Arab Spring, the protests that had removed the bad men. Things were not easy just because they had got rid of Ben Ali and Mubarak, though. They had been ruling them for so long that nobody else quite knew how to take care of things. And the rulers themselves had made sure nobody else could take their place by whispering lots of bad stories to different people, to make them distrust each other, and keeping lots of secrets to themselves.

But in the days and weeks that followed victory, slowly people got used to life after the dictators, and they began to build a new future. It will take time but everyone in Tunisia and Egypt are determined to make their countries where everyone has the same opportunities as people in other countries – the right to go to school, to be looked after when you are sick, to start a family, and to make a living without being stolen from. And most of all, the right to say what you think, who you think is right and wrong, and to choose the government.

Just like we do.

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

the Arab Spring – BMS links

The Arab Spring – as a children’s story… quickly written for a talk to Ruby’s third grade class tomorrow… with pictures!

Balti – Layam, the breakthrough rap song

Ben Ali’s last speech in Tunisia

El General against Ben Ali in Tunisia

Egypt: Amr Eid in Tahrir Square

Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 8:18 am  Leave a Comment