Thanks for nothing Vodafone: Egyptians vent anger on Twitter

Egyptians protest outside a Vodafone store during the revolution

 

Originally published in the Independent, 6 August 2002

When Vodafone executives unveiled their latest Egyptian ad campaign, it should have been a cause for celebration.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a goldmine for advertisers, with families glued to endless TV soap operas as they fast throughout the day.

But not for the first time since Egypt’s 25 January uprising, the global telecoms giant seems to have put its foot in it. The campaign has faced a vicious backlash, with many Egyptians taking to the internet in a bid to vent their fury.

The so-called “Thank you” campaign, which was launched across television and the internet in time for the August month of Ramadan, included a gimmick whereby Egyptians were encouraged to send thank you messages to friends and relatives on Twitter, using the hashtag #vodafoneshokran – “thank you Vodafone”.

It must have seemed like a great idea on the drawing board. But with many people still angry about Vodafone’s conduct during the revolution – when along with other mobile phone companies, it agreed to shut down networks on the orders of the president – some Egyptians have hijacked the campaign, tweeting sneering messages poking fun at the company under the pretext of thanking it.

One message, from a user called @stweeted, said: “Thanks for cutting off communications during the revolution, I was dead worried about my family and friends.” Another, from @laScheherazade, said: “Thanks for claiming you inspired the revolution when in fact you caused the death of martyrs by cutting off communication.”

The backlash is doubly embarrassing for Vodafone as it follows a similar wave of outrage in June, when Egyptians took umbrageat at an advert created by the company’s marketing agency, JWT, which appeared to take credit for the revolution. Egyptian blogger Ramy Raoof said people were still angry with Vodafone because of the way it was perceived to have exploited the revolution. “We all know that if they wanted to support the people they wouldn’t have shut off the phones,” he said, adding that the company’s actions had endangered protesters’ lives.

Clive Woodger, a British marketing expert who has worked in the Middle East, said Vodafone had been “naive”. He said: “You like to think these companies are global, cool and incredibly sophisticated, but sometimes they’re not as clever as they think.”

A spokeswoman for Vodafone Egypt said the backlash against the company was “not an issue of our popularity”. She emphasised that during the uprising it “had no option but to comply” with the Egyptian government.

Mubarak trial: the view from Egypt’s streets

Egyptians are divided on how Mubarak should be treated

 

Originally published in the Independent, August 4 2011

If history is written by the winners, then Zaki Sultan won’t be sharpening his pencil any time soon. In February, when the Egyptian uprising was in full swing, he was one of the pro-Mubarak supporters who charged his camel into Tahrir Square to try to turf out pro-democracy activists. He failed.

Yesterday, Zaki remained staunch in his support for his former leader. It was sad, he said, that the former leader was on trial.

“He was an important man, a military man,” he said. “He did some good things for Egypt.”

Many others who watched yesterday’s unprecedented court appearance disagreed. Standing outside the police academy in eastern Cairo where the trial was being held, Ali Abu Sria said he was pleased to see the former president in the dock.

Carrying a hangman’s noose – a stark illustration of his own thoughts on the case – the 49-year-old labourer said: “We’ve never seen a dictator in court like this before.”

It was a historical allusion appreciated by other Egyptians who recognised just how startling was the sight of a caged Hosni Mubarak being tried in a civilian court after a home-grown uprising.

Mohammad al-Azazi, 22, a pharmacist who watched the trial on a big screen outside the venue, said: “It’s a historical day. If somebody had hit you every day for 30 years, how would you feel? People are angry because they have had 30 years of poverty and torture.”

Yet there was still a degree of sympathy for a former war hero and long-term leader who yesterday was reduced to denying criminal charges from a hospital bed.

Walid Khalid owns a stationery shop not far from Tahrir Square, which yesterday was guarded by a ring of riot police and some armoured personnel carriers. As he used the photocopier in his cupboard-sized shop, he said that a measure of lenience was required for the aging ex-autocrat.

“In my life I never thought I would see him in court,” said the 30-year-old. “But I don’t want him executed. We should take money from him, because he took money from us.”

A taxi driver, who did not give his name, agreed. “Execution would be hard on him,” he said.

But not everybody was gripped by the courtroom drama. In his shop opposite a government ministry, a shopkeeper called Mahmoud had the trial showing on a fuzzy little television on top of the soft drinks fridge. What did he think of the landmark trial? “I’ve been sleeping,” he replied with a broad grin.

Surveillance state

Hundreds of CCTV cameras have been installed across Egypt over the past two years

 

Originally published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, June 8 2011

Despite being one of the most celebrated cities of the ancient world, Luxor could soon fall prey to one of the modern era’s least celebrated innovations – the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera.

The city, which more than 3000 years ago was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, is due to be fitted out with 100 cameras under a plan to improve security in the area. They will monitor everything from tourists hopping off their cruise boats in the harbor to visitors walking into the city’s temples.

Yet like a number of other surveillance projects in the works – including a US$4 million plan to install 350 CCTV cameras on Cairo’s metro system – the idea is currently on ice as the post-Mubarak government deals with the chaos caused by the 25 January revolution.

Emad Adly, chairman of one of the companies that applied for the metro CCTV project tender, said he had heard “rumors” that the whole thing might be canceled.

“The last thing I heard from the Ministry of Transport was that the whole thing was on hold,” said Adly, also the chairman of Audio Technology.

The same goes for the Luxor CCTV project, according to CSI Egypt, one of the companies that applied to the tender.

Although the disruption caused to these wide-ranging surveillance projects is proving to be a headache for company shareholders, it is a welcome relief for those who feel that Egypt’s authorities are in danger of turning their country into an Orwellian nightmare.

In the past two years, the number of street-level security cameras across the country has increased rapidly through government-sponsored projects.

Since late 2009, nearly 300 cameras have been installed in Alexandria and Cairo’s Al-Azhar area of at a cost of more than US$7.5 million – with all of the cameras being supplied by Audio Technology.

The same company also has a contract to provide an additional 100 cameras in Hurghada, where lenses that can zoom up to 400 meters and swivel around full circle could soon be operational.

Audio Technology’s partner in all of its projects has been Orascom, the telecommunications firm owned by billionaire businessman-turned-politician Naguib Sawiris. While Audio Technology provides the cameras used for the CCTV systems, Orascom installs the wireless technology and control rooms required to monitor the images.

The spread of CCTV across Egypt mirrors a wider trend in the region. A report by IMS Research last year estimated that the Middle East market for video surveillance equipment would grow by 10 percent in 2010 and continue its upward trend strongly toward 2013.

Steve Batt, Middle East sales manager for video equipment firm Vicon, said it was true that the use of surveillance CCTV in Egypt was widening, but that the development was only following a global pattern.

“What’s happening in Egypt is not very different to what’s happening elsewhere,” he said.

According to Emad Adly, the spread of CCTV technology is essential for securing businesses across Egypt.

“Security is one of the most important things for investors,” Adly said.

Mohamed Ezzeldin, managing director of Egypt’s division of the security services company G4S, agreed. His own company pitched to secure the recent contracts in Hurghada and Alexandria and is also in the running to provide the proposed CCTV network on Cairo’s metro system.

“The country needs the CCTV,” he said. “If there is an incident, then you can find someone to blame. I think it’s really important.”

Yet Steve Batt warned there was a possibility that the technology could be abused by authoritarian governments – particularly in the Middle East.

He said that the Interior Ministry, which controls all of the government street surveillance projects through its Technical Research Department, would be responsible for all of the control rooms used in CCTV operation.

“The Interior Ministry has to approve the operators and run the system,” he said.

“In the United Arab Emirates, if you are building a new Ritz Carlton, in order to get the hotel open and get a license you have to install a security system in accordance with Interior Ministry guidelines.

“If that system has to conform to the same standard, it makes it simple for the Interior Ministry to access it,” Batt said.

However, he questioned how valuable CCTV really was for a police state hoping to monitor its citizens.

“It’s very easy to sensationalize what you can do with a blurry image of a person in the street next to 15,000 other people,” he said.

Wherever you look in Egypt, it seems the CCTV industry is booming. Private demand for cameras and security systems has skyrocketed in many sectors because of the uncertainty caused by the uprising. Mohamed Ezzeldin said that he reached his company’s US$4 million sales target four months earlier than he did last year due to a hike in orders from oil companies and industrial firms.

For now, the uprising has stalled the boom in government CCTV surveillance. But if the projects which were in the works prior to 25 January get back on track, then the trend of increasing surveillance will continue unabated.

How CNN’s “virginity checks” story first unravelled

Salwa Hosseini, who told CNN she had been subjected to a "virginity check"

Egyptian TV presenter Shahira Amin was eating lunch in a Lebanese restaurant when she received the phone call which dropped a bombshell.

It was an army general responding to the interview request Amin had made last week following a show she recorded with a guest from Amnesty International – the organisation which some weeks ago made allegations that Egyptian women had been subjected to degrading “virginity tests” in custody.

As the general began to speak, Amin stopped eating her tabbouleh salad and began taking notes on a table napkin in front of her. The general’s comments were startling.

He confirmed that following a demonstration in Tahrir Square on March 9, a number of female protesters had been subjected to rudimentary “examinations” in order to determine whether they were virgins or not.

It was the first time since Amnesty’s report that the allegation had been verified by the military. But perhaps what was more startling than the admission itself – which was subsequently denied in an army statement yesterday – was the reasons given by the general and his justifications for the actions of his troops.

“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” the general said, according to the article that Amin wrote for CNN’s website and which was published on Tuesday. “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs).

He continued by saying that the checks had been done so the women could not claim later that they had been raped while in custody.

“We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).”

Speaking to Al Majalla, Amin said that she was under the impression the general – who asked her to remain anonymous – had been given the green light to talk to her from higher ranking officials.

“As I was talking to him he got a phone call,” she said. “He said to someone, ‘I have Shahira with me on the line’. Then he told me he would call again in five minutes.

“He then called back and said to me, ‘do you know who that was? It was the army chief of staff’.”

Since the CNN story was published earlier in the week, the issue has slowly been developing momentum of its own.

On Wednesday night a couple of hundred people gathered in the plush east Cairo district of Heliopolis to protest outside a meeting being held between the military and a handful of youth groups.

A number of the protesters held up placards and screamed chants expressing their disgust over the general’s comments.

Salma Nagy, a 30-year-old economist who was at the protest, said: “I consider it a personal threat to me. Every time I think about going to protest I think about what happened to the other girls.

Architect Sandra Louka, 32, added: “The virginity tests are ridiculous. I think it’s a violation of human liberty.”

Egypt’s bloggers and tweeters have also taken to the web to denounce the general’s comments, which come after days of mounting unease about the army’s conduct in managing the uprising.

Earlier in the week the renowned Egyptian blogger Hossam Hamalawy was questioned by the military and later released after he said publicly on TV that he had evidence of military malpractice. This week bloggers called another day of online action to criticise the widespread use of military courts to process thousands of Egyptians.

Criticism of the military was utterly taboo under Mubarak, and while restrictions have eased somewhat since the fall of Mubarak, there are still doubts about how far the army is willing to tolerate dissent.

A number of leading military figures have said they cannot wait to hand over to civilian rule. If it means that people start directing their ire at somebody else, then it is easy to see why.

As Libya is bombed, Egypt votes

Egyptian women cast their ballot papers

Paola Raymond had been waiting patiently in line under the hot Cairo sun for two hours.

“I’m 45-years-old,” she said cheerily, “and this is my first time voting. I feel absolutely great.”

Across Egypt millions of others were doing the same in a referendum which will shape the course of the Egyptian Revolution.

Towns and cities across the country were unusually quiet as voters headed to polling stations, with many saying it was the first time in their lives they had bothered to vote.

“Take my word for it,” said Nadia Farid, a 43-year-old assistant manager for Lufthansa who was queuing up to vote at a school on the upmarket island of Zamalek in Cairo. “Most of the people here are voting for the first time.”

The referendum, which is asking Egyptians to approve a series of amendments to the country’s 1971 constitution, is the first genuinely democratic poll in decades.

Previous elections have been marred by rigging, intimidation and violence, and yesterday’s vote marks a serious test for the ruling military government.

Bassem Samir, who works for election-monitoring group the Egyptian Democratic Academy, said the poll seemed to have passed off without major incident.

“This is the first time we have had a vote under the control of the army and police where there have been no clashes.”

The army wants voters to approve the constitutional amendments before presidential and parliamentary elections which have been slated for the summer.

There are nine proposed changes, which include lifting restrictions on who can be nominated for president, modifying the hated Emergency Law and imposing limits on presidential terms.

Supported by the Muslim Brotherhood – which along with the formerly-ruling National Democratic Party is the only main opposition group which has campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum – the military argues that the changes are the best way to ensure fair elections this summer.

Yet aligned against them are an array of figures from across the political spectrum,

They include two of the main possible presidential candidates – Mohamed El-Baradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, and Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League – along with leading pro-democracy youth group, the January 25 coalition, and the leftist Al-Tagamma party.

They argue that an entirely new constitution is required to make a clean break with the Mubarak regime, and have raised fears that a summer election is too soon and will only benefit the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood.

Back at the polling station Paola Raymond, a dentist, said that she was voting no because she was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.

“The day that I will not be able to speak freely and dress as I want to dress will be the day I leave the country,” she said.

Yet in the poor west Cairo district of Boolaq, where voters were casting their ballots at the run-down Mustafa Kamal school next to a grubby motorway overpass, there was widespread support for the changes and a quick handover to civilian rule.

Hamad El-Sayed, 45, said: “I have three children and I want their lives to change for the better. I want the country to start walking again and I want the police back on the streets.”

According to Tahany El-Gabali, Egypt’s first female judge and vice president of the supreme constitutional court, there were reports of Muslim Brotherhood scare-mongering in Egypt’s rural areas before the poll.

“I was told that some Muslim Brotherhood people are saying to their followers they should vote yes or their religion could be under threat.”

Yet initial indications would seem to suggest that Egypt’s first election in the post-Mubarak has passed without too many glitches.

Pre-referendum opinion polls had indicated the outcome of the vote was too close to call – something which in itself is a novelty for a country used to little more than rubber-stamp election farces.

With results expected either today or tomorrow, the country will be holding its breath to see where the revolution goes next.

Egypt’s “Indiana Jones” bows out

Dr Zahi Hawass has won many admirers over the years....but also some enemies

Originally published in the Independent, March 5, 2011

The archaeologist who styles himself as Egypt’s Indiana Jones, battling to save the nation’s rich heritage, has said he will resign as antiquities minister, complaining that treasures are being looted and ravaged with little protection from the authorities.

Dr Zahi Hawass, who has come under fire for his links to the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, said the country’s antiquities were in “grave danger” from criminals, with the new military regime that took power last month failing to preserve law and order.

“Since Mubarak’s resignation, looting has increased all over the country, and our antiquities are in grave danger from criminals trying to take advantage of the situation,” he wrote on his website, going on to list dozens of archaeological sites across the country raided since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February.

Egyptian newspapers yesterday widely quoted the fedora-wearing TV personality saying he was not willing to participate in the government of Essam Sharaf, named as the new Prime Minister by the military on Thursday, after the Mubarak-appointed Ahmed Shafiq resigned.

Dr Hawass told the Al-Masry-Al-Youm newspaper: “I will not return to the ministry again. During my life, I have never felt weak until the period which I assumed my position in the Ministry of Antiquities.”

His statements appear to contradict an interview with The Independent last month, when he insisted Egypt was fully able to look after its treasures, which include the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids of Giza and the Pharaonic treasures at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Sitting in his government office on the plush residential island of Zamalek in the Nile two weeks ago, he insisted: “The world should salute what these people did and come to Tahrir Square to thank them for saving the museum.”

He said the government had coped admirably in protecting its museums and ancient sites during the 18-day uprising, when tens of thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for an end to Mr Mubarak’s long autocratic rule. Dr Hawass even touted the idea of a museum to honour the uprising. He also took aim at suggestions that the upheaval may have dealt a blow to his campaign to repatriate Egyptian artefacts being kept in Britain. He said that if there had been a revolution in the UK, “not one single thing would have been left in the British Museum”.

The uprising brought widespread looting and vandalism. At the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, 18 artefacts were reported missing, including two statues of the boy king Tutankhamun. Four have been found. Thieves also targeted the ancient burial ground of Sakkara. Egypt’s tourist sites reopened last month, but holidaymakers are staying away.

A crime wave has also hit some parts of the country, with the police, widely reviled as tools of Mubarak, disappearing from the streets after the revolution. Some returned after the army stepped in to maintain law and order, but security remains fragile.

“The antiquities guards and security forces at sites are unarmed and this makes them easy targets for armed looters,” Dr Hawass wrote on his website this week. “In addition, the Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every single site, monument and museum in Egypt.”

Dr Hawass had come under fire for his links to Mubarak. He was named Minister of Antiquities during the deposed president’s desperate cabinet reshuffle on 31 January, a last futile effort to cling on to power. He was also the target of a protest last month by about 200 archaeologists who gathered outside his office to demand employment.

With his fedora hat and desert fatigues, Dr Hawass has cast himself in the mould of an Indiana Jones-style figure, but his brusque, steamroller style has not always won him admirers. The one thing his staff members agree on is that he is a seven-day-week workaholic; others have said his countless magazine, book and documentary appearances are calculated to promote himself as much as his science.

Such is the profile of the headline-hogging archaeologist, some in the blogosphere had even touted Dr Hawass as a future leader. But they look set to be disappointed. “I’m not a politician,” he said gruffly when asked last month about his leadership ambitions. “I’m a technician. Don’t ask me about politics. I rule it out completely.”

The Exodus Industry

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It was clear from the outset that this climb would be a little different.

If Mount Sinai is not the only world-famous peak with a walk-through metal detector at the base, then it certainly flaunts  its exceptionalism in a number of other ways.

The hike began, like many on this Biblical mountain, very early in the morning.

At around 2am, with a crisp chill in the Sinai Desert air, we set off behind our Bedouin guide Mohammed in a bid to catch sunrise from the summit.

Wrapped-up in his ankle-length jalabiya and a tightly wound headscarf, Mohammed began the steady trudge along our scree-scattered path with a disarming degree of insouciance.

Both hands behind his back and planting one foot in front of the other like a clockwork soldier, he picked his way through the rocks and pebbles with the carefree manner of a man who had shepherded tourists along this route countless times.

This being Sinai, the way ahead was already lit-up with a luminescent ribbon from a thousand different torchlights. It tapered-out hundreds of feet above our heads as the first of the climbers rounded the eastern face of the mountain to make their final ascent in the pitch black.

It may have been early in the morning, but Sinai is a tickbox mountain; climbers rarely have it to themselves.

The procession wound ever onwards, a motley collection of  summit-fever dawn junkies, Sinai sun-hoppers, earnest pilgrims and Gore-tex teeth-gritters.

Looming, faceless crags were silhouetted against the glow of a full-moon, while the star-filled sky shimmered like a diamond mine. Every now and then a camel appeared out of the darkness, snorting insolently as its Bedouin master towed him down the mountain.

And in case anyone clambering up this barren peak needed a bite to eat, ramshackle huts along the way provided everything from Mars bars to instant coffee with powder milk.

If Moses did not have the luxury of these refreshments when, according to the Book of Exodus, he made his own ascent to receive the Ten Commandments, then his 21st Century followers would suffer no such hardship.

The final stretch took the walkers up a steep section of 750 stone steps called the Stairway of Repentance, actually the closing leg of an alternative route consisting of 3,750 steps which leads down to St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain, the ancient 6th Century building erected on the site where the Bible says God spoke to Moses from a burning bush.

The first light of dawn was beginning to creep up over the jagged peaks in the eastern Sinai, and some of the more exhausted climbers had fallen by the wayside – repenting, perhaps, for their ill-advised decision to climb up a mountain in the dead of night.

After the final leg came the summit, a prize rendered a little less beguiling given the scramble to find a spot on the floor among the scores of other ashen-faced walkers. Nestled in among them at around 5am, next to a mosque and Greek Orthodox chapel erected in 1934, it was a little difficult to imagine the scene when God supposedly handed Moses the stone tablets which have shaped the course of Western civilisation.

Yet at 2,285 metres above sea level, nothing can detract from the experience of watching the rising sun breathe fire into the Sinai peninsula as it begins its relentless climb into the early morning sky.

Perhaps this is what Moses saw when he spent his 40 nights on top of the mountain. Perhaps, if you subscribe to the iconoclasm that Sinai could just as well be in Saudi Arabia as Egypt, it is not.

Either way, with dawns like these there is little chance the sun will ever set on Mount Sinai’s Exodus Industry.

 

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