HSBC accused of helping Egypt’s generals stifle dissent

NGOs have criticised HSBC's recent actions in Egypts

 

Originally published in The Independent, 31 October 2011

Human rights groups and NGOs have accused HSBC bank of colluding in a campaign of intimidation which they say is being waged against them by Egypt’s ruling military council.

The groups, which hold Egyptian accounts with the global banking giant, say that over the past two months HSBC has contacted them requesting documents and information relating to their finances and work in Egypt.

One NGO worker, the director of an organisation which works to promote democracy around Egypt, said he was called last month by an HSBC bank manager who asked why the group had been receiving money from the American embassy.

“They wanted to know what our activities were,” said Bassem Samir, executive director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy.  “It was not clear why they were asking these questions.

This month HSBC also contacted another civil rights group, the New Women Foundation, and asked staff to provide a list of all of their future projects.

“They also said they could release our accounts to the government if they were asked,” said Nawla Darwiche, a founding member of the organisation. “This is very serious.”

It comes at a time of heightened tensions between NGOs and the ruling military council, which took power after former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February.

During the summer, Egypt’s Minister of International Co-operation, Faiza Abul-Naga, announced that a commission of inquiry was being established to investigate the funding of civil society organisations.

The results of the investigation were published in an Egyptian newspaper last month, which detailed the funding received by numerous NGOs and also revealed that 39 organisations had been declared illegal – including some of the most respected civil rights groups in Egypt.

Since August there have also been reports in official newspapers accusing some NGOs of treason. State TV has questioned the loyalty of certain groups, while in a recent statement the Justice Minister referred to spies and treachery in a statement about human rights organisations.

Last week the vice-president of the Union of NGOs, the government body which regulates NGOs, told a local newspaper that some employees of Egyptian rights groups could face jail over the issue. It came after the Ministry of Justice submitted information to a Cairo court detailing the foreign funding received by 75 organisations.

But HSBC is not the only target of criticism by activists. Another bank, Egyptian-owned CIB, has also been accused of intimidation.

According to United Group, a firm of Cairo lawyers specialising in human rights, the bank recently contacted lawyers to ask why the firm’s partners had received money from USAID, the US governmental organisation which distributes development cash.

“They asked us to send them copies of the contract we signed with USAID,” said Nigad al-Boraa, a senior partner at the firm. “I told them we were a law office and USAID are one of our clients, and that by legal profession laws we cannot deliver any information to a third party without the consent of our client.”

Following CIB’s inquiry, the bank closed Mr al-Boraa’s personal account along with his sister’s. United Group’s company account was also subsequently closed.

Mr al-Boraa said CIB had told him they were acting at the behest of officials at the money laundering department of the Central Bank of Egypt, which oversees all banking operations in Egypt.

Neither the Central Bank of Egypt nor CIB responded to The Independent’s requests for comment.

HSBC Bank Egypt’s head of communications, Omnia Samra, said that international banks had to respond to the Central Bank of Egypt “on a wide range of queries”.

“We are not in a position to advise the nature of such queries to third parties,” she added.

Egyptian NGOs gave The Independent a number of other examples of government interference in their work. The New Women Foundation said that during the summer, ministry officials blocked a $5,000 “Nelson Mandela Award” given to them by an international NGO called Civitas for their campaign promoting freedom of association.

Leaders of groups such as the Egyptian Democratic Academy and April 6, the prominent political youth movement, were also investigated by the government to discover details about their property assets, according to newspaper reports.

It has led to accusations that Egypt’s ruling generals, who have come under intense criticism since 27 protesters were killed during a confrontation with troops earlier this month, are using banks and government departments to apply pressure on groups which have investigated the military’s abuses of power.

A number of NGO directors told The Independent that the persecution was worse than under former President Hosni Mubarak.

“Under Mubarak, maybe this or that NGO was investigated,” said Bahey al-Din, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), one of the civil organisations reportedly under investigation. “It never happened that NGOs as a group were investigated.

“The military is not satisfied with the continuous critique of their human rights performance. It seems they are not able to tolerate the move to more and more openness.”

In August the director of USAID in Egypt resigned after a row which erupted over the group’s activities in the country.

Since February USAID has distributed millions of dollars to a variety of NGOs, leading some Egyptian officials to denounce those who accept foreign money as being “traitors”.

After coming to power the military council announced that foreign funding of civil organisations must go through official channels, such as the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which vets all external financing of registered NGOs.

However some organisations escape the tighter scrutiny of their financial affairs by registering either as civil or legal entities, meaning there is far less government oversight of their activities.

Neither the Egyptian Democratic Academy nor the United Group are registered as NGOs, but instead operate under legal and civil status.

The deadly clashes in central Cairo this month, just weeks before parliamentary elections scheduled for November, marked the latest in a series of growing rifts between Egypt’s generals and the activists who brought them to power.

Since the February uprising thousands of civilians have been arrested and jailed using the military court system, while following violent clashes outside the Israeli embassy last month, the ruling generals said they would be renewing the Emergency Law – a hated symbol of Mubarak-era abuses.

Egyptian journalists and bloggers have also been summoned by the military to answer questions about articles criticising the government.

According to Shaimaa Abo El-Khair from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, an organisation which has just completed an investigation of the military’s treatment of Egyptian NGOs, the council’s attack on civil society is “very, very serious”.

“We are very concerned about the human rights situation in Egypt, which is perhaps as bad as before the uprising.

“Even Hosni Mubarak’s regime didn’t reach this level of attack.”

Egypt’s Copts mourn their dead

Mourners gathered in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo

Originally published in The Independent, 11 October 2011

Anguished Christian mourners turned out in their thousands in Cairo today to remember their dead and voice their anger at the Egyptian army over clashes that killed 26 members of their sect.

On another day of violence in the Egyptian capital, there was further trouble when angry Coptic Christians threw stones at riot police outside the hospital where dozens of casualties had been brought. And as the leader of Egypt’s Christian minority, Pope Shenouda III, presided over a service for mourners at a cathedral in eastern Cairo, attendees at the mass funeral vowed to defend their faith at any cost.

At the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassia, thousands of mourners chanted “With our soul and our blood we will defend the cross” while waiting for the service to begin. Pope Shenouda III went on to declare a three day period of mourning, prayer and fasting for the victims, who were protesting against attacks on churches in Upper Egypt. “Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons,” the Coptic Church said in a statement.

Yesterday’s clashes came about after a peaceful demonstration by Christians was set upon by plain-clothed regime loyalists. Thousands of protesters went on to fight running battles with the police, army and thugs in central Cairo in what would become the worst violence since the fall of Mubarak. Foreign Secretary William Hague today condemned the clashes, saying it was “important that the Egyptian authorities reaffirm freedom of worship in Egypt.”

Many Christians are pointing the finger of blame at the army, after military vehicles were seen speeding over demonstrators and shots were heard ringing out across the city centre. “It will affect the revolution so much,” said Karima Kamal, a Christian columnist in Egypt. “This is the first time a massacre against the Christians was done by the state itself. This is something that has never happened before.”

As dozens of Christians poured through the metal detectors outside the entrance of the cathedral, mother-of-one Jihan Maher was in tears as she vented her anger over the violence. Pointing to her 16-year-old daughter Madonna, she said: “She is an only child, but everybody who is dead inside that cathedral is her brother and sister.”

The atmosphere before the service was uneasy, with one woman outside berating a journalist wearing a headscarf. “You’re wearing a hijab, but you’re not modest,” she shouted.

Earlier in the afternoon at the Cairo Coptic Hospital, where dozens of casualties had been brought on Sunday night, there had been further clashes when hundreds of Christians attacked riot police – albeit on a much smaller scale than yesterday. Demonstrators outside the downtown building waved crosses and shouted slogans for the dead protesters, such as “Oh martyrs sleep tight, we’ll continue the fight”.

According to one cardiologist from the hospital, doctors were forced to resuscitate patients on corridor floors after being overwhelmed by casualties. “It was a massacre,” said Dr Osama Refat. “I was carrying someone’s brain in my hands. Another person had his leg mashed up because he was run over by a military vehicle.”

Egypt’s interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf condemned the violence, saying it had “taken us back several steps”. He also blamed so-called “foreign meddling” for the trouble and claimed the problems were part of a “dirty conspiracy”.

Yet some protesters blamed the government for instigating the trouble through its broadcasts on state television. At one point during the violence on Sunday night, broadcasts were asking Egyptians to defend the army against attacks. “Egyptian TV was saying that if you are Egyptian and you like your country you should go down and protect the army from us,” said Shady Ahmed, a 25-year-old who was present during the trouble.

The violence has heightened fears among some activists that the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, will try to exploit the crisis for its own ends.

There are already concerns that the revolution has hit the buffers. The ruling generals have said that presidential elections might be delayed until 2013, while the widespread use of military courts to try thousands of civilians has led to accusations of Mubarak-style authoritarianism on the part of the military council.

Following the announcement last month that army chiefs will not be ditching the widely-loathed Emergency Law, some activists believe Sunday night’s confrontations have handed the military another excuse to maintain its stranglehold on power.

Egypt on the brink as deadly riots hit Cairo

A demonstration by Copts descended into the deadliest violence since Mubarak was toppled

 

Originally published in The Independent, 10 October 2011

Twenty-four people were killed and 150 injured in Cairo yesterday during the most violent scenes to hit the country since February’s revolution ousted ex-President Hosni Mubarak. Reports said trouble escalated after Christians, protesting an attack on a church, threw rocks and petrol bombs and set cars on fire as they clashed with military police.

Gunshots and the sound of exploding tear-gas canisters rang out across the centre of the capital amid chaotic scenes. Thousands of people, some hurling stones and petrol bombs, charged through Tahrir Square as protesters fought battles with soldiers and riot police.

The violence started after demonstrators from Egypt’s Christian community headed towards the state television building in central Cairo late yesterday afternoon.

The protesters, who began their rally from the Shubra district of northern Cairo, were hoping to start a sit-in outside the riverside TV complex to highlight grievances within their community – something Egypt’s Copts have done numerous times in the past without trouble. But, according to witnesses, they came under attack from men in plain clothes who started hurling stones at them. Not long afterwards gunshots rang out at the scene.

By around 7pm central Cairo was boiling over with angry protesters as thousands of youths fought running battles with the police and gangs of regime loyalists.

At the northern side of Tahrir Square, close to the Egyptian Museum, the road was littered with rocks and broken glass as young men launched missiles at scores of plain-clothed thugs standing about 200 yards away near the Ramses Hilton Hotel.

One man, his head tied with a ribbon in the colours of the Egyptian flag, used an axe to bang metal railings like a war drum as more and more activists arrived at the scene.

Nearby, beneath a motorway overpass close to the Egyptian Museum, three teenagers scrambled to extinguish their burning T-shirts after being hit by a petrol bomb. “The army are filthy,” cried out Hassan Asius, 24, as he limped through the square after being hit by a rubber bullet. “People have died. The army are no good.” Amir Shabrawy, a 32-year-old producer, said: “This will be the end of the revolution.”

By about 9pm a tense stand-off was taking place near the state TV building as hundreds of protesters faced scores of baton-wielding riot police and soldiers.

Nearby, on 6th October bridge, which spans the Nile close to the Ramses Hilton Hotel, scores of onlookers had gathered to watch.

The sudden explosion of violence will raise fears that Egypt’s uprising – already labouring under the weight of myriad concerns – has foundered.

Last month the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, said it would be reintroducing the much-hated Emergency Law following an attack on the Israeli embassy.

Many activists will be worried that last night’s violence will offer the generals even greater reason to implement martial law.

Battle of the Camels: Mubarak henchmen in court

Pro-Mubarak supporters wreaked havoc when they charged Tahrir Square on camels

 

Originally published at thedailybeast.com, 14 September 2011

Over the course of a few hours on Feb. 2 in Egypt this year, the uprising that eventually toppled the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak appeared to be on the verge of catastrophe. During one of the most notorious events of the revolution, groups of men wielding whips and sticks charged into the square on camels and horses in a bid to kick out the protester

Several civilians were killed during the incident, which eventually became known as “The Battle of the Camels.” But now there may be some justice for those who allegedly had a role in one of the movement’s darkest moments.

In the week leading up to that particular Wednesday morning, thousands of antigovernment protesters had managed to secure the symbolic heart of Cairo following the nationwide demonstrations that erupted on Jan. 25. But there was an uneasy atmosphere across the capital. Following the disappearance of the police from Egypt’s streets, groups of stick-wielding vigilante groups erected makeshift checkpoints outside their homes to ward off potential criminals. At times, Cairo felt like it was teetering on the cusp of chaos.

In Tahrir Square, a carnival atmosphere prevailed as families sat around picnicking and protesters banged drums to a chorus of anti-Mubarak chants. Then the scene was interrupted in terrifying fashion.

Seven months after the incident, 25 suspects are now standing trial, accused of ordering the attack. Among them are Fathi Sorour, the former speaker of the Egyptian Parliament; Safwat al-Sherif, the ex-leader of Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party (NDP); and two former MPs.

Much like the hearings taking place in Egypt’s other landmark trial—that of its former leader and his sons—the case has not been without controversy. The judge has already banned live broadcasts, while earlier in the proceedings police prevented some journalists from entering the courtroom.

There is also some raw emotion surrounding the case. One man who was in Tahrir Square at the time of the incident was Wael Khalil, a blogger and socialist activist who said that protesters that day had been “in danger of being overrun.”

“We didn’t know what we were up against,” he added. “We didn’t know how many there were and how much worse it would get.”

Eventually the attackers were routed, an experience that Khalil said made the protest movement feel “invincible.” Yet he admitted that for a while demonstrators were wondering if they would be the victims of a “bloody massacre.”

Aside from the bitter memories involved, the trial could well serve up a tantalizing inside account of a crumbling autocratic regime’s desperate last spin of the wheel.

On Tuesday the judge heard from Safwat Hegazy, a leading Islamic cleric who took part in the Tahrir Square protests.

According to him, some of the camel riders and other attackers who were apprehended by demonstrators on Feb. 2 confessed they were hired NDP thugs.

Egyptian newspaper reports have also claimed that the pre-trial investigation has unearthed evidence that Sherif, the ex-NDP leader, contacted other members of the party to recruit help in crushing the uprising.

According to a camel tour guide near the pyramids, who knows some of the men who charged into Tahrir Square that day, there is no doubt that the regime was complicit in the attacks.

“They were paid by rich businessmen and told to go to Tahrir Square,” 44-year-old Zaki Sultan told The Daily Beast.

“They were angry that their business had been affected by the uprising. They were scared about the country.”

He named a parliamentarian who he claimed was involved in organizing the attacks, although that MP is not one of those currently being tried.

Egyptians are experiencing a two-track revolution. Hosni Mubarak might be on trial, but a judge’s ruling that a number of key future hearings will take place behind closed doors has raised suspicions about the process.

And while the parliamentary elections scheduled for November point to a revolution in good health, recent threats by the military that it will reinstate martial law would suggest otherwise.

The court hearings surrounding the Battle of the Camels might lay to rest some ghosts, but there are plenty of demons lying in wait along the road ahead.

Why do we think Egypt’s generals will give up their power?

Protesters scale the walls of the Israeli embassy in Cairo

 

Originally published at majalla.com, 13 September 2011

Covering the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising (we should be reluctant to use the word ‘revolution’ until some heads begin to roll), every now and then I would ask a blindingly obvious question.

Imagine yourself as Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s ruling military council and de facto leader of the country.

If you were in his position – head of a military elite which for three decades or more has enjoyed unfettered power and privilege under the rule of Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors – would you give it all up for an election?

On the occasions I would put this question to one or more of Egypt’s leading activists and politicians, the answer was invariably yes.

Strange, I used to think, seeing as the answer as far as I could tell was a resoundingly clear-cut no. “You want my lucrative land holdings for a liberal democracy? Tell that to my Kalashnikov.”

Or so I can imagine the all-powerful Field Marshall saying.

But now it seems some of the activists who were initially so accommodating towards the ruling military council are also beginning to have their doubts.

Take Shady al-Ghazaly Harb. He is a leading member of the 25 January Youth Coalition, an influential Egyptian activist group comprised of key figures behind the uprising.

He said demonstrators had been “naive” to assume that the ruling military council would happily oversee the transition to a democratic Egypt. “It’s not going to happen”, he added.

Al-Ghazaly said that the recent attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo, when three people were killed after demonstrators knocked down a perimeter wall and broke into the building, revealed the military’s true intent.

“It was pre-planned by the military,” he claimed, saying that Egypt’s ruling generals allowed the attack to happen in order to justify further acquisitions of power.

His view was backed up by Ramy el-Swissy, one of the founding members of the April 6 Youth Movement, another key activist organisation. “The attack was just a hoax in order to make problems between the people and the army,” he said.

There is no evidence to support the claims of military acquiescence in the embassy attacks, and plenty of other politicians and analysts have supported the army’s right to ensure that the post-Mubarak phase doesn’t fall prey to chaos.

Yet the mistrust between activists and the generals is now greater than ever before. Al-Ghazaly said members of the 25 January Youth Coalition, who count among them so many leading lights of the pro-democracy movement, are now “confused” and do not know where to turn.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for November, they will have to figure out their direction quickly.

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.

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