Mubarak’s fall could trigger Egypt gold boom in Sinai

Egypt could be on the verge of a gold mining boom


Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

The fall of Hosni Mubarak could trigger an Egyptian gold boom as the government looks to carve up precious reserves in the Sinai desert which have remained untapped for decades. Officials have known about the potential for finding gold in Egypt’s mountain wilderness for years, yet a combination of security concerns and the complicated mining process have so far hampered serious progress.

Egyptian mining chiefs now plan to invite investors to carry out gold exploration in the Sinai – an area which was once occupied by the Israelis during the 1970s and which has been plagued by security problems since the uprising which toppled Mr Mubarak.

According to Dr Hassan Bakheit, the head of geological surveys in the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority, the government wants to start receiving contract bids next year.

“We’re trying to develop the Sinai desert,” he said. “I think in the future there will be more explorations. I hope that if the revolution goes the right way and is not stopped by any further problems, Egypt will become known as a big gold producer in the region.”

Egypt is no stranger to the gold mining industry. As long ago as the third century BC, workers living under the realm of the Old Kingdom were unearthing the precious mineral from the volcanic rocks that line the country’s Red Sea coast.

Yet since the 1950s there has been virtually no serious investment in the industry. Only one company is currently producing Egyptian gold, the Australian firm Centamin, which is listed in London and Toronto and which started commercial production last year.

With an estimated 6.7 million ounces of the metal lying under more than 100 possible mining sites around the country, analysts say the potential value of Egypt’s untapped reserves runs into billions of pounds – a literal gold mine in a nation which could sorely use the receipts of its own mineral wealth.

Louise Collinge, a mining analyst for Evolution Securities, said there was “a lot of interest” about investing in Egypt. She said its location in the Arabian- Nubian Shield – a band of rocks that stretches down from north of Cairo as far as the Horn of Africa – meant it was ripe for gold prospecting.

But she added that with the current political insecurity it would be difficult for the gold boom to really take off. “It’s a big worry for any investor,” she said. “In theory there should be no problems at all. But the market is a bit worried as to what might happen.”

Centamin lost millions of dollars during the Egyptian uprising and saw its stock plummet by more than 25 per cent following the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

“The worst case scenario for potential investors is whether they will still own their assets at the end of events like those in Egypt,” said Ms Collinge.

There are now six companies carrying out gold exploration at various locations along the Red Sea coast, though none have yet started producing commercially.

According to Centamin’s chief executive, Harry Michael, one of the main reasons Egypt did not open up to investors until only relatively recently is because previous governments simply did not think the industry was viable. When company bosses tried to tell Mr Mubarak’s officials that they were sitting on a fortune, the response was incredulous. “They said, ‘you guys are crazy’,” claimed Mr Michael.

“There is not much rainfall in Egypt,” he added. “A lot of the country is desert. Nobody goes there, and there was an opportunity for us to get something from that land for the nation and our investors. It was crying out for some kind of use.”

Yet according to Dr Bakheit, the reason that the Sinai desert’s reserves have so far remained off-limits is more political than economical.

He blamed the hidden “agenda” of Hosni Mubarak’s relations with Israel, saying he believed the government had a deal with Tel Aviv under the 1979 peace treaty not to develop large scale mining operations in the area.

It is a view not taken seriously by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, an expert on Egyptian-Israeli relations from Tel Aviv University. “It makes no sense,” he said. “After 1979, Israel was interested in Egypt developing economically.”

Nonetheless it is clear the precarious security situation in the Sinai has hamstrung economic development. Centamin’s Mr Michael said it had “definitely been an issue” when it came to the government failing to pursue mining projects in the region.

And there are other political ramifications of a future gold boom in Egypt. Under Centamin’s deal with the government, it is obliged to pump half of its profits back into the state treasury.

Given that geologists believe the nation’s gold reserves could be worth many billions of pounds, the next few years could be critical in determining how well Egypt’s first post-Mubarak government can exploit the nation’s substantial mineral resources.

In a nation where 40 per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, a profitable gold mining industry – and the thousands of jobs needed to sustain it – could be a significant boon.

“I’m optimistic,” said Ibrahim Shalaby, the former deputy minister of the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority. “We just need someone with some money who is not afraid to come here, invest their cash and see the benefits.”

Battle of the Camels: Mubarak henchmen in court

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


Originally published at, 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.

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.

Fall of the pharaoh: Mubarak stands trial

Hosni Mubarak lies caged in the courtroom


Originally published at, August 3, 2011

It was only when the chopper appeared out of the bright, blue sky that many Egyptians finally believed that their fallen pharaoh would face the music.

Some had been waiting in the morning sunshine for at least two hours, standing outside the vast police-academy complex on the eastern edge of Cairo where former president Hosni Mubarak is being tried in a makeshift courtroom.

At around 8:55 a.m., as the helicopter buzzed in over the ranks of news teams and satellite dishes, there were cheers from some of the crowd as it dipped toward the ground and landed beyond the 15-foot wall surrounding the academy.

“The criminal is here! The criminal is here!” shouted a group of protesters waving Egyptian flags and homemade banners. Not far away a couple of soldiers cradled their Kalashnikovs as they eyed the action from an armored personnel carrier.

Until this morning many Egyptians had suspected that the man who had ruled them since 1981 might somehow evade his date with destiny.

“I thought it wasn’t going to happen,” Mohammad Quessny, 23, told The Daily Beast while standing in front of the giant TV screen erected outside the academy. “Now he is here. I can’t believe it.”

Neither could some of the pro-Mubarak supporters who had arrived to voice their support. Before the former president entered the courtroom, there were a number of running battles with the anti-Mubarak crowds. Squads of baton-wielding riot police charged in and separated the sides under a shower of rocks and abuse.

It was not long before Mubarak, a frail 83-year-old who was Air Force chief during Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, appeared in front of the cameras. Accompanied by his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, who were both dressed in white prison uniforms, the former president cut a pathetic figure as he was wheeled in on a hospital bed.

Together, along with the widely reviled former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, and six former police officials, they stood inside a hastily erected defendant’s cage and peered out like trapped rabbits.

Occasionally Mubarak, who stands accused of complicity in killing protesters, would turn his head toward the judge, apparently trying to follow proceedings. His two sons, both carrying Korans, could be seen talking to their father.

He spoke only to confirm his name and answer the charges against him. “Yes, I am here,” he said into a microphone. “I deny all these accusations completely.”

Out in the courtroom, which rumormongers had suggested was so tightly vetted that even famed British reporter Robert Fisk was having trouble getting in, the auditorium was divided. Relatives of the defendants sat near the cage, made of iron bars and wire mesh.

A fence running down the middle of the courtroom separated them from an audience of around 300, some of them relatives of dead protesters.

There had been reports that Mubarak, who had been staying under guard in a Sharm el-Sheikh hospital prior to today’s hearing, might be deemed unfit for trial. Many people even voiced concerns that the sight of an aging ex-autocrat being prosecuted might sway the sympathies of Egypt’s less zealous revolutionaries.

Outside the courtroom, one Egyptian who works for a U.S. publication was startled by her former leader’s appearance. “I’ve no sympathy for him, but to see an ex-president on a bed like that is…” Her voice trailed off.

Likewise, 22-year-old Ali Eid Ali expressed a modicum of empathy for his deposed president. “In the past Hosni Mubarak was a very important man. I hope that Habib al-Adly is executed, but Mubarak should not be killed.”

Nonetheless, it didn’t stop Eid Ali from milking the commercial opportunities on offer. He had brought a selection of large Egyptian flags with him and was hawking them at $1 a pop. “I’ve been here since 7 a.m. and sold around 10,” he said.

Many others remained unmoved when Mubarak took his place in the dock—perhaps one of the most extraordinary sights in modern legal history.

Dr. Ali Abdul Aziz, 32, was outside the courtroom in support of his friend Gharb Abdul Ali, a businessman and father of two who was shot dead during the protests on January 28 in Cairo.

Dressed in a brown, pinstriped suite and using a large picture of his friend to shield his head from the midday sun, he said, “I think Hosni Mubarak killed my friend. So I’m very happy to see him and his sons in the cage.”

After a few hours of proceedings, the judge ordered that the trial of Mubarak and his sons be adjourned until August 15.

The case against al-Adly, also accused of complicity in killing demonstrators, will continue tomorrow.

As Egyptians wait to see what happens next, the world really has never known anything quite like it.

From dictator to the dock: Mubarak to face the music

An Egyptian demonstrator shows where he thinks his former president should be


Originally published at, August 2 2011

Just over six months ago in December, a young Tunisian vegetable-seller called Mohamed Bouazizi returned to his family home, doused his body with petrol, and then set himself alight. He died a little over two weeks later.

Tomorrow, the former president of Egypt is due to stand trial on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of his own citizens. If found guilty, he too could end up dead—swinging at the end of a hangman’s noose.

For Hosni Mubarak, the former war hero and decades-old ruler of the Arab world’s most influential country, Wednesday’s court appearance will be an unprecedented fall from grace in a region not known for bringing many of its manifold autocrats to heel.

For Mohamed Bouazizi, the humbling of Egypt’s aging general is one of the most extraordinary developments in his already-seismic legacy: the so-called Arab Spring.

According to Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab affairs from George Washington University, Wednesday’s expected court appearance will be a “litmus test” for whether members of Egypt’s ruling military council—who took power after Mubarak fell on February 11—are “sincere in their revolutionary commitments.”

“There is no mistaking the tremendous political interest in the case,” he added. “Incoming regimes claiming revolutionary and popular legitimacy have tried former rulers in the Arab world before.”

But, he noted, “What is unusual about this case is that the trial is being handled not by some quasi-judicial revolutionary tribunal but by the normal judicial system.”

On Sunday, Egypt’s ruling military council announced that the trial would be held in a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo.

A cage for the defendants—who are also expected to include Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, as well as six police officials—has already been prepared, while TV screens are due to be erected outside to broadcast proceedings to members of the public.

Despite the setting, Egypt’s former president will nonetheless be tried like any other backstreet Cairo criminal. The only difference will be the tens of thousands of court documents and hundreds of witnesses, a solemn reminder of the estimated 840 deaths which resulted from Egypt’s uprising.

Yet some are wondering whether Mubarak, who has been staying under guard at a hospital near his home in Sharm el-Sheikh, will even be fit for trial. According to retired army officer General Sameh Seif al-Yazal, who is in daily contact with the ruling military council, the deposed leader is in “bad shape mentally.”

He added: “He is in a very deep depression. He doesn’t want to eat and he doesn’t want to survive.”

Emad Gad, an expert from the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he believes the military would still “find an excuse” not to dispatch their former colleague to face a court. “They respect Hosni Mubarak,” he said. “If he were to die I think the military would be more comfortable with that.”

Even so, and despite the worries of some protesters that Mubarak could still somehow thwart the wheels of justice, the military council has announced he is fit to be prosecuted and will be transferred to Cairo this week. It’s probably a wise move for the generals. For the past month central Cairo has been packed with demonstrators who are angry about what they see as the sluggish pace of reform and failure to pursue former regime officials suspected of breaking the law.

When a previous trial for the former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly was postponed in June, his police van came under attack from protesters hurling rocks as it ferried him away from the courthouse. The scenes that would greet any delay in prosecuting Mubarak would likely be a great deal uglier.

“The reaction would be very bad,” said Ramy al-Swissy, a co-founder of one of Egypt’s most influential political activist groups, the April 6 Youth Movement. “The demonstrations would be much bigger than over the past month.”

April 6, along with many of Egypt’s other main political organizations, has said they will return to the streets en masse if the Mubarak trial does not go ahead. It has led some to speculate whether the sickly general can be guaranteed a fair trial, given the level of public anger which would result from an acquittal in even the most transparent of proceedings.

For some, the issue of legal probity is not even relevant. “It doesn’t matter if he gets a fair trial,” said Wael Khalil, a socialist activist and Egyptian blogger. “We know what they’ve done to the country.”

Yet there is no doubting the political impact the case is likely to have on Egypt and around the region.

According to Ramy al-Swissy, the image of Mubarak standing in his courtroom cage will mean “justice will be clear” to everyone around the country, satisfying protesters who are still uneasy about the motives of the ruling military council.

But its ripples will be felt further afield too. One Syrian activist told The Daily Beast why he would be following events in Egypt. “People who have been suffering for so many years will have some revenge,” he explained.

If Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tunes in to watch this week’s trial in Cairo, he is unlikely to be the only Arab autocrat glued to his TV set. The question all of them will be asking is: who’s next?

Egypt’s uprising has provided fuel for the fundamentalists

Egypt's fundamentalist Salafis have become increasingly vocal


Originially published at, July 11 2011

The sheikh sat in a slick office on the ninth floor of a tower block and twiddled with his mobile phone. Bathed in bright light from the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Nile, he outlined what kind of punishments Egyptians could expect under his ideal judicial system.

“In Shari’a law we have sharp sentences for every crime,” he said. “Whipping the back, cutting off hands. Shari’a involves big punishments for any people who do wrong things.”

Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a preacher who follows the increasingly high-profile strand of fundamentalist Salafi Islam, continued by saying that most people in post-revolutionary Egypt agree with his vision—they just don’t know it yet.

“In the end, Salafis will not oblige communities to use Shari’a if they don’t understand it,” he said. “But with explanation, all the Muslim people will accept it.”

Sheikh Abdel Moneim, a podgy, roly-poly preacher with the kind of Fidel Castro-style beard sported by many of his followers, is a prominent spokesman for the Salafi movement in Egypt.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged in underground political activity despite being banned for more than half a century, the Salafist movement—which first emerged in the mid-1800s from an intellectual base at Cairo’s long-established Al-Azhar University—has traditionally shied away from politics.

Yet, during the race to grab a toehold in the chaotic post-Mubarak period, some Salafis are abandoning their previous aversion to the political limelight. The Political Parties Affairs Committee gave the Al-Nour party permission to form on 13 June 2011, while a second fledgling party, Al-Fadila, is also scrambling around for support. A number of others are said to be in the pipelines.

This comes at a time of heightened tension between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, which many have blamed on the supposedly baleful influence of Salafism.

A total of 12 people were killed this month when violent clashes broke out in the Cairo slum of Imbaba. The riots were triggered by rumors that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held captive in a church, and most reports the following day focused on the large group of Salafi men who were present during the trouble.

The incident came after a flurry of other Salafist scare stories hit Egyptian newsstands, with reports about off-licenses being closed following demonstrations by Salafis, and protests over other alleged kidnappings or killings of female Muslim converts. After one incident, the Associated Press even went so far as to say that Salafism was “a few shades away” from Al-Qaeda—a sloppy comparison at best.

There is no doubt that some of Egypt’s liberals and secularists are not particularly fond of Salafism. As Ramy El-Swissy, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, put it: “I like religion but I don’t like that kind of religion. There is a difference between Islam and extremism.”

Moreover, it seems understandable that Christians might be concerned about their influence given the intransigence many Salafis have often shown to accommodating them. Speaking recently, another Salafi preacher, by the name of Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, explained how he thought that Egypt’s Copts were guilty of treason for establishing contacts with the West.

“It’s very sad when the Christians here go to the US and Europe and say, ‘Come to us and save our souls.’ They are betraying us. They don’t understand what the US did in Iraq and Pakistan.

“The Christians are against the Muslims now. They don’t want Egypt to be Islamic.”

But others believe that the Egyptian media and political elite are guilty of scare mongering. In March, Egyptian voters decided overwhelmingly to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments—a result that paved the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

The result was a blow to many liberals who wanted a longer transitional period to help develop a more robust body politic. Many blamed the Salafis.

Gamal Sultan, editor of the Al-Masryoon news website and himself a Salafi, said: “It was probably during the referendum on the constitutional amendments when the political forces realized the huge ability of Salafis to mobilize and vote yes.

“That’s what got to the other political parties in Egypt. They got really mad at the Salafis when they realized their political abilities.”

According to Professor Stephane Lacroix of Sciences Po, who has spent many years studying fundamentalist Islamic movements, the main Egyptian sheikhs have publicly denounced the violence between Muslims and Christians that took place after the fall of Mubarak.

He said: “If you look at the statements from the majority of sheikhs, they have all condemned the violence. They have said it is to the detriment of Salafism.”

Mr. Lacroix added that Salafism has no over-arching structure or rigid top-down leadership, and that the Salafis who went to Imbaba were probably bad apples under the guidance of rogue “neighborhood sheikhs.” He also said that it would probably be a while before any of their political parties made a splash.

The modern history of Salafism in Egypt dates back to the 1970s—a time where campus activism was at its height and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU, first made its appearance.

Initially there were tensions between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, with both trying to attract followers and spread their message to a wider public. In an effort to co-ordinate more affectively, during the 1980s Egypt’s Salafis began to develop strong grassroots networks spreading across the country. With a base in Alexandria, the fundamentalist movement began to grow in popularity.

Analysts have divided the Salafi movement into a number of different sub-groups—most of which eschewed political participation up until the January 25 revolution.

One such group, sometimes referred to as the “activist Salafis,” trace their origins to the 1970s university movements and operated under the tutelage of sheikhs who preached that a ruler is heretical if he does not govern by divine decrees.

These Salafis have always refused to partake in democratic elections, viewing them as heretical and a departure from God’s law. Yet a number have since undergone a volte face, embracing the concept of democracy and using their vote to full effect when preachers called on their followers to go and vote in favor of constitutional amendments in the recent Egyptian referendum.

The establishment of Al-Nour is testament to this latest trend in Salafi thinking. As a result, and despite in the past being wholly opposed to any kind of political participation, the Salafis now have the first political party in their history.

There has, of course, been one particular brand of Salafism that has never shied away from making its political voice heard. Salafist jihadism, the strand of ultra-regressive Islam that counts Al-Qaeda members as some of its most strident adherents, holds that Muslims are duty-bound to fight any government s which do not apply Islamic law.

It came to the fore in the 1990s when the traditional Salafi aversion to politics morphed into the most absolute form of activist rejectionism. Yet this kind of “Semtex Salafism,” though adept at making headlines, never constituted more than a fraction of the overall movement’s followers.

You could make a similar case for Egypt’s Salafis when compared to the rest of the country’s Muslims today. Although Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat claimed that there were “millions” across the whole of the country, Stephane Lacroix said the number of is more likely to be around 200,000—though he conceded that the figure is not accurate , given how difficult it is to determine who exactly is a Salafi.

Yet, despite this, it seems clear that many Salafis have already permeated deep into Egyptian society. The movement is named after the al-salaf al-salih, or so-called pious predecessors of the early Muslim community.

Followers believe that only the early disciples of Mohammed practiced Islam correctly, and can often be identified by their short galabiyas, which are worn to comply with an early Islamic teaching that long clothing is a sign of vanity.

But such stereotypes are as unhelpful as they are misleading, according to Gamal Sultan. “The West is more concerned with looks: the beard, the clothes and the way they live,” he said. “But Salafism is a large phenomenon. You can see them in the poor neighborhoods, but it also reaches the higher classes. You see them as street vendors and professors or soccer players. They are everywhere.”

Mr Lacroix said that the movement has definitely grown in the past 10 years—in large part because of the Salafi televangelists who were licensed by the Mubarak regime in order to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he added that Egypt was unlikely to see any kind of serious political Salafism for a while.

Many ordinary Egyptians seem to agree. If you speak to liberal voters—the kind of people who are meant to be tearing their hair out with anxiety over the supposed Salafi threat—most seem unperturbed, preferring to dismiss the movement at an irritating irrelevance rather than a sinister force to be reckoned with.

The real influence, as Stephane Lacroix points out, seems cultural more than electoral—though perhaps this should worry the liberal elite just as much. “If you take a taxi, very often the driver seems to think the niqab is the correct form of Islamic dress. He will say something like, ‘My wife doesn’t wear it. She should, but we’re weak.’ You never heard that in Egypt 50 years ago.”

If you believe the likes of Sheikh Abdel Moneim and Shekih Khalid Abdullah, every Muslim is a Salafi even if he or she thinks otherwise. The forthcoming elections will prove just how far this theory goes.

The final indignity

Hosni Mubaraks fall from grace has been spectacular

Originally published in the Independent, April 14, 2011

At the height of the Egyptian uprising, when the crowds in central Cairo were hanging effigies of their president in Tahrir Square, a defiant Hosni Mubarak declared: “I will not leave Egypt or depart it until I am buried in the ground.”

After Egypt’s prosecutor general yesterday ordered that the deposed president be detained for 15 days pending charges of corruption, Mr Mubarak may be wishing he had fled his former dominion while he still had the chance.

The man who ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades is now being held and questioned over alleged abuses of power during his rule and over the deaths of protesters.

Mr Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, have also been detained over allegations of corruption. They are being held in a prison near Cairo after being whisked away in a police van from the family home in Sharm el Sheikh under a hail of stones and bottles from angry onlookers. Mr Mubarak’s whereabouts are unknown but, according to state television, all three will appear for questioning in a Cairo court on Tuesday.

News of his detention, coming after a weekend of bloody clashes between the army and pro-democracy demonstrators, was warmly welcomed by Egyptian activists. The blogger Wael Khalil said the move was “a step forward” and that “the revolution cannot now be turned back”. “The people are calling the shots. They are dismantling the regime piece by piece and the army is their instrument for doing that,” he added.

The week leading up to yesterday’s announcement had been marred by violent confrontations around Tahrir Square in central Cairo. A large rally on Friday – aimed at putting pressure on the ruling military council to speed-up the prosecution of former officials – descended into violence when the army fired bullets and tear gas to clear activists who had defied the 2am Saturday curfew. At least one person was shot dead during the clashes.

But on Sunday, the prosecutor general ordered that Mr Mubarak be questioned on a range of charges, including the alleged orchestration of violence during the 18 days leading up to his ousting. He reportedly suffered a heart attack while being questioned on Tuesday night, but doctors have now confirmed he is healthy enough for prosecutors to continue their probe.

Many believe the decision to detain Mr Mubarak is no coincidence as it comes on the heels of mounting criticism of the army’s performance in government. Mohamed Fouad Gadalla, a judge and vice-president of Egypt’s State Council, said he believed the ruling military council pressured the public prosecutor to pursue Mr Mubarak and his family. “The army are doing this now because if they don’t take any strong action against Hosni Mubarak, then the people will march to Tahrir Square again,” he said.

Though no prosecutions have yet been completed, the detention of Mr Mubarak has come as a shock in a region where heads of state are not used to being brought to heel. “It’s rare,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East expert from Chatham House. “I suppose the only similar recent example is Saddam Hussein… [Mubarak] was always taking a risk by remaining in Egypt.”

The price of freedom

Gameel Hussein

Originally published at, March 7, 2011

Naeema Abdel Mageed Sharaf sat cross-legged on the bed cradling her seven-week-old grand-daughter.

“My son was so happy when Fatima was born,” she said, her eyes swelling with grief. “He hoped to make everything for her.”

But tragically he never got the chance. Just 17 days after Fatima was born, Gameel Hussein was stabbed to death by pro-Mubarak thugs on his way to work last month.

Gameel and his 28-year-old wife, Walaa, had been trying for a child since they got married a decade ago. Their first, a baby girl, died just a week after she was born two years ago.

Fatima was their dream-come-true.

“He wanted to make his family happy,” said 56-year-old Naeema, speaking in the cramped, lime-green living room of the family house in Ayrout Basous, a village in Qanatir al-Khayriyah, northern Cairo. “But his dreams weren’t achieved. He didn’t realize them.”

On the morning of 4 February at around 10AM, Gameel, 36, was confronted by a gang of tens of thugs as he made his way into work along with his cousin, Sameh.

Gameel worked as a security guard for a branch of the Commercial International Bank. Unfortunately for him, the bank was located in downtown Cairo, where tens of thousands of demonstrators were at that time camped-out in Tahrir Square calling for the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.

According to his family, Gameel supported the protests. “He was happy with what was happening. It was a revolution against the system and people were fed up with the oppression,” said his cousin Saeed Mohamed Abu Sabeh.

He also visited Tahrir Square during the demonstrations – but only once, according to his 28-year-old brother Amr. “I don’t remember the date,” he said. “Maybe it was 27 January.”

So, like millions of others, Gameel was excited about the change that was coming. Yet he was hardly one of the hardened shock-troops of the anti-Mubarak movement.

It did not matter. As he reached the main road which took him to work in downtown Cairo every day, his path was blocked by scores of knife and club-wielding Mubarak supporters standing beneath an overpass.

“They said to him and Sameh, ‘You’re not leaving this place.’ They didn’t give him a chance to think,” said Amr.

After running back a few yards onto a rubbish-strewn sidetrack alongside a murky river, Gameel’s attackers set upon him with knives and clubs just meters away from a neglected, shabby-looking mosque. According to his family, he was knifed five times. His cousin Sameh was lucky enough to escape with just a beating.

“He was taken to hospital by a stranger,” said Amr, who works in a coffee shop near the family home. “But they turned him back from there because they were so busy. He died here in our house.”

Gameel was the main bread-winner in the family. His elderly father, 62-year-old Mousad, is a bowab (apartment doorman), but is sick and does not work regularly.

According to Naeema, Gameel was responsible for the whole family, including his brother and five sisters.

“He was caring for his ill father and was the only one working properly in the family. He was the one responsible for marrying his sisters and for the education of the family,” she added.

“He was a very, very good and caring person. He was responsible for the whole family. When his father had a heart attack Gameel was the one who looked after him.”

Gameel was a keen body-builder. Amr said his favorite weight-lifting star was Ronnie Coleman, a professional body-builder from America. Before becoming a security guard he graduated from an institute for industrial workers. “He succeeded in all of the years,” said Naeema. “He didn’t drop down.”

According to Amr, Gameel used to drop in to the café near his house after work to play dominoes with his friends. Usually he would stay awake until 1AM.

“Even when he went to the coffee shop he was the one talking about the demonstrations,” said Amr.

“Everyone was working here in the village, but he was working in the place with all the protests. He was the one who was seeing it for real. We hope that God has given him mercy and that he is in heaven now. I hope the story of my brother reaches the Egyptian people just like all the other martyrs in the Egyptian revolution.”

Cairo Spring brings bright buds…and a few duds

The Egypt uprising has led to a surge of political activity

Originally published at, March 2, 2011

It reads like a roll-call of Marxist guerrilla groups.

The Egyptian Rebels; The Coalition of Egyptian Revolutionaries; The Council of the Trustees of the Revolution.

If it wasn’t for another group calling itself the Independent Academics and Development Workers Coalition, there would be the faintest whiff of Farc-style pistol politics in the air.

But the dizzying rush by activists to get a toehold in post-Mubarak Egypt is not as alarming as some of these names would suggest. On the contrary, sometimes it all seems rather farcical.

From one coalition to the next, various factions have been stepping forward under different banners in a bid to get a slice of the media limelight.

There is less of that now Colonel Gaddafi is using warplanes to bomb his own people in neighboring Libya. Yet the political space which has been created since the 25 January uprising has nevertheless provided a spur to myriad have-a-go politicos.

Bassem Samir is the director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an election monitoring group with ties to the youth activist movement.

He said: “We can say that it is a citizens’ revolution. There is no specific kind of person.

“My brother and his wife are working in a bank. They have problems and things they want to change, so they are trying to start a revolution inside their bank.”

With coalitions being comprised of factions within factions, it is difficult to keep track of the mutating political smorgasbord. But in reality, there is not a huge amount of difference between many of the groups.

Just ask Amar Al-Wakeel, a journalist who heads the murky-sounding Egyptian Rebels.

“There is no difference,” he admits. “We’re all trying to have one aim.”

As Samir points out, a lot of the coalitions are just keen for a bit of publicity. Yet he said the blossoming political activity is just a natural consequence of living for 30 years under authoritarian rule.

“In the past the state did not work, and now it’s the job of the people to make a strong civil society. The people trying to make coalitions are the people trying to make society.”

Some of the groups do have real clout. The January 25 coalition—which includes young Muslim Brotherhood members, Mohamed El-Baradei supporters and a number of other groups—is comprised of members who pre-date the recent uprising and have deep roots in the opposition movement.

On Sunday night they met with military figures in a bid to iron out differences between the Higher Military Council now ruling Egypt and disgruntled activists impatient for change.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for the summer; too early in the minds of the January 25 coalition, who want more time to develop a body politic.

As one representative from the group told me with a grin, “none of the other coalitions really matter.”

And now that they are playing with the generals in the big league, it seems hard to disagree.

The despot departs

Egyptians celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime

Originally published in the Independent, February 11th 2011

Just 17 days ago Tahrir Square was reverberating to the sound of exploding tear gas canisters as riot police fended off advancing demonstrators.

Tonight some of those demonstrators were making just as much noise again – only this time it was with flares and fireworks.

Pharmacist Ahmed Ashmawi, 28, was one of the protesters who have been camping out in Downtown Cairo since anti-government activists made Tahrir Square their stronghold on January 28.

As Egyptians danced in the street around him and ecstatic men and women whooped like American Indians, he said: “We’ve made history.

“I cannot believe this moment has come and we are living in it. Many times here over the past few weeks it was announced that Hosni Mubarak had gone – and every time it was wrong.

“I just cannot believe this time it’s true.”

Ahmed was one of the demonstrators dispersed by the police after initially occupying Tahrir Square on the night of January 25th – only to return three days later and break through police lines during the violent clashes which followed Friday prayers that day.

He said: “Before January 25th I didn’t expect people to come in huge numbers. But after what happened that night with the tear gas and the shooting I was hopeful that the movement would grow.”

According to him, the scenes a week last Wednesday, when pro-Mubarak mobs sparked bloody confrontations with anti-government demonstrators to the north of the plaza near the Egyptian Museum, were decisive.

He said: “It was terrible. I think the side which won that battle was going to be the side that won the whole thing.”

Ahmed’s thoughts at the time proved prescient. Many saw the ugly pitched battles between the two sides that night – along with the government’s suspected complicity in them –  as Mubarak’s desperate last throw of the dice.

In the days that followed demonstrators were never truly threatened again. The barricades at the northern side of Tahrir Square were reinforced and multiple rings of security checks were imposed by protestors.

The disappointment of Thursday night, when Mubarak stubbornly refused to step aside after fevered expectations to the contrary, only added to the sense of bewildered euphoria when his resignation was finally announced.

“After yesterday night I was thinking what should be the coming steps,” said Ahmed. “Some thought we should march on the national TV headquarters, others thought the presidential palace.

“But when I heard the news today I was astonished. I was trying to call my friends and family to be sure the news was true.”

When the Egyptian president’s resignation was confirmed just after 6pm Cairo time, cries of “Egypt free again!” and “We’ve finally got rid of the thief” rang through the air in Tahrir Square.

Some kneeled down on the asphalt to thank God, while in the nearby Qasr El-Aini Street others drove at snail’s pace in convoy down the road waving V-signs and honking their horns.

Alyaa El-Salamony, a mother-of-two and a general manager of an imports company, said: “Hosni Mubarak did not listen to the people.

“I feel so happy. I can look forward to a nice future for my children now.”

Mahmoud Aziz, a 25-year-old who had also been coming to Tahrir Square since January 25, said he had never felt so happy in his life.

He added: “I’ve done many things in my life. But this is like the French Revolution. We’re making history in the Middle East and we’ve proved we’re a civilised people.”