Disturbing new footage of Cairo’s Maspero massacre

 

For anyone who still has doubts about the culpability of the military during last month’s deadly attacks on demonstrators in Downtown Cairo, here is some disturbing new footage.

The video clearly shows armoured vehicles repeatedly driving back and forth through crowds of protesters and speeding directly into several people.

It gives a frightening sense of the claustrophobic chaos which led to the deaths of 27 Egyptians.

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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.

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.

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.