The anti-Islam film and violence in Egypt - reaction from Cairo

"It’s anger at the police. The film is a spark that caused the flame."

Protests in Cairo spread to Tahrir Square today as Salafi protestors were joined by violent football fans, Ultras Ahlawy. But can these two days of violence really all be because of a film?

Anger at Security Forces

“It’s not just because of the movie,” says Cairene NGO worker Nihal Saad Zaghloul, “but it is also something between the Ultras and the security forces.”

Resentment has built in the past week between police and protesters with the acquittal of four security officers accused of murder during the 25 January revolution. Recent protests against the “Port Said massacre”, in which 79 rioting football fans were killed while police apparently looked on, have also stirred up anger. Tellingly, protests in solidarity with the victims were held in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the scene of 41 deaths and thousands of injuries during five day violent street battles with security forces in 2011.

“It’s anger at the police, the film is a spark that caused the flame,” says Zaghloul.

Muslim Brotherhood

Morsi has issued a statement this afternoon asking the US to apologise for the film and condemning violence in the protests. People complain however that this move has taken him two days and question why four Copts have even been placed on the no fly list. With Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour party being the ones who called for protests against the film on Friday, Morsi would be going up against his allies to condemn them.

“The whole thing is stupid, people think they must defend Islam and that it is about Copts seeking protection from the US, and Morsi is letting this happen.” says Cairo resident Ahmed El-Ghamrawi. “We having been trying to get the Syrian flag down on the embassy [in weekly protests against Assad’s regime] and its pretty brutal. But at these protests police are not trying to stop or contain it.  It shows Morsi is not going to crack down on Islamist as much as other groups. He is trying to get back the jihadi, Salafi vote.”

Sectarian Tensions

Morsi has come under increasing criticism for his appointment of Muslim Brotherhood members to posts in the army and press councils. With Copts being blamed for the film, at this time of Coptic New Year Morsi’s actions will only serve to heighten suspicion that he is not, as he claimed, “a President for all Egyptians.”

Although many Copts and Muslims live in harmony in Egypt, Jehan Zacharia, a Coptic resident of Minia says: “It really worries Copts in Egypt as Muslims can't reach US Copts or hurt them but they can hurt Copts in Egypt.”

As protests continue in a country which still has no constitution or parliament, the actions around this film will be interpreted by many as an indicator of the future. “I don’t like it.” says Saad Zaghloul. “It makes me worry what we have become.”

A protestor runs with a canister of tear gas near the US embassy in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.