“We have already achieved history”

A generation of Egyptians is rising up against the government in an attempt to oust Hosni Mubarak.

Mohammed will take to the streets today, come what may. He is among the first of 2,000 unsuspecting pioneers – youths who signed up to the Facebook event that brought thousands of anti-government protesters to the streets.

Today, as citizens gather for Friday prayers, is expected to be the biggest day in the movement to oust the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, from his 30-year rule. It may also be the most dangerous.

"If the police react violently this time, many people will be killed," says Mohammed. "But people now believe in change, they want Egypt to be a better place. They are afraid of what will happen, but they won't change. They will go."

In Cairo and Suez, violence flared as Egyptian security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon against the crowds. Over 1,000 protesters have been carted away, many beaten; seven so far are reported dead.

The atmosphere in Cairo is tense. Anti-riot vans patrol the boulevards. Armoured trucks stand parked near flashpoints in the city, and amin dowla – plain-clothes officers from the state security service – are everywhere.

Public gatherings have been banned. A football match was cancelled Thursday for fear of violence.

By Tuesday, more than 90,000 people had signed up to the Facebook event. This time around it looks set to be much bigger. "One social media outlet rallying people to the street has 381,000 supporters at the last count," says Hisham Kassem, a respected independent editor.

The main actors of the past few days are well-educated people, middle-class students. Critics have commented that this group remains a tiny minority of Egypt's population.

Mohammed fits the profile, but this protest is bringing together people from different social backgrounds, he says. "I went to the elections, to other events. But now, I am going to the protests with people who have never been before. There are people from all other backgrounds. I know factory workers who went and got beaten, but they and their friends are going again."

Unemployment levels among Egypt's youth are deplorable. It is estimated that 25 per cent of men and 59 per cent of young women are without work. If the poor choose to join the intellectual classes, the riots could reach a critical mass.

Driving a beaten-up vehicle through Cairo's streets, Raman, a taxi driver, smiles a crack-toothed grin. "Friday there will be huge riots. Everyone is going to take part," he says.

Professor Abdallah Alashaal was an employee in the Egyptian government's foreign ministry. Now he is a well-known figure of opposition. "This is a velvet revolution; it is an uprising of the youth," he says.

"There is a sense of anticipation and emancipation here. The people in the street are not ideologised: they are not Christians, Muslims, Marxists. They are Egyptians. It is not a political movement."

In a dark backstreet, away from the main roads lined with security, a key protest organiser meets me, eyes shifty, watching out for plain-clothes police. He is right to be afraid. Egypt has a bad record on torture. His activities are risking his life.

He walks beside me, talking in a low voice. "We don't need help, this is not organised by anyone outside. We are motivated by Tunisia, but this is Egyptians acting for Egyptians." He disappears round a corner and his phone cuts off as he changes his sim card, again.

The outcome of Friday's events and the actions of the security forces remains unknown. "I can't see that anybody can predict what [will happen] tomorrow or days to come. In a few days it could be over. It could also get bigger and bigger and at last with the military participating," says Kassem.

Even key participants don't believe that it will bring about the collapse of Mubarak's regime immediately. "Mubarak won't leave peacefully; his government is much stronger than Tunisia's," says Mohammed.

But experts agree that, even if today is followed by apparent calm, the political situation in Egypt has changed. "It has weakened the regime," says Alashaal. "They didn't expect that the Egyptian population can rise up like this."

This popular revolt is unprecedented in Mubarak's strong-handed rule. "Even with nothing else, we have already achieved history," Mohammed says.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.