Egypt’s toxic divisions, the mood in Tahrir Square and what happened after I got shot

Jeremy Bowen's Notebook.

It is always a pleasure to visit Mohamed ElBaradei’s home in Cairo. He is a charming and civilised man, and his elegant house near the pyramids always feels like a place of calm and sanity. These days you need a refuge from the turmoil on the streets. A few years ago, when he returned from Vienna, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for the work he had done with the International Atomic Energy Agency, he spoke out courageously against President Hosni Mubarak. ElBaradei’s global position protected him from being arrested. Instead, the Mubarak regime’s newspapers and TV stations gave him a roasting, suggesting that he had spent so much time abroad that he was no longer a proper Egyptian. He stuck out his neck for democracy.

So it was strange to hear him, on the day it happened, justifying the army’s move against a president voted into office in an election that was applauded around the world. Even the White House, with its severe misgivings about the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed the result in June 2012.

When I suggested to ElBaradei that the military’s actions fitted every definition of the word “coup”, he explained that this time was different, because it had the support, he reckoned, of 80 per cent of Egyptians. It was, he said, simply the best way to get Egypt’s revolution back on track. A return to civilian rule, and new elections, would come soon. He would be the first to complain if the new political line-up in Egypt did not include the Muslim Brotherhood.

The only alternative to military intervention, he said, was civil war and Egypt’s descent into another Somalia. I wonder how many misgivings he has now, not so many days and dozens of deaths later. A country that was already polarised has had a new, toxic and bloody mixture injected into its divisions.

Politics squared

Tahrir Square is a good measure of the political temperature in Egypt. During the 2011 revolution against President Mubarak every day was different. Sometimes it was violent, sometimes it was joyful, sometimes it was full of men ready to fight and sometimes they brought along their wives and children. Yet throughout, Egyptians kept commenting, proudly, that it was the most tolerant place in Cairo. Some horrible incidents marred this – my friend Lara Logan of CBS News was among those sexually assaulted – but for most of the time men and women, Muslims and Christians, respected each other. In the past two years it has changed, like Egypt.

One of the big complaints against President Morsi was that he did nothing to improve law and order. I sat drinking tea in one of the streets leading off the square with a couple of taxi drivers. It was a pavement café but not the kind you get in Paris. A few dirty wooden chairs were lined up along a wall full of political graffiti. Waiters brought glasses of tea with half an inch of sugar in the bottom and shisha pipes. The men said they would prefer Mubarak to Morsi any day, because at least under the old regime their families were safe.

After dark

Since President Morsi fell, Tahrir Square has had some carnival days, full of families grazing on the street food you can buy there – everything from candyfloss and popcorn to liver sandwiches and my favourite, kusheri, the Egyptian delicacy that is a mess of lentils, rice and pasta topped with fried onions and spicy tomato sauce. Small children copy the adults, waving flags and running through their repertoire of chants.

But Tahrir Square has also felt like a pressure gauge showing the ugly side of Egypt. I could see it at night because every evening I had to be there to do a live broadcast on BBC News at Ten. It wasn’t always bad, but at its worst crowds of youths and men would rampage around, shooting off fireworks and green laser pens, sometimes picking on suspected spies or on women.

Getting on for midnight one evening, there was a disturbance around the door of the building we were using for live broadcasts. The doorman had locked out a gang of men who had been trying to sexually assault a woman in her forties; she had run into the building for help. Apparently they had used a familiar trick, supposedly “rescuing” her from another group and then taking her away. Luckily she realised what was happening and escaped, and was being sheltered by people who did not want to hurt her.

That night, Tahrir and the streets around the square looked like a set for one of those apocalyptic films about cities gone mad. In the morning it was quiet again. But Egypt is like that. It can flare up very fast.

To the lab with the Brothers

The removal of a Muslim Brotherhood president has caused some secular celebration about the downfall of political Islam in the Middle East. It is premature. The Muslim Brotherhood worked from its foundation in 1928 to gain power in Egypt, to create a state suffused with the principles of sharia law. Just because the army has ejected President Morsi from office after only a year doesn’t mean that it is going to give up.

The Brotherhood was bad at government. President Morsi failed dismally to build a national coalition to deal with Egypt’s huge problems, which start with an economy that is close to collapse. But the movement has deep roots and is strong on the streets. Egypt’s experiment with democracy will not be resuscitated if there is no place in it for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sharp shot

I would like to be reporting from Cairo this week. Instead, I am back in London, having an operation to deal with small perforations and metal left behind in my body by an Egyptian army shotgun. After I was shot, kind Egyptians queued up to apologise and to offer me tissues to wipe the blood away. Decent people, with a country that’s in a terrible mess, and getting worse.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. A revised and updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings: the People Want the Fall of the Regime” will be published by Simon & Schuster on 18 July

A military helicopter seen from Tahrir Square. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Meet the Brits protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration this weekend

The British campaigners joining in international anti-racism, pro-women’s rights demonstrations against the new US President.

On Friday 20 January, across the UK, in cities spanning York, Aberdeen, Bradford, Cambridge and London, huge banners will be dropped from bridges, emblazoned with the words: “Bridges Not Walls”.

A tightly coordinated direct action, the intended message is one of solidarity: by standing up for one another’s rights, we can prevent the further marginalisation of vulnerable groups of people. “In London, there are about ten bridges,” says Harry Jefferson-Perry, a 23-year-old gay man who’s involved in the organising. “There’s a bridge run by people fighting Islamophobia, an LGBTQ bridge, and a women’s bridge. It’s about smashing borders – physical and metaphorical. It’s a form of protest against the rise of the far right everywhere.”


Harry Jefferson-Perry. Photo: Malaika Ibreck

The #bridgesnotwalls protest is one of several nation-wide actions taking place in the UK this weekend as Donald Trump is ushered into the White House and attends his first day of presidency. The campaign group Stand Up To Racism is holding a rally outside the US Embassy in London on Friday evening, the day of Trump’s inauguration, with more than 3,000 people confirmed to attend on Facebook and 20 corresponding sister marches set to take place around Britain.

On Saturday, the international Women’s March is scheduled in approximately 600 sister locations and counting, in all 50 states of America, and countries spanning Norway, Nairobi and Japan. In London, around 30,000 people have confirmed attendance to the march, the real number expected to be much higher.

The goal of the Women’s March is a street-level demonstration that women’s rights are human rights. Their manifesto maintains that they’re not directly targeting Trump (it seems they wouldn’t want to give him the credence), but to the kind of racist, sexist and homophobic ideology his presidential campaign spun.

The demonstrations are bigger than the man himself, as illustrated by their apparent global appeal. “It’s about bringing the point home that just because equality is an everyday issue, and it doesn’t go away or rise and fall with who’s in government, that doesn’t mean it’s not urgent,” says Isabel Adomakoh Young, a 24-year-old British-Ghanaian student and activist from West London who will be attending the Women’s March on Westminster this Saturday.


Isabel Adomakoh Young​

Adomakoh Young says she heard about the original Women’s March on Washington in November via black feminists she follows on Twitter. For her, going along to the London march is, in part, an act directed at the US government. “Between Trump and Brexit things aren’t looking good for people suffering oppression,” she says. “As a queer, black, cis female, I’m worried that Trump normalises unacceptable behaviour. He’s also seemingly immune to journalism, fact-checking and video, so I think people being in the street is going to hit home harder than op-eds in middle-class newspapers.”

The second reason she’s going, she says, is to show solidarity with other women: “With social media and technology people get lonely. You read the news and you think you’re the only person having feelings of isolation or, specifically as a woman, feelings of diminishment.”

As well as lobbying with a gender equality campaign group called 50:50 Parliament, for whom she’ll be making a speech in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Adomakoh Young is also an organising member of the activist group Sisters Uncut, who focus on fighting domestic violence.

However, it’s clear that many of the people who are attending marches and rallies this weekend don’t come from an activism background at all, but have been moved by recent political events to seek out a way to protest. Kimberly Tyler-Shafiq, 41, from Texas, lives in Surrey and works in HR. She is married to a British-Pakistani man with whom she has a four-year-old daughter. When we speak on the phone she tells me that she hasn’t been to a protest since those against the war on Iraq in 2003.

“After the election results I felt devastated,” she says. “We were on the precipice of having the first woman president in the US and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman. I know I’m from a conservative state but when I saw Texas come in red it still lit a fire in me – people cannot be allowed to get away with what Trump has in terms of racism and sexism. I started looking for groups on Facebook and found the Stand Up To Racism rally.”

Tyler-Shafiq wanted to meet, “likeminded people who want to make a change”, and in this online group she found people with the same agenda. As she sees it, Friday night’s demonstration isn’t an act against democracy, just a message that people “are not going to roll over and play dead”. Tyler-Shafiq plans to take her four-year-old to the event with her.

Over in Ireland, American Fanya O’Donoghue and her Irish husband Donal have similar motivations to Tyler-Shafiq. “After the election I was so stunned and embarrassed for my nation that it spurred me into action,” says Fanya. “I’ve always felt strongly about immigration because that’s affected us. Now I feel like, if we were to go back to the US, what would my husband’s green card mean?”

O’Donoghue decided to set up her own Women’s March on Galway as a response to these feelings. Again, like Tyler-Shafiq, she’s been uninvolved in politics before. “This is the first time I’ve been active like this because it’s the first time politics have made me cry,” she says.

To register her sister march, she contacted the US March on Washington team, and they added her to the admin groups, global Slack messages, and emailed over organising kits, press kits, posters and guiding principles. Then she reached out to Irish non-profits who might be interested in spreading the word; anti-racism groups, pro-choice campaigners and the like.

When asked why the march is relevant to Ireland, Fanya replies, “the rights we want to defend for America apply to every country where women are paid less, have unfair maternity rights or experience sexism”. That’s every country in the world then.

She sees the action as “linking arms”, and wholeheartedly believes that when the 600-odd marches happen on Saturday, people will be forced to pay attention. “Women are like a sleeping giant,” she tells me passionately. “It’s like they say – if you want something done, ask a busy person – and the busiest people are mums and working women. It’s important for my sons to see how powerful a woman is.”

She passes the phone over to her husband and he reiterates her sentiment: “Our kids are half American so they’ve had a bunch of questions about the election at school. We thought: what better way to show them that democracy is an active process than organising our own march? Change starts with people coming together and fighting for their beliefs.”

It’s yet to be seen how many people around the globe attend Saturday’s Women’s Marches, but from estimated attendance it currently looks set to be the biggest global demonstration since the anti-Iraq war protests that Tyler-Shafiq and millions of others attended.

Perhaps it is the open-door policy and lack of specificity that’s seen the marches seized upon by so many disenfranchised groups around the world. “I don’t think people feel obliged to read up or be intellectually infallible before they go,” agrees Adomakoh Young. “It’s just for anyone who is pro-equality. A universal cause to rally around.”

Likewise, Jefferson-Perry encourages anyone to get involved with #bridgesnotwalls. “Look on the website, see who you affiliate, drop in and join them,” he says.

For Tyler-Shafiq, the march will, she hopes, be an outlet for the frustration that her and many other Americans in the UK are experiencing. “It’s hard to sit over here watching what’s going on in my homeland and feeling helpless.” And yet, while it’s “good to be involved as an expat”, she is aligning herself with likeminded Britons who want to influence UK leadership to stand up to homophobia, racism and sexism too.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be complacent about how Trump’s agenda is trickling into British politics because of the close relationship between the two countries,” she says, before adding that this weekend cannot be a one-off. “It’s good that people are making a stand, but it’s important that we get organised all over again when Trump decides to visit the UK.”