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

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem