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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.