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

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.