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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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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