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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“I will kill myself”: the gay Syrian refugee couple who could be deported from the UK

An EU law means the Home Office could decide to force the couple to leave Britain.

“We haven't any hope this war in Syria will finish. So now we are looking to another country. We're looking to another country to protect us. We haven't got a country anymore.”

Ahmed is a 29-year-old architecture student. In 2013, with a year left of his degree, the Syrian war intensified and he was forced to flee Damascus. He began the arduous journey across Europe with his boyfriend, Said*, hoping to claim refuge in the UK and finish his studies. When they arrived in London last December, he thought the traumatic 4,500km trek across the continent was over. Instead the UK Home Office is threatening the couple with deportation.

When Ahmed left Syria and headed for Istanbul he took nothing with him, hoping his stay would be temporary and that the war would soon end. It was there that he met his boyfriend Said, who, like Ahmed, had left everything behind and joined the city’s estimated 366,000 asylum seekers. They spent two difficult years in Istanbul; neither spoke Turkish, paying for rent and food was a struggle, work was hard to come by and poorly paid. Their relationship was kept strictly secret for fear of any repercussions from those they stayed with. All the while they prayed the situation back home would alleviate and allow for their return.

During his time in Istanbul he received a call from his mother; one of his brothers had been killed in the war. Details of his brother’s death were sparse, with his mother worried about the phone call being tapped, but Ahmed understands that he died trying to protect the district after the Assad regime’s military invaded. Along with one other brother, Ahmed’s mother is all that remains of his family in Syria, with his siblings scattered across Europe and the Middle East. Any lingering optimism of one day returning home, of the war dissipating, faded. With nothing left to keep them in Istanbul and the situation fast becoming untenable, Ahmed and Said decided to move on.

“We stayed together, we supported each other and that made life easier for us,” says Ahmed. “So we decided to not live in Istanbul. There was no chance to stay there. I made a deal with someone to go by boat. We paid money for that, about one thousand dollars. It was so scary to do it. We hadn't any other choice.”

They made their journey across the Aegean Sea with 30 other refugees. Arriving safely ashore, they spent two days in Greece before moving north on foot towards Hungary. They waited at the now closed Hungarian border for two days, uncertain of their next move, until hearing rumours that the Croatian border had been opened.

“We went to Croatia and they [Croatian officials] took us from the border and they put us in a place like a prison,” Ahmed recalls. “It was so bad. We didn't know what happened. We didn't know anything. They took us in a van. It was like a small building with a big campus and it was like there was a big wall around. And cameras everywhere.”

Ahmed estimates that around 500 other refugees were detained at the compound while he was there. During their 48 hour incarceration, they slept outside, were fed three meals a day (usually a bread roll and tuna) and kept completely ignorant about what was to happen to them and why they were there. Eventually officials forced them to register their finger prints and took them to the northern border.

“We refused to do our fingerprints but they said they would not let us go, unless we give our fingerprints,” he says. “They took us from border to border in a van. We have the worst memories there. We didn't know where we were going. We were like animals.”

Passing through Austria, Germany and France, they eventually came to Calais. After spending some time living in the infamous jungle camp, they snuck on to a lorry, crossed the channel and arrived in London. After spending a few nights at his ex-boyfriend’s place, a French-Syrian national and the only person Ahmed knew in the UK, the couple went to the Home Office to file for asylum.

But when they arrived, officials refused to see them. Despite their desperate situation, they were told that they didn’t have an appointment and had to come back in ten days. Instead, they returned two days later, this time assisted by the UK Gay and Lesbian Immigration Group (UKLGIG), who were concerned that the Home Office was illegally turning people away.

“We went to the Home Office to observe as we were very concerned that they didn't have anywhere to live,” says Paul Dillane, executive director of UKLGIG. “If you're destitute you're allowed to turn up immediately, without an appointment, because what else are you supposed to do? We said to the Home Office if they don't get accommodation today I have to pay for a hotel and we don't have the money for that.”

After arriving at 8am, Ahmed and Said were interviewed by six interrogators, as they tried to establish whether to even register their claim to asylum.  “I didn't expect anything from the Home Office, I just wanted to be legal here,” says Ahmed. “I didn't want financial support. I want to go to university. That's it. If I go to another country where they don't speak English it is difficult for me to finish and start university again.”

Eventually, at 6pm, the Home Office agreed to register them and find them accommodation, albeit temporarily. Ahmed and Said are now living in a small studio apartment in Rochdale. It’s the first time since leaving Syria they have had anything resembling a home, the first time in their lives they have felt able to live openly as a gay couple. Such respite may prove short-lived.

Because Ahmed and his boyfriend first entered Europe through Greece, according to an EU law (the Dublin III Regulation) it’s Greece that should take responsibility for their claim. But as the situation in Greece is now a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 2,000 arriving every day, the UK government no longer deports asylum seekers there. It’s of little consolation to Ahmed. Having heard nothing for weeks, he received a letter summoning him to the Home Office; according to his lawyer, the Home Office is making plans to transfer the couple back to Croatia.

“Even if legally it's possible, the question is: is it the right thing for the government to do?” asks Dillane. “600,000 refugees have gone through Croatia to Germany, and Croatia is struggling to cope. Not to mention only three gay asylum seekers have ever successfully claimed asylum there.”

If Ahmed and his boyfriend are deported back to Croatia there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum. Just three LGBT refugees have been successful in their applications to Croatia, and with more refugees entering the country every day the country’s asylum network is coming under increasing pressure.

Last September, David Cameron announced that the UK would resettle 20,000 asylum seekers by 2020 and that LGBTI refugees would be included in the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement programme. Despite this, Ahmed and Said could still face deportation.

“David Cameron has said he's very worried about the treatment of gay men in Syria because so many of them have been killed by ISIS, by Dhaesh, and so Britain is going to take gay men from Jordan and Lebanon and bring them here,” says Dillane. “The Prime Minister used LGBT Syrians as justification for air strikes. And this week he has been saying countries need to step up, give more, do more. Yet here are two people you're offloading onto a country that can barely cope. How do those two things fit together?”

Today Ahmed will meet with the Home Office to hear the decision. As far as he and his lawyer are aware, the outcome has yet to be decided; the Home Office could concede and accept their claim to asylum, it could simply decide to postpone any decision to a later date. Ahmed’s fear though is he will be immediately detained and deported to Croatia. Having come this far, losing everything and risking more, it’s a fate he refuses to accept.

“We can't go back. I will not go back,” he says. “I’ve decided if they take me to Croatia I will do anything. I will kill myself. I lost everything. I came here and I lost everything. If they would force me to go to Croatia I don't have anything to lose. It will be the end. To stay here . . . will be a life for us. It will not just be asylum, it will be more than that. It will be a real life. We haven't a life anymore. We haven't a lot of choices. We haven't any choices.”

*name changed to protect anonymity as Said’s family do not know that he is gay.