Jack “HackneyLad” Shenker has been providing some of the most incisive and independent journalism coming out of Egypt since he first set off for Cairo as a young freelancer in the twilight yeas of the Hosni Mubarak presidency. Because he was there to watch the decline and fall of Mubarak and his state security infrastructure, as well as the joys and tears of Egypt’s Revolution, then “second choice” Morsi’s ascendancy to the highest office, followed by the reimposition of the old order under General Sisi, he had a ringside seat to the tumultuous changes affecting the Arab world’s largest state. He was also dug deep enough into the real Egypt of the common people, rather than the Europeanised elite of Zamalek, in order to really hear and report what was happening on the street and in the torture chambers of police stations and prisons. Thus he was able to produce this magnificent portrait of a land and its people, The Egyptians (Penguin RandomHouse, £15.99), which should be the first port of call for anyone wanting to get an understanding of the complexities of modern Egyptian society and who has the time and dedication to devote themselves to reading the book carefully, as it deserves. It is part reportage, part political and historical treatise, and pulsates with the individual life stories of Egyptians who have fallen foul of the system, because they did not have the wasta or influential connections to get by. There is much to make one despair in Egypt’s modern history: so much injustice, corruption, violence and sheer inhumanity. And yet, the author emerges, as do I after 30 years of regular assignments and travels there, loving Egypt and its people, warts and all.
Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th December, 2016
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th August, 2015
Earlier today, a court in Egypt sentenced three journalists from Al Jazeera TV to three years in prison on the trumped-up charges of aiding a terrorist organisation (the Muslim Brotherhood) and producing false news in order to defame the name of the country. But it is this verdict which has sullied Egypt’s reputation. It is an egregious assault on the freedom of the press and blatantly political, underlining just how far President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has dragged Egypt back to a pre-2011 Revolution era of military-backed dictatorship and suppression of dissent. One of the three people sentenced today, the Australian Peter Greste (a former colleague of mine at the BBC), was fortunately safely out of the country, having been released after a vigorous international campaign after a first, prolonged trial collapsed. But the verdict could seriously now compromise his work as a foreign correspondent, as any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt could receive a summons to send him to Cairo.
However the real tragedy is the fate of his two AJ colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, who had been out on bail but must now return to prison — for the “crime” of simply doing their job. It is a terrible blow to them and their families and should trigger strong renewed international protests, not just from NGOs but also from Western governments, including Britain’s. David Cameron astonishingly invited President Sisi to come on an official visit to London later this year, with the announcement about that being made the day after ousted president Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to death by another court. That invitation should now be withdrawn. By staying silent, Britain would instead be condoning what are clear assaults on human rights, including freedom of expression, which would mean that not only is Egypt’s reputation tarnished but Britain’s too.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, al-Jazeera, Baher Mohamed, David Cameron, Egypt, Mohamed Fahmy, Mohamed Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood, Peter Greste, press freedom | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st February, 2015
It is great news that for once the rumours proved to be true and that Peter Greste, an Australian former colleague of mine at the BBC, currently employed by Al Jazeera, has indeed been released after 400 days in a Cairo jail. He is now returning home to join his family. However his Arab colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed still remain behind bars. Their only “crime” is that they were doing their job, reporting on events in Egypt at the time that President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup. The trial was a travesty and although it got a lot of international media coverage thanks to my friend Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian and others, foreign governments did not do enough to pressure the Egyptians to release all the journalists. I fear that now the Egyptian government will revel in its perceived “humanity” in releasing and deporting the foreigner Peter, but we must not forget those who remain behind. Freedom of the media — and of expression generally — is under huge pressure right across the Middle East, including in countries that are seen as firm allies of the West. The moral authority of nations such as the UK and the United States can only thrive when it stands up for its liberal principles — which means London, Washington and other capitals need to be making clear that authoritarian regimes cannot expect political, financial and military support unless they respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th December, 2014
It’s now one year since three Al Jazeera journalists have been in prison in Egypt, for the simple “crime” of doing their job. One of them is a former colleague of mine at the BBC, Peter Greste, from Australia, from where his family and friends have organised a formidable lobbying campaign for his release. The other two — equally worthy of sympathy and support — are Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy. President Sisi’s government disapproved strlngly of the way that the Doha-based Al Jazeera covered the coup against ousted President Mohammed Morsi, as well as the grotesque human rights abuses that have taken place against Muslim Brotherhood supporters and pro-democracy activists. The farcical trial and subsequent imprisonment of the Al Jazeera 3 is one of the most egregious attempts to stifle press freedom anywhere in the Middle East — a region that is not short of bad examples. Sadly, Western governments, including in Washington and London, have been fairly muted in their criticism of Sisi and his henchmen. While this may be partly an attempt to woo Cairo into releasing the AJ3, I fear it is more a case of Realpolitik, in which the major Western powers see Egypt as an important ally, as well as a friend to Israel. In my view, this is extremely short-sighted, and further undermines the West’s claim to moral authority. It is important that people around the world, as well as governments and media organisations, stand up and protest about human rights abuses and the suppression of the media. And for my part, on this sad first anniversary of the AJ3’s incarceration, I ask General Sisi and his colleagues politely, both for the sake of the three individuals concerned and for the sake of Egypt’s dignity and reputation abroad, please release Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baker Mohamed immediately!
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th December, 2014
Over the last three decades, much of the world, from Brazil to Indonesia, has moved from dictatorship to democracy, but despite the so-called Arab Spring that began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, most of the Arab world has remained immune. Several states, such as Syria and Bahrain, are even worse than they were when it comes to the situation of civil society and human rights. Especially tragic is the most populous Arab state of all, Egypt, which was so full of hope during the 2011 Revolution, but where things have returned to their previous brutal state following the coupl against Mohammed Morsi in July last year. As the United States and several other western countries view Egypt as a crucial ally they have been restrained in their criticism of some of the gross outrages that have taken place in Egypt over the past 18 months, so it has been left to NGOs and some of the international media — notably Al Jazeera — to make their concerns known. Prominent among the former has been the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights (ICFR), which has sent everal missions comprised largely of lawyers to Cairo during 2014. Egypt has similarly been the Central focus of ICFR’s first conference this week in Istanbul, which I have been attending and which will lead to the creation of a lawyers’ task force to monitor situations and to disseminate information, as well as a media group. While so much of the West is concentrating on the War on Terror it probably needs reminding about the values it is meant to stand for, including democracy and the respect for human rights, which are alas so lacking in so many Arab States.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th December, 2014
Like millions of people who have read The Yacoubian Building, I am a fan of the writing of the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany and a few years ago I was pleased to have the chance to talk to him a little when he came to an event put on by English PEN. So last night I was eagerly part of a large audience assembled on the fringes of the Gingko Conference currently taking place in London to hear him being interviewed by fellow author Tarek Osman about political developments in Egypt and the wider Arab world. For several years, Al Aswany wrote a newspaper column (now terminated) which always ended with the words “democracy is the answer”. So I was not the only person surprised by his spirited defence of the ousting of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi last year, and his criticism of those who described the army takeover as a coup. It is true that millions of Egyptians had taken to the streets to protest against Morsi’s actions once in power and it was maybe not unpredictable that the Muslim Brotherhood would have a different attitude to democracy from Western liberals. But Al Aswany’s comments last night prompted the French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani, who was in the audience, to launch a virulent attack on him. As a disgruntled English translator of Al Aswany’s work — whose exact grievance was not clear to the rest of us — had also shouted at the novelist before storming out of the auditorium, things were getting distinctly heated. Alaa Al Aswany, who physically resembles a big brown bear, stood his ground but was clearly not happy. And unfortunately therefore not all his answers to questions were as informative as they wold have been in quieter circumstances. The former Labour Foreign Minister, Denis MacShane, for example, asked whether a young Egyptian writer might now be writing a new Yacoubian Building, complete with corruption, sexual scandal and torture, as was the original (and therefore seen as a biting critique of the Mubarak regime), but he did not really get an adequate response. The Gingko Library has published the collected columns of Alaa Al Aswany in a volume Democracy Is the Answer.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th August, 2014
During the first few weeks of 2011 I was glued to Al Jazeera’s English-language TV channel as the revolution in Egypt unfurled and President Hosni Mubarak eventually stood down from power. But this proved to be a hollow victory for the predominantly liberal and often secular young demonstrators who had been so visible in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Elections led to Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood becoming the new president, but the new government’s swift moves to islamise the state led to renewed mass protests and Morsi’s ousting in a coup. Now Egypt is led by Field Marshal Abdel Fatah El Sisi, who many critics see as a sort of Mubarak Mark II. In fact, the repression against dissent is even worse now than it was in Mubarak’s final years. But all this was predictable, of so argues the British-Egyptian doctor Wafik Moustafa, in his thought-provoking book Egypt: The Elusive Arab Spring (Gilgmesh, £24.95). Dr Moustafa is unique in having stood for both the Egyptian presidency (against Mubarak) and as a prospective UK MP (for Bootle) — both lost causes, as Mubarak made sure for 30 years that the veneer of democracy eventually applied to quieten criticism from Washington would not threaten him through the ballot box, and Dr Moustafa is a Conservative who had little chance of ousting Labour in Britain’s industrial north west. His book is a very personal take on events, both during the three years of the so-called Arab Spring and in his recounting of Egypt’s modern history, from a liberal, cosmopolitan perspective. He obviously thinks Egypt is the poorer for losing former IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei from frontline politics (not a view particularly widely shared among ordinary Egyptians) and he is (probably justifiably) harsh on the record of the late Colonel Nasser, whose standing in the Egyptian street nonetheless seems to be rising again, with a little help from El Sisi. The author ranges wider than the Egypt of the title, looking at events across the whole Arab world, as well as specific issues such as the media. The order of chapters is at times a little strange — an account of the Egyptian monarchy coming towards the end of the book, for example — but the late alterations and additions made necessary by political developments in 2013 are reasonably well integrated into the whole, and all in all this is a stimulating read, which will be particularly appreciated by those who are not already Middle East experts and want an accessible and literate overview of Egypt’s situation and the multitude of challenges facing the country’s future.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Abdel Fatah El Sisi, al-Jazeera, Arab Spring, Egypt, Gilgamesh, Mohamed ElBaradei, Mohammed Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood, Tahrir Square, Wafik Moustafa | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th July, 2014
When Lord Lothian invited International Development Minister Alan Duncan to address the Global Strategy Forum at the National Liberal Club today on the Arab Spring three years on, he can have had no inkling that Mr Duncan would be ministerially defenestrated the previous night. But in a way that was an advantage as the speaker was therefore bound by no government conventions and limitations and was able to give a wide-ranging yet penetrating overview of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). I liked his concept of “3D” British foreign policy, i.e. diplomacy, development and defence working in conjunction, and he has clearly put his experience in the oil industry to good use while in office, though he was pretty pessimistic about developments in Libya, in particular. I queried him on Egypt, as he’d said the West was maybe too quick to welcome the ousting of Hosni Mubarak; surely, I said, the West has been too quick to welcome the arrival of Field Marshal Sisi, given the appalling current record of torture and imprisonment, which has even affected journalists working for international media outlets, such as my former BBC colleague, and now Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste? Where Alan Duncan and I were much more aligned was when he spoke of the need to approach the Arab-Israeli conflict from a position of principle — in other words recognising the compound injustice (and indeed humiliation) perpetrated against the Palestinians by successive governments of Israel. It would have been good to press him further on his hints at possible consequences of the tensions between different Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, but maybe now he is more of a free agent it will be possible to winkle more out of him in such important debates.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: al-Jazeera, Alan Duncan, Arab Spring, Egypt, Field Marshal Sisi, GCC, Global Strategy Forum, Hosni Mubarak, Israel, Libya, Lord Lothian, Palestine, Peter Greste | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd June, 2014
Last night at the National Liberal Club, Liberal International British Group hosted a panel discussion on the political situation in Egypt, with former Nile TV presenter Shahira Amin, democracy activist Ahmed Naguib (via skype), the Treasurer of Liberal International, Robert Woodthorpe Browne (who has been involved in a lot of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s recent work in Egypt) and myself. As the discussion was (rightly) held under the Chatham House Rule, I cannot divulge what any of the others said, but I can share some of the things I talked about. As the two Egyptian participants gave such a comprehenesive and coheremnt picture of today’s political realities and challenges, I complemented their presentations by reminding people about the highs and lows of the mood on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January/February 2011, including the prominent role played by brave women and the way that Muslims and Christian Copts protected each other when they were at prayer. But those who dubbed the phenomenon that started in Tunisia the previous December “The Arab Spring” were always way out on their time-frame. I believed that then and believe it even more strongly now: it will be 30 or 40 years before it becomes clear how the whole New Arab Awakening works out, but what is sure is that Egypt is the test case of its success or failure. It has always had a pole position in the Arab mentality, not just because it is by far the most populous nation in the the Arab world but also because of Cairo’s (Sunni) religious and intellectual pre-eminence. Field Marshal Sisi’s victory in the recent presidential election was a foregone conclusion, though it was notable that in each electoral district there were tens of thousands of spoiled ballot papers. But for the majority of Egyptians (rather than the wealthier, educated elite) the prime concern at the moment is economic survival: bread not ballots. Western commentators like myself rightly focus on matters such as human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture in detention centres. But the key thing that any Egyptian government, now and for the foreseable future, has to tackle is how to overcome the huge inequalities in Egypt and to provide enough, reasonably-paid work for the predominantly young population. Otherwise, there is likely to be a growing, disenchanted body of youth who could be tempted by something far more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood that was ousted from power. And that bodes ill.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Ahmed Naguib, Arab Spring, Cairo, Copts, Egypt, Field Marshal Sisi, Liberal International, Liberal International British Group, Muslim Brotherhood, Muslims, New Arab Awakening, Robert Woodthorpe Browne, Shahira Amin, Tunisia | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th March, 2014
Yesterday I attended a seminar organised by Middle East Monitor on satellite jamming — the how and the why and some thoughts about how to overcome it. The day was particularly focused on Egypt and how both Hosni Mubarak and the current interim regime in Cairo have used jamming (directly or by proxy) to stifle TV channels of which they don’t approve, thereby adding another layer of censorship and the stifling of free expression on top of station closures, the arrest of journalists (such as those from Al Jazeera), and so on. I chaired the afternoon session that looked at issues of International Law, in which the Iraqi President of the Arab Lawyers Association UK, Sabah al-Mukhtar, gave an excellent presentation outlining the challenges involved. In my own remarks I said that maybe Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights needs finessing, as new technologies of which people in 1948 could not even have dreamt have totally changed the nature of media, not least twitter, YouTube,etc (hence the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to shut them down). Perhaps what is needed is an elaboration of the concept of free expression to take into account access to information as a fundamental human right. That would give a solid basis on which an area of International Law could evolve; at present, only such precise things as genocide and war crimes can be the basis of international tribunals. Of course International Law develops slowly and different parts of the world have different domestic legal systems, but it should be possible to develop a plausible ad effective framework in which governments or leaders who censor media through deliberate jamming or in other ways could be held accountable.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, International Law, Middle East Monitor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sabah al-Mukhtar, Turkey, Universal Declaration of Human Rights | Leave a Comment »