Monday, July 10, 2006

Get your independent information while you can

Because of the oppressive heat during the summer months, Cairo’s policemen are given white uniforms. You can find these everyday cops all around the city, directing traffic, patrolling street corners and protecting the entryways to government buildings, embassies and universities. It is only natural that in a country as overpopulated as Egypt, there are too many policemen. It appears that employing a traffic cop 24/7 is cheaper than buying and maintaining a traffic light.
But the cops I saw yesterday morning were not wearing white. They were wearing black. They were present in droves and they looked ominous.

The occasion was a large-scale protest against a new press law that will make reporting on Egypt a lot more difficult for Egyptian journalists. When I say large-scale, I mean by Egyptian standards. The rally took place in front of Egypt’s parliament building and it included about 200 people, if my estimate is accurate. But while such a small protest would never make the news if it happened in the states, it is rare in Egypt for an anti-government rally to get so large. The New York Times has run front-page stories about protests here that involved only 50 people. For a foreign journalist, finding legitimate stories on opposition politics can be tough going.

The protest today though, was real, as was the tension in the streets. To ensure that traffic could pass, and that protesters would recognize how powerless they are, the police ringed the entire crowd. The sidewalk onto which the protesters were forced was only 6 or 7 yards wide. Maneuvering through the crowd was nearly impossible. For every 2 protestors wearing a sign around their necks that read (sarcastically) "Viva corruption, down with freedom!" there was a journalist covering the event trying to get an interview. [I particularly appreciated that half the signs were in Arabic, half in English. It is clear that their target audience is not just the Arab world] Like the overpopulation in Egypt and the overblown police presence, there are also too many journalists. Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, Al-Hura, MBC, and a plethora of print and radio journalists were all trying to squeeze past me to get to their next interview. In the 95-degree heat, I thanked God that I am six feet tall and 180 pounds. I did not fear being crushed by the mob.

What I did fear, however, was getting the shit kicked out of me by the cops. There was certainly reason for concern. I left for the protest just before 11 with my friend Ben, who was covering the event for IRIN, a UN news service. A few blocks from the event we encountered our first signal that something other than run-of-the-mill business was occurring near by. Six or seven police paddy wagons were parked, ready to carry off any protestors who got too rowdy. The police vehicles were not of the school-bus-with-grated-windows variety that I was used to seeing in the states. Paddy wagons in Cairo are meant to look intimidating. They say: "you really don’t want to be in here," and they more closely resemble armored bank cars than any conveyor of civilian traffic. Painted dark green or black, with impossibly small windows, they do not give the impression that correctional facilities here are meant to be rehabilitation centers. They look like punishment in themselves.

When we first arrived at 11, the crowd is spilling onto the streets. It is only a short while before the aforementioned 'men in black,' previously standing on the other side of the thoroughfare, come across to 'control' the crowd. As we struggle through the mob, looking for people to interview, I notice the cops menacing glances. There are now enough policemen to form two full rows around the entire group, and they continue to slowly push us back until everyone is on the sidewalk. What is especially worrying me is that, before we arrived, I had spotted groups of men in civilian clothes organized in groups of 20 or so, with one or two uniformed officers standing near by. They were clearly the type of government-hired goons who take care of uppity rabble-rousers who forget their manners. Some of those men, in jeans and dirty button-downs, are standing at attention across the street. Next to them are groups of authentic riot police, the kinds with batons and facemasks that fought protestors in the streets at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, or the kind you see in Europe battling soccer hooligans. All in all, the cops in view outnumber the protestors and journalists at least two to one.

There are also other things that are worrisome. Some of the journalists begin to chant slogans, demanding freedom. The chants are call and response, and the head of Egypt's press syndicate, the man responsible for the event, is having none of it. Between interviews with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the small, bald man with an impeccably tailored suit and an even more perfectly groomed mustache turns to those chanting and yells at them to shut up. They do, but eventually their chants start up again and the process is repeated. It’s clear that he’s worried about violence, or future retribution.

The law that is being protested, as it was described to me is fairly draconian. Before the most recent election, President Hosni Mubarak promised an end to the imprisonment of journalists, but now that the election is over and there is no pressure coming from the United States, Mubarak is going back on his word. The new piece of legislation, which was introduced under Mubarak's name, mandates a minimum sentence of six months for a variety of press offenses, including insulting Mubarak, his family, the state, or members of parliament. The law does not specify a maximum sentence. For a few more details on the law, check the article Ben wrote. Members of the ruling National Democratic Party have said the law is necessary to counter the 'blackmail,' of the press. 'Blackmail,' the protestors believe, is the government’s way of saying they are annoyed that the press has been exposing the rampant corruption that goes on in Egyptian politics. Obviously, members of the government aren’t too happy about the bad coverage.

By the time we leave, at around 12:30, no violence has occurred, and none will. We walk back to the university, taking a different path than the one we had taken to get to the protest. Amazingly, every 150 yards or so, there is another pack of cops, either in uniform or in street clothes. These groups continue for blocks. I guess they’re there to protect the state. 'Blackmail,' is a serious national concern.


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