When Hope Dies, Nothing Blooms in that Land


A generation of youth laying their friends to rest
A generation of mothers with an empty nest

A story about Egypt, and its struggle for hope
A story of millions defying the tightening rope

The struggle for Freedom, Dignity and Bread
About the punishment they got instead

Take Alaa for example who got sentenced 15 years
For being moved to revolt against torture and tears

Thousands of others also, to prison were sent
A handful of supporters protesting wherever they went

Others gave up and they carry the shame
Because the search for freedom…… was done in their name

They’ll squint and say “I’ve seen you’re face before
But they’re so many of you taken, I’ve lost the score”

Those ‘taken’ are strong now with a mission inside
They’re a window to the misconduct authorities try to hide

Slowly but surely stories behind bars are coming out
And you need to keep listening to what this is all about

Loss of physical freedom to become an independent voice
To those on the other side kept in, against their choice

The stories of torture and wrongful detention
Of people ‘too insignificant’ to grab your attention

Till its one of your own who gets dragged by the mob
Until it’s of your loved ones that you get robbed

I understand your desperate need to glorify the army
But their songs and flowers just don’t charm me

From virginity testing to death by beats
From promising not to, but running for presidency seats

From crushing Christian sisters to gassing Muslim brothers
Forcing you to take allegiance to justify violence against the other

Yes I’m talking of the barbaric handling of Rab3a and Maspero
When did the villain ever become your hero?

I’m talking of a generation that solemnly fought
That were betrayed by their protectors but kept afloat

If you’re not part of the revolution don’t be part of the betrayal
Don’t give in to the oppressors and join those who hail

Of course it’s not easy to keep fighting but that’s the cost
which we must pay for years of silence that we’ve lost

Those still fighting for tomorrow have reason to believe
And yes change will come, no, no that’s not naive

It’s a struggle for justice, one that will continue
Thousands of heroic sacrifices that can’t but win you

Of course it’s a long rough journey, yes, I understand
But when hope dies, nothing blooms on that land.

“Break a Girl’s Rib and She’ll Grow 24”: Egypt and Children’s Rights in the New Constitution

Flickr: أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah

I wrote this post originally for Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and can be found here: http://timep.org/commentary/break-a-girls-rib-and-shell-grow-24-egypt-and-childrens-rights

Whether it is in the face of personal or structural violence enacted in the forms of physical, sexual, emotional, cultural, verbal, or financial abuse or neglect, children in Egypt face a rocky road. Many children do not have clear access to their rights and encounter limited recourse in pursuing them. The dreams of political and social improvement that the January 25 uprising embedded in those who care about the plight of children in Egypt were met with infinite amounts of disappointment. In actuality, the situation for the most vulnerable continued to get worse, and lawyers and activists found themselves occupied with fighting for—and trying simply to maintain—the very basic rights of children. Rather than engaging in the lobbying and other efforts needed to enhance and improve children’s rights, these advocates have struggled merely to hold on to the status quo.

One of the first phrases I became familiar with during my work with street children in Cairo was: “break a girl’s rib and she will grow 24.” This was a colloquial saying I often heard during my mediations with parents of street children whom we were trying to reintegrate into society by supporting reunions with their families. The idea that violence towards children is not only acceptable but actually good for them is encountered—and fought—at the grassroots level, where laws protecting children against domestic abuse are not actively implemented.

The saying above illustrates a gap between legal protections and their social contexts, and it is a prime example of the different layers of obstacles that a children’s rights lawyer or activist must combat when tackling any rights abuses that children encounter. Of course, an added difficulty is that children cannot actively engage in the fight for their own rights. Members of the working classes, ethnic and religious minorities, and women have all led struggles for their own rights, but children simply cannot effectively organize in support of their rights. Consequently, children’s rights are often only codified as long as they never conflict with those claimed by adults. Each time a new constitution has been drafted in Egypt’s recent history, it seems as though human rights defenders have been disappointed in general, and the most recent constitution is no different. Specifically, those who have dedicated themselves to protecting children have a few grave concerns with the new document.

In 2011, Amira Qotb and others registered Manadeel Waraq (“Paper Tissue”) as a nationwide popular campaign for the protection of children’s rights in Egypt.  The group’s main responsibility is to lobby for the implementation of international and local laws protecting children in Egypt. However, even as I and other members of Manadeel Waraq were being asked our opinions regarding what would become the 2014 Constitution—which appears to grant basic human rights to children (despite lacking information on their implementation)—we were petitioning against the arrests of children, their detention with adults, and the public distribution of their pictures by the police and press. The distance between the words and actions we continue to encounter speaks volumes on the actual value of the proposed changes when not accompanied by detailed implementation schemes.

Among the articles that concern children are articles 97 and 204, respectively regarding arrests and military trials. Article 97 states that civilians should be brought before their “natural judge”, who for children would be a judge in a juvenile court. This is already somewhat problematic, as the juvenile justice system in Egypt is not a place where fair legal procedures regarding arrest, trial, and detention are observed. As for Article 204, it states that civilians can be tried before a military court under certain circumstances. It appears that this article will lead to a continuation of past treatment for children, as they have stood before military courts for years now. Manadeel Waraq and the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign are engaged in the fight against making children stand before a military court, though with limited real success.

On a slightly more promising note, Article 52 is a positive addition to the constitution in that it criminalizes violence in all forms, regardless of the victim’s position on pressing charges. However, it remains unclear whether this includes cases of abuse that occur within the family or whether such violence is still considered a domestic matter. As it stands, only a member of a child’s family can file a complaint based on physical violence towards a child if the violence involved is neither sexual nor life threatening. Another positive note is found in Article 60, which criminalizes any act that mutilates a human’s body. This article can be seen as laying the foundation for a fight against female genital mutilation, a practice that has affected the vast majority of female Egyptians. However, it is not clear how this article could be specifically invoked in practice. Finally, Article 53 references anti-discrimination principles that should guide the country in general; I and others hope that the guarantees made will be applied to schools that currently refuse to enroll street children with “mainstream” children because of the former’s history and experiences. Of course, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by Egypt, requires such non-discrimination in its second article.

The 2014 Constitution’s Article 80, which focuses particularly on children’s rights, was welcomed by the Egyptian Coalition for the Rights of the Child in Egypt. This article reiterated the state’s responsibility for protecting children from violence and preventing sexual and economic exploitation, including limits on vocational work that puts children in any danger. It remains to be seen how this article will be implemented, though, taking into account the complex economic circumstances that have led to a widespread level of child labor as a source of familial economic support. The article also states a right to identification papers for children—this is a very welcome move from the view of NGOs. Many NGOs working with street children have had their hands tied in attempts to enroll children in school or to get them necessary medical attention because of a lack of proper identification. Such situations present a catch-22: street children often ran away from their parents because of abuse or exploitation, yet previously they could only obtain official papers in the presence of their parents. Finally, Article 80 promises a comprehensive juvenile justice system, including legal aid for children and detention areas separate from adults. Again, we can only hope this will be a priority in the midst of the instability that the country is experiencing.

Article 89, which criminalizes human trafficking in all its forms, is another welcome addition. Though laws that already exist have done little to eradicate trafficking, the placement of a prohibition on the activity in the constitution is a necessary step to battle the violent abuse of young, female domestic workers. Many such workers are effectively “sold” by their families, as they are placed in other’s homes to work and their salaries are paid to their parents. Another area of work that may result from these laws is an investigation of the prevalence and details surrounding the stealing of organs from street children. It also includes criminalizing the prostituting of children whether covertly or in the form of a “child marriage” that lasts a few days. An example of an organized child-marriage-brokering network was portrayed in a secret documentary film done by journalist and former parliamentary candidate Gameela Ismail.

The writing of a constitution that includes explicit acknowledgments of children’s rights is the first step on a long journey to ensuring the safety that children deserve and to providing them with the opportunity to grow and develop into adults who are ready to face the challenges of life. One hopes to see improved methods of implementation and monitoring of these rights. There is also a need for broader recognition of the importance of academic, impartial research that investigates the roots of the social problems that harm children and how those problems can be solved at the earliest stages. Such a need exists because, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Egypt: Where Muslims think heaven is not under the feet of Coptic mothers… and Coptics think to love a muslim is to live in Sin…

“Heaven is under the feet of mothers” says the veiled teacher in Arabic telling us, students, the prophets words; in attempt to exemplify the importance of motherhood and illustrate the reward God will give these good mothers for all the suffering. This particular teacher goes on to say, “Except for Nelly’s mother; because she is Christian.” As a six year old sitting in a religious education class at the King Fahad Academy in 1986, England, I remember being horrified as I, with the big imagination I had, imagined my most loved mother walking on that thin rope they told us you had to cross between hell and heaven – and not making it to the other side… It is, no doubt the same thing my sister felt, 15 years later from the Egyptian Saturday school teacher, also in London, who said the same thing. We both had nightmares of the fall into a pit of fire they told us was waiting, where your skin would heal every time it was burnt so that you could suffer its excruciating pain of burning again and again, and having been informed, by a figure of trusted authority, that the mother we both so much love, would not find heaven under her feet, was simply harrowing.

On both occasions my very brave mother, who I know will be making it to heaven, should heaven actually exist, took herself to our respective schools and demanded to meet the, now quite embarrassed, bigoted, teachers and I loved watching her put them in their place. But who was my mother really fighting? Was she fighting these two small minded, brain washed, unprofessionals? No. The fact that both my sister and I, over the course of 15 years, in two different schools, by different teachers, suggests that what was happening here was a deep rooted, systematic otherisation of Christians in the Muslim/Arab context and that the worrying thing was that it did not get better over time, nor worse, it was stationary, like it was a taken for granted fact repeated over the years. This suggests, perhaps, that you cannot fight sectarianism from the top down, it needs to be grounded, from the roots up, a cleansing of the rotting and decay at the very bottom that is manifest in Egyptian and Arab schools from the day they enrol and are asked what religion they are, not for equality assurance purposes.

Let’s get even more uncomfortable with this, because it’s easy to point fingers only at the Muslim inter-dimensional failings and oversee the problems which the Coptic congregation itself. Before I share my opinion on this, I would like to clarify where I am coming from to justify why I feel credible. At the age of 13, I decided to leave the King Fahad Academy and I started going to the local Coptic Church in the UK where I learnt many wonderful qualities of love, forgiveness, solidarity etc. I spent 8 years going to church, totally taken by the sense of community that was lacking amongst the muslim equivalent. During this time, I enjoyed all the good this community taught, but also was made acutely aware of the biting sting of forming a tight community where the congregation closes it’s gates high to outsiders seeing everyone “muslim” (not other, but muslim) as a persecutor. Of course, there are many reasons the Copts feel justified for feeling this, but it is unhelpful to adopt the “excuse of abuse” to reinforce, in new generations, the divide, the difference and accept it through normalising it, joking about it and sharing secret tapes of muslim converts to christianity being abused by their muslim families, for example, or creating this space where your Coptic children only played football with your coptic friends children, went to the cinema together, trips together etc. etc. The church, too, is guilty of ostracising it’s own followers if they fall in love with non christians, especially muslims. I, for example stood in confrontation with my pastoral Father (now Bishop) and asked him if I was, in the eyes of the church, a bastard child and he stood silent. The first boy to fall in love with me was advise against marrying me because of my muslim father and what this would mean for his children. Any christian woman married to a non christian could not “receive the grace of god” in the form of holy communion should she feel an urge to go to pray because she was having sex, in the eyes of the church, outside marriage.

Passiveness on the part of both Christians and Muslims is also a stamp of shame, guilt and oppression. If you, as a Muslim have done nothing more than recount the times you’ve had a Christian friend or had breakfast with a a Christian neighbour, if you’ve not protested every time they’ve had their churches burnt, if you’ve not been outraged every time they have had to hit walls getting licences to get water into their churches, or building them in the first place; if you have not stood protecting their churches during their festivities to ensure their safety, if you don’t actively teach your children about equality, then you too have contributed to the persecution and death of Copts in Egypt. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to think this way, but its time we stopped giving government more power than it deserves, we, along with the state need to be held accountable.

But the Copts need to step up their game of inclusion too… let me give you an example. When I was getting married, my husband and I decided we would include a quaranic verse and a verse from the bible in our wedding invites. This way, we would be doing something out of respect to all our christian and muslim family and friends. Everyone in our families thought it was a great idea and I was pleased. I went to get these designed and printed at a Coptic wedding stationary store. The assistant took our orders and one day before collection, the manager called and told us he removed the quote from the bible because he was scared of state security – this was two years after 25th Jan!! After lots of fights and tears and frustration – not because I could not have the wedding invites the way I wanted them, but because this guy gave in after my uncle from “state security” called him and his tone was now full of fear, respect etc. I was sickened by this man who epitomised everything wrong with the Coptic community who were scared and lacked the bravery to stand and merge into wider society. The same reasons perhaps that many would not admit led to the poor turn out at Al Khosoos funeral – and of course, the Copts were right… the mourners were indeed attacked – so how can you convince them they are wrong? It is a vicious circle we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into, in Egypt.

The recent deadly attack on Coptics in AlKhoso, Cairo was not solely state responsibility.  The state has a duty of care, and a duty to ensure justice for the church and the Christians murdered in the recent clashes – both which the state has miserably failed in so far; the list is long with offences against the Copts in Egypt where the state has not performed its role, or anywhere near avenged the people it is meant to include in its rubric of protection and security. Of course this is the role of the state, and it’s the role of the government to ensure it is not systematically enforcing its persecution of minorities in, say, the curriculum – many are turning a blind eye that year one religious education books now mention the Muslim Brotherhood ten times etc.

However, we need to very clearly distinguish responsibility so that we, as a society reproducing culture and discourse, can also be held accountable for the role we play in these horrific incidents, because if you’ve asked someone their religion, if you’ve asked your child if the person they’re marrying is of the same religion, if you’ve justified being unfair in your dealings with someone based on their religion or domination, if you’ve refused to employ someone because of their religion, if you’ve preferred to have your children play with kids from the same religion, then I’m sorry to say, you are also responsible for the deaths of the Copts in this country. And… let’s be even more honest, it’s not the Copts burning down mosques, or killing etc etc. So yeah, they have it worse…

Everything needs to be addressed simultaneously; the churches getting burnt and attack is one story, the patriarchal attack by Muslims also needs to be addressed, e.g. the Salafi men harassing Christian women, the Muslim men killing the Christian engaged couple for holding hands, the Muslim men cutting off the ear of the Christian man to teach him a lesson. This superiority Muslim men are giving themselves over children, women, Christians and other minorities is beginning to stink. The Copts too need to start teaching their own children not to carry chips on their shoulders, that it’s not each for their own, to risk integrating outside their congregation. Once the people themselves have been brave enough to address and affect change within their communities, then they will be strengthened to start asking for justice from the state when their churches are burnt and their mourners are attacked. Oh Egypt… what a confusing mess.

قتل «عمر» برصاص اخترق القلب.. وهل لأطفال الشوارع قلوب مثلنا؟


This post was originally posted in Al Masry Al Youm and has been beautifully translated by my dedicate friend Mohammed Esmat Farag

يعرف كثير جدا من الأطفال الذين في الشوارع تماما ماذا تريد أن تسمع منهم. فهم يتفحصونك، ويقيمون شخصيتك، وفي دقائق يكونون قد جهزوا لك القصة التي من أجلها أتيت إليهم. إنهم يجب أن يكونوا بهذا الذكاء، لأن هذا ما يعتمد عليه بقاؤهم.

أتذكر حديثي مع إحدى الصحفيات التي ذكرت لي دهشتها من الطفلة التي أخبرتها بأنها انضمت للاحتجاجات في يناير 2011بسبب اهتمامها بالبلاد، ولأنها أرادت أن تحدث تغييرا سياسيا واجتماعيا – أعرف جيدا هذه الطفلة التي كانت تتحدث عنها – ولكن الطفلة لم تتمكن من الحديث حول «التغيير السياسي» الذي ذكرته، لأنها ببساطة لم تكن تعرف ماذا تعني هذه الكلمة.

لقد عملت على أن أتعرف على البنات على مدار شهور طويلة، لا من خلال زيارات أو مقابلات «النصف ساعة» الرسمية، لكنني عملت على التعرف عليهن بحق، بتصفيقي لهن عندما كن يرقصن، بتعاطفي معهن حينما كن يتحدثن في جلسات العلاج الجماعي، بضحكي معهن لسماع قصصهن عن الشارع، بتنظيفي لجروحهن بعد أن يؤذين أنفسهن لأي سبب. ولأني عشت هذه القصص شعرت بأنني يمكنني أن أسأل «تغريد»، إحدى البنات اللاتي في الشارع، عن السبب الحقيقي لوجود هؤلاء الأطفال هناك في الميادين.

وعلى هذا بدأنا نلعب أدوارنا في المقابلة: «تغريد» تمسك في فرحة بمسجل صوت إم-بي-ثري بيد واحدة وتتفحصه، وهي تشعر بالدهشة أنها في خلال لحظة واحدة سيكون بوسعها أن تسمع أفكارها (طلبت مني أن أشتري لها مسجل صوت إم-بي-ثري حتى تتمكن من الحديث إلى نفسها فيه، لأنها رغبت في تدوين يوميات لنفسها، لكنها لا تقرأ ولا تكتب)، وأخذت أنا الأخرى دوري في المقابلة، حاملة طفلها الجميل ذا الأربعة أشهر، والذي لم يعرف سوى الابتسام طوال الوقت.

حينما أسرد قصص بنات الشوارع يعلق كثير من الناس بأنني يجب أن أكون قوية حتى أعيش هذه القصص وأسمعها. كلما سمعت هذا أستحضر ذلك الألم الذي تحدثه ابتسامات المواليد الصغار بقلبي.. لا شيء يؤلمني مثل الابتسامات. هذه الانحناءات الصغيرة على الشفاه، هي المظهر العظيم الدال على حقيقة: كم نحن متساوون، وكم هي متشابهة بداياتنا جميعا بشكل عظيم، وكم هي ثمينة بشكل غير عادي بعض الابتسامات عند آخرين؛ لأن الحياة صممت لتكسرهم، ولتعطيهم لا شيء.. مزيدا عن ذلك.. ليبتسموا من أجله.

وأسمع «تغريد» وهي تحكي لي عن الثورة وعن الانتقال الذي قام به الأطفال الذين كانوا يبيتون في ميدان رمسيس إلى ميدان التحرير. إنها تتحدث عنه على أنه هجرة، وكأنما هذه المساحات الخضراء من الأرض، أو التي يفترض أن تكون خضراء، تمثل مدينة قائمة بذاتها، مدينة بمواطنيها الأطفال، هؤلاء الصغار الذين هم بلا بطاقة هوية، وبلا مأوى، وبلا الأسر التي أنجبتهم، وبلا حماية.

تخبرني «تغريد» بأن أحد الأطفال جاء راكضًا إليهم في مدينة «ميدان رمسيس» العظمى قائلا لهم إن هناك ملايين الناس في التحرير. وحينها قرر اثنان «زوج وزوجة» من أصدقائها (وهما طفلان في سن الرابعة عشرة، ويختلف الزواج وتكوين أسرة في أطفال الشوارع عما نعرفه نحن) أن الأفضل هو الانضمام إلى هناك، حتى لا تفوتهما الفرصة العظيمة لسرقة الهواتف المحمولة. تضحك كثيرا جدا وهي تخبرني بذلك وهي تقول: «ماذا كان سيكون رد فعل الصحفيين لو علموا السبب الحقيقي لوجود بعض الأطفال هناك!».

لكنها تستطرد لتقول: «ليس كل الأطفال كانوا هناك من أجل السرقة! لقد كانوا هناك أيضا لأنها تجربة شيقة لهم! وذلك لأن الناس كانوا يقولون لنا دوما إن الشارع شيء سيئ، وأننا يجب أن نترك الشارع، ولكن فجأة كل واحد كان هناك، كل واحد في البلد كان في (التحرير)، ولهذا انتقلنا إلى هناك من (رمسيس). كان الناس هناك يتحدثون إلينا، يطعموننا، ويمزحون معنا، ولدرجة أن بعضهم حاول أن يعلمنا القراءة والكتابة، بل إننا حتى كنا ننام بجوار كل هؤلاء الناس أصحاب الرائحة الجميلة. وقد ساعدناهم نحن أيضا، فقد كنا ندلهم من أين يشترون أرخص الطعام حينما نفد الطعام منهم، وعلمناهم أفضل الطرق للهروب من البوليس، وهذا لأن أحب لعبة إلينا هي الأتاري». وحينها رأت علامات الاستفسار على وجهي، أوضحت: «عربات الشرطة»، نحن نسميها «أتاري» وطوال اليوم نلعب بالجري والاختفاء منهم، لكننا نعلم جميعا أن الشرطة التى في «التحرير» مختلفة، فهي لا تضيغ الوقت جريا وراءك، لكنها بدلا من ذلك تقتلك بالرصاص.

لقد كانت كل قصصها وتحليلاتها حول الأسباب التي دفعت الأطفال إلى المكان الذي دار فيه الحدث كله غير مريبة. جميع الأسباب، حتى سرقة الهواتف المحمولة، كان يمكنني تفهمها، وأمكنني تفهم ذلك لأنني بدأت أتعرف على الأطفال أكثر. لكن، بعد مرور عامين،صارت إجابات الأطفال عن السؤال: «لماذا كانوا هناك بالتحرير» مريبة وتصيبني بقلق حقيقي. فقد كان الأطفال يتحدثون إلى زميلي «عادل» الذي كرس ثمانية عشر عاما من عمره حتى الآن للعمل مع الأطفال حين بدا مهموما وأخبرني إن نغمة الأطفال في الكلام تغيرت، وإن أحدا ما قد يكون تحدث مع بعض منهم، فتغيرت أفكارهم.

فالأطفال الذين يجرون حوله بزجاجات المولوتوف يسألونه «ماذا تساوي حياتي من دون قيمة؟ أنا أريد أن أموت شهيدا فيسامحني الله على جميع الأشياء السيئة التي عملتها في هذه الدنيا. أريد أن يكون لموتي معنى لأن حياتي لم يكن لها أي معنى. أريد أن أموت فيتحدث عني كل هؤلاء الناس الذين في (التحرير)، ويمشوا في جنازتي. أريد أن أموت ويكون هناك أحد ما يتذكرني، ويرسم وجهي على الحائط مثل كل الآخرين، لا.. إذن.. يا (بابا)، أنا لست خائفا من أن أموت».

لقد تغيرت علاقة أطفال الشارع بالثورة في بحر عامين. ولكن، سيظل هذا نوعا من المثالية أن نتجادل حول ما إذا كان الأطفال يذهبون إلى صفوف المواجهات الأمامية مع الأمن لأنهم يفهمون معنى التمرد كوسيلة لنهاية. إن الأطفال – لأنهم أطفال – ينبغي ألا يكونوا محل لوم على الوضع الفكري الذي يكونون عليه حينما يذهبون إلى صفوف المواجهات مع الأمن.

ماذا عن موت عمر ذي الثلاثة عشر عاما؟ عمر، تم قتل الولد الصغير برصاص اخترق القلب بواسطة الجيش الذي أنيط به حماية حدوده أمام الأعداء. هل كان هناك ليسرق الهواتف؟ لا. هل كان هناك لأنه أراد لوجهه الصغير أن يحفر في جرافيتي على الحوائط المحيطة بالميادين؟ لا. قتل عمر بالرصاص لأنه كان هناك. قتل عمر بالرصاص وهو يحاول الحصول على عيش شريف من الشوارع التي صارت مقرا لكثير من الطبقات، والأديان، والأعمار، والأيديولوجيات. قتل عمر بالرصاص لوجوده في طريقهم. قتل عمر بالرصاص – أكثر من أي سبب آخر- لأنه لن تلقى مسؤولية قتله على أحد. استقبل قلب عمر الصغير الرصاصة لأن البعض كانوا شديدي الجبن عن أن يحاسبوا هؤلاء المسؤولين عن ذلك. هذه المقالة لكل «عمر»  اعتقل وقتل بالرصاص، فقط لمجرد تواجده هناك؛ لأنه لم يكن هناك مكان آخر أكثر أمانا يذهب إليه

Street Children and the Big Dream of Citizenship


There was no mistaking the horror this six year old girl was experiencing. Nothing more telling of the fear than the warm yellow fluid running down her short, scarred legs as her knees started to visibly shake. There was little mistaking the heaving chest as her heartbeats escalate while the quiver of her small, cracked lips began. Following her gaze to the door of the drop in centre for street children she was at, an angry man with blank eyes stood gazing right at her. Her father had found out where she was spending the day.

There is little the staff at day care centres can do to stop fathers or mothers coming to take their children, little they can do even if they had signed them in to permanent shelters. The law handicaps those who are trying to protect vulnerable children from abusive parents. Staff had to watch Taghreed be pulled by the wrist as she wet herself leaving the shelter which she had escaped one afternoon’s scorching sun to. All they could do was pray that they would see her again, minus the scars and bruises she had returned to them with previously.

Taghreed is not a lone street child. She has lived all her small number of years on the street with her father and mothers and siblings. They are travellers living on the streets of the cities they migrate back and forth between depending on which had a “mowlid” that the father could use his kids to sell little plastic toys or to beg if that didn’t work. Our society is one of alms, of course, but to care about where those alms went or what would be more affective than giving a few pounds, rarely is the case.

Taghreed didn’t like selling stuff for which her father took all her money; she didn’t like her father either – understandably. And when she found her way back after a couple of weeks to the day care centre, the psychologist asked her why she was so afraid of her father when she was such a strong little girl herself. Without shame, Taghreed recounted the ways in which her father ties her up in metal chains, locking the shackles at her ankles and wrists and beating her till he can no longer lift a finger. Many street kids lie to gain sympathy in hope for a pound or two. But Taghreed knew Shaimaa was not going to give her money; her body also bared witness to the genuineness of her account.

Eventually, the exploited girl ran away. She shaved her hair, bound her breasts and lived as a boy trying to protect herself on the streets. She tells me she could forgive those who did her wrong on the street far more than the parents she knew were meant to protect her. Taghreed is one of the most special and beautiful girls I have known. She is trustworthy and loyal and never forgets a good deed done for her. As she sits holding her cheerful 5 month old baby, she tells me her dream is to get ID for her and her child. That’s it – that is what she dreams of. But it’s a dream none of us who love and care about her have found easy to realise for her. Taghreed’s parents are not married; her father beats her every time she goes to try to convince him to go with her to get an ID issued and bureaucracy means she cannot get it done without him.

So unlike women fighting for equal rights, for employment rights, for child care rights, for divorce rights, Taghreed is a young woman fighting for the right to exist in the state, the right to be recognised as a citizen, the right, in her own words “to be human”. These are not things that we, as a society, can cure with giving a few pounds to passing street kids we feel sorry for, or a few pounds of meat during Eid to satisfy religious obligation.

We must, as the “honourable” citizens we like to think of ourselves as, be outraged that some are still fighting to be missed when they are dead, to hold pieces of paper that ensure the basic treatment at hospital if they fall ill, a basic education even if wont take them anywhere. We must be so outraged that this rage brings about change. We must refuse the social contracts we are in if they do not embrace those too poor, too weak, too scared to fight their way into our worlds – worlds in which we have become so blind that we are surprised to hear that some do not hold ID. I know someone who had their ID issued the same day it was requested while they were in a foreign country because they had the money and connections. Taghreed has spent ten years of her life being beaten and abused, travelling back and forth with money she has hated making and to no avail.

If you are reading this and know any way to help Taghreed get her ID without her father having to be there, without her parents having to be married, email me: nelly.ali@gmail.com – Taghreed and I need to hear from you. If you can’t, then tell everyone you know – tell them that before we concern ourselves with which hand to eat with so the devil doesn’t join us, we must extend that hand to those whose wrists are tied in chains, before we concern ourselves with never entering the toilet with our left foot, we must first concern ourselves with lifting the feet that step on the weak because their voices don’t make their way to our ears.

Taghreed once gave herself to a violent gang rape to save a new virgin on the street – the least that sort of loyalty deserves is ID.

Omar was shot through the heart? Street kids have hearts like us?!

So many of the kids on the streets know exactly what you want to hear from them. They eye you up, suss you out and in minutes they conjure up the story you are there to hear. They have to be this clever. Their survival depends on it.

I remember speaking with one journalist who told me she was in awe at a child who told her she had joined the protests in January 2011 because she cared about the country and wanted to bring political and social change. I knew the girl she was speaking about well. She didn’t give a crap about political change, simply because she didn’t understand what the word meant.

I got to know the girls over many months — not formal 30-minute visits or interviews, but I’d really got to know them, by clapping while they danced, sympathizing when they spoke in group therapy, by laughing at stories of the street, by cleaning wounds after self-harm. It was because I lived those stories I felt I could ask Taghreed, one of the girls on the street, why the kids were really there in the squares.

So we took our interview roles: Taghreed happily holding the mp3 recorder in one hand turning it over and amazed that in a bit she would be able to hear her own thoughts (she had asked me to buy her an mp3 recorder so she could speak to herself in it because she wanted to keep a diary but couldn’t read or write), and I took my interview position, holding her cheerful four-month baby who knew nothing but to smile all the time.

Many people to whom I tell the stories of the street girls comment that I must be strong to live and hear these stories. Every time I hear this I recall the ache in my heart at the smiles of the little babies — nothing pains me as much as the smiles. These little curves on the lips, the greatest manifestation of how equal we are, how painfully similar our starts are, how incredibly precious some smiles are to others because life is set out to break them, to give them nothing more to smile about.

And I hear Taghreed tell me about the revolution and the move the children who slept in Ramses Square made to Tahrir Square. She speaks of it as a migration, as if those little green, or what should be green, patches of land represent a city in their own right; a city with its children citizens, those kids without IDs, without shelter, without biological families and without protection.

Taghreed tells me that one child had come running to them in the great city of Ramses Square telling them that millions of people where in Tahrir. Two of her “married” friends (these are children who are 14, marriage and family makeup to street children are different to how we know them) decided it was best to join so they didn’t miss the greatest opportunity to steal mobile phones. She tells me this and laughs for ages saying she wonders what the reaction of journalists would be to the real reason why some children were there.

But she goes on to say “not all the children were there to steal though! It was just so fun! For so long people were telling us that the street was bad, that we had to get off the street, but suddenly everyone was on it, everyone in the country was in Tahrir, so we moved there from Ramses. People there spoke to us, fed us, joked with us, some even tried to teach us to read and write. We even slept next to all these people with their good smells. And we helped them too. When food ran out we told them where the cheapest places to get food were. We taught them the best ways to run away from the police. That is because our favorite game is Atari.”

When she saw a look of confusion on my face she explained: Police cars, we call them Atari, and we play all day running and hiding from them. But we all realized that the police in Tahrir were different, they didn’t waste time running after you, they just shot you instead.”

Her stories and analysis of what led the children to the place where all the action was weren’t sinister. All the reasons, even stealing mobile phones, were understandable and I could relate to having started to know the kids. However, two years later, the children’s answers to why they were taking part started the chills down my spine. The kids were speaking to my colleague Adel who had dedicated the last 18 years of his life working with the children. He looks down and tells me there’s been a change of tone, that he doesn’t know who’s been speaking to some of these children, but someone different has. The kids running around with Molotov bottles are asking him, “What worth does my life have? I want to die a martyr so that God could forgive me for all the bad things that I have done in this world. I want my death to mean something because my life didn’t mean anything. I want to die and have all those people in Tahrir talk about me, walk in my funeral. I want to die and have someone remember me, draw my face on the wall like all the others, so no, ‘baba’, I’m not afraid to die.”

The relation of the street children with the revolution has changed in the course of two years. However, it would still be a kind of romanticism to argue that children were at the front lines because they understood the meaning of revolt as a means to an end. The children, because they are children, are not to blame for the state of mind they are in when they take to the front lines.

What about 13-year-old Omar’s death? Omar, the little boy shot through the heart by the army that was meant to protect his borders against the enemy. Was he there to steal phones? No. Was he there because he wanted his little face etched in graffiti on the squares surrounding walls? No. Omar was shot because he was there. Omar was shot trying to earn an honest living off the streets that have become home to so many classes, religions, ages and ideologies. Omar was shot because he was in the way. But more than any other reason, Omar was shot because no one would be held accountable. Omar’s little heart took the bullet because some are too cowardly to hold those responsible accountable. This article is for all the Omars arrested and shot, just for being there because there was nowhere else safer for them to be.

Egypt and the Racial Distribution of Labour

You don’t need to be the sharpest tool in the box to realise how racist Egypt is, or how little the discourse of rights relating to race is embraced. I have not previously written about this because it is one of the very few things that make me ashamed to be a human being. Racism: an irrational, innate belief in superiority in oneself over another based on skin pigmentation.

I remember a Jamaican friend of mine in London in 2002 telling me that Egypt was the most beautiful country she’d ever been to, but that she would never go again because of how racist they were. I was shocked. Egypt? Racist? I thought that this girl must have just been very unlucky and had met one person who had said something about her beautiful colour and she’d taken it to heart. But Egypt, my favourite little fruit of Africa, surrounded by all my black brothers and sisters could never, yes never, be racist. Ten years later, however, I am sat in my balcony in Egypt typing this blog fuelled by my rage and disappointment not just because Egypt is, in fact, racist, but at the extent of this racism.

I went to find a quite spot in City Stars today, some café to write up my field notes – I am here in Egypt doing my PhD and doing some work with Street Kids in the meantime. Anyway, so I walked in to City Stars, minutes before they opened for the day. I had a quick chat with a black cleaner outside about the weather and about what a shame it was the person who had discovered air conditioning had not won some world-recognised prize. I then walked into Spinney’s (supermarket) and chatted to the three black cleaning staff about how empty the stores were early in the morning. I had just met four black people. That in it’s own right was strange for Nasr City. Nothing struck me as strange because just as many – and more – white(r) cleaning staff was around. I found my way to Cilantro and settled in. A group of ladies arrived at a nearby table. Again, I only noticed the black girl between them when I realised that when the food came, all the white women started to eat and she was standing with the baby by the door so that his moaning didn’t disturb them while they ate. I sat by the door that Mary was stood by, and we started to speak. We had a pleasant exchange, found out she was an Ethiopian refugee and that she would eat later at home because she didn’t want her employers to spend money on rich food like the food they served here.

I decided to pack my work up and do some other type of research. I walked into 35 shops. I found no black sales assistants. No black management. But during my walk from shop to shop, I met 6 more black cleaners. Why was there no racial equality in the division of the labour available to them? Was it purely a coincidence that the 9 black people I met today lacked the competencies to make them anything other than cleaners and maids? Let me make something totally clear. I have no qualms or issues with cleaning as a job. Be a cleaner, it’s a wonderful job that makes a lot of people’s experience of the world more pleasant. But why was the Nubian graduate of commerce sweeping the floor this morning? Why was Mary from Ethiopia, the law graduate a nanny to the Egyptian elite? Why were Sudanese men famous for being the average mans porter in Egypt? Why were the Nigerian women made to dress in white so you could segregate them as nannies and away from the elite in sports clubs? Why don’t I walk in to the clothes and accessories stores in City Stars and see black sales assistants? Why have I never walked into a hospital to be examined by a black doctor? Or shaken hands with a black engineer at Rehab? Or had my nails done by an African? It seems true, then, that it is the new stamp of status, class, and wealth to employ a black porter to open your door or a black maid to run errands during the day in the city’s scorching sun. We are a nation that will not embrace the minorities or afford them equal opportunities.

Every time, and without exception, when I show my wedding pictures to my family or friends in Egypt, someone must feel the urge to make some comment about pictures of my black friends in their superb coloured clothes. How many of you in Egypt been around a new-born and everyone in it’s family, the first things they are saying are around an examination of how white and beautiful, or black and ugly the baby is. And everyone laughs! What are they laughing at? That child, if the slightest bit dark skinned is doomed to a life of nasty comments from the family of why she/he were so unlucky they didn’t take after their fairer mum/dad.

We are a contradictory society on so many different levels. We claim to be a merciful, kind and religious society. 89% of Egyptians are reportedly Muslims. Despite the fact that I am constantly quoting from the Bible on twitter, I have, to many people’s surprise, read the Quran many times over. In Islam there are many Quranic verses and sayings from Mohammed that totally prohibit racism. Here are a few for the interested reader:

“O Mankind, we created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you in to tribes and nations so that you may know each other (not that you despise each other). Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is he who is most righteous of you.” (Al-Quran, Chapter 49, Verse 13)

And of Mohammed: “Allah does not look at your appearances or wealth but looks at your actions”

As for the 11% Christians in Egypt, they are no better. You would think being discriminated against in their own country they would have some mercy on those who were also a minority. But come on, be honest Christians, how many times have you heard someone from your family or your congregation say something along the lines of “she married a Sudanese man, but he’s white and handsome”. And here is what the bible has to say for racism:

Acts 10:34,35, NIV. “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right.'”

James 2:8-9, NIV. “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

My religious education class over. It needn’t even be a matter of religiosity. It is a humanitarian question. We are equal in Egypt in terms of the injustice the past and current regimes are subjecting us to. Yet it seems we are following the theory that suggests the oppressed become oppressors. And being oppressed by our governments we are turning to the weaker, the poorer and even turning to the equal but different to practice that oppression on.

It is so deeply rooted though. I switched the TV on once (this is always a very rare occasion for I hate the box set), and stood to watch in horror an advert for a product called “Fair and Lovely” that apparently, if applied twice a day over the period of a month, lightens your skin up to seven shades and apparently, as a result you are more beautiful and happier. I felt an acute need to throw up after watching this ad. I remembered reading a study of the poor in Egypt who do all sorts of horrible things to get money to afford skin brightening, lightening creams in hope to become more attractive and have higher chances of finding a husband.

The street kids I work with are mostly dark skinned children. There are two babies born to street mothers that are the favourites. It is no coincidence that they are the lighter skinned babies. They are bought out and shown to the ambassador’s wives when they visit, they get to wear the newer of the hand me down clothes that are donated and they are hugged and wooed the most. Does it not strike anyone that there are no fair skinned street kids? What is that saying about poverty and violence, abandonment and assault directed at the darker skinned kids? Why are they running away while the fairer skinned kids are resilient to poverty, able to deflect violence because they’re too cute to be beaten. These are the stories coming out of the shelters. It’s the elephant in the room. It’s the story that’s easier to dismiss. It’s the feelings that are uncomfortable to deal with.

One day, an old lady hit me with her handbag on the bus in London when I sat next to her. She called me a bloody foreigner. I’ve lived in London 32 years – that’s all my life – and that was the 3rd racist comment that was directed at me. Are there racists in London? Of course there are. But I want to bring my kids up in London because I want them to see a Black, White, Asian, Caucasian, Chinese cleaner, sales assistant, doctor, plumber, teacher. I want them to play in the park and take a picture like the one my best friend Dina sent me of her kids on a merry go round with almost every race represented in the faces of the children.

Do the majority of black people have chips on their shoulders? Of course they do. Just like the Christians and the poor. The “majority” has peeled that potato and have placed that chip nice and firmly on every shoulder so that at the slightest look or gesture they take offence. I’ll know this uprising has hope of becoming a revolution when I see companies take pride in recruiting minorities.

Till then, here’s to all the amazing black people I know, thank you for teaching me how to deal with my afro hair and just for being a standard part of my life. Race is an capricious label that has no legitimacy.

(Picture taken from Motley News and Photos)

Betting on Egypt

At the strangest of times when I am in London, I remember Egypt – and vice versa. I am sitting in anticipation, like millions of people around the globe, awaiting the announcement of the presidential elections. I am irritated that instead of thinking of what everyone else is thinking, I an entertaining silly thoughts, like, for instance, how the English love to bet on everything and that walking past Paddy Power shop windows, I would, no doubt, be seeing “Morsi vs. Shafiq” signs. It’s different in Egypt though; not just because betting is prohibited (at least in public), but also because when you bet, one thing happens and not the other. And, as any politically aware person will tell you, the two candidate’s running this presidential race are not set to “win” anything. Whoever is announced, as being 50.9% in the lead and the people who are inclined one way or the other, will not “win”. This is the first election between two runners up where someone entirely out of the competition is in the lead.

Hysteria is gripping anyone who is thinking politics. Normality and apathy are the lived experience of anyone whose life in Egypt is a daily struggle to put food on the table that they have forgotten what day of the week it is. Many are bored and just as many are angry without really understanding what the results will actually mean. What do I think? I think that the results will mean nothing at all in terms of political relevance. Either president, who will be doing the victory dance for going down in history as the 5th President of Egypt, will really be celebrating becoming the new mask for those who really are in power – the mask for the next few months (yes, I do not think that this one will last the four year term).

People have turned an eye from the Constitutional Declaration issued by SCAF recently and are concentrating on which area (Nasr City) or (Tahrir) will be pulling at the fireworks (a lucrative business this time of year). This is the same mistake we are guilty of repeating for the last 18 months. We are a bunch of people easily distracted – rumors, shootouts, parliament (yes, even parliament turned out to be a distraction too) and we are not focusing on the real game. We were even recently distracted by how Mrs. Morsi chooses to dress – this highlighted the acute inconsistency we suffer. It is important to note that Khalid Saeed’s mother, who the very same people look to with the utmost pride, wears the same attire. It was also a shame to see that the liberals fighting for civil freedoms were the same ones poking fun at her.

The rat race – oh sorry, the presidential race – is not entirely political. It has been an opportunity to highlight the social differences people are battling with in Egypt. While there are no official records of the election results, indications show that Morsi won the vast majority of Upper Egypt’s votes (mainly impoverished areas) and Shafiq won most the Delta’s large constituencies (the urbanized affluent who have material things to protect). While people are occupied with legitimacy, it is these differences and the underlying fears and motivations that interest me and should interest all those who care for the long term welfare of this country; because, even if the results are non representative, the incentive behind voting for one candidate over the other is more than relevant.

The position taken by the activists was confusing. The race saw the Social Revolutionaries back Morsi – they would have backed the devil if he was the only opponent to any one at all connected to the old regime, but later changed position once Morsi refused to withdraw his candidacy after Parliament got dissolved. Some supported Morsi out of principles and others were accused of selling out their revolutionary spirit because their hatred and mistrust for the Brotherhood blinded them, so much so, that they began seeing ex air force commander Ahmed Shafiq (with SCAF behind him) will be the guardian of a ‘civilian’ state.

So we sit here with the same feeling you have when you are in a hospital waiting room knowing that you will get bad news shortly, just not knowing how bad. The only thing that’s keeping my spirits up is Egypt’s history of having a “brush your self off and get up” culture. I’m betting today, not on the politics of Egypt, but on the people who’s kindness, generosity and humor are mentioned in every book I have ever picked up that has been written on this magical land.

** Nelly Ai is an anthropologist who teaches at the Institute of Education, University of London and Anglia Ruskin University in the UK. She is currently in Cairo for her PhD research and is an active observer and commentator on Egypt and the Arab World.

This article was originally published on Bikya Masr here: Betting on Egypt.

Egypt, the Elections and a Culture of Waste


Piece originally published in Bikya Masr. Egypt, the elections and a culture of waste.

Everyone in Egypt is playing the guessing game. Conspiracy theorists are of one opinion one day and another the next – a great indication that win by either candidate is a disaster to both the future of Egypt and to the revolution. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins, it is the end of a dream towards a secular state and a blow to the struggle towards equality. If Shafiq wins, then it’s the end of the freedom of expression and many of us will probably be rounded up, legally of course, and we will be sold the idea of stability at the price of civil freedom. There is currently one thing that is occupying my mind more than the question everyone is trying to guess the answer to, of whether Moursi, or Shafiq will win the current Egyptian Presidential Elections. This thing is: waste.

I cannot get over the idea of waste in the last 18 months since the start of our fight to overthrow the 60 year old dictatorship in Egypt. The waste of life is self-explanatory – those who died during these months were peaceful protestors, mostly young with many dreams of a future with the most basic of rights demanded. They were part of a wider group of people that were counted in millions. Killing these hopefuls did not curb the numbers. The oppressors we are still fighting today wasted these precious people’s lives. But this is not the waste I am speaking of today. I am writing about material waste – money, time and opportunity. We have had, in the last 18 months, 3 occasions where the people of Egypt were granted official days off approved by governments which were not approved by the people and millions of scarce Egyptian pounds spent on campaigns, on the process – only to be told a few months later that their vote actually did not mean all that much and either the result was invalid or they were voting for something unconstitutional etc.

We were all proud in March 2011 when the queues for votes were longer than the queues for bread. I am not sure who went out counting either queue, but we were proud, nonetheless, and we saw this as the first fruit of democracy that we were reaping. People watched closely and began to lose focus as we started to lose understanding of how these votes were being used. The constitution; which the referendum was about got beaten and baked into a completely sour dish and not the cake people were expecting. Then, last winter, 9 months after the referendum, perhaps this is the length of time for Egyptians to get over their disappointments and forget, a huge Parliamentary campaign began for candidates whom we have never seen the faces of before. I was part of one of these campaigns. I was not advocating a party or a particular candidate; I was tagging along networking and grabbing the chance to visit parts of Egypt for my own PhD research. Again, all I could think of was “waste”.  Other than the obvious mishap this is for real democracy, whatever that term actually means, what angers me the most is the amount of wasted money in a country whose economy has been crippled by the uprising! I’m here doing research with street kids for my PhD. One of the most reputable organizations, Hope Village who does phenomenal work with these kids for the last 24 years has seen its donations fall by 50 % over the last year!

Everyone was complaining about the “wheel of production” (which, by the way, no one speaks of now since this wheel is not being touched by protestors any longer) and that Egypt was at the brink of a devastating economic fall. And here were candidates who spent millions for a chance of gaining and securing more votes in constituencies they knew nothing of, candidates who burnt their own campaign offices to create negative press for their opponents. The vote resulted in a parliament that was non-representative of the people and definitely not representative of the whole population – one look and you could not find Wally – where were the Copts? Where were the women? Actually, stop, where were the representatives of the revolution – and I am talking about the all the revolutionary youth, including the Muslim Brotherhood revolutionary youth? They were scattered and weak in numbers, weak in power and weak in support. If this was not enough to dampen the spirits of the voters who tuned into their TV sets to the embarrassment of a Parliament with no political experience, with no history of debate of compromise flooded their sets, then what did flood their enthusiasm was a ruling, backed by SCAF, 6 months later, which saw the entire parliament dissolved, as being unconstitutional. People were quick to call this a smooth military coup – umm, where were you on the 11th February 2012 when the smoothest of military coups was taking place?

This was all after the voters had taken their third leap of faith and gone out, again in millions, to vote for the next president. Here came the waste of opportunity. The final results showed that a vote for the “revolutionary” candidate’s far outweighed those that went for the votes towards fake stability (or candidate’s that had ties to the old regime). Now my question is, why did they not unite? Why were no coalitions formed, when four out of the twelve, yes twelve, candidates were revolutionary leftists?! And now we wait to see which twist of fate awaits us, for in Egypt, there is no logical sequence of events, it seems that the results, just like constitutional declarations are “divine” and cannot be predicted.

So here we are here awaiting the results of our wasted opportunities, we are kept busy by conspiracy predictions (did you know that a case that may see the Muslim Brotherhood declared void as a political party and have their assets confiscated was adjourned to September this year?) And of course, we are kept more then occupied with rumors. Do you have any idea, reader, how many times Hosni Mubarak died in the last fortnight?!

Even if we are to assume best intentions of all involved, Egypt today is in a complete political mess. I abstained. I boycotted – and, may I add, I did so proudly. I said it before, I will say it here for the record: voting for Moursi was like amputating the legs and arms of the revolution; voting Shafiq was like giving it a shot in the brain, close range. Depending on your views on Euthanasia, you would have voted. Personally, I don’t think we should have either maimed or killed the revolution. I believe that all things worthwhile take time, and we should be willing to sacrifice during this time and fight for a tomorrow that we may not live to see, but one which we would be proud of creating for generations to come, as long as we are insisting on bring them into this world.

Judges Holding Grudges


Sometimes it seems appropriate that the title “Judges” should be changed to “Lawdges” (don’t try to look this word up, it doesn’t exist – yet). It’s time we added it though, to our dictionaries as a way of keeping up with the changing times. When the word “judge” came to our vocabulary it meant to provide “justice”. This is no longer what the judges in Egypt provide. They occupy courts of law (at their best), and not courts of justice, and, as such, “Lawdges” seems a much more appropriate title.

When the execution of the law becomes unpredictable, it’s nerve wrecking. Committing a crime and getting caught, waiting for the proportionate punishment that you subconsciously calculate, is not as terrifying as the anxiety you suffer when the law and the personnel that execute it are unpredictable. That’s what’s wrong with Egypt today for the activists; unpredictability. The recent unrest in Egypt is ignited by different events and during the aftermath of each of the tragedies that the country has witnessed has always included and ended with questions of cleansing the judiciary of corruption. The photograph above is of a sign hung up in Tahrir Square on many Fridays saying: “The People Want Purification of the Judiciary”.

Illustrative Case 1: Maikel Nabil

Maikel Nabil Sanad, Egypt’s first prisoner of conscience after the revolution, was arrested on 4 February by military police and tortured, but released 27 hours later and again arrested from his home in Cairo at 10pm on 28 March 2011 for a blog he wrote titled “The army and the people were never one hand” – a slogan that the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets chanting for months later. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on charges of “insulting the military. It was no coincidence that Maikel was singled out. In April 2009, he founded the “No to Compulsory Military Service Movement”. Maikel demanded that he be exempted from military service after declaring his conscientious objection and as a consequence was arrested on 12 November 2010, also by the military police. He was released two days later and finally exempted from military service, but on medical grounds.

Maikel Nabil’s trial, like most others relating to the same conviction, was void of many of the international legal guarantees of a fair trial. There is no appeal against a military court’s judgment for any of the violations to be rectified. It is imperative that Egypt addresses its human rights violations if it is to provide its people with the climate necessary for progress and if it is to fulfill the guarantees it has given in every human rights instrument, which it has signed and ratified. This is perfectly summarized in the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch in their 2002 report on Egypt: “Abolish Military Order No. 4 of 1992 and seek regular legislative approval of all new laws, or amendments to existing laws, that the government considers necessary to protect the security of Egyptian citizens. Ensure that all trials conform to international standards of fair trial, including granting the defense adequate time to prepare their defense and ensuring that the defense is granted full and prompt access to all relevant court documentation at every stage of the proceedings. · Amend Article 80(d) of the Penal Code to bring that law into compliance with international human rights treaty law protecting freedom of expression and the rights to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Abolish the Supreme State Security Court and all other extraordinary courts, and insure that all Egyptian courts meet basic international fair trial standards, including by guaranteeing a right to appeal to a higher judicial body. Propose new legislation that grants legal recognition and guarantees full independence to non-governmental associations.”


As the regular six protestors stood outside the Military Prosecutors, better known as C28, news came from Maikel Nabil’s lawyer, Amir Salem, that the judges had given Maikel an ultimatum. He came out of court frustrated telling us the verdict would be postponed for the third time. The judges told Maikel that they were willing to pass a verdict of pardon should he accept logging on to his blog and publishing a public apology. Steadfast in his conviction that he had done nothing wrong, Maikel refused and the judges holding grudges, sent him back to El Marg Prison and a rehearing planned for the 14th December. There are no laws in Egypt that result in pardon when a criminal “apologizes”. The frustrations at the unpredictability of the law here drove Maikel to escalate his hunger strike to include medications and liquid.

Illustrative Case 2: Alaa Abdel-Fatah

Alaa, one of the most prominent and level headed revolutionaries, was released Christmas morning pending further investigations for 15 crimes attributed to him, the most serious including inciting secular violence and stealing weapons from army personnel. While he was missed during his time in prison, his smiling photos made their way around twitter and news channels. His smile, one confidence of having not done wrong, and his heart breaking letters to his wife after she gave birth with him inside to his first son, touched the hearts of those who knew him and those who had just read about him each time his 15 days were renewed.

Manal and unborn baby Khaled had held on. Alaa wanted to be there by Manal as she was giving birth to their first baby. Named after Khaled Saeed, the little baby was the product of a decision his parents had made during the 18 days of revolution in 2011. Manal and Alaa had at last felt this was a world they would not feel guilty having a baby in. Every hearing Alaa’s family had hoped he would be released and would be able to attend the birth. The judges postponed every hearing ensuring that Alaa would miss it. Alaa’s smuggled posts out of prison spoke of his fear when he realized how unpredictable, how random, how unfair the trial was. Both military and civilian courts ignored international human rights organisations pressure for the release of Alaa due to a lack of evidence and because of a multitude of witnesses and evidence proving his innocence. And true to the expectations of those who noticed the pattern, Alaa was given leave the hearing after Khaled was born.


Whether or not the charges against Alaa are dropped, the judges holding grudges against Alaa took away something they knew he ached for; in his own words to his wife, “to see your face as you see Khaled’s face for the first time”. The good news is that unlike the people who lost their sons and fathers in this revolution, Khaled would grow up knowing his father and living amongst the revolutionary family of which he is part.

Illustrative Case 3: Mohammed Jamal

Political activist Mohamed Jamal, member of a coalition of committees defending the revolution, was murdered 21 January 2012 at dawn, in front of the High Court, while he was on his way home after a protest in front of the public prosecutor’s office demanding judiciary reform. Mohamed is reported to have left the protest at 4am after organising more marches calling for judiciary independence leading up to bigger protests 25 January. Only minutes after leaving his friends, he returned to the sit-in in front of the public prosecutor’s office bleeding of a stab wound. He fell dead pointing towards the High Court. The murder was recorded against anonymous.


On the same day, political activist Kareem Abo Zed, member of the revolution coalition in Algharbya governorate, died in an accident on the desert road, on his way to El Menya governorate to attend the 2nd Conference of Egypt’s revolutionaries. No murderers were arrested and the coincidence between the deaths of two activists calling for peaceful demonstrations was not investigated. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said that “The government is the body responsible for the safety of citizens, and its failure to bring the perpetrators to justice is considered to be collusion”.

The judiciary has so far been unaffected, despite the challenges and efforts of those working to raise awareness of the need for reform. The continued protests, related murders and accidents indicate that till the need for cleansing is addressed with urgency, integrity and transparency, then Egypt will see a continued increase of cases that raise a multitude of question marks and grievances that cannot easily continue to be ignored.

Flags of Loyalty: The Football Massacre


“Some people think that football is a matter of life and death; I think they are stupid. Football is far more serious a subject than that!” Those were the words of Bill Shankley. You will often find them in the humorous quotes section. But I found no quote more appropriate to start off this post after the recent events in Egypt where 13,000 home fans stormed the football pitch in Port Said armed with knives and machetes claiming the lives of 74 young men.

Loyalty to country and to football club! These are the two loyalties in Egypt which cross sectarian, social and class structures. The main flag and the sub flags. But it was still hard to write about football, fans, revolution and death all in one post. It wouldn’t have readily occurred to me what they all had in common. However, links between football and politics are not new – some more serious than others and some more deadly than others. Egypt is not unique in this. Keeping aside the difference in detail and circumstance, one only needs to remember the infamous Winnie Mandela’s United Football Club and their bloodthirsty rhetoric in South Africa. Winnie’s bittering relationship with the Mass Democratic Movement in the 1980’s involved the conflict centered largely by her infamous Mandela United Football Club.

Coincidentally, the Port Said disaster took place on the first anniversary of the camel battle of Mubarak’s loyalists into Tahrir Square. It made the seventy-four deaths personal to those holding not only the football team flag but also the flag seen at the top; the flag held over and above. The ultras had used their experience confronting police at matches to play a significant role in defending Cairo’s Tahrir Square – the heart of the Egyptian uprising – against Mubarak’s security forces. Many on the streets saw the deaths of the Ahly Ultras as punishment for their role in the revolution and not an unfortunate accident.

Tahrir Square once again became the home of the angry, the bereaved and the helpless. Rivals Ahly and Zamalek put hostilities aside and fans stood side by side once again at the frontlines. They marched from outside their respective clubs to Tahrir and, faithfully, Egypt demonstrated its solidarity. Again the square made its calling and again it claimed more lives – at least four more people were killed on Friday and the Ministry of Health announced around 1500 injured between Wednesday and Friday.

[“Facing the Tear Gas” Moment perfectly captured by @lilianwagdy flic.kr/p/bo7zHx]

The lack of security has been at the centre of public debate since the overthrow of Mubarak. It has been the reason the silent majority has remained silent; in hope that quietening the revolution would have it returned. But, subsequent disorder, from attacks on Coptic churches to the abductions, robberies and muggings, has been seen as characteristic of deeply uncertain times. Whether or not the Port Said massacre was deliberately coordinated should not be the focus. The truth of why this happened may always remain unknown, but how it happened is clear: in a city where the head of security was changed four days before the match, in an audience that did not include any officials, 6000 men, without tickets, were allowed into stadiums with weapons, doors were closed on an unarmed crowd, and as a result 74 young men were stabbed and crushed to death.

Whether the conspiracy theorists have, or haven’t got it right, responsibility for the Port Said events should lay with those who claim responsibility for the countries safety and security. Failure to acknowledge this, on the part of the government or the people, poses further threat to the future of Egypt’s stability. The police know, from past events, that they will not have to answer for the fatalities. The massacre and the lack of responsibility raise grave issues of competence, accountability and trust. Political crime or football riot, the consequences will have a big part to play in the fast paced shifting of Egypt’s political landscape.

The Other Side of the Wall is Where we Come From

It is difficult being on the other side. Whether that’s on the other side of the world, watching the news of Egypt, where I was less than a month ago; or on the other side of the walls the army are building in a futile attempt to create a barrier between them and their own.

[picture taken by Hossam ElHamalawy @3arabawy]

But the wall in Mohammed Mahmoud came down. By the sheer strength of their anger, the depth of their frustrations, the unreasonableness of their oppression and by the roughness of their hardworking, but bare hands, the wall came down. Nothing surprising was on the other side of the wall – just a reaffirmation of different loyalties. No difference in creed, race or religion that has often caused the building of such walls – just a difference in “sides”. Honored to be taking side with the people, their numbers increased through the night, through daybreak, through the following day. The people torn between keeping their fight for freedom “Selmeya” (peaceful), constrained between the invisible lines of Tahrir Square, or not, they moved in their thousands towards the Ministry of Interior chanting, angry, demanding justice. Justice… a word whose flames have been repeatedly put out in Egypt by the suffocating hand of the law.

SCAF are digging the hole they have sunk themselves in deeper and deeper with every statement they make after a tragedy that comes at their hands, whether directly or indirectly. As the mothers whose sons had gone to watch the football match stood outside the Ahly club hysterical, desperate to know if their children would be coming home that night, the Field Marshall was “deeply regretting” events (though I thought a prerequisite of regret was a decision not to repeat behaviour), and telling the nation that the victims will be considered amongst the revolutions injured and martyred (a direct confession of SCAF’s responsibility) and that their families will receive financial compensation (as if this is why they had gone to the match).

The broken hearts that were watching the events were having salt rubbed into those wounds. SCAF’s insensitivity, lack of responsibility, blood and power hunger was breathing down the necks of those fighting for freedom, fighting for bread and fighting for human dignity. The Ministry of Interior and SCAF seem determined to prove they really are one hand – one hand against the people. A war of attrition that costs us, this side, much. A war of wills that no doubt the people will win. My heart breaks at the price of that victory, but my pride swells that I was once part of that world. I have faith in the side I’m taking.

Police have just erected another concrete block wall on Mansur Street. I wonder what it is they hope to block out? The cracks in the wall betray betrayal and those on the other side can see through them, magnified by the hundreds, the corruption they stand there to protest. Those who give orders to protect the ministry are so far removed from the reality of the people’s demands. The people do not want to storm the ministry! They are protesting there because it is the police head quarters. It is there that over the years, the people who have held office have failed to protect the people. Not only failed to protect them but have often been the very cause of their torture and their abuse. What wall will keep the people away? In this war of attrition, in this war of wills, the will to freedom and the will to justice will win.

On my side of the geographical wall, via twitter, I continue to watch my friends bravely take to the street, confused as to where to go, what to chant or who to trust. They take to the street to protect what they had planted there last January. They go to protect the lack of fear, to protect the fight, to protect the dreams. Dreams that water hoses could not drown, visions that tear gas could not smother and hopes that bullets could never kill.

The Blind and the Blindfolded: Why I wont be Celebrating Jan 25th

Blood is often not given time to dry in Egypt before the betrayal of authority and the silence of the majority begins. It’s because both have not been close enough to smell that blood, to have it splattered on them while they help those braver than they are, to have pleaded for it to stop the death of a friend, to stare at it dried on the clothes they were wearing when attempting to be more influential than the laws of the universe. They betray that which has not hurt them, and that which has not been directly relevant. They forget the closeness of those who have.

There is much that revolution steals from the country it comes to free. 2011 is proof.

The very first day of the year the Two Saints Church saw a bombing that cost the Coptic community around 40 of its congregation celebrating the New Year. The Muslims came out in their thousands condemning the act, that the betrayal was not in their name. Then, 7th January, the Orthodox Christmas saw churches in Egypt surrounded by Muslims holding hands making sure the Christians felt safe inside the churches if not their country. Some say that how this catastrophe was dealt with is worthy of celebration. That this is how the Egyptian come together in distress and show the best of solidarity.

These shows of solidarity are always moving, always necessary and always temporary.

The events of this year moved at a pace too fast for anyone to stop at any one disaster; too fast for those who needed sympathy over the loss of a loved one to receive it before they found they had to be offering it to someone else with a more recent loss. There was a revolution in the winds that blew over Egypt. There was a freedom that would be taxed. The angel of death this year was the tax collector, demanding the debt on a freedom over due to be paid, by the young. And all year Egypt’s bravest were paying the price for generations that had lived and died on the land without ever questioning why it was embedded so deeply in their conscience that they did not deserve the rights so many had lost lives struggling for in other parts of the world.

I go through a continuum between rage and cringing when I hear people speaking of their plans for “celebrating” the coming 25th January. My immediate response is: celebrating what? Celebrating the death of hundreds of Egyptians killed at the hands of those who were meant to be protecting them? Celebrating the humiliation of those arrested/kidnapped by the forever present men of Mubarak’s regime? Or are you celebrating the good aim of the officers who blinded your youth? Perhaps you are celebrating the beatings of elderly women? No? That’s not what you’re celebrating?

Freedom maybe? Celebrating the 12,000 men, women, children on military trials? Thinking that freedom exists on the side of prison bars in which they sleep. As long as freedom fighters spend the night on the cold asphalt the other side of the bars we’re on, then we are not free. If we think we are, then we have not only deceived ourselves, but have betrayed those inside, whose only hope is that we remember them and don’t let go of the fight still waiting to be fought.

At any celebratory event in this age, we usually see a display of photographic shots that capture the essence of the journey towards that moment of triumph we’re celebrating. Which of these pictures will fill the square?

The one of the soldiers dragging the dead into the rubbish piles?


The one of the Blue Bra Girl


The one of the two old women beaten by the army while they crouch unarmed on the floor?


The one of the soldiers urinating on the protestors?


But even if these aren’t the pictures you’ll be using, even if you use the ones where the people are giving the army roses in February, then you are putting on display pictures that capture betrayal of the confidence obviously misplaced.

I’ll be first to wrap my hips and dance in celebration of this revolution when I don’t hear of hundreds unable to find gas for their homes, when they don’t stand hours for their share of bread when my fellow citizens are not more concerned why I was protesting than what I was protesting for. I will ululate when the execution of the law is predictable and reliable. When there is social justice and I am respected for my humanity then I will draw the posters of celebration myself.

The Egyptian flags that will be raised in triumph “celebrating” this revolution will not be big enough or bright enough to cover the blood and shame of killing the unarmed innocent, not big enough to cover up the lack of reason for locking away the brave who risk and give up much to say “NO!” to injustice. Those who lost their lives fighting for this revolution died for something we still haven’t had a taste of; were blinded and blind folded to give it life and hope. What they exchanged their lives, limbs, eyes and freedom for has still not been delivered, the deal has not yet been sealed. Only one side has paid and so as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing yet to celebrate.

Egypt: The Thugs That Nursed Me

“Please mind the Gap”. I haven’t heard that in months. I’ve been away from London long enough to have forgotten what is perhaps one of the city’s most famous phrases. My mind holds on to those words for a few minutes thinking about the safety London Underground are trying to afford me. I smile as a silly thought comes to my mind: if it had been the English tear gassing us during a protest, they would probably have prepared megaphones “please mind the tear gas canisters” repeated over and over again.

It feels quite surreal being here. Egypt and my experience there seems a life time away. The people I met and the circumstances we met in feel like some one else’s life. Here I meet people at coffee shops, libraries, Universities, conferences. In Egypt I was making the closest friends outside military prosecutors, dodging rubber and live bullets, carrying the injured, dying and dead, sharing sparse water during sit ins and sometimes in coffee shops having met off twitter. I made friends in Egypt from Cairo to Sohag. I lived a million life times during those few months and I took away with me so much experience and memories, so many laughs and tears, enough to last me this life time and more.

On New Year’s eve, I introduced my dear friend Ghali to a friend from London “meet Ghali, the first time we met was outside the Military Prosecutors.” I wanted to say more but I couldn’t remember which one of the civilians being tried by the military we were standing in solidarity with. This wasn’t the most bizarre introduction. Previously there had been “the first time I met Nelly, I was holding her head as she was vomiting after her first taste of tear gas in June” and there’s also Asmaa who I always introduce as the girl who threw herself in front of me as a tear gas canister was coming my way, the same girl I literally lifted out of Mohammed Mahmoud St when the shooting began. This is how you’re introduced to a different type of friend in Egypt. And I wasn’t even one of the brave ones. I sit on the platform in Euston Square now and I wonder how people like Alaa, Amr, Islam and hundreds of others introduce their 2011 friends.

The most significant of these friends and those who I dedicate this post to, are the thugs that nursed me. I remember the first day I went to Tahrir during a confrontation between the central security forces and the protestors; the night of June 28th. I sat at home watching the news of protestors being gassed by the CSF and that thugs were on motorbikes hurting people and stealing from them. I went on twitter and my timeline was filled with calls for revolutionaries to make their way to Tahrir. This call was to protect each other through our numbers. I saw that Lilian Wagdy was calling for people in Nasr City to meet at the Holiday Inn at 2am and we’d leave together. I called Asmaa ElHadary, who I’d met only once before at the Maspero sit in earlier this month and told her I’m going and to meet me there with Lilian.

Being the organised person I am, I packed my backpack with a phone charger, blanket, vinegar bottles and as much tissue as I could fit in. I got into what I thought was suitable clothes and left my flat to a very quite and empty street. No taxi’s were in sight. I hadn’t thought of this and I still didn’t know my way around Cairo well enough to know alternatives or if it was safe enough to walk to the Holiday Inn (funny isn’t it that I’m thinking of safety when I am going to a site of violent confrontation, but you do). I saw a taxi on the other side of the road quite far from where I was, I quickly put my fingers on my rolled tongue and whistled so loud I actually surprised myself! I remembered all the hours spent in the balcony with my guy cousins teaching me to whistle and being told off that I needed to be more feminine. I was glad today I never gave into that. The taxi driver waved out of the window in acknowledgement and drove round. I jumped in and he asked where I was going. I told him. He drove me to the Holiday Inn and wouldn’t let me out till the others got there so I don’t stand on my own and wouldn’t take a penny in solidarity. I found this incredible. I had missed this spirit in January/February and felt privileged I was being given a chance now. Lilian, her mother and Asmaa turned up and we got into another cab. We bought a box of bottled water and made our way to Tahrir. The streets were eery quiet today. Tahrir seemed like another country with another culture and law unto its own. As soon as we got close we could smell the tear gas, the remains of the smoke from earlier attacks was lingering around; a grey witness of aggression. Mixed in the smokey air, you could smell the sweat of bravery also.

We got out and the water bottles were devoured within a minute buy men whose eyes were watery, rimmed red. There was a police car that was circling the square. An officer was speaking through the megaphone saying: “You want the press to see what we’re doing? We’ll fuck you here first you sons of a bitch before they come”. We caught this on video.

I instantly felt afraid. When the people who are meant to protect you speak with such vengence against you, what hope of safety do you have? What hope of justice can you disillude yourself with? But I quickly realised that this call for solidarity was the best thing. As our numbers grew, the megaphone profanity stopped. Things seemed calm and everyone decided to stay in the square to protect those who weren’t leaving. We spent a few hours sitting around, people getting to know each other, exchange stories of violations witnessed. During the calm a few songs were sung, “Yahabebty Yamasr” (Egypt My Love) and a few patriotic poems. It was like we were being charged with patriotism for what was to come. Alaa was here (always at the front lines), he was telling us that this was a revolution, that he was hopeful, that what was happening today convinced him that we had to be optimistic, that we would win. The only thing that broke the calm were a few rumours every so often that thugs with swords were storming down and everyone would scream out “Selmiya Selmiya” (peaceful, peaceful).

What struck us all were the “thugs”. These men on motorbikes worked throughout the night and early hours of the morning. Two men on each machine going right to the front lines of the confrontation at Mohammed Mahmoud to pick up the casualties that the ambulances would not dare go in to get, place the casualty between them, take them out to the ambulances that were parked in their tens by the metro station exist and back again. They had nothing to drink, to eat and no time to rest. They faced the tear gas, the bullets the canisters and there was nothing else that provided any of us with any comfort other than that these “thugs” would have our back if anything would happen to us.

My first taste of tear gas came as one of the canisters landed just cm’s away from my foot. It was chocking. You cannot understand the contraction of the throat and the panic unless that evil white smoke raked its way up your nostrils, in your eyes, blasting itself unwelcomed through your mouth right to the back and down till it rests in the pit of your stomach. I gagged. I stood at the corner and vomited like I’ve never done and one of the “thugs” came to me and held my head hard (one of the old myths I think that if someone holds you this way they’ll stop you getting a headache, or something). He encouraged me to keep going, threw water on my face and as soon as I was done, he cursed that there was no vinegar.

Having remembered my bottles of vinegar I took them out and was quickly positioned a little before the ambulances so as to act as a filtering for the cases and help those who came out suffering the choking effects of the tear gas. It’s amazing how people organise themselves in such sophisticated ways during these situations. It was fascinating how you didn’t really notice yourself thinking about any of it, you just “do” as does everyone else to complete a task. I suddenly had tens more pieces of cloth to spill the vinegar on, someone else next to me with water and a full, functional working relationship to ease pressure off the ambulances.


There was a young guy who couldn’t make it towards us after having just come away from the front lines and collapsed on the ground. I decided to run to him to drag him to the side so that when the next tear gas bomb was thrown and everyone ran back he wouldn’t be crushed. But I went in too late. The next canister was thrown and just missing us, it hit another guy; right through the mouth and out the other side. There was chaos. He died.

That was the closest I have ever been to death, mine or someone else’s. I’m not sure if the tears flowing were tears of fear and anger or if they were just a reaction to the tear gas. Hysteria was the enemy now and I could feel it creeping up. It can make you piss yourself in terror or it could kill all fear. It did the latter and you somehow find the people that hysteria has had the same effect on. We decided to go forward and call the guys back. We didn’t know what we were fighting for and the throws were getting closer and the bullets had started. We went in in our hundreds chanting “Erga3, Erga3” (Come back, Come back). We weren’t allowed anywhere near the front. The guys there who had also been labelled “thugs”, pushed us back desperately, labelling us “the Facebook lot” they wanted to protect us saying we were the only hope of saying the truth and what we saw and not allow the state media to fabricate stories of what had happened here that night. We were literally pushed back.

Then the stomping started. I didn’t understand it. I had never been to anything like this and I didn’t understand what everyone was doing. The sound of hundreds of people holding rocks and stomping against lamp stands and metal fences is harrowing. My heart was thumping inside my chest and I was sure it would escape my terrified body and jump out. A guy gave me a rock and said “hit the fence!!! Hit it hard!!!” I did. With all my might. There was no time for questioning. I trusted everyone here and they told me to stomp, then that’s exactly what I was going to do. I later understood there were three reasons for the stomping. The first was so the CSF would realise our numbers, so that we called for help from those around the area and for adrenaline. The chants did the same, the thundering sound of “Elsha3b Yoreed Eskaat Elmosheer” (the people want the fall of the Field Marshal) were not to be forgotten. The chants engraved an echo inside you. Sounds that would ring in my ears for weeks to come. For today, the chants were met by more tear gas.

In Mohammed Mahmoud St itself, a boy of about 8 years old was seen flying across from pavement to pavement having been kicked by one of the CSF. The guy who kicked him was cornered by the revolutionaries into a store, beaten and his shields taken off him. It was the biggest humiliation for him and it was cool water to scorched dignity. It wasn’t the right thing to do in hindsight. At the moment, it was the only thing to do. The state TV later bought images of the CSF personnel getting beaten but no commentary of why or what he had done was seen.

We saw a group of men and women in white coats. The doctors had come out in solidarity. This bought much comfort to us in the square. June was still a time that saw the doctors protected. We were so organised that we took rounds. When things calmed a little some of us left the square to get something to drink (I was introduced to a drink I later became addicted to, Enaab. The ice and the sugar were soothing in the heat that was beginning to scorch us – a taste I associated with comfort after trials for many months after). We went to charge our phones, went to get some perspective, lose some perspective and then go back again. I met Ahmed Fouda who’s alarm went off at 5am, he laughed sarcastically saying that he was meant to be getting up to study for his exam that started in a few hours. He’d been with us all night. We got word from the pharmacies that they were selling medicines we needed in Tahrir for half price in solidarity. On our way in and out of the square we were subjected to much abuse by passers by. Some spat at us, some swore. They were blaming us for the lack of work and lack of stability in the country. This threw me. People in the square were fighting for them, for their dignity, for their safety. It was a slap in the face but one that wasn’t going to hold us back now, but definitely one that would need much discussion later. The night had passed and the day light broke and hundreds of Egypt’s bravest men were injured and today one died. All night on twitter people were following and a new group of people were coming to replace us in the morning. They did. One of the guys, Olva Tito, arrived around 11am, he got shot with a rubber bullet in the neck within minutes of arriving. June was still a time your eyes were safe.


Everyone knew there was no going home today . This was definitely going to turn into a sit in and a long one. As we tried to find some shade from the sun that was now betraying us, I heard one man say to Asmaa “I’ve lived a chicken all my life, I want to die a man, if not a martyr, at least I die a man!”. The next Friday was a big one. It was a tribute to the “thugs”… People had painted on their arms and faces and wore stickers that read “I’m a thug and proud”. Little babies had stickers on their clothes saying “Thug in the making”.

It hurt to see, during the past months, the classism that had become so unashamed. The poor whose appearance betrayed their social class as working were bizarrely labeled thug and automatically a cause for concern and somehow their appearance and social class allowed the police and military to pick them up and try them as criminals. Months later Belal Fadl was on a TV show and said: “go to Tahir and ask people there what they want, they’ll spend at least 15 minutes speaking to you about politics. Have you ever met a thug who has political demands? The real thugs seemed in sync with SCAF, let out during the protests and sit ins and bought back in during the elections later in the year. SCAFs continued underestimation of the people’s intelligence was cringeworthy.

Having come back to London and having time to reflect, here’s to the thugs that nursed us in Tahrir that day, those who protected the entrances on other days and who were at the front lines every time. The world would be a much better place if it were full of people like you.


Kafr Elzayaat – Where Women Don’t Hang The Clothes To Dry

They say the delta of Egypt is where She gets her life. It may be true; but it’s not where She necessarily gets her freedom. I came to Kafr Elzayaat on my second trip as part of the election campaign, that I have joined, in a bid to see a different side to Egypt while out here doing my research with street children; one I would otherwise not have access to. I took off on this road trip trying to see the delta with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by my awe of Upper Egypt and all the things it changed in me. But, it was hard to step back and embrace it objectively. I admit I had to remind myself often to make space within me for the beauty and pain that this place might reveal.

The road was new. This road didn’t pass through the agricultural Egypt, instead, it cut through the desert. Unlike the air that was thick with human stories in Upper Egypt, the air here carried a guilt of sudden death. Is was one of the most dangerous roads in Egypt, claiming a large number of lives every year. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who died on this road. Mostafa also was not the same. The animated man full of stories of struggle and hope was tired. He was being pulled thinly across Egypt in different directions. He hadn’t slept for days, started taking heavy painkillers every few hours and was starting to taste the sting of criticism as he gathered both supporters and critics. We temporarily swapped roles on this journey. But as soon as we arrived and our hosts welcomed us, I was amazed at where he gathered all the strength from. He was back! Optimistic, faithful in delivering his message and sincere in his support for the people he met.

The man running for elections in this constituency was a character that filled me with such a strong compulsion to create a caricature of him or one of those flick books to capture how comically serious he was and how quickly he spoke and moved. You could almost see the ideas fly by in is mind and you had to be super quick to catch up with both his thoughts and words. I loved him and didn’t believe a word he said all at the same time! His optimism was endearing but his lack of awareness or conversation about anything other than how many votes he was sure of securing made me wonder if he was the best candidate for this part of Egypt. I felt we should have carried a responsibility away with us to take back and talk about, write about and fight for. This man was not going to give us the humanistic tour or answer questions about neither struggle or needs.

The generosity we we’re offered in this home matched that of Upper Egypt and the food was delicious! We had already eaten and tried to explain we couldn’t possibly eat now but it was almost like those were words that did not make up any part of the vocabulary of an Egyptian home and all that was said was “That is not my concern”! So we sat and ate.

After the food I started to learn what I had come here to learn. About women. Where were the women? While Mostafa was taken to a separate part of the Villa to change his clothes, I was introduced to Nadia (her real name has been changed for her privacy). A very beautiful 27 year old who opened the door to greet me. She stood behind the door gracefully in a long white and sky blue Abbaya, earrings that were so big and heavy I was in awe at how she didn’t have to bend over to carry them. She was white with the blackest hair sleekly brushed back from her face and she wore grey contact lenses that I was sure hid even more beautiful eyes. Nadia greeted me with the smile of an old friend and started chatting straight away, even before I sat on the very modern beige and cream couch, about my marital status and why I wasn’t married till now?! I loved her instantly.

A few minutes later I was “called for” (it felt like I was called for by my master which irritated me from the “messenger”) by Mostafa. I went over to where he was dressed (very smartly may I add) and he, with a very embarrassed look on his face said: “I’m really sorry Nelly, I didn’t know, but no women are coming to the conference. You’re not going to be able to join us”. He seemed more irritated than I felt and so I decided not to express my outrage immediately. But at the same time this was relevant. This spoke more about this candidate who had earlier left out the most important stories of the place. His second mistake quickly evident; his marginalising the women who were going out to vote in a couple of weeks. It was crazy.

What struck me as surprising was the comparison to my recent visit to Sohag. Sohag, a part of Upper Egypt, known for its conservatism, and it’s need for gender equality awareness seemed to be years ahead in terms of their involvement of women in the political scene. So much so that in my post about Sohag, I very naively did not mention that the 1000 strong crowd was half women and that a woman from the constituency was running for elections! Today this seemed significant and very worthy of celebrating and mentioning.

While Mostafa went to the conference, I stayed with Nadia. Nadia taught me much in the couple of hours I spent with her and she unwittingly, through her small talk, gave me a bigger, clearer picture of what it meant to marry a man from here. Nadia has been married for just 3 weeks. “This was probably the worst time to get married to Mohammed because of the campaign”. She goes on to explain, “but, of course Mohammed can’t leave his brother to go through this alone”.
Her appreciation for solidarity that chewed into her honeymoon touched me. I asked her if she went out here and had made any new friends. She looked at me with a look that said “you’re a foreigner and I’m going to have to explain this to you slowly”. She told me laughing, “friends?! What friends? I’m not even allowed to stand out in the balcony to hang the clothes to dry!!” Then, she went on to tell me, lovingly, that sometimes her husband came home early at 8pm and she’d spend time with him. That seemed the highlight of her day. I asked if this made her miss Alexandria (where she’d grown up) and her friends there, and she explained, again very cheerfully, that she only had one friend since knowing Mohammed because “a man is always right in terms of his insight about the world and he had explained that most of her friends where “no good”. ”

I wasn’t sure if it was what she was saying or the cheerfulness she was saying it with, that was making me so uncomfortable. I decided to change the subject from personal relationships to her plans for the future. With every conversational manuver I was making I was discovering how arrogant I was. She did not have plans for the future. She told me that her family owned a series of makeup and accessory shops and that her mother had made each of the 7 children responsible for one of them. She giggled as she confessed that the one week she was in charge of hers she had been responsible for a loss of over 2400 Egyptian pounds and this was for goods that were usually under 5 pounds… She went on to explain to me that different people were made for different things and she was a failure at the outside world and was made for staying at home and shopping when she went to Alexandria.

What happened next was something I don’t know how to explain. I couldn’t just listen passively and I told her she can’t be so harsh on herself or call her self a failure simply because she didn’t perform well in retail, that the world was so big and there were a million and one other things that I was sure she could excel in. If you would be quick to accuse me that I was being pretentious, then explain how I broke all the social barriers of this extraordinarily cheerful woman and suddenly moved from a formal eating of gateau in the living room to sitting cross legged on her bed eating biscuits and her showing me her makeup and scarves and telling me intimate stories of friendship and love.

The bedroom we had moved into housed the large LCD screen where her favourite Turkish TV series (which she had watched three times before) was showing in an hour. This was also the only other room she had private access to. It did not match the modern minimalist look of where she received her guests. When she directed me to sit on the bed, I looked at its height thinking “will she pull out some garden ladders, or a stool perhaps to climb?” But I quickly realised no such assistance will be offered and so I jumped on the rich ruby silk and decided to enjoy her hospitality and the friendship she was offering me. As she was opening the drawers to show me her scarves, she explained that a few years ago she had tried a scarf on and realised she looked more beautiful in it so she never took it off since then. Her honesty was refreshing! She was veiled because it accentuated her beauty rather than her modesty and she wasn’t in the slightest ashamed.

I asked her if she was happy. She told me that she was. That though Mohammed would swear at her and take out all his frustrations at her, she “worshiped the soil he treads on” and that he was the best sort of man because though “he would hurt her when he was angry, as soon as she apologised, he would act like everything was ok again”. How I wanted to throttle Mohammed and society and everything that made this woman who had so much potential feel so weak and grateful for treatment that others take their partners to court for. I didn’t say what I thought, not only because there was not enough time, not because I didn’t want to intrude, but because….. oh so many reasons I regret now. But Who was I to impose what I thought a healthy relationship was. I say this, but at the same time I felt like screaming at the absurdity of it all, at the plight of women and at how damn hard it was living like this. This trip made me temporarily fall out of love with life.

We were interrupted by the maid who came in to the room to tell me “you’re being called for at the conference”. I didn’t want to leave. As I was leaving, Nadia insisted I freshen up my make up and use her perfume so I could be ready “should I bump into my fate on the way”. She stood next to me in the mirror inspecting a spot that appeared on her otherwise flawless skin and complained. I said it might be her period coming to which she took much offence and said “spit those words from your mouth, hopefully it won’t come and a baby will instead, what else has he married me for?”

I got in the car waiting for me with two strangers who drove me the 30minutes to the tent I did not want to go into. I wasn’t invited in. I was told I could hear them via the speakers from the car and the driver was instructed not to leave me alone to make sure I was “safe”. I felt suffocated and I hoped no one would vote for this candidate. The show (it all felt like a show now) came to an end and again Mostafa left the conference with tens of people around him, again trying to be as close to this man as they could. I hadn’t heard what he had said to them (the quality of the speakers wasn’t great) but the look on the faces of these men was different to the other people on the street. These people had been motivated and you could see it. why the women couldn’t be part of this was meaningless.

Mostafa got into the car and apologised to me for my having made the journey and not getting the chance to learn much of the socio political scene that I had come for via the conference. This of course was an unnecessary apology. I do not think I could have learnt more at an artificial set up where politicians play on dreams as much as I did in the coziness of the small room and the genuine sharing of Nadia that evening.

We were driven back to Cairo and I could not help but feel how lucky I was for the privilege of having choice. Not only the choice to participate or to disengage, but to not have someone like me leave my home after my being as hospitable as Nadia had been, feeling pity out of their arrogance at thinking they understood society or what was best for me as I had done. It’s never as simple as your convictions make it out to be; the truth is, it’s complicated.

[Photo by Neal http://www.flickr.com/people/31878512@N06/%5D

Voting in Egypt’s Elections: Celebrating Democracy, or Dancing on the Grave of Martyrs?

I didn’t know whether voting was the right thing to do or not. I didn’t know whether voting was a betrayal to the blood and tears that were spilt in Tahrir or not. There was no one to ask because it seemed that if there were, say, a 100 people I trusted, half thought it was in honour of the martyred and the other half believed, just as strongly, it was a slap on the face of those who gave their all. What would give one half credibility over the other when by mere location I changed my mind! When I was in Tahrir, I knew – not just thought but knew – that voting would be betrayal. As soon as I was a mile outside the square, I knew I was being rational in deciding not to boycott.

That too was how the 100 I trusted were split. The first 50 were the voice of stability and progression. They were the voice of reason. That we had to celebrate the achievements we had gained so far, choose what would make us “administratively credible” and follow the well-thought strategies that would match up to the political world building itself around us while the most courageous of us died and were blinded at the front lines. This half wanted to taste the cookie of freedom even before it had finished baking. They wanted their share and they had many arguments for it. All reasonable. All credible.

The 50 that spat at those who were building up pride for their ink stained fingers, were the ones with their friends blood still wet on their hands. The ones who had lost the light of their eyes so that their vision of what it would take for this country to be truly free became clearer. They were the ones whose tents got burned but stood there and warmed their resolve to continue the fight in the warmth of those flames; fueled by the injustice of being betrayed by their own. What legitimacy could be afforded to elections that were being run, protected and praised by the very people who killed their family and friends only hours ago? They wanted their share of justice, their right to life before their right to vote. All reasonable. All credible.

Up until till the moment I sent the SMS to get details of where I’d be voting, I didn’t know if I’d go to the ballots. Standing in the queue of no less that 5000 women, I still didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. Answering questions from old, poor, illiterate women about who to vote for because they were in this queue because they couldn’t afford the fine, I still didn’t know whether I was pushing along a new born democracy or hiding behind a mask in a farce festival of freedoms.

But I ended up standing in this queue for 5 hours and 45 minutes. I ended up voting for a party I knew not much about and a candidate to represent me only because he had gone through as many ideological changes in his political life as I have religions. In total there were three ticks. I walked out knowing I had ticked for a party, a member of parliament and a representative of the workers. In my dreams that night I had a tick beside betrayal, a tick beside allowing the villains to get away and a tick beside handing over part of the revolution to the enemy.

I am writing this post as a sort of confession. I write it to let the 50 I trust know that I took their word for it and gave my voice to a process that was full of violations from the start and with results that none of them voted for. I write it because I forgot to ask, more than I should have asked the 100, I should have asked: Who did the 12,000 Egyptians on military trials and several hundred killed by our government vote for?

I write it to the martyrs to tell them how sorry I am if they are watching me in disappointment. Either way, I write it because I do not know if by voting I was celebrating democracy or dancing on the graves of those whose blood and tears fell on the ground nourishing freedom on the land on which they fell.

Call to Stand in Solidarity with Mikhail Nabil: 4th December 2011

Today I woke up with severe period pains and decided I’d stay in bed all day… one of the many things that get in the way of women trying to just be involved in every day stuff (because every day stuff these days means getting out to protest in the rain and mud!) So I lazily reached out for my mobile to check twitter and catch up on what’s been happening during the few hours that sleep and I flirt with one another. The only thing that was getting my attention between the hundreds of tweets about the Muslim Brotherhood and the elections and whether people were going to vote or boycott the elections, were the tweets that there were only 4 people, yes ONLY FOUR people outside C28, the military prosecutors, where Mikhail Nabil Sanad’s trial was happening. Here was everyone, so caught up in the new frock of the mockery of democracy in a country where only 4 people turn up to support a conscientious objector, now prisoner, dragged from his own home for writing his opinions in a blog post.

I am told the lack of support Mikhail has inside Egypt is because not many agree with what he has to say. What an embarrassment of an excuse is that?! How can I deserve the freedom that so many are dying for if I cannot support the freedom of someone who is expressing views different to my own?! So, I decided to just deal with the pain and get out of bed and get out and stand not for Mikhail Nabil, but for myself, and for what I believed in. Mikhail was doing me a favour, not the other way round! He was giving me the chance to fight for what I believed in, a chance to deserve the freedom he was fighting for.

I arrived outside C28 and there were 5 people. 3 Egyptians, a German lady and an Irish man. There was no chanting and none of the familiar faces. The splitting had begun and there’s too much going on in the country to even expect a crowd, but three Egyptians?! Three?!! and the three had come all the way from AlHaram despite the rain, the mud and the callings from Tahrir and else where today.

We waited till Mikhails lawyer came out saying he was refused and that Mikhail had an appointed lawyer the judge had chosen (I was beginning to feel I was watching a badly written sitcom by this point). He said the case was postponed till the 4th December. This will be the 7th time the case has been postponed and Mikhail will have spent over 100 days on his hunger strike. He also said Mikhail was coming out to be transferred back to prison in a few minutes. We decided to wait. We wanted him to see that he was not forgotten and that people with faces unfamiliar to him were there representing many (or so I convinced myself)… and indeed a couple of minutes later, the military truck transferring him came out… we knew it was him because his voice came ringing “Down with the Military Rule” “Yaskot Yaskot 7okm El3askar”… He led our chants for all of 30 seconds… and we, sending every atom of love, strength and support to him back in our echos could not help but cry as they drove off with him. I am not sure why we cried. We may have been ashamed at how few we were, maybe because we weren’t sure Mikhail would make it through the hunger strike till next week, maybe because with the elections coming up we feel Mikhail will be forgotten…. but what ever the reason, we all cried… I haven’t heard chants that caused me goosebumps this way in a long time… and I know I will be hearing Mikhail Nabil’s voice for many nights to come.

(You can read how right Mikhail Nabil was here http://www.maikelnabil.com/2011/03/army-and-people-wasnt-ever-one-hand.html)

Whatever happens, I decided today that I would not look back and regret not having stood for the freedom to all that I believe in… and I am writing this today to tell you that I believe with all my heart, that the best way to fight for your freedom is to fight for the freedom of others, fight for the freedom of those you do not necessarily agree with. Be there for Mikhail Sunday 4th December. It counts. It matters.

Setting Fire to a Church Makes Bright the Road to Civil War

Last night there were flames. Pictures coming in accompanied by witnesses speaking of our church Mary Mina in Imbaba, Cairo. Then the fire fighters came in to save what was left.

But there are flames not yet put out. There are flames that wage and burn brighter than those scorching stone. The flames that rage in the hearts of the oppressed are far more dangerous than heat that scars skin and brick. The Coptic Christians in Egypt will be excused for the bitterness and fear they will carry; and the Muslims, again, will fight to defend themselves and try to convince everyone that they either have breakfast daily with a Copt, or that their friends is one.

The question is, who do we call to put out this fire? Which emergency service can we turn to for an appearance that appeases, that heals, that prevents similar events? We have been let down by both our Government, our leaders, and by our Army, our protectors.

The Salafi’s in Egypt are slow dancing with Civil War. They are holding her hand and seducing her. They are leading her down a one way road that will see the end to Egypt as we know it, as we’ve always known it. The music that they are dancing to must end. It must end before it consumes us all in a fire that no one, not even it’s instigators can put out.

It breaks my heart that we, Egypt, turn into a country where churches are burnt down, after being the only nation that after 9/11 had Western media look at Muslim Friday prayers and comment “What a moving sight”.

Poem – Egyptian Army’s Virginity Check

January and February made me safe in the hands of the Egyptian Army
Protected now from the thugs and no one can harm me
Protecting my rights to protest and encouraging me to be free
I’m simply held for questioning and then they’ll let me be

But now I’m dragged from the crowd … now I’m out of sight
Still it’s OK… this is my beloved army and I’m going to be alright
I convince myself the electrocution is only to keep me warm
I’m not loosing faith… they’ll never betray the oath they’ve sworn

But I see the white coat coming and they say “The doctor’s here”
I know the end of my delusion and this lie is almost near
You hold me down to see; if for a prostitute you would mistake me
Even at the doors of heaven, for that, God would not forsake me

You humiliate me to check the piece of skin is in tact
Whether or not it is, it’s you, not me, who lacks honor. That’s a fact!
You’re loyalty was brief or in truth was just a lie
You came to the streets; an opium to make the crowds high

And I am out and screaming and the people still wont believe
That the Egyptian army is capable of corruption or to deceive
We’ve lost our heroes and the illusion that you were all about
Having to thank God that I was one of the lucky ones that made it out.

I get home to hear my brother say… when I grow up I want to be a soldier
My mum, teary eyed said “no son, and I’ll tell you why when you’re older”

The Palestinian Refugee Exclusion from the 1951 United Nations Convention for Refugees

The Palestinian Refugee Exclusion from the 1951 United Nations Convention for Refugees, ensured their exclusion from international protection for over 50 years, along with the violation of their human rights!

On 14th May 1949, the British mandate terminated. The next day, the Jewish community proclaimed the state of Israel. The first Arab-Israeli war followed. At the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict are two peoples who have much in common including the experience of suffering discrimination, expulsion and invasion. Tragically, these peoples are locked in a conflict which involves religion, ethnic identity, rival claims to the same land, the use of violent and terrorist methods, and mutual fears of extermination. Thousands of Palestinians fled to neighboring countries creating the largest group (numbering over five million) and longest standing refugee problem (being refugees for over five decades) in history.

It is most surprising that the Palestinian exclusion from the UNHCR is not dwelled upon in the manner that it should when discussing the Middle East peace processes. It is bewildering how the United Nations got away with excluding the largest group of refugees from the protection of the most important international refugee tool and in turn dooming it to the fate above. Till this day they account for about one fourth of the worlds refugees, an impressive figure until one imagines how many refugees there would be if all the Finns and Germans and Indian Hindus and Muslims ad European Jews who were made refugees after the Second World War (not to speak of the Greeks, Turks and Armenians who were made refugees during and after the First World War) were still considered refugees. For a need of a definition, we can say that any Arab who entered Israel up to two years prior to the rebirth of the Jewish state could claim to be a Palestinian refugee, even if he and his ancestors had lived elsewhere for generations before and he owned no land or property in Palestine. It seems the decision made then, has shaped their fate not only at the time of the Convention, but for fifty years after that and most probably for many decades to come.

In this paper I will be looking at the manner in which the exclusion came about, the reasons that appear to be behind it and the alternative care suggested and offered to the Palestinians. The essay will also examine how Palestinian human rights have been violated due to this exclusion and finally; if there is any hope now for the Palestinian refugee problem to come to an agreeable end in the light of the reasons under which it was created in the first place.

Hathaway describes the attitude of states perfectly regarding refugee law when he says, “States pay lip service to the importance of honouring the right to seek asylum, but in practice devote significant resources to keep refugees away from their borders. International refugee law is part of a system of state self regulation. It will therefore be respected only to the extent that receiving states believe that it fairly reconciles humanitarian objectives to their national interests. Much of the debate during the drafting of the Geneva Convention was devoted to how best to protect the national self interest of receiving states.”


Palestinian refugees were in the next miscalculated move, removed from international refugee law’s central instrument. The creation of the refugee problem was inevitable according to Morris who takes aboard the geographical intermixing of the population, the history of the Arab-Jewish hostility since 1917, the rejection of both sides of a binominal solution and the depth of the Arab animosity toward the Jews and fears of coming under Jewish rule. Ben Gurion said, “The transfer of Arabs is easier than the transfer of any other people. There are Arab states… and it is clear that if the Palestinian Arabs are transferred, this would improve their situation and not the opposite. Moshe Sharett, director of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department declared: “Transfer could be the crowning achievements, the final stage in the development of our policy, but certainly not the point of departure. By speaking publicly and prematurely we could be mobilising vast forces against the matter and cause it to fail, in advance.” He then added, “When the Jewish state is established it is very possible that the result will be the transfer of Arabs”.

In part this exclusion clause was intended to prevent the overlapping of the mandates of the UNHCR and these pre-existing agencies. It’s noteworthy that the benefits of protection under specialised agencies were not truly replicative of the proposed protection function of UNHCR: “the UN assistance to Arab refugees was material assistance and could not be compared with the legal protection of the High Commissioner”

It was clear from the very beginning that the refugee problem was far more serious and graver than the UN General Assembly was demonstrating understanding for. Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, who was appointed as a UN mediator on Palestine under resolution 186 on 14th May 1948, wrote; “… I must emphasis again the desperate urgency of this problem. The choice is between saving the lives of many thousands of people now and permitting them to die. The situation of the majority of these helpless refugees is already tragic, and to prevent them from being overwhelmed by further disaster ad to make possible their ultimate rehabilitation… I believe that for the international community to accept its share of responsibility for the refugees of Palestine is one of the minimum conditions for the success of its efforts to bring peace to that land.” It does not appear in anyway that Bernadotte’s suggestion was taken in to consideration. In 1951, the international community did not take this responsibility. Bernadotte’s assassination later that year appears to have been in vain.

After a period of emergency aid, provided by voluntary agencies and coordinated by the UN relief for Palestinian Refugees UNRPR, it became clear that an early solution to the refugee problem was not in sight and that international assistance should be orientated towards development and resettlement. The UNWRA was subsequently established in 1949 by the General Assembly. The fact that these refugees continue to live in the cramped and inadequate camps after five decades highlights the failure of the international community to find a just solution the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, whose resolution lies at the heart of a border regional peace. The living conditions in the camps have not improved. Further disruptions caused by the wars as well as restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have hampered UNWRA efforts over the years.

The Arab states then, and now continue to use the Palestinian refugees as a political weapon against Israel, and so then resisted any move which might decrease the distinct visibility of the Palestinian’s predicament and hence undercut the political will to effect their repatriation: “if the GA were to include the Palestinian refugees in a general definition of refugees, they would become submerged and would be relegated to a position of minor importance. The Arab states desired that those refugees should be aided pending their repatriation, repatriation being the only real solution to their problem. To accept a general definition… would be to renounce insistence on repatriation”

In the result, the statute of the UNHCR provides for an interim suspension of eligibility, so long as the Palestinians needs in exile are met by the UNWRA… “The competence of the High Commissioner shall not extend to a person… who continues to receive from other organs or agencies of the UN protection or assistance…” But realistically, how can their need be sufficiently met by the UNWRA when they have billions of pounds worth of shortages for food, water and shelter?

The American representative warned that the inclusion of Palestinians, “would present contracting states with an undefined problem, and so reduce the number of states in Europe that would find it possible to sign the convention and ratify it.” Reflecting these concerns, delegates were faced with a draft which provided for the permanent exclusion from the convention definition of “persons who are at present receiving from other agencies of UN protection or assistance. Turning to the category to the category of these refugees who were excluded from the present convention under paragraph D, e.g. the Palestinian Arabs, in his view, the effect of the paragraph as drafted was to make the exclusion permanent. That was indeed, why the Egyptian representative had submitted his amendments… since he wanted to provide for the possible future inclusion of that group within the convention.”

“The phrase ‘at present’ implied that the convention should not apply to those persons receiving at a specific time protection or assistance from organs or agencies of the UN; it did not imply that when such protection seized, the refugees concerned would come under the protection of the convention.” The contrary position of the UK is noteworthy: “even if an influx into Europe did occur, was it conceivable that European country’s which had hitherto given refugees certain minimum rights would, even in the absence of a convention, give the new arrivals less?”

The French representative had rightly recalled that the Arab refugees from Palestine had been excluded from the mandate of the High Commissioner for Refugees as a result of action taken by the delegations of the Arab states at the fifth session of the General Assembly. The unbending focus on the propriety of the repatriation is clear from the comments of Mr. Mustafa Bey, the delegate of Egypt: “it should be noted… that the present situation of Palestinian refugees was a temporary one… and that the relevant resolutions of the General Assembly provided that they should return to their home.”

Realising that this clause would leave Palestinians without aid or protection id UNWRA were to cease operation, the Arab states secured their automatic “deferred inclusion” at such time as specialized relief operations in Palestine might come to an end. It is none the less clear from the drafting history that the shared intention of the Arab and Western states was to deny Palestinians access to the convention based regime so long as the UN continues to assist them in their own region. It was obvious that if the Egyptian amendment was rejected, the refugees it was designed to protect might eventually find themselves deprived of any status what so ever.

Happily Canada has chosen not to apply this part of the convention definition, as a result of which Palestinian claims in Canada are to be assessed without differentiation of any kind. Is it the case for Palestinians that people who are not recognised as refugees under the terms of the Geneva conventions may never the less be allowed to stay for temporary periods for various “humanitarian” reasons? In Britain, they can be given exceptional leave to remain, but without the right to be joined by their families or to travel abroad. In Germany, they may be given temporary residence permits.

This exclusion clause applies to all Palestinians eligible to receive UNWRA assistance in their home region. Those who remain in Palestine and those who seek asylum abroad, it affects only Palestinians, since its scope is limited to persons in receipt of UN assistance or protection from a specialised agency other than the UNHCR, in existence in 1951, under the terms of the convention, exclusion is automatic once UNWRA’s eligibility is established. While not all Palestinians could not meet the criteria of the convention definition, their whole scale exclusion is inconsistent with the commitment to a truly universal protection system.


“Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call for them to leave and our appeal to the UN to resolve on their return”. The question of whose fault it was that the Palestinians fled their homes is important and controversial enough for an essay in its own rights. Yet many believe that it is not the most obvious candidate, Israel, which should take sole responsibility for the problem. Many argue that Britain, which ruled Palestine from 1917-1948, was responsible for the Balfour declaration which resulted in the building of a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. Therefore, Britain, according to this line of argument has an historic duty to see that a just settlement for these refugees is reached. For if it had not relinquished its mandate without first ensuring that a lasting and fair settlement had been reached by the new settlers and Palestinians, there may have been peace in the Middle East today.

Others argue that “The Palestinian refugees… differed from all other refugees. In all other cases, persons had become refugees as a result of action taken contrary to the principles of the UN, and the obligation of the Organisation toward them was a moral one only. The existence of the Palestinian refugees, on the other hand, was the direct result of a decision taken by the UN itself with full knowledge of the consequences. The Palestinian refugees were therefore a direct responsibility on the part of the UN and could not be placed in the general category of refuges without betrayal of that responsibility”.

At present the 1951 convention has 140 state parties, Israel is one of them, this is not surprising as it has nothing to answer to the Refugee Convention regarding its responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees and the Jordon, Lebanon and Syria are not parties to it despite the fact that they have taken in the majority of the fleeing Palestinians. They have nothing to gain by doing so than to invite scrutiny of its own treatment of the Palestinian refugees.

Israel was the only Middle Eastern country to take over from the UN agency. However, the significance of this step should also be compared with at least two more factors: the ratio between the refugees found in Israel and the total Arab post 1948 refugee population, and the ratio between the Israeli refugee population and its total Arab body. Comparing these two sets of figures might facilitate an understanding of the reasons for the disappearance of the problem in Israel, yet have no affect whatsoever on the refugee issue in its entirety. The Western powers insisted on initiating a resettlement process in Israel in order to appease the Arab countries whose support for the West was essential with the raging Cold War. Transferring responsibility to Israel had to be interpreted by Arab governments as making Israel admit its formal guilt in creating the problem. Perhaps the issue of guilt associated with taking care of the refugees was the main reason for the Arab governments’ consistent refusal to take over from the UNWRA in their sovereign territories, despite economic benefits which might have accompanied such an agreement. More profoundly, however, it resulted from the strongly held view of Arab states that because the plight of Palestinian refugees was the consequence of the establishment of Israel by the UN, they should bear a more direct and obvious responsibility of their wellbeing.

At the same time that Israel had denied citizenship to the majority of Palestinian Arabs, the Arab countries of refuge have, for the most part, consistently rejected local integration and citizenship as a solution to a problem which, in their view, can only be resolved by repatriation and self determination. Their policy was based on a genuine economic inability to properly absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees and feared refugees as a major potential subversive element vis-à-vis their own regimes. The failure of the Arab League to provide a satisfactory regional refugee regime which could address the Palestinian refugees, more than 50years after the refugee convention had kept them out, has only further reinforced the statelessness of the Palestinian refugee.

Because Jordon formally annexed the West Bank in 1950, most Palestinian refugees in Jordon hold Jordanian citizenship. Moreover, Palestinians fully participate in the political and economic life of the country. Palestinians in Lebanon are marginalised. Few (mostly Christians) have managed to obtain Lebanese citizenship, few are granted the permits required for legal employment, and legally most are excluded from employment in many professions. Palestinians are also denied access to government services, and hence heavily depend on UNWRA. Lastly, Palestinians in Syria do not enjoy citizenship; however, they do enjoy full legal equivalency with local nationals in almost all areas, including both employment and access to government services. However, there are some restrictions on Palestinian property ownership, and there are tight controls on all political activity. Palestinian refugees in Syria, largely depend on their refugee documents for travel purposes, thus restricting their mobility.


Palestinians in the occupied territories face a wide variety of human rights violations. These include their collective rights e.g. their right to self determination, others include individual rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, as well as the property rights and their rights to life and security of the person. The 1951 convention has violated the basic right of non discrimination! By discriminating against the Palestinian refugees and not including them with the rest of the world refugees, it has denied them all the rights they are entitled to, such as Welfare, Administrative Measures and Judicial Status.

One of the cornerstone issues, which are increasingly threatened, undermined or ignored by governments around the world wide is human rights protection at the international level- action to ensure that human rights considerations are paramount in decisions about refugee protection issues, such as the need for protection of people internally displaced within their own countries, developments in international refugee law and practice and programmes for refugees return home.

The clearest example of how Palestinian human rights have been violated is their deportation and the illegality of it. Many books and articles have focused on this very point. The 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, widely considered to be declarative of international customary law, explicitly condemns deportation. The tribunal defined deportation “for slave labour or any other purpose” as a war crime, and deportation as a crime against humanity. This was also the case in the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War 1949 was signed by Israel on 8th December 1949 and ratified on 6th January 1952. Article 49 of this convention provides that: “individuals or moss forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons… are prohibited, regardless of their motives.” Not only does the Fourth Geneva Convention proscribe deportation, but it also expresses the International community’s particular and absolute condemnation of this practice by defining “unlawful deportation” in Article 147, together with inter alia, wilful killing and torture, as a grave breach of the convention. The only legitimate options open to the Israeli authorities would have been to impose measures of assigned residence or internment. However, the Israel’s continue to deport Palestinians claiming that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Even if Israel had its own idiosyncratic view of the status of the occupied territories, it did not openly challenge the status of the inhabitants as people entitled to protection under the relevant rules of international law. Israel is also bound, like any other state, by international customary law, and by the relevant provisions of the human rights conventions to which it is a party. This means that there has always been room for international intervention, yet none effective measures have been applied.

“UNWRA mandate extends only to assisting Palestinian refugees and not protecting them. The Palestinian, therefore, have the unfortunate distinction of being the only group of refugees in the world who are excluded formally from any International protection.” In practice, assistance has been provided to Palestinian refugees by UNWRA, within the area of its operations and subject to the conditions of entitlement and registration. No international agency has been charged with providing protection to Palestinian refugees. And while refugee camps exist on the map, there is little concern about the fate of refugees living within and their rights are framed as a series of trade offs with other bands of political issues.

The UN mediator in Palestine, Count Bernadotte, in his report submitted to the general assembly on 16th September 1948, stated: “it is, however, undeniable that no settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to their home from which he has been dislodged by the hazards and strategy of the armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. It would be an offence against the principle of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine and indeed offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.” This report was discussed in February 1949 and resolved that, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” This resolution has been annually re-affirmed by the UN ever since, but Israel continues to defy the UN and prevent the return of the refugees to their homes


It must be noted that civilians in occupied territories are completely reliant upon the international community of states for protection against such violations by an occupying power. International humanitarian law recognises the vulnerability of civilians in occupied territories and accordingly, provides mechanisms for enforcing the law which have yet to be applied to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Only international intervention, as happened in Kosovo and East Timor, will ensure that the rights of refugees are upheld.

Because UNWRA has collapsed, article 1D should apply. Goodwin-Gill claims that the provision is “not so much an exclusion” clause as a contingent inclusion clause, merely postponing the incorporation of Palestinian refugees. Yet Article 1D is not free from ambiguity; however, on the one hand, it premises exclusion upon the continuing receipt of protection or assistance; on the other hand, it premises entitlement to the benefits of the convention on the cessation ipso-facto of protection or assistance, without the situation of such persons having been resolved, for example, through legal provision for and the recognition of a separate nationality. UNHCR has taken the view that a refugee from Palestine outside the UNWRA area, “may be considered for determination of refugee status under the criteria (well founded fear of persecution) of the 1951 convention. This interpretation does not seem correct on initial reading of article 1D. Palestinian refugees, who leave UNWRA’s area of operations, being without protection and no longer in receipt of assistance, would seem to fall by that fact alone within the convention, whether or not they qualify independently as refugees with a well founded fear of persecution. In practice however, many states have resisted providing automatic convention protection, contrary to what appears to be the clear intent of its terms.

The 1951 convention is a prime example of existing international agreements and legal principles are seen, not as a means of mediating of conflict, but instruments which can be rolled and used as truncheons with which to hit the other side. The non-recognition of Palestinian refugees by the refugee convention in itself may not be fatal, because it is a limited regime that does not address causes, temporary protection or repatriation. But this, added to the lack of protection by the UNHCR, comprises access to general provisions under international refugee law, the application of the relevant UN resolutions and general principles of international law.

Refugee law serves less and less people, less and less well as time goes on. The time is right to focus on preserving the essence of international refugee law as a system for the protection of persons, whose basic human rights are at risk in their own state, including a commitment to working towards repatriation in safety and dignity.

Violators of human rights appear to have unlimited resources at their disposal, not to mention the coercive power of the state, and the leeway they are given under international law. The inadequacy of the international system in dealing with violators, the cynical use of the veto by the super powers, the maddening slow pace of the evolution of international law and the accession to human rights protocols and conventions that have any effective enforcement mechanisms- all these and much more can easily provoke depression, cynicism, or at least severe frustration.

Much was made of the extraordinary achievements of Israel on the 50th anniversary of its establishment. Yet the triumph of one people was the tragedy of another. It is ironic that the creation of a state for the Jewish Diaspora led to the creation of another Diaspora, that of the Palestinians, who lost their homeland at a time when Jews gained theirs. Sait’s conclusion in regards to the state of the Palestinian refugees is the perfect way to end this essay, he concludes, “Palestinians are a casualty of laws’ abdication and face an unforgivable constellation of political stars… a lapse in international law… it conspired to strip them of their most obvious status, removing them from the laws protection and banishing them forever from their homes..”



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UNWRA: A Brief History Report 1950-1982

Middle East Digest October 1998

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