Society

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

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Online Anonymity: Between Fear And Political Power

CAIRO — I've been thinking lately about my relationship with anonymity, and the way my understanding of it — which used to be somewhat one-sided — has been evolving, both in personal writing and in political work. In a polarized environment, we become trapped in a reactive position, especially as some of the approaches adopted recently by feminist organizations have come under heavy attack. Our energy is consumed by creating a discourse to counter our attackers, preventing us from reflecting more deeply on our tools and approaches. It seems that anonymity will be part of our arsenal for some time, so I believe it's important to understand it as a wide-ranging approach in which we can occupy different positions. Examining it in this way may help us arrive at a better understanding of its potential as well as its limitations.

Some years ago, I wrote a personal piece about a very private experience that caused me an immense sense of pain and frustration. I felt defeated by all the institutions of the regime. The experience made me realize that my body is not my own, no matter how much I try to take possession of it. I realized that the obstacles that stood in my way were institutional and structural, and that it was beyond my individual ability to change them. I published the piece under a pseudonym, but I also said how much I wished I could publicly declare the experience as mine, to own my anger and pain in front of everybody.

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Grocery Shopping In Egypt: Local Ingredients Meet Global Trends

A new high-end food retailer, Gourmet, is helping reshape Egypt's supermarket industry.

CAIRO — A few months ago, I decided to challenge Gourmet.

Egypt's most prominent high-end grocery chain had earned a reputation for stocking ingredients that were hard to find anywhere else. For foodies, Gourmet had opened the door to previously inaccessible recipes. I'm not a foodie, but I do have access to The New York Times" cooking app after one of my colleagues generously gifted me a subscription. Standing outside Gourmet's branch in Maadi, I scrolled through the app looking for a dish that was — in orientalist parlance — "exotic." I eventually landed on a recipe requiring several ingredients unlikely to be found in any Cairo supermarket: Thai red curry paste, Fresno or serrano red chile, unsweetened coconut flakes and baby spinach. The dish? Red curry lentils with sweet potatoes and spinach.

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Honor Killings, #MeToo And The Future For Egyptian Women

Women in Egypt have definitively broken the silence around sexual violence — but what comes next?

CAIRO — About two weeks ago, Dalia's doorman, landlord, and neighbors — at least three men in total — suspecting her of having sex or some kind of sexual interaction with a guest, forced their way into her apartment in the Cairo neighborhood of Salam, beat her and either threw her out of the window or terrified her so much that she jumped. The National Council for Women, missing the point, said in its press release that Dalia's body was found "fully clothed." Newspapers reported that the prosecution had ordered a vaginal examination of her corpse.

Two weeks earlier, a draft of a long-awaited personal status law was shown to the public. The draft does nothing that women hoped it might to advance their legal standing — it in fact regresses it in several areas. The bill further diminishes women's already embattled legal and financial guardianship rights over themselves and their children: Being of legal age is not enough to legally consent to marriage — a woman's male relatives can object to the marriage within a year. Being the mother of a child is not enough for a woman to issue their birth certificate, open a bank account for him/her, or consent to their surgery — a power of attorney granted by the child's father or court document is necessary.

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Egypt

Long Lines, Mixed Message As Egypt's Vaccine Rollout Sputters

Only about 150,000 of the country's 100 million people have been vaccinated so far against COVID-19, and in some crowded health centers, people wait hours only to be turned away.

CAIRO — Vaccine centers across Egypt have witnessed long wait times, insufficient supply and bureaucratic procedures that have made it difficult for many to secure shots to boost their immunity against COVID-19.

At one Cairo hospital, a Mada Masr correspondent witnessed the long lines first-hand, and Doctors Syndicate council member Ibrahim al-Zayat said that the alarming overcrowding situation is worst in the more densely populated areas of Upper Egypt and Cairo.

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Egypt
Mohamed Elshahed*

Cairo Is Urban Trauma, Postcard From A City Planner

This dearth of urban planning in the Egyptian capital dates back half a century. But it reached a new peak starting in 2019, when one of its last livable districts saw its old ways demolished.

CAIRO — Inhabiting a city is an emotional and a psychological experience. For the past decade, I have lived in Cairo, a city I found to be exciting and full of potential from the perspective of an urbanist who studies cities, architecture and is concerned with heritage. I lived in Heliopolis, which I thought was one of the last sections of the Egyptian capital that, despite poor urban management for the past several decades, retained qualities that made it a livable place. It had trees, ample sidewalks, interesting architecture, and a neighborhood feel within its many subsections. It was a district with a relatively high quality of life compared to other parts of the city. There were also the remains of an extensive public transport system — the tram — which despite being dysfunctional, at least allowed residents to dream of its restoration one day under the right leadership.

Urban governance has been nonexistent since the military coup of 1952, when the Free Officers received support from the CIA through a covert program known as Project Fat Fucker to oust King Farouk, seen as uncooperative in the post-World War II era. It was an era shaped by postcolonial politics or, to be more precise, when formal colonialism was morphing into a new system that maintained colonial control, with access to assets, markets, raw material and labor under the guise of independence — a distracting form of political theater built on the emotions and desires of the masses in former colonies.

This dearth of urban planning was strikingly manifest in the summer of 2019, when over the course of several months, all the features that made Heliopolis among Cairo's more livable districts were swiftly removed. The residents had no say in the matter. Century-old trees were uprooted, public transport infrastructure was removed, and sidewalks were made smaller. Such actions are not only counter-intuitive to standard urban management logic but also have a severe impact on the value of private property in the area and, more importantly, on the psychology of residents. This is urban trauma.

Cairo today, and for much of the past decade, is an unstable city. When protests erupted in 2011 in the capital and across the country, occupying urban space was central to dissent. Conversely, urban infrastructure, particularly road systems, proved essential tools for authorities to assert urban control, such as the rapid deployment of security vehicles to the streets in an effort to impose curfews. Other examples include the cutting of electricity and the internet. In addition, there were many insidious forms of control that worked to destabilize the urban environment and make it less hospitable to potential protesters as well as to create a constant state of anxiety, even inside the home.

Over the past decade, Cairo has transformed immensely, with slogans such as "development" and "progress' operating as smoke screens for a violent remaking of the city for other ends. Counterrevolutionary forces argued that stability was more important than political change, but on the neighborhood level across the country there has been no stability whatsoever. Space is disfigured on a daily basis, trees are removed, buildings are demolished and heritage collapses. Within a matter of days, weeks or months, residents have lost their orientation around neighborhoods in which they have lived their entire lives. What kind of stability is this? And for whom?

Urban planners understand the psychological potential of cities.

Since the 1950s, urban planners, mostly in the United States and Europe, have understood the psychological potential of cities. Town planning can engender a sense of belonging, strengthen local communities, and bolster neighborhood ties. Conversely, it can also enforce a sense of individualism, manipulate residents into becoming consumers and intensify feelings of loneliness, alienation, anxiety and fear.

When the United States began its "shock and awe" campaign in Baghdad in 2003, the intention, as the name suggests, was to induce psychological shock, to overwhelm and control the population of an entire capital in a mere instant. In today's urban environment, psychology is always at work: in the hyper-surveillance of Dubai or Beijing, in the advertising-saturated Times Square in New York or London's Piccadilly Circus; or in the presence of military camps within Egyptian cities, with conscripts placed in watchtowers, their rifles pointed outward at the city around them. In all these examples, and many more, urban environments impact human psychology, intentionally or not, where technologies, spaces and tactics are weaponized by those in power to control populations.

Despite the apparent availability of funds to build an entirely new capital or attract investments for superfluous additions to the city — such as mimicking the London Eye on the Nile — Egypt's more mundane, yet crucial, urban needs have not been met. In a political environment orchestrated around the notion of megaprojects touted by those in power as evidence of their rule, fixing sidewalks, planting trees and improving public transport do not add up to iconic achievements. Instead, Egyptians have been increasingly gaslit since the 1990s into believing that their cities are irreparable and nothing more than reflections of the Egyptian psyche: chaotic and unordered.

Through psychological manipulation that serves undemocratic rule and uncontrolled capital, it has become common to hear that something is fundamentally wrong with Egyptians themselves and that only money can buy them a ticket out of their urban misery. Promotions abound for privately-built gated developments, with names meant to evoke life in Marseille or other far afield spaces such as "Dreamland" or even "Future City," which feels all too much like the dreary present.

Over the last several years, Cairo has been the laboratory for some of the most aggressive urban interventions in its entire history. From highways that negate the existence of residential buildings within arm's reach, to the demolition of hundreds of mausolea containing the remains of the city's dead, including many of its most important public figures, these projects seem to negate the very existence of the city's inhabitants.

In the current political climate, where any form of opposition is immediately branded as a threat to the nation and its security, such projects bulldoze through the urban fabric under a plethora of flags and nationalistic slogans such as "we build for you." At the crux of the matter is a form of state paternalism that echoes statements made by officials during the legendary eighteen days of the revolution: "Egyptians are not ready for democracy" — which in urban affairs translates into "Egyptians don't know what is good for their city."

Cairo has been transformed into a place without memory.

For many inhabitants of the city there is a sense of being held hostage, of feeling helpless and having no control over the environment they occupy and inhabit. The numerous interventions happening at once are disorienting, they create chaos and disperse any effort to record what is happening. Alongside these processes, and in the absence of robust institutions that maintain the memory and history of modern and contemporary society, Cairo has been transformed into a place without memory, perpetually stuck in a disorienting present. These are tactics of psychological control and many Cairenes may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused not only by the instability of the city, but by the increasing sense of anxiety that comes with pervasive insecurity and predatory surveillance.

In the aftermath of 2011 Cairo saw an immense increase in surveillance cameras mounted in public spaces. This was followed by a law that forced private businesses to install cameras outside their premises. Trees may provide shade and clean the air, but in a security state they also hinder surveillance. So trees must be removed. Occasionally, to counter criticism of tree removal, imported palm trees are planted as decorative replacements whilst lining the pockets of importers. The imported palms do not survive well in Cairo's harsh environment and often die shortly after planting. This seems counterintuitive: Why import palm trees from vast distances to a country rich in its own local varieties of palms? Such questions can best be answered by adjusting the expectations or refocusing the purposes of the urban interventions taking place.

Cairo street scene in 2005. Not much has changed since. — Photo: JJ Jester

Such interventions are driven by multiple interests; not the interests of the masses, but rather those of the security apparatus looking to open up spaces for observation and control and for those who receive direct, no-bid contracts and are only looking to maximize profit. Regardless of the form they take, these interventions are in fact fulfilling exactly what they are designed for; the public does not figure into the state's considerations.

In 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, and following the exit of British troops from Egyptian cities, architect Sayed Karim consulted Al-Musawwar magazine on producing a series of spreads that illustrate key urban challenges facing Cairo in order to get the public on board for the necessary changes. One of the spreads titled "Cairo is suffocating, let her breathe!" was centered on the issue of green space. The spread was mainly visual accompanied by a short text. It included an aerial view of the capital with a graph below visualizing the amount of green space in various parts of the city as measured by the ratio of population density to public parks. It presented both a bleak picture and a call to arms, arguing that the city was dangerously lacking in green space which correlates directly with higher rates of infant mortality, disease and social ills.

At the time, only one percent of the city's total area was dedicated to parks, while it needed about ten percent for healthy levels. Six districts, such as Bulaq, Shubra and historic Cairo, which were collectively populated by over 1.1 million residents, did not have access to any green space. The text concludes with a call to establish a municipality to govern Cairo and manage its affairs, including the lack of green space. "Enough of the politics of improvisation which have cost the state and the people immense losses," the architect concluded.

Karim was an ambitious and vocal architect and urbanist and his daring message reflected the widespread revolutionary fervor and public criticism sweeping Egypt after 1948. Others joined his calls for a municipality and the demand began to materialize in 1949. However, the heavy-handed policies of the new military regime which co-opted the revolution in 1952 led to the cancellation of the short-lived municipality. The building erected for the municipality was then used as the headquarters of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union and subsequently the National Democratic Party.

In this new era, Egypt's heads of state did what they saw fit with the city and its people, there was no room for a politics of participation such as a democratic municipality. Ever since, the city has been a site for projects decreed from above and designed to improve the image of leaders rather than provide its residents with needed services. As for voices such as Sayed Karim, who looked to galvanize public opinion with urban critique, his career was cut short, his offices were shut by the state and he was placed under house arrest in 1965. Cairo today continues to live in the shadow of this traumatic moment.

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Egypt
Ehsan Salah and Sharif Abdel Kouddous

After Waltzing With Trump, Egypt Must Get In Step With Biden

With Joe Biden, Cairo's relations with Washington are undergoing an uncomfortable reboot.

-Analysis-

CAIRO — In the weeks leading up to and through Joe Biden's victory in the U.S. presidential elections in November, officials in Egypt's Foreign Ministry scrambled to prepare for one of the most consequential leadership changes in decades for Cairo's most important ally.

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Egypt
Nada Gamal

How The Sexist Politics Of Hair Plays Out In Egypt's Schools

“I’m not against hijab in principle; I myself wear it,' says one mother. 'But I refuse to have my daughter wear it against her will.”

CAIRO — The 2020 school year began with a few headlines about schools accused of forcing students to wear headscarves:

"Public row over Egypt school forcing child to wear hijab, Education Ministry investigates' or "Plea to education minister: Principal threatens child with suspension over rasta braids'

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Egypt
Lina Attalah

Opening Closed Rooms Of History: The Arab Spring 10 Years On

The editor of Mada Masr writes about what how to remember the revolution in Egypt.

-Analysis-

It is the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, and we can't quite escape that substance called remembrance. Yet, eschewing facile modes of nostalgic remembrance and/or tragic lamentation, we opt for asking questions: How the passing of time changes our understanding of the revolutionary event? What does this event, and what came after, tell of an Arab revolutionary tradition? And what sites of micro-politics emerged in the last 10 years, informing our conception of the broader polity of the region? In a dual invocation of the dead and the living, we aim to confront anew classical political questions on history and reckoning with the past, mobilization, organization, ideology and national identity. We also aim to explore specific areas of contestation that continue to radically redefine post-2011 politics and potentially point us to imagining certain possible futures.

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Egypt
Omaima Ismail

How Egypt Fell In And Out Of Love With Uber

Uber launched with an excited bang in Egypt in 2014, promising work and new income for a country struggling with unemployment. But the castle of sand has disintegrated, leaving a trail of debt and frustration.

CAIRO — One of Uber's earlier television ads in Egypt starts with a young woman getting into a car. Looking at the man in the driver's seat, she recognizes him — he is the famous footballer Hazem Emam. She is thrilled to see her favorite player. They strike up a conversation and talk for the whole ride, which they both seem to enjoy. The ad encouraged young men to join Uber as "partners."

Uber launched its operations in Egypt in 2014, with only 12 drivers. By 2020, approximately 200,000 people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of education, attracted by the flexible hours and the apparent autonomy, were driving for Uber. But, in the past two years, workers say they've seen their income slashed through company policies and an increased number of arbitrary terminations.

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Egypt
Hadeer El-Mahdawy

The Limits Of #MeToo Even In Egypt's Most Progressive Circles

Public denouncements have pressured some Egyptian institutions to establish anti-harassment policies. But without 'collective responsibility,' policies alone can only go so far.

CAIRO — In June 2019, Eman was a senior engineering student at Ain Shams University, in Cairo. While working on her senior project with a teaching assistant, the TA standing in front of her took out his penis.


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Egypt
Lina Attalah

Waiting For It: When Egypt Arrests A Human Rights Activist

Gasser Abdel Razek and his colleagues at a leading Egyptian NGO have been arrested as part of government crackdown. What it looks like to those who've been there before.

CAIRO — "I will develop ideas with my beautiful Mariam. They will include food," Gasser Abdel Razek wrote in a message to mid-August. He was sharing with me his intention to move on from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the flagship human rights organization he has been running since 2015. "I am tired and rusty. EIPR deserves better and I deserve a break."

Four years ago, I tried and failed to write a manual-style text titled "How to Withdraw." I was too tired and rusty to write or to withdraw from what I had been doing at Mada, so I kept doing it, while constantly seeking counsel from Gasser. With his summer message, Gasser, 52, a human rights defender for over 25 years, a community compass, a loving husband and father, an aspiring cook and a lover of the desert, reminded me of that project. He reminded me that desire needs to fuel what we do, and that this might require staging some ruptures, some interruptions.

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Egypt

In Egypt, Trying To Survive A Pandemic Without Enough Water

For rural communities in particular, serious water shortages were a big problem even before the COVID-19 outbreak made handwashing all the more imperative.

SHEIKH ALI SHARQ — In the village of Sheikh Ali Sharq, in the Qena governorate, residents rise every day at 7 a.m., gather empty jugs, plastic bottles and other containers, and commute in horse-drawn carts and motorized rickshaws to neighboring villages to collect water for drinking, sanitation and hygiene.

The town is one of just many in Egypt that suffer from a chronic water shortage, and with the outbreak of the coronavirus, water demands for households have increased even more, as frequent hand washing is understood to be one of best prevention measures against COVID-19 transmission.

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Egypt
Sharif Abdel Kouddous

Cairo Demolition: A City's Heartless Pursuit Of Progress

Families, neighborhoods and even the remains of loved ones are bulldozed over in order to build new highways and other works without the input of the people.

-Essay-

CAIRO — One Saturday last month, I stood surveying the rubble of my family's burial plot in the historic area of Cairo known as the City of the Dead. The wall separating our plot from the street had been demolished by a bulldozer that morning. The government was clearing a path for an overpass, 17.5-km-long, that will cut through this ancient necropolis, linking the October 6 Bridge to the Mushir Tantawy highway — and our family's burial ground, like many others, was inconveniently in the way.

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Egypt
Azza Moghazy

Now Is A Very Bad Time To Be Pregnant In Egypt

The pandemic is putting the squeeze on hospitals and clinics, and making things particularly difficult — and dangerous — for pregnant women.

CAIRO — When Farida, not her real name, started feeling extreme fatigue and pain in early April, she chalked it up to her increased load of housework. Schools were suspended and daycare centers closed, and so she has had to shoulder the responsibility of caring for her two children under age 6 — full time, all by herself.

Farida is also a freelance journalist, and keeps herself updated on COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals, and so rather than risk contagion by visiting a doctor, she opted to rest and take herbs to try and feel better. But by mid-April, the young mother's symptoms had only intensified. After she missed her period, it hit there that she was probably pregnant. A trip to the doctor was no longer avoidable, so she called the OB-GYN who had helped deliver her two daughters, only to learn that his office was closed until further notice.

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