RASHID - Rosetta is not the town it once was, nor does it attract visitors in the same way it once did. It is somewhat surprising, considering that the town is located where the world’s longest river empties into the sea, and where the key to understanding that river’s greatest civilization was discovered – the Rosetta Stone.
Getting to Rashid, Rosetta’s name in Arabic, is somewhat of a hike. Travelers used to make it there by boat through the Atfeh Canal – or by train, which stopped periodically to pick up goods, making the trip much longer.
Today there is no direct route to the town, but it’s only an hour by minibus from Alexandria, and about five hours from Cairo. Much of the road is barren, but on the approach into the town, palm trees and irrigation canals line the road being used by tuk tuks, and the smell of the burning trash outside the town is replaced by jasmine, which wafts in the sea breeze.
The town’s current incarnation is much more modest than previous ones. The traffic consists mostly of sky blue-trimmed Lada taxis, reminiscent of Alexandria, and horse carts. The mix gives the sleepy town a feel somewhere between the Beheira countryside and Alexandria, the port city that eventually replaced the booming version of Rosetta that rose to prominence exporting coffee during the 17th century.
Rosetta, in its heyday, was the town that kept the Turkish Ottoman elite’s pockets — and coffee cups — full. Victorian travelers made their way from Alexandria to see the spectacle of the port and the pulverized mocha beans it sent abroad.
In 1825, one Londoner wrote back to the Morning Post explaining how three men pounded coffee using “enormous pestles, each as large as a man can raise,” as a young boy rhythmically stirred the pounded beans, removing his hand between falls of the pestle in time with song.
These days, Rosetta’s ahwas (coffee houses) are instead supplied by roasters in Alexandria.
The man who runs the ahwa most frequented by locals, Abaza, 80-year-old Ibrahim Mahmoud Fouda, says he remembers when the last roaster in the area, closed down some 40 years ago.
Abaza is a dimly lit ahwa, but is somewhat unremarkable other than the view it provides of a Ottoman-era merchant home. Abdel Moneim Minshawy, 50, has worked there for 25 years.
During all those years, Abu Salaam, 59, a truck driver, has sat in the same spot after he finishes work to have shisha and tea. He now only takes half a teaspoon of sugar rather than the four he had in his 20s. He says he likes Abaza more than the rival ahwa, Asmar, which lies closer to the Nile, saying it is cleaner and has more to offer.
The border guards tell another story
Other merchant houses line the main fish market, seemingly designed to face away from the common people, with no visible facade and mashrabiyas (windows with carved latticework) to prevent unwelcome eyes from peering in. These houses were built by the coffee and rice moguls of the time. Those that aren’t accessible due to renovations can be visited before 4 p.m.
The merchant nature of the city merited some defense of the town and its port, pushing Sultan Qait Bey to build a fortress along the Nile. The sultan’s engineers brought stone from elsewhere to lay foundations for the modest fortress, and in the process they buried the Rosetta Stone under the south tower.
It wasn’t excavated until 1799, when French soldiers that had captured the city looked to reinforce its defenses.
When the fortress was renovated again, this time in 1985 by the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry, the original brick was covered by smoother stone. Brick factories still line the Nile, the red smokestacks and piles of blocks contrasting with the bright blue and green fishing boats as they shuttle between the sea and the fisheries that supply the fish markets and the fish restaurants along the coastal road.
The boats don’t only shuttle fish. Villages near Rosetta are sometimes also the staging point for illegal immigration out of Egypt.
Rather than marking the spot where two great bodies of water meet, the Egyptian government has erected another fortress — this time a three-story home to Egyptian border guards with binoculars to watch for movement of ships carrying migrants or contraband.
A few hundred meters inland lies a Navy factory for building jetties to prevent erosion, perhaps in preparation for impeding climate change that threatens the town. It’s possible to visit the spot, and photography is prohibited since it’s a military area, although Egyptian soldiers in flip-flops are sometimes eager to pose with visitors.
The border post lies about five kilometers north of the town, on alluvial soil that made its way down the river from the Nile basin. In the time of Herodotus, the town itself is where the river met the sea, a testament to how much sands can shift in Rosetta.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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