Geopolitics

In Egypt, Taking Democracy To The Next Level: Local!

The Arab spring hit its zenith in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but the next challenge is just as important, if not quite as glamorous: bringing real democracy to local politics, from trash collection to schools to health care.

Rana Khazbak

GIZA - Protests in Tahrir Square might be slowing down for now, but the struggle for dignity, freedom and social justice isn't over. It has just moved to Imbaba.

In this sprawling poor quarter of the city of Giza, just to the southwest of the capital, members of the popular committees that came together to provide neighborhood protection during last winter's uprising, are now taking the demands to the local level. The campaign they launched, called "Know Your Rights," is already making headway. Its goal is to mobilize people to be active in their communities and unite to demand their rights from their municipal government.

"We didn't want a small group of people to do this. People have to ask for their rights," says Ayman Youssef, coordinator of the popular committee of Imbaba. "Everyone must know that as long as he pays taxes, it's his right to lead a decent life – and the government has to provide basic services."

Popular committees meet to discuss what they believe are the most pressing problems facing their neighborhoods. Then they devise strategies on how to pressure the government to respond. Similar initiatives took place in nine other areas in Greater Cairo, each focusing on specific local problems.

The idea behind the campaign is that communities know their own needs better than any politician or civil society organization that arrives from outside of their neighborhoods. And in post-Mubarak Egypt, people feel that their demands should be heard.

"This is true democracy. It's the popular democracy, not elite democracy. Voting in parliamentary and presidential elections is not enough. The main stakeholders have to be the decision-makers all along, even after electing members of Parliament," said Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer who is the general coordinator of the Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution, a national coalition of local popular committees.

First, know your rights

The popular committee in Imbaba was the first to kick off its campaign. Members of the "Know Your Rights' campaign are now focusing on pressuring the government to remove garbage from the streets. Currently, municipal services like garbage collection do not operate in Imbaba.

At a recent event, members of the popular committee held signs that read: "Remove the garbage. You will kill us;" "How will our children get educated when the garbage is blocking the school gate?" and "Where does our money go when the garbage drowns the streets?"

The campaign, which uses the slogan "We'll visit all of Egypt's streets," aspires to deal with other social and economic issues such as housing, minimum wages, health care, education, and transportation by bringing them to the attention of the authorities.

A week after the campaign's first event in Imbaba, the governor of Giza visited the neighborhood and promised to remove all the garbage in a week. The campaign organizers celebrated the success when a day later a truck arrived to take away the garbage in one of the areas. Still, the problem still lingers in the rest of Imbaba.

The campaign has been gaining momentum in the past week and organizers are communicating with popular committees outside of Cairo to widen it.

"We decided to go to people where they live," says Ezzat. "We want every neighborhood to be Tahrir Square."

Read the full version of the story in Al Masry Al Youm

photo - Ryan Q

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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