An Egyptian childhood: ‘One day, I’d like to be free’

Egypt’s revolution was led by those for whom freedom was not a given but a dream.

[Chris Mugarura/Al Jazeera]


Yehia Ghanem is an Egyptian journalist and war correspondent who has covered conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and DRC.

When, in January 2011, young Egyptians took to Tahrir Square to demand the downfall of a dictator, Egyptian journalist and war correspondent Yehia Ghanem joined them, eager to understand what it was that drove these seemingly privileged young people to confront power. He joined their representatives as they embarked on negotiations with the government, he shared in their celebrations when Mubarak stepped down and he experienced their sorrow when the sentiments of the revolution were slashed with such tragic consequences for so many, finding himself standing trial in an Egyptian court. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here

Cairo, Egypt – 2009 to 2011 and beyond

I was at my son’s school, waiting to talk to the headmaster, when I started a conversation with one of the pupils. He must have been 11 or so. “What would you like to be when you’re older?” I asked him. It seemed a perfectly normal sort of question to ask a child.

He stopped to think before answering. “Hmm,” he began. “When I grow up, I would like to be free.”

It was 2009, a couple of years before Egypt’s revolution, and I’d expected him to answer with “a doctor”, “an engineer”, or perhaps “a teacher”. But “free”? I was shocked.

In democratic countries, freedom is a given. But, in Egypt, it was something to aspire to, to dream of.

Freedom before food 

It is often the aim of dictators to persuade those living under them that freedom is a luxury and that food, shelter and employment are, in fact, more important. But meeting such basic needs can never be guaranteed if you are not free and do not live in a free country.

When the Arab Spring began, it was triggered by young people who sought, first and foremost, freedom. They understood that only freedom could guarantee them food, shelter and the most basic right to life and physical safety.

When people spend their youths looking over their shoulders, fearing their country’s security apparatus, and with little hope of making a living, it creates a lethal cocktail: hopelessness mixed with indignity.

In Egypt, we could smell the revolution before it arrived. Poverty had reached unprecedented levels: at least 25 percent of people were living on less than $2 a day. It wasn’t unusual to see people rummaging through dumpsters, waist-deep in rubbish, looking for something to eat.

We imagined that, when it came, the revolution would be led by the poor and the hungry.

So when, in the weeks before January 25, young upper class  and upper middle class people filled their social media accounts with calls for a revolution, nobody thought much of it, least of all the government. The then president, Hosni Mubarak, mocked them in a speech addressing a rally of his National Democratic Party. “Let them entertain themselves a bit,” he said, as the rally erupted into laughter.

January 25 seemed like any other day – but it wasn’t. Tahrir Square was filled – not with the poor and underprivileged – but by young people who had attended the most prestigious universities and drove the best cars. But here they were, giving up their comforts and risking their lives to confront the country’s 30-year dictatorship. From where did they get such conviction, I wondered.

Over the following days, I spent hours talking to them to find out.

“It’s true we belong to wealthy families and have many comforts, and with the opportunity to attend the most expensive universities both here, in Egypt, and abroad,” one graduate from the American University in Cairo told me. “However, we still feel the needs of the poor and underprivileged.”

“Morally and ethically we must fight for those who have less,” said another young man. “But that is not the only reason [why we are here]. Pragmatically speaking, if we turn a blind eye to our fellow Egyptians being victimised by a corrupt and tyrannical regime it will put our own lives at jeopardy sooner or later. If we turn our faces away from the agonies of the poor, those who represent the majority, it would not only be selfish but also self-destructive for when they explode, it will be hell.”

I expected these young people, surrounded by soldiers, to yield within a matter of hours. But they remained.

By midnight on that first day, when the security forces had severely injured scores of demonstrators, I again expected them to disperse. But, instead, they offered flowers to those who beat them.

READ MORE: Egypt’s revolution through the eyes of Mohamed

As the night wore on, they never attempted to defend themselves, but rather reassured the soldiers that their aim was to defend them and their impoverished families. Two days later, after several demonstrators had been killed, they resorted to throwing stones at those who attacked them.

Within two days, tens of thousands of people had joined them.

Talking to the prime minister

On February 3, the government started to reach out to the young demonstrators. But their first encounter with a representative of the government was not, as is commonly believed, with General Omar Suleiman, the vice president and former minister of intelligence, but with Ahmed Shafik, the then prime minister. I’d helped to arrange the meeting, which took place at the Ministry of Civil Aviation, next to Cairo’s airport, as the prime minister’s office was located in Tahrir Square.

Fearing that they were facing annihilation as snipers started to target them, I told some of the demonstrators that I thought that they should compile their demands to present to the authorities. At first, they were opposed. Their only demand, they said, was that Mubarak should go.

But, eventually, two or three of them agreed.

I knew a university professor who had intelligence contacts and who I thought might be able to put us in touch with the prime minister. I asked the professor to come to Tahrir to witness what was unfolding with his own eyes. He asked me if I could guarantee his safe passage. The demonstrators agreed. Within an hour, he was standing, shocked, in the middle of the square.

He put us in touch with the prime minister, who agreed to talk. But for two days, the demonstrators argued among themselves about whether to go. Some feared that they risked arrest if they left the square.

The prime minister assured them that they’d be able to return to Tahrir after the meeting, which began at 11pm and went on until 5am.

Those representing the demonstrators were firm in the face of the prime minister’s demand that they end their sit-in. They would remain until Mubarak stepped down and took his corrupt officials with him, they explained. Shafik remained polite throughout.

Two further sessions of talks followed, but they, too, resulted in nothing.

After 18 days, the army, which was already unhappy with Mubarak’s efforts to pass the presidency to his non-military son, forced his resignation. I was live on TV when the news came through. On the monitor before me, I could see the scenes from Tahrir: there was shouting and screaming, firecrackers going off. I burst into tears on camera and, unable to carry on, removed my microphone and headed back to the Square.

With nothing but their determination, idealism and unity, the young demonstrators had withstood the police, the army as well as hired thugs to bring down a dictator. Even as some among them were killed and maimed, they remained peaceful but refused to relinquish their revolution, driven by their desire to shape their own futures and, in so doing, the future of their country.

Mistaking the man for the machine

But the demonstrators had mistaken the man for the machine, believing that in removing the dictator himself, they had also removed the system. They were soon proved wrong.

Within months, the dictatorship machine began rolling again: demonising the revolution, dashing hopes and carrying out massacres, forced disappearances and, eventually, convicting thousands of people on phony charges, sentencing some to death.

More than five years after the revolution, tens of thousands of people have been jailed, andEgypt is building new prisons to accommodate them all.

READ MORE: Inside Egypt’s prisons

It sometimes seems as though the older generations of Egyptians, those who have lived for decades under a dictator, have forgotten what freedom tastes like and failed to fight for it.

But I will always remember that 11-year-old boy whose dream for the future was simply that he would be free. There are many more like him. And they will have their way.

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from an upcoming book. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies. 

Source: Al Jazeera News

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tackle security issues

Republican candidate and his Democratic rival Clinton outline their credentials as commander-in-chief at security forum.

Donald Trump has suggested that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had been a better leader than US President Barack Obama.

The Republican presidential candidate’s remarks came at a televised forum on Wednesday in New York City that paired him with his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in separate appearances.

He suggested that US generals had been blocked by the policies of Obama and Clinton, who served as Obama’s first secretary of state.

Trump‘s praise for Putin and his suggestion that the US and Russia form an alliance to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group could trouble foreign-policy experts who feel Russia is interfering with efforts to end the Syrian civil war.

READ MORE: Trump v Clinton race heats up with two months to go

“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said of Putin at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief forum attended by military veterans.

“Certainly in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been.”

It was the first time Trump, 70, and Clinton, 68, had squared off on the same stage since accepting their respective parties’ presidential nominations in July for the November 8 election.

Classified information

Clinton was questioned over her handling of classified information while using a private email server during her tenure at the state department.

Matt Lauer, the moderator, pressed her about her handling of emails from a private server while secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.

The issue has raised questions about whether she can be trusted to serve as president.

Clinton defended her handling of classified information at the forum [Brian Snyder/Reuters]

James Comey, FBI director, had declared her “extremely careless” in her handling of sensitive material but did not recommend charges against her.

“I did exactly what I should have done and I take it very seriously, always have, always will,” she said.

Clinton said none of the emails she sent or received were marked top secret, secret or classified, the usual way such material is identified.

READ MORE: US Democrats blame Russia for cyber attacks

The event offered a prelude to how Clinton and Trump will deal with questions on national security issues in their three upcoming presidential debates later in September and in October.

Clinton began the forum saying her long experience in government as a US senator and secretary of state made her uniquely qualified to serve as president.

Trump faced questions about his fitness for office. Asked if he would be prepared on Day One to be commander in chief, Trump said: “One hundred percent.”

Will Donald Trump win the US presidential election? – UpFront

Source: Agencies

First group of refugees returns to Syria’s Jarablus

Hundreds of civilians return to Jarablus after Ankara-backed Syrian rebels oust ISIL fighters from border town.

Turkey has absorbed some 2.7 million Syrian refugees within its borders [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Hundreds of Syrian refugees have left Turkey for the Syrian town of Jarablus, according to Turkish officials, in the first wave of civilian resettlement since the launch of an Ankara-backed incursion into northern Syria two weeks ago.

More than 250 Syrians, including women and children, arrived at a sports complex in the Turkish border town of Karkamis for registration early on Wednesday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency said.

After the registration process, they went through security checks before crossing into Syria through the border gate at Karkamis, the agency said.

Erdogan: ‘Syria operations will continue until the end’

Huseyin Rustem, a Syrian refugee who had been living in Turkey’s southeastern Gaziantep province for more than a year, said he was “excited to go home.

“My home is now cleansed from terror, that’s why I am going back,” he told reporters in Karkamis before his departure for Jarablus.

“I missed my parents. My whole family is still there. I was all alone here.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, a senior Turkish government official said that “Syrians will continue to return to their country”.

A spokesman at the governor’s office for Gaziantep province, which lies across the border from Jarablus, also confirmed the civilians’ departure.

“The formal returns have begun today,” the spokesman told Reuters news agency. “This is the first time since the operation began.”

READ MORE: Kurds and refugees behind Turkey’s Syria offensive

Saif Abu Bakr, general commander of the Hamza Division, a rebel faction affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, told Al Jazeera that “approximately 250 to 300 civilians, including men women and children, were transported back across the border” at about 5pm local time.

“They were all originally from Jarablus,” he said, adding that all the returnees wanted to go back home

“There was no pressure from the Turkish side,” Bakr said from Jarablus. “They asked to go back to their homes.”

Bakr said that all families from Jarablus, approximately 10,000 civilians, were now expected to be brought back to their hometown in the near future.

Jarablus had been controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIL) for almost two years until it was captured by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in a cross-border offensive launched on August 24.

Turkish-backed rebels secure Jarablus in northeastern Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan previously said that Turkey’s cross-border offensive into Syria was aiming to give people who fled ISIL-controlled areas a chance to return to their homes as well as securing the Turkish border.

“Jarablus has been freed,” he told a rally in Gaziantep two weeks ago. “Anyone who wants to go back to Jarablus will be given any support they need from us.”

Turkey has absorbed some 2.7 million Syrian refugees within its borders since the start of civil war in neighbouring Syria.

‘Raqqa operation’

Meanwhile, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could take part in a future military operation to retake Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital in Syria.

Speaking to reporters aboard a plane as he returned from a G-20 meeting, Erdogan said that the issue had been brought up by US President Barack Obama during the summit in China.

“Obama wants to do some things jointly concerning Raqqa,” Erdogan said. “We said this would not be a problem from our perspective.”

His comments were reported by the Hurriyet daily and several other Turkish newspapers on Wednesday.

Erdogan also said Turkish and US military officials could meet to discuss the issue, according to Turkish media.

Washington has not yet commented on Erdogan’s remarks.

Source: Al Jazeera News And Agencies

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