Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Farewell, Cairo

So after a less than perfect first week here, the last week and a half, leading up to my return home, have not been much better.  Added to all the earlier complaints about the hotel and the traffic – indeed, the city itself – has been added a political dimension that has flared up since I got here.  This has been a result of the first round of voting in the Presidential Election, and the Mubarak trial verdicts.  The two combined have made the stay even more boring than it already was, because of safety concerns,

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To take them both separately.

The Election is the first democratic election since the fall of the old regime last year, during the Arab Spring uprising season.  It attracted a wide field of candidates from across the Egyptian political spectrum, and voting itself passed off quite peacefully, despite widely voiced fears of violence and intimidation that in the event were unfounded.  Instead, there was a mood of hope and excitement that change really was about to come to the country and improve things.  The fact that the new President’s actual powers are still unclear because the new Constitution is still being written was rather glossed over by optimistic speeches by all the candidates.

The result of the first poll has changed the mood of the country.  Possibly because there was just too many candidates, voting was somewhat fragmented and as expected there was no outright winner and a run off between the leading two candidates is scheduled for the next couple of weeks.  The problem is in the identity of the two candidates.

The first is the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Despite saying all the right things about continuing the revolution by accepting the will of the people, and bringing in legislation to provide more democratic freedom, the widely held fear is that once in power all this will be forgotten and the party will introduce legislation to move Egypt into a more rigid Islamic society like others in the Middle East – notably Iran, with whom the Brotherhood has close ties.  Clearly, this would be good for neither the country nor the region as a whole.

The other candidate is a more politically experienced operator who was the country’s last Prime Minister under the Mubarak Presidency.  That in itself is the major concern: that by voting him in, the “old regime” will make a comeback, and Egypt will suffer more waves of repression and set the whole democratic process back 30 years.

As one of the guys at the bank said, the result is a complete disaster for Egypt.

Meanwhile, a few days after this result was announced, the verdicts in the trial of Mubarak, his two sons, the old Defence chief and a number of security officers were read out by the presiding judge live on television.  The charges were of corruption and bringing about the deaths of several hundred protesters during the uprising last year.  The death sentence had been called for.  Instead, Mubarak was cleared of deliberately causing their deaths but found guilty of “failing to stop” them and imprisoned for life (given that he’s 84 and in ill health that is not likely to be long).  His Defence chief was found guilty in similar terms and was also given a life sentence.  To everyone’s surprise, the security officers were acquitted, as were Mubarak’s sons who now face a separate trial for stock market manipulation. 

The prosecution team was outraged and demanded a retrial as, in its opinion, the verdicts were not severe enough.  The defence team was equally outraged and demanded a re-trial on the basis that its clients were innocent and should be released.   

The public was even more outraged, again in both ways – the majority of people were still calling for the death sentence, and Mubarak supporters demanding his immediate release.  The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the trial judges had cocked it up big time.

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The two events have sparked a wave of protest across the country and in Cairo in particular.  Within a few days the pro-Mubarak presidential candidate had seen his campaign office torched – twice.  Increasing crowds have returned to Tahrir Square, primarily to protest the trial verdicts – the issues raised by the election run-off are temporarily at least on hold.  Mass demonstrations are again being held everywhere, and there is once again a palpable tension in the air.  At work, groups of people are standing in corridors and offices, discussing what is happening, and the name of Mubarak is most frequently mentioned, the only word I recognize in the Arabic tirade.  Some of them are leaving early to join the protests.   Yesterday’s mass protest in Tahrir will be repeated today – and probably every day until this mess is sorted out.  Demonstrators are openly calling for the revolution to start all over again before it’s too late to stop the country back sliding into its old ways and its old regime.  The Muslim Brotherhood is now confident it will win the run off on a wave of anti-Mubarak sentiment, and no-one is quite sure whether that will be a good thing or not.

The UK Foreign Office has provided a sterling service.  I’ve mentioned in other posts that before travelling anywhere new I check their Travel Advice website – for Egypt it gave probably the strongest advice I’ve yet seen.  Basically, it states parts of the country (mainly around Suez and the borders with Gaza and Israel) should be off limits, and everywhere else is dangerous and the utmost caution should be exercised.  As ever, I registered my trip with them, and this time I have received several e-mails from the Consular Office here keeping me appraised of the situation, what parts of Cairo and Egypt are worst affected by the new waves of protest, and where I shouldn’t go.

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As a result I’ve been holed up in my hotel most of the time.

Ordinarily this would not be a problem, but it’s not a particularly good hotel, as I wrote previously.  So far, I’ve had to have my key card re-set 5 times in not much more than two weeks.  The shoe cleaning pad – much needed with all the crud in the streets here – was used up by the end of the first week and not replaced, so I resorted to using one of the bathroom hand towels.  It too was not replaced for three days, just draped over the side of the bath.  The room hasn’t been hoovered the entire time I’ve been using it, even if the bed linen is changed every day.   I’ve used the pool a few times and that is, for me at least, the best part of the entire establishment.  It’s clean, a good size and well served with loungers and umbrellas.  But it’s been uncomfortably hot the last few days, and over the weekend, making sitting out by the pool the whole time less than pleasant.  Fortunately there have been some quite decent movies on the two channels on tv that are worth watching, so the evenings have been ok even if time has dragged sometimes.

The food has continued to be of a questionable quality.  I tried a mixed grill one evening – by which we’re talking a selection of kebabs with rice.  It was foul, dry and overcooked.  Mostly I’ve settled on omelettes and chips from room service, with the odd pizza from the Italian restaurant– they have been ok but not spectacular.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which restaurant is open on any given day, and no notice of any closure.   So it’s pot luck where you’re going to eat in the evenings.  The Thai restaurant seems permanently closed, although I’ve been told a couple of times it’s open.  I gave up on breakfast since the rolls and so on were invariably stale.  With luck, I’ve lost a bit of weight……especially with the digestive issues.  Twice now I’ve visited this country and both times had to take copious amounts of Immodium.

So because of this uncertain political situation I’ve been in the hotel and I’ve missed out on visiting the Antiquities Museum – I went there on our first trip years ago and it was really good, I would have enjoyed wandering around it for a few hours.  I’ve also missed out on exploring the downtown areas and bazaars, and the huge shopping mall out in the Heliopolis suburb (near the airport apparently) with its English bookshops and Starbucks coffee shop.  Had I been able to do that my opinion of the place may be a bit different, who knows?   But if the FO says avoid crowded places for safety reasons, then avoid crowds I will.  I always try to do so anyway, and there is certainly more reason to here than anywhere else I’ve been to over the years.

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Anyhow, I’m pretty much done now.  I fly home tomorrow and at the moment there are no plans to return – even if I’m asked to I’ll try and get out of it.

Of all the places I’ve visited in this Travellin Life, I can safely say Cairo is the one I have liked least.   Other places like Sofia and Beirut have, on the surface, been damaged and dirty and unpleasant, but have actually been rewarding and worth the trip, and visibly trying to improve themselves.  There has always been something to do and somewhere to go, but aside from the Pyramids I am struggling to find anything to recommend about Cairo at all.  This city is stuck in turmoil and poverty, with no money and seemingly no will to do anything about it….I see no evidence of a physical change taking place.    That will happen over time, I have no doubt, once all the political uncertainty is gone and there is a clear and recognized society in place – whether Islamic or otherwise – and a government with the will and the budget to do the work.   But I fear this time is years rather than months away.

I admire the people for what they are trying to achieve through this revolutionary movement, and hope they succeed, because God knows many of them have precious little to look forward to.   It’s a tragedy that the descendants of the society that built such magnificent monuments as the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and, further afield, the Temple at Luxor and, nearby, the Valley of Kings is reduced to such a poor and reduced state. 

 It’s incredible to me that in this second decade of the 21st century, in a major capital city, it’s possible to drive down a side street, within a kilometer of the Nile and the city centre, and come across piles of rubbish ten feet high, and between these stinking piles find separately no less than three old men looking after herds of goats that wander in the road amongst all the traffic.  Yet that is exactly what happened Monday evening, when my taxi home took a wrong turning maybe half a kilometer from the bank where I’ve been working.  The old men sat quietly smoking on boxes, watching the cars go by, listening to the constant blare of horns, breathing in like the rest of us the stinking traffic fumes, while their goats foraged in the trash for some scraps to eat.  Along this road, like every other road, old ladies and young were trying to sell pathetic little packets of tissues or matches or scraps of cloth, to raise money to feed themselves and their families. Beggars merely held out their hands as we drove by, calling plaintively after us, more in hope than expectation.


Friday, 1 June 2012

Euro 2012: A message to Panorama and Sol Campbell

I see Panorama is at it again.

For non UK readers, this a current affairs program on the BBC that specializes in using investigative journalism – much like our friendly neighbourhood tabloid press – to present stories that typically feature exposes of bribery and corruption in high places.  Politicians are favourite targets.  Over the years it has provided a valuable service in exposing all kinds of malpractice for the public good, but has equally suffered from plenty of criticism.  It is sometimes accused of being less than accurate in the way it presents its case, and has also been accused more than once of lying or paying people to stage acts to illustrate a particular theme.   I watch it sometimes on BBC World and always enjoy it.

Sometimes it moves away from the political arena and presents sports stories, and on football in particular, and invariably focuses on some of the less savoury aspects of the sport.  Now this is not always a bad thing.  However, sometimes the timing, to gain maximum publicity and exposure, can lead to consequences that are less than agreeable to football fans.  The classic example was a couple of years ago, when England was among the bidders to stage the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. 

Now the bid process for this, like that for both Olympics and the UEFA football Championships, is always fertile ground for this sort of program, as the amounts of money being spent by bidders to try and win the prize are invariably huge (although paling into insignificance against the costs of actually delivering a successful event, or indeed the potential profits generated by it), and wide open to all kinds of abuse.  Fertile ground then, and a fair target for Panorama and any other similar program, and of course newspapers of all description.

One of the program‘s journalists made a very good report that basically presented “proof” that a number of high-ranking FIFA executives involved in this particular bidding process had been paying significant bribes in order to secure the tournament for their countries, and that the organization’s general secretary, the odious Swiss Sepp Blatter had been aware of it all along.  All well and good: stuff like that needs to be out in the public domain: FIFA has had a reputation for years for corruption – the subject is a blog post in itself.  However, the BBC chose to screen the program the night before voting was to take place – with predictable results.  England, favourites to win the bid for 2018, with an infrastructure in place, and after a highly impressive campaign featuring among others David Beckham and Prince William, came nowhere – the voting members of FIFA, extremely pissed off at their dirty laundry being aired so publicly, voted elsewhere.  The fact that most of the allegation were subsequently found to be true, and a number of the accused (including the head of the successful Qatar bid for 2022) suspended or kicked out of the organization was immaterial.  Despite being proved right all along, Panorama and the BBC were vilified by the majority of the country’s football fans, accused of having a political agenda and labeled a national disgrace for losing England’s World Cup bid.  The criticism was second only to that poured on FIFA itself.

Earlier the same year the program had further ruffled feathers with a report that looked at the political and security situation in South Africa, who was hosting that year’s World Cup.  High levels of violent crime including rape and armed robbery were reported from across the country, but especially around Johannesburg.  The infrastructure – roads, railways, hotels – was criticized as being unable to cope with the expected influx of fans from around the world.  Of course, there were allegations of corruption, with city officials and FIFA creaming off huge sums of money from construction projects that were running behind schedule.  Fans were solemnly warned not to travel because of the dangers.  In the event, the tournament went off without a hitch, and apart from the mostly dire quality of the football was largely seen as a roaring success.

So that’s 1-1 then.

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Now their latest effort is a cracker.

Next week sees the start of the latest Euro championship, jointly hosted by Poland and Ukraine – the first time Eastern European and ex-Soviet bloc nations have hosted an event of this stature.  From the start, voices have been raised against their choice – the countries can’t cope with all the people coming to watch, the stadiums are shit, the roads are terrible……the list of complaints goes on and on.  In actual fact, both countries over the past few years, since being awarded the tournament, have been working flat out to prepare, and mostly things look pretty good.  To their credit, UEFA, the governing body, has insisted all along that the choice is the right one and stressed that it will have great long term benefit for both countries – this despite the occasional warning to both governments that preparations are running late.

The host cities have either updated existing, or built brand new, stadia that are as good as anything in the world – there are some wonderful looking venues.  They are all ready and in use.  Billions of euros have been spent improving road and rail networks, extending and re-furbishing airports or opening new ones.  Those too are up and running – although admittedly some of the road improvements will not be completed in time.  In most cities there are good hotels ready and waiting, and huge efforts have been put into adding additional accommodation as required – there are campsites in some areas, including Gdansk on Poland’s Baltic Coast that from personal experience I know is very nice at this time of year.  In both countries beer and food is cheap and excellent, and there are plenty of activities to do and places to go between matches.  Most importantly, I think, the average Pole or Ukrainian is excited about the tournament (even though both national teams are crap and unlikely to get out of their respective groups) and looking forward to welcoming fans from across the continent and enjoying the tournament with them.  Everywhere you go there are shops and stalls selling souvenirs, special hats, footballs, replica kits of all the competing nations, fanzones set up to enjoy the game in the open air with a beer and a burger – there are special concerts and entertainment laid on in some places and of course wall-to-wall publicity and tv coverage.  It’s all set fair then to be roaring success.

And then along comes Panorama.  This week it aired a program that focused on apparent racism, anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi violence at matches in both countries.  Let me be straight here: as I’m in Cairo right now I haven’t seen the program.  What I have seen is extensive coverage on the BBC website, the Guardian Online and other sites and blogs, and frankly I’ve never seen such a poisonous amount of tosh in all my life.  It doesn’t help that Sol Campbell, ex-Arsenal and England international and in his day a fine player, comes out and advises people not to travel to Poland and Ukraine “because you might come home in a coffin”.  What a bunch of ill-informed sensationalist bullshit!  Nor does it help when the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, also both of Arsenal and in the England squad, announce to the press that they are not going to see their kids play because they are frightened they will be the victims of racist violence and abuse.   Note that all three players are black.

From what I have read, the program contained footage of football supporters giving Nazi salutes and chanting anti-Semitic abuse, making monkey noises at black players and in one case attacking a group of Indian fans at a match in Kharkiv, one of the Ukrainian venues.  The thrust of it seems to be that we in England have eradicated this sort of behaviour, that Poland and Ukraine have failed badly in not taking sterner action to eradicate it themselves, and they should never have been awarded the games because they are both racist and anti-Semitic societies who don’t deserve it.  That is certainly a point of view widely aired on the blogs, and could hardly be further from the truth.  My assumption is that most of the clowns posting these comments are either from non-white ethnicity, have never been to either country to experience them themselves, are easily led – or a combination of all three.

The governments of both countries have predictably reacted angrily.  Having lived in Warsaw for getting on for 12 years now, and recently visited Kiev, I can understand their anger, and that of the people in both countries.  Now I’m not accusing the BBC or the program of lying or fabricating events to make good television – although it’s not impossible that is what happened.  I can only speak for what I have seen – and never in all the years I’ve been here have I witnessed anything remotely like the footage that Panorama apparently aired – at least not since I went to Crystal Palace v Leeds back in the early 1970s.  I have never come across any racism – overt or otherwise – in Warsaw.  There are an increasing number of black and Asian people living in the country – there is even a black MP, an immigrant from the Caribbean (I wonder if the program sought his views at all?) – and I can’t remember any cases of violence or abuse against them.    I have come across no anti-Semitism either, and after the suffering that both countries went through during the Second World War and since, under Communism, when the vast majority of both their Jewish populations was, in one way or another, wiped out I would not expect to. 

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That is not to say racism and anti-Semitism doesn’t exist there – it probably does, just as it does in Britain and France and Germany and pretty much every country in the world.   Anyone who suggests otherwise is an idiot.  But to suggest as Campbell does that if you go to Poland or Ukraine to a football match you might be killed because of your skin colour is not only wildly inaccurate but is deeply deeply offensive.  The man really should shut up and not discuss things he has no clue about – I can only assume he’s running short of cash and needed a top up from his BBC fee.

The people currently yelling from the rooftops and posting on various blogs and websites that this year’s host nations are a disgrace to humanity, and so on, should take a look around them first.  Last year many people, mainly black but from other enthnicities as well, including white, rioted and burned swathes of London and elsewhere in protest at alleged police victimization.  Don’t see that in Warsaw and Kiev.  France has recently passed laws that ban Moslem women from wearing the burqua in public and in the recent Presidential election an anti-immigration party leader came very close to a place in the run-off.  That too seems to be a little racist.   It works in reverse too – there are areas of some inner cities still where the local immigrant community is openly hostile towards white people and not a good place to be after dark.  In football, there have been two high profile cases of racial abuse in the Premier League last season – one has resulted in legal action being taken (the case is scheduled for the week after the tournament ends) and yet the accused is in the England squad.

A point that many of the critics are missing in their complaints that the Polish and Ukrainian governments are not being proactive enough in this problem is that the countries themselves, as democracies, are relatively new.  England, France, Spain and so on have perhaps hundreds of years of “exposure” to non-white cultures, and with mass immigration over perhaps 70 years or so, plenty of time to assimilate those cultures into their own societies (not always with total success, it has to be said).  Poland and Ukraine, both locked behind the Iron Curtain, have only freed themselves and become open, democratic societies in the last 20 years or so, and up until that time non-white faces were like snow in the Sahara.  Of course it will take time for some parts of their societies to adapt and accept the non-white immigrants, in the same way as it took western society many years to do so – and arguably is still trying to do.  To expect Poland and Ukraine to adapt in twenty years to something that the West has spent a couple of hundred years doing (the US is still struggling in some parts) is fatuous.

The other point being missed is that despite the great advances made in recent years, Poland and Ukraine are both relatively poor countries, with above average rates of unemployment and below average earnings, especially in rural areas.  Horse drawn carts and ploughs are still used in many places (especially in Ukraine).  The thing here is that tickets for matches are priced at a level that is likely to be beyond the reach of many of the, shall we say, lesser educated elements who normally go to watch matches and from whom typically these hooligan gangs draw their membership.  The majority of tickets sold for the tournament have gone to the competing – and generally wealthier (with the exception of Greece) - nations and it is highly unlikely that their own hooligan elements that still exist will get close to the stadia, such is the security being put in place – that’s if they even bother to travel.

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My own feeling, based solely on what I’ve seen in my travels in both countries, is that Panorama has this time overplayed its hand.  I’m convinced that anyone who does travel to either country for this football festival will not only be safe but have a great time too, and be warmly welcomed by the locals.  Just because they remain outside of “mainstream” Europe if you like, and are a little off the normal tourist trail does not make them bad people – quite the contrary, in my experience they are more friendly and generous than most English people I know.  It’s a shame the Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain families have decided not travel, for they would have had just as good a time as everyone else.

Panorama – keep up the good work, but please be a little less sensationalist and scare-mongering in the future.  It does your reputation for free and impartial journalism no good at all and tarnishes the good work you do.

Sol – shut up.  You idiot.