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Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt

Posted on Oct 19, 2006
Egyptian Demonstrators
AP / Mohamed Al-Sehety

An Egyptian demonstrator chants anti-government slogans in front of riot police during a pro-judges protest outside the Supreme Court in Cairo last May.  The protests were emblematic of the burgeoning free-speech movement in what is effectively an autocratic country. In this article Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges chronicles how Egyptian authorities silence those who would speak out.

(Page 4)

The center of life is the mosque.  The imams, appointed and paid by the government, are careful about what they say.  But the mosques have swelled with young people seeking another way of life.  The large al-Amri mosque in Qus, built at the time of the Ottoman empire, is the biggest in upper Egypt.  It is an open space, the roof held up by pillars, with a green carpet.  Its ornate wooden pulpit, made from teak imported from India, is one of the most intricate in the Islamic world with its 12 carved wooden steps.  But the recent government renovation of the mosque has turned it into a soulless, concrete monstrosity, the old beams and marble pillars, many of them Roman in origin, incorporated at random into the design.  The walls are a pale yellow.  Fans are suspended from the ceiling.

I sit in the sea of worshippers and listen to the sermon.  The imam speaks of feeding the poor and how most of our problems are caused by human selfishness.

“Allah calls on us to cooperate to promote goodness and not to cooperate to promote evil,” he says. 

I meet with the imam after the service in his small office, the shelves filled with theological works.  He wears a red turban, a white collarless shirt buttoned up to his chin, a pressed gray galabaya and a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.  He is a large man with beefy hands and an easy smile.  He is careful when asked questions that skirt into politics, keeping things vague enough to make a point and keep him out of trouble.


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“There is no cooperation between the rich and the poor in this country,” he says.  “The rich should help the poor.”

He tells me that a proper Muslim woman must cover her head, and when I ask him about the singers and actresses in Cairo, and the wives of high officials, including Mrs. Mubarak, who appear uncovered, he picks his words with care.

“These singers spread corruption in society,” he says.  “This leads to illegal relationships between men and women, which is not allowed in Islam.  It leads people away from religious principles, away from the true Islam and finally angers Allah.”

Late that night we sit in the small coffee shop in Gazira.  A television on a table in the corner transmits a soccer game.

“Nurses will go to your homes to give vaccines,” a commercial informs viewers.

The mud-brick buildings are three and four stories high, the arched doors and window frames neatly painted with white trim.  They remind me of the towering mud buildings in Yemen.  The windows on the bottom floors are closed off with wooden shutters.  Two young men work over a small stove with jets of blue gas.  On the wall, in red letters, is a sign that reads:  “Remember the Prophet.”

But there is despair in the coffee shop.  Few of the men have jobs. 

Moustafa Abdel Safat, in a brown galabaya and with a yellow scarf draped around his neck, helps his father grow wheat and vegetables.  He lives with his mother, father and eight brothers and sisters.  He moonlights hooking the houses in the village up to the electrical grid, setting up a ladder, hammering holes in the walls and stringing the wire out to the poles.  I have a hard time determining whether, as I suspect, he is pirating the current. 

“The bad part is that I get electrocuted,” he says. 

“If I grip the wire like this,” he adds, folding the palm of his left hand around his right index finger, ” I die.  A lot of people have died doing this work.”

“I will leave soon for another country to find work,” he says.  “I have a bachelor’s degree in social work from Aswan University.  I graduated three years ago.  I can’t find a job.  I do not want to work in the fields with my family.  I want to find another kind of work.”

He has applied for a work visa to Saudi Arabia and has been waiting for two months for a response.  He hopes to work as an electrician. 
The television is broadcasting a popular soap opera called “I Do Not Love My Father’s Galabaya,” about a younger generation that does not subscribe to the old ways of life.  The girls do not cover their heads.  The boy wants to go to college rather than work with his father.  The first commercial is for Tide.

The two boys behind the counter are busy packing tobacco in round metal cylinders for the water pipes.  The hiss of the gas competes with the radio above the counter playing a folk song by Rabia al-Baraka.

“A plant grows then I cry for it when it dies,” the words go.  “This happened to me.”

Alla Adel is 16, with a thin moustache and sideburns.  He works for about a dollar a day and gives the money when he comes home at night to his father.  He has four brothers and three sisters.  The other waiter, Ahmed Nour, who is 15, also uses the money for his family.  The two boys say they dream of something else, especially Ahmed, who wants to be a professional soccer player.  Alla points to a spot on the wall where he scratched his name. “It was when I started work,” he says.

The owner, Said Bishair, sits out with the patrons, leaning forward on his bamboo cane.  He wears a white turban and a brown scarf.  He has had the coffee shop for 30 years.  Before that he was a farmer. 

Those who seek work can go at this time of the year to the sugar cane fields, where they can cut cane for less than a dollar a day.  It is brutal work, especially in the heat, one of the reasons the harvesters begin work before dawn.  We arrive in a field not far from the paper and cane factory.  The men in galabayas and sandals cut the green stalks with machetes and strip them of the leaves before tossing them in a pile.  Donkeys, tethered in the field, bray.

Mohamed Kamal, 45, the owner, stands next to a wooden cart and watches the some 20 workers fill it with stalks.  He allows them to take the leaves home to feed their animals.  Several of the donkeys are already eating their fill of leaves.

One of the workers is a young man clearly unused to hard labor.  He gives me his name and tells me he graduated from the university with a degree in social work.  He is cutting stalks in exchange for leaves for his animals.  He is also angry, and as we speak, Ahmed, who accompanies us everywhere, begins to inch closer to us.

“I searched for a job,” he says, “but there are no jobs.  I am angry.  A job is very important.”

He tells me he has never been to Cairo, but he may have to go there to seek work. He began to attend the mosque and do his five daily prayers about six years ago. And then he lays out a new vision for Egypt, one that lurks not far beneath the surface of the secular Mubarak regime.

“When there are Islamic laws governing our lives, things will be better,” he says.  “There will be more work.  Everyone will fear Allah.  This will make a change.  If you fear Allah there is no corruption.  This will make it better for us.”

He watches as I write down his words.

“Please omit my name,” he says softly, glancing at Ahmed, who stands a few feet away with his back to us.  I cross his name out in my notebook.  He looks at the black lines through his name and asks me to continue to blot out his name.

As we get in the van Ahmed asks if he can go to Qus and find a phone so he can report on our conversations over the past two hours without using his cellphone.  The cellphone service is down today and he has lost contact with state security.  We suspect the comments of the cane cutter mean trouble for him.  We head to the central phone exchange and Ahmed disappears into a cabin for nearly an hour.

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By Bukko in Australia, April 1, 2009 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

It saddens me tio say this, Egypt Lover, but the way you feel about your homeland is how I feel about the United States. Which is part of the reason I don’t live there any more…

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By Egypt lover, March 27, 2009 at 12:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Iam Egyptian, I love my country so much, idon’t before think how can i live away from my home. But you couldnont live now at all. No education, no democracy, No law (Except for the poor peoples)Governement can easily cooperate with others (businessmen, illegal organizations,.....etc) to destroy any infrastructures built before, to indirect kill peoples via toxic foods and water.
All of us knowing that. If you are here, don’t drink Water, don’t sell fruits and vegetables (Avoid the dangereous of Cancer). I dream Now to migrate to any other country to saved my life and my children. That is a small part of our life in the Big Prison “Egypt”
Police, fuck to police especially the Egyptian one !!

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By egyptevakantie, October 18, 2008 at 1:25 am Link to this comment
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i love egypt

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By usheroff, January 13, 2007 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

wow chris,
Another insightful and hidden   view from inside the Midle East-you are a remarkable reporter.I recently returned from Moroco where Westerners are definately another species.The people there are also afraid to be seen with foreigners if it is not in the proper context.Morocco has a 30% unemployment rate. The King is the head of the Mosque so it appears that Islamic fundamentalism is kept at bay.Anyway,So there was a very strange subtext underlying my vacation.

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By Lennybruce, November 1, 2006 at 3:27 am Link to this comment
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You guys just don’t get it, do you. The USA’s unflinching support for these despotic regimes in the flammable ME is a brilliant and primarily efficient strategic foreign policy move. With friends like these, who needs enemies. Get it, two birds with one stone. Brilliant. Except for that other saying, about things coming back and biting you in the ass. Go George.

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By Christopher, October 30, 2006 at 11:26 pm Link to this comment
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As always, Chris Hedges’ work is worth reading.  I’m not surprised that so many young people, who don’t see much of a future for themselves, are turning to religion.  One person interviewed said, “A job is very important.”  That seems like an obvious statement until jobs become scarce.  The lack of employment does lead to despair.  Who do you turn to when you feel that way?  Your family, if you’re lucky.  And then you turn to God—because you have nothing else.  It makes perfect sense to me.  I actually have a lot in common with the people interviewed in this article.  I don’t go to a mosque, but, being unemployed and living with my parents, after graduating from college, I find myself inclined to accept religious beliefs.  It’s the only meaning I have in my life, and I’m not ashamed of it.  I also have a palpable hatred for the way my country, the U.S.A, is set up.  I hate the leadership’s foreign policy.  I hate the capilalist inhumanity of the job market.  So I can understand the people of Egypt.  I almost feel like I’m one of them.  Overall, this was a very good article by Hedges.

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By Spinoza, October 30, 2006 at 9:17 pm Link to this comment
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>  When will people, or this site, do a piece on the root of the problem(s) which is overpopulation?  Why do we choose to ignore this?

BECAUSE it is not the problem???

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By charlie ehlen, October 30, 2006 at 7:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Hedges,
Thank you for this article. As others have said, Egypt is so repressed it saddens one to hear how bad things are there.
One other thing I got from your article though, people are people, no matter where they are in this world. They want a better life for themselves and their children. Money and/or education being the barrier to that better life.
We are all the same inside, we have the same basic needs, the same basic desires. Things like religion come along and divide us. Politics divide us even further.
Egypt seems to be right close to being a total police state. America seems to be well on that path also. Our “patriot act” the Military Commissions Act, and other “legislation” recently passed in these past five years are sending America down that same road. Oh, and the outsourcing of our best jobs is placing us on the economic pathway to becoming a third world country as well.
Just my 2 cents worth.
Excellent article sir! Thank you for your reporting..

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By chris (usa), October 30, 2006 at 8:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is a book that I feel is a must read for anyone interested in the social dycotomy that is Egypt..The book is “No God But God.Egypt And The Triumph Of Islam”.The author is Geneive Abdo. Although it is a bit long winded, she does a great job illustrating how strange and often times simplistic the roots of what has become modern day Egypt is. This is a place that has neighborhood Mullahs that are no more qualified to speak on their religion than any lay-person on the street..These people just begin a dialog within what they feel the public wants to hear and “Voila”-instant holy man!..Then the skullduggery of the state comming in and letting them know that they are being watched and that anti-government speak will be stamped out in a New York minute. This is how these governments weild the “Cane”..The U.S.A is not far behind these folks…You then see Mubarak on Charlie Rose soft selling the pollicy and proceedure of his government..Right..The one thing that everyone fails to realize is that these people lead these governments from without the country rather than from within. That is to say that they pander to the west in their business suits and conservative haircuts, then when our governments rubber stamp the regime and give them the “Hear, See, Speak no evil” tune up, they return to their country, throw on the olive drab and kick some a..-.

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By e, October 29, 2006 at 7:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Note how Mubarak started his regime in ‘81-he used the killing of Sadat by an extremist group as an excuse to declare a national state of emergency, and suspended civil liberties and othere freedoms that have never been restored.

Parallel this with 911 and Bush’s move down the same path-the Patriot Act, Warrantless Wiretapping, Military Commissions Act, etc, etc, etc

Who are we to judge another country and its monster leader, when ours is even worse??

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By J, October 28, 2006 at 3:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Egypt is an amazing country and has “potential.”  However, it’s numbers continue to grow and as easy as it is to blame the government, blame another entity, it is the number people competing for the limited resources and jobs that limits its success.  When will people, or this site, do a piece on the root of the problem(s) which is overpopulation?  Why do we choose to ignore this?

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By Fadel Abdallah, October 28, 2006 at 10:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What is “inside Egypt” is closely interlinked to what comes from outside of Egypt, pariculary the unholy alliance of the U.S.A. and Europe, who support a corrupt and dictatorial regime whose only credit is that it turned Egypt into a police state reminiscent of the times when the ugly British occupied Egypt! And they keep wondering how and why the average Egyptian hates the West and finds no hope but in a radicalized version of Islam.

Thanks Chris Hedges for your couregeous attempt at a truthdigging!

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By Val, October 28, 2006 at 2:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you. An astonishing and necessary piece of true journalism. How tragic, to realize what religious superstition has done, over millennia, to human lives and the human spirit.

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By vonwegen, October 28, 2006 at 2:09 am Link to this comment
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Chilling indeed, but in time such oppressive repression becomes its own worst enemy. It’s like trying to stop a boil from festering not by curing the problem, but by trying to cover it up. Sooner or later, it will burst.

Mubarek had the golden opportunity to stop all this from happening, just by restoring the freedoms people had under Sadat, but every year that passed since then has hardened the resentment and hatred of the common people toward the government, and by now, it’s way too late.

The bottom line? We need to get totally off oil N-O-W. Otherwise, when the boil finally does burst, in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, we are going to be caught in an Energy Crisis the likes of which we have never seen. It does not take a genius to see this coming, folks…

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By Bukko in Australia, October 28, 2006 at 1:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article! I knew Egypt was poor and politically repressive, but not at this level. It sounds like the old Soviet Union. Kudos for revealing a side of Egypt that most of us never hear about. Frightening, the desperation and anger underlying this society.

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By TOC, October 27, 2006 at 6:45 pm Link to this comment
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Egypt is a repressive state ruled by an oligarchy. This is news? The alternative to this seems to be invasion, which, if you haven’t noticed, doesn’t seem to work out to well in this part of the world.

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