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Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt

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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.

By Chris Hedges

(Page 5)

We retreat to the Nile, sure now that Ahmed and our state security minders will exert even greater control over our activities.  Ahmed refuses to let us leave for the river, an enforced delay that will color the rest of our visit, and when we arrive there are several large men in galabayas, all wearing expensive watches and with the well-fed jowls of men who do not eke out a living in the fields.  Girls are washing laundry in the river, laughing gaily in the water.  The banks of the river are sandy and wind whips down the broad expanse of water.  Women in black robes, with straw mats or baskets of clothes balanced on their heads, move toward the water.  A boy swims naked alone in the shallow water.

Faiza Hussein, 12, is washing with her cousin.  She wears a blue dress and stands knee-deep with laundry floating around her. 

“Afaf,” she shouts to her cousin, “where is the brush?”

She takes the brush and begins to work on a curtain in the water, soap suds rising from the material as she scrubs.  Two of the large men in galabayas stand a few feet away, watching me.

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As I chat with the girls, who banter and giggle with teenage enthusiasm, a young man pushes a friend who is a paraplegic down through the sand to the water.  The paraplegic sits on the seat of a crude, large tricycle he can peddle by turning cranks at chest level.  His withered legs are contrasted with his upper build.

He is Ahmed Fahty, 25, who had polio when he was a small child.  The young man pushing him, Ramadan Sayyed, is a mute.  They are neighbors.

“I spend most of my time with Ramadan,” Fahty tells me.  “We go everywhere with each other.  We have a lot in common.  We are more than brothers.  We need to help each other.”

The two men look out at the water.  A pair of crutches are strapped to the back of the tricycle.

“We just come to look,” he says.  “In the summer I will go in the water, but Ramadan will not go in.  He is afraid.  When Ramadan wants something I can understand his gestures.  We give each other help.  We share our food.”

He says he lives at home with his parents, a life that is hard and often lonely.

“The hardest thing is mental,” he says.  “Sometimes I get angry with my mother or sister at home.  Sometimes my chest hurts me and when my chest hurts me I do not want anyone to speak with me.  If someone speaks with me I get angry.  Ramadan stays with me when I have this pain.  He will tell me we should go down to the Nile and look at the water.  Ramadan and I understand each other.”

One of the large men in a clean, pressed galabaya comes to stand next to me.  He is clutching a cellphone.  The two young men nervously glance at him.  When I ask Fahty what he does when people make fun of Sayyed it is the stranger at our side who answers.

“This kind of thing never happens,” the man says briskly.

On the way home we are told that our request to visit the elementary school where Ahmed’s small daughter is a student has been denied.  We decide to visit the offices of the Ministry of Education in Qus to get them to reconsider the request.  When we arrive we find the director, Rushdi Abu el-Safa’,  behind a large desk.  He is smoking, flicking the ash on the floor.  He oversees the 180 schools in the district, which has 87,000 students.  He promises to pass on our request.  Ahmed, who receives a call later that day, is told we will not be allowed in any schools, nor can we visit the local factories.  When we get home we find Ahmed’s wife nervous and silent.  The constant phone calls, the long reports Ahmed has to fax each day on our activities, have cast a pall over the house.  The strains of our visit show in the darting looks, whispers and uncomfortable gaps in conversation where we had once laughed and joked.

We walk that evening to the tomb of the village sheik.  The blue dome of the tomb, with vermillion and green flags on top, is a local shrine.  A sign outside says: “This is the place of Sheik Abdullah Mohammed Ahmed.”  About 10 children play in the dirt outside the tomb.

“He lived a simple life,” says Abdullah Ali, who built the tomb in 1984 for his uncle.  “He was a farmer.  He was very kind.  He did not hurt or annoy his neighbors.”

The sheik, according to the villagers, had supernatural powers.  He knew what people were carrying in their pockets.  He could predict the future.  He could take a pot of boiling liquid and drink it.  In his final days, sick and bedridden, villagers claimed to have seen him visit their houses. When he spat at a water pump it exploded.  When thieves descended on the village they fled, believing they were chased by the sheik for 50 kilometers.

“He could go 45 days without food or water,” his nephew says.  “He did not live in any one place.  He wandered.  He once jumped from the highest palm tree in the village and was not hurt.  He was illiterate.”

His nephew did not build the tomb until his two sons suffered accidents, including the collapse of a wall on one of the boys.  He saw these as signs of displeasure from his uncle.

“Since I built the tomb nothing has happened,” he tells me.

I ask him if all venerated sheiks have magical powers.  He looks at me with disapproval.

“Magic is forbidden in Islam,” he says.

We do not eat until late at night.  Ahmed spends two hours writing up our day to fax to the state security services.  When the photographer traveling with me picks up the report he reminds Ahmed that he has not mentioned the trip to the tomb. 

“Oh no,” Ahmed says, clearly upset, “I forgot.”

The next morning at dawn the photographer asks to take pictures in the cane fields, but Ahmed does not let him leave the house.  He calls state security.  He waits to be called back.  Reza, when he finally arrives in the fields, notices several large men with cellphones interspersed among the cane cutters. 

We drift at nights to the coffee shops, tailed now, as we are during the day, by the heavyset men in the clean, pressed galabayas and holding the cellphones.  They offer no explanation for their intrusiveness. 

Our decision to go back to the pharonic temple, however, the next morning makes us glad to have them.  Our return visit is not taken lightly by the neighbors, who believe it is connected with an excavation.  Within minutes people start shouting at us in anger and rage, telling us to get out.

A young man had let us into his home during the previous visit and his father begins to yell and curse him and us.

“Why did you let them into the house?” he shouts at his son.  “They will report about the whole temple to the government and all the houses will be destroyed.”

Curse words begin to fly.  We back away.  Three uniformed police swiftly arrive and hustle us to the van, shouting at the small mob to get back.

It is only at midnight on our last day that we are told we will not be allowed on the third-class train.  We will be put, we are told, into a first-class car to Cairo.  We will not be allowed to speak to anyone on the train. 

We enter the train with escorts, including uniformed police with assault rifles.  When we attempt to walk into the second-class car we are abruptly pushed back by a policeman between the two cars. 

“No foreigners,” we are told.

When the train pulls into the Shohaj station security men enter our car.  They check the documents of the few Egyptians seated in our car and frisk them.  The Egyptians are asked to leave our compartment.  We become, in a matter of minutes, as hermetically sealed off from the Egypt we sought to reach as the tourists in the lumbering buses whose convoy we had joined a few days before.  We sit on the long ride to Cairo and watch the other Egypt glide past us.


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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
(Unregistered commenter)

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
(Unregistered commenter)

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
(Unregistered commenter)

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
(Unregistered commenter)

>  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
(Unregistered commenter)

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
(Unregistered commenter)

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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