Fire in Cairo: human rights reforms are the cure for Egypts ills

Over the weekend Sky’s Tim Marshall tweeted from Egypt with the words “Burn like a fire in Cairo”, a line - as trainspotter-ish indie music types will tell you - that comes from The Cure’s “Fire In Cairo”, a song from their 1979 debut LP. (OK, you knew that). On one level it just about sums it up. With burnt-out military vehicles, a blazing National Democratic Party building, clouds of tear gas and shootings reported in several cities, Egypt has become, in Marshall’s words, a “scene from hell”, with “Burning police vehicles, barracades, stones, everyone carrying weapons.” Along with other excellent tweeted, blogged and broadcasted reports from Channel Four News’ Jonathan Rugman and a crack team of BBC journalists, Marshall’s updates have been giving us an insight into how terrifying mass protests can be. Never mind the armchair triumphalism of some in the Twittersphere, I reckon the scary reality in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria or Suez has been a mixture of dazed euphoria and a mounting fear of looters, armed groups and perhaps even of an army crackdown.

Talking to Amnesty’s man in Cairo – James Lynch (Twitter @jpmlynch) – just now, I was struck by how he says people he’d spoken to are now becoming increasingly worried about getting staples like food and water (the bread was “bad” yesterday is a complaint he’s heard), and there have been reports that liquid oxygen has not been reaching hospitals. Recalling that discontent over high food prices was one of the triggers for the protests, there’s a grim irony to this. Whether viewed at the level of individual human needs or bigger-picture stuff about politics and human rights standards, the key question to me is still whether the protests are going to bring about meaningful change (as I said in a cautious post last week). Frankly it’s still too early to tell. Sacking the cabinet is one thing, but appointing the head of intelligence Omar Suleiman as vice-president smacks of continuity not reform (Mubarak is in de Nile, to air the old joke). Robert Fisk calls the appointment “preposterous” and Michael Moore has slammed it saying Suleiman presided over Egypt’s notorious part in the CIA renditions programme. There’s no doubt that torture has been almost endemic in Egypt for decades. It didn’t surprise anyone in the human rights world to discover that “war on terror” prisoners like Milan resident Abu Omar were shipped to Egypt for “outsourced” abuse. Equally, the “administrative” jailing of thousands of political prisoners has been another hallmark of Mubarak’s regime.  Independently-minded bloggers (like Kareem Amer) and journalists (like Ibrahim Eissa) have been on the receiving end of Egypt’s draconian measures, so Egypt’s much-criticised cutting of internet and mobile phone services during the protests has been darkly symbolic. (Amnesty’s Salil Shetty has described Vodaphone’s willingness to do Egypt’s bidding and close down its network as “simply beyond belief”).  Inbetween their bulletins covering the anxieties of British tourists heading for the Giza pyramids or the Red Sea resorts, the UK media has, I think, done a pretty good job of covering these momentous events in the Arab world’s most populous country. It can be easy to mock the concerns of tourists during massive upheavals like these, but I’ve seen interviews with perfectly diginified British tourists speaking very reasonably about what’s going on.  Why shouldn’t they feel worried about violence on the streets? Many Egyptians are similarly worried. At Home He Feels Like A Tourist, sang Cure contemporaries Gang Of Four many years ago. Now both ordinary Egyptians and many of the country’s tourists are probably united in the hope that when peace and calm break out in Egypt they will be part of the movement toward a freer country.  

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