Yehia Ghanem

The Trials of a Caged Man

Tag: Afghanistan (Page 1 of 2)

A Confession on the 4th of July

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem reflects on political repression in Egypt.


As of 2010, there was a strong feeling among the general public that Egypt was approaching a major political, social and cultural overhaul. It was a sentiment that had begun to take root earlier, in 2004. But by 2010, after 30 years in power, the time had come for the presidency to be passed from Mubarak the father, to Mubarak the son.

As such a move required an absolute majority in parliament, I was growing increasingly convinced that a popular volcano was on the verge of erupting – one that was both supported and inspired by the army, which had never accepted the idea of a civilian leading the country – whether after free and fair elections, or through a fraudulent vote, as was expected with Jamal Mubarak.

My feeling that major change was coming was, strangely enough, triggered on US soil in the heart of Cairo.

It was a warm July 4 evening in 2010. I was standing in the vast courtyard inside the United States Embassy in Cairo, watching hundreds of Egyptian and foreign guests celebrate the national day as a marine band played in the background.

I was talking to a long-time friend and colleague, Mohamed Abdel Hady, who was then the deputy chief editor and is now the editor-in-chief of Al Ahram news. We were arguing about the upcoming parliamentary elections, due to take place that November.

I insisted that if the regime was sincere about a gradual transformation to democracy, then – in light of the that fact 88 opposition MPs had won seats in the 444 seat parliament in 2005 – the regime should yield even more seats to the opposition in the upcoming elections.

My colleague, however, argued that the 2005 parliament was an exception, and that it was unlikely the regime would repeat the same mistake again.  In that year, they had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to gain a majority in the first round of the elections.

“I don’t think they’d take that risk again,” he said. “if so, they could lose control of the game once and for all.”

At that point, we were joined by a very distinguished, if controversial, MP who had been a long-standing adviser to President Mubarak and who was publicly portrayed as an important Arab thinker. He listened to our argument, then said, “Are you two fools? The regime will never risk losing elections.”

“We rig the elections, and we will keep rigging them,” he told us.

Aside from this unexpected confession, it was the words he spoke before disappearing back into the crowd that remained with me. “We could be very nasty with whoever points a finger,” he said.

There was something in his tone, an arrogance in the way he bragged about the regime’s ability to commit a crime and get away with it that made me feel particularly uneasy. I turned to my colleague and said: “That day is coming very soon … I can see a revolution on the horizon.”

I felt as though our country was standing on the edge of a deep abyss.

When the election results came out, Mubarak’s regime had taken all 444 seats. But when a government gets to the point where it can brag about its crimes, you can be sure its end is approaching. Still, unanswered questions haunted me: What would precipitate the ending, and at what price? And, most importantly, who would pay it?

I was left sleepless by a growing sense of dread, wondering what would happen to my country.

When it came in 2011, Egypt’s Arab Spring was indeed volcanic. The course of events that had precipitated the January 25th revolution continued on their path, spewing lava as the revolution unfolded.

 

Source: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/08/confession-4th-july-160817075723359.html

llustration by Jawahir Hassan Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera

An Election Observer who Had Never Voted

‘When I was told to oversee the first post-war elections in Bosnia, it made me hunger even more for democracy in Egypt.’

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of short stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Here he recalls the time he was assigned to be an election observer – despite never having voted in an election himself. Read the rest of the series, Caged, here.

Over the years, I lost touch with Mordechai, the bold young Israeli boy I’d met in Haifa in 1994, but I stayed in touch with Mohamed, the 12-year-old Egyptian who had visited me, along with his friends, at the downtown Cairo office of Al-Ahram newspaper in 1993.

In 1999, I was assigned to be a roving war correspondent in Sub-Saharan Africa. I established my base in Johannesburg, South Africa, and from there traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I reported from the front lines of the long and ruthless war raging there and in neighboring Rwanda

When away from Egypt, I barely communicated with Mohamed, but I would contact him whenever I returned to Cairo on vacation. I watched him grow from childhood to adulthood, all too quickly. He maintained his interest in war reporting, discussing with me my efforts to unmask the ugly face of war, or, as he liked to put it, “the ultimate manifestation of human disrespect of one another”.

For ever young

When I finally returned to Cairo on a more permanent basis to take up an editorial post at the newspaper, he wasn’t pleased. “Yes, I’m very happy to be able to see you more often,” he said, “but the world still needs you out there to report on the agonies of those being consumed by evil men’s lust for war”.

I smiled and told him: “Mohamed, when we first met I was in my 20s, almost the same age as you are now. I’m getting too old for this violent job and I should now leave it to my younger colleagues.”

I remember him moving his handsome head slowly from side to side to indicate that he wasn’t convinced.

“Do you think I am for ever young?” I once asked him. “Look at yourself in the mirror and remember how young you were when we first met.”

Sometimes I wondered whether one of the many things that endeared me to Mohamed was the fact that he somehow always made me feel young.

It was with his encouragement that I took short but dangerous assignments every now and again, particularly to my beloved Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010.

During those years Mohamed finished his university studies, graduated with a degree in civil engineering and accepted a position as an engineer at a private construction company. I felt as proud of him as I did of my own son. And I longed for an Egyptian leader with his qualities – his sense of patriotism, integrity and sincerity.

A birthday in Kabul

On November 9, 2010, I celebrated my birthday in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was there on a three-week assignment, but it felt like three years. I was reporting on what seemed to be a bleak future for Afghanistan, but my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of the dangerous and uncertain future that seemed to be awaiting my own country.

During my stay, I interviewed Afghanistan’s leaders about the state of their country under a foreign military occupation. But each night, when I returned to my hotel room to transcribe my interviews, I wondered how I could ask all these questions of others when my own country languished in similar circumstances. Even my own voice sounded foreign to me as I heard it back, discussing the impact of corruption in Afghanistan. All the while, I thought about what was happening back in Egypt.

In the days after I returned from Afghanistan, I busied myself writing articles about my own country. Egypt’s parliamentary elections were only weeks away – not that I would vote in them; I never had. Like millions of other Egyptians, I refrained from voting, refusing to participate in such a farce.

I recalled an event that had taken place years earlier, in the months after the Bosnian war had ended in 1996. I was informed by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had recruited me to serve as an international observer for the first post-war elections in Bosnia.

Although I understood why they had done so – I was familiar with the geopolitical map of the country and they wanted to ensure that there were some Muslims on the team – I was petrified at the prospect. How could I oversee something I had never participated in?

I tried my best to make myself unavailable for the mission, but it was in vain. Egypt’s assistant foreign minister was relentless in stressing the importance of my being there.

I finally had to tell him the truth: that I knew nothing of the culture of free elections.

The man recognised my dilemma. I suspected that he shared it as he had most probably never voted either. We both felt trapped in a cage of ignorance, unfamiliar with this core component of the democratic process.

“We want you [Egypt] to be part of this event, and since you are supposed to be there weeks prior to the elections it’s best that you attend, simply listen and watch,” he told me. “By doing so, you will learn about the process of free elections, and then be more able to observe them.”

I agreed. For a month I observed the pre-election campaigns and the voting process. It was an experience that made me long even more for a democratic culture in my own country.

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from a forthcoming book.

Source:  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/08/election-observer-voted-160809081308462.html

llustration by Jawahir Hassan Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera

Meeting Mohamed: the Children’s War-report Reading Club

After reading about the war in Bosnia, the children wanted to travel there. They just needed my help, they explained.


Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Here he recounts his meeting with a group of Egyptian children who were hoping he would take them to Bosnia with him. Read the rest of the series, Caged, here.

Read More

To Die for No Cause in the Hindu Kush Mountains

Ahmad Shah Massoud and the young Arab prisoners of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way with his account of meeting young Arab fighters captured while fighting in Afghanistan. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.

Read More

The Arab Children of the Afghan War

‘Don’t leave me here, take me back home with you,’ pleaded the 17-year-old Egyptian prisoner of the Northern Alliance.

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way with his account of meeting the legendary Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and interviewing a 17-year-old Egyptian prisoner of the Northern Alliance. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.

Read More

How the Taliban and the US Fell Out of Love

The relationship between the US and the Taliban from the late 1990s onwards was defined by one thing: ignorance.

In the seventh part of his Chronicle of a Caged Journalist series, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem explores the relationship between the United States and the Taliban, and the misunderstandings he believes are at the heart of it.

Read More

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist: Under Taliban Skin

How the US became the enemy of the Mujahedeen and how, in the process, both walked into cages constructed of ignorance.

In the sixth installment of Chronicle of a caged journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem asks how the Mujahedeen and the Americans came to view each other as enemies.

Read More

Chronicle of a caged journalist: Afghanistan: a crossroads for US-Arab relations

In the fifth installment of Chronicle of a caged journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem tells the stories of those he’s met while covering wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Read More

Chronicle of a caged journalist: Chasing a childhood friend, a fighter in Afghanistan

In the fourth installment of Chronicle of a caged journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem tells the stories of those he’s met while covering wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Read More

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist: Inside the Cage

In the third installment of Chronicle of a caged journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem explores the physical and psychological cages that imprison us. Read the first part – A trial without a case – and the second – Crocodiles in a courtroom.

Read More

Page 1 of 2