Yehia Ghanem

The Trials of a Caged Man

Tag: democracy

Media Revolution

Stopping a Massacre at a Newspaper

During the Egyptian revolution, demonstrators marched on Al-Ahram threatening to burn it down, I knew I had to stop them

Egyptian journalist and war correspondent Yehia Ghanem remembers the day the Egyptian revolution came to the doorstep of his newspaper. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.

Read More

Living Dangerously: Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution

On January 5, 2011, I received a call from Mohamed, the man whom I’d first met as a 12-year-old boy in 1993 when he’d visited my office in Cairo to appeal to me to take him with me to Bosnia. Many years had passed since our first meeting and Mohamed was now a 29-year-old civil engineer, but he spoke with the same passion I recalled from all those years before.

Read More

George Bush and Hosni Mubarak’s Make-believe Reforms

How a push for democracy in Egypt was railroaded by the dictatorship

Egyptian war correspondent and journalist Yehia Ghanem continues his series of short stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Read the rest of his Caged series here.

In the years following the events of September 11, 2001, the image of the US in the Middle East was at its lowest.  In Egypt and other countries, there were demonstrations against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, along with calls to boycott US products.

It was during these years, with relations between the US and the Middle East at an all-time low, when Americans finally began to answer the question so many of them had asked in the wake of 9/11: “Why do they hate us?” American officials and researchers had sat in my office at Al Ahram newspaper and asked me that very question. 

But gradually, they had come to form their own answer: that the Arab world had been angered by the US’ support for, and empowerment of, the dictators who had oppressed them. The only recourse, they had concluded, was to help the region to establish more democratic governments.

Believing Egypt, the largest and most populated country in the Middle East, to be the locomotive that would drag the rest of the Arab world along with it, the government of George W Bush turned its attention there. US-based think-tanks and NGOs began to operate in Egypt, promoting notions of human rights, freedom of expression and the development of the media.

There was suspicion among Egyptians, of course. But there was also a growing sense, reflected in everyday conversation, that Arabs were, at long last, being heard; that our deep hunger for democracy was being recognised.

From outward appearances, the Mubarak government seemed to have decided to bow to the coming storm. But, unbeknown to the majority of people, its intention was to set up their own “NGOs” – which in effect, were government initiated organisations that would infiltrate the NGO circles and report back on those that were truly independent and those that were set up to help advance the government’s agenda for the NGO community in Egypt.

In this context, it is important to point out that after the military took over in Egypt on July 3, 2013, many of these independent NGOs were shut down and, of those that remained, including the government / Military NGOs, most turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the unprecedented human rights violations taking place in the country, including the killing of peaceful protesters. These were the same government / Military NGOs that were vocal in smearing the toppled, democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

Aware that democratisation also meant a free and independent media, the Mubarak government also spared no effort in introducing its own “make-believe” version of the media.  Immediately after the government gave up its monopoly over public media, it allowed the private sector the right to establish television stations, radio channels and newspapers.

What few people seemed to notice, however, was that only four families – all within Mubarak’s circle of business associates – were licensed to own private media outlets. In reality, these “independent” organisations served as safety valves to release the steam of public anger, all while protecting the government.

It was an open secret that, for years, a weekly meeting was held by the assistant Minister of Interior for Public Communication to discuss that week’s agenda for the major talk shows on the private channels. Anchors, columnists and journalists would attend.

When the moment of truth came – with the January 25, 2011 revolution – all of these media outlets defended the government and turned on the protesters, describing them as “Western conspirators” against Egypt.

But away from the pretend private media organisations and NGOs, genuine moves towards democracy were being made – most importantly, and perhaps surprisingly to the Western world – by Islamic movements such as al-Jihad, a highly conservative Islamic group, and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, who initiated changes to their doctrines which previously permitted the use of violence to achieve regime change, either by directly targeting the dictatorship or by targeting those Western countries which supported them. As these movements disowned violence and endorsed democratic means of regime change, an important part of Egyptian society began to tilt towards democracy.

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had renounced violence in the late 1950s, made another important change to its doctrine in 2006. However, this was also ignored by Egypt’s pretend public and private media: that the Brotherhood’s doctrine recognised the right of jurisdiction of Christians and women. In Shariah law, this is referred to as the Major Jurisdiction, or al-Welaya al-Aama, meaning that a woman or a Christian could become president.

This was a major leap for the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Mubarak government sought to block any knowledge of this change from the West, preferring instead to portray them as undemocratic terrorists.

When the West finally began to pick up on the signals, the government took further steps to contain this process of democratisation. In 2004, it amended the constitution, creating the false impression that there would be genuine competition in the 2005 presidential elections. But this was just an illusion, as efforts to eventually pass the presidency from Mubarak the father to Mubarak the son were already under way.

In the months after the 2005 vote, I was told by an adviser to Ayman Nour, Mubarak’s main opposition, that Nour’s candidacy had been allowed only as part of the government’s choreographed elections. During the campaign, Nour had been surprised by the amount of support he received.

Still, the results did not differ from those of previous elections: with 88.6 percent of the vote, it was a landslide victory for Mubarak. Nour secured 7.3 percent and Noman Goumaa, another opposition candidate, just 2.8 percent. But it was enough for the government to be displeased with Nour. By getting what was viewed as an unprecedented level of support in a country that had for so long run single-candidate votes, he had embarrassed Mubarak.

Within only a few months, Nour found himself facing allegations of fraud. He was convicted and imprisoned. The message was clear: everyone would have to play by the regime’s rules.


Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera

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.



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.


llustration by Jawahir Hassan Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera

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: Crocodiles in a Court

In the second installment of Chronicle of a Caged Journalist, Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem describes how his own life and freedom became inextricably tied to the fate of his country as it was dragged back from the threshold of democracy. Read the first part – A trial without a case – here: Chronicle of a Caged Journalist: a trial without a case

Read More