Yehia Ghanem

The Trials of a Caged Man

Tag: Hosni Mubarak

Caged Journalist Illustration commissioned for Aj Jazeera International

Walking Into a Trap: How I ended up on trial in Egypt

When he was offered a role with an international NGO, journalist Yehia Ghanem had no idea it would land him in court.

In the months after the Egyptian revolution, the mood of unity that had prevailed throughout the protests began to be eroded – replaced with something more divisive and violent. For Egyptian journalist Yehia Ghanem, events would also take a strange turn – on to a path that would eventually lead him into a cage in a Cairo courtroom. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.

Read More

Egypt: Mediating Between Regime and Revolutionaries

During the revolution, journalist Yehia Ghanem found himself in the middle of crunch meetings with the prime minister.

In this installment of Caged, Egyptian journalist and war correspondent Yehia Ghanem recalls the heated meetings between Egyptian revolutionaries and the country’s prime minister at the height of the revolution. Read the rest of the series here.

By February 4, it had become clear that Hosni Mubarak and the rest of Egypt’s ruling elite were preparing to take extreme measures to end the protests in Tahrir Square and at other spots across the country.

The siege of the Square was getting tighter but I managed to sneak out. I headed towards the offices of Al-Ahram newspaper, where I worked. Along the way, I met a dear colleague, Badawy Negila. I told him about the gravity of the situation in the Square and he suggested that we buy time before a brutal and conclusive crackdown on the protesters by asking one of his close friends, the university professor Yehia Helmy, to mediate between the revolutionaries and the newly appointed prime minister, Lieutenant General Ahmed Shafik. Helmy had long been friends with Shafik and his brother, the then deputy minister of General Intelligence, Mohamed Shafik. 

We called Helmy and explained our idea. He was immediately responsive, although the disinformation spread by the media meant that he had little idea of just how serious the situation in the Square was. He asked to see it and, within an hour, was walking through Tahrir with us, talking to demonstrators and discussing their demands. Our guide through these talks was one of the most prominent revolutionaries, Mustapha El-Najjar, a dentist and activist in his late 20s. 

Helmy contacted Mohamed Shafik at the Ministry of Intelligence and briefed him on the situation. The sniper fire needed to be stopped, the siege on the Square lifted and the attacks by bullies halted, he told him. Mohamed Shafik immediately called his brother, the prime minister. 

An agreement was reached: the government would ensure the safety of the revolutionaries in return for their leaders meeting with the prime minister.

By the following evening, a meeting had been arranged between the revolutionary leaders and the prime minister. It took place in one of the buildings of the Ministry of Civil Aviation near Cairo International Airport, where the prime minister often worked when he could not get to his own headquarters, which were just a few yards from Tahrir Square.

As we drove there, the revolutionaries discussed their fear of disclosing their identities lest they be arrested. But I had been assured by the prime minister that they would be safe. I trusted him to keep to his word, and my confidence had grown since the snipers had stopped shooting the previous night. 

When the prime minister arrived, shortly after us, he was casually dressed, as was often the case. He was polite and welcoming. The meeting started at 11pm and continued until 5am the following morning. 

After each party made their opening statements, several proposals were put forward regarding disbanding the rallies in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas in return for guarantees that Mubarak would keep his promise not to run for a sixth term and that his son, Gamal, would not seek the presidency. The revolutionaries also asked for major political, economic and social reforms to be initiated. 

It felt like a good starting point, a necessary first step to manage the crisis before deconstructing it. 

But the young revolutionaries had lost all faith in the government. They doubted that it would keep its promises and feared that, once they had agreed to disband, they would be arrested and, perhaps, even executed. They were adamant that Mubarak had to step down – now.

After hours of tense discussions, it felt as though we were on board a plane with four faulty engines. I feared we were about to crash.

My greatest concern was that the meeting would end without us setting a date for another. 

I took one of the revolutionary leaders to the side and explained that, although they may not have agreed on much, those agreements that had been reached were a good achievement for a preliminary meeting. We owed it to the country and to ourselves to try to build on these commonalities, I explained. Then, I took the prime minister aside to say the same thing.

Both seemed satisfied by this thought, so we parted ways after setting a date for the next meeting.

During the following days, we met on two occasions. Progress was made but it was becoming increasingly apparent that the popular movement on the streets was outpacing us all. More and more people were heading to Tahrir and other squares across the country.

And, perhaps, one of the most noteworthy features of that last week of the revolution was the unprecedented popularity of the United States in Egypt. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, when Mubarak shut down the Cairo offices of Al Jazeera and scrambled its signal, the official US Arabic service to the Arab world, Al-Hurrah TV, stepped in to take its place. Then, of course, there was President Barack Obama’s statement in which he called upon Mubarak to step down for the sake of his country, adding: “When I say today, I don’t mean tomorrow.”

Egyptians suddenly recalled the ultimatum the US had given in 1956 in response to the aggressive moves of Britain, France and Israel towards Egypt after the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had nationalised the Suez Canal Company, which was owned by a European conglomerate. Although many now see that as having been part of America’s post-Second World War strategy to replace the ageing colonial powers, it was celebrated among Egyptians as an example of a superpower supporting the freedom of all nations. Egyptians were daring to dream that it might be doing so again.


 Illustration by Chris Magarura/Al Jazeera

A Bullet Between the Eyes: Memories of Tahrir Square

An Egyptian war correspondent recalls some of the most critical moments in the Egyptian revolution, as seen from Tahrir Square.

As Egypt’s revolution progressed, Egyptian journalist and war correspondent Yehia Ghanem was in Tahrir Square with the protesters. Here he recalls some of the most critical moments in that uprising as they were seen and experienced from the Square. Read the rest of this series, Caged, here.

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