News of revolution (part III): Televising the life and death of an Egyptian president

 
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By Osama Diab

Anwar Sadat was the first Egyptian leader to exploit television’s propaganda power – and even his assassination was unwittingly televised.

Saturday 3 November 2012

In 1970, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser died and with him the  dream of uniting the Arab world from the “ocean to the gulf” under his leadership. However, despite the humiliating defeat of 1967, Nasser died as a popular, yet wounded, leader and his extremely emotional funeral – which was attended by at least five million in Cairo alone, not to mention all the mourners who poured on to the streets of cities across the Arab world – was one of the largest in history.

Initially regarded as a weak leader and an interim figurehead until Nasser’s “true successor” emerged, Anwar Sadat was quick to try to establish himself as the undoubted leader of Egypt by carrying out a self-described “corrective revolution” which involved pursuing and purging what he called “marakiz al-qowa”  (“centres of power”) who were believed to be pro-Soviet and loyal to Nasserist ideology.

On 15 May 1971, Sadat announced that more than a 100 “centres of power” had been charged with plotting a coup to overthrow him. Continuing this trend of overturning Soviet influence, Sadat took a landmark decision in 1972  to expel the Soviet military advisors from Egypt. After fighting the October War against Israel in 1973, Sadat continued his aggressive reforms by opening up Egypt’s state-run command economy to private enterprise and engaging in peace negotiations with Israel which started in earnest with his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977 and culminated with the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Throughout the 1970s, Egypt gradually shifted its orientation from the East to the West — the former rivals of Egypt during the Nasser era — and broke off relations with Nasser’s Soviet allies. This new policy direction was accompanied by a relative openness in the political climate and the incorporation of the principles of liberal democracy in Egypt’s official discourse.  The aggressive liberalisation of the economy and remarkable change in foreign policy required a new type of national narrative, especially when the Arab world decided to isolate Egypt after Sadat extended the hand of peace to Israel, the Arab world’s then-official enemy.

Mahmoud Shalabieh, the Jordanian media scholar, argues that, although radio was utilised by Sadat in the same way it was by Nasser, to publicise his policies and persuade the nation their merits, Sadat possessed a powerful new media weapon: television. Shalabieh argues that television influenced the way Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin behaved during the peace talks. “By knowing that the whole world was watching, they seem to have been self-conscious about the long-lasting effect they were creating by engaging in these peace talks,” Shalabieh argues.

However, television, even more so than the press, was under Sadat’s total control. The 1970s could be described as the decade of television and the press, while Nasser’s favourite medium, radio, experienced a relative decline. As it became more affordable and its reach spread to every corner of the country, television replaced radio as the main tool for propaganda. In a way, TV also suited Sadat’s extroverted personality and his love of basking in the spotlight.

Sadat focused more on Egyptian affairs as opposed to Arab issues, and asserted that Egypt was his first responsibility. According to Shalabieh, he adopted “Egyptian patriotism” as the major value of Egypt’s foreign policy, a far cry from Nasser’s assertion that Egypt’s main responsibility and focus was to the Arab world. This brand of nationalism, often referred to as “Pharaonism”, was not new at the time, but had reached its peak during Egypt’s liberal era, after its official independence in 1921 and up until 1952.

Sadat was very aware of the power of television as a medium to express his fury against Egypt’s suspension from the Arab league. In a televised speech before the parliament in the last days before his assassination, Sadat sent a clear Egypto-centric message to Egypt’s one-time Arab “brothers”: “We are the origin of the Arabs. Hagar, the wife of Abraham, is the mother of Ismael, the ancestor of the Arabs. Hagar is Egyptian. So if there is someone out there who wants to belong, they should belong to Egypt, not Egypt to them. There is no point in these debates about whether we belong to the Pharaohs or not. Our blood is Arab and we are the origin of the Arabs and they belong to us.”

Adeed Dawisha, an Iraqi scholar who wrote extensively on Arab nationalism, explained: “Given the inherent strength of this feeling of ‘Egyptianism’, it was hardly surprising that Abdel-Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, would use it in order to escape the overbearing legacy of his towering predecessor.” He explains that Sadat began by changing Nasser’s name for Egypt, the United Arab Republic, to the Arab Republic of Egypt, “where ‘Arab’ is only the adjective and ‘Egypt’ is the noun.”

“Simultaneously, Sadat embarked on a policy of cultural reorientation toward Egypt. This was evident in subtle changes in school curricula, highlighting Egypt’s long history, cultural prominence, and unique personality. The government-controlled media similarly spotlighted Egypt’s prestige and status in international affairs. By the end of the 1970s, Egyptian nationalism had won the day in Egypt,” observes Dawisha.

The press also played an important part in shaping this era and in telling us its story. As Sadat wished to give his liberal reforms a democratic and pluralistic sheen, a partisan press was allowed to form, and was partly tolerated, as an outcome of the Political Parties Law of 1977. Sadat initially allowed three parties to form representing the left, the centre and the right. The first partisan newspaper to be launched was al-Ahrar, which belonged to what Sadat decided to be Egypt’s rightwing party.

In addition, the tolerated-but-banned Muslim Brotherhood was allowed in 1976 to publish a monthly magazine al-Da’wa (The Call to Islam). The Brotherhood’s publication was very critical of Arab nationalism, communism and secularism, and this, some believe, served the goal of a Sadatist state that was more troubled by Nasserism and left-wing ideologies than with pan-Islamism.

The magazine’s cover, which is often indicative of what a publication stands for, had headlines such as “The Qur’an is above the constitution”, “Islam between the slumber of its followers and the attacks of its enemies”, “Where will the encroachment of communism lead?”. These topics were more or less the main themes of the magazine until it was shut down in 1981.

The Sadat-Brotherhood alliance began to sour after the peace treaty and when his regime began to obstruct the student movement which was openly backed by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood did not escape the massive crackdown on dissent and arrests Sadat ordered before his assassination as his popularity in a desperate bid to salvage his plummeting popularity and his increasingly shaky grip on rule.

Although Sadat utilised different forms of media to propagate the country’s new, supposedly open political line, the insecurity he felt towards the end of his rule led him to abandon his promise of pluralism and greater freedoms. Many writers, politicians and journalists who opposed him were imprisoned and more restrictive measures were imposed on the media.

Despite this, the relative openness of the political climate compared with the Nasser era, meant that the Sadatist discourse received some competition from other non-official nationalist narratives, such as the struggling pan-Arabism and the emerging pan-Islamism. However, Sadat believed that these attempts were only operating in a margin of freedom he himself and so posed no threat to his rule.

In this, as hindsight reveals, Sadat was clearly wrong, as demonstrated by his assassination during the 8th celebration of the October War, in 1981, at the hands of Islamic militant groups who succeeded in infiltrating the military. Interestingly, Sadat was not only the first Egyptian leader to exploit the power of TV, but he became the only Egyptian leader whose death was televised.

But Sadat’s assassination failed to kill off his policies. Although some areas, especially in Upper Egypt, fell under the temporary control of militant Islamic groups after his death, the attempt to overthrow Sadat did not succeed in establishing a new Islamist order. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak can now be seen in retrospect, especially in his early years, as having maintained and extended Sadat’s policies and official nationalist discourse, despite his success in bringing Egypt back into the Arab fold and his decision to release most of his predecessor’s political prisoners.

Egypt’s alliance with the West, peace with Israel, the façade of democratisation masking his dictatorial regime and the emphasis on Egyptian nationalism remained intact throughout most of Mubarak’s 30-year-long rule, which eventually brought about an unprecedented level of corruption, nepotism and inequality, at least in Egypt’s republican era.

This is the third part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part II dealt with Nasser’s use of radio to propagate his pan-Arabist ideology.

Part IV will deal with satellite television, the internet and the explosion of independent media, as well as how Egypt’s new rulers, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite decades of opposition, are largely continuing the Sadat-Mubarak line.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Egypt’s Nubians: damned by the dam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Half a century after the inundation, Nubians may finally gain recognition and redress for the loss of their homeland.

Monday 23 April 2012

Lower Nubia is modern Egypt’s very own lost Atlantis. This ancient land today lies mostly under the waters of Lake Nasser, a massive reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam.

Now, half a century after the inundation, Egyptian Nubians are finally being offered the prospect of decent compensation for the loss of their homeland in the 1960s. Following years of concerted campaigning by Nubian campaigners, and their active role in the revolution, Fayza Abul Naga, the minister for planning and international co-operation, announced that Nubians would soon be compensated with new farmland and villages.

Ever since Egypt’s controversial decision, taken soon after the 1952 revolution, to construct the High Dam, questions have persisted as to why Cairo was so cavalier with both the Nubian people and the priceless archaeology in which the region abounded.

Defenders and apologists insist that Nubia had to be dammed so that Egypt, one of the driest places on the planet and almost wholly dependent on the Nile for its water, would not be damned.

And despite its severe environmental impacts, which were foreseen long before its construction, the dam saved Egypt, in the 1980s, from the severe drought upstream in Ethiopia, where most of Egypt’s water originates. It has also played a major role in the modernisation, electrification and industrialisation of the country.

It has also been suggested that racism played a role too. However, I am not convinced that racial discrimination was a conscious factor in the decision to flood Nubia. As far as I understand it, the Nile had only one cataract in Egypt and this happened to lie near the ancestral lands of the Nubians.

Then, there is the question of regionalism and class. Egypt has long been run centrally from Cairo and the urban centres of the north, while the south, in general, has had little say in its own or the country’s future. That would explain why Upper Egyptian peasants were also uprooted by the dam. The sacredness of “national unity” has also played a role, with Nubia’s distinct culture and language often seen as a threat by the Cairo elites.

In addition, as elsewhere in the developing world at the time, development and modernity were a far more pressing imperative in the minds of Egypt’s central planners of the time than cultural preservation and tradition. That helps explain why the Egyptian government had not given much thought to the preservation of the unique archaeological heritage of the region, home to the ‘Black Pharaohs‘, until an international furor erupted.

The international community managed, under the auspices of UNESCO, to pull off perhaps the largest and most impressive archaeological rescue operation in human history which rehoused Nubia’s most significant monuments, such as the temple of Abu Simbel.

The Nubians themselves were not as fortunate, and no massive international aid was forthcoming to help them relocate. Some 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were forced to move from 45 villages and relocated to Aswan, which has become a Little Nubia renowned for its hospitality and the warmth of its people, and to the ill-thought out  New Nubia, near Kom Ombo.

Though New Nubia was supposed to mirror old Nubia, preserving its culture while introducing modern utilities, it was in reality a charmless development of small concrete housing which, unlike the lush Nubia they left behind, lay in the desert.

Dissatisfied with their new homes, a large proportion the inhabitants of New Nubia migrated to other parts of Egypt, though many dreamed of returning as near as possible to their ancestral homeland.

The reality of discrimination is reflected in the marginalisation that Nubians still endure. For instance, a disproportionate number of Nubians are employed in menial work, such as bawabs (janitors). In fact, in some parts of downtown Cairo, a cluster of poor Nubian communities exist on the rooftops.

Despite that, a few Nubians have made it to the very top of Egyptian society. Culturally, the Nubian singer Ahmed Mounib was the first to introduce mainstream Egypt to the mellow sounds of Nubia. His protege, Mohamed Mounir – himself a refugee from the Aswan dam – has managed not only to put Nubian music on the map, with his funky fusion of traditional Nubian with jazzy western sounds, but was also one of the very few mainstream artists to sing socially conscious lyrics before the revolution.

Interestingly, in spite of their general underrepresentation, Nubians have fared markedly better in the highest echelons of Egyptian political life, perhaps due to the fact that the army has been one of the few routes open for the advancement of the marginalised.

The country’s third president Anwar Sadat, although he grew up in the north of Egypt, was the son of Nubian parents, while the country’s current de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is also of Nubian origin.

In recent years, attitudes towards Nubians have been changing, and there is a growing recognition that the Nubian people were wronged. This process has gathered pace since the revolution erupted, and one can only hope that Nubians will be allowed to resettle in what’s left of their homeland and be treated as full equals elsewhere in the country.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 21 April 2012.

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In the shadow of the pharaohs

 
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By Josephine McCarthy

Even though the downfall of Egypt’s modern “pharaoh” has scared tourists away, Luxor, the seat of Egypt’s ancient rulers is still well worth visiting.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that my two friends and I set off for a visit to Luxor in Egypt in the midst of the early December elections and what seemed, judging by the images on British television, to be a battle zone. Pictures of Cairo had flooded the news, with terrible images of abuse, conflict and danger, not to mention all the fears of a takeover by Islamists, who would implement Shari’a and ban alcohol and bikinis on beaches.

When we arrived at our hotel the streets were calm, businesses were open to peddle their wares and cafes exuded the atmosphere of relaxed chat. We stayed at the Sonesta St George, a five star hotel run by Copts that was reasonably priced and of the highest standard. The rooms were spotlessly clean, beautifully presented with everything you could possibly need. The staff were reliable, friendly and extremely helpful. In fact, one member of staff called Romany went to great lengths to help me find an elusive treasure that I wished to return to the UK with: incense resins.

After a rather comical and entertaining display of hand gestures, charades and acting, Romany finally understood what I did not have an Arabic word for and he had no English word for. Later that afternoon, we set off, clutching a small piece of paper with Arabic instructions for the taxi driver. We ended up in a back street market bustling with people buying fruit, vegetables, live chickens and meat. Nestled in the midst of the aromatic chaos was a small spice shop. We smelt the wonderous odours wafting out of the dimly lit unit before we saw it. The walls were filled with row upon row of resins, spices, flower petals and barks. I was in heaven. Yet more hand gestures, broken Arabic, broken English, lots of pointing, sniffing, tasting and the pile of weighed out bags before me was growing.

Then it was down to pricing. The hibiscus tea came out, the shisha (hookah pipe) was fired up and stools appeared as if from nowhere. The haggling began. The first price the spice seller quoted was a price pulled out of the aromatic thin air that was filled with hopefulness mingled with a sense of humour. “Ha! I don’t think so,” I replied, and a counter offer was put on the table. After 10 minutes of bantering back and forth, the spice vendor turned to my partner: “She is breaking my heart, making me so sad”, he said with a grin. “If you only knew,” retorted my partner with a sigh. I made sure that the final figure was a good price from an English perspective, but was also a good price for the vendor. It was obvious, looking around, that there were few tourists and not much money passing hands. What can seem a small amount of money to an English person could be a vast amount to an Egyptian small business, so it is imperative always to be fair and ensure that money goes around.

Whereever we went, be it the great temples of Luxor and Karnak, or the Valley of the Kings, I noticed a dire lack of foreign visitors, many of whom will have been scared away by the news reports of violent protests. Winter is the main tourist season for Luxor, and as many vendors pointed out to me as I chatted with them, this is the time that they make enough money to get through the following summer, when tourism trails off as the heat rises.

The upside for us was that these areas were quiet which enabled us to truly take in the vastness of these ancient monuments. A good example was a discovery we made in the Valley of the Kings. After sitting in the shade for a rest, the three of us had one last ticket to visit a tomb. Rather than go for one of the more well known kings sleeping in this silent place, we decided to look a bit further, visit a king that was perhaps not so well know. We found the tomb of Twosret, a little known female king, whose tomb was definitely worth the visit. It was vast, highly decorated with the most unusual depictions of the deities and very peaceful.

Back in Luxor, we discovered, quite by accident, two restaurants that were a delight to the palate: A Taste of India and The Fortune Cookie. ‘A Taste of India’ was clean, quiet and had the highest standard of Punjabi food I had tasted in years. It was also very reasonably priced, with a three course meal coming in at around £6 each. The same could be said of the Fortune Cookie, once again a high standard of excellent tasting food, wonderful chatty staff and low prices.

We spent a few days wondering the streets, soaking up the character of Luxor proper, meeting people in the food markets, sipping tea with locals and taking long walks along the banks of the Nile, while dodging the incessant appeals from taxi drivers. I felt bad for them as it was obvious there were not enough tourists to go around and people were getting desperate for money.

One of the things that I felt was unfair, was the coach trip guides, the ones usually connected to package holidays, were telling the tourists not to buy from the local shops or use the local taxis. Instead, they were bussed out to larger factories and shops and in return the guide was given a substantial commission on inflated prices.  The tourists were being told, quite wrongly, that to go around the shops or use local taxis was dangerous and they could be mugged or sexually harassed. This was simply not true. My friends and I wandered all over the city, down the back streets, into dark gloomy shops, cafes, hailed taxis off the streets and struck up conversations with various locals. I wandered around alone as a woman and felt perfectly safe at all times. I did wear a hijab and was well covered up all the time in respect of local tradition and I think this helped me to wander around without being hassled.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Since coming back to Britain, I have learned that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won the local elections in Luxor and this did not surprise me after the many conversations I had with locals. One of the issues that came out in conversation was how many people felt uncomfortable with the idea of half-naked tourists wandering around and also the with the alcohol issue. It made me stop and really look at the tourists who were visiting Luxor. They seemed to be divided in to two distinct groups. One group were obviously in Luxor to explore the ancient ruins, the mosques, churches and temples. They were mostly covered up and conducted themselves respectfully. The second group wandered around scantily clad and spent most of their time in the bar or lounging in bikinis around the hotel pool. It made me wonder why they had spent so much money to come to such an amazing place as Luxor just to spend the week sunbathing on a hotel terrace – I guess it takes all sorts to make the world go around.

If, in the unlikely event, the ruling government brings out laws regarding the serving of alcohol and the covering up of tourists, I doubt very much that it will make much difference to the industry at large. I do think that Western tourists do have to get over the idea that the rest of the world should suspend their culture/religion/preferences just to suit them. As a Western woman, I do and would fight to stop the enforced veiling of women in my own country, but where a woman chooses to veil, then that is her business and it is her right as a woman to decide what she wants to do. As an outsider to Egypt, the veil issue is not my battle and I have no right to challenge the rules of a country that I visit. I have no problem covering up in respect of local traditions and if anyone chooses not to come to Egypt because such local tradition becomes law, well, it’s their loss.

Egypt is a wonderful, exciting, powerful and ancient treasure. Its people are friendly, its streets are safe, the food is excellent and the sun shines every day. The culture is fascinating, the ancient buildings are humbling and the every day life of ordinary people needs the financial support that tourism brings. Egypt was a joy to visit, a land and people worthy of great respect and a place that instils you with awe not only of the ancient sites, but of the courage and tenacity of its people.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Josephine McCarthy.

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Indiana Hawass and the pharaoh’s curse

 
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By Osama Diab

Zahi Hawass may liken himself to Indiana Jones, but the minister of antiquities is one artifact of the old regime Egyptians want to live without.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s top archaeologists, symbolises the point where our proud and glorious past intersects with a bleak and uncertain present. In the minds of many Egyptians, he is associated with Egypt’s modern corrupt rulers rather than the great pharaohs of ancient times.

In Arabic, the word ‘pharaoh’ always has positive connotations except when it’s used to describe an absolute and ruthless ruler or manager. This is exactly the kind of pharaoh Hawass was in the eyes of many of his compatriots.

Since Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office, protests that demanded the removal of Hawass from his position as minister of antiquities were uninterrupted. These were held by fellow archaeologists, the guards of heritage sites, or simply Tahrir Square protesters who see him as an antiquity that they have no interest in embalming from the era of Egypt’s most recent pharaoh, Mubarak.

This pressure has yielded results and Hawass did lose the job he was offered during the 18-day revolution in a cabinet shuffle that aimed, but failed, to calm down angry anti-Mubarak protesters.

If Egyptian archaeology was a country, then certainly Hawass would be its Mubarak. Just like his former boss, he is besieged by allegations about his business interests, accusations of turning Egypt’s archaeology into a one-man show by claiming credit for scientific findings and being the sole speaker about Egyptology in the local and international media. Of course, he’s also committed the unforgivable sin of being one of Mubarak’s favourite men.

Hawass is the epitome of the kind of self-centred, egocentric and possibly charismatic figure that the revolution has risen against, along with the kind of Mubarak-era politics he used to symbolise. Even though he’s been called Egypt’s Indiana Jones, the name that probably describes him best is his very own, Zahi, which means vain or conceited in Arabic.

Evidence of his narcissistic personality is not difficult to find. In April, he launched a clothing line named after himself in Harrods, and his latest book, A Secret Voyage, is Egypt’s most expensive book ever, carrying a price tag of 22,000 Egyptian pounds (about £2,300) with only 750 copies printed, and all signed by Egyptian archaeologists.

With his rock-star attitude, Hawass might have managed to bring archaeology more into the headlines – not necessarily because of his fine discoveries or first-class research, but mainly because of his rather eccentric behaviour. Even though the man was, or made himself, synonymous with Egyptian archaeology in the minds of many, whoever succeeds Hawass is certainly not going to be the media sensation he managed to be. Hawass will be missed by journalists searching for colourful and amusing stories, but unlike his ancestors, this pharaoh’s mystique might be short-lived as a symbol of an unpopular bygone era in Egypt’s history.

The sacking of Hawass, Egypt’s latest victim of the revolution, shows that the 18-day revolution was only the mother of numerous baby revolutions against little pharaohs or mini-Mubaraks in ministries, universities, factories, political parties and so on, and his departure marks another victory for those trying to clear the country of its deep-rooted authoritarianism.

This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 22 July 2011. Discussion of this article is available here. Republished with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Deserts, desolation and development

 
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Amid the sweltering heat and omnipresent dust, Andrew Eatwell discovers Sudan’s hospitable and friendly face – and its rapidly developing capital.

13 October 2010

“Good luck,” the Egyptian immigration official said with a wry smile as he stamped me out of Egypt at the port in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. I was heading for Sudan – a 20-hour ferry ride south across Lake Nasser and a place where relatively few Western travellers dare tread. Given everything you read in the international media and on Western governments’ websites about Egypt’s war-torn, Islamist-ruled neighbour, I felt certain at least a little luck would be needed.

My fears – and those of friends and relatives who worried I would be caught up in one of Sudan’s myriad conflicts or taken hostage by Islamist extremists – proved unfounded. They started to dissipate on the ageing, overloaded passenger ferry that shuttles people and all manner of cargo once a week between the two countries. Crushed in between washing machines, satellite dishes, cutlery sets and the odd metal detector, my travelling companion, Dan, and I quickly got talking to Sudanese travellers and traders. Some were returning from visiting relatives in Egypt, some were there for business, but almost all were bringing something home with them. “Everything is too expensive in Sudan, that’s why we go to Egypt,” one man told me as we sat in the shade of a lifeboat.

We spent the night in that same spot. Two white westerners – a Brit (me) and a New Zealander (Dan, friend and fellow Arabic language student from Cairo) – and a dozen Sudanese guys lying in a row, our backs on the hard, hot metal deck, our legs dangling over the edge of the ferry as the waters of Lake Nasser glided blackly passed. Every square inch of space was taken – filled with cargo or people sprawled on the open deck or on benches or the floor in the stuffy seating areas below. Going to the toilet or the canteen in the dark involved navigating an assault course of human limbs.

We both found the genuine, friendly curiosity of our fellow Sudanese passengers refreshing after months spent in Egypt where decades of mass tourism and too many touts sometimes leave you with the unpleasant feeling that the locals view every Westerner as a walking wallet.

Wadi Haifa

Stepping off the ferry at Wadi Haifa. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

The ferry’s arrival in Wadi Halfa was as chaotic as its departure. People rushed ashore and cargo was hauled overboard onto the small concrete dock before both – almost interchangeably – were loaded onto trucks and busses for the short trip across a patch of barren wasteland to the immigration and customs offices. I was prepared for the worst: a thorough grilling by the immigration police and a full search of my backpack – Britain is not exactly on good terms with the Omar al-Bashir regime. Instead, we were waved through customs with barely a hitch. Our Sudanese visas, acquired equally painlessly at the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo for $100, were checked and the immigration officer stamped us into the country before jovially quipping: “Welcome to Alaska!” as we walked out of the warehouse-like office into near 50-degree heat.

Heat, dust and hospitality

Wadi Halfa, a few kilometres inland from the lake, proved to be a foretaste of every other Sudanese town we would visit. A few dusty streets, a dusty central square, a few dusty cafes and a couple of lokandas – cheap, basic hotels with, yes, dusty rooms and even dustier bedding. Heat and dust are the two defining elements of northern Sudan in summer – air so hot you can feel your lungs warming with every breath and dust that gets into every bodily crevice. Removing it is almost impossible, in part because water is in short supply and a shower – unless your definition of one involves a jug and bucket of brown liquid – is almost unheard of in many places.

Even at night, the heat can be unbearable and joining the locals in hauling your bed outside into the sandy courtyard of the lokanda to catch a slight breeze is often the only way to get some sleep and avoid drowning in your own sweat.

Road to Atbara

On the "road" to Atbara, 150km from anything, except sand and some trees. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

From Wadi Halfa we travelled south through the Nubian Desert to Dongola, then southeast to Karima and Atbara, tracing, as best we could, the course of the Nile and encountering progressively bigger but no less dusty, ramshackle towns.  At times, amid the sand storms that frequently blew up in the afternoons, driving through vast expanses of desert, crammed into the back of a bus, car or minibus, could best be described as voyaging through the insides of a vacuum cleaner. And in that desolate desert environment, there is certainly a sense of being in a vacuum – nothing for miles, eerie silence and no signs of life, or sporadically, life that once was in the form of cattle and camel carcasses slowly decaying by the side of the road.

The fact there were paved roads at all surprised me. From the research I had done on northern Sudan, I had expected gruelling, bone-jarring journeys on dirt tracks through the desert. Instead, we encountered new black tarmac everywhere – the results, locals were only too happy to tell me, of Chinese investment in the last couple of years.

In most towns, at least as far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners and the locals were genuinely curious about why we were there. A tea or coffee – and it is good coffee! – at one of the numerous street stalls run by brightly clad women frequently resulted in long conversations with our fellow drinkers, usually in Arabic, sometimes in English, and almost always about football. More than once, however, politics came up: they asked about America, the embargo, and about the West. Some said they wanted to emigrate, others blamed the West for Sudan’s problems. No one ever mentioned al-Bashir by name, nor did they want to talk about Darfur or the south. Many, a little surprisingly, said that the situation was improving, that they were struggling less now than in the past to live. In northern Sudan, at least, I came away with the impression from what I saw and heard that things were gradually getting better – though I very much doubt people in Darfur or South Sudan, which I have yet to visit, would say the same.

Begrawiya pyramids

At the foot of the Begrawiya pyramids. Smaller than their Egyptian cousins, but impressive. Photo: Andrew Eatwell.

South of Atbara, about a third of the way to Khartoum and just off the main Khartoum-Port Sudan road, the Begrawiya pyramids rise from the desert. Built 2,500 years ago by the Meroitic Pharaohs when the area was arable and verdant, the cluster of tombs sit half-buried by the sand. Though dwarfed in scale by their more famous counterparts in Egypt, they are just as impressive in their own right – helped by the fact that they are not thronged by tourists. We were the only visitors that day and the sense of desolation and of a civilisation lost was overwhelming as we sat staring out at the bleak desert in the shadow of the ancient tombs.

Khartoum: where the rivers and cultures meet

Stuck without transport in the middle of nowhere, we managed to finally flag down a road train after a waterless hour standing in blistering heat on the side of the road. Six hours later we rolled – slowly, painfully slowly – into the Sudanese capital. After saying goodbye to the affable, talkative truck driver, a Moroccan with a Sudanese wife transporting UN food aid from Port Sudan to South Sudan, we checked into a rundown hotel near the city’s main souq.

The area, like much of the capital, felt like an oversized version of every other Sudanese town we had visited, albeit livelier and more cosmopolitan. The shops bustled with activity during the day and the street cafés were alive at all hours. Along the Nile, not far from where the Blue and White Niles meet, new glass-and-steel office buildings were under construction and from the hostel window we could see a more upscale hotel: the Plaza, its rooftop sign written in Chinese.

We spent several pleasant days between central Khartoum and Omdurman, the capital’s more conservative sister city on the other side of the river, wandering the streets, browsing the souq’s stalls, soaking up the atmosphere over spiced coffee and fresh juices (alcohol is illegal), oh, and rediscovering the luxury of a shower.

For the first time since entering Sudan, in Khartoum I got a feeling that we were leaving the Arab world and entering sub-Saharan Africa. In the cafes, South Sudanese from different tribes sat in groups alongside Arab Sudanese from the north, Christians shopped and drank alongside Muslims. It seemed that in the more cosmopolitan, business-oriented atmosphere of the city, the divisions that have put Sudan on the world map for bloodshed and violence could easily be forgotten – perhaps too easily.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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Algeria and Egypt play political football

 
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By Khaled Diab

Preparations for a World Cup showdown are getting heated, but does the animosity between Algeria and Egypt run deeper?

12 November 2009

Football may be known as the beautiful game but at the international level it often resembles some kind of Great Game in which countries compete for regional and global ascendancy. Overpaid knights in shining bling – backed up by a supporting army of fanatical volunteers – march into battle to defend the honour and prestige of the nation.

Football has a tendency to bring out both the best and worst in people, from friendly rivalry and parties in the stands, to the pettiest forms of jingoism and tribalism. As someone with only a passing interest in the sport, who finds there are goals in life beyond the back of the net, I sometimes find the depth of passions football provokes both baffling and bewildering.

In the African theatre, things are heating up, and the scramble to join World Cup hosts South Africa in one of the continent’s five additional places has sparked a cold war between two of its top footballing nations and archest rivals: Egypt and Algeria. A clash between the Pharaohs and the Desert Foxes for a place among the Titans of football sounds like the stuff of legends and the buzz surrounding the make-or-break qualifier on 14 November has an almost mythical ring to it, especially since the two nations fought almost the exact same battle 20 years ago, in 1989.

With so much at stake, advance armies of fans, journalists, hackers and other patriots have been mobilised to instil fear in the hearts of the enemy. Even that great patriotic Egyptian institution, Coca-Cola, has launched a major propaganda campaign, called “Remember 1989″, to get Egyptians squarely behind the troops.

Both sides have been exchanging allegations of unfair play, and the head of Air Algérie has even accused Egypt of restricting the movement of Algerian fans that have already arrived in the country.

For their part, international observers fear that the clash could spill over beyond the battlefield and claim some civilian casualties. The Egyptian and Algerian foreign ministers have been on the phone to each other to discuss the emerging crisis.

Peace activists on both sides are out in force. In a bid to calm tensions, the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm has launched a controversial campaign called “A Rose for every Algerian”. Earlier this week, a group of Egyptian and Algerian journalists met in Algeria to discuss ways of bridging the widening chasm and, in a gesture of love, solidarity and soppiness, they exchanged red roses.

These pre-match skirmishes raise the question of whether Algerian-Egyptian tensions revolve solely around football or whether the beautiful game is being used as a proxy – a political football, if you like – for deeper animosities.

“Algerians and Egyptians have never warmed to each other, and they seem to like expressing their feelings through football,” speculates Brian Oliver on the Guardian’s sports blog. “Egyptians are seen as snooty and aloof, and there was bad blood between the two countries in the late 1950s, when so many African countries – but not Egypt – were fighting for independence.”

Although Egypt may have been one of the first African countries to gain its independence and had a mild colonial experience compared to Algeria, this was actually not a source for tension between Egypt and Algeria – quite the contrary.

Egypt’s struggle for independence and the support given by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime to the Algerian revolutionaries during the country’s long and bloody war of independence against France – which led France to join forces with Britain and Israel to attack Egypt during the 1956 Suez crisis – is greatly appreciated in Algeria. In fact, Nasser is revered to this day by many Algerians.

If there have been political tensions between the two countries, these emerged later, when Egypt made a separate peace with Israel and was left out in the cold by the entire Arab world, including Algeria – but these resentments have faded.

In addition, the fact that Algeria is similar to Egypt in many ways – it too has a secular regimes propped up by the military – but is smaller and geographically more peripheral means that the country sometimes aspires to but has not managed to play the same kind of cultural and political role Egypt does on the Middle Eastern stage. And Egyptians can be quite arrogant about this, which could explain why some Algerians see them as “snooty and aloof”. For their part, Egyptians stereotype Algerians as aggressive and violent – which might date back to the fateful 1989 encounter in which the Algerian players reacted violently to being knocked out.

But, in the balance of things, I think the rivalry is mostly about football and how it impacts on the pride of two troubled nations. Egypt, which has qualified only twice for the World Cup (in 1934 and 1990), wants to overcome its ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ and reflect its unrivalled record in Africa on the world stage. And with what is widely seen as its best team ever, the country should have qualified without trouble, and not be struggling to keep its head above water as it now is.

Meanwhile, Algeria, which was Africa’s most impressive side in the 1980s, wants to regain its former glory after so many years in the wilderness.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 7 November 2009. Read the related discussion.

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