Egypt turns over new leaf after protests, deaths

HARARE - It is hard not to be impressed when you arrive in the populous, rich and modern nation of Egypt, especially when you are invited as a guest of the president.

There is just a brief wait in the VIP lounge at the Cairo Airport, with its creme leatherette sofas and some soft Bollywood music playing on a flat-screen television, before you are whisked on golf carts into a comfy shuttle bus with “free” Wifi connection, the usual hassles of passport control handled by friendly officials.

Leaving Cairo airport you see a significant change as it becomes apparent that airport expansion plans have risen to the top of newly-enthroned President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s agenda to meet the growing demand from tourists and business travellers.

Our hosts were proud to explain that the airport project will augment the annual capacity of Cairo International Airport from 3,5 million passengers to 7,5 million passengers and restructure the terminal to allow it to provide services to large body airplanes such as Airbus A380 Super Jumbo and Boeing 747.

You wonder if this is some kind of success story of the January 25, 2011 revolution, that culminated in the inauguration of al-Sisi as the sixth president — a de facto pharaoh, though chosen by the people — of the oldest nation-state on earth.

Egyptians overwhelmingly voted last May to elect him by an over 90 percent tally to lead the country, which he has ruled directly for the past eight months since overthrowing his predecessor, Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), in the face of massive popular demand.

From the moment the soft-spoken but focused al-Sisi, a graduate of the Egyptian Military Academy and US Army War College, ousted Mursi — who had turned a narrow electoral mandate in June 2012 into a brutal Islamist dictatorship almost overnight, alienating the vast majority of the country — the hugely popular al-Sisi has been ceaselessly rebuilding this nascent democracy by deploying his cult of personality effectively.

He is finishing a political road-map that started with presidential elections, constitutional reform — “their charter is even in Braille”, and the country is due to go for parliamentary elections later this month to elect a new Parliament.

There is renewed hope and a sense of pride by Egyptians for spearheading revolution — anchored largely by people power.

The moment Mubarak stepped down was a moment of victory.

“We were able to force Mubarak to step down and we got rid of a corrupt regime and dictatorship that lasted almost three decades,” said Mohamed Medhat, a graduate student.

He said the manner in which the Egyptian revolution was accomplished is significant.

“The most amazing thing was that it was 100 percent peaceful,” Ali said. “It gives a very important moral meaning because it happened in a very civil way.”

From the airport, there was a short drive along a new three-lane dual carriageway highway. Strangely, it is packed with traffic — we were awed with the huge number of cars coming in the opposite direction even though it was 4am.

Cairo is a traffic jungle any time of the day. But on either side are new buildings planted among the impossibly lush foliage. There are offices for oil and construction companies, together with scores of new blocks of flats — again all under construction

Eventually we reached the swanky five-star Fairmont Heliopolis, a glass and mortar edifice built with a touch of Egyptian heritage in its décor. It has three tennis courts, a hot tub, three swimming pools surrounded by a landscaped garden, free Wifi and the best cuisine, of course.

“Fantastic hotel here, isn’t it,” enthused one of my companions as we awaited to be checked-in by the exceedingly friendly hosts — must be from the Egyptian intelligence.

This is the face Egypt wishes to present to the world. Since he came into office in 2014, al-Sisi has faced criticism by rights groups that his military-backed regime is clawing back freedoms gained after the 2011 uprising that ended a three-decade autocracy under Hosni Mubarak.

Authorities have cracked down hard on the Islamist, secular and liberal opposition alike.

Much later after welcoming us as guests at the presidential palace, whose architecture marries modernism and the traditions of the mediaeval Egypt, al-Sisi said Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood was “a threat to national security.”

He has linked the Brotherhood, the region’s oldest Islamist grouping, with far more radical groups, including one based in Sinai that supports Islamic State, allegations it denies.

Rights groups claim hundreds of supporters of the Brotherhood, which says it is a peaceful opposition movement, have been killed and thousands arrested in one of the toughest security crackdowns in Egypt’s history.

A day before our arrival in Cairo, two remaining Aljazeera journalists jailed in Egypt on charges of aiding a “terrorist organisation” were freed on bail after 411 days in jail, but the court said the case against them was still pending.

Since Mursi’s fall, Sinai-based militants have killed hundreds of police and soldiers, and the beheading of up to 21 Egyptians in neighbouring Libya prompted al-Sisi to order air strikes against militant targets there last week.

The beheading of the Egyptians nearly scuttled our meeting with President al-Sisi, but we were eventually accorded two-and-half hours with him, which sadly was taken up by translation from Arabic.

Apparently al-Sisi speaks fluent English — he interjected in the Queen’s language during the palace shindig — but preferred to speak to us in Arabic through an interpreter

Some Egyptians have overlooked widespread allegations of human rights abuses and backed al-Sisi for delivering a degree of stability following years of political turmoil since 2011.

The Egyptian regime is also trying to paint a rosy picture. Two days before we left Cairo, a court acquitted Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Nazif and former interior minister Habib el-Adly of graft charges, a day after prominent activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was jailed for five years for violating limits on demonstrations.

This all looks like a  part of al-Sisi’s drive to re-brand the Egyptian regime. Al-Sisi has said that he wished the Aljazeera journalists had been deported and not put on trial.

It is like something out of The Truman Show, one of many illusions in a land of artifice.

I was travelling with a group of editors from 16 African countries, so we were cocooned from reality, taken around in motorcades led by police cars with blaring horns. It was great fun — although judging by the angry glares rather less so for local drivers forced out of the way.

The invitation to join the trip came from Bassem Khalil, the Egyptian ambassador in Harare, a leading diplomat with a long-standing interest in his country.

In a surreal twist, our visit perhaps secured the release of the Aljazeera journalists.

It was a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into post-revolution regime, and the huge crisis of expectation facing al-Sisi after coming to power last year.

The rain hammered down as we headed off for our first meeting. It was chaired by Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Foreign Affairs minister, a dapper fellow who also chairs the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development.

The aim was clear: to persuade us this was a good place for business, arts and possibly even tourism.

We sat in a row while senior politicians from his country sat three abreast on sofas to his left. The deodorants and watches on display were impressive.

“We are here to find out about Egypt and take back our impressions,” I asked. “We are incredibly honoured to be the first delegation of editors in your country. But while we sit here, there are journalists who have been in prison for 411 days. How do you respond to criticism that you are criminalising journalism?”

Minister Shoukry responded with a long and convoluted retort as the illusory discourse continued: could the press raise issues freely without consequences? And best of all, whether democratic reform was driven by the military or the people.

Then the cream-suited Ambassador Hazem Fahmy chipped in, saying there were misconceptions of Egypt that there is no a functioning democracy. He said one of the other major misconceptions is over civil liberties and human rights. He said he knew it was a big job for his guests to change the views of Egypt and show them that not everything was negative.

“You will leave as our first ambassadors,” he concluded with a smile. Little wonder — cameras had been rolling and clicking constantly, ensuring excellent footage for state-controlled broadcasters.

Official reports were hailing the arrival of African editors.

Despite the naivety of the spin by officials, for example over the big row between Egypt and Ethiopia, which wants to build a dam along the Nile River, the officials begun to twig that all was not as it appeared.

An editor from Rwanda asked why Egypt was stonewalling Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam to help its people get irrigation water and generate electricity. The editor accused the Egyptians of being “selfish” and pretending that they own the Nile.

The answer was obvious, given the precedent set by the Foreign minister, that if Ethiopia builds the dam, it will jeopardise the lives of 90 million Egyptians that rely on the Nile River for water. Outside in the corridor, the mood was tense.

“Do you need a cup of tea,” asked one official keen to diffuse the tension. Egyptians love tea so, so much. 

By the time we returned to the hotel after another meeting, our group was astounded by how touchy the water war is.  At night we retreated to the so-called “Egyptian Nights”, where belly dancers entertained us as we took our supper.

The group of editors ended the meal by agreeing that we were not being shown a proper picture of the country and would not write a “whitewash” report.

There was no need to be rude to our hosts, even though we did not understand Egypt that much.

A furious row broke out after regime officials claimed Aljazeera was embellishing reports in the service of the Muslim Brotherhood. Needless to say, it turned out to be excruciating.

The magic of Egypt is still there. The palm trees swaying in a warm breeze as the Nile snakes through its green, desert-surrounded valley, the sun setting on the Temple of Karnak, the Red Sea and its bright shoals of fish: all have the same appeal as ever.

It was interesting to experience the magic, after the revolutionary chaos and death of the past few years.

Since the Tahrir Square revolution of February 2011 that gave way to street demonstrations, there have been sporadic terrorist attacks, mainly in northern Sinai but also aimed at police checkpoints and buildings elsewhere.

We visited Aswan, the main bases for Nile Valley tourism. Its peaceful and reasonably well protected. There have been no recent repeats of the massacre of tourists by jihadists. Gamaa Islamiya, the group responsible, has laid down its weapons.

There is, generally, a higher security presence, for example on the road to Cairo airport. Most of the places where there is still tension are ones tourists are unlikely to visit — but it is still palpable, particularly on significant anniversaries, around Tahrir Square, which is home to one of Egypt’s “must-see” sites, the National Museum.

The museum itself, which was partly looted during the revolution and whose grounds were used as a makeshift prison for a while, is protected by armoured vehicles and barbed wire, which makes visiting an unnerving experience.

The men at the entrance are not exactly versed in customer relations, either.

But overally, Egypt is a great place to visit, with so much history against a backdrop of revolutionary fervour.

Under al-Sisi, a rock star president, the country has started laying a solid foundation for its seemingly great future. And Sisi has mastered one big lesson, never to take his people for granted.

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