Posts Tagged 'army'

Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It’s the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It’s the first few days of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.

Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.

Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim’s wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city’s documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”

What were you doing when the whole thing started?

We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It’s about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You’ll definitely hear about it soon.

Are you religious?

Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.

When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?

We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb — we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.

You must have tons of material.

Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.

What did you shoot with?

Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.

Did you have any of your material confiscated?

Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son’s diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.

Where did you fly to?

We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.

Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?

I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.

Where exactly do you live in Cairo?

I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.

What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she’s off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.

Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.

Did you use Twitter or any other social media?

I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It’s ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.

We don’t see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.

They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.

Is it more dangerous for you now that you’ve made the movie?

I guess I’m waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn’t happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn’t happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?

There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed — which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don’t do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it’s like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.

Were you surprised at it all?

I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It’s clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It’s really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It’s a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don’t watch Al Jazeera, don’t have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I’ve been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it’s not. We’re only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.

Sledgehammer tactics

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Long the self-proclaimed guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s secular legacy, Turkey’s once-powerful military is now fighting for its own survival.

In an unlikely role-reversal for a country used to the generals’ interference in the political system, the Islamic-rooted administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has detained some 70 military officers, retired as well as serving, for their involvement in an alleged coup to overthrow his elected AKP government one year after it came to power in 2003.

“Operation Sledgehammer,” laid out in some 5,000 pages of documents leaked in January to Taraf, a small Turkish daily, involved planting bombs in mosques during prayers and downing Turkish fighter jets in a bid to sow chaos and prepare the ground for intervention from the country’s ever-meddling generals.

Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star general and alleged mastermind of the plot, has denied the accusations saying that the whole thing was no more than a “simulation exercise” drawn up for an army seminar.

Many generals feel they have been framed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic preacher and leader of the Gulen brotherhood that is supposedly seeking to make Turkey an Islamic state. Although moderate in its stated goals, the powerful and very organized Gulen movement has certainly made a priority of placing its adherents high in the Turkish system, according to Hugh Pope, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, who spoke to Athens Plus.

“There is however nothing proven about the involvement of the Gulen movement or any other group,” Pope added.

The dramatic pre-dawn raids targeting prime suspects, leaks of colorful details and charges in pro-government media before they reach the prosecutor’s office have raised eyebrows among the Turkish public, some media, and independent observers who see at least some degree of political motivation behind the probe.

“The idea that 162 officers discussed a coup plot in 2003 and then nobody said anything about it for seven years is absurd. Such a thing would not have been done like this, in a seminar,” Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, told Athens Plus.

“The details do not make sense. There are simply too many absurdities and contradictions; it’s hard to take all this seriously,” Jenkins said.

Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition party, has rebuffed the operation as a “political showdown.” “Why did you wait for seven years?” he asked recently. “These are commanders who now wear pajamas and slippers.”

An ongoing trial concerning a separate anti-government plot by a shadowy ultranationalist network known as “Ergenekon” has also been criticized as an act of political vendetta. Some question whether the group even exists.

For most analysts, Jenkins included, developments mirror a tug of war between the established elite and an emerging pious Islamic segment of society.

“These arrests are the latest act in a struggle for power between two groups: the urban, highly secular but rather authoritarian establishment and military, who founded the republic of Turkey in 1923, and the more religious but pragmatic people from the Turkish countryside who have flooded into the cities since the 1960s, and whose political representative is the AKP,” said Pope, who has however expressed doubts that this is just a “witch hunt” against the army.

The army has staged three coups since 1960, but the Turkish public has grown sensitive to army interference in civic life. The latest bid, the so-called “e-coup” of 2007 when the military’s website criticized the presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, backfired. Erdogan called a snap poll and won a resounding 47 percent of the vote. AKP again won 39 percent in the 2009 election and polls still give the party about one third of the vote, ahead of any other party.

The once-untouchable generals are against the ropes, but the chances of another coup, analysts say, are remote. “The events of this week signal another step toward full control of Turkey by civilian authorities. The country has come far from the military coups in 1960, 1971 or 1980 and is now far too complex and integrated into the global system to face another one,” said Pope.

The generals may be down but they are definitely not out. Despite its declining power, mostly thanks to AKP’s EU-minded reforms, as well as its dwindling popularity, the military is still the most trusted institution in the country. “If the civilian government should lose its way and lose popular support in a few years’ time, it is possible that the military will once again be tempted to act in the name of what it sees as the silent majority,” Pope said.

The standoff however seems to have galvanized the army which has in the past been divided on whether the chief of staff should be more assertive in safeguarding secularism. The chief of staff, Gen. Ilker Basbug, who has in the past stressed that the era of military coups is over, has lashed out at what he calls an “asymmetrical psychological war on the army.”

“Developments have had a demoralizing but also unifying effect,” Jenkins said. “They have united the core of the military rather than dividing it,” he added.

Greek commentators have expressed concern that the coup probe could harden Ankara’s policy on Greece as the Turkish premier would not want to give the impression of being a softy on a traditional rival, particularly during a standoff with the hawkish generals.

But foreign analysts beg to differ. “Turkey is becoming more introverted, more obsessed with internal affairs,” Jenkins said, suggesting that Greece was not a real priority at the moment.

Under the influence of its energetic Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu Turkey has pursued a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors. Erdogan this week said that Ankara will pull its troops out from divided Cyprus should the two sides reach a peace deal.

However, Pope warned, the spat is certainly sapping time and energy from other priorities such as electoral and constitutional reform – a flashpoint of potential friction between the government and the pro-secularist judiciary – as well as tilting Turkey away from the perennial goal of EU membership, a Cyprus peace deal and normalization of ties with Armenia.

When swinging a sledgehammer, you always risk breaking more than you intended.


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