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“The mood is very tense”

The road to democracy is proving rocky in Egypt. Yasser Alwan, a free-lance photographer, discussed recent incidents of political violence and repression with Hans Dembowski in an Interview on 25 May.

It made international headlines that Maikel Nabil, a blogger, was arrested and sentenced to three years of prison in a military trial in April. Are there more such cases?
Yes, there are. El Nadeem, a human rights organisation, estimates that 7,000 to 10,000 people have been arrested since Mubarak left office, and that 90 % of them were sentenced in military trials, with sentences ranging from one to seven years. The reasons do not seem to always be political, Human Rights Watch says petty criminals are affected too. It is difficult to keep track of these matters because, in military trials, the accused do not get lawyers and those who are found guilty cannot appeal. Some people who were arrested were later freed again thanks to public campaigns. But if victims are poor, uneducated, do not have steady jobs and lots of contacts, they simply disappear from public life and it is impossible to campaign on their behalf.

Are the left and liberal forces splintering or organ­ising?
Several business leaders are about to start secular, liberal parties. There is a new law on starting a political party. They may not be based on religion or class. You need 5,000 members and must publish their names in a newspaper ad at a cost of around 500,000 pounds and pay registration fees of around 250,000 Egyptian pounds, the equivalent of almost € 30,000. That is a lot of money. Basically, this law means that the government doesn’t mind business people forming parties, but it does not want the left to organise. The good news, however, is that left-wing groups have recently begun to cooperate closely, so it looks like there will be a broad left-wing coalition for the elections.

There have been several cases of sectarian violence recently. What are the reasons?
Let me say first of all that sectarian tensions are really dangerous. The smallest incident can flare up from Alexandria in the North to Aswan in the South at any time. Worries of Copts are legitimate; they are indeed under pressure. At the same time, it looks like the security forces and the secret services are causing trouble. The Mubarak regime used a divide-and-rule strategy, and those who are running the country now seem to be taking that approach too. There is a pattern of Salafis, right-wing fundamentalist Muslims, staging protests, often based on rumours, with most of the violence erupting only after security forces have arrived. Eyewitnesses reported that at Imbaba. This is a dangerous trend. It’s also strange that the Salafis are suddenly in the news every day. They have been around for a long time, but never got this kind of attention. Apparently, there is a nationwide undertaking to divide people so that the police can “legitimately” return to what was business as usual before 25 January.

In the early days of the revolution, Christians and Muslims were protesting together. Does that still happen?
Yes, it does. There are lots of demonstrations, big and small ones. In places where violence occurred, local people of both faiths often join hands in solidarity demonstrations. Many understand that sectarian violence does not solve any of the problems this country faces. On 13 May, there were at least 50,000 people in Tahrir Square. The rally’s two topics were sectarian harmony and solidarity with Palestine. There are lots of strikes too, but the media hardly cover them. To learn about them, you have to know activists.

Who goes on strike?
A lot of people are frustrated with the economic situation. They want more money and better working conditions. Recently, there even was a strike of medical doctors in the public-sector hospitals where the starting salary for young doctors is a mere 300 pounds or so. Doctors want the government to spend 15 % of GDP on healthcare and complain that, so far, that share is only 3.5 %, which is really nothing. Most hospitals are in an awful shape. In the past decades, things have become so bad that people now use a saying according to which anyone admitted to a public-sector hospital is “lost” and anyone released again is “re-born”. Hospitals, you see, have more or less become places to die, not to be healed. People want their lives to improve, and so far, that is not happening.

So the euphoria of the first revolutionary days is over?
Yes, it is over; the mood of the country has become very tense.