Robert Fisk: Dark humour in a time of dictatorship

 

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In an old and rather tatty gift shop in the Zamalek district of Cairo this week, I asked the owner if he had a photograph of Saad Zaghloul for sale. No sooner said than done.

Out from a paper bag at the back of the shop came a portrait of the great man, father of Egypt's real independence struggle, hero of 1919 when the Egyptian people – secular and religious, Muslim and Copt, men and women together – rose up in street demonstrations and industrial strikes to demand their freedom from Britain. It sounds familiar. It should. Here is a quotation from Mohammed Rifaat's Awakening of Modern Egypt which could have been written by any of us these past three weeks.

"The Revolution emblem of the Crescent embracing the Cross, which was held high overhead in their processions and funerals, in Mosques and Churches, had demonstrated ever since the union between the national elements of the nation ... during the Revolution, with their brothers, husbands and men folk out during the revolt demonstrating, and exposing themselves ... to the severest penalty, women couldn't help but play their part in the men's struggle for liberty and independence."

I saw the banners of Crescent and Cross in Tahrir Square last week – forgetting its almost 100-year-old historical antecedent – and reading Rifaat's account is like running the original black and white version of a movie. The spread of strikes across Egypt, the cutting of railway lines, the brutality of repression – by British soldiers in 1919, using live rounds rather than the coshes and tear gas of Mubarak's goons – was an almost fingerprint perfect copy of what would happen in Cairo almost a century later. And in 1919, American President Woodrow Wilson even did an Obama. Instead of supporting the Egyptian democrats and adhering to his gospel of self-determination for all races, he immediately recognised the British protectorate over Egypt.

The Egyptian economy was so broken that Talaat Harb was brought in to write a report on how the country's financial system could be made less dependent on foreign imports. Harb's statue stands in the square named after him, just up the road from Tahrir Square, while Zaghloul still stands on a higher pedestal at the west end of the Lions' Bridge over the Nile. Deported to the Seychelles by the Brits – as usual, we brought him back to become prime minister when it was in our interest – Zaghloul's towering figure was wreathed in the trailing smoke of tear gas grenades when the pro-democracy demonstrators finally fought off the cops and their plain-clothes mafia on 28 January. In my photograph, he is an old man, narrow, wizened eyes, a white moustache, morning suit with tie and high-neck collar, a face that might be that of a Nile peasant were it not for the Ottoman tarbouch on his head. He is sitting on an ornate chair, pseudo-Louis XVI.

Back in Beirut, my picture-framer wanted to embrace him with a grandfatherly, thick, brown frame which made him look like a dead family member. I tried red, which made him look too like a Russian revolutionary. Then green – which suggested he might be a founder of the old Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet if I am fascinated by men of the past, we have all been locked on to the fate of Mubarak. Is he sick, dying in Germany? What possessed him to cling on so long, so hopelessly? What possessed La Clinton – and Obama – to tolerate him through the first two weeks of the new Egyptian revolution? As a frequent visitor to Washington, I think I can understand. For the US presidency and State Department and the Pentagon are now so in thrall to everything Israeli that Israeli intelligence – which, for its own reasons, wanted to keep Mubarak as dictator – carries more weight than US diplomatic reports or America's own intelligence files. Thus, Robert Gates praised the Egyptian army for its "restraint" when he should have praised the millions of pro-democracy demonstrators for their restraint. Thus La Clinton still spoke, in the early days, of Egypt's "stability". And thus Obama, post-revolution, chose to lead his response to this critical event with praise for Egypt's maintenance of its "peace treaties, like the one it has with Israel". This was really fox-like of Obama. He surely knows that the only (repeat: only) peace treaty Egypt has is with Israel. Its other neighbours are friends.

Truly, the Americans are all at sea. Just as they were in Tunisia. It now emerges, thanks to a genuine old-fashioned scoop in Le Monde, that President Ben Ali didn't really intend to flee his country at all. He planned to fly his immediate family to safety in Riyadh and then return to Tunis next morning to continue his reign. Only when the Tunisair crew arrived in Saudi Arabia and saw al-Jazeera in the airport's VIP lounge, announcing Ben Ali's overthrow, did they call Tunis and receive a new flight plan to take off at 1.30am the following day. They discreetly flew away while the President slept, leaving the dictator planeless in Riyadh. Memo to all airline passengers: don't take your crew for granted. Especially if they've been watching al-Jazeera.

Yet the farce of dictatorship – for the black humour of the dreadful regimes that have humiliated the Arab world for so many years has a strong flavour of terrible comedy about it – continues. Could there, for example, have been a more dreadful symbol of this dark world than the 19-year-old Syrian girl dragged into a special security court in Syria this week – chained and blindfolded, for heaven's sake – to be sentenced for using the internet to "reveal information to a foreign power that should remain secret"? Her real crime was to ask for a role in shaping the future of her country and to complain that Obama should do more for Palestinians. Wearing trousers and a wool hat – Syrian prisons do not have central heating – she was given a five-year prison sentence. Obama, of course, maintained a mouse-like silence.

Just as he did when Egyptian police stole US embassy cars in Cairo and used them to drive down demonstrators in the streets. Only when video footage revealed the identity of the vehicles did the embassy sneakily admit that the armoured cars had been stolen. It didn't tell us that at the time, needless to say, presumably because it didn't want to say that Mubarak's mobsters had stolen them.

Back in the paradise of Beirut – and yes, there is a massive and incendiary battle coming between the Hizbollah in government and the democratic opposition that has ruled Lebanon since the murder of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri six years ago – I had to make a decision about Zaghloul's picture. In the end – as if you haven't guessed already – I framed him in gold.

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