Back in town

I have just come back to Cairo a few days ago. It seems that these days one can't live for a few weeks without two million important things happening here--it makes me almost nostalgic for the slow news days of 2003.

There's a lot of ground to make up for, and I have been busy catching up--particularly meeting with Sudanese refugees who have recently been released from prison. The death toll I wrote about a few days ago, of 256 rather than 27 deaths as reported by the Egyptian government and most wire agencies, seems to be holding up. (Addendum: On second thought, after talking to some experts following this issue closely, it is important to distinguish between confirmed deaths and those who are missing, especially when those looking for them have limited access to prisons and hospitals. I maintain, unlike UNHCR and others, that the death toll is bound to be much higher than 27. But caution is warranted, as Elijah argues in the comments, systematic investigation is urgently required.) It remains an estimate because most hospitals and mosques are not allowing the Sudanese, who have formed a team to establish how many people died, are not being allowed access. Presumably UNHCR is engaged in a similar bodycount effort. But as a ballpark figure, it still works. Even if more access is granted, some refugees I spoke to say that some of the dead may have already been buried in mass graves. I'm not sure whether this is a rumor or not, but if so it will make it more difficult to keep count. There are a lot of similar rumors floating around, notably about the harvesting of organs (for transplants) from the dead and wounded. Recently released prisoners describe beatings in jail and other forms of humiliation, including against children.

I will write more later on what is taking place among the Sudanese community, but Le Monde's excellent reporter in Cairo, Cecile Hennon, reported on 14 January that an internal document circulating in UNHCR showed alarm at the situation and at the bad press that the organization is receiving. An independent investigation is likely. The document also notes the concerns of many Sudanese regarding organ theft and disposal of corpses, with UNHCR saying it is trying to get visual identification of corpses or copies of autopsy reports. They also doubt that the Egyptian government is being fully collaborative on providing access to detainees, making it difficult to assess how many have been released and how many remain in jail. "With every visit by UNHCR, the Sudanese are becoming more impatient and unhappy," the report says. "Their only wish is to be freed. Many believe that their fate is in our hands and that we pressured the [Egyptian] government to move them out [of the camp.]"

Finally, the leaked report also notes the Sudanese embassy in Cairo has also made visits to the prisons, taking information from and pictures of detainees, causing considerable alarm. The mostly southern Sudanese are in Egypt because they were running away from the North-controled government and naturally don't trust it. This actually seems to be one of the top concerns of the Sudanese, especially with rumors of eventual deportations persisting.

Other stories in Egypt:

  • Ayman Nour is doing OK, someone close to him told me. His health is fine but his rights in jail to visits have still not been started. Meanwhile, the government has implicitly recognized (in parliament) Al Ghad's breakaway faction as the legitimate one. The Nour loyalist faction has a new president, but is in dire financial straits. It may not be able to publish its newspaper anymore.
  • The Brotherhood is starting to complain over the way the parliamentary debate on constitutional reform is taking place. They are being shut out of the committee that will draft new laws or amendments, and are very unhappy about it.
  • An horrifying string of murders in Minya, apparently by a serial killer of some sort.
One last note: The first news from Iraq I saw when I got back was about Jill Caroll's kidnapping. Jill came to Cairo frequently to relax over the past two years and we occasionally played poker together. She's a lot of fun and one of the most courageous reporters in Baghdad, particularly as she did not have all the protection afforded to the staff correspondents of the big newspapers and other media. A lot of people here are waiting for news from her kidnappers, who seem to be politically motivated. Brian Ulrich has collated some news here.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.