Reflections from the road

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Barry Acton

I write this sitting in very nice hotel in Cairo, Egypt. It’s a long way from January 31 of this year when I first departed for Cairo from Beijing, many thousands of kilometers away.

The departure of Hosni Mubarak on the 17th of February seems like years ago. On Saturday, Egyptians exercised the right to vote (on constitutional amendments), for the first time in decades. The headline in the Egyptian Gazette says it all, “A taste of democracy.” One giant step in the right direction, albeit down a long road. But for other countries, that road is even longer.

After heading back to Beijing, I was looking forward to a little relaxation as the hours we put in were long and there had been some challenges that seemed to make some days last for a week.

How wrong was I?

Sometime between 11:00 PM and 1:00 AM on the 24th/25th of February, I received an email asking me to call Vancouver (where Global National‘s main editorial staff is located), also known as “the desk.” They’re pretty much our “parents” at work. There are some other names used, but I won’t bore you with our adolescent attempts at humour.

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So Saturday found me “packing light” for what was to be a three or four day trip to Bahrain. (Packing light was a little bit of a mistake on my part, but trying to get in on a tourist visa with $85,000 worth of TV gear makes you a little conspicuous. However, I do what I’m told most days.)

Why Bahrain? Why not? It is easy to get into, has some of its people demanding their human rights and an end to the long rule of a minority over a majority. Makes sense to me.

OK, so maybe it’s not easy to get into. I flew overnight via Air China in a very small, middle seat from Beijing to Delhi, where I spent four hours trying to get a boarding pass for the trip to Bahrain. Eventually, I made the flight, but once again was crammed into the middle. I arrived along with correspondent Tom Popyk in Bahrain, happy that 14-hour adventure was over. I was ready to work. OK, actually, I was exhausted and ready for a shower.

Tom and I spent two days around Bahrain’s now well known Pearl roundabout. It became the focal point of the protestors. Many were eager to show us the bullet holes in lampposts and craters in the concrete. I hunt and I’ve seen bullet holes, but those were not from rubber bullets.

A Bahraini government protestor gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout on March 13 in Manama, Bahrain. Photo by Hasan Jamali, The Associated Press.

There was the usual festive atmosphere at Pearl roundabout: volunteers handing out food and drinks, medical aid for those who need it, even a protestors’ media centre. Protestors are getting pretty media savvy these days.

The protests that started in Tunisia with the self-immolation of a fruit seller have sparked (sorry about the pun, I couldn’t pass on it) a movement that has spread all over North Africa and the Middle East. Off the top of my head: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, and Iran just to name a few. People want their human rights and a chance at a future. All simple, fundamental rights that you and I have. (Although the voter turnout in Canada during elections is shamefully low, and those who don’t vote should be fined and spend a couple of days with someone from a country who doesn’t have a right to vote.)

Where was I? Right…Bahrain. So, on Tuesday we headed for Cairo where we tried and avoided having our gear seized. (They may have booted Mubarak, but they aren’t foreign media friendly at customs just yet.) At this point, we are trying to figure out whether to go to Tunis, or the Egyptian side. You saw the humanitarian crisis from the Tunisian side. Egypt was similar. Eventually a crew went to Malta then to Tunisia after Tom and I headed for the Libya-Egyptian border.

We crossed illegally into Libya as Moammar Gadhafi labelled us as al-Qaeda collaborators. Funny, I didn’t see anything in the way of al-Qaeda the entire time I was in Libya. What I did see were people who were looking for their freedom. Freedom from a tyrant. Freedom to choose. Freedom to make their own opportunities, to have a chance to marry, to raise a family, to find a job.

It started well. The rebels had taken control of several cities and were euphoric in their achievements. But Col. Gadhafi wasn’t going to give up that easy. As he pushed back and the situation changed, it was clear to me at least that without the help of the outside world, it wouldn’t end well.

My question is this. If the Arab world resents the Western world’s intervention, why is it that the Arab League isn’t leading this? I understand the West’s caution, as you don’t want to come to a party unless you are invited. I think the Arab League needs to take a front and centre roll in this if it wants to be taken seriously and not just written off as an organization that will give a stern lecture, but take no action. (Sounds like the UN. Actually, I think this also applies to China. Want to be considered a world superpower? Act like one. Ignore the foreign press. Let them do their jobs. Very few listen to us anyways. And quit suppressing your people too! But I digress…China is for another time.) Once we decided we couldn’t move the story forward much without some serious safety concerns (CBC and Global were moving as a group going in and out of Libya), we moved back to Cairo. We left under the cover of darkness. Fitting, as we all felt we were abandoning a story and the people.

I find it interesting Bahrain has removed the Pearl from the ‘Pearl roundabout.’ I watched it from the hotel. I guess they think that removing a symbol will remove the will of the people. Reports said there were more than 40 dead in Bahrain, and it took the House of Saud to roll in and get things under control by killing unarmed protests.

The people I have met over the past seven (going on now, eight) weeks have left an impression on me. They want the same things – not material things – but the same opportunities the other 10 per cent (or less) of the world has. They are willing to die for it.

Would we have that resolve if the roles were reversed? Nice of the U.N. to finally act on Libya…at least there is a chance now.

My apologies as this has rambled on too long and in many directions. I leave you with this photo I took in Egypt on the way back to Cairo. Other than seeing my friends safely out of Libya, the few calls I make home are the few things to make me smile in the past few weeks.

Barry is Global National’s photojournalist usually based in Beijing.He is currentlycovering the war in Libya. You can follow Barry on Twitter: @BActonGlobal.

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