Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Middle East's Invisibles

Why millions of disabled people in Arab and north African societies have to fight for more than just recognition.

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - December 2009

Earlier this year I played a football match in Cairo against an Egyptian team made up entirely of deaf players. It was a eerie experience; under the dull roar of the 6 October flyover, which carves through the centre of the city and across the Nile, our match was played out in almost perfect silence – the normal breathless shouts of encouragement, congratulation and annoyance between teammates all replaced by dazzlingly fast sign language. What was even stranger was the reaction of my Egyptian friends later that evening – most simply didn't believe that there could be such a thing as a deaf football team, and even the ones that did thought the idea hilarious.

The memory of that game came back to me last week while I was speaking to Hanaa Helmy, an Ashoka fellow who runs a centre for children with cerebral palsy in a south Cairo suburb. "People often ask me why I bother," said Helmy. "The idea that children with cerebral palsy could be self-dependent and integrated with Egyptian society is completely alien; most people think they'd be better off dead."

The challenges faced by the hard of hearing and those who suffer from cerebral palsy are scarcely comparable, but both point to a common factor: the barriers faced by disabled people in the Middle East who want to exercise a degree of self-expression, creativity and personal agency over their lives.

These barriers are partly due to inflexible institutional structures, but also to the widespread social attitudes that stereotype and marginalise those who are physically or mentally different from the majority. It's not just that the disabled are often invisible – part of what the latest Arab Human Development Report labels "the vulnerability of those lost from sight" – but also that they are conceived of only in terms of their disability.

According to the World Bank, there are up to 30m disabled people in the Middle East and north Africa region, where – more than in the west – disability and poverty are "inextricably linked". In Egypt alone, there are up to 4 million people who need some sort of rehabilitation for a disability, and maybe the same number again who do not appear in the official figures. As in neighbouring Arab countries, those who fall into this category are far more likely than the rest of the population to join the ranks of the absolute poor – just as the absolute poor are far more likely to become disabled.

Studies have shown that access to healthcare, education and jobs all dissipate after the onset of a disability here in Egypt, not to mention the concurrent physical checks on activity (as any visitor to Cairo will testify, the city's assorted potholes, badly parked cars, water-gushing air conditioners and inopportunely placed pavement shisha smokers make it hard enough to walk through the streets on two legs, never mind navigate them with a wheelchair).

Government legislation theoretically protects the rights of disabled people in Egypt but in common with the way it treats most of its citizens, President Mubarak's autocratic regime rarely matches its rhetoric with concrete action. True, the rule on large firms making up at least 5% of its workforce from the ranks of the disabled does throw up some interesting anomalies – one KFC branch in Cairo is staffed entirely by deaf workers – and the recent case of a policeman who carried out a horrific assault on a mentally disabled man in Alexandria being brought to justice was cited by some as evidence that official concern for those with disabilities was on the rise. But on the whole there is a deplorable lack of institutional support for those who fall between the cracks of the mainstream health and education systems.

For once, though, not all of society's ills in this area can be pinned on Egypt's dysfunctional ruling party. As the sentencing of Colonel Akram Suleiman (the attacker of the disabled man in Alexandria) showed, not only is there a strong taboo about admitting the presence of disability within families, but when the existence of disabled people is acknowledged they are usually viewed either as wretched creatures deserving of charity or as miraculous achievers who overcome all the odds – but never as anything in between. As the NGO Handicap International says in its profile of Egypt, "ordinary" Egyptians "hardly consider [disabled people] as regular capable citizens having their own strengths and weaknesses, rights and duties".

The idea that disabled people are somehow detached from the common knowledge of what constitutes "ordinary humankind" – the normal experiences we all share of eating, drinking, learning, loving, having fun, experiencing sorrow, or indeed playing football – has formidable consequences. Psychologically, it prevents those with disabilities being taken seriously as independent agents, leaving them at the mercy of negative stereotypes.

Stars of Hope, a Palestinian NGO which promotes the rights of women with disabilities and also receives support from the Ashoka foundation, says that disabled women are often seen as "childlike, dependent, incompetent, asexual, unable to take on the role of worker, sexual partner, or mother. As a result, they are left confused about who they are, and who they can become."

This isn't just a question of Arab society acknowledging the existence of disabled people, it's about acknowledging their place within the spectrum of "ordinary" life.

The problem though, as Brian Whitaker points out in his recent book What's Really Wrong With the Middle East, is that the idea of society being vibrant, pluralistic and above all a forum in which individuals can legitimately carve out their own personal thought and space in their own manner – and still be an accepted part of the community – is one that is stubbornly denied through social norms inculcated through both the family and school systems. Educational models in the Arab World tends to encourage "submission, obedience, subordination and compliance, rather than free critical thinking"; in other words, children are taught that the best route to success is to accept their parents and schoolteachers vision of the world unquestionably and to learn it by rote.

It is little wonder, then, that the Middle East's disabled population struggle to be accorded the status of productive, self-expressive individuals that they deserve, but are instead diminished into caricatures. Government neglect of the disabled is unacceptable, but the real challenges start closer to home.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More to Egypt riots than football

The tribalistic violence that followed World Cup defeat to Algeria was fuelled by a genuine set of grievances

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - November 2009

The chauvinistic brand of nationalism that swept across Egypt last week – the violent fringe of which saw riots outside the Algerian embassy in Cairo – really isn't about the football, despite what Joseph Mayton says in his Cif article yesterday.

The spark was a football match, certainly, but Mayton's contention that depressed Egyptians were simply "unable to deal with the fact that even on the football pitch, they cannot achieve success" does not tell the whole story.

Mayton appears to want to condemn the flag-burners, congratulate the police, slam President Mubarak, and move on. The reality is far more nuanced, and far less heartening; an irresponsible and sensationalist media in two countries mobilised a particularly poisonous form of latent tribalism among some Egyptians by fixating on – and exaggerating – a very genuine set of grievances over the way Egyptians were being treated abroad.

The first point to make is that Algerian attacks against Egyptian targets in Algiers were real, and the fact that they were allowed to occur in a exceptionally security-conscious state, suggests there was some government complicity in them, indirectly at least. One observer witnessed 200 youths vandalising the offices of Orascom, an Egyptian communications giant, while riot police looked on; the same firm has now been hit by a $600m bill by the Algerian tax authorities in a move that suggests Algeria is willing to jeopardise its entire foreign investment infrastructure for the sake of firing another salvo at its Arab neighbours. Embellishments and fabrications are two-a-penny in this mess, but not to recognise that Egypt was provoked in any way is disingenuous to say the least.

Second, it's all very well to denounce those who allegedly threw bricks and lobbed Molotov cocktails around in Cairo; you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who'd endorse that sort of xenophobic rampage. But righteous disapproval doesn't take us any closer to understanding the sentiments of tens of millions of non-rampaging Egyptians who were also furious with Algeria and expressed their outrage in other ways.

Like most post-colonial countries, Egypt is a "nationalistic" state. Combined with poor education levels, low standards of living and the inevitable sense of disenfranchisement arising from systematic oppression (which is helpfully meted out to Egyptians daily by their own government), such patriotic fervour ensures the spectre of tribalism – the retreat into an exclusionary group identity – always bubbles just below the surface.

Egypt is hardly unique in this respect; there are countless examples of African and Asian countries where ethnic tensions are high and forms of tribalism more visible. But it does exist here, even if it remains largely subterranean; after all, there is usually little opportunity for proud flag-waving under a regime that has overseen the decline of Egypt's role on the international stage, the rise of relative poverty among its people and the murder of innocent civilians by police sporting the national symbol of an eagle on their armbands. Football, of course, is an exception: the "romanticism of an 'all or nothing' game" offers the perfect outlet for a bit of brazen nationalism, relatively untainted by the government-induced disarray the rest of the country is lying in.

The key characteristic of tribalism is that it is aggravated far more by external actions – because it involves an image of the self that is inherently based on some conception of "the other" – than it is by threats at home. In fact the dignity and rights of Egyptians are assaulted a great deal more often, and to a far greater extent by Egypt's own elite than they have been by Algerians or any other recent outsiders; as Hossam el-Hamalawy, a local journalist and activist, pointed out recently, "Hosni Mubarak's thugs have beaten and killed more Egyptians than any hooligans."

But to many Egyptians, that wasn't the point; the attacks in Algiers were perceived as an extraneous peril that deserved an extreme response. The conditions were set for an explosion, and somebody just needed to light the fuse.

Enter a phalanx of pampered actors, singers, TV personalities and other assorted celebrities who quickly saw a chance to jump on a populist bandwagon and regale all the talk shows with lurid accounts of their near-death experiences while attending the playoff match in Sudan. There is an epic chasm between the lives of the (mainly) upper-class Egyptians who could afford to journey down to Khartoum for the game and the world of the masses who watched it in their living rooms and in shisha cafes, a chasm that the former attempted to bridge through a hypocritical and exploitative campaign of disinformation.

No matter that most of these individuals have now quietly recanted their claims of bloodletting in the stands; the media were only too happy to whip up the hysterical tales of these two-bit phonies who thought they could grab some grubby stardust by singing along with lies and distortions to the patriotic tune. The same process, by the way, was also under way in the Algerian press, where the poisonous al-Chorouk newspaper printed fake story after fake story in an attempt to stoke tension.

This confluence of chauvinistic nationalism and media hyperbole lay at the heart of last week's chaos. That's not an excuse, just an explanation (and an incomplete one too, as nothing this wide-ranging affair can be pinned down to a single cause). The government played a key role in fanning the flames, and they certainly tried to exploit the crisis for political gain – although I'm inclined to think Mubarak's clique decided somewhat belatedly to surf the wave of popular anger, rather than playing any part in initiating it.

As one Egyptian friend recently put it to me, Egypt's ruling class are "half-bright bureaucrats and armchair statesmen"; in the international arena they prefer to keep their heads down and avoid making enemies, which is why Egypt has so shamelessly sold out the Palestinians in Gaza and also failed to stand up to Libya or Saudi Arabia over the well-documented mistreatment of Egyptian migrant workers.

Indeed, the only good thing that might possibly emerge from the past fortnight would be a growing awareness of the duplicity of Egypt's political leaders, who are now promising to unleash "Egypt's wrath" on those who flout the rights of Egyptians. Championing those rights in recent years has involved arresting peaceful demonstrators, torturing dissidents and presiding over a state so corrupt and dysfunctional that recent train and ferry accidents have killed more than 300 and 1000 Egyptians respectively (tragedies, incidentally, that Mubarak did not think warranted a presidential visit). Tribalism may search for antagonists beyond the borders, but the real enemy of the Egyptian people lies closer to home.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mubarak adds fuel to the fire as football riots spread

  • President vows to defend Egyptians abroad as violence spreads across Cairo and Algiers
  • Egyptian regime accused of whipping up nationalist fervour for political gain

-Taken from 'The Observer'
-Cairo - November 2009

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ratcheted up the diplomatic tension with Algeria yesterday as football-related violence continued to spread across both countries. In a statement to the Egyptian parliament, he told cheering MPs that “Egypt will not be lax with those who harm the dignity of its sons.”

It is the president’s first public intervention in a row that has seen thousands of protestors flood the streets of both Cairo and Algiers and a wave of tit-for-tat reprisal attacks against Egyptian targets in Algeria, and vice versa. The trouble started when Egypt won a controversial World Cup qualifier against Algeria in Cairo last week, setting up a playoff between the two sides in Sudan to decide which country would progress to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

Earlier this week Egypt recalled its envoy from Algeria after expressing its ‘outrage’ and ‘denunciation’ at the treatment faced by Egyptian fans in Khartoum, where Algeria won the match by a single goal. Despite appeals for calm by the General Secretary of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, rioting has since spread to both capitals. In Algiers the offices of Egypt’s national airline were destroyed, whilst in Cairo hundreds of Egyptian security forces did battle with demonstrators attempting to reach the Algerian embassy, which was reportedly hit by fire-bombs. Parts of the city remain under police lockdown.

Yesterday’s speech by Mubarak did nothing to ease the frenzy, as he swore to protect the rights of Egyptians in the face of violations and transgressions against them. “The welfare of our citizens abroad is the responsibility of the country,” he added. It followed a television interview with the president’s son, Alaa Mubarak, in which he labelled the Algerian fans ‘mercenaries’ and ‘terrorists’.

However there were signs last night that a public backlash against the government’s handling of the football storm was gaining strength. Mubarak’s autocratic regime, which has faced a number of popular protests by Egyptians over spiralling food prices and the restriction of democratic freedoms, has been accused of exploiting the current crisis for political gain.

“Hosni Mubarak's thugs have beaten and killed more Egyptians than any hooligans,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a local journalist and blogger. “I'm glad everyone suddenly remembered Egyptians have ‘dignity’ that should be fought for and protected from humiliation.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Crackdown in Cairo as football violence erupts

  • Rioting sparked by Algeria victory spread to Egypt
  • Fans attack embassies in wave of tit-for-tat reprisals

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - November 2009

Parts of Cairo are under police lockdown amid some of the worst football violence ever seen in the region.

More than a thousand security personnel deployed to protect the Algerian embassy and other key locations came under attack from angry protesters after Egypt's contentious defeat to Algeria in a World Cup playoff match on Wednesday. Egypt recalled its envoy to Algiers and condemned the Algerian government for failing to prevent the destruction of Egyptian offices. The secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, appealed for calm on both sides.

Reports said 39 policemen were injured in rioting that left shopfronts smashed in the upscale neighbourhood of Zamalek, an island in the Nile home mainly to expatriates, wealthy Egyptians and foreign embassies.

Alaa Mubarak, the son of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, did nothing to dampen hostilities when he demanded that Egypt take a "tough stance" with Algeria. "When you insult my dignity ... I will beat you on the head," he told a TV news programme.

Trouble first flared last week in the run up to a highly anticipated match between two of north Africa's biggest football nations. After an increasingly bitter war of words in the media Egypt won the game 2-0, setting up a playoff in Sudan to decide which country would go through to next year's World Cup finals in South Africa.

Off-the-field controversies intensified the aggression ahead of the playoff, including allegations from the Algerian team that it was pelted with stones on arrival in Cairo – an incident Fifa is now investigating – and erroneous reports in the Algerian press of an Algerian fan being killed in Egypt.

Egyptian targets in Algiers were besieged by demonstrators who destroyed the offices of Egypt's main airline, prompting several large Egyptian businesses with offices in the country to announce they were withdrawing their staff for security reasons.

Matters intensified after Egypt lost the playoff game in Sudan by a single goal, with local reports claiming that Egyptian fans were left running for their lives in Khartoum following assaults by the celebrating Algeria supporters.

A diplomatic spat broke out when an Egyptian plane sent to rescue citizens trapped in Algeria was refused permission to land and the Algerian authorities slapped a $600m tax bill on Orascom, an Egyptian telecommunications company that operates there.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said it had summoned Algeria's ambassador to Cairo to make clear Egypt's "outrage" and "denunciation". The Egyptian Football Federation has threatened to withdraw from international football as a result of the "weapons, knives, swords and flares" allegedly used to attack Egyptians as they left the stadium in Khartoum.

The attacks on the Algerian embassy in Cairo mark a new low point in relations between the two countries, who were historical allies in the battle against European colonialism. Local media reported that firebombs were thrown at the embassy compound during the night, though this has not been confirmed.

"Our government are not doing enough," said Islam al-Hussein, a 23-year-old customer service manager who was walking the streets near the embassy with a sign that read "Algeria shall pay for what they did". He criticised the violence directed at the embassy but insisted: "I need an apology from Algeria, nothing less is sufficient for our people."

Others were more forthright. "We should treat Algeria like any country that has declared war on us," Amr Higazi, a university student, told AFP.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nubian fury at 'monkey' lyric of Arab superstar

  • Black Egyptians sue and demand album be banned
  • Row casts fresh light on racism in the region

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - November 2009

One of the Arab world's biggest pop stars has provoked a torrent of outrage after releasing a song which refers to black Egyptians as monkeys.

Haifa Wehbe, an award-winning Lebanese diva who has been voted one of the world's most beautiful people, is now facing a lawsuit from Egyptian Nubians claiming the song has fuelled discrimination against them and made some Nubian children too afraid to attend school.

The row has cast fresh light on the position within Egyptian society of Nubians, who are descended from one of Africa's most ancient black civilisations and yet often face marginalisation in modern Egypt.

Wehbe, a 35-year-old model turned actress and singer, is widely regarded as the Middle East's most prominent sex symbol and has been no stranger to controversy in the past. Her skimpy outfits and provocative lyrics (one previous hit was entitled Ya Ibn El Halal, roughly translated as Hey, Good Little Muslim Boy) have earned her the wrath of religious conservatives and forays into the political arena have also sparked debate, including her very public praise for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

The latest accusations of racism came after the release of her new song, Where is Daddy?, in which a child sings to Wehbe, "Where is my teddy bear and the Nubian monkey?".

Wehbe has since apologised profusely for the offending lyrics, insisting they were penned by an Egyptian songwriter who told her that "Nubian monkey" was an innocent term for a popular children's game. That hasn't stopped a group of Nubian lawyers submitting an official complaint to Egypt's public prosecutor and calling for the song to be banned.

"Everyone is upset," said Sayed Maharous, 49, the Nubian owner of a coffee shop in Cairo. Adul Raouf Mohammed, who runs a nearby store, agreed. "To compare a human being to an animal is insulting in any culture. She has denigrated an entire community of people, and now some of our children are afraid to go into school because they know they will be called monkeys in the playground."

The row over Wehbe's song has highlighted a growing sense of communal identity among Nubians in Egypt, a country where the government has traditionally promoted a very monolithic brand of nationalism, sometimes to the exclusion of religious or ethnic minorities.

Despite breaking through into the cultural mainstream – several Nubian novelists are well-regarded within Egyptian intellectual circles and Nubian singers such as Mohammed Mounir are among the most popular in the country – Egypt's estimated two million Nubians remain largely invisible on television and film, except as lampooned stereotypes.

“I think what’s interesting about the Haifa Wehbe case is the reaction of the Nubian activists,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, the Director of History and Social Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre in Cairo. “There is a new spirit and mobilisation of Nubians as an ethnically and culturally important group within Egyptian society which wasn’t present ten or twenty years ago.” One of the biggest issues around which Nubians have rallied is the plight of thousands of Nubian families who were forcibly relocated from villages close the southern city of Aswan to make way for the Aswan Dam back in the 1960s, one of the biggest engineering projects on Earth.

Construction work on the dam destroyed much of the historic region of Nubia, which also includes parts of northern Sudan, and many Nubians claim that government promises regarding re-housing and compensation have still not been met.

Outspoken Nubian rights activists such as Haggag Adoul have argued that official antipathy towards Nubians stems from racist attitudes running deep through all Egyptian social classes and which demonises many dark-skinned communities, including Sudanese and East African refugees. But few Nubians report experiencing any overt hostility on the streets of urban centres like Cairo and Alexandria where many now are now based, and Abdel Fattah believes the explanation lies elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s racism that’s the problem,” he argued. “Yes, there are no Nubian TV presenters, but this is due to our history of colonial rule under the Ottomans, which established light skin as a model for beauty. The same with the dam resettlement programme; the issue here is Egypt’s political decay as a whole, not a specific attack on the Nubians.”

The question of whether Egypt’s Nubians are marginalised because of their skin colour, or whether, as Abdel Fattah suggests, they are merely victims of the general political malaise afflicting the whole of Egypt looks likely to be raised again over the controversial construction of a new luxury hotel complex in Aswan by the tourism tycoon Mansour Amer. Opponents of the plan claim that the project will cause significant social and environmental damage to the surrounding Nubian area, and argue that it is yet another symbol of the unhealthy ties between the political and business elite that have developed under the unpopular regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir has reportedly promised to “pull the rocks off the Great Pyramid” if government approval for Amer’s ‘Porto Aswan’ plan goes ahead.

Monday, November 9, 2009

And the rich got richer... Egypt's neoliberal disaster

Egypt is lauded as a poster child for neoliberal reform. But few of its people have enjoyed the spoils of the boom

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - November 2009

When it comes to dry reads, it ranks somewhere between Welding and Metal Fabrication Monthly and the collected speeches of Alistair Darling. And yet a newly-published report from the Egyptian government's investment authority, GAFI, is one of the most significant and explosive pieces of writing to appear anywhere in the Middle East in recent years.

It doesn't mention the Muslim Brotherhood, or antisemitism, or artificial hymens, and so far it has garnered precisely zero coverage in the international press. What it does do is address an issue which day in, day out, shapes the lives of the vast majority of Egypt's population and hundreds of millions of others beyond its borders.

The report systematically destroys the myths and distortions that have driven the country's economic policy for the last two decades – the same myths and distortions which have set the development path for numerous other countries in the Global South – and shatters the illusion that soaring economic growth rates have anything to do with widespread, sustainable social prosperity.

Since 1991, the year Egypt yoked itself to an IMF structural adjustment programme and embarked on a series of wide-ranging economic reforms, the country has been something of a poster child for neoliberal economists who point to its remarkable levels of annual GDP growth as proof that "Washington consensus" blueprints for the developing world can work. Coming on the back of an economic crisis precipitated partly by profligate government spending on arms sales (subsidised by US aid), the regime of President Hosni Mubarak signed up to an IMF loan that was conditional on economic liberalisation. Those conditions – relaxed price controls, reduced subsidies, an opening up of trade – were met with gleeful abandon.

Ever since, the country has been subject to successive waves of neoliberal reform. In 1996 a huge privatisation drive kicked off – resulting in sham sales to public banks and regime cronies, a rapid deterioration of working conditions and a wave of strikes so powerful that one analyst labelled it the largest social movement seen in the Middle East in half a century.

Then 2004 brought a new cabinet which swiftly cut the top rate of tax from 42% to 20%, leaving multimillionaires paying exactly the same proportion of their income into government coffers as those on an annual salary of less than £500. Special economic zones were created, foreign investment reached dizzying heights ($13bn in 2008) and, in the past three years, economic growth has clocked in at a consistently high 7%. The minimum wage, incidentally, has remained fixed at less than £4 a month throughout. The global business community applauded Mubarak's rule as "bold", "impressive" and "prudent".

So Egypt is now a glitzier, more prosperous land with pharaonic-style riches to match its pharaonic-style leader (now entering his 29th year in power). Except, as the GAFI report inconveniently points out, 90% of the country has yet to see any of the bounty. Foreign investment has been largely channelled into sectors like finance and gas which create few new jobs. While national resources like natural gas have been sold at subsidised rates to the tycoon owners of iron and fertiliser factories, the cost of ordinary commodities like bread and cooking oil has spiralled. In fact since the IMF began hauling Egypt's economy into modernity, Egyptians have got steadily and dramatically poorer: when structural adjustment began 20% of the population were living on less than (inflation-adjusted) $2 a day; today, that figure stands at 44%. In the past decade, when GDP growth was at its strongest, absolute poverty has climbed from 16.7% to almost 20%. Chomsky called neoliberalism "capitalism with the gloves off"; it's hard, looking at this jumble of statistics, to discern anything but a shameless hit-and-run job perpetrated by a tiny band of Egypt's business elite.

Of course this isn't the first time that conservative economic theory has proved to have a catastrophic effect on the lives of ordinary people, especially in poorer countries, but this report – sponsored by the very government it criticises – is a particularly powerful example of just how dangerously flawed the idea is that making the rich richer can be a engine of society-wide economic progress.

Timothy Mitchell argues that neoliberalism's triumph is its double-thinking: it encourages the most exuberant dreams of private accumulation and yet aggressively narrows public discussion so that "the collective well-being of the nation is depicted only in terms of how it is adjusted in gross to the discipline of monetary and fiscal balance sheets". Nowhere is that truer than in Egypt, a doublethink society where the ruling National Democratic Party can use its annual conference (held last weekend) to congratulate itself on wearing a western-tailored economic straitjacket while millions struggle to meet their basic daily needs.

The conference was entitled "Just for you". Whom that "you" was wasn't specified, but it can't have been any of the 90% shut out of Cairo's miraculous economic boom. As the eminent Egyptian economics professor Galal Amin argues, "Those who continue to preach the trickle-down theory are likely to be the ones who do not really care whether anything trickles down at all."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Per Bjorklund faces deportation

I don't normally post anything but links to my own articles up here, but I want to draw attention to the Egyptian authorities' decision to prevent Per Bjorklund from entering the country in which he has lived and worked for some time. The news broke yesterday that Per, one of the best, most courageous foreign journalists operating in Cairo, had been held at the airport and is reportedly going to be sent on a plane back to Europe tomorrow.

Per has led the way amongst the international journalists here in covering the ever-expanding strike wave which is threatening to destabilise the government and provide a rare opening of democratic freedom within Egyptian society. As Sarah Carr observed, "he is one of the few journalists I know who actually gets off his arse and goes to situations which he knows won’t make headline news, rather than relying on phone calls and/or Twitter ... in short he gives a shit." Anybody trying to get their head around one of the most important social movements unfolding in the Middle East today has Per to be thankful for, and that includes all the other foreign correspondents such as myself who have relied on his work in the past.

The dangers faced by foreign journalists in Egypt pale into insignificance compared to the repression meted out by the government to its own members of the press and blogosphere. In that light it may appear perverse to highlight Per's situation when I haven't directly commented here before on similar state-led attacks on free speech targeted at Egyptian writers. My only defence is that Per is a friend and his excellent reports have helped expose the realities of Egypt's dysfunctional governing regime - and the growing resistance to it - to the world.

All too often there is a collective descent into 'pack journalism' on the part of the international media, an endless re-churning of recycled stories from this corner of the planet that fit neatly into the status quo. Breaking out of the prism is a daunting challenge and brings very little money or recognition; it's always easier to write and sell articles which conform to editors' pre-existing assumptions about the subject. Per is one of those that takes on that challenge with relish, and the fact that the Egyptian government feels compelled to bar him from their borders says a great deal about his integrity - and their own insecurity.

More links on the deportation:
James Buck
Global Voices Online

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Food for thought: Alexandria Library tries consumerism

Bibliotheca shelving scholarship for profit, say critics

-Taken from the Guardian
-Alexandria - August 2009

It was meant to be the library that recaptured the ancient glories of Alexandria, providing a new home for the world's knowledge almost 2,000 years after its predecessor was burnt to the ground.

But whereas the old Egyptian library offered a rich diet of philosophy and history to the greatest thinkers of its age including Euclid, Archimedes, and Herophilus, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina is coming in for harsh criticism for serving up a very different kind of fare.

A row has erupted over the decision to build a food court at the heart of Egypt's self-proclaimed "window on the world", with campaigners accusing the Bibliotheca's trustees of selling out the library's venerable legacy for short-term profit.

Among the charges levelled at the $220m Bibliotheca, which opened to much fanfare seven years ago, is the accusation that secret plans are being hatched to allow the fast-food chain McDonald's to open up a branch inside the complex, and that the library is putting brash consumerism ahead of serious scholarship.

Library authorities have denied the claims, insisting that the food area, scheduled to open next month, is needed by the 800,000 visitors who visit each year and who, at present, have few options for buying a tea or snack.

Six companies have been granted licences to open stores in the food area and the library insists that McDonald's is not among them.

"The idea is to provide new facilities which will let visitors spend more time in the library," said Sharif Riad, the director of public relations. "The food court is located in an area of the complex which is unused, and is sensitively designed, no logos or brand names will be visible."

But in a country that has seen the presence of multinational corporations proliferate at a dizzying speed in recent years (there are already more than 50 McDonald's outlets in Egypt) the library's assurances have done little to calm the storm. Many commentators are linking the latest invasion of brand names into Egypt's most sacred cultural institution with the broader ties that exist between rich capitalists and political leaders and which have grown sharply under Hosni Mubarak; these have led to a number of corruption scandals.

"I don't know why everything promising, everything good, in this country must be destroyed by the government and the officials with their greed and cooperation with the businessmen," said Zeinobia, a prominent Egyptian blogger.

Ismail Alexandrani, who started a 5,000-strong Facebook group vowing "cultural resistance" to the food court, wrote: "This is about money, money, money."

The controversy is the latest in several disputes to hit the Bibliotheca since its inauguration. The projects' building costs were criticised in some quarters as a misuse of resources in a country that suffers high levels of poverty and a serious illiteracy problem.

The library has also struggled to build up its collection, with some experts estimating that it will take up to 80 years to fill the shelves to capacity because of insufficient funding.

But the establishment's defenders maintain that the 21st century Bibliotheca eventually will live up to its illustrious ancestor.

"We must remember that the ancient library took hundreds of years to prove itself," said Mohsen Zahran, the library's senior adviser. "We can't expect Bibliotheca Alexandrina to acquire the same importance right away."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Death of the Nile: Egypt's climate change crisis

"We are going underwater: the rising sea will conquer our lands"

The Nile Delta is under threat from rising sea levels. Without the food it produces, Egypt faces catastrophe. Report by Jack Shenker, photos by Jason Larkin

-Taken from the Guardian
-The Nile Delta - August 2009

Maged Shamdy's ancestors arrived on the shores of Lake Burrulus in the mid-19th century. In the dusty heat of Cairo at the time, French industrialists were rounding up forced labour squads to help build the Suez Canal, back-breaking labour from which thousands did not return. Like countless other Egyptians, the Shamdys abandoned their family home and fled north into the Nile Delta, where they could hide within the marshy swamplands that fanned out from the great river's edge.

As the years passed, colonial rulers came and went. But the Shamdys stayed, carving out a new life as farmers and fishermen on one of the most fertile tracts of land in the world. A century and a half later, Maged is still farming his family's fields. In between taking up the rice harvest and dredging his irrigation canals, however, he must contemplate a new threat to his family and livelihood, one that may well prove more deadly than any of Egypt's previous invaders. "We are going underwater," the 34-year-old says simply. "It's like an occupation: the rising sea will conquer our lands."

Maged understands better than most the menace of coastal erosion, which is steadily ingesting the edge of Egypt in some places at an astonishing rate of almost 100m a year. Just a few miles from his home lies Lake Burrulus itself, where Nile flower spreads all the way out to trees on the horizon. Those trunks used to be on land; now they stand knee-deep in water.

Maged's imperial imagery may sound overblown, but travel around Egypt's vast, overcrowded Delta region and you hear the same terms used time and again to describe the impact climate change is having on these ancient lands. Egypt's breadbasket is littered with the remnants of old colonisers, from the Romans to the Germans, and today its 50 million inhabitants jostle for space among the crumbling forts and cemeteries of those who sought to subjugate them in the past.

On the Delta's eastern border, in Port Said, an empty stone plinth is all that remains of a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who built the Suez Canal; somewhere along the Delta's westernmost reaches, the long-lost tomb of Cleopatra lies buried. With such a rich history of foreign rule, it's only natural that the latest hostile force knocking at the gates should be couched in the language of occupation.

"Egypt is a graveyard for occupiers," observes Ramadan el-Atr, a fruit farmer near the antiquated town of Rosetta, where authorities have contracted a Chinese company to build a huge wall of concrete blocks in the ocean to try to save any more land from melting away. "Just like the others, the sea will come and go – but we will always survive."

Scientists aren't so sure. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared Egypt's Nile Delta to be among the top three areas on the planet most vulnerable to a rise in sea levels, and even the most optimistic predictions of global temperature increase will still displace millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on earth.

The Delta spills out from the northern stretches of the capital into 10,000 square miles of farmland fed by the Nile's branches. It is home to two-thirds of the country's rapidly growing population, and responsible for more than 60% of its food supply: Egypt relies unconditionally on it for survival. But with its 270km of coastline lying at a dangerously low elevation (large parts are between zero and 1m above sea level, with some areas lying below it), any melting of the polar ice caps could see its farmland and cities – including the historical port of Alexandria – transformed into an ocean floor. A 1m rise in the sea level, which many experts think likely within the next 100 years, will cause 20% of the Delta to go underwater. At the other extreme, the 14m rise that would result from the disappearance of Greenland and western Antarctica would leave the Mediterranean lapping at the northern suburbs of Cairo, with practically all of the Delta underwater.

Already, a series of environmental crises are parking themselves on the banks of the Nile. Some are subtle, like the river's quiet vanishing act in the Delta's northern fields; others, like the dramatic collapse of coastal lands into the ocean, are more striking. Major flooding is yet to become a reality but, from industrial pollution to soil salinity, a whole new set of interconnected green concerns is now forcing its way into Egyptian public discourse for the first time.

"The Delta is a kind of Bangladesh story," says Dr Rick Tutwiler, director of the American University in Cairo's Desert Development Centre. "You've got a massive population, overcrowding, a threat to all natural resources from the pressure of all the people, production, pollution, cars and agricultural chemicals. And on top of all that, there's the rising sea. It's the perfect storm."

Follow the Nile north out of Cairo on the old agricultural road, and you find it hard to pinpoint where the city ends and the lotus-shaped Delta begins. Carpeted with redbrick apartment blocks and spliced with streets in every direction, the lush greenery of the Nile's splintered arteries is almost impossible to appreciate in isolation. This is where the urban and the rural get lost in each other, with livestock living in doorways and workers camping out in fields. In the past, literary giants venerated the Delta's wild marshlands; today, any clear-cut divisions between the metropolis and the countryside have long faded away.

Urban encroachment – the steady chipping away at arable land through unauthorised construction – haunts the Delta everywhere you look. Despite a web of legislation outlawing illegal building practices and theoretically "fencing off" agricultural land, in every direction the sweeping vista of wheat fields and rice paddies always ends abruptly in a cluster of half-built homes. There are more than 4,000 people per square mile in the Delta; it's hard to think of any other place where humans and the environment around them are more closely intertwined. With Egypt's present-day population of 83 million set to increase to more than 110 million in the next two decades, the seemingly unstoppable spread of bricks and mortar over the soil is both the most visible symptom of the country's demographic time-bomb and an inevitable response to it.

More people in the Delta means more cars, more pollution and less land to feed them all on, just at a time when increased crop production is needed most. Yet the desertification of land through human habitation is, worryingly, only the beginning of the problem. Although few in the Delta have noticed it yet, the freshwater of the Nile – which has enabled Egypt to survive as a unified state longer than any other territory on earth – is creaking under the strain of this population boom. The world's most famous river has provided the backdrop to all manner of dramas throughout history, real and fictional. Now, around its northernmost branches where the minarets and pylons thin out and the landscape becomes more windswept, another is playing out to devastating effect.

The villain is salinity. I visit one of the worst-affected regions, Kafr el-Sheikh, on a Friday morning when the fields have emptied out for the noon prayer. The streets are eerily silent; with its people gone, the area takes on the appearance of one of Italo Calvino's fantastical string cities, chock-a-block with the shells of human habitation but no living souls remaining. The exception is Maged, who owns six feddan (about six acres) of land near the village of el-Hadadi.

Maged is halfway down a hole when I approach his house. Clambering out apologetically, he explains that German experts visited this area last year and declared that the fresh water being pumped to local villages "wasn't fit for a dog to drink". After months of phone calls to the national water company, none of which were answered, Maged decided to lay down a new set of pipes himself in the hope it would improve the quality of drinking water for his two young daughters. It's hot, exhausting work, which he fits in between his farming duties and a new part-time job as an accountant in a local alfalfa plant. "We don't have much time on our hands at the moment," Maged says, dusting himself off and gulping down some fresh melon juice. "Nobody can make a living solely off the land any more."

On a tour of his fields, I see why. The rich brown soil has greyed out in recent years, leaving a barren salt-encrustation on the surface. The cause is underground saltwater intrusion from the nearby coast, which pushes up through the soil and kills off roots. Coastal farmland has always been threatened by saltwater, but salinity has traditionally been kept at bay by plentiful supplies of fresh water gushing over the soil and flushing out the salt. It used to happen naturally with the Nile's seasonal floods; after the construction of Egypt's High Dam in the 70s (one of the most ambitious engineering projects on earth), these seasonal floods came to an end, but a vast network of irrigation canals continued to bring gallons of fresh water to the people who worked the land, the fellahin, ensuring salinity levels remained low.

Today, however, Nile water barely reaches this corner of the Delta. Population growth has sapped its energy upstream, and what "freshwater" does make it downriver is increasingly awash with toxins and other impurities. Farmers such as Maged now essentially rely on waste water – a mix of agricultural drainage and sewage – from the nearby town of Sidi Salim.

The result is plummeting fertility; local farmers say that whereas their fathers spent just a handful of Egyptian pounds on chemicals to keep the harvests bountiful, they now have to put aside between 25 and 80% of their profits for fertilisers just to keep their crops alive.

"We can see with our own eyes that the water is no good, it's less and less pure," Maged says. He points out huge swaths of neighbouring land that once glimmered with rice paddies; recently they have been dug up and replaced by fish farms, the ground too barren for crop cultivation. Further out, in the village of Damru, the green fields of 10 years ago are cracked and brown, now put into service as informal football pitches and rubbish dumps.

Experts believe the problem is only going to get worse. "We currently have a major water deficit in Egypt, with only 700 cubic metres of freshwater per person," explains Professor Salah Soliman of Alexandria University. "That's already short of the 1,000 cubic metres per person the UN believes is the minimum needed for water security. Now, with the population increase, it will drop to 450 cubic metres per person – and this is all before we take into account the impact of climate change."

That impact is likely to be a 70% drop in the amount of Nile water reaching the Delta over the next 50 years, due to increased evaporation and heavier demands on water use upstream. The consequences of all these ecological changes on food production are staggering: experts at Egypt's Soils, Water and Environment Research Institute predict that wheat and maize yields could be down 40% and 50% respectively in the next 30 years, and that farmers who make a living off the land will lose around $1,000 per hectare for each degree rise in the average temperature.

The farmers here feel abandoned by the state; there are regular dismissive references to the "New Age", a euphemism for the much-hated regime of President Hosni Mubarak, whose neoliberal reform programmes and widespread corruption scandals have provoked a wave of popular discontent across the country. This disconnect between the state and its people has led to distrust of government scientists who think coastal erosion, rather than freshwater scarcity, is the main reason for the farmers' problems. And, in a worrying twist for Egypt's creaking economy, the erosion isn't only affecting farmers. "Unfortunately, most of our industry and investment has been built on sites very close to the shore," says Soliman. "There's only so much water we can hold back."

Ras el-Bar is a small holiday resort at the mouth of the Nile's Damietta branch. This was the summer paradise that Nobel prizewinning novelist Naguib Mahfouz's well-heeled characters would escape to when the heat of the capital became unbearable; today its squat pink lighthouse and endless boulevards of deserted, low-rise holiday homes have the faded feel of a 50s Disneyland.

Although still popular in July and August, Ras el-Bar has been overtaken as a seaside destination by the brash consumerism of a new generation of towns: Sharm el-Sheikh, Marina, Hurghada. In place of tourists, however, new factories have arrived here in abundance, including some that nearby residents believe are poisoning the air. The arrival of one industrial plant in Damietta, which coincided with the ministry of environment's last-minute decision not to designate the area a protected nature reserve, is a familiar story of shady backdoor deals, public outrage and the studious disregard of local opinions. In this case, the locals managed to postpone the factory's construction, but other plants remain. "In the morning here you can see nothing but smoke," says Mohammed Fawzia, who is fishing in a canal down by the side of an industrial complex run by the state-owned Mopco company. "Take photos of it for us so we can show who is killing our children. We want the factories gone."

Many Cairo-based experts, however, insist that the task of coping with the dramatic ecological changes faced by the Delta is made harder by the ignorance of people such as Mohammed. They claim the fellahin are too uneducated to change their ways. But they are wrong: while farmers in the southern Delta, where Nile water is still relatively plentiful, have little knowledge of climate change, those in the north are painfully aware of the science behind the death of their land. However, they also have little time to listen to the harrying of a government which is widely seen to preach green rhetoric on the one hand but is only too willing to sell out the environment on the other, along with the local people.

Money talks in Egypt, and sustainable development is forgotten when the interests of the rich and powerful – such as the industrial plants in Damietta or the influential Badrawi clan in Daqahliyah – are at stake. The repression and self-interest of Mubarak's inner circle have left them bereft of any moral authority on environmental issues.

And while scientists, academics and community organisers are making a concerted effort to educate Egyptians about the dangers of climate change, there is confusion over whether the focus of all these programmes should be on promoting ways to combat climate change, or on accepting climate change as inevitable and instead encouraging new forms of adaptation to the nation's uncertain ecological future.

Efforts are further hampered by a popular feeling that this is a crisis made by the west. "We're not responsible for climate change," says Soliman, pointing out that Egypt's contribution to global carbon emissions is an underwhelming 0.5%, nine times less per capita than the US. "But unfortunately the consequence of climate change is no respecter of national borders."

The scale of the crisis – more people, less land, less water, less food – is overwhelming, and has infected discussion of climate change with a toxic combination of cynicism and fatalism at every level. There are senior environmental officials in top scientific jobs here who do not believe climate change is real; others are convinced the problem is so great that human intervention is useless. "It's down to God," one environmental officer for a major Delta town tells me. "If the Delta goes we'll find new places to live. If Egypt was big enough for Mary and Joseph, then it will be big enough for all of us."

Of course, if sea levels do rise significantly, "then the debate is over," says Dr Tutwiler. "The land will be underwater and crop production will be over."

As a result, many now believe that Egypt's future lies far away from the Delta, in land newly reclaimed from the desert. Since the time of the pharaohs, when the Delta was first farmed, Egypt's political leaders have rested their legitimacy on their ability to feed it by taming the Nile. Mohammed Ali, Lord Cromer and Gamal Abdel Nasser all launched major projects to control and harness the river's seasonal floods; now Mubarak is following in their footsteps – not by saving the Delta, but by creating a bewildering array of canals and pumping stations that draw water out from the Nile into sandy valleys to the east and west, where the desert is slowly being turned green.

You can see evidence of these new lands on the Delta's fringes; mile upon mile of agri-business-owned fields peeking out behind the advertising billboards of the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. The billboards depict gated compounds and luxury second homes, escapist dreams for the Egyptian upper-middle class.

The new lands behind them are another sort of escape, this time for the whole country. Their very water-intensive existence is, though, only hastening the demise of the Delta; once the glittering jewel of Egypt and bedrock of its survival, but now a region whose death warrant may already have been signed.


Invasion of the Nile: The Delta's troubled history

• 4,000 – 3,000 BC approx – The Delta is populated by migrants from the Sahara and intensive farming begins in the region

• 1,300 BC approx – According to the Bible, the Delta is home to the Israelites, and miraculously survives God's plague of hail

• 343 BC – The Persians kill Egypt's last native pharaoh, ushering in more than 2,000 years of foreign rule over the Delta

• 332 BC – Alexander the Great invades and founds Alexandria at the tip of the Delta

• 30 BC – Cleopatra and Marc Anthony kill themselves

• 639 AD – Muslim Arabs sweep into the Delta, forcing out the Byzantine rulers

• 1517 AD – The Delta is absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and ruled from Turkey

• 1798 AD – Napoleon Bonaparte begins a three-year French occupation

• 1805 AD – The Albanian pasha Muhammad Ali seizes power but his dynasty falls under the control of the British Empire

• 1952 AD – Gamal Abdel Nasser restores Egyptian rule for the first time in two millennia

• 1970 AD – The Aswan Dam is completed, ending seasonal flooding in the Delta

• 2007 AD – Delta declared among top three areas vulnerable to rising sea levels


Alexandria: An ancient city under threat

One of history’s most exalted ancient cities, most of Alexandria’s former glories – including the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven original wonders of the world – are already lying on the seabed. The city has been through several reincarnations: as a small Pharaonic town in the 4th century BC, as the capital of Alexander the Great’s Egypt and a home to the largest library on Earth, and as a cosmopolitan melting-ground in the early 20th century where poets and dissidents mingled on the Corniche and visitors were more likely to hear Greek spoken in the open-air cafes than Arabic.

Today Alexandria retains its status as Egypt’s second city and boasts four million residents, though scientists fear its densely-populated outer fringes could be amongst the first victims of any rise in sea levels. As an urban centre whose fortunes have risen and fallen dramatically over the centuries it is tempting to believe that the town will survive anything the ocean could throw at it, but a rise of only one metre will leave the city centre surrounded by saltwater and cut-off from the mainland, an urban island whose modern architectural gems (such as the $220m Bibliotecha Alexandrina) come dangerously close to meeting the watery fate of their predecessors.

If Alexandria does disappear under the global assault of climate change, its literary chroniclers – who have always depicted it as a city of intimation and faded nostalgia – may provide some comfort. Lawrence Durrell called it “the capital of memory”, a city where recollections of the past stay “clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve.” The legendary Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria at the turn of the century, shared Durrell’s sense of being trapped by history here. In what may have been a remarkable piece of foresight, he wrote in The City:

You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you’ll grow old.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t bother to hope
for a ship.


Money talks: Land wars in Dikirnis

In the north-eastern Delta governorate of Daqahliya, one group of farmers is engaged in a David vs. Goliath struggle against a family of powerful aristocratic landowners and the Egyptian government, which has taken the latter’s side. The story is a remarkable window onto the social exclusion endured by many peasant communities in the Nile Delta, a form of state-induced marginalisation which has left some wary of any official interference in their land and consequently less receptive to government-led initiatives on climate change.

In 1963, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s post-colonial government initiated a widespread programme of land reform. One of the areas targeted was the village of Dikirnis, where the rich Badrawi family had 100 feddans of arable land redistributed to poorer fellahin. Those farmers and their descendants spent the next forty years paying for this land in instalments, only to find at the end of it that their financial investment – not to mention four decades of careful working in the fields – had been for nothing. In 1991 the Badrawis – an immensely powerful clan who are intimately connected with the ruling NDP party – had obtained a court ruling declaring the land to be theirs after all. Despite winning legal victories against the Badrawis in subsequent years, in 2003 the farmers watched Egypt’s Supreme Court back the Badrawis again and were ordered to immediately evacuate their land, with no compensation offered.

Since then the farmers and their families have refused to leave, leading to bloody confrontations with central security forces. “We can’t live stable lives, because we know that at any hour the police could come again and we will have to rise up and fight them,” says Hamdy el-Ibrahim, a farmer born in the same year as Nasser’s revolution. The ongoing battle for the peasants’ rights has become a potent symbol of Mubarak’s Egypt, where aggressive economic ‘structural adjustment’ programmes have widened the chasm between rich and poor and created a popular perception of a business-orientated government that goes out of its way to protect its own.

“In Egypt money and power go together,” says Hamdy, a father of four. “Those that have these things have authority; the rest of us only have God. But we have to overcome because this is our fight, our land, our children, our food. There are only two options; either we die on this land, or we win.”


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Egypt's tussle at the top

Even if the rumoured election 'battle' emerges, the real fight is within the ruling party over protecting the interests of elites

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - July 2009

Egypt's ageing leader may have defiantly promised to remain in office "until his last breath" but the drumbeat of presidential succession has been growing steadily louder in recent weeks. Hosni Mubarak, now 81, has been looking increasingly frail and waxen since the death of his grandson earlier this year; as the light begins to fade on his pharaonic 27 years in power and his face becomes ever more absent from the day-to-day running of the country, speculation is mounting of imminent change at the top.

Secret Israeli intelligence reports have been leaked, unguarded comments to the Saudi King have been reprinted and phantom websites trumpeting the credentials of potential replacements have appeared. There is, as one Egyptian blogger put it, "something in the air", and the international press – scenting a dose of good old-fashioned electoral drama spiced with some buzzword-laden twists (facebook groups for rival camps!) – are hurriedly joining the circus. Beneath the media hype though, the underlying dynamics of Egypt’s political elite remain depressingly familiar.

Since 2002, when Mubarak nominated his son, Gamal, as general secretary of the ruling National Democratic party's policy committee, conventional wisdom has been that the young banker is being groomed to take over from his father. It wasn't just Gamal's elevation to one of the most influential positions within the autocratic Mubarak regime that fuelled such talk; more importantly, the appointment mirrored a broader trend within the government, with the army-dominated, locally orientated "old guard" gradually giving way to a neo-liberal business-minded "new guard", personified by Gamal himself.

The ascendancy of these supposed Young Turks stepped up a gear in 2004, when a new cabinet – staffed mainly by members of Gamal's policy committee – initiated a series of controversial "free market reforms" which won plaudits from the IMF but deepened the vast chasm between Egypt's rich and poor and increased anti-Mubarak sentiment.

The architects of the country's economic transformation aren't too perturbed by domestic dissent, though; unlike their elderly predecessors, this fresh, internationally educated clique is more concerned with how it's viewed in London and Washington than what people are saying in Asyut or Tanta. As one commentator recently observed, Gamal’s contemporaries – a generation where business and power have become inextricably linked – are more interested in the ‘spectacle of politics’ than in the bread and butter populist measures, like food subsidies and rent controls, which have historically dampened demand for regime change.

In terms of enabling Gamal’s accession to the presidency, their aim is merely to persuade those heavily invested in the status quo that their privileges will be maintained or expanded under a future Gamal-led Egypt; along with a well-documented web of constitutional acrobatics designed to shut out any challengers from outside the higher echelons of NDP, and a long tradition of electoral manipulation by the government, the rest should be just a formality.

The spanner in the works, according to some sections of the Egyptian press, is Omar Suleiman, intelligence chief for Mubarak senior, and the leading negotiator in Egypt's mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinian factions. An anonymous website backing Suleiman for the presidency appeared last month emblazoned with the words "No to Gamal ... No to the Muslim Brotherhood", and its timing – just as al-Shorouk newspaper claimed the NDP's political bureau was meeting to pick its next presidential candidate – has sparked a wave of excitement at the prospect of an genuine succession contest developing. Independent papers have run a series of double-page spreads on Suleiman, and the government press has hit back by scaling up its (invariably positive) coverage of Gamal, with stories of the latter's sterling anti-poverty work suddenly assuming much greater prominence.

The provenance of the pro-Suleiman website is unknown; it could be a test-balloon by his advisers to see what the public response would be for an unlikely run at the presidency, or a false-flag operation by Gamal's acolytes, or indeed just the work of a random net-savvy teenager but, regardless of who made it, the pro-NDP youth are taking no chances. "Gamal Mubarak for president – expanding the Egyptian dream" and "Lovers and supporters of Gamal Mubarak" are just two of the Facebook groups that have sprung up to sing the praises of the heir apparent, exploiting a medium which in Egypt has traditionally been the preserve of anti-government activists. All this has led international news outlets like the Irish Times to talk up the chances of a high-octane battle for the top job.

If Suleiman is being deliberately puffed up from within the ruling elite, it's probably not because many in the NDP's top ranks truly see the 76-year-old as a potential future president. The more plausible explanation is that the military – the strongest institutional force in Egypt both politically and economically since the 1952 revolution (dissected brilliantly in a recent BBC documentary) – is flexing its muscles by gently promoting Suleiman as an alternative to Mubarak's hereditary succession plan, hoping that this will serve as a reminder to Gamal that he cannot afford to strip the old guard of its entrenched privileges in the post-Hosni era.

The real point of interest, though, isn't the machinations at the top, which are better conceived of as a mutually beneficially delineation of how the pie should be sliced, rather than any kind of real power struggle over who holds the knife. Instead, what is striking, although hardly surprising, is that they are taking place wholly at the top, with not even the largely corrupt and flaccid official opposition parties getting a look in, never mind the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or grassroots trade union and pro-democracy activists.

That's not to say that the locus of power in Cairo is immoveable; there has been a fundamental shift in influence over the past decade from the statist-era generals to the Chicago School economists and entrepreneurs surrounding Gamal. But when it comes to the presidency, the only concern of Egypt's political and economic elite – the sort who are fleeing downtown for the safety of gated compounds in the desert with names like "Dreamland" and "Beverly Hills" – is that their future prosperity must be assured, and on that front Gamal looks the safest bet.

As Diane Singerman points out, this is a country "run in the interests of an elite, state-subsidised ring of Cairo-based capitalists who call themselves liberals or globalisers or democratisers because they facilitate foreign investment in the economic sphere, even as they insist on repression, the extension of the Emergency Law, and police-state practices in the political sphere".

Mubarak once remarked that it would take a generation before Egyptians were ready for democracy; the irony of making this comment when he himself has presided over the country for a whole generation, in which time democracy, social reform and economic justice have all stagnated or slid backwards, was apparently lost on him. Make no mistake: despite what the press may imply, the so-called "battle" for Hosni Mubarak's job – whether it unfolds now or when his current term expires in 2011 – will be a carefully engineered process designed to protect and defend the breathtakingly ill-gotten gains of the few in Egypt at the expense of the many. Any meaningful challenge to this process will have to come from below, far away from the NDP hierarchy where both Gamal and Suleiman reside.


For a similar article that focuses more on the impact of presidential succession on the Egyptian media scene, my article for the Arab Press Network is available here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The headscarf martyr: murder in German court sparks Egyptian fury

  • Woman was stabbed 18 times during hijab trial
  • Outrage at lack of media coverage fuels protests

-Taken from 'The Guardian' (with Kate Connolly in Berlin)
-Cairo - July 2009

It was while Marwa el-Sherbini was in the dock recalling how the accused had insulted her for wearing the hijab after she asked him to let her son sit on a swing last summer, that the very same man strode across the Dresden courtroom and plunged a knife into her 18 times.

Her three-year-old son Mustafa was forced to watch as his mother slumped to the courtroom floor.

Even her husband Elvi Ali Okaz could do nothing as the 28-year-old Russian stock controller who was being sued for insult and abuse took the life of his pregnant wife. As Okaz ran to save her, he too was brought down, shot by a police officer who mistook him for the attacker. He is now in intensive care in a Dresden hospital.

While the horrific incident that took place a week ago tomorrow has attracted little publicity in Europe, and in Germany has focused more on issues of court security than the racist motivation behind the attack, 2,000 miles away in her native Egypt, the 32-year-old pharmacist has been named the "headscarf martyr".

She has become a national symbol of persecution for a growing number of demonstrators, who have taken to the streets in protest at the perceived growth in Islamophobia in the west. Sherbini's funeral took place in her native Alexandria on Monday in the presence of thousands of mourners and leading government figures. There are plans to name a street after her.

Sherbini, a former national handball champion, and Okaz, a genetic engineer who was just about to submit his PhD, had reportedly lived in Germany since 2003, and were believed to be planning to return to Egypt at the end of the year. They were expecting a second child in January.

Unemployed Alex W. from Perm in Russia was found guilty last November of insulting and abusing Sherbini, screaming "terrorist" and "Islamist whore" at her, during the Dresden park encounter. He was fined €780 but had appealed the verdict, which is why he and Sherbini appeared face to face in court again.

Even though he had made his anti-Muslim sentiments clear, there was no heightened security and questions remain as to why he was allowed to bring a knife into the courtroom.

Angry mourners at the funeral in Alexandria accused Germany of racism, shouting slogans such as "Germans are the enemies of God" and Egypt's head mufti Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy called on the German judiciary to severely punish Alex W.

"Anger is high", said Joseph Mayton, editor of the English-language news website Bikya Masr. "Not since Egypt won the African [football] Cup have Egyptians come together under a common banner."

In Germany the government of Angela Merkel has been sharply criticised for its sluggish response to the country's first murderous anti-Islamic attack. The general secretaries of both the Central Council of Jews and the Central Council of Muslims, Stephen Kramer and Aiman Mazyek, who on Monday made a joint visit to the bedside of Sherbini's husband, spoke of the "inexplicably sparse" reactions from both media and politicians.

They said that although there was no question that the attack was racially motivated, the debate in Germany had concentrated more on the issue of the lack of courtroom security. "I think the facts speak for themselves," Kramer said.

The government's vice spokesman Thomas Steg rebuffed the criticism, saying not enough was yet known about the details of the incident.

"In this concrete case we've held back from making a statement because the circumstances are not sufficiently clear enough to allow a broad political response," he said, adding: "Should it be the case that this was anti-foreigner [and] racially motivated [the government] would condemn it in the strongest possible terms".

As hundreds of Arab and Muslim protesters demonstrated in Germany, and observers drew comparisons with the Danish cartoon row, Egyptian government representatives in Berlin said it was important to keep the incident in perspective.

"It was a criminal incident, and doesn't mean that a popular persecution of Muslims is taking place," Magdi el-Sayed, the spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in Berlin said.

But because it occurred just days after Nicolas Sarkozy gave a major policy speech denouncing the burka, many Egyptians believe the death of Sherbini is part of a broader trend of European intolerance towards Muslims.

The German embassy in Cairo has sought to calm the situation, organising a visit of condolence by the ambassador to the victim's family and issuing a statement insisting that the attack did not reflect general German sentiment towards Egyptians.

There have been repeated calls by protesters for the German embassy to be picketed. The Egyptian pharmacists' syndicate said it is considering a week-long boycott of German medicines.

The victim's brother, Tarek el-Sherbini, labelled Germany as a "cold" country when interviewed by a popular talk show host. Media pundits such as Abdel Azeem Hamad, editor of the daily al-Shorouk newspaper, have attributed the western media's disinterest in the story to racism, arguing that if Sherbini had been Jewish the incident would have received much greater attention.

Politicians in Egypt have been scrambling to ride the groundswell of popular feeling. But some commentators have criticised reaction to the murder as a convenient distraction for the unpopular regime of President Hosni Mubarak, which is currently being challenged by a nationwide series of strikes and sit-ins.

"The tragedy of Marwa el-Sherbini is real, as is anti-Arab racism in Europe and elsewhere, but ... her death has been recruited to channel resentment of the west, Danish-cartoon style," the popular blogger The Arabist said.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Huge security clampdown in Cairo for Barack Obama's big speech to Muslim world

  • President wants to restore America's battered image
  • Bin Laden attacks US for 'sowing seeds of hate'

-Taken from 'The Guardian' (with Ian Black)
-Cairo - June 2009

-Live updates on speech day from the Guardian here

The biggest security operation ever seen in Egypt was under way tonight as Cairo prepared to welcome Barack Obama for his landmark speech to the Muslim world after a warning of revenge against the US by Osama bin Laden

Unprecedented security measures are in place for Obama's big day in Cairo, of which the centrepiece is a 50-minute address at the city's university tomorrow. He will also hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak and tour the pyramids and a medieval mosque.

But as the president arrived today in Saudi Arabia, where he wants Arab gestures to coax Israel into revived peace talks, Bin Laden – in a broadcast – attacked US pressure for a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction" that had prompted the exodus of a million Muslims in north-west Pakistan.

"Obama and his administration have sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America," the al-Qaida leader said in a message that was aired by al-Jazeera TV. "The number of these seeds is equal to the number of displaced people from Swat Valley."

Obama, however, will seek to reach out to 1.5 billion Muslims and Arabs in the much-awaited speech in Egypt, which has generated huge expectations about improving America's battered image across the region.

The president has to walk a fine line between improving that image and abandoning goals shared with the Bush administration.

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues we confront here in the Middle East," Obama said while standing next to 84-year-old King Abdullah in Riyadh.

The president has spoken of easing "misapprehensions" between the west and the Muslim world, where many have high hopes of the son of a Kenyan Muslim who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. "I am confident that we're in a moment where in Islamic countries, I think there's a recognition that the path of extremism is not actually going to deliver a better life for people," Obama told NBC News before he left Washington.

The White House has been working to lower expectations about the speech, which comes after visits to Turkey and Iraq, a Persian New Year video and a town hall meeting in Istanbul, warning specifically that it will not include detailed new initiatives. Iran's top diplomat in Egypt has been invited to attend.

Parts of Cairo were in a state of lockdown last night, with tens of thousands of police lining the streets and military helicopters circling overhead. Major traffic arteries were sealed off and businesses in many neighbourhoods have been ordered to shut and residents told to stay at home and not look out of their windows.

"No corner has been left out," said one security official. "There will be security members on roofs, in houses, everywhere."

The huge security presence – which has reportedly been bolstered by up to 3,000 CIA operatives – is provoking resentment in Cairo, where tomorrow's speech has already divided opinions.

"What they're inflicting on us is haram (religiously forbidden)," complained Mohammed Iman, a computer shop employee. "Our livelihoods are being assaulted, and for what? Obama will bring nothing to this country; if they spent a fraction of all this security money here on giving people bread then we'd all be much better off."

Iman's sentiments were shared by students at Cairo University, where exams have been suspended. "It's ironic they spend all this cash now repainting the railings and sweeping the pavements, but don't bother with us the rest of the year," said Salman Fuda, a 22-year-old undergraduate.

Obama's itinerary for the day will include trips to the Giza pyramids and the 14th-century Sultan Hassan mosque, as well as bilateral talks with Mubarak, who is facing a wave of opposition over his economic policies and ties with Israel and the US. Mubarak will not attend the speech, fuelling speculation that the 81-year-old's health could be fading. But members of the formally banned Muslim Brotherhood will be there.

Despite the grumbling, some Cairenes are taking advantage of the visit's business opportunities and looking to cash in on a localised bout of Obamamania.

Gamal Shosha began churning out T-shirts likening Obama to the pharaoh Tutankhamun as soon as he heard news of the visit. He has since sold 30 from his shop in the historic Khan al-Khalili market, as well as copper plaques inscribed with Obama's name in hieroglyphics.

"When the boy king Tutankhamun took power, he was young and there was a lot of unrest in the world," explained Shosha.

"Obama is also young and the world is very disturbed at the moment; we are hoping that – like Tutankhamun – he can bring peace."