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."