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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Can Egypt Change?

Foreign Policy had an interesting collection of pieces today about Egypt's future that I think is worth reading. These articles ask the question of what lies ahead for Egypt after Mubarak kicks the bucket.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Finally, Some Good News

Been Traveling around Egypt for the last 10 days. Posts have been limited due to the lack of Internet in the areas I visited. Not to worry though, have returned to Cairo and will continue my posts.

Egyptians have not had much to smile about in recent years. Economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and high inflation have left Egyptians wondering just what exactly happened to their once great country. They see the development of nations such as India, Brazil, and Turkey and ask themselves "why are we lagging behind?" Certainly, these nations do not possess any resources that Egypt lack. They do not owe their growth to a sudden discovery of oil like the gulf nations. Nor do these states depend on over a billion dollars of US aid every year in order to sustain their livelihood. While these nations have grown into regional powers in recent years, Egypt's influence in the Middle East has dwindled and is almost non-existent today. So much so that the vacuum of power left by Egypt is being filled by 2 non-Arab neighbors, Turkey & Iran.

Yet who is to blame for Egypt's malaise in recent years? In a Democracy, the responsibility always falls with the people. Yet in an authoritarian state, which Egypt clearly is, the responsibility falls with the dictator. That's why Egyptians couldn't help but smile when news broke that Hosni Mubarak is terminally ill, battling a bout of pancreatic cancer which is, in 99% of cases, fatal. Though rumors had been circulating around Egypt for some time that the 82 year old dictator was ill, foreign intelligence agencies, most likely CIA and Mossad, have recently turned these rumors into reality.

I could almost see the relief in people's eyes when relaying the news of their president's condition to them. One man, after being informed of Mubarak's condition, held his hands up and looked to the heavens as if praying for it to be true. Another, uttered the Arabic phrase "fi siteen dahya", loosely translated into "good riddance". Not many Egyptians feel sympathy for the dying president, and why should they? What has Mubarak done for them in his 30 years of running Egypt into the ground?

The question then arises as to who will take over as Egypt's ruler. According to the Egyptian constitution, elections shall be held within 2 weeks if the president dies while in office. Given the draconian restrictions on who may run for president, specified in article 32 of the Egyptian constitution, there is really only one candidate who stands out as most likely to be Egypt's next ruler: The presidents son, Gamal Mubarak. As to whether or not Gamal will do a better job than his father in running Egypt, this is a hard question to answer. Hosni Mubarak has after all, set the bar very, very low.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Winning & Losing

With two defending players closing in fast, the veteran Asamoah Gyan released a fierce left-footed shot past Tim Howard into the top corner of the American goalkeepers net. "Allahu Akbar" erupted the crowd of Egyptian onlookers who had gathered to watch Ghana play the USA at a neighborhood cafe on a quiet Cairo street. One man, carrying a tabla, began rhythmically beating the traditional instrument as a small group of his friends began to sing and dance to the music. Celebrations were so fervent, that one could not be blamed for thinking that it was the Egyptian team who had scored the goal that secured their place in the quarter finals of the World Cup.

"Why are they celebrating?", I thought as I sipped my mint tea in a dimly-lit corner of the cafe. I couldn't figure out if it was because Egypt's west-African neighbors had won, or simply because the USA had lost. I decided to ask one of the dancing men who had returned to his seat after growing tired from all the enthusiasm. "Why are you so happy?" I asked him in my broken Arabic, "Its not as if Egypt won the game". The man looked at me with an annoyed expression on his face, obviously disgruntled by the subtle reminder that Egypt had not even qualified for the world cup. "Because America needs to learn that it's not infallible", he responded, "even they must know when to accept defeat and go home".

There is a tendency for people in the US to think of themselves as indestructible. Hollywood movies, which often show Americans overcoming impossible odds only to find themselves victorious perpetuate this misguided notion. Politicians and media pundits are no better as they constantly remind their audiences of the might and power of the "greatest country on earth". While this certainly has the benefit of creating a strong sense of nationalism within the US, it also has some serious drawbacks. Most other nations understand that sometimes the best course of action is retreat, this concept however, seems absent from the American psyche.

Perhaps most evident in the case of the longest war in American history, Afghanistan. Though anyone who has any knowledge of Afghanistan will recognize that America is attempting to defeat a nation which has not only reigned victorious over the Soviet Union but also the British Empire, the US continues its somewhat futile efforts in the Asian state. Certainly, it's as if Bin Laden set a trap that the US, with its wounded pride after 9/11, willingly and recklessly fell into, pursuing him into the only nation which can claim to have brought two of the greatest empires in history to their knees.

Things haven't been looking too good for the US in recent years. While many Americans are quick to blame the recent economic crises on the housing market and the unregulated derivatives market, they forget the trillions of dollars spent on the two wars fought by the US since 9/11. Economic recession or not, military spending in the US is never seriously questioned and remains disproportionately high compared to the rest of the world. So high in fact that the US still spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. Its no wonder Americans think they're invincible; on paper, the US should have enough military might to win a war against the entire global community.

For the very few Americans who actually follow soccer, the defeat to Ghana was just another loss in just another world cup. No one, not even the most avid US soccer fan truly expected the US to win the cup. Perhaps that's why the sport has such a small following in the US. Because when Americans are not winning, when they are not told that they are the best, they lose interest. They choose to turn a blind eye to defeat and instead focus on their strengths. And what Americans know they are the best at, what they have been told by their politicians and taught in their schools, is that they know how to win wars.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stuck in Traffic

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Cairo is the traffic. It's mayhem, as cars obey no rules, police enforce no laws, and donkey-driven carriages attempt to share the road with the cities 17 million inhabitants. Car horns continuously ring the Cairo streets at all hours and every once in a while, a trendy Egyptian's customized musical horn can be heard over the sea of monotonous beeping. Those of you living in LA or New York who think you can relate, you can't. Having experienced rush hour traffic in both these cities, I can state confidently that the clusterf*ck that is Cairo is far worse on a daily basis than any of these cities on their worst day. Cairo makes LA look sane.

To Hosni Mubarak and his close aides, Egypt is calm, quiet, and peaceful. Curfews are imposed and enforced when the Egyptian leader decides to travel, and so Mubarak never experiences Egypt's Achilles Heel. This of course, has the adverse effect of delaying millions of Cairenes from their daily lives, forcing them to sit even longer hours in traffic.

The issue here is not simply about congested streets, or curfews. It is part of a much broader issue that seems to be on everyone's tongue in this country: the disconnect between the ruling regime and the reality on the ground. If all Hosni Mubarak sees in Egypt are empty streets, free of not only cars but beggars, street vendors, uncollected garbage, and donkey carts; how can he be expected to address these issues? Yet out of fear and selfishness, the authoritarian leader has placed himself in a bubble that he refuses to leave. Even his son Gamal, when he most likely ascends to the Egyptian throne, should not be expected to acknowledge these problems. The young politician, as we all know, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and comes from the most privileged family in Egypt. He too, has no idea of the daily grievances of the average Egyptian.

Of course some may argue that sheltering the ruling regime is necessary for their safety, this begs the question: just how safe are these draconian policies making Hosni Mubarak? Certainly, isolating Egypt's ruler from the Egyptian public may lower the chances of a disgruntled Egyptian attacking the president, but doesn't it also increase the chance of further radicalizing young Egyptians? Feeling more and more ignored by their rulers, young Egyptians are forced to sit back and wait, having only known life under Hosni Mubarak's thirty year iron-fist rule. Stuck in traffic, growing more frustrated by the day, as the desert sun further beats them down.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Nation of Paradoxes

"God rewards those that are generous", stated the old man immediately after Friday prayers had concluded, his dark eyes scanning the small crowd of worshippers that had congregated in a small mosque in a Cairo suburb. "Please", the man said, "My children are starving and I have nothing to give them". "Please," his voice growing more desperate by the second, "I want my darling children to live". With that, the old man moved slowly to a corner by the exit, his head down, hoping that those present would take heed of his message.

The largest shopping mall in Egypt, City Stars, is located on a congested street in Nasr City, Cairo. Inside, Egypt's elite walk the marble floors browsing European and American designer stores, purchasing items that would make even the most spend free westerner cringe at the prices. Yet, many fortunate Egyptians remain undeterred by the high prices, seemingly spending at will on foreign made items. These Egyptians remain unfazed by the global economic recession and the rising prices of Egypt's staple foods. They live in Egypt's most luxurious neighborhoods, enjoying the relative comfort and peace of gated housing projects such as al Rehab, and Tagama al Khamis. To the remaining Egyptians however, and this is the vast majority, life is a daily struggle.

Right outside the bubble that is City Stars, beggars rush the outgoing shoppers pleading for spare change. Some, too proud to beg, attempt to sell everything from toilet paper to flip-flops, to parsley. Occasionally, a generous shopper would stop and reach into their pocket, pulling out enough money to feed the beggar for a week; or enough money for a cup of coffee at the many new Starbucks' that have been popping up all over Cairo. Most however, are not that lucky, either ignored by the crowd of shoppers or yelled at by frustrated men and women who would rather not be reminded of the severe poverty that plague their countrymen.

Now I'm no communist, I understand that in life there are those that have and those that do not. But the enormous gap between the rich and the poor in this country has left me questioning whether or not Egypt's reported GDP growth over the last few years has benefited anyone other than a handful of Egyptians. What's worse is that the Egyptian leadership seems unwilling to directly address this issue, choosing instead to continue opening up Egypt's markets to foreign investment, a path followed, and abandoned, by so many other nations in the past. Poverty is not alleviated by opening up Armani stores, or by lowering property taxes in Egypt's most exclusive areas, but can only be eliminated when those in power make the welfare of the poor their priority. Unfortunately, for the 35 million Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day, the Egyptian government has chosen to focus its energy on the rich; catering to their every whim, as Egypts poor sit patiently, waiting for assistance.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hosni Mubarak vs. Gamal Mubarak

Though nothing has been announced officially, rumors circulating in Egypt suggest that Egypt's next presidential election will be a battle between father and son. Though this conjures up images of ancient Greek tragedies, an eternal struggle between parent and child, teacher and student, there is really nothing tragic about Hosni and Gamal Mubaraks current situation. With former IAEA chief Mohammed el baradei effectively off the radar, and no other popular political figure in a position to challenge the presidency, the Mubaraks have ensured that they remain the most viable candidates for Egypt's top job. With calls for democratic reform escalating as the election clock winds down, the mubaraks have cleverly found a loophole in the democratic process. Yet why would the Mubaraks run against one another, opening up the media frenzy that will no doubt ensue, when it would be much simpler, and much quieter to have one Mubarak run at a time?

The short answer to this is legitimacy. The Mubarak regime faced growing criticism from the international community regarding the previous elections in 2005. Though the US may have stepped back from democracy promotion in the Middle East since the Obama administration took office, pressure from within Egypt has been building since el baradei arrived on the political scene earlier this year. Holding free and fair elections in Egypt, monitored by international election observers, would certainly serve to silence many of the regime's critics even if the only two candidates on the ballot are father and son.

On the other hand, if Hosni Mubarak were to simply step down and allow his son Gamal to run unopposed, the young politicians political career will be plagued with accusations of nepotism. Of course, these accusations will not disappear entirely even if Gamal wins the presidency by running against his father, but they would certainly be less convincing, particularly if the election campaign was unusually fierce. In addition, by holding these elections Hosni Mubarak is marginalizing the threat posed by the military. While Hosni Mubarak, a former air force pilot, commands the respect of the military generals and officers, Gamal's lack of a military background could prove problematic for the young politicians future, particularly when we consider that every Egyptian president to date has been a former member of the military.

While many in Egypt and throughout the international community may recognize the elections as a farce, it is very unlikely that any internal or external pressures will be able to convince the Mubarak regime to hold competitive elections. More likely than not, the Mubarak regime will continue to hide behind the guise of stability, citing the Muslim brotherhood and their popularity as the reason why elections in Egypt are tightly regulated. Egypt's weak opposition parties will more than likely boycott the elections, and the vast majority of Egyptians will not even visit the polling stations come election day.

Though there is no way to be certain of what the future holds for Egypt, one thing we can be sure of is that the Egyptian people are being ignored by their rulers. While Hosni and Gamal Mubarak are not the victims of this greek tragedy being played out across the mediterranean in Egypt, they are quickly becoming the perpetrators. The only victims in this story are the Egyptian people, 80 million strong but unable to voice their opinions or concerns. Sitting quietly in the audience, forced to observe a show that they have no interest in. All while the actors on stage, father and son, battle it out for their approval.

Opinions and Facts

Before my first post, I would like to make a few things clear. Call this my disclaimer.

1. I am not, nor do I plan to be, affiliated with any government, NGO, or newspaper. These posts reflect my own opinion based on my observations as a American grad student studying in Egypt.

2. Out of fear for my own safety in this somewhat authoritarian country, I will not be disclosing my location, school, or any other information that could be used against me by the Egyptian government. I ask that those who know me personally to take this into consideration when posting comments. Egypt is no America; freedom of speech is all but an illusion in this nation.

3. Finally, any comments or criticisms about my posts are always welcome. I am still a student and am still learning, and therefore greatly appreciate any feedback which helps me develop my ideas.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts as much as I enjoy writing them.