Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Synonymity Of ‘Islam’ And ‘Arab’: More Than Just A Labeling Caveat

A common, naïve Western mistake is to assume that the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Arab’ are directly interchangeable. This logic is completely false. Quite surprising to many is the fact that Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. Indonesians are not Arab yet share the same faith of those in the Middle East: Islam. Moreover, geographically Indonesia is certainly not located in close proximity to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran or even Afghanistan. This gives rise to an interesting subject of discussion.

How has categorical perception distorted the correct image of Muslims, Arabs, Central Asians and non-Westerns in general? How have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to this issue?

The media (especially in the United States) has been the prime conduit; the protagonist and the ‘binoculars’ in offering the Western world a lens of which they could view the East. The Middle East and the Asian sub-continent have been the subject of much attention in recent years for a variety of reasons (i.e. 9/11, oil, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban etc.). Unfortunately, the extensive coverage which broadcasting channels have undertaken (i.e. CNN, BBC, Fox News and many others) has provided viewers with a parochial account of ‘non-Western’ events. Such a parochial perspective has brought in to light many caveats which provide the majority of viewers a ‘misinformed’ idea of what the Muslim world offers.

1) Not all Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim. (i.e. Indonesia is not Arab yet Muslim, Egypt has Coptic Christians, Lebanon has a variety of Christian sects).

2) Arabic is the language of the Koran however not all Muslim countries speak Arabic yet their citizens learn it in order to pray and recite verses. (i.e. Indonesia speaks Indonesian while Pakistan speaks Urdu).

3) The Middle East is not all barren desert – indicating anarchy, lack of civilization and backwardness. (i.e. Cairo is one of the world’s largest metropolis with an unofficial population of 20 million).

4) Arab countries in Middle East all speak Arabic yet in variant versions, however modern written Arabic is the same. (i.e. the Egyptian dialect is different from Bahraini which is different from Kuwaiti etc.).

These are quite common misinterpretations or assumptions which happen to have been relayed by biased sources. These issues have further been exacerbated by the way in which Islam is represented in the Western world. My recent post, ‘9/11 ‘Middle Ages Islam’ and Pogonophobia,’ discusses the repercussions of the media’s portrayal of al-Qaeda which happens to provide a distorted image of Islam. The media – in all its forms; cinema, television and newspapers – has been the culprit in the ever-growing cleavages between the West and the East (especially countries of Muslim majority). The media rarely, if ever, reports positive news about the Middle East or in any other Muslim countries and unfortunately if it does, it is always shadowed by the war in Iraq, the Iran-US nuclear antagonism or the war in Afghanistan.

As superficial as it might seem, perception plays a crucial role in current contemporary relations between the West and the Muslim world. Misrepresentation has caused further tensions and misunderstandings and in essence it is crucial that liberal Muslims and those of positions of power take a more pro-active role in alleviating and eliminating the tensions. There needs to be a more open, transparent dialogue which would bring in to the light a better understanding of the cultural differences and most importantly what Islam represents as a religion and as a faith.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Judiciary, The State and The People: Egypt’s Ongoing Saga

May 25th marked the anniversary of ‘Black Wednesday,’ the name given to May 25th 2005 when plainclothes government agents beat protestors and watched as pro-Mubarak supporters punched other demonstrators marring a referendum on whether to permit multiple parties to run during the presidential elections later that year. A year later and the saga continues , now back with even more vengeance.

This has been the fourth consecutive week of protesting despite statements from the Ministry of Interior that these demonstrations are ‘illegal’ and will not be tolerated. This has not halted the zealous Kefaya, Ghad and Muslim Brotherhood members which have sprawled to the streets along with about 300 pro-reform judges to fuel their anger over:

1) The state’s refusal to release hundreds of innocent demonstrators who have been taken in to custody over the last few weeks.

2) The state’s refusal to release Ayman Nour or at least reconsider his case. Nour has been sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly ‘forging’ documents to establish his Ghad party.

3) The NDP’s refusal to separate the judiciary from the state and granting it its own independence.

4) The NDP’s hindering efforts for reform, their inhuman methods of protecting themselves from anything that would jeopardize their power and disallowing ‘true’ democratic principles to start fueling society as well as any freedom of speech.

5) Hosni Mubarak; who (in their eyes) has betrayed the country, fooled the people and brought Egypt backward both economically and socially.

The Egyptian pro-reform judges stood in front of the Supreme Court house during the anti-government protest chanting anti-government slogans such as “release our detained brothers!” Score of protestors also wore Kifaya (‘Enough’) stickers as well as others reading “Long live justice!”

Living the events vicariously through news reports as well as other bloggers’ accounts, it seems that there is a continued socio-political upheaval gaining momentum in Egypt. Protestors are obviously not stopping as they have seen the international media attention they’ve gained as well as the criticism the NDP party has received from Western governments. At this point, the movements are not large enough to offer a ‘coup d’etat’ since these new movements have not yet been able to mobilize the masses. As I’ve argued in my previous post, Habeas corpus ad subjiciendum: Nour, El-Bastawisi and Mekki,” a la the 1950s, the country needs a revolution which would introduce a completely new beginning to Egyptian society replete with new democratic reforms and new secular government.

This is merely in theory as a revolution will not come to fruition unless change is also buttressed from above. The apathy of the upper class and those of power has only regressed any chances of metamorphosis. Moreover, Egypt is a country which has witnessed change progressively and should continue to witness change in such a manner. Any abrupt efforts in attempting to change will backfire immediately. The MB might gain further leverage and attempt to hastily exploit the religiosity among the people and introduce a non-secular, religious, oppressive and a ‘strict Sharia-based’ social arena which would further regress the future of the country.

As of now, it is a sad reality that Egyptian citizens are seeking Western support as well as the West’s condemnation of the NDP in order to instigate change within their own borders. Unfortunately as I’ve argued before, America is not Egypt’s savior as (like many of its other alliances) it has its own agenda and its targets and holding hands with Egypt along the way is not in its interest per se (refer to the previous posts and comments).

There is no doubt of the delicacy of the situation. If the NDP seeks to avoid any further trouble, they need to start listening to their own citizens and slowly implement changes which should be (in their eyes) purely altruistic for the country and for the proceeding governments to inherit – unfortunately this seems completely out of reach at this point.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Paradise Now? Eventually? Never?

‘What should I do?’ ‘What should I do about the Israeli occupiers who took away everything from me?’ ‘Will blowing myself up persuade them to leave?’ ‘Is there another way – forcefully or by reconciliation – which would bring back what is rightfully mine?’

Said and Khaled are two young Palestinian men in their late 20s/early 30s. They are also the protagonists of Paradise Now, the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an academy award. Subsistence living gets them through their quotidian life in whichever way possible. They live during a time of occupation, a time which has infringed upon their rights as human beings, a time which has destroyed their dignity and a time which has stolen their souls.

Palestinians do not have many choices. Hearing the experiences of many people in Gaza and the West Bank as well as those of candid observers is utterly disheartening. Said and Khaled are the sine qua non of Palestinian youth, bitter yet smiling, apprehensive yet human at heart, revenge-greedy yet seeking a solution. They symbolize the Palestinian struggle and its seemingly never-ending fate. The schizophrenic dichotomies aforementioned are portrayed with immense precision in the film. Without doubt, the Palestinian people are classified as Third World (if not lower) and share characteristics similar to that of many poverty-stricken African countries. Moreover, they have incredibly high birth rates and death rates which has attributed to the progressive decrease in the average age of the population. Thus, the future of the Palestinian people falls directly in the hands of its youth, in the fate of those like Khaled and Said.

In light of the recent tensions between the militant factions of Fatah and Hamas, writing a reflection on the movie at this point is pertaining since it represents both struggles: that between the Israelis and Palestinians and that between different niches (on a political and social level) among Palestinian society.

The film did an incredible job at discussing the morality behind undertaking suicide missions. If I blow myself up, will Angels really come down and take me straight to heaven? Will I die a martyr in the eyes of God? What will really happen? These are questions which were touched upon in the movie, forcing the audience to contemplate just like both Said and Khaled did. Director Hany Abu-Assad was very successful in transposing the clashes, the reluctance as well as the religious zeal which occurred in both Khaled and Said’s minds. These polarities were primarily depicted via the conduit of the movie’s screenplay. However, the normality of the numerous poignant conversations as well as the contemplations portrayed through the protagonists’ body language also served the same purpose.

My criticism of the movie falls on the one significant facet of the plot. Towards the end of the film, Khaled decided to undertake the mission while Said opted out believing that there was another way to ultimately solve the problem. At the start of the film, it was vice versa, Khaled was initially reluctant to commit ‘martyrdom’ but his opinions were morphed once he started to remember how his father betrayed his people and collaborated with the Israelis. Although Abu-Assad wanted to integrate the internal struggles which plagued the minds of young Palestinians, it seemed that Khaled’s decision to follow through with the mission was purely for rectification purposes. He wanted to undo what his father had done, he sought to remove any vendettas and grudges which might have been held against him (since he is his father’s son). In essence, this completely detracted away from his preliminary reason of undertaking the mission; out of desperation, lack of choice and helplessness. These reasons are the quintessential ‘thought rationale’ which the Western world (especially the Israelis) need to comprehend.

In my opinion, Paradise Now addressed many questions for non-Muslims viewers with regards to the specificities of the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Nonetheless, there remains a continued brewing of debate among Muslims as to whether the suicide missions in Palestine are ‘eligible’ for martyrdom in the eyes of God. It was certainly not the scope of the movie to ‘solve’ or provide interpretations on that issue. Regardless, the crux of the film is about humanity and morality – two fundamental factors which governments/persons of influence and heads of state have started to overlook in many struggles around the world.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Power Of Rhetoric: Mubarak’s Wake Up Call

Gamal Mubarak, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s son made a covert trip to the White House on May 12th. The intent of the secretive trip was not initially understood and the talks with President Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice seemed to be quite strategic given the US’ criticisms of recent Egyptian actions against protestors in the streets of Cairo.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif described Gamal’s visit as an attempt to sooth relationships between the two countries in light of recent events in Cairo. Nazif’s statement certainly makes sense however the ulterior motive of the visit was for Gamal to establish personal relationships with key members of the current administration and to further ‘groom’ himself for Egyptian presidency.

However, Hosni Mubarak had a change of heart.

On Saturday May 20th, Mubarak opened the World Economic Forum held in Sharm El Sheikh with a shocking tough speech informing the US that its relationship with Egypt has started to slowly wither and deteriorate. The foundations which Anwar Sadat had laid and which Mubarak had inherited have been shaken. Such a speech is unlike Mubarak who has been appeasing and acquiescing to the US ever since peace with Israel had been made and an agreement to provide aid was signed.

What happened?

The situation requires a careful and in-depth analysis.

Here are several scenarios:

1) Hosni Mubarak was not pleased with what his son reported back after his meeting with the White House a week before the inauguration of the forum. On a speculative basis, Gamal probably reported that 1) the US was not happy with the way in which the government was handling its protesters and 2) that the government was not trying hard enough to establish a democratic pro-Western style liberal system. Thus, it seems that it was Gamal’s meeting which triggered a taste of bitterness in Mubarak senior’s mouth. Moreover, the US might have not liked the idea of allowing nepotism to further cloud Egypt’s attempts at openness and ‘free’ party elections in its truest sense. In other words, they might have not liked the idea that Gamal was being groomed for presidency and that the NDP would do anything in their power to ensure his succession. In light of Mubarak’s speech which implied that the US was running a foreign policy that promoted double standards, this makes sense.

On the one hand, the US remains ambivalent on their stance towards the MB. As discussed before, their rise to power might prove problematic and a case which requires tacit tactics and careful diplomacy. However, on the other hand the US (in blatant irony) is promoting free party elections which might end up leading to the MB’s rise to power – a blow to the status quo and a new (yet uncertain) phase of US-Egyptian relationships.

Mubarak has become utterly flabbergasted at the US’ pressure to promote democracy alongside their ranting against Islamist groups for harboring terrorism and promoting violence (i.e. Hamas). This situation is incredibly oxymoronic and hypocritical since the US would be inclined to do the same if the MB rises to power i.e. boycott and criticize them (the MB recently provided funds to Hamas claiming that they share the same brotherhood and objectives).

If the above is truly genuine, then Egypt has certainly entered a unique phase with the US. Mubarak has finally decided to speak up and refrain from being a puppeteer and an acquiescent.

The conclusions from this scenario are optimistic and pseudo-idealistic. Given Mubarak’s track record with the US, there might be another facet to this story.

2) The recent protests, arrests and violence in the streets of Cairo have revealed to Mubarak that regardless of the US’ influence on Egyptian politics, there still remains a cap on what they 1) seek to do and 2) what they really can do. As argued in my previous posts, the US has gone soft on Egypt over the protests. They certainly condemned the state police’s methods as brutal and asked for a toleration of freedom of speech. Also, Congress discussed a potential reallocation of its aid to Egypt and a much more viable return to their investment. However, the US did not really intervene per se.

In essence, Mubarak realized that the draconian Emergency Law which has recently been extended to another two years will continue to prevail and so will his privileged position with the US and the administration’s desire to keep him. He has kept Egypt out of war with Israel and has maintained diplomatic ties with the former adversary and has even gone far to establish a trade agreement (as my recent posts show, the US has been supporting the Israeli Lobby immensely).

In other words, his rant is merely talk to appease the Arabs as well as send a message to the US. His quid pro quo response is as rhetorical as the US’ response to the protests. Mubarak realized that the US will provide him with some leeway, after all, Egypt is one of the most powerful Arab countries and their administration needs to show sympathy towards issues affecting neighboring countries.

However one interprets the speech, it is quite bold and assertive. There is no doubt that Mubarak meant for a world that “fosters multilateralism, abides by international legitimacy and steers away from unilateral actions” (criticizing the US’ unilateral invasion in to Iraq) and that “democratic reforms in the Middle East should "emanate from within the region” (instead of being forced). There is also no doubt that he meant to elaborate on “a double standard in the U.S. nuclear policy, under which Washington maintains a resolute silence about the nuclear arsenal Israel is believed to possess while it conducts a campaign to curb.” These statements are genuine but their timing and rationale need to be carefully assessed.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Habeas corpus ad subjiciendum: Nour, El-Bastawisi and Mekki

Yesterday, the Egyptian government’s show of force again found its way in to the streets of Cairo. Plainclothes police arrested demonstrators outside the High Court, where the fate of Ayman Nour and the two judges Hesham El-Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki were to be decided.

These demonstrations were primarily in support of the judges who were accused of speaking ill about the Egyptian government and about how the elections were rigged last September. Nour, who came at a distant second during last September’s elections, was accused of forging documents to establish his Ghad party. The pro-government thugs and Egyptian security forces used inhumane techniques to ‘control’ the crowd and arrested about 400 members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) including Essam Eryan and Mohammad Mursi, two prominent ‘head’ figures – a seemingly strategic ‘top-down’ move from the government itself.

The court decided to reprimand El-Bastawisi, clear Mekki and sentence Nour to a five year imprisonment

The demonstrations have come to symbolize a nouveaux pro-reform movement in Egypt representing a search for independence of the judiciary and a simple request of freedom of speech. Simple, it might seem in the eyes of Western observers, the tenets of democracy rest on choice, freedom and civility.

Unfortunately, it is not simple in Egypt.

Such ideals will not permeate Egyptian society overnight and will not be allowed if they weaken the National Democratic Party’s (NDP) control over the country. The oxymoron in the NDP’s name is quite amusing given that they claim to bring democratic reforms to the country yet prove to the world (through the phenomenal conduit of the media) that they do the exact opposite. In fact, the constant clash between demonstrators and Egyptian police only reveals the weakness of the administration and its fear of losing power and instigating change. Hosni Mubarak will not last forever and nor will his NDP party (the way it is run right now, even if his son Gamal Mubarak will eventually take over), however they are attempting to cling to every last inch of power they could.

Egypt has been facing peculiar changes over the last few years. The upper echelons of society have become more Americanized and secular while the lower echelons have become anti-Western (especially anti-American), more religious and spiritually oriented. This has constantly increased the cleavages between the two niveau. While there is political apathy from the rich, there is incredible political zeal for change from the poor. Naturally, those with money and connections have political power yet they care less about living in an oppressive regime since they are not touched. So who should help Egypt reform, modernize and progress?

The United States?

As argued in my previous posts, the United States has taken a soft approach towards Egypt. While the $2.3 billion annual package (since the 1970s) was meant to modernize, democratize and augment Egypt’s military and economy, it seems that it has done quite the opposite. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican recently stated that “the time has come to seek greater returns from our investment in Egypt.” The United States has its own ulterior agenda in Egypt and it cannot be fully relied on to help instigate change in the country. In fact, the US is seeing that it is in their benefit to keep Egypt at a certain level of backwardness.

This might seem counter to what the US initially sought to do. However, their agenda has changed recently with a realization that democracy (i.e. open elections and freedom of speech) can lead to disastrous consequences – for example the election of Hamas (an organization the US considers a harbor and instigator of terrorism). As it is still quite controversial how the potential rise of the MB in Egypt would affect the country, the US is cautiously weighing the pros and cons – on the one hand having a buffer against al-Qaeda or potentially having an extremist, anti-secular society prone to fanaticism.

In essence, I realized quite some time ago that the US is not Egypt’s savior and in light of the recent events, my recent arguments and postings and the interesting discussions I’ve had about the role of Western influence in Egypt, change needs to come from within.

Demonstrators need to continue to demonstrate, protesters need to continue to protest and a country-wide realization requesting change needs to occur. Mobilizing the masses will be Egypt’s only chance for a revolutionary metamorphosis. Until then the sporadic clashes between the police and the protestors will gain Western attention and they will continue to spill out their rhetoric in retaliation, however there will be no further action.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Welcome Aboard United 93

“Powerful, very powerful…,” were my immediate thoughts as the hijacked plane plunged in to Shanksville, Pennsylvania during the last seconds of the feature film. That moment of silence at the end of the movie before the credits and epilogue gave me an eerie shiver. I could feel it run down my spine, I could feel it take control of my body, it made me vicariously live the events of that tragedy and of that morning of September 11th 2001.

The movie took on a pseudo-documentary style as in fact many of the characters were themselves. It attempted to bring to the screens director Paul Greengrass’ depiction of what he thought happened based on the evidence and facts available to the public. I walked away from the theatre thinking to myself, “the movie was incredibly accurate, in fact it was ‘dangerously accurate.’”

Obviously, the audience (including myself) had a tabula rasa with regards to United 93 and the unfolding of its events per se. All that the majority of people could remember of 9/11 were CNN’s live video capture of the hijacked planes crashing in to the World Trade Center Towers. But still, something was telling me that the movie was surrealistically real and these were the ‘exact actual events.’

As I had mentioned above, this is dangerous.


Nobody truly knows the exact events of United 93 or any of the other hijacked flights and based on the available evidence (i.e. control tower recordings and communication, blackbox etc.), many people have attempted to reconstruct a chronological, logical set of occurrences including Greengrass. In essence, the majority of such attempts were meant to counterfactually examine ‘what would have happened?’ ‘what went wrong?’ ‘how could we have prevented XYZ or ABC?’

This is the two-fold danger:

1) There is no doubt in any person’s rational mind that the events of 9/11 were heinous and a complete emotional catastrophe to humanity. The calamity of the event and its worldwide repercussions had to be revisited. The perpetrators, Muslim extremists from al-Qaeda were fully responsible for the loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives – no doubt. However, human nature points to stereotyping and categorical perception as powerful tools in analyzing and forming one’s opinions. If alive, the perpetrators would deserve the most just yet harshest sentence possible (as seen with Zacarias Moussaoui’s recent trial), however the uninformed audience needs to read between the lines and realize that it is foolish and irresponsible to pigeon hole Islam as violent and evil. However, it is important to realize that extremism (whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim) produces outcasts and complete heretics; here the perpetrators represent the antithesis of Islam – that of peace, love, piousness and respect.

Naturally, the movie fuels hatred towards Muslims as it depicts the lowest, most vile breed of what Islam has offered the world. The movie is profuse with Koranic verse recitals juxtaposed (with incredible cinematography) with violence, terrorism and absolute animosity. This is where the danger falls.

2) Hollywood has proven to the world that it has an impeccable political and manipulating power over its viewers. There is no doubt that citizens of the world should revisit the events of 9/11, grieve and share the pain and suffering of those who lost their loved ones’ lives however ENSURE that they hold an objective, unbiased opinion of Islam. It is absolutely imperative that they understand that what is portrayed is a dark facet of Islam which misrepresents the religion.

United 93 is a chef d’oeuvre, an emotionally packed, thriller-full movie which will keep viewers in the edge of their seats. It is absolutely disheartening to see the last moments of many peoples’ lives and saddening to see how extremists have completely misrepresented Islam and destroyed its true essence. Viewers should watch the movie with an open heart and an open mind, grieve the victims and channel their anger but also understand that fanaticism breeds extremism which could be breed terrorism – in any religion – this is an important caveat viewers should be aware of.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Reassessment of the Egyptian-American Rapport

The recent events in Cairo brought me back in time during my years at the University of Chicago. My senior thesis in Political Science attempted to re-simulate history and introduce a unique counterfactual experiment on the Political Economy of Egypt.

The paper was written under the auspices of Associate Professor Lisa Wedeen and my econometric modeling was reviewed by several professors at the Economics department. The paper landed me an honors degree and provided new insight in to the existing literature.

My recent post, “US Takes Soft Yet ‘Calculated’ Approach With Egypt” touches on the current American-Egyptian relationship. The post and the recent events encouraged me to bring back in to light the arguments posed in my thesis. I was brought back in time because I closely examined the history of the Egyptian-American relationship on both an economic and political stance. Here is a quick summary:

1) I argue ceterus paribus using a counterfactual analytical framework that Egypt’s economic growth rate would have been higher today had Nasser’s independence from Western influence, his aspirations to self-manage the Egyptian political economy, his centralized government and his controlled efforts at liberalization (starting in 1967) been continued after his death.

2) I argue that Anwar Sadat’s rapid liberalization efforts starting in the 1970s failed. I rank the accumulation of debt as the number one chronic problem affecting the economy. Debt became a massive problem once the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission entered in to the Egyptian economy in 1975. The analysis focuses on the impact of the aid on GDP growth rate, the expenditures on consumption as well as income inequality (measured by the Gini).

3) I argue that it was Sadat’s proclivity to allow the US to intervene in Egyptian affairs which brought in the USAID mission whereas on the other hand, it was Nasser’s nationalistic policies which minimized foreign direct intervention (vis-à-vis Sadat). The focus of this argument is on the difference between both leaders’ relationships with the US.

4) I argue that it was Nasser’s centralized government which promoted its growth in size and expenditure. Furthermore, I argue that Nasser’s increases in government expenditure led to the phenomenal annual increases in GDP growth. This argument assesses the significance of Egypt’s three main wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 in order to compare both leaders’ government expenditure – focusing on the military component

There is a casual relationship between Egypt’s economic indicators and the USAID military and economic aid packages. An increase in both the USAID military and economic aid packages respectively affects GDP growth rate and consumption expenditure negatively. With its bias towards multinational US firms and with over 50% of the aid-funds spent in the US, it is hard to see how the aid has been beneficial to the country. The aid has slowed down internal growth, decreased the rate of consumption expenditure and accumulated debt. In addition, the aid package has also not contributed to Egypt’s internal development whatsoever. For example, Egypt’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality) on five year increments starting in 1975 has a 0.42 positive correlation with USAID military aid, implying that income inequality within the country and military aid increase simultaneously.

From 1975-1989, 58% or $8.7 billion of all US economic assistance was spent directly in the US rather than on development projects in Egypt, in fact most of this American aid represents money paid by Egypt to America. Moreover, the remaining 42% of the US economic aid package ($6.3 billion) was allocated for development projects within the country but none of the money was transferred directly to Egypt. It was the American contractors in Egypt such as General Electric, Westinghouse and Overseas Bechtel who were the beneficiaries in fact almost every penny of the $15 billion budget during 1975-1989 was allocated to them.

The Egyptian-American relationship is not as mutual and not as transparent as one might perceive. Last September, an Egyptian delegation attempted to persuade the American government to halt the military aid which Egypt has not been benefiting from (in time of peace), however, the Americans responded negatively by arguing that Egypt needs to maintain its military power and continue to spend numerous amounts of money on US military equipment.

A close reassessment of the relationship reveals that the US has a hidden agenda with regards to its strategic alliance with Egypt. Its constant fueling of economic and military aid has made Egypt more dependent on the US and made it harder for the country to forgive the aid package. One should think carefully about further allowing the US to meddle in Egyptian affairs, more than it has at this point.

Friday, May 12, 2006

US Takes Soft Yet ‘Calculated’ Approach With Egypt

In lieu of recent events in Cairo, the Bush Administration offered Egypt ‘friendly’ advice asking Mubarak to relieve some pressure off of the protesters. This is certainly not uncommon, in the past the United States has been putting immense pressure under the Egyptian government to pave the way for democratic reforms.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has reinforced the typical rhetoric which the White House produces, “Egypt is a good friend, Egypt is a good ally…,” and has further stated that the US stands hand in hand with Egypt in a common pool of interests and objectives.

Again, nothing about this is novel. Ever since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US has been a very close ally of Egypt and has offered $2.3 billion in economic and military aid annually. However, the US’ reaction to the incidents has been carefully calculated.

In retrospect, the US realized that it is NOT in the interest of the Egyptians to fully democratize at this point. These are the following reasons:

1) The allowance of free elections in Palestine has proved to the US that their pro-democracy efforts have backfired with the election of Hamas, a group the US government considers a harbor for terrorism. Thus, allowing free elections in the region as well as Egypt will ultimately lead to pan-Islamism (retaining fanaticism and the implementation of a ‘strict’ version of the Sharia Law – wholly undemocratic).

2) Allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power in Egypt can be both in the interest or disadvantage to the Americans. One the one hand, it can be argued that given the nature of the MB, the group will act as a buffer against extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda. However, on the other hand, the potential election of the MB could regress Egyptian society in to a more dictatorial, backward and undemocratic position. This is a pure cost-benefit analysis and it remains esoteric as to whether the US is leaning to one side or the other.

3) The US realized that (learning from Iraqi model) they cannot simply leave a can of unopened worms. It is one thing using rhetoric such as that of McCormack and it is another thing to use force (such as in Iraq) to spread democracy. In the case of Egypt, the US prefers the former without doubt, it is better to maintain Egypt’s status quo and let Mubarak deal with any internal issues plaguing the country. The US feels it is doing its part by simply fueling $2.3 billion of aid per year however (as I will show in my forthcoming post) this aid has in fact retarded the economy instead of promoting its growth and potential.

Change in Egypt needs to be gradual and progressive, thus any abrupt US intervention will cause an absolute calamity in the country. Given the abundance of anti-American sentiment among many of Egypt’s proletariat, the prospect of allowing the US to ‘take care’ of things is absolutely out of the question. However, the current administration needs to act quickly before the Egyptian population starts to believe that their savior is the US which is completely false (as seen from the Iraq case).

Recent events have proven the delicacy of the situation. Many Egyptians are faced with the decision to follow the lesser of two evils (i.e. NDP or MB), some are clearly pro-NDP (since they benefit financially and politically) and others are pro-MB but others are just not sure what to think. On the one hand, the US does not like the undemocratic methods of NDP but at the same time, they don’t think the MB will do a better job. However, the MB might be a good buffer against al-Qaeda, a priority which trumps the political situation in Egypt – i.e. the fight against terrorism.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dictatorial Legislation: History And Future Of Egypt’s Emergency Law

Egypt’s Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958) was first implemented in 1967 after the Arab-Israeli conflict. The law was suspended for an 18 month period in 1980. It was reemployed immediately after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in October 1981. Under the law, state police powers’ umbrella is greatly extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship legalized. In essence, the law is the epitome of anti-democracy as well as an antithesis to democracy itself.

As of April 30th the law had been extended for two more years. The rationale behind the implementation of the law is that it ‘apparently’ helps security forces in Egypt detain would-be terrorists, break-up terrorist cells and preempt any anarchical behavior among the country’s citizens. In any democratic country, the law is supposed to protect its citizens, unfortunately in Egypt, the Emergency Law has done the complete opposite.

The law delineates and sharply demarcates any non-governmental political activity, street demonstrations as well as non-approved political organizations. As I discussed in my recent post “Egypt Is Far From Democracy,” the recent protests arguing for an independent judiciary and the removal of charges against two judges who ‘spoke’ about the corruption during last September’s elections fell victim to the Emergency Law. Many people were detained and held in custody without further notice. Today, there are approximately 10,000 people in custody without charge.

Mubarak promised to replace the Emergency Law with a new anti-terrorism legislation however that has not come fruition. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the greatest opposing force to the National Democratic Party (NDP) has argued that there is no justification for extending the law. Their members have become regular victims of the law and have realized that it has become a great tool for the NDP to suppress their power and presence in Egyptian politics. Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has stated that the law will only be used to protect the citizen as well as fight terrorism and moreover the parliament decided to extend the law in order to leave ample time to draft a new anti-terrorism law. A large chunk (25%) of the 378 Parliamentary members in attendance opposed the extension, most of them MB members – however that was obviously insufficient to cancel the law.

Observing the situation objectively, the Emergency Law only reveals the weakness, lack of cohesion as well as backwardness of the current administration. It shows that the government is unable to implement regular, democratic legislation to control vice, chaos and notoriety among society. What do they do? Simply detain as many people as possible to ‘clean’ the streets and stop any further social mishaps or demonstrations.

This has the complete opposite effect.

The proletariat and bourgeoisie in Egypt (and especially the political activists among them) have been furious about the way they have been treated when they seek to voice their opinions and concerns. They can easily place the blame on the law as they are aware that political activists from the upper-middle as well as upper class can buy their way out of any legislation – but unfortunately they cannot afford to.

The presence of nepotism and cronyism has given a handful of individuals and their families immunity from the law. The general public is aware of this as and especially the police force themselves. Thus, this has furthered exacerbated the remaining population’s anger. Not only is it a ridiculously unfair law, it does not apply to certain economically and politically powerful individuals.

As I’ve argued in many of my posts, Egypt is far from any democratic transformation but one thing is certain: democracy cannot go hand in hand with the Emergency Law, it needs to be abolished before any reforms take place.

Egypt Is Far From Democracy

Recent events in Egypt revealed to the world, Arabs, Egyptian citizens as well as the United States that democracy does not exist. More importantly it is not ready to exist.

Mahmoud Mekky and Hesham Bastawisi, two Egyptian judges were faced with charges of violating judiciary rules by talking about the abuses in last September’s elections. In retaliation, thousands of demonstrators marched to the streets of Cairo chanting, “Judges, judges, save us from the tyrants.”

The protest was a conglomeration of an array of different political party members in Egypt. A one of a kind demonstration hosted by individuals from the Kefaya party, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other leftist organizations, the event signified a new, progressive phase in Egyptian society.

People want their voices heard.

However, as has been a priori, there is no such thing as free speech in Egypt per se. Plainclothes police officers and the Egyptian police have historically used brutal methods to break up demonstrations as well as detain protestors. Moreover, the confiscation of cameras, cameramen and any broadcasting on-sight is crucial in preventing a wide announcement of their undemocratic and inhumane methods.

As I’ve argued in a previous post, “Democracy: Does It and Will It Work In the Middle East?” the region remains in a primitive and archaic stage unready to willingly accept liberal democratic norms and ideals. However, the recent demonstrations and the response of the government have also proven that change from the top needs to take place.

Fear from a Muslim Brotherhood takeover, Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) will continue to use methods of acquiescence and detainment in order to jump hurdles and pave through obstacles. These methods have perpetrated basic human rights and have kept Egyptians living in the ‘dark.’

Last week, 48 people were detained (including Alaa Abdel Fatah, an Egyptian democratic activist and power blogger) during a solidarity movement supporting the independence of the judiciary in Egypt. They have been arrested for 15 days “pending investigation.” Men and women detainees were sent to the Torah and Qanatir prisons respectively where brutality, sexual molestation and abuse are rampant.

Déjà vu?

These events are not uncommon in today’s Egypt – unfortunately. It has been a common recurrence and certain legislation (which I will discuss in a later post) has allowed an incredible state control over its citizens.

Is there a solution?

The detainees from these protests will be eventually released – no doubt. There has been massive pressure from within Egypt’s borders as well as outside to free the arrested. Many people have turned to the United States for help, a country which has constantly put pressure on Hosni Mubarak to inject ideals of democracy in to the corrupt-ridden, archaic socio-political system of Egypt.

However, listening to the United States is a multi-faceted dilemma.

Last year, Mubarak allowed other parties to run against his presidency (such as Kefaya and Ghad) and even allowed ‘independent members’ of the Muslim Brotherhood to run for parliament. This came after incredible scrutiny from the United States to democratize, modernize and find compatible ways of fusing Islam and progressiveness in to one. However, this in fact backfired for Mubarak. He realized that there is much more hatred against his party and its members than his administration initially thought. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to secure a substantial amount of seats in parliament and this led to even further fear.

In retrospect, Mubarak is thinking twice about following American advice and allowing their involvement. The United States carries its own political agenda and one can argue that a takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is in fact in the Americans’ interest (since the MB is a moderate Islamist faction and will act as a buffer against Al Qaeda). Reading the story with such skepticism from the NDP’s perspective has re-encouraged them to use their old methods of acquiescence and suppression.

This story is certainly ben trovato and the NDP will continue to believe that they should do anything in their capacity to retain their current position of power.

Democracy activists and protagonists should be weary of allowing the United States to take control of the situation. Mubarak is already a pseudo-American puppet and Egypt receives $2.3 billion of aid per year, this could further allow more American control of domestic issues. There are many caveats of fully allowing the Americans to meddle with Egyptian affairs and so cautiousness and care needs to take place. The US’ democratic trials have backfired in Palestine after Hamas was elected and Iraq is in the brink of civil war, Egypt should NOT turn out to be the same.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

CASE: The Microcosm of Egyptian Society

The Egyptian stock exchange labeled CASE (Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange) is ‘unique’ to say the least. Over the last few years, Egyptians and Arabs have found the equity market a road to fast cash, prosperity and a way to satiate their materialistic desires. In a way, the stock market is ‘in’ among Egyptian contemporary society as well as Egypt’s youthful bourgeoisie. However, the recent 30% decline in the market’s volume (in one day) has shown the vulnerability, volatility as well as unreliability of third-world based trading.

Last year, the Economist reported that the Egyptian stock market performed better than other major markets around the world with a whopping 125% profit increase. In retrospect, this seems to be quite peculiar given the recent 30% daily crash.

Those who have the necessary capital have a number of methods which allow them to achieve large portfolio appreciations and quick cash. These methods have primarily revolved around ‘strategic’ investments in ‘key’ corporations.

The word ‘strategic’ should not be confused with the strategies Western investors implement in their respective equity markets. The uniqueness of equity trading on the CASE is that it is a microcosm of Egyptian society, a sine qua non of Egyptian social behavior and a representation of the clash between Western and Eastern ideals. The word ‘key’ is also important in this case because the Egyptian and Arab investors’ choices are made based on critical and pseudo-confidential information.

How is a stock market able to exemplify such sophisticated cultural nuances and Egyptian-society-embedded idiosyncrasies?

By nature, Egyptians like to gossip and spread rumors, conversations and report news. Common social arenas in Egypt include (but are not limited to): 1) shisha (argilah, nargilah, hookah etc.) cafes, 2) barber shops, 3) coiffure salons, 4) restaurants and (less likely) 5) bars. These places have become the perfect venues to eavesdrop on ‘vital’ and seemingly ‘critical’ information on whether to buy or sell stocks. In order to conceive of the consequence, one should imagine such a phenomenon on a city-wide scale; in this case Cairo and Alexandria.

Since there has been an upsurge of interest in investing in the stock market, Egyptians have found it convenient to spread gossip about companies’ earnings, performance as well as upcoming sell-offs, buy-outs etc. The interesting facet of this phenomenon is that it is gossip and rumor-like by nature. THUS, the information is NOT necessarily accurate nor is it guaranteed to make the parties involved wealthy whatsoever.

Also by nature, many Egyptians find interesting methods to beat the system. Beating the system should involve the least amount of effort, yet the highest return possible. Therefore the majority of cases involve unethical, illegal and corrupt ways of fooling the system to one’s advantage. This ranges from bribing police officers to trump any efforts of revoking one’s driver’s license to fabricating birth certificates to obtain certain perks (such as enrolling one’s child one academic year above what he/she should be at). As Egyptian society has become progressively more corrupt, bureaucratic and politically opaque, there has been a corresponding increase in peoples’ distorted perception of ethics.

This has become a cause of much concern. From a religious perspective, a large chunk of Egyptian Muslims have deviated away from what Islam labels as ethical, honest and proper. These can be certainly seen in the stock market.

The following hypothetical scenario should paint a clearer picture:

1) Individual A has 100,000 LE (approximately $15,000 USD) he would like to invest in the market. Individual A has no prior knowledge of the market nor does he have any specific information. Based on candid advice from a brokerage Individual A decides to invest all his/her money in company X.

2) One day, Individual A overhears two people discussing an alleged ‘rumor’ that company X is going bankrupt after a scandal which occurred in their accounting department. Individual A becomes very frantic and calls and messages all his/her other friends which have also invested in that company telling them of the news he heard.

3) Regardless of how reliant the source was, Individual A as well as his/her friends call their respective brokers near simultaneously ordering to sell all their shares of company X. The brokers realize that throughout the day, there has been a systematic request to sell ALL shares of company X and notice that something fishy is going on.

4) Given how an equity market operates, those seeking to sell their shares require a respective buyer which a market maker would locate in order to set-up the transaction for execution. However given the rumor’s widespread influence, a vast majority of stock owners are requesting to sell while barely any individuals seek to buy.

5) The overflowing request to sell the shares has caused the stock to plummet the following day based on completely false allegations! The company was never in bankruptcy nor was it in any sort of scandal. In addition, many of the sell orders were unable to be fulfilled and Individual A lost 50% of his/her equity.

6) Weeks later, it turns out that there had been a coordinated scheme by a number of individuals to spread lies and rumors that company X was facing bankruptcy. These individuals shorted the stock and made gains when the stock plummeted. They were able to beat the system, make large gains and never faced any persecution for spreading falsified information or pseudo-insider trading. If shareholders sought to sue them, they would have no case because no one OBLIGED people to believe the story or make investment decisions based on haphazard gossip heard ‘literally’ on the street.

The example above only shows one of a few ‘strategies’ that have been implemented on Egypt’s stock exchange. There has been incredible corruption, insider trading as well as unethical (and also un-Islamic) ways of making money. What is worse is that strong, influential political figures have been using their positions to ‘fool’ the market and make consequent gains. The recent market crash surrounded the selling of EFG Hermes’ (an Egyptian Investment Bank) stock by three major shareholders simultaneously which forced the stock to plummet and bring in huge losses for other investors.

The stock market is about behavior and in Egypt it is clearly the case. Unfortunately the general poverty levels in Egypt have altered peoples’ perception of ethics, they would do anything possible to become wealthier and seek a better life. This of course has incredible negative socio-economic consequences.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

9/11, ‘Middle-Ages Islam’ and Pogonophobia

September 11th 2001 has swept the world with its repercussions. Some consequences were blatantly obvious and some others were not.

There is no doubt that the global economy was hurt, that stock markets fluctuated and (after an eventual retaliation by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq) that oil prices soared to record highs.

There is no doubt that casualties were high, that families were destroyed and innocent people were heinously murdered.

It is safe to assume that the citizens of New York have been (to say the least) gravely and in essence permanently affected by the events.

The list goes on, the repercussions have affected the US’ foreign policy and placed its allies ‘on guard’ against Muslim extremism. This extremism continued to manifest itself by similar (but less dramatic) events such as the Madrid bombings of March 2004, the London bombings of July 2005 or those which have recently targeted Red Sea resorts in Egypt over the last 18 months.

9/11 was the magnum opus of Al Qaeda – par none. The organization’s devious schemes and master-mindful orchestrations have managed to send potent messages across the world – ‘Muslims are in a jihad (a misconstrued Holy War since the world jihad in Arabic literally means ‘struggle’) against the West.’ Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri’s occasional audio and video messages sent through the Al-Jazeera network continue to ‘assure’ Western governments that threats remain imminent.

9/11 has also caused inconceivable damage to the Muslim world’s reputation. Prior to 9/11, those who had no image of Islam to paint are now able to convey a clear picture. One thinks of Islam, one thinks of violence, terror and backwardness. The phenomenon of the media and internet has contributed immensely to such a stereotype. Images of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other areas of the region are convincing viewers that Islam still resides in the Middle Ages.

A common image televised or posted on the internet constitutes of a male wearing a turban, a long ghalabeya (white dress), holding a Kalashnikov and most importantly wearing a large beard – this is Militant Islam. Other images include all the above minus the Kalashnikov, alluding to non-violent Islam.

Such stereotypical images have pigeon-holed Muslims in to distorted and completely unrepresentative symbolism. However the more these images are portrayed, the more the stereotypes are reinforced.

What is peculiar is that 9/11 has exacerbated the interesting social phenomenon of Pogonophobia, the odd but existing fear of beards. As one’s mind associates his/her perception of individuals based on stereotypes (i.e. try thinking of a Mexican, an African-American, a Southerner or an Asian and write down the first connotations which pop in your mind), seeing males with large beards and conspicuous, suspicious and malice looking faces implies that they are Muslims extremists, possibly terrorists and violent.

The majority of Al Qaeda members (which have been the unfortunate façade of Islam) appear constantly in the media. In fact today, Pakistani authorities captured Mustafa Setmarian Nasar, a Syrian Al Qaeda fugitive who has been wanted for his involvement in the Madrid bombings as well as other terrorist acts during the 1980s in Spain. Not surprisingly, based on the image on the website, Mustafa wears a large beard and a turban – again reinforcing the image which has started to permanently etch in the minds of viewers.

Since Al Qaeda is an extremist Muslim group, they idolize the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) destructively. Growing one’s beard in Islam is a sunna and not a fard. In other words, it is NOT obligatory however it is a habit the Prophet used to maintain. A pragmatic explanation would be that the Prophet (PBUH) used to grow his beard because it was a hassle to trim/cut/shave it during his time (likened to the Middle Ages) – in fact it is probably as simple as that! Unfortunately, extremists have taken it upon themselves to abuse such a simple trait and somehow convert in to a social fear (so destructive) that it has led non-Muslims (as well as many liberal Muslims) to stereotype.

The exacerbation of Pogonophobia is certainly an interesting and subtle consequence of the horrific events of 9/11. As I’ve mentioned in a variety of my other posts, Islam needs a new face if it seeks to survive and mold in to the modern world. Individuals should be free to do whatever they please with their images (as well as grow their beards) however given this current social phenomenon, liberal Muslims should be careful with the rampant stereotypes floating around the non-Muslim and Western world., The World's Blog Aggregator Blog Directory & Search engine