Blogging the NDP convention

For the past two days and until tomorrow, Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party has been holding its annual convention, putting a strong emphasis on what it calls "New Thinking" and the need for reform. And there have indeed been some important reforms introduced over the past two days, for instance the complete overhaul of the tax system -- corporate tax for instance has been reduced by more than half. But the political reforms have been lagging and those introduced were mostly cosmetic. The NDP seems to have been trying hard to convey the sense that it was serious about reforming the party and introducing new ideas to the political arena. Over 100 foreign observers were invited (although NDP spokesmen were loath to call them observers, with its overtones of election-watch), including luminaries from the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, who presumably wanted to see how Arab reform was coming along. Although the entire conference was much slicker than anything the NDP had come up with so far, it was a far cry from the political conventions that were just held in the US in terms of access. In fact, the first thing that came up at the first press conference was that the press was denied access to the conference hall itself and restricted to a press room where it could watch it on TV and wait for the scheduled press conferences with ministers and NDP policy-makers. The protest that erupted from all journalists -- who accused the organizers of wanting to maintain total control on the information flow -- was a sight to see, and a good sign that the once sycophantic Arab press has grown tremendously in confidence thanks to TV channels like Al Jazeera. My bet was that some decision-maker realized that if they didn't loosen the restrictions on the press, then lack of access would have been the story of the day. So, after a few hours, we in the press were granted full access to the conference hall. The other thing that struck me was that in the gathering itself, the policy speeches were more than the grand gesturing that one has become accustomed to in these events. The talks given by various ministers and other party leaders were quite pedestrian, dealing with specific issues (such as banking reform or urban encroachment on agricultural land) and the question and answer sessions with delegates seemed to show a good sample of the concerns of party representatives in the region -- for instance what would be done about such and such textile factories which badly needed new investment and so on -- rather than softball questions like "how is it that the government is so generous with reform?" That may seem like an obvious thing, but here it was refreshing -- even if the questions were written down and preselected, which I believe is also routinely done at political speeches in the US and elsewhere. Moreover, the questions were read out by policy honcho and heir apparent Gamal Mubarak himself, and answered by the relevant ministers (although not always in great detail.) Not bad for a rubber stamp party. One could give the NDP reformers the benefit of the doubt and assume they are serious with claims that they want to "energize the bases" and "take the reform to the people" through local NDP offices. I have little doubt that many of them are also fervent believers in the liberal economic reforms they are carrying out, and that in many cases are really needed -- although others seem like an opportunity for the private sector to make a killing at the expense of the taxpayer. Today Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said that the government would pursue further reductions in all manner of subsidies, a controversial issue that has long been ignored. Putting on the table was a courageous step, although I'm not sure how public the debate about them will be (although his vague pronouncements may have been a test balloon, like the cuts in diesel subsidies earlier in the month.) Privatization is also finally going forward. However, there were several big elephants in the room, and no one wanted to talk about them. Questions on whether Hosni Mubarak would seek a fifth term as president were simply said to be "not on the agenda." The idea of canceling the emergency laws, which were designed to deal with terrorism but are used indiscriminately to repress and imprison the opposition, was said by party chairman Safwat Al Sherif to be "not a priority." Whether Gamal Mubarak was really being groomed as heir was not being discussed either. Foreign policy, notably the relationship between Egypt and the US and Egypt and Israel -- two of the hottest issues in the country -- were not discussed. Instead, the only political topics were a vague charter of citizens' rights and limited reforms to the Higher Political Parties Committee and electoral legislation (on which the details are still unknown.) What this suggests is that the new Nazif government and the NDP "reformists" around Gamal Mubarak continue to have a limited agenda. Their job is to solve the economic mess that had been created by leaving the country in the hands of security men and political cronies. In this, they have a lot of room for maneuver, even if the final decision will of course rest with the president. But they seem to have at least the power to draft proposals and lobby for them aggressively, and often in partnership with foreign bodies like the IMF or even key allies like the US. This is a job that rests essentially with the prime minister and four policy-makers (industry and foreign trade, finance, investment and the governor of the central bank), all young bright things that are the face of reform. But note that key security ministries -- information, interior, defense, military production and others -- remain with security men, and that foreign affairs is still the personal fiefdom of the presidency. In short, the policy was made clear in an interview president Mubarak gave on the eve of the conference, when he said:
"We cannot bring about the political reform we seek given the economic situation and we cannot realise social justice without a strong economy that increases gross domestic product, creates new jobs and increases individual wealth."
Economic reform before political reform. This is exactly what he said throughout the 1990s, which are now considered as a period during which democratization decreased, not increased. As George W. Bush likes to say, fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, er... There will be more coverage of the NDP convention tomorrow, including a look at how opposition groups from Islamists to leftists are rallying together to denounce the NDP's fake reform, and more.
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Al Banna book ban

Gamal Al Banna is one of Egypt's most prominent thinkers on Islam, although you wouldn't think so from the treatment he gets from the "official" Islam of Al Azhar, the oldest Islamic university which is based in Cairo but influences all Sunni Muslims. Al Azhar has decided to ban a new book by Al Banna which continues his calls for a radical re-interpretation of Islamic law. As my friend Paul Schemm reports in the Christian Science Monitor:
In the now blacklisted book, "The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State," author Gamal al-Banna suggests ways for Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere to integrate into non-Islamic societies. He argues that it would be permissible for women to cover their hair with a hat, rather than a head scarf, and recommends men use an early Islamic tradition of temporary marriages, legal in the Shiite sect, to avoid intercourse outside of wedlock.
. . .
This is not the first time Banna has raised the ire of Al Azhar. Only a few years ago, he published a three volume work entitled "Towards a New Jurisprudence" that called for total reevaluation of Islamic law. He is also the brother of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood from which most present day militant Islamic movements take their inspiration. Gamal al-Banna, however, has much more moderate views of the religion than his sibling.
"We must open the doors for the freedom of thought without any restrictions at all," Banna says. "Even if one wants to deny the existence of God."
Al Banna, of course, is the brother of Hassan Al Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1920s. The Muslim Brotherhood is the first modern Islamist movement, and has been for most of the past hundred years one of the leading political forces in Egypt. Its influence has also extended to elsewhere in the Arab world, from benign Islamist parties such as Jordan's to more militaristic movements like Hamas in Palestine. Generally, it shuns terrorism, but supports it in Palestine where it sees it as a war of national liberation. The Brotherhood is much further to the right than Gamal Al Banna's thinking, who is often grouped with a few other reformist thinkers as "leftist Islamists" because of his moderation and emphasis on social issues. In a sense, Al Banna's precursors were the early Islamic reformers like Jamal Al Din Af Afghani and Muhammad Abdou who were, on the whole, much more moderate than the Muslim Brothers. One of the tragedies of the political situation in most Arab countries in that these people have had little opportunity to make their voice heard, as they tend to be squeezed out of the political discourse between secular regime parties and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is on the right -wing of a much broader tendency to look for Islam for political guidance. People like Al Banna, who in the past has felt comfortable supporting both leftist and liberal figures (he is for instance a supporter of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who is interviewed in the CSM article and is a leading pro-US liberal in Egypt), are being silenced by fundamentalist Islamists, the stale official Islam of Al Azhar theologians and the decaying Arab regimes. This is why providing them a platform in the West -- like Tariq Ramadan -- is important if their works are to spread.
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Via Talking Points Memo:
Surprise, surprise ...
"A year from now, I'll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush."
Richard Perle
AEI Keynote speech
September 22, 2003
From the same guy who memorably brought us:
"This is total war. If we just let our vision of the world go forth... our children will sing great songs about us years from now."
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The American Brotherhood

The Chicago Tribune ran this interesting article on the Muslim Brotherhood's US chapter a few days ago. It's worth reading, if only to see the reach of one of the oldest modern political movements in the Middle East -- one that continues to have much influence in its birthplace, Egypt, and far beyond:

Many Muslims believe that the Brotherhood is a noble international movement that supports the true teachings of Islam and unwaveringly defends Muslims who have come under attack around the world, from Chechens to Palestinians to Iraqis. But others view it as an extreme organization that breeds intolerance and militancy.

"They have this idea that Muslims come first, not that humans come first," says Mustafa Saied, 32, a Floridian who left the U.S. Brotherhood in 1998.

While separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of American democracy, the international Brotherhood preaches that religion and politics cannot be separated and that governments eventually should be Islamic. The group also champions martyrdom and jihad, or holy war, as a means of self-defense and has provided the philosophical underpinnings for Muslim militants worldwide.

Many moderate Muslims in America are uncomfortable with the views preached at mosques influenced by the Brotherhood, scholars say. Those experts point to a 2001 study sponsored by four Muslim advocacy and religious groups that found that only a third of U.S. Muslims attend mosques.
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Just a reminder

It's seems that now it's official: Iraq had no WMD. Actually, it's about the third time someone reports this -- I think the last time was the Kay report presented to Congress. It may not be that important in the face of the fait accompli that is the occupation of Iraq, but it's worth remembering that this war was brought about by either mind-numbing incompetence or dishonesty. It's also worth remembering that many "apolitical" Middle Eastern experts were flogging this in the run-up to the war. The neo-cons and their allies may have been doing it for their own ends (i.e. they were dishonest) but how about the "liberal hawks," people like Ken Pollack (remember this?) Should we ignore these people next time they say something? That the Iraq war was fought on false pretexts may not be a big deal to politicians or even voters in the upcoming US election, but it should be a big deal to those people whose job it is to know about the Arab world and countries like Iraq -- the academics, the intelligence officers and the others who should have known better.
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Egyptian culture in crisis?

Whatever else happened to the Egyptians?The Beirut Review (a literary supplement to the Daily Star) just ran a review I wrote of Galal Amin's sequel to "Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?" (entitled, creatively, "Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians?"). Amin is an economics professor at the American University in Cairo, and he analyzes changes in Egyptian society and culture over the last 50 years or so using concepts of social mobility, productivity and globalization. This second book focuses at some length on what Amin considers Egypt's cultural decline. As you'll see from the review, I don't agree that culture in Egypt is in such dire straits as Amin does (I just saw Ahmed El Attar's play "Mother I want to be a Millionaire" the other night--a dynamic, original piece that comments on almost every aspect of contemporary Arab culture in a series of fluid, visually captivating, overlapping vignettes--and was very impressed), but he makes some valid points about the mediocrity of mass culture and the negative effects of state-subsidized venues for expression.
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An announcement and a review

As you can see in the post below, there is a new poster on This website was never meant to be a personal blog, and Ursula Lindsey, who has written about Egypt for various newspapers and magazines, is the first of hopefully many other contributors you will see as the site matures. It is a labor of love and obviously a work in progress that depends largely on how much spare time I have. In the meantime, enjoy Ursula's posts and do check out her other work, notably over at, where she will be soon be starting a regular column on Cairo. We'll keep you informed.

Getting back to her review of Galal Amin's Whatever else happened to the Egyptians, I thought it may interest readers to take a look at my own review of Whatever happened to the Egyptians, Amin's first book in this series, which was published in the Cairo Times in December 2000. It's not online, so click below to view the full post.

Egypt's slippery slope

Galal Amin contemplates the progress--or lack thereof--of Egyptian society in a new collection of essays

The new year always seems to be a good time to take stock of one's progress and assess choices made and alternatives forsaken. The end of a century, and indeed a millennium, provides altogether too great a temptation to deny oneself a little self-indulgence, and, why not, a tad of contemplative navel-gazing. This is what the renowned economist Galal Amin, currently professor at the American University in Cairo, offers in this collection of essays tracing the changes in Egyptian society over the past century--one he was a direct witness to for much of its duration.

Most of the essays in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? were previously published in the Arabic language magazine Al Hilal (The Crescent) in the late 1990s as part of a group discussion among Egypt's leading social commentators. These were subsequently translated, and again updated by Amin to prepare this book, with the addition of two larger analytical essays focused more on his specialty, economics. As such, the essays vary from being chatty, personal and anecdotal to rather serious and, well, tedious pieces in a work that is seemingly geared towards the curious layman rather than the academic. Hence, sparing the reader from a lengthy chapter on the history of Egyptian economists throughout the century would have probably only enhanced this work, and likewise, some of the more technical analysis of economic phenomena could have been toned down in light of the low brow tone of the rest of the book.

In the shorter, more personal articles, Amin often resorts to childhood memories, family anecdotes and other similar stories to illustrate his points. Looking at the changes in the position of women, for instance, he compares the lifetyles and social status of his mother, sisters and daughter, and finds himself astonished at "the degree of intellectual and psychological emancipation that Egyptian women have achieved." Yet he also warns that "one should beware of seeing in all this an unequivocal sign in progress on all fronts, for it is far from certain that women of my daughter's generation are in all respects better off than those of my mother's generation. For all their subservient relationship to their men, women of my mother's generation did enjoy a greater degree of stability and less disruption of family life." In this chapter much like the other ones, Amin glumly concludes that "wider opportunities and greater economic freedom seem to have been obtained at the price of less freedom in other realms of life."

This is the problem with Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? At every turn of his reflections, whether they are on religious fanaticism, weddings or Westernization (each one the topic of one of the book's 14 chapters), Amin evokes some pristine past and compares it to the present. But the present, it seems, is systematically corrupted, degraded--a fall from the paradise lost of his childhood. Although he does evoke some of the social problems of pre-1950s Egypt, the overall impression he gives of the era is one of solid family values, a patriotic people and a society with integrity and pride in itself. Compared with today's Egypt--Egypt being defined largely from a Cairene perspective--this bygone era has decayed into the current, almost intolerable cultural, linguistic, economic and political apathy. It is then no surprise to see Amin ending Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? with the following moribund conclusion: that the changes through which Egypt is going through "could be nothing less than a process of metamorphosis in which everything is gradually being turned into a commodity, the object of a commercial transaction, including man's very soul."

This decline, a malady which Amin attributes essentially to the rise in social mobility combined with the spread of what he calls, borrowing from the British economic historian Karl Polanyi, "market culture," may be irreversible. Not content with decrying a consumerist present, Amin sees little hope for the future. Almost every chapter ends with a recognition that while he is quick to point out what the causes and symptoms of the ills of Egyptian society, he has no cures.

The recurring, grating pessimism in Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?, while in many ways insightful, brings to mind the image of an out-of-touch grandfather complaining to his grandchildren about the general moral decay of society, interspersed with nostalgic vignettes of life in the good old days. Indeed, Amin's complaints with contemporary Egyptian society tend to be conservative ones. While he denounces the current, hypocritical (and apparently unprecedented) religious fanaticism (which he attributes to both large segments being excluded from material success and from the more widespread phenomenon of undeserved financial success), he constantly longs for a time during which there were more certainties and stability to life. What he perceives as the decline of classical Arabic in public discourse--a practice that, in this reviewer's opinion, served more to alienate a large part of the population than anything else--is a cause of much chagrin to Amin, much like the fact that there are a lot more private cars and that public transport standards have plummeted. Another prominent complaint is one against Westernization, which he sees as not only endangering Egypt's national culture but also as necessarily bad, if only because he seems to see the West as bad. Would Amin prefer a return to the days of tarbushed pashas or Nasser's paranoid dictatorship simply because Egypt's cultural production was then of a higher quality and life (retrospectively) simpler?

These criticisms should not take away from the fact that Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? is--aside from the more academic articles--a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one bound to provoke much debate. Many of the changes that Amin highlights are undeniable, even if his interpretation of them is highly impressionistic. In addition to his prognosis, many will also undoubtedly disagree with his sociological analysis of these changes, which he almost entirely attributes to rather traditional interpretations of the class system and a sometimes simplistic theory of social mobility. But perhaps it does not help that Amin occasionally lapses into economic theory, making the book at times an uncomfortable compromise between academia and social commentary.

Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? will hopefully provoke a louder debate on where Egyptian society stands at the turn of the century. One could start with a topical concern that Galal Amin raises in his digressions:

"Thus the Ramadan lantern is rapidly coming to occupy the same position as the Christmas tree in the West, converted from a beautiful religious symbol to an expensive and elaborate ritual around which revolves a great commercial fanfare. Very soon we will see the Ramadan lantern transformed into one of the essential pillars of the holy month of fasting, without which fasting itself may become incomplete and unacceptable. Once this is done, the 'market system' will have won a complete victory over some of the most intimate aspects of everyday life of Muslims, as it had already done in the West."

Food for thought indeed.

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Articles on the AIPAC spy affair

I've been doing a bunch of reading on the FBI-AIPAC spy affair that broke about two weeks ago now, and while I don't have any particular insight to add, there are some tremendously good articles on the subject around. If there is anything to be gained from this episode, it is that it will shed more light on some of the practices of the increasingly Likudnik AIPAC and its neocon friends. AIPAC's power, or America's cowardice? by Charley Reese on looks at the genesis of the Israel-neocon connection and laments the cowardice of American politicians and media in denouncing the infiltration of US government by people whose priorities are with another country. White House Draws Fire From Congress, Officials Over Leak of FBI Probe by Ori Nir in The Forward reports at anger by AIPAC and Congress that the White House probably has known about this and demands for an investigation into the leaks. He also interviews some Jewish activists who aren't happy about the accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at the FBI. Also in The Forward, Marc Perelman writes in Neocons Blast Bush's Inaction On 'Spy' Affair that neocons are furious with the Bush administration for not protecting them, at least according to a memo penned by eminent pro-Israel propagandist Michael Rubin. In Serving Two Flags, an old CounterPunch article by Stephen Green, the expert on Israel-US relations hired by the FBI as a consultant on the spy case, the history of the neocons Israeli ties are explored, and bios of key current neocon players in the Bush administration are provided. The article is considered to be an early classic on the topic. U.S.-Israel, all in the family by UPI editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave, talks about Likudniks and neocons, which may not always be the same thing, and notes that passing on classified information to Israeli officials is a hallowed Washington tradition. In Spy-scandal lobby blitz Hans Nichols of The Hill looks at the fearsome lobbying machine AIPAC launched onto Congress to defend itself. Finally, academic Juan Cole has been all over this affair since the beginning, and there are multiple posts starting here (scroll down to the post that starts with "CBS is reporting...") Also make sure to read what he wrote in response to his readers who worried he would be smeared by AIPAC activists for his courageous writing. I agree with his basic idea: there is something wrong with a system that allows foreign-policy making to become the hostage of a single lobby group, even if they represent a close ally. And it will take courage to set things right.
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Al Jazeera and the US

The French-language Moroccan magazine Tel Quel -- one of the most provocative in the region -- is running an interesting piece on Al Jazeera, looking at its financing, its relationship with Islamist groups and with the Bush administration. I found the last section of the magazine, on how (according to an Al Jazeera employee) the US nearly forced the satellite companies that broascast Al Jazeera to block the channel and, after diplomatic consultations with the emir of Qatar, was finally told to moderate its content:

En mai 2003, Bush et ses conseillers pensent à fermer la chaîne. Comment ? "Ils allaient intimer l’ordre aux sociétés qui nous louent l’accès aux satellites, Intelsat et Arabsat, de fermer le robinet", raconte ce vieux routier de la chaîne qatarie. Il s’en est suivi un ballet diplomatique. "Nous devons comprendre que trop d’images peuvent tuer la sensibilité des téléspectateurs. Alors, avant de diffuser un enregistrement, pensez à sa valeur journalistique d’abord", ordonne Cheikh Hamed. Depuis ce jour là, la précaution est de mise. La décapitation de Nicholas Berg est censurée, un correspondant permanent est dépêché au Pentagone, des responsables américains, tels Condoleeza Rice et Donald Rumsfeld, sont interviewés sur le plateau à leur demande, etc. Si Al Jazeera met de l’eau dans son vin, cela ne l’empêche pas de maintenir ses choix. Lorsque Mohamed Jasim Al Ali, accusé d’espionnage pro-Saddam a été relevé de ses fonctions de directeur général, il a eu plus tard comme successeur le jeune Waddah Hansal, connu pour son penchant pro-Hamas. Ceci étant dit, les temps changent. Ayant ravi la vedette à tous, lors de la dernière guerre du Golfe, Al Jazeera est obligée de passer à la vitesse supérieure pour ne pas être rattrapée. Certes, ni les départs de 17 journalistes vers Al Arabia, ni la création de la chaîne américaine Al Horra, ne la déstabilisent. Par contre, le projet de la France de lancer une chaîne arabe et celui de la BBC de ressusciter son mort-né, mettent à mal les dirigeants à Doha. Leur parade ? Une chaîne en anglais, en fin d’année 2005, "nullement anti-américaine, ne ciblant pas seulement les musulmans non arabophones, mais taillée pour combler les lacunes des chaînes occidentales", explique le chef du projet, Nigel Parsons. Washington n’est pas trop enthousisaste, mais Cheikh Hamed a promis 20 millions dollars. C’est reparti pour un autre bras de fer.

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More economic reform in Egypt

Still warming up to next week's National Democratic Party congress, where economic and political reforms are expected to be announced, now banking reform is underway. This has been expected for a while -- Egypt has been working discreetly with the IMG and World Bank on how to reform the banking sector for over a year now -- but it is still a surprise to see it finally happen. Banking reform may sound dry and boring, but if they are going to do it seriously it will probably mean a strong influx of new foreign direct investment as well as an end to the crony capitalism of the 1990s, where anyone with wasta (connections) could get a loan from state banks with little or no collateral. That was one of the main causes of the economic slump Egypt is just pulling out of, and which could have had serious political repercussions (and still might.)

This comes after a series of other economic reforms announced last week, as previously mentioned.

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Whitaker on Arab publishing

Don't miss this great article by Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian, where he looks at the often-repeated claims that the Arab world is trailing far behind the rest of the world in knowledge production. Spurious statistics have been used over the past three years by people running from President Bush to Thomas Friedman as if to explain a fundamental problem with the Arab world and Arab literature. Whitaker's article looks at some of these stats and finds they're junk, and tries to take a little more intelligent approach for why there are less books translated into Arabic than into Spanish, which may have to do with things like income disparity and illiteracy.

Arab books became a political issue earlier this year when the Bush administration launched its "greater Middle East initiative" and blamed low output of books for a "knowledge deficit" in the Arab countries. ("Knowledge", in this context, is defined in western terms and automatically excludes such things as memorising the Qur'an or knowing how to milk a goat.)

"The Greater Middle East region, once the cradle of scientific discovery and learning, has largely failed to keep up with today's knowledge-oriented world," the US said in a working paper for the G8 summit. "Arab countries' output of books represents just 1.1% of the world total."

The working paper did not see fit to mention that this figure, which has been much quoted subsequently, is 13 years out of date and almost certainly wrong. It was plucked from an old Unesco report relating to book production in 1991 - probably an untypical year for publishing in the Arab world (and certainly for Iraq and Kuwait) because of the Gulf war.

There is more of that kind of stuff in the article, but I thought his point on the economics of publishing to be even more important, particularly in those countries where a book sold at Western prices would be prohibitive even for the middle class.

While it may be generally true, as the Arab human development report suggests, that creative activity needs "a climate of freedom and cultural pluralism" in order to flourish, this is not by any means the whole story. There are many far more mundane problems that hamper book publishing, too. "For Arabs, buying a book is like buying perfume," said Andre Gaspard, co-founder of Saqi Books, which publishes in both Arabic and English. "A book is a luxury in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Egypt."

Book buying also seems to be declining among the young. A bookseller quoted by the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper last week said most of his customers were in the 30 and above age category. "Among those, there is only an elite who would pay a large amount of money to buy a book," he said. "People here would much rather prefer spending such an amount on an outing or a new outfit."

Another bookseller in Beirut suggested high prices drive people to photocopy books rather than buying them. "Lebanese university students never buy books because they can't afford them," he said. A non-fiction book written in English that sells for $20 or £12.99 in the west can be sold in translation in the Middle East for no more than $8, Mr Gaspard said. If the price is higher, people simply won't buy it. This means it is less likely to be an economic proposition for publishers. The paper and printing costs for English and Arabic editions are virtually the same but the Arabic edition, besides having to be sold at a lower price, carries the extra burden of translation costs at around $14 per page.

Some Arab publishers use cheaper production methods but this can result in books that drop to bits or need to have their pages slit apart with a knife. People don't trust badly-produced books, Mr Gaspard said. Some also cut corners by paying their translators as little as possible - not a good policy if the result is gibberish. Mr Gaspard recalls once attending a dinner party where a guest sat scribbling between courses, hurriedly finishing off his Arabic translation of a book on structuralism.

In Egypt for instance, the government-owned and some private publishing companies print low-quality editions of quality books that sell like hot cakes, even though they are often badly edited and badly produced. They are typically sold for about $1-2, compared with $12 minimum for a cheap book you would buy at Amazon. Imported books in the Arab world are particularly expensive when taking into account import fees and custom duties.

A big part of the problem in the arts isn't a lack of talent, but rather than in elsewhere in life here you don't get far without contacts, particularly in the formerly state socialist countries like Egypt where "state intellectuals" monopolize columns and book deals -- take for instance the sycophantic editor of Egypt's government-owned Al Gomhouriyya daily, who regularly is awarded the best book of the year awards for his moronic (and most likely ghost-written) praises of Mubarak. Clearly there are problems with cultural production in the Arab world, but they don't really have to do with civilizational decline a some other crisis than can be solved by "regime change."

Those who use the Arab Human Development Report to find backing for their own agenda should read it more carefully. It's a long book, but they could start with the four-page section on literature and publishing, which I am putting up here (PDF, 108kb).

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Kach reborn

A new Israeli party is calling for expulsion of non-Jews from Israel and the Occupied Territories, Al Jazeera reports:
According to Ben Elyaho, a co-founder of the new party, the expulsion of non-Jews from Israel would "resolve all of Israel's political, economic and social problems".
"Our party calls for cleansing the region extending from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean from the Goyem [derogatory for non-Jews] and thus guaranteeing a Jewish majority of no less than 90% throughout the Land of Israel," he said.
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Gun control in Egypt

Or why it's needed...
Bodyguard accidentally kills senator
AN Egyptian wedding feast turned to tragedy when the bodyguard of one of the guests accidentally killed him with a celebratory burst of gunfire and then committed suicide.
Mohammed Abu Okail, a member of Egypt's Consultative Council, or senate, was gunned down in the village of Abis, 190km north of Cairo, police said.
When the party was in full swing, bodyguard Ali Suleiman began to let off a traditional volley of gunfire, killing Mr Abu Okail in the process.
On realising what he had done, he let out a hysterical cry of grief and shot himself in the head.
Celebratory gunfire is common throughout the Arab world, and dozens of people are killed in Egypt every year by stray bullets.
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Observers invited to NDP conference

Islam Online reports that, for the first time, foreign observers from human rights groups, academia and elsewhere have been invited to the forthcoming National Democratic Party conference. This suggest they want to make a big show of it, showcasing the new Nazif government and Egypt's commitment to reform. It also dicusses some of the "limited reforms" expected there, including:
"Amendments to the party law would allow opposition figures to join the parties' affairs committee, usually controlled by the NDP and the government, for allowing the opposition to give vote on the committee's decision on establishing a new political party," the sources said.
On the syndicates law amendments, the sources said such amendments would include the cancellation of articles of on imposing syndicate sequestration, holding the syndicates elections at fixed times and the provision to have the vote of two thirds of the syndicate general assembly members to have the elections valid.
Concerning the elections law, the sources said the amendments would stipulate that the Administrative Court is the only body assigned to give opinion on challenges raised against the elections' results and widening the scope of judicial supervision on all elections committees, placing sanctions for any elections' violations and forming a neutral body to monitor the candidates' spending on the electoral propaganda.
For the emergency law, the amendments would stipulate confining the law to only terror cases.
This may be positive news, but it still falls short of expectation. In particular, there needs to be a clear statement that any political party can be formed -- it won't matter if there are opposition members on board if there are still too few to change the vote on a new party. As for electoral reform, I seem to recall that the Supreme Constitutional Court was the body that ruled that the past three elections had been illegal (and therefore that parliament was not valid), not the Administrative Court which has a more limited mandate. (Update: I was alerted in the comments that it was indeed the Administrative court that declared elections illegal. I should have doublechecked rather than rely on my spotty memory.) I'm also skeptical about respecting spending limits -- no one does this, even the candidates who support the limits (which during the last election were set at a paltry LE10,000, or at the time about $3000. As for the emergency law, it is already meant to be restricted to terror and drug-dealing cases -- so no big change there. The problem is more about how it is abused. Still, potentially an interesting conference.
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Subsidies in Egypt

This is a piece I've published a while back but that is not available on the internet. It sheds a little light on why the issue of subsidies, mentioned in this post, is important. Aside from the occasional protest over regional events, such as the war on Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ordinary Egyptians often take to the streets en masse only in defence of one thing: their stomachs. Since 1977, no Egyptian government has dared an increase in the price of basic subsidised items such as flour, oil, fuul beans, sugar or fuel of the magnitude that former President Anwar Sadat attempted back then, sparking major bread riots. There have been increases in line with inflation and probably above, alongside allegations that government bakeries have shrunk the standard baladi loaf rather than increasing its price. But at the same time, there is a long-standing commitment to subsidies and a widespread acknowledgement that they are not about to disappear. l, subsidies are a source of concern for government decision-makers, as well as for the economy as a whole. They constitute an expanding burden on the national budget, particularly as the currency devaluation of the past two years takes its toll. Egypt imports a great deal of its basic foodstuffs, especially wheat. Over the course of the 2003-2004 financial year, Egypt is expected to import over 6.5m tons of wheat from major suppliers such as the US, Russia, Australia, France, Germany and Sweden, even as its currency still attempts to stabilise. Egypt no longer produces the majority of the wheat it consumes and it has become one of the world's major consumers of the commodity -- indeed, according to a recent government study, Egyptians are the world's biggest consumers of this staple commodity, with a per capita consumption of 183kg. Over the past year, there have been widespread reports of shortages of subsidised wheat, with queues not seen since the 1980s forming up again at bakeries. Some bakers and wheat distributors have also been accused by the press of producing ever-smaller loaves and of substituting lesser quality wheat, siphoning off the subsidised commodity for sale on the black market. In the meantime, consumers are occasionally forced to resort to the non-subsidised bread generally preferred by the more affluent classes. This is much more expensive, being generally priced at LE0.25 a loaf, as opposed to LE0.05 for subsidised bread from private bakeries. These complaints have revived a long-standing staple of Egyptian politics -- the call for national self-sufficiency in matters of basic commodities. Officials are now floating the idea of increasing the acreage dedicated to wheat production in the country by farming land reclaimed from the desert. As many as 150,000 feddans (one feddan = approx. one acre) of land could be directed towards wheat production through the scheme, officials say. However, in the long-term, Egypt will have to continue importing a substantial part of the wheat and other staple foods it consumes, analysts say, which is why it must bring the costs of its subsidy programme under control. This has important ramifications for the country's budget deficit, which has grown by a projected 10% of GDP for the 2004-2005 financial year, up from 9.1% in 2003-2004. This is happening despite Egypt's pledge of fiscal austerity in accordance with the structural adjustment programme it began in 1991. Financing subsidies is also affecting public debt, which has also risen dramatically risen in recent years ? up to LE440.7bn, or 108.3% GDP, for the 2003-2004 financial year. This is compounded by the government's practice of borrowing from one state agency to fund another, which has created a widening hole in social security institutions. The government is already facing criticism from both houses of parliament and from the Central Accounting Organisation, a budgetary watchdog, over its spending. Yet, the government has made clear its commitment to social spending, notably by increasing the allocation to food subsidies, education, health and government salaries -- spending that principally affects the lower classes. The cabinet has particularly focused on tackling the increase in price of food items, deciding that it will reintroduce a ration card system to allow citizens to buy commodities such as lentils and pasta at roughly 30% below market prices at designated government stores or co-operatives. The new scheme, which will cost an estimated LE3.5bn -- "a small price to pay for something that will affect 40m citizens," according to Finance Minister Medhat Hassanein -- severely limits eligibility, notably by prohibiting anyone who has not use their ration cards in over year from participating. Public reception has so far been mixed, with press reports that many who should be eligible will be excluded and predictions of over-crowded co-operatives making distribution difficult. For the more capitalist-minded, there is also simply astonishment that the government is returning to Nasser-era rationing systems reminiscent of state socialism while it tries to engage in economic liberalisation. Still, the rising price of basic commodities resulting from the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, a mainstay of newspaper columnists and cartoonists during the last two years, seems to have been enough of an incentive for the government to take action. Another benefit of the programme is that it will create several thousand new jobs in the civil service to run it, helping to reduce unemployment -- even if by adding to an already bloated bureaucracy. Food subsidies are not the only culprits contributing to the budget deficit, though. Egypt has also long subsidised several varieties of fuel, particularly diesel and regular gasoline. This may be understandable in a country which produces oil, but petroleum industry figures are becoming increasingly opposed to what they say is an unsustainable policy. First of all, Egypt's oil production is declining fast and the country will soon be consuming more than it produces. Secondly, most of the oil produced in Egypt, while appropriate for heavy fuels such as gas oil, is not of high enough grade to be made into light fuels, such as kerosene or high-octane gasoline. The importation and subsidisation of these fuels is proving increasingly costly. Thirdly, an emerging gas lobby is arguing that subsidies are unfair because they slow down the adoption of Compressed Natural Gas, which can be used by vehicles that undergo a LE5000 conversion. Over 55,000 have undergone the change over, giving them access to a type of fuel that is abundant and around half the price of regular gasoline (but only slightly less expensive than diesel). Fourthly, environmentalists say fuel subsidies encourage waste and keep many vehicles, especially taxis, on the road. Were the subsidies to be removed, out of economic necessity many of these would disappear. The pollution these vehicles create -- particularly when ill-maintained and using inferior fuels -- costs an estimated LE15bn per year to the economy, or 5% of GDP, according to the World Bank. There are signs that the government is tackling some of these problems. In March, it extended a scheme to convert cars to CNG that was previously only available to taxis. In this, the cost of conversion is paid back by instalments through an electronic card motorists use while refuelling. Higher-octane fuels are also being introduced more widely at petrol stations, with energy industry insiders saying the government is planning to slowly substitute high-subsidy fuels for less subsidised ones. Fuel and energy subsidies to industry and consumers (in the form of butane gas used for cooking) are another expensive and market-distorting form of subvention, although it is difficult to gauge its effects accurately. One Ministry of Petroleum study suggests the supply of cheap raw material -- mostly natural gas -- to power plants and factories tallied up to as much as LE24bn in the 2003-2004 financial year in lost revenue and import aid for the authorities. An argument is made that the policy does nothing to help Egyptian industry in increasing its competitiveness, and that many profit-making companies would actually be in the red if they paid market prices for energy. Even the most ardent proponents of subsidy cuts, however, recognise that the government cannot reduce these overnight because of the social and economic impact this would have on a large swathe of Egyptian society and business. Whether the authorities are willing to get serious about implementing a medium- or long-term cutback may well be one of the most important economic questions Egypt has to face over the next decade.
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A busy week in Egypt

Ahead of the ruling National Democratic Party's convention in a little over a week's time, the new Nazif government is unleashing a wave of new policies to get the message out that it is serious about reform. Just consider that since the beginning of this week, we've had:

  • An impressive reduction in tariffs and customs duties, which goes some way in answering the requests of the business community and key trading partners, as well as the no. 2 complaint about doing Egyptian business after forex instability: the labyrinthine and often corrupt customs system. As I found out in previous research, businessmen have long complained that customs policies are complicated, opaque and sometimes illogical, stressing an already under-equipped bureaucracy and making corruption easier. The complexity of customs has also engendered a parasitic intermediary industry which has a vested interest in the customs system remaining opaque and adds to the cost of doing business. Let's hope they don't survive long.
  • Subsidies on diesel fuel has been cut by 50%. This could be the beginning of one of the most important reforms in the Egyptian economy. Egypt is approaching the point where its oil production will be outstripped by domestic consumption, and furthermore it has already had to begin importing premium-quality fuels such as kerosene because local crude is too heavy to make them. Addressing fuel subsidies not only tackles the growing public debt and budget deficit, but will also have environmental implications. A small step but perhaps the beginning of a change of mentality about subsidies. You can find a longer piece I wrote on this issue in this post.
  • The government is finally paying attention to investment in high-tech and R&D, a personal pet peeve of mine. This may not be an obvious priority in a country where so many live a life of poverty, but technology and its benefits is not only for the rich, or at least it wouldn't be if it was only developed in the richest parts of the world. See the Green Revolution, the birth control pill, modern plastics, and yes, the internet. I covered the first announcement of this story here.
  • All of this comes while Egypt is hosting a pan-Arab meeting of economic policymakers, and of amidst speculation that the NDP conference will be used to outline a new reform program and give more attention to Gamal Mubarak, who has gone from the candidate the army wouldn't stand for to heir apparent (also here) in less than two years.

    Not everyone is happy about that, of course. And there is much skepticism about next week's NDP conference. But all this activity has been long-awaited in a country that has been dormant for most of the past decade. It might not be good change, but it's change.

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    Galbraith on Iraq

    Peter Galbraith on how the Bush administration lost the peace and why Iraq will probably end up as a loose federation -- if civil war can be averted. His conclusion:

    The United States faces a near-impossible dilemma in Iraq. If it withdraws prematurely, it risks leaving behind a weak government unable to cope with the chaos that is the breeding ground of terrorism. By staying in Iraq, the United States undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government it wants to support, while US military action produces more recruits for its enemies. The advantage of a strategy aimed at loose federation is that it can create powerful regions and thereby a possible escape from our dilemma. The current strategy, if it can be called that, offers no way out.

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