The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Tunis: "Things are bad, but that's normal"

Last month I was in Tunis for a conference on Arab intellectuals and historical transformations in the region.  I wrote up something about it for the LRB blog:

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. ‘He’s been there ten days,’ a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. ‘He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.’ The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. ‘The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,’ he said. Instead, the uprisings have ‘exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions’. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

Must watch: Egypt's lost power

Al Jazeera English does a great first dig into the EMG gas deal between Egypt and Israel –theft from the Egyptian people involving many who are still in power in Egypt today, and with the blessing of the United States. It underplays the extent to which Hussein Salem was a key member of the Egyptian intelligence establishment, close to Field Marshal Abu Ghazala (Mubarak's chief rival in the early 1980s) and granted some protection from the Reagan administration after being caught in one of the scams in the US-Egypt military aid relationship. It's a story at the heart of how corruption, power, and strategic interests interact in the Middle East – very much worth watching.

Penalty card for Qatar
Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com

Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com

A "plot to buy the World Cup" comes to light, but will raking FIFA over the coals make a difference for Qatar's overheating guest workers?

During the Cold War, Taiwan and the People's of Republic of China routinely threw money at smaller countries in order to get them to switch their recognition from one China to the other at the UN. It was the most blatantly bullion-based diplomacy one could observe then, in a world of it. The World Cup bid involves some dynamics, except - since it is the World Cup - the stakes are even higher than the Two Chinas Policy. Brazil is hosting the next one; then Russia will do so in 2018, and to Qatar goes the 2022 honor. Some football officials have complained about the poor climatic prospects for players in the Gulf's summer heat on that date - yet the heat is even worse for the guest workers barred from organizing unions to protest the policies Qatar exercises over them. As the current controversy in Brazil shows, for the prestige of the World Cup, there are few prices that host countries politicians and their lobbyists won't pay to win that honor. 

So far, assertions that "football cannot tolerate a World Cup built on the back of workers’ abuse, misery and blood" have failed to derail the massive Qatari effort. Whether the latest round of scandal will make a difference is yet to be seen. And it is one whale of a scandal, even by FIFA's poor reputation. According to The Sunday Times, Qatar bought up votes from Confederation of African Football (CAF) member associations and important football executives worldwide ahead of the World Cup 2018/2022 vote with lavish junkets and "donations" cumulatively worth millions of dollars.† Potentially compromised parties in Asia, Europe, and Latin America have also been named in the Times, including the infamous (and now censured) Trinidadian ex-FIFA executive Jack Warner. Football associations in Somalia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Sudan, Burundi, the Gambia, Sao Tomé, Zambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, Togo, and Nigeria were all specifically named in The Sunday Times' expose. 

So far, concrete proof of Qatari malfeasance in the run up to the 2010 bid for 2022 been hard to come by, though at least one associate of Qatari football supremo Mohammed bin Hammam was previously suspended and fined when he was caught bragging about the "millions" of pounds he was being offered by two unnamed countries to influence the vote. It is the sort of strategy straight out of the Soviet playbook for the non-aligned countries in the second twentieth century. But if the Times' allegations - drawn from a trove of emails leaked to the paper detailing all of this horse-trading - prove true, then that proof will finally exist. And none too soon for Qatar's competitors, since it is theoretically possible to redo the executive committee's vote or 2022, stripping Doha of its victory.

Bin Hammam, formerly the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation and owner of the Kemco construction company, is described as the point man for this effort, disbursing payments and promises here and there ahead of the voting - from personal kickbacks to weekend getaways to promises to back certain associations' pet projects in exchange for their support. Kemco allegedly helped pass some of the coney along, but much of it is said to have delivered personally to the recipients in cash payments of several thousands dollars a head, and via "10 slush funds" he set up for the campaign. Bin Hammam denies such charges, as do all of the people the Times says he wined and dined with in Kuala Lumpur (or elsewhere) to influence the bidding process several years ago. 

Once one of the most influential members of FIFA's executive committee, bin Hammam was banned for life from football in 2011 by FIFA after being convicted of bribing the Caribbean Football Union to support his campaign against Sepp Blatter, the incumbent President of FIFA. Mr. Blatter is no fiscal angel himself - the subject of past inquiries about his finances have gone in his favor, though - and even tried to make light of Qatar's human rights record by suggesting that LGBT fans "should refrain from any sexual activities" at FIFA 2022 in Doha. Like the rest of FIFA's executive committee, he now finds himself in hot water over the allegations that a disgraced official, acting behalf on the Government of Qatar, played FIFA like a flute. And strangely, despite his earlier support for the vote (and aforementioned flippancy) even before this scandal broke, Mr. Blatter conceded to persistent criticism that awarding the Cup to Qatar was actually a "mistake."

It goes without saying, but both FIFA and bin Hammam are denying The Sunday Times report, and further follow-up reporting. Qatar's own FIFA team denies any formal relationship with the blackballed bin Hammam. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce, though, said the body should re-vote if FIFA's top legal counsel, Michael Garcia, finds a paper trail for the alleged bribes in the coming months (Garcia was in fact the lawyer who signed off on the findings that torpedoed bin Hammam's FIFA career, so has a good reputation in this regard).

A second vote would be a PR disaster for Qatar, and if it did not win back the cup in the process, Doha will have sunk millions into the planned city of Lusail and other venues to little gain. One can imagine all of the other Gulf states laughing derisively at the sight of vacant lots and roads to nowhere should this come to pass (construction has not yet advanced very far). That, according to Australian football officials, the United States could secure the 2022 bid if Qatar loses it would be the final insult.

The charges do little to help Qatar's international image since reports began airing over a year ago that hundreds of guest workers, almost all of them from South and Southeast Asia, have died on the job since the bid was won. These have not been for FIFA-related worksites, but general totals: over the past decade, thousands of guest workers have perished in the wider Gulf region. The deaths are not so obvious as fatal falls and electrocutions from high towers, but a combination of long hours in difficult climatic conditions with inadequate housing and healthcare. And there is the matter (difficult to quantify) of a general malaise among workers resulting from their isolation and impoverishment relative to full Qatari citizens. Not to mention their anemic legal rights in-country. But given the amount of work the World Cup is set to generate for foreigner laborers, there has been no slowdown in applications (legal or not) to come and build up Lusail despite the risks.

Qatar has not been handed a red card by FIFA. At best, it's been handed a yellow card, if even that. So, for now, Doha gets to stay on the field.


†Much of the effort was apparently concentrated among CAF members, who control four of the 24 executive committee seats which vote on bids. At least 12 votes are needed to win, and there are unofficial backdoor campaigns going on throughout the process to prevent voters from switching their support (this was a bitter point of contestation between Qatar and the UK, apparently). The 2022 vote actually involved only 22 committee members: 2 had lost their voting rights due to corruption scandals and were not replaced during the process.
In Palestine

I'm a very honored guest of the Palestine Literary Festival this year. The festival brings writers from around the world for a week of readings and events in Palestine. Here is the festival's program and here is its Flickr account. And below are some pics. 

Ramallah

Ramallah

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

Approaching the Qalandiya Crossing into Jerusalem (the only entrance for Palestinians on foot), graffiti of Yasser Arafat and jailed leader Marwan Barghouti

The crossing

The crossing

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Author Teju Cole photographs the wall

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Jerusalem.  A beautiful but sad city, in which every inch is being bitterly fought for. Many individual houses in the Old City's historically Muslim or Christian quarters have been "settled," occupied by Israelis who drape them in flags and barbed wire. 

Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic

Great piece by Elias Muhanna for The New Yorker, on why Disney's Frozen has been translated into Modern Standard Arabic:

The Arabic lyrics to “Let It Go” are as forbidding as Elsa’s ice palace. The Egyptian singer Nesma Mahgoub, in the song’s chorus, sings, “Discharge thy secret! I shall not bear the torment!” and “I dread not all that shall be said! Discharge the storm clouds! The snow instigateth not lugubriosity within me…” From one song to the next, there isn’t a declensional ending dropped or an antique expression avoided, whether it is sung by a dancing snowman or a choir of forest trolls. The Arabic of “Frozen” is frozen in time, as “localized” to contemporary Middle Eastern youth culture as Latin quatrains in French rap.

Why Disney decided to abandon dialectal Arabic for “Frozen” is perplexing, and the reaction has been mixed. Many YouTube viewers are annoyed, with some fans recording their own versions of the songs in dialect. An online petition has called for Disney to switch its dubbing back to Egyptian Arabic, plaintively wondering, “How can we watch ‘Monsters University’ in the Heavy Modern Arabic while we saw the first one in Egyptian accent that everybody loved…?”

How indeed? Or perhaps the real question is: Why? Why is Disney willing to commission separate translations of its films for speakers of Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese, European French and Canadian French, but is moving in the opposite direction when it comes to Arabic? The answer cannot be that the dialect markets are too small. The population of all of Scandinavia is less than a third of Egypt’s, but is represented by five different translations of “Frozen.” There are nearly ten times as many Moroccans living in Casablanca alone as there are Icelanders in the whole world. The markets are there. What is missing is a constituency for cultural production in dialectal Arabic.

Muhanna goes on that there isn't much of a constituency calling dialect dubs of hit Hollywood movies, in contrast to what he describes as "an ideology propagated by linguistic purists in the region." I'd be curious to test out that theory – for instance see if the Moroccan film board would reject a dubbing of Frozen in darija. I suspect it has more to do with the low profitability of Arabic dialect market segments (because of high rates of piracy, etc.) and the dominance of the GCC market in business decisions about entertainment – and that market being used to MSA being used as a standard for dubbing (they finance it, after all).

Links May 3-29 2014

Belated link-dump so we can clear the joke election stuff.

LinksThe Editors
Election Day

And so Egypt's decidedly anti-climactic presidential election  -- the sixth vote in 3 years, and the first contest since Mubarak's time in which the result is such a foregone conclusion -- is underway. 

For excellent coverage, check out Mada Masr site, where Sarah Carr has her take on the Sabbahi campaign:

Sabbahi's campaign has been far more plebeian, and if he earned points for miles covered he would have earned enough by now to claim a small yacht. So vigorously has he rubbed shoulders with the common man it is a wonder that he has any shoulders left. His campaign caravan has traveled the length and breadth of the country and wheeled out Sabbahi in rural backwaters so that he can bellow about justice and the revolution and freeing unjustly detained prisoners. He did this on the last day of official campaigning in Abdeen, Cairo, mostly preaching to a small crowd of the converted, a bunch of excitable teenagers who lit flares and chanted and banged drums next to more sedate Dostour Party members and non-aligned citizens. The mood felt very 2011, what with all the talk about the martyrs and the revolution and social justice.

Dalia Rabie reports on Abdel-Fattah El Sis's disturbing rapport with the Egyptian female public

“I will take a picture with each of you, it is my honor,” Sisi told the cheering attendees. As the women continued to relentlessly chant, “We love you Sisi,” he responded jokingly that they would “create problems with the men at home.”

Sisi’s speeches and interviews address women as housewives, mothers and sisters. Rarely does he allude to them as more than catalysts, and he generally refuses to acknowledge that they are political players in society.

After around six minutes of Sisi pleading with the women to settle down, asking them to allow him to talk to them because he “needs their help,” and after one of the organizers instructed the audience that “when the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the candidate continued.

And Jano Charbel has a very interesting piece about the Sisi posters that have blanketed the country, and the individuals and businesses behind them:

According to Sheikh Abdel Rahman Hassan of the Islamic Jurisprudence Center, “We are campaigning for Field Marshal Sisi’s presidency because he is a pious and religious man. Moreover, we trust that he will be able to root out terrorist groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, Ajnad Misr, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other armed extremists.” 

Sheikh Hassan’s center has a number of posters around Tahrir Square with the image of Sisi and the words, “May I kiss your head please?” The center’s phone number is on these posters identifying them.

Similarly the private ETAF advertising company has hung-up Sisi banners around the Abdeen neighborhood, with the name of their company, and their phone numbers on them. 

The company’s spokesman did not comment as to how much his eight-foot-long banners cost or why they have the company’s contact information on them. 

Mohamed Lotfy, owner of a bookshop in downtown Cairo commented, “These [private] banners hanging outside our shop are not ours. They belong to other businesses and political parties in the area.” 

“Nobody forces these businesses to put up campaign banners. They put them up out of their own freewill. It’s their way of showing their support for their candidate, and their love for their country.” 

A novel about political exile, and the brutal passage of time

I've just reviewed a beautifully written, beautifully translated novel, by the Jordanian poet Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain. The story, which seems to be quite autobiographical but has none of the self-indulgence that can mar that genre, concerns a middle-aged writer returning to the fictional Arab dictatorship he fled as a young poet and revolutionary. The protagonist, Adham, has lost the sharp convictions of his youth. 

Adham's irrelevance is further proven by how innocuous he now seems to the regime he once tried to overthrow. Upon his return to Hamiya, his interrogation by the National Security Agency (its star-shaped headquarters "like a spaceship just landed from another planet," where once "even birds dared not fly overhead") is pro-forma, just a matter, as the polite and diligent officers tell him, of completing his dossier. But where in his file, wonders the narrator, "are the pavements, the cold, life when it became just a lucky coincidence, the skies as low as a wall of grey, the long sleepless nights, the cough, the stubborn hopes, the dancing lights of return?"

Do the mixed emotions of homecoming ever live up to its tense anticipation? Adham finds his homeland almost unrecognizable. It is still un-free, but in new and different ways. His parents have died in his absence. His old flame married and had children. He can only confront his own ghostly younger self, who never left, changed, or aged. This Jolly Corner-like conceit works well, although the proliferation of doubles (multiple characters bear the same name), and the use of the second person singular, in which the narrator addresses himself, can be a bit precious. But then there are disorienting scenes such as this, in which the narrator dematerializes into his former self:

"The man who looked like your teacher at the Upright Generation Secondary School disappeared and was replaced by a solidly built man with an enormous mustache of the kind worn by truck drivers. Your son Badr disappeared. The gold ring disappeared from the ring finger of your left hand. You heard a voice repeating, insistently and annoyingly, a name that had an unsettling resonance: Younis, Younis. You turned to where the voice came from."

The Mubarak mansions

Mubarak and his sons were just handed three- and four-year sentences on embezzlement charges. To understand the case, and get a detailed example of how the ruling family routinely stole from the public coffers, read this excellent piece of investigative journalism by Hossam Bahgat. Sifting through the court documents and talking to a whistle-blowing investigator, Bahgat reconstructs a decades-old scam that also involves the ubiquitous Arab Contractors company and the current prime minister, Ibrahim Mehleb.  

Egyptian citizens have unknowingly paid millions of pounds for refurbishments, furnishings, appliances, utilities bills and maintenance of the two offices that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to conduct their profitable investment business on al-Saada Street in Roxy, Heliopolis. Alaa’s wife Heidi charged the state for every last expense in the renovation of a new villa in the posh Golf Area on Qattamiya Heights in New Cairo. When Gamal and his wife Khadiga had their first daughter in 2010, the Arab Contractors company paid the bill to design, build and furnish a separate wing for the newborn in the Uruba Palace in Heliopolis. 

At some point, first lady Suzanne Mubarak wanted to have a private office in the new, glamorous City Stars Intercontinental hotel and mall – Egyptian citizens paid for its interior design and every piece of furniture. When Mubarak’s 12-year-old grandson Mohamed died in a tragic playground accident in 2009, Arab Contractors used the telecom towers budget to fraudulently cover the costs of building a new private mausoleum. Many of the receipts describe expenses on the five villas that Mubarak and his sons privately owned in the el-Sheikh Red Sea resort and on a 25-feddan farm jointly owned by Gamal and Alaa on the road from Cairo to Ismailia.  

Other expenses covered by the state budget include an elevator to the roof of Alaa and Heidi’s Qattamya villa “to be able to adjust and maintain the satellite dishes on the roof,” a Jacuzzi pool in the Heliopolis residence, and a giant tent and candles for a party in one of the Sharm el-Sheikh villas. 

Egypt's next president

Now that campaigning for Egypt’s presidential election is well underway and Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi has made several media appearances, some observations can be made about the man who is expected to be Egypt’s next president. 

The former military commander is running a very controlled campaign, one in which he does not open himself up to any impertinent back-and-forth. In his media coming-out a few weeks back, he immediately bristled when would-be interviewers Ibrahim Eissa and Lamees Hadidi even gently pushed him, warning Eissa “I won’t allow you to use that word again,” about the apparently derogatory terms “askar” for the army, and admonishing them: “Are you going to talk or you going to listen?” The interview was pre-recorded, and glaringly failed to include what might have seemed like obvious questions (such as, given El-Sisi now oft-professed love of Egyptian women, how he defended forced virginity tests for female protesters two years ago). 

The field marshal’s electoral program remains shrouded in mystery. In an unorthodox move, his campaign has simply decided not to burden themselves with explaining how his vision might actually be implemented. His own campaign manager has told the press that presenting a program at this point “would provoke a discussion and debate that we don’t have the time to react to.”  His few policy proposals (giving young men refrigerated trucks to deliver vegetables to market; encouraging the use of energy-efficient lightbulbs to face the electricity shortage) seem risibly modest, and when pressed on how he would actually implement them, the mushir simply says that the state will “make” people adopt them. 

El Sisi prefers to wax poetic about the extraordinary personal qualities of the Egyptian people, and his boundless love for them, rather than to address specific policy questions. He is clearly well-aware of his popularity with women, which he constantly plays to (although he seems incapable of imagining working women -- his idealized Egyptian Woman is adamantly domestic, anxiously watching over her home and wisely encouraging her man to action outside it). 

El Sisi is charismatic; he is also terribly aware of it. He radiates self-regard. His soft-spoken delivery is that of a man never used to being interrupted. But his veneer of kindliness and patience rubs off awfully quickly, the moment he is challenged. The unspoken message of his entire campaign is that he is actually above competing for the position -- it is already rightfully his, and he is accepting it as a patriotic sacrifice. 

One shouldn’t under-estimate the appeal of his displays of emotion or his paternalism (two sides of the same coin). Many Egyptians are waiting for a strong man to "take the country in hand"; they won’t bristle at the way he amalgamates the army and the state to his own person (rhetorically telling protesters and strikers: “I don’t have anything to give you!”, as if the country's budget and his own bank account were one and the same). But it is hard to gauge the field marshall's true level of support when the entire transitional period has been aggressively engineered to ensure his candidacy an aura of inevitability. 

Both Sadat and Mubarak stumbled into their jobs. El Sisi is coming to the position as a savior. This is a man who doesn't just want to be obeyed; he insists on being loved. This is a man who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room (with some cause: he has outwitted all his adversaries over the last few years).

El Sisi's recent media appearances should put to rest the delusion that there is going to be any relaxation of repression after he is elected. He has much at stake himself, and he heads a nexus of deep and powerful counter-revolutionary forces (both regional and institutional). He defended the protest law and has lectured the media about not advocating for freedom or focusing on the government’s faults. He has taken a great, so far successful, risk since June 30, 2013, but he must be well aware that if were ever to fall out of power, there is much he could be held accountable for. And given the fates of Egypt’s last two presidents, and what we’ve seen of his temperament, he seems extremely unlikely to let opposition pass. 

Bassem Youssef on Sisi's austerity program

Our friends at Industry Arabic (where you can get all your translation needs met) have translated a recent reaction by satirist Bassem Youssef (who was taken off the air recently in case he might "influence" the presidential vote) to presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El Sisi's seeming economic austerity program for the Egyptian people. 

How am I Supposed to Provide for You?

By Bassem Youssef

No sooner did I finish watching Field Marshal al-Sisi's speech to young people than I jumped out of my chair with a determination to go to the nearest gathering of doctors and dissuade them from their partial strike. Al-Sisi has managed to completely change my ideas about Egypt and its ungrateful people who just want to take and not give anything to their dear mother, Egypt.

Al-Sisi tells us in a voice replete with tenderness and affection that only a traitor or foreign agent would quibble with: "You have to give more than you take." He said that this is what he told his officers to encourage them in discharging their duties towards the people. Then he cited the lovely example of poor parents whose son graduates from university and goes on to pay them back. Al-Sisi wished that such behavior would become common.

In fact, I could use this lovely example to convince the ungrateful doctors who just ask, "What will I get from Egypt?" while not one of them stops to consider, "What will I give to Egypt?"

The ungrateful doctor studied and crammed, then went to spend his residency in remote areas, then was appointed as a physician in the Ministry of Health, spending long hours in the hospital. He is forced to chase after dispensaries and decrepit hospitals just to get enough to pay his telephone bill. The state bestows upon him an exorbitant salary, as you know. So to hell with those doctors who dare to ask for anything from Egypt.

I remember how about a year and a half ago, the Muslim Brotherhood doctors occupied the general assembly of the Doctors' Syndicate to thwart calls for a strike. At that time, both men and women occupied the seats and performed Friday prayer in their chairs – without facing the correct direction or segregating the sexes – just to guarantee that the motion to strike would be defeated. At the time, the Brotherhood's line was, "The doctors have to put up with it for the sake of Egypt" and fatwas came down declaring it impermissible to go on strike. This was back when the Brotherhood was buddy-buddy with the regime in power.

Remember this scene today because in the upcoming days the same doctors who stood against the Muslim Brotherhood are going to be accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and terrorists to boot.

Three years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood organized the "Put me to work in his place" campaign to support the Military Council against strikes and the workers' revolution.

Remember this as well, when strikes break out in the country and the media says that they're all Muslim Brotherhood members.

I changed my mind about going to the site of the strike, since it seems that the argument "What have you given to Egypt?" is not going to work with those ungrateful people.

I went back to finish al-Sisi's speech, in which he asked young people, "Before you have breakfast, did you ask yourself, 'What have I done for Egypt?'"

Hmm, ok that's a powerful question. I could go to workers' strikes in factories and drivers’ strikes in the Public Transportation Authority, and no doubt, no doubt I would find them stuffed on breakfast and the whole thing just some crybaby act to enable them to take from Egypt without giving anything.

The same person who said that Egypt will be as big as the world, in this speech tells young people – with the same tenderness – that young people should think about Egypt before they think about "when I'll get married and when I'll live."

It's as if Egypt were some virtual, mythical being that can only live on the remains of young people who have no livelihood, who don't think about marriage, and who don't have breakfast until they have thought about how to offer themselves up as a sacrifice to this mythological being.

I understand al-Sisi's speech very well. He is encouraging young people not to be selfish, to respect the value of altruism, and to consider that their actions reflect on the country. All this is very nice. However, I wonder: Who is al-Sisi directing his words at? Is he directing them at young people who can't get married or is he directing them at beaten-down workers and unemployed people who don't have the luxury of having breakfast before thinking about Egypt?

Al-Sisi poses the question: "Have any of us considered walking to our university or place of work in order to do help the country save?"

Actually, that's a genius solution to reduce pollution in Cairo. However, practically speaking, does al-Sisi realize that there are people living in Badrashin, Qalyoub and Bashteel who work or study in central Cairo? If the Egyptian people go along with this noble logic, will Cabinet ministers and army officers and generals follow suit, and we'll all do without cars and public transport? Or are we going to count on the poor embarking on this daily exercise on our behalf? This is of course after they go without breakfast because they have a guilt complex that they haven't done anything for Egypt.

This austerity discourse is not new for us. Before al-Sisi it was Mubarak who was makin us sick with his famous sayings, such as: "How am I supposed to provide for you?" Now it's al-Sisi telling us: "Health insurance? Ok but from where?" "Work? Ok but how?" Must we really do wrong by a whole generation or two (or so he says) so that the others survive? We don't even know who these others are! Are they what's left of the people after the next thirty years of injustice (two generations, that is) or are they the ones in the circles of power who wreck the state budget with exorbitant salaries, commissions and allowances – and then we go to the workers and doctors and tell them there's "nothing left"?

Does al-Sisi's economic program revolve around "Put up with it," "Tighten your belts" and "Practice austerity"?

If that's his program, he should direct it at state institutions and not young people and citizens. If ordinary citizens practiced austerity, then you would destroy purchasing power in the country and cause an economic depression.

During the Great Depression, instead of America tightening its belt and calling on citizens to go even hungrier than they were already, Rockefeller and the other captains of American industry pumped large amounts of money into the economy using state facilities, in order to undertake the largest rebuilding effort in North America.

Recessions and inflation are not fixed by belt-tightening but by encouraging citizens and investors to circulate their money in the market. Austerity is something applied to state spending – and it goes much further than a resolution banning mineral water at Cabinet meetings.

Before al-Sisi went and asked us "What have you given Egypt?" maybe it would have been better to ask this question of the army's economic establishments, which control a vast portion of the country's economy without any real accountability or tax liability – through which Egypt could collect its due from those who really did take what they wanted.

Austerity "and that's it" isn't a solution. "Belt-tightening" policies do not build the economies of nations. Nations are built by a healthy climate for investment and job creation, fair taxes for everyone (I repeat, everyone) and an environment that is suitable for attracting capital, by guaranteeing disclosure and transparency – even on the part of the army's economic institutions. But labels like "reducing spending" and "saving" only apply to publicly-funded institutions. If you want to abolish subsidies, then disqualify the rich, the affluent and the factories – all of whom are charged the same rates for electricity as the poor. We need to try that before we consider asking Egyptians working abroad to donate a month's salary or before we try to impose a levy on them in the form of a tax or through sentimental words.

Mr. Field Marshal, Egypt's sons abroad have previously tried to contribute to the country through educational or development project, but many of them went back abroad, either because of corruption, bureaucracy or political inflexibility. And Mr. Field Marshal, the media has treated anyone with a second nationality or even any Egyptian who has lived abroad as a traitor or foreign agent until proven otherwise.

What's strange is that the media that gobbled up the expression "As big as the world" nods its head in approval when listening to claims about belt-tightening, "We'll put up with it" and Egypt's dire conditions. And yet this is the same media that mocked Morsi and Hisham Qandil and their ilk when they spoke about wearing cotton clothing to cope better with the heat and closing shops at night to save electricity. Now, however, the media is the one calling on the people to wake up at five in the morning to go to work. But it seems they didn't catch what al-Sisi said: "People want work, ok but from where?"

The people are not a burden on the nation; they're human potential that needs to be put to use.

Egypt is not some entity that is separate from us and that needs to feed off of us, whereby we die that this entity may live. Egypt is the young people who want to get married and live; Egypt is the worker who wants a humane salary; Egypt is the doctor who wants a dignified existence in order to serve Egypt's ill – who themselves deserve decent health care.

Egypt is "us." Egypt isn't state institutions that are shielded from disclosure, accountability and tax audits under the pretext of national security, while the simple people austerely walk to university or their job (if they have one) and don't think about when they'll get married or how they'll live.

Is this the economic program that the country can expect? More of "Have patience," "How am I supposed to provide for you?" and "Well you see, it's because there's so many of you and you just keep increasing."

It might succeed, who knows. Let's ask the average citizen about the effects of such a program after several years, and I'm sure that he will answer you very cheerily as he thinks about the country before partaking of a non-existent breakfast, and he'll smile at you in satisfaction as he tightens his belt on what remains of his skeleton.

 

 

Egypt in TV

Another entry in our contributor Nour Youssef's avidly followed Egypt in TV column. 

"El Sisi just doesn’t want to disclose any information about his plans. He is not stupid. He is smarter than you and your father," the red-faced, middle-aged woman seated next to me in a restaurant told her son, who coolly alternated between sipping Pepsi and asking if she was done talking, provoking her to throw dripping straws in his face.

What caused the fight across the table was a discussion of the nearly four-hours-long interview Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave Lamis el-Hadidi and Ibrahim Eissa on CBC last week, where he repeatedly expressed love, admiration, respect and all things synonymous for the straw-thrower’s demographic.

"(I don’t want) anyone to get me wrong, but I love the Egyptian woman," he told Ibrahim Eissa, who wanted to know why the Marshal’s metaphors are always related to or directed at women. This followed el-Sisi’s request for caution from the public while choosing their representatives in parliament and the president -- the same caution an Egyptian mother exercises when checking the backgrounds of her daughter's suitors.

To be fair, el-Sisi’s flattery was not limited to women. The rest of the population is also exceptionally smart and more patient than any other nation.

When not complimenting the population, el-Sisi ducked numerous questions -- literally. Questions about the nature of his policy towards Hamas and Qatar were met with a lowered head and a close-lipped smile. And when he depended on words to answer questions, the Marshal made certain that they were so vague that I had to re-watch segments of the interview multiple times to make sure I was not missing some vital transitions that would put things in order and reassure voters about our future president's attention span.

When they asked about the weapons deal with Russia and whether or not the next parliament will monitor the military and its budget, el-Sisi dispensed words about "leaving the army alone." After a long pause, he said: "The army is a very great institution, to an extent that Egyptians can't imagine. God willing all of Egypt could be at that level." The two journalists sitting across from him smilingly accepted his answer without further questions.

In a separate group interview, questions continued to bounce off el-Sisi. When Rola Kharsa asked him to explain to the upset people who think January 25 is a conspiracy why anyone should be nice to January 25 activists and supporters, he answered by saying that he was summoned by the public to intervene on July 3 and complied despite not wanting to and that he has values and principles, which he has an annoying habit of honoring regardless of what they cost him, and the public will just have to live with this. He then went on to talk about the public's lack of trust, which Kharsa and the rest of the media should counter, adding that he looks at all Egyptians with love.

"I think that any leader in any position who doesn't (foster young leaders) so they are ready to work for the future," is doing the homeland, and not just the youth, a disservice, the Marshal said in response to Youssef el-Husseini's question about how he will deal with and contain the potentially-growing heterogeneous group of angry people who dislike the government (a sentiment that is understandable, he argued, given that the media often defames and attacks groups without evidence, as was the case of April 6). 

The unveiling of el-Sisi’s short term plan to help the poor via the provision of considerably cheaper frozen meat, however, was saved for the CBC interview.

The meat, he claims, arrives in Egypt with a price tag of 30 pounds. Yet the meat is sold at a price of 60 or more. What el-Sisi plans to do is ask investors to lower it to 40. If they refuse, "Egypt will make them." Once markets come into existence, like that of el-Obour where prices are reasonable, and he will arrange for say one thousand pickup trucks that will travel to the countryside to purchase vegetables and fruits and then transport them to market at lower prices, thereby providing the good to the consumers and forcing the uncooperative investors to lower their prices.

This is also part of his solution to unemployment. After all, these trucks are not going to drive themselves. They are going to need a young man to drive them and two others to assist. Anyway, even if that fails, he intends to give young people some land to farm, solving the problem.

As for the energy crisis, el-Sisi intends to encourage the public to conserve and buy energy efficient lights, which will save us 4000 megawatts of the 6000 we consume for lighting households. But these light bulbs el-Sisi speaks of have been available in Egypt for years and can only save up to 1500, according to the Ministry of Electricity itself. These 4000 mostly non-existent megawatts will then be redirected to industry, saving fuel and money, he told his kind hosts. His rival Hamdeen Sabbahi's interviews were much more prone to interrupting him, but he still insisted on making the following point in response to the accusation that he was too close to the Brotherhood: “I refused to be vice president under Morsi. Your candidate accepted (the position of) defense minister under Morsi."

The rest of el-Sisi’s economic plan include guilting Egyptians abroad into donating money, effusively thanking the Gulf monarchies for their help so far, and carrying out the very same Suez Canal Development Project that the MB tried to do and was mercilessly attacked for it (and accused of plagiarizing it from the Mubarak regime) around this time just last year.

One thing has changed since last year though. Now when TV host Amr Adeeb wants to yell, he warns his viewers ("I'm very angry so you had better lower your TV volume," he says around minute 7). 

The reason for that outburst was the Foreign Minister's statement about the relationship between the US and Egypt being more like "like a marriage, not a fling." 

"Why are you cheapening Egypt this way, ya Nabeel?" Adeeb bellowed before asking the obvious question: "And who wears the pants in this relationship? After a moment of hurt silence, he said: "Whoever pays."

While on the subject of sex, it is worth mentioning that Tamer Ameen thinks nonmarital sex is not happening in Egypt. Ameen's tantrum was provoked by a commercial for condoms on what he deemed to be a "respectful channel."

“Is there a husband who uses a condom with his wife?” he asked, incredulously. The commercial is, he decided, clearly advocating promiscuity since only unmarried couples require contraception and protection from STDS, making it one of the causes of sexual harassment because it reminds viewers of their genitalia and their intended purpose. “Censorship, then censorship and then censorship! This country’s people need to be protected.”

The last but certainly not least tantrum of late was by Mo'taz el-Demerdash, who threw it at a pissed off teacher called Samia, being interviewed on the street. Angered by the decision to ban April 6 and by her best students leaving the country for the better life Egypt cannot provide, Madam Samia felt the need to vent and seized the opportunity to tell el-Hayah’s reporter that the media is full of lies, something the host, el-Demerdash, took personally. "Honey, you cannot monopolize patriotism and love for this country, we all love this country!" he yelled over her, after arguing that "If (they) are all liars, how come (he is) allowing you to say that on air?" The fight ended with him inviting her to join him in the studio later. Presumably to yell at her some more.