Monday, January 08, 2007


Samir is nervous, and a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. 26, with thinning hair and a well trimmed beard, Samir is looking to get married, but he just can't pull the trigger. Week after week he goes and visits potential brides. Someone in the neighborhood calls and tells Samir they have a girl for him to meet, one who is respectable, good looking, age-appropriate. Something is wrong with every one of them. This one isn't pretty enough. That one talks to much. The other one's family asks too many questions or the wrong kinds of questions. Sometimes Samir likes a girl at first, but later he sees the problems. He has agreed to several engagements, only to break them soon after when he detects a fatal flaw. It is a process that has continued for months. Samir just can't find the right one. Or maybe he can't afford the right one.

Getting married is a real disaster here. "The problem," he says, "is that if you want to marry a girl from a good family, you have to pay a lot of money." He struggles for the words, looks down in a sign of embarrassment, looks back up at me again. "And I haven't got a lot of money." The importance of money in marriage in Egypt isn't the unspoken, undiscussed, ever-central backdrop to all romantic encounters that it is in America. Here, it is an issue out in the open. When a man wants to get engaged, he has to pay thousands of pounds (sometimes dollars) to his bride, the equivalent of a dowry. He also has to have enough money to rent or buy an apartment and furnish it. In Cairo, a city of 20 million fit for perhaps half that number, real estate prices are sky rocketing and long ago became out of reach for almost all men in their 20s, and many in their 30s. Men can remain engaged for years as they struggle to earn enough money to afford the necessary items. It is this reality more than anything else that is responsible for the petty corruption - teachers that demand their students take private lessons, government officials that require small 'tips' to get paper work filled out - that most Careens comes across on a daily basis. People are struggling just to get by. They are also horny, and with little sex (none, officially) before marriage, life can truly be a struggle.

Samir, however, thinks he has a solution, at least for himself, and unfortunately, it involves me. "Reuben, I want you to introduce me to an American girl." Samir's idea is fool-proof. All he wants is an introduction. Samir is studying for his master's degree in Arabic, and he wants to learn English, so a language exchange would be the best way to set things up, he tells me. Ideas swirl in my head. Believe it or not, Samir is not the first Egyptian to approach me with such a proposal. Believe it or not, I haven't had a single female friend approach me because she can't find a poor Egyptian to marry her. How to extricate myself from the situation delicately? I start with religion.

Samir is Muslim, like 90 percent of Egypt's population, and almost all of my American female friends are Christian. "The problem, Samir, is that all of my friends are Christian, and I'm sure you want to marry a Muslim." "That's no problem," Samir shoots back. I'm sitting at a restaurant with Samir and two of his friends, and the three of them burst into laughter at the speed of Samir's retort. It's clear he's thought about it before. "She can convert to Islam later."

"I'll see what I can do," I promise. Of course, he wants the exchange to be with a woman. We exchange numbers. I say again that I will see what I can do. I hope he isn't waiting by the phone.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cops not in charge

“Get out of the cab! Get out of the cab! Get out of the cab!”
I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened. Evening had set on downtown Cairo and a crisp breeze blew as a policemen dressed in black screamed and grabbed at an enraged cab driver. The taxicab was stopped in the middle of the road at the northwest corner of the massive Tahrir Circle, 100 yards from the American University and the massive government administrative building, The Mugamba. The corner is generally an insane mass of bodies; it has become a de facto bus stop, and pedestrians wade two and three lanes into the four-lane thoroughfare to catch the overcrowded buses that occasionally slowdown for potential passengers. Cabs weave through the mass, horns blaring and occasionally stop to pick up their own passengers, then speed off.

But the fight that was breaking out was beyond the ordinary mayhem. “What have I done?! What have I done?!” The cab driver screamed. I crowd quickly formed. “Just tell me what I’ve done!!”

The policeman snapped back: “Give me your license! I’ll tell you what you’ve done when you get out of the cab! Turn off the motor! Look! Look! A crowd is forming! Just get out of the cab!”

As the crowd grew to perhaps 20 people, myself included, the fight continued and the volume grew. Neither side seemed to be giving in. At one point the policeman looked as if he was about to slug the driver. The driver remained adamant – he was not getting out. Many in the crowd grew bored of the scene and returned to lazily looking off in the distance for their own bus.

Suddenly, the policeman let go of the cabbie, walked a few steps away and began talking on his cell phone. Calling for backup, no doubt. One of the onlookers turned to the driver who by this point was past furious, “just get out of here.” A second agreed, and a third.

The driver started his motor again and the policeman turned, but something had changed. “What are doing?” He asked, but did not yell. The officer’s voice had grown weary, and there was little fight in his posture as we walked towards the stopped car. Instead of responding, the cabbie put his foot on the gas, and sped off.

What just happened? Such a scene is unfathomable in the American context. What had the driver done? How could the cop have just let him go?

I scratched my head, shrugged by shoulders and waved down a cab for myself. “Agousa?” I asked the driver (In Cairo, cabs can choose to pick you up or not as they please. You thus have to tell the driver where you are going and they decide whether you get a ride). He accepted my destination and I jumped in.

The policeman rushed over.

“Can you pull over to the side please,” the officer asked as he stood directly in front of my stopped cab. “Over to the right please, thank you.”

My driver did as he was told, but grew noticeably uneasy.

“Give me your license,” the officer asked.


“Give me your license!!”

“Why? What have I done??”

The scene began again, only this time I was in the middle of it.

“You’re not allowed to stop here! Give me your license.”

At this, the cab driver loses it.

“What are you talking up?? Cabs always stop here!! I didn’t even stop, I just picked up a passenger and now we’re ready to go!!” This is ridiculous! Look at all the people here!!

“Turn off the engine! I’m calling for help! Give me your license! Get out of the car!”

Another crowd gathers. ‘Oh jeez” I think, and inch to get out of the cab. What do I do? Take the driver’s side? Cabs always stop here, whatever the law is. Hail another cab to make a point? Walk away?

One of the onlookers joins the fight, “Look! He’s a foreigner!” he says pointing towards me. “Look how confused he looks! Just let them go.”

And then, just as it seems a fistfight is going to break out, the cop gets on his phone, the driver starts his engine again, a second onlooker suggests I get back in, and the cabbie and I speed off.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A long-term problem

The Egyptian government released the results of a survey today that asked Egyptians to give their views of a number of foreign countries. The findings should give pause to anyone who thinks democracy in the Middle East and a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian regional peace accord will go hand in hand.

As the reporter Ahmed Muhammad writes in The Egyptian Today, “Despite the diplomatic efforts and official discussions of peace in the region, popular opinion still sees Israel as either an enemy country.” The official figure finds that 92 percent of Egyptians put Israel into one of two categories that I can only translate as “enemy country” and “very enemy country.” This result comes as we near the 25th anniversary of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accords were signed at Camp David. In the poll, America comes in as the fourth most hated, with 56 percent considering the United States an enemy. One can look at that figure as surprisingly low given our invasion of Iraq and support for an embargo on the Palestinian territories that will shrink the Palestinian economy about 50 percent in the next year. Regardless, the survey paints a grim picture of what Egyptian-Israeli relations will look like the day a popularly elected Egyptian government takes power.

And, have no doubt. That day is coming. It will not happen this year, but it will in my lifetime.

The clash between the Egyptian government and the people is not only taking place in the parliament. It is taking place in the streets and the universities as well. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, like Hamas in the Occupied Territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon is not just a political party. Its members can be found in labor unions, on universities and in the courts. “If the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to perform a coup, they could,” an Egyptian friend told me. “They’re everywhere, in the police, in the army, it would be easy, if they wanted to.” I admit it is a claim that I cannot confirm or refute. But there is little question that the Egyptian government is facing, or at least believes it is facing, increasing pressure, and it has been fighting back.

Last week members of a national workers union were harassed by police forces as they tried to vote in union elections. Many were detained. The reason was their affiliation with the brotherhood. This week, fighting broke out over student council elections in several of Egypt’s state universities over the same issue. Yesterday Anwar Sadat’s nephew, a member of parliament until his arrest last month, was found guilty of slander after he claimed publicly that the military and foreign governments had conspired to assassinate his uncle. [Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt until he was assassinated in 1981 during a military procession. He had signed the Camp David peace accords just a few years earlier].

This is not to say that Egypt is on the verge of a civil war. There has been no revolution in Egypt in more than half a century. The Muslim Brotherhood swears off violence in Egypt and has shown no sign of changing its tact.

But the long term issue raised above remains. Egypt has an economy about twice the size of Israel’s (300 billion USD compared to about 150 billion USD) and a growth rate that is roughly the same. Currently Israel spends about 5 times more on its military, but that could certainly change. What will happen when the opinions of 78 million Egyptians are final taken into account?

That day is coming.

[You may be thinking, ‘Wait a minute, the US is only the fourth most hated country in Egypt? Who are numbers two and three?’ In second was Denmark – for the caricatures of the prophet Muhammad – and in third was Britain. Go figure]

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Muslim Brotherhood Part II

Mohammad el-Sharqawi was first arrested in late April during a protest that criticized Egypt's government. The rally was one of many that Sharqawi had attended over the lack of judicial independence in Egypt. He was imprisoned for a month, then released on May 23 with instructions to avoid all protests. He chose to ignore the advice. Just two days later, he was back on the street, taking part in a rally demanding the abolishment of prison sentences for journalists who "commit libel" against the Egyptian government. Sharqawi was immediately arrested, taken to a police station and tortured, physically and sexually. Sharqawi's lawyer Gamal Eid said that when he finally was able to see his client, about 12 hours after the initial arrest, the lacerations and bruises on his clients face made him unrecognizable. When Eid tried to take out a camera, a guard knocked the camera out of his hand. Sharqawi was then kept in prison for 2 months (Under Egypt's emergency laws, the prosecutor can hold prisoners for up to 15 days without charge. That 15 day sentence, however, can be renewed indefinitely). Sharqawi was refused sufficient medical treatment, and his lawyer believes he was kept in prison in part to allow the worst of the wounds to heal before pictures could be taken.

The day after his arrest, as news reports surfaced, America responded with an official complaint, but little more. Sharqawi's case symbolizes the democracy struggle here in Egypt: For all of president Bush's promises back in 2004 to bring freedom to the Middle East, advocates for change in Cairo are today almost entirely on their own.

Sharqawi's is not an isolated case. The top opposition candidate from the 2005 national election was arrested soon after those elections and has been in jail now for more than a year. The editor of one of the most popular opposition papers, Ibrahim Essa, along with two reporters were recently sentenced to a year in jail for "insulting" the president in an article. In June the government ordered two US-based democracy NGOs to stop their work in Egypt. The list goes on. America's complaints are few. One person I spoke with who has had contact with senior members of the Bush administration said that he had been told directly by those officials that pressure would not be brought to bare on Egypt's government to curb its abuses or reform its electoral laws.

The reason is not that America loves Egypt's current regime. It is because America fears what could, and ultimately would come if activists like Sharqawi get what they want. Sharqawi is 24 years old and a second year college student. His lawyer describes him as a secularist. If there were truly open elections in Egypt, people like Sharqawi would lose. Instead, the winners would probably be followers of Muhammad Akef.

Muhammad Akef is the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, an organization that has widespread support here. The Brotherhood is officially band, as are all parties based on religion, but it's existence is tolerated. Members of parliament affiliated with the Brotherhood are technically independents, but everyone knows their affiliation, and in major newspapers, they are referred to as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. You can walk the back streets of Cairo and find posters pasted on the side of buildings with the slogan "Islam is the answer." You can talk to people in coffee shops and in electronics stores, and they will tell you openly that they support the Muslim Brotherhood. You can look at the parliament and see that the MB has more members than any other opposition block (it holds about 20 percent of the seats) and know that the the party's power is real.

The MB is an organization in transition. The group has renounced violence in Egypt (not in Israel) and before the Lebanon war had launched a concerted campaign to make itself less scary to a western audience. The group has promised non-Muslims equal rights within a Muslim state. It has also condemned the kidnapping of Jill Carroll and Christian peace activists in Iraq. For these activities and others, Al Qaeda recently denounced the MB as a tool of America. Despite this effort, the groups success in the national elections last year are one of the main reasons that the US has backed off pressuring Mubarak's government to reform. 100s of MB members were arrested during protests against the Lebanon war with hardly a peep from the US government. The primary complaint that the United States has about the MB is that they do not recognize Israel. If they came to power, the Camp David accords would be severed, and the largest Arab state would most likely rejoin the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What the Bush administration truly fears is not just Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. It is a general rise in Islamism that is happening throughout the Muslim world: Iran is ruled by an Islamic government. Hezbollah (Party of God") in Lebanon is seen as the champion of Arab nationalism. Hamas ("The Movement for Islamic Resistence") is now the majority party in the Palestinian parliament. And in Iraq, in free and fair elections, the people chose Islamists to run their state. In this regional context, America has little interest in seeing a freer Egypt emerge. The Sharqawis are thus being left to fend for themselves.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Muslim Brotherhood I

In February 2005, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak promised that the country's upcoming presidential elections would for the first time allow opposition candidates to run. The announcement was a surprise and one that was seen by many as a vindication of America's policy in the Middle East. On the heels of the Iraq war, it appeared that democracy was spreading. Palestinian elections were scheduled for 2006. Soon thousands of Lebanese would take to the streets demanding that Syrian troops leave Lebanese soil. President Bush's promise of a democratic revival seemed to be taking form.

But what Egypt's 2005 elections revealed was a picture not to the Bush administration's liking. The people had announced their preference proudly and clearly. Their preference was for the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite widespread accusations of voter fraud and intimidation, the MB won 88 seats in Egypt's parliament, or about 20 percent, becoming by far the largest opposition block. Their achievement was particularly impressive given that the party had only fielded just over 100 candidates in an effort not to "frighten" the ruling National Democratic Party. In a result that would be repeated several months later in the Palestinian territories, it was clear that if America was going to support true democracy in the Middle East, it would have to accept a popularly elected Islamic party, not a secular one.

What is the Muslim Brotherhood? For starters, it's is a group that believes that Muslims should live in a society where Islamic law is the law of the land. But in recent years the organization, like Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, has also whole-heartedly embraced democracy as a means of gaining power. Unlike Hizbollah and Hamas, the MB in Egypt has no military branch and has sworn off violence to achieve political ends (at least in Egypt). In June I attended a protest against new laws that would restrict freedom of the press. The American ambassador did not attend, but a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was there, busy railing against the new government censorship and giving interviews to anyone who would talk with him. When the Judges' Syndicate has protested state encroachment of judicial independence, the MB has stood with them in solidarity. The MB opposes the war in Iraq (as does the Egyptian government) and does not recognize Israel (the Egyptian government does) but in almost every other way, it appears that the MB shares America's stated desires for reform in Egypt. In press interviews, MB leaders have stated that within a Muslim Egypt, minorities would be allowed to worship as they like. Christians might be allowed to drink in private. Before the Lebanon war, there was even talk that the MB, if it came to power, might not cancel the Camp David accords. (Such talk ended during the war. At one point during the conflict, an MB spokesman said the organization was prepared to send 10,000 mujahideen to fight in Lebanon against the Israelis. It is a statement the organization has been backpedaling from ever since, especially considering such a move would violate Egyptian law). The big question, of course, is whether or not the MB would stick by the liberal promises it has made if it ever gained power

In mid-August, I returned to Egypt for four days, a short stop between trips from the US and to Eastern Europe. While I was back, I attended what was billed in a newspaper advertisement as a conference "in solidarity with Lebanon." The ad had been placed on the front page of The Egyptian Today, and announced that there would be two speakers, both professors, at an outdoor event at Cairo University's Menial campus. I decided to attend. What I found was not what I had expected. The journalist's protest I had attended included perhaps 200 demonstrators. The "lecture" I arrived at included thousands. The event was outdoors and the crowd was so large that a projector was set up 60 yards from the podium so that all the attendees could watch the speakers on a large screen. The place was packed. At the entrance of the park was a paved path that led back towards the Nile, which provided the far border of the area. The crowd itself was perhaps 40 yards wide. To keep things orderly, young men standing arm-in-arm stood between the path and the crowd, so that people could enter and move to the back. Each wore a black headband that read in white print "All of us are with you, Lebanon." As I waded to the back, and then around to the other side, I quickly realized this was not on ordinary lecture. As I arrived, the speaker and the crowd were engaged in a call and response. "God is Great," called the man at the lecturn. "God is Great!" boomed the crowd all around me. The next call and response was too difficult to make out. The first part was "Ya Yehud, Ya Yehud," ("Jews, Jews") and the second part included something about attacking Tel Aviv. It didn't quite rhyme. There were also chants for Hassan Nassrallah, Hezbollah's leader. It was only once I was on the other side of the crowd that I saw the large Muslim Brotherhood banner attached to the fence behind the lectern. I turned to a member of the crowd:

"How did all these people know about this event?" I asked. The man gave me a suspicious look.

"How does anyone learn about an event? Where are you from?"

I had not been prepared for his cold demeanor. "Canada," I responded.

"So how do people learn about an event in Canada?" He asked.

"Um, friends, advertisements," I said sheepishly.

"It's the same here." Then he hesitated for a moment. "Everyone here is Muslim Brotherhood," he said in a hushed voice.

A man on my other side, over six feet, thin, bearded and with piercing eyes, turned to me and asked in perfect English, "Where are you from in Canada?" His English was disarming. I said Vancouver. He asked me for my name. Reuben Johnson, I responded.

"That's in British Columbia, do you speak French?" He asked.

"No," I said, the crowd all around me.

"I thought everyone in Canada spoke French."

"Um, I think that's only in the Eastern part," I said nervously. He knows I'm lying, I thought. No one else seemed to be paying attention. I shot back awkwardly: "Do you know where the garbage is?" I had bought a piece of corn earlier, and throwing out the rind would now be my escape valve. He pointed towards the back, I turned around and fled.

If I had any doubts about whether or not a Muslim Brotherhood government would break relations with Israel, those doubts were erased by my mid-August experience. But while MB anger over Israel's war with Lebanon is real, so is the anger of the Arab street over the war. The real question is whether one only supports democracy if the result is America-fIendly policies. In my next entry, I'll explain how the American government has made it clear that it prefers the autocracy it knows in Egypt to the democracy it does not.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Nasrallah Rises

I apologize for the long break. I hope it will be my last for several months. I spent the last two weeks on vacation in Budapest and Vienna, and decided that I should not comment on Egyptian politics from afar.
Not It Girl posted a note on my previous entry that read, “Cairo is a state of mind.” I think she’s right. I was certainly back in Cairo before I was, literally, back in Cairo. My spiritual arrival occurred on the pleasantly cool tarmac of Italy’s Aeroporti di Roma. Through the magic of Expedia, I was able to fly from Egypt on Budapest and back for only 400 dollars, but because there are no direct flights between the capitals, I was forced to transfer planes in Rome. As one can imagine, there isn’t much of an ‘Arab feel’ to a Budapest-Rome flight. The Rome-Cairo flight is, of course, another story. It was on the bus from Terminal C to Alitalia’s Airbus A320 that, mentally, I arrived back in Egypt. The bus was filled with Arabs, gesturing, talking loudly and excitedly in a way that is foreign to your average American or European traveler. And it was at this moment, as the Bus’s engine revved, that the two Egyptians to my right began discussing Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

I came in on the conversation as the two were discussing the problem of American Jews. The younger one, with a full head of hair and a well-kept suit, informed his older, balder, more disheveled friend that he had worked for some time in the ritzy resort towns of the Sinai, where many Israelis go for vacation. The problem with the Jews, he said, is that all of them have two passports, one American and one Israeli. The two men quickly agreed that there was no difference between an American Jew and an Israeli Jew.

The topic then changed to the war in Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah, the older one said, was changing the world. America and the Jews were on the run, and perhaps the Jews would finally be pushed into the sea. Certainly, they agreed, there would be no real peace, until that happened.

During hostage crises, psychologists have noticed that many prisoners become attached to and identify with their captors, a phenomenon now known as Stockholm Syndrome. This condition is the only explanation for my initial response to such blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric. “Ahh,” I thought, “I’m back in Egypt!” The constant trashing of Israel and America that I had grown so tired of by late July was suddenly putting an ironic smile on my face. Here we go again, I thought eagerly.

The two Egyptians I stood next to are hardly alone in their hopes that Nasrallah is here to save the day. Once, that figure was Saddam Hussein, taunting the West in 1991 and refusing to give in, even under harsh sanctions. Today though, it is unquestionable that Saddam ultimately lost to America and Israel. Nasrallah has now taken his place as the stoic Arab, fighting for the Arab cause. Two weeks ago, a weekly independent magazine here included a free copy of a Nasrallah poster with every copy. Egyptians everywhere are having their spirits buoyed by the hope that Hezbollah’s ‘victory’ will be less superficial than Saddam’s was.

In a poll conducted by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, it was found that Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s baby-faced, soft-spoken, straight-talking leader was considered more “important” than any other leader in the Middle East. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came in second. The first head of an Arab state to appear on the poll was Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, coming in 11th. The chairman of the center, Saad Edin Ibrahim, wrote about the poll in the Washington Post:

The pattern here is clear, and it is Islamic. And among the few secular public figures who made it into the top 10 are Palestinian Marwan Barghouti (31 percent) and Egypt's Ayman Nour (29 percent), both of whom are prisoners of conscience in Israeli and Egyptian jails, respectively. None of the current heads of Arab states made the list of the 10 most popular public figures. While subject to future fluctuations, these Egyptian findings suggest the direction in which the region is moving. The Arab people do not respect the ruling regimes, perceiving them to be autocratic, corrupt and inept. They are, at best, ambivalent about the fanatical Islamists of the bin Laden variety. More mainstream Islamists with broad support, developed civic dispositions and services to provide are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon."

My next entry will be on my thoughts on the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Down for repairs

Cairo Dispatch will reopen September 6th, when classes resume. I am spending this month out of Egypt, and thus am trying to be faithful to the notion that Cairo dispatches should all be written from Cairo.