Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dispatch on break

I'm back in the states on vacation. Please check back in around August 10th for more Cairo dispatches.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hoping for rebirth

My last post was quite grim, as those on war tend to be. Reading The Egyptian Today, I found a small story from Lebanon that was a little more uplifting. It’s only a short blurb on the back page of the 14-page daily, next to a 4X2 inch picture of a man holding a baby. The man is wearing a brown button down with the top button undone, his black hair gelled, his face looking down as if to watch his step, to avoid dropping something precious. His baby is newly born, almost bald, and, most importantly, alive. She’s wrapped in a pink blanket, maybe she’s sleeping. The title is “Life continues,” and the blurb reads:

In the midst of the bombings of war undertaken by Israel against Lebanon, and under the raining missiles, this child was born in one of Saida’s suburbs, and thus: Children die and others are born…And life continues.

Here’s hoping that that baby and her counterparts in Israel grow up in a more peaceful world.

A couple clarifications on my last post:

The term “The Arab Street,” is one of the most overused clichés in Middle East analysis. It is essentially shorthand for public opinion, but unlike public opinion in America, it is rarely measured accurately. Because it is hard to get solid data on what people think in the region, analysts refer to ‘The Arab Street,” and then make a claim that is generally impossible to either falsify or prove. Like everyone else, I’m just guessing from anecdotal evidence. When I say “The Arab Street,” I’m referring to Arab Muslims who live in North Africa and the Middle East. Within that community – which comprises the vast majority of the population of the Middle East – there is little debate about the current conflict. But in minority communities, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some disagree with the dominant narrative of events. I have heard anecdotally from friends that some Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have very different attitudes on the Palestinian conflict in general. A friend of mine living in Israel also mentioned that she had met an Israeli Druze who was extremely supportive of Israel’s current incursions. The Druze community in Lebanon has also been more reserved in its criticism of Israel, and the sect’s political leader in Beirut, Walid Jumblatt, has accused Hizbollah of acting as a state within a state during the current conflict. He has continuously blamed Hizbollah for instigating Israel, and has demanded that the militant organization disarm and abide by Lebanese law. Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community is also no friend of Hizbollah or the Palestinian struggle. Thus, there is some disagreement about what is going on in Southern Lebanon today, and I should have mentioned that. But the debate and the counter currents should not be overemphasized. Last night, on the popular Al Jazeera debate program “The Opposite Direction,” the shows audience was asked to vote on the internet as to whether or not Arab governments are currently selling out the Arab cause in Lebanon. Of the 10,000 votes cast, over 95 percent agreed with that sentiment.

Also, I should have provided more information on the montage of Palestinian death on Syrian state TV. I have no reason to believe that many, or any, of the images in the montage were filmed during the current Israeli-Lebanese conflict. All of the clips could have been from yesterday or 5 years ago. Thanks for the comment Simon. You’re right, there’s no way to know whether or not those images are all the result of Israeli fire or not. I could probably do some research and talk to a Syrian government official, but I don’t think their confirmation would be sufficient (I hope the sarcasm is apparent). Another friend, playing devil’s advocate, asked how I could even be sure that the images weren’t staged. I think that question pushes the point too far. Even ‘high budget’ Egyptian films have terrible special affects, and the fake blood that is used in Egyptian programs and movies is obviously fake. It is hard to believe Syria would have a much better special effects team. However, Al Jazeera for the most part has a good reputation for looking into the violence it shows on its screens. During the current conflict, I have not heard any vociferous complaints from Israeli officials on the body counts being put out by the Lebanese government. Instead, Israel has focused on Hizbollah’s willingness to hide among the population and the inevitable civilian casualties that result from smoking out such insurgents (Israel calls them terrorists).

The central point of my last post was to explain what the Arab world is seeing right now when they watch the news, and the visceral reaction that so much blood must be producing. Still, I should have been clearer about the uncertain origins of the montage.

Monday, July 24, 2006


The first thing that you realize when watching Arab news is how much, well, more real it is than what we see in the West. I’ve heard wars include killing people, that people return maimed, that kids die, families are torn apart, things like that. But if you watch CNN, Fox News or any other American station, most of the time it’s hard to know. Blown up buildings get lots of airtime. Blown off faces do not. Something about “standards of decency.” In the Arab world, on Arab TV, such standards do not exist. You can’t go a half hour without seeing a crying child or a body half-clothed heading into an ambulance. Al Jazeera is known in the West in part for its bloody content, but it’s nothing compared to Al-Manar, the Hizbollah-funded television station that, despite Israel’s bombing of its headquarters, has managed to stay on the air.
One of the major issues that the Bush administration has with Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets is their willingness to show such bloody images. Such a policy, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has argued, essentially works to arouse the Arab populace against America and Israel. Airing those images is thus something close to propaganda. And, of course, he’s right, to a certain extent. When Al-Manar airs dead civilians, it’s trying to gain support for its parent company’s goals. The same goes for Syrian or Libyan state television. But of course, the reality is that there is more blood being spilt on the Arab side of these conflicts (Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank) than on the non-Arab side, and thus, the facts are a little biased. Reality is what it is.

Syrian state television is offering particularly bloody coverage of the war. Even when the facts are biased, Syrian TV is going to be more biased than the facts. The Syrian government is one of the many in the Arab world that does not have relations with Israel, a fact that has deeply hurt its relationship with the US. That’s bad for business (The US has sanctions right now on Syria primarily because of their support for Hizbollah) but occasionally good for domestic support. While Egypt, with its strong ties with Israel, is in a bigger bind every day that hostilities continue, Syria, a country that does not recognize Israel, can gain politically from glorifying the Palestinian struggle and reminding the Syrian street where its government stands on the matter. There is no debate on the Arab street about whether or not the current Israeli incursions are justified. They simply are not. It’s an article of faith.

I decided to check out the quality of the state-funded propaganda of Syria’s television station. I hoped to find something funny, like embarrassingly low budget tribute videos to the country’s president, Bashaar Al-Asad. What I found was not funny.

When I turn to Syrian TV, there is a 10-minute montage to the Palestinian struggle running. What I find affects me, and I want to share that experience, but words are a poor substitute for pictures. The montage may have been a lot longer than 10 minutes, but after 10 minutes, I decided to change the channel. The montage was making me want to vomit. Israeli munitions may be incredibly precise, and the country may never target civilians, but it has managed to kill and maim enough children anyway to allow for some pretty unbelievable images. What they show on Syrian TV is of course biased, but it’s all, well, real. It’s hard to argue with reality, at least when you first see it. Reality becomes much more subjective down the road. A little later you can discuss if Israel is just protecting itself, if the concept of proportionality is important or ignores the real question of national security, if Hizbollah or Israel, or both are trying to draw in Syria and Iran and the US. You can argue about who fired the first shot 2 weeks ago, in 1948, in 1937, earlier. You can remind yourself that this is just Syrian propaganda aired to serve state interests, that no one is even watching this because no one trusts state TV anymore and everyone prefers Al Jazeera anyway. But those arguments aren’t really applicable at the moment.

What I see is a screaming mother, a stretcher being rushed to an ambulance, a woman wearing a Lebanon t-shirt crying, rubble, another woman screaming at a microphone, an old woman screaming at no one. It’s hard to think bigger picture. But then there’s this one image that really sticks. You can see the infant’s dead eyes, her dead face, the color completely gone, the eyelids open, her face pockmarked with blood. She’s covered in a white blanket which has a few specks of red on it. They’re in an undecorated room with a bed and a small wooden desk, they’re indoors, he’s screaming, he’s kissing the dead baby. He’s putting her down on the bed, his friends are pulling him away, he won’t let them pull him away, he doesn’t want to let go, he can’t let go, he’s crying, the tears are running down his face, the lifeless face of his baby staring up at nothing, not really staring of course, because she’s dead. The music is playing in the background, it’s a sad song, Arabic, a female voice, crooning for Palestine, the camera is in slow motion, two friends have now entered the picture, one arm on each of his shoulders, they’re still trying to pull him back, he’s struggling, the image switches to the next crying mother, or daughter, or whatever. I can’t remember the next scene. The shot may have lasted five seconds or it might have been 10 or 15.

It’s just propaganda for an autocratic regime that abuses its people and is searching for anything to legitimize its power, it’s just one baby and millions are involved and geopolitics are involved and maybe Palestinians killed her maybe it’s all a big set up…. That jumble of thoughts only comes after I change the channel. When I see that dead, white face, that baby that’s not going to get to live, I can’t really respond. It’s war and people die, and all I’ve done is witnessed a dead Palestinian baby.

There are no montages as brutal on serious Arab news channels, like Al Jazeera or Future TV or Abu Dhabi’s independent satellite station, but there are other montages, and there are other brutal pictures. Al Jazeera has labeled the current conflict as “an open encounter,” and every time Lebanon news is about to start it runs a series of pictures from the conflict, flashing quickly across the screen with voices talking over each other. The last picture is of a dead child, his face covered with blackened ash. The picture stays on the screen a beat longer than the others. There are call in shows where everyone talks about the terrible crime they believe Israel is committing against Lebanon. When I watch a call-in show on Al Jazeera on this topic, my first thought is that they should find Arab voices that support Israel, that it’s not balanced. But then I realize that those voices don’t exist. If you’re going to have a half-hour show on Arab public opinion on the current conflict, and you want it to reflect the Arab mood, you’re only going to have speakers who think Israel is committing a crime. Al Jazeera’s picture of a dead child, or Syria’s montage are basically reinforcing what everyone already believes to be true; that Israel is committing a crime against humanity.

There are plenty of dead bodies in Lebanon – about 370 at last count – for those montages. There are many dead in Israel, but not nearly as many. If nothing else, the Arab Media is serving as a witness to that truth. It’s definitely hurting the image of America. It’s definitely inciting rallies throughout the Middle East in solidarity with Lebanon. How biased it is, is your call.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

How the Arab world gets its news

The Opinion….And The Other Opinion
That’s Al Jazeera’s slogan. CNN may fancy itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News,” but it’s hard to argue that it’s the most important. It is certainly not the most controversial. That title, without question, belongs to Al Jazeera. And, as of Saturday, I can watch as much of it as I like, along with 250 other channels. The price tag was about $100, including installation. If I lived in Cairo the rest of my life, I would never have to pay another penny.

The process by which Arabs get access to Satellite television is entirely different from the one Americans are used to. The biggest difference is that, for the most part, TV here is free. The biggest exception to that rule is Arabic Radio and Television, or ART. Most people don’t get the extra channels offered by ART, a monthly subscription service that provides more movies, news and sports. This reality caused quite a stir throughout the region when ART won the rights to broadcast the World Cup exclusively throughout the Middle East, but except for that month of brooding and frustration, what you get for free here is everything a TV junkie could ever want. Even if you didn’t speak Arabic.

Having my satellite installed caused me to miss a fairly big protest against Israel’s siege of Lebanon. The protest involved thousands of Hizbollah (“The Party of God”) supporters who had gathered at Cairo’s most famous mosque, Al-Azhar. Muslims are required to pray five times daily, but most of those prayers are done privately. Several times I’ve been at small bodegas looking for some random item, only to have the shop owner ask me to wait so that he can pray. He’ll pull out a rug, wash his hands, feet, forearms and face and then begin praying, facing Mecca. The whole process takes 5 to 10 minutes. Then it’s back to business. It’s only during the Friday afternoon prayer that most worshippers go to their local mosque to listen to the sheik’s sermon and pray with their neighbors. Such prayer meetings have often served as a forum to vent more worldly frustration; In a Muslim country with such strong relations with Israel, the gathering can be politically dangerous. These days, every sheikh in Cairo (no, I haven’t heard every one, but I dare you to prove me wrong) is decrying the Israeli raids on Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, and America’s seeming indifference to it all. At Al-Azhar, the last two Fridays have witnessed huge demonstrations directly after prayer time, and large-scale police interventions. This past Friday, I wasn’t able to witness the thousands in Al-Azhar’s mosque who waved green banners and demanded that Egypt break its relations with Israel and America because I was up on my roof, at 2 P.M., watching two young men install my satellite dish. I would only see shots of the protest later on, on Al Jazeera.

The actual installation of a satellite is quite an ordeal. While purchasing by dish, the shopkeeper asks me if I want assistance with installation or if I can do it myself. This question only becomes ridiculous after I figure out what installing the dish requires. The process is thus: Along with two helpers, I amble onto my roof with all the required equipment: Dish, cement mixing contents, 100-foot wire – and my 20X20 inch television. I finally manage to get to the roof after climbing a wooden ladder so rickety that my mother would have had a stroke had she seen it. What I find is a 2,500 or so square-meter roof utterly covered in satellite dishes of various sizes. I immediately realize that I have bought the smallest dish on the roof, and a depression sets in that any half decent psychiatrist could easily explain (“I have the smallest!”) The next step is the cement mixing. White and black stuff is mixed with water to form wet cement that will dry and secure the base of the satellite to the roof. [Note: I am no longer a boy, but I’m not a man yet either. I firmly believe that I will someday be a man, and that I will know that day has come when I know what that “white and black stuff” really is. Or perhaps I will know that day has come when I no longer think such knowledge allows one to join the man club] Once the base is secured, the television is hooked up so that we can watch a little TV. Only with the TV on can you figure out if the satellite is facing at the correct angle to get decent reception. When all the screws are finally tightened, the 100-foot wire is attached to the satellite and then thrown over the side of the building. The building I live in is 10 stories high and my apartment is on the 5th floor. In order to watch TV, a wire is going to have to stretch from my rough to my apartment. We take the TV back downstairs, all three of us covered in sweat, only to find that the wire has gotten tangled amidst all the other wires. One of them goes back up to disentangle everything. Finally everything is set up. I pay the helpers for their help and flip on my set. I find Al-Jazeera and flip to the channel. What’s on? A half-hour, exclusive interview with Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nassrallah. It’s going to be a good year, I think to myself.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

My first experience at a hospital

America, it appears, could learn a thing or two from Egypt. At least, when it comes to medical treatment.

Three days ago I woke up with a pounding headache, the likes of which I had never experienced before. Moving my head just a few inches in any direction inevitably led to a deep throbbing around my cranium. The time delay was about 5 seconds, just long enough to believe that maybe, just maybe I was past the worst of it. I was nowhere near past the worst of it.

I attempted to go to class, more proof if any was needed that my stubbornness directly borders the absurd (there is certainly no buffer space). By 2 pm, I gave up, went home, and went to sleep. I woke up at 4 in much worse shape.

Getting out of bed was nearly impossible. When I attempted to get out of bed, the pain was bad enough to cause a spewing of sexual and scatological terminology. I began to freak out. Were these the first signs of an impending stroke?

I got back into bed. Maybe I could wait it out. The prospect of going to the hospital, where I would know no one, and know nothing about the system was more distasteful to me than the pain. I have dealt with physical pain in my life. The Egyptian hospital system is another story. It appears I prefer possible death to an uncomfortable situation.

I called my roommate and told him the situation. He would have said something like "you’re a fucking moron," were it not for his struggle to live in the path of Jesus Christ. Instead, in a concerned voice, he told me I should reconsider and get in a cab. Finally, I conceded.

What would I find at the hospital? Egypt has a booming economy, but it’s still a part of the third world. My health plan, offered by the American University in Cairo, costs 80 dollars for the entire year. The brochure claims it covers all hospital expenses up to 25,000 Egyptian pounds (about 4,500 dollars). Given such a low premium, what would the inevitably low cost of care provide? Would the hospital be clean? The Ministry of Health released the results of a survey two weeks ago that found that only 8 percent of Egypt’s doctors wash their hands before and after each examination. To state the obvious, I was a bit worried.

What I found at Peace Hospital (Musteshfa al-Saleem) was the opposite of what I had expected. A receptionist immediately pointed me to the emergency ward. The receptionist in the emergency ward took my insurance card, inquired about my symptoms, and then asked me to have a seat in the waiting room, which was clean and cool. Within 5 minutes – for emphasis FIVE MINUTES – I was speaking with a doctor. A short 10-minute exam ended when I was given a shot of painkiller in the ass. I was given a prescription for antibiotics and anti-inflamatories. The whole operation, from walking in the door to walking out, took about 40 minutes. I paid zero dollars.

My headache had not gone away by the time I left (it would a few hours later) but I began to believe that a small part of my head pain was now being caused by confusion. What kind of a hospital lets you see a doctor within 10 minutes? Where was the paperwork? What about co-pays? The doctor had even given me his cell phone number, in case my symptoms did not improve. My head pounding, searching for answers, I came up with only one theory: Egyptians, living in such poverty and backwardness for so many decades, have still not learned that the most important mark of civilization is a healthcare system that is impossibly complicated, incredibly expensive and infuriatingly time-consuming and petty. Maybe someday they’ll learn.

Two days later, I’m still a bit baffled. The antibiotics are actually working. I feel much better. I have not received any letters requesting payments. I suppose the letter from the insurance company denying coverage has only been processed, and will reach me via email in the next day or two. If that letter does not come, I will be forced to face the prospect that the Egyptian healthcare system works better here than it does in the states – at least for the middle class, for minor problems.

I also had a second thought: The third world has plenty of reasons to detest the West. Plenty. But one small thing that it has to be thankful for is the investment private and public companies of the first world have put into pharmaceutical research and development. Had I been without health insurance, the pills that I received would have cost me about 5 dollars. I don’t think 5 bucks goes a long way into paying for lab work and clinical trials. (If you are an expert on this topic and know I’m wrong, please email.) As Americans struggle to pay for their own prescriptions, Egyptians are able to get theirs filled cheaply because someone else put up the money for R&D. Because of cheap drugs, many Egyptians (though certainly not all) are able to live longer, healthy lives.

But aren’t all these Egyptians stealing from all those poor American and European corporate executives and their companies’ shareholders? Hmm. I don’t think I’ll get a headache over it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

An Egyptian phenomenon

On Thursday I went to see The Yacoubian Building, a movie that follows the intersecting lives of several Cairo residents whose only common feature is that they all live at the same address. The story covers several topics that are verboten in Egyptian society; Government-sponsored torture, corruption, homosexuality. It is the first film to both talk about these issues explicitly and place the events in the present era. While initially the film had plenty of state backing, since its release, there has been talk of shutting down the show. Which, of course, has made The Yacoubian Building the most popular movie in the country.
The film is not just unique for the topics it covers. The cast is virtually a who’s who of Egyptian cinema. The film is also incredibly long, even my American standards. At three hours in the length, the film requires a ten-minute intermission. The Yacoubian building is also better financed than most Egyptian films. At 3 million dollars – according to NPR – it is one of the highest expenditures ever One reason the film was allowed to be made at all is the fact that the movie’s director, Marwan Hamed is close with Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak. During the election campaign last year, Hamed directed an interview with Mubarak that ran 6 hours on state television.

The film is certainly controversial. There’s no nudity, but the omnipresence of sex and alcohol throughout the film is jarring even for someone who has only been in Egypt for a couple months. To have a character who is clearly homosexual, and is clearly about to partake in gay sex, is unheard of, until now. The film takes place at the time of the first Iraq War in 1991, but accept for one line that refers to the impending Kuwait invasion, the film could easily take place right now. Children, accompanied by a parent or not, are expressly forbidden from attending.

I'M GOING to see the film on a Thursday night. The Egyptian weekend is Friday and Saturday (Friday being the Muslim holy day) so Thursday night is movie night. The theater entrance is pure insanity. Cinemas here partake in the bizarre practice of assigning each patron a seat, even though admission is the same price for all. I find such a policy strange anywhere, but it’s particularly absurd in a culture that does not respect the concept of ‘the line.’ The stairway from the ground floor to the theater level is an impossible crush because people are only being allowed into the main chamber three or four at a time. Ushers have to take each person to their seat individually, so by the time I get to the front of the line, it’s only 10 minutes to show time and two thirds of the seats are still empty. It’s not because no ones behind me. The ushers, all in matching blue button-downs and dark ties are now literally sprinting – and expecting moviegoers to sprint with them – from the stairwell to the assigned seat. Of course the system is a disaster, and many people end up in the wrong seat anyway, fighting with sweat-drenched ushers who demand that they find their assigned spot so that the rightful owners can take their seats. The last few stragglers are being taken to their seats as the curtain comes up and the show starts.

By the time I get to my seat, I understand why the government is concerned. As I take in the sights and sounds, I think I can imagine what the American movie-going experience must have been like before home theaters and living room surround sound made the Cineplex obsolete. There is a legitimate buzz in the air. People know they’re about to see something they’ve never seen before, something subversive, something the government isn’t exactly pleased they’re watching.

There are four main characters in the film, all of which provide different criticisms of the government. Zeke Bay is an overweight heavy drinker and smoker who loves women. His father was an important official in King Farouq’s government, a government that was toppled by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s military coup in 1952. With the new government in power, Zeke Bay remains well off, but any hope of high government service is dashed. At several points in the film he talks longingly of Cairo before the 1952 revolution, before the Nasserist regime turned its back on the West and betrayed its people. Azem Pasha is a multimillionaire who has made his fortune in the drug trade. Now rich, Azem decides to run for parliament. In exchange for a $200,000 bribe, the election is fixed, and Azem joins the government. His character is corrupt and two-faced. In front of parliament he calls on the government to clamp down on sex on TV. At the same time he takes a second wife, forty years his younger, and rents her an apartment in The Yacoubian building so that the relationship can be kept secret.

The most dangerous character though is Taha Shezli. Taha is the son of the Yacoubian Building’s doorman, and his dream is to become a policeman. He is extraordinarily successful in his studies, but when he arrives for his interview with the military university, he is quickly rebuffed because of his impoverished background (There is no doormen’s union in Cairo). Only the children of the privileged are allowed to rule the country. His dreams dashed, Taha turns to radical Islam. He is arrested during a protest and is brutally tortured. We see Taha being beaten and bloody. We see him about to be raped. After finally getting out of jail, Taha decides to take part in Jihad. In the end, he dies as he kills the officer who was responsible for his defilement.

Sitting in a theater in Cairo, in a country where freedom of speech is limited, where most political conversations happen at home behind close doors, watching this movie, I am often overcome with adrenaline. I just can’t believe these events are being depicted. The chief of police who is torturing Taha exists in real life, and he’s probably really torturing someone right now. When Taha finally gets his revenge in the end, much of theater erupts in applause. It’s exactly what the government must be afraid of. A communal celebration of a high government official getting what's comming to him. Who’s to say that sentiment won’t spill onto the street?

It doesn't tonight though. The celebration in the theater is a quick burst, full of release, but also hesitation. There must be government officials observing the crowd. What's an acceptable response, and what might get you locked up? No one knows where the line is. No one wants to cross it. The celebration may be quick, but, still, everyone in this male dominated crowd is happy that the head of secret police has just been shot in the face. Just think, this guy really exists.

The fourth main character (if you were counting, you noticed only three have been enumerated thus far) is Hatim, the editor of the French language newspaper Le Caire. Hatim is a homosexual, and because his lifestyle is so taboo here, it is the part of the film the government has stepped out to criticize. Rather than admitting that the torture and corruption depicted in The Yacoubian Building actually occurs in Egypt, members of parliament have voiced their concerns that the film will lead young men to become homosexuals. Anyone who has seen the film immediately recognizes how ridiculous this theory is. Hatim is the classic stereotype of a homosexual. He is impeccably well dressed. He walks, talks and acts, well, strangely. Not in a way that reminds me of any homosexuals I know, but rather in a way that is recognizable as 'a little off.' It’s the extra hop in his step and the slightly odd inflection in his voice. The way he pronounces the word 'very,' continually caused the crowd to burst out laughing. In the movie, Hatim tricks a young, poor soldier, Abdu into becoming his lover. Hatim buys Abdu an apartment, a dream Abdu could never realize without Hatim’s help. Hatim constantly is getting Abdu drunk in order to corrupt him. Abdu is married, and in the middle of his illicit affair his son dies of a mysterious illness. Crushed and convinced that his relationship with Hatim has brought God’s wrath down upon him, Abdu disappears.

The film does nothing to dissuade us of Abdu’s conclusion. In search for his next lover, his next victim, Hatim brings home a degenerate, who looks quite a bit like a crack-head. Amazed by the lavishness of Hatim’s apartment, the degenerate decides to kill Hatim and take his money.

It’s at this moment that the absurdity of the government’s ‘concerns’ is revealed. Hatim dies brutally. Expecting his lover to take him from behind, the stranger chokes Le Caire’s editor from behind with a belt. Hatim’s body writhes in pain, struggle, and finally falls to the bed, lifeless. As the thief begins to take Hatim’s rings and watch, a large portion of the crowd bursts into applause. Hoots and hollers echo off the walls. No one condemns the revelers. The celebration of Hatim's murder is certainly less restrained than when the government’s torturer gets a bullet to the head.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

New press law passes

The new press law, which so many journalists turned out to denounce on Sunday, passed in a voice vote, as expected. In a last second act of kindness, however, President Hosni Mubarak told parliament that they should erase the part of the new law that would imprison journalists for revealing the financial activities of members of parliament. Another part of the law which was erased before passage, according to the newspaper The Egyptian Today, was the line that threatened jail time for journalists who insult foreign heads of state. In an act of protest, several independent publications decided not to sell their papers on Sunday. I discovered this when I went to the press stand and couldn't get The Egyptian Today. I only figured out it was a political statement and not evidence of unprofessionalism when I read Ben's article on IRIN (see link in previous post).

For more details on this story, check out this article .

Despite the revisions, the press syndicate here is promising to continue fighting the law. I still haven't worked out the exact process by which bills get introduced and passed, but it's clear that Mubarak has enormous power, at least within his own majority party. His National Democratic Party has spent the last week accusing journalists of blackmail and denouncing their supporters as traitors, supporting the new bill and all of its provisions unanimously. In a surprise announcement, Mubarak told parliament of the changes he wanted. Immediately, every member of Mubarak's party said they supported his changes. The speaker of the parliament said that Mubarak had 'taught an important lesson to the government.'

Monday, July 10, 2006

Get your independent information while you can

Because of the oppressive heat during the summer months, Cairo’s policemen are given white uniforms. You can find these everyday cops all around the city, directing traffic, patrolling street corners and protecting the entryways to government buildings, embassies and universities. It is only natural that in a country as overpopulated as Egypt, there are too many policemen. It appears that employing a traffic cop 24/7 is cheaper than buying and maintaining a traffic light.
But the cops I saw yesterday morning were not wearing white. They were wearing black. They were present in droves and they looked ominous.

The occasion was a large-scale protest against a new press law that will make reporting on Egypt a lot more difficult for Egyptian journalists. When I say large-scale, I mean by Egyptian standards. The rally took place in front of Egypt’s parliament building and it included about 200 people, if my estimate is accurate. But while such a small protest would never make the news if it happened in the states, it is rare in Egypt for an anti-government rally to get so large. The New York Times has run front-page stories about protests here that involved only 50 people. For a foreign journalist, finding legitimate stories on opposition politics can be tough going.

The protest today though, was real, as was the tension in the streets. To ensure that traffic could pass, and that protesters would recognize how powerless they are, the police ringed the entire crowd. The sidewalk onto which the protesters were forced was only 6 or 7 yards wide. Maneuvering through the crowd was nearly impossible. For every 2 protestors wearing a sign around their necks that read (sarcastically) "Viva corruption, down with freedom!" there was a journalist covering the event trying to get an interview. [I particularly appreciated that half the signs were in Arabic, half in English. It is clear that their target audience is not just the Arab world] Like the overpopulation in Egypt and the overblown police presence, there are also too many journalists. Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, Al-Hura, MBC, and a plethora of print and radio journalists were all trying to squeeze past me to get to their next interview. In the 95-degree heat, I thanked God that I am six feet tall and 180 pounds. I did not fear being crushed by the mob.

What I did fear, however, was getting the shit kicked out of me by the cops. There was certainly reason for concern. I left for the protest just before 11 with my friend Ben, who was covering the event for IRIN, a UN news service. A few blocks from the event we encountered our first signal that something other than run-of-the-mill business was occurring near by. Six or seven police paddy wagons were parked, ready to carry off any protestors who got too rowdy. The police vehicles were not of the school-bus-with-grated-windows variety that I was used to seeing in the states. Paddy wagons in Cairo are meant to look intimidating. They say: "you really don’t want to be in here," and they more closely resemble armored bank cars than any conveyor of civilian traffic. Painted dark green or black, with impossibly small windows, they do not give the impression that correctional facilities here are meant to be rehabilitation centers. They look like punishment in themselves.

When we first arrived at 11, the crowd is spilling onto the streets. It is only a short while before the aforementioned 'men in black,' previously standing on the other side of the thoroughfare, come across to 'control' the crowd. As we struggle through the mob, looking for people to interview, I notice the cops menacing glances. There are now enough policemen to form two full rows around the entire group, and they continue to slowly push us back until everyone is on the sidewalk. What is especially worrying me is that, before we arrived, I had spotted groups of men in civilian clothes organized in groups of 20 or so, with one or two uniformed officers standing near by. They were clearly the type of government-hired goons who take care of uppity rabble-rousers who forget their manners. Some of those men, in jeans and dirty button-downs, are standing at attention across the street. Next to them are groups of authentic riot police, the kinds with batons and facemasks that fought protestors in the streets at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, or the kind you see in Europe battling soccer hooligans. All in all, the cops in view outnumber the protestors and journalists at least two to one.

There are also other things that are worrisome. Some of the journalists begin to chant slogans, demanding freedom. The chants are call and response, and the head of Egypt's press syndicate, the man responsible for the event, is having none of it. Between interviews with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the small, bald man with an impeccably tailored suit and an even more perfectly groomed mustache turns to those chanting and yells at them to shut up. They do, but eventually their chants start up again and the process is repeated. It’s clear that he’s worried about violence, or future retribution.

The law that is being protested, as it was described to me is fairly draconian. Before the most recent election, President Hosni Mubarak promised an end to the imprisonment of journalists, but now that the election is over and there is no pressure coming from the United States, Mubarak is going back on his word. The new piece of legislation, which was introduced under Mubarak's name, mandates a minimum sentence of six months for a variety of press offenses, including insulting Mubarak, his family, the state, or members of parliament. The law does not specify a maximum sentence. For a few more details on the law, check the article Ben wrote. Members of the ruling National Democratic Party have said the law is necessary to counter the 'blackmail,' of the press. 'Blackmail,' the protestors believe, is the government’s way of saying they are annoyed that the press has been exposing the rampant corruption that goes on in Egyptian politics. Obviously, members of the government aren’t too happy about the bad coverage.

By the time we leave, at around 12:30, no violence has occurred, and none will. We walk back to the university, taking a different path than the one we had taken to get to the protest. Amazingly, every 150 yards or so, there is another pack of cops, either in uniform or in street clothes. These groups continue for blocks. I guess they’re there to protect the state. 'Blackmail,' is a serious national concern.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The dumbest thing that has ever been done

It was done by me. Two days ago. I admit it. My act has no equivalent regarding such lack of planning. Many have engaged in silly endeavors through man's long history. Custer's last stand comes to mind. So does the game of hacky-sack, or the nuclear-armed bazooka (It is the only weapon the US has ever developed where the blast radius was greater than the firing range). I believe my activity was stupider. I hope by describing it, I will divest myself of some of the guilt, a purification through confession

I went for a run. In Cairo. In Center City. The decision was my own. There was no element of force.

Cairo is one of the most overpopulated cities in the world, and while it may not be as polluted as Beijing or New Delhi, the air quality here is something to behold. Center city, where I live and where The American University in Cairo (AUC) is located, is the worst of the worst. The traffic is unbearable. A statistic on Wikipedia claims that 60 percent of the cars in Cairo are more than 10 years old, and thus do not have modern emissions systems. The statistic is without citation, and I am skeptical of its authenticity. With the exception of the Mercedes that I see entering the Interior Ministry (which is right next door to my apartment), I almost never see a car that could possibly have been constructed during this decade.

Perhaps it was the air pollution itself, and its deleterious affects on my judgment that led me to run. It had been a month since I had gone for a jog, and my experience in Damascus, where I had run weekly in short-shorts and an "I love New York" t-shirt, had led me to believe that running was doable. Oh, Damascus had been polluted, but I had been training for soccer. I had coughed, I had strained and the inhaled dust had caused unspeakable amounts of phlegm, but I had persevered there. Why should Cairo be any different?

I threw on a t-shirt and shorts, grabbed my I-pod, and ran downstairs. Within a hundred steps, I knew something was terribly wrong. It started out as a light throbbing sensation at the bottom of my stomach, just above the mons pubis. Not a stitch exactly. Closer to a tactical warning coming from just above my loins. My body saying "Don't even think about it." I ignored such sage advice. My body doesn't know what the fuck it's talking about, I told myself, even as a fuller understanding of the unfolding calamity began to form in the back of my brain.

10 minutes into the run, the reality set in. Initially I had ignored the smell, but as the acid built up in my muscles, such Pollyanic thoughts became more difficult. Lactic acid is what builds in the muscles during periods of extreme exertion. It is what makes the mind slow the body down. It is why man cannot run a mile at the same pace as he can sprint a hundred meters. What was building in my muscles was not lactic acid exactly. It was some sort of mixture of acids produced by the body and those that are emitted by exhaust systems more than 10 years of age. Cairo streets have few serviceable sidewalks which forces one to run in the streets, right next to those fumes. When I say 'one', I mean one, because I am the only 'one' who would engage in this activity. Every time a car passed, I was forced to inhale molecular compounds I had never before encountered or imagined. It was hell.

And yet, I didn't stop. Something about having once been an athlete forced me to continue. Perhaps I would not run again, but an athlete does not quit in the middle of a run. Ever. I also had to get back home, and running would be far faster than walking, or so I told myself. In truth however, at some point the difference between those two speeds, walking and running, had decreased precipitously.

Instead of stopping, I tried to let my mind wander. If only I could fall into the fantasy world that the 50 Cent blasting in my ears normally provided. Rap music has become such a phenomenon in part because it allows white middle- to upper class boys like myself to imagine themselves to be as tough as the gangsta rapper. It is a fantasy that I often partake in. On most runs, I can imagine that there is some parallel between my slow jog and the ghetto lifestyle that the likes of 50 Cent apotheosize.

In Cairo's bustling streets, it wasn't working. My mind did wander, but to other topics. Despite the pain in my legs, I noticed I wasn't sweating or breathing deeply. My thoughts were thus: I wasn't sweating because the air is impossibly dry, and even in the 90 plus degree heat, any sweat immediately evaporates. I wasn't breathing deeply because every breath made me want to vomit. When I wasn't breathing car exhaust, I was running past abandoned construction sites with gratuitous amounts of debris littered everywhere. The putrid smell of neglected garbage greeted me about every 100 yards. And the constant dust inhalation made me incredibly congested. My asthma, dormant since age 5, began to pop up. My lungs simply wouldn't expand.
I began to wonder about cancer. How many cigarettes does one 'Cairo run' equal? Where would the malignant nodules develop? I could have sworn I felt one growing on my liver, on my larynx.
Of course, I had plenty of less fully constructed thoughts. Thoughts like: "Fuck." And "God damn motherfucker." And: "Cocksucker." On the run back, I got lost. The random cursing going off in my brain began to spew from my mouth. I began to get strange looks. Or perhaps I was only noticing the looks for the first time. Thinking of my mother and her undying love for me, I had tried to focus on not being killed by the cars that I was forced to weave in and out of. No one in Cairo wears shorts, and the spectacle of someone not only wearing shorts, but running in them, must have been strange indeed. I was only able to take in the reaction when stopped, searching for familiar landmarks. Or perhaps they were staring because they new English curse words. I guess I'll never know.

I finally found some kids who knew where my apartment was. They pointed me down a street. I figured out my location. I got home. I went inside. I took the elevator up to my 5th floor apartment. I banged on the door, my roommate opened it, and I walked in.

"How was the run," he asked.

I responded: "Well, there's a first, and a last time, for everything."

Monday, July 03, 2006

The value of hating America

Blaming America for everything is a favorite past time in the Middle East. But in Egypt, vilifying the US can earn you more political capital than anywhere else in the region. The regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has close ties with the US. In fact, we have a better, tighter relationship with Egypt than we do with Michael Moore's favorite target Saudi Arabia. But you don't hear all that much about Egypt in the US. Why?

Perhaps its because Egypt has been such a good ally in so many ways. Terror suspects captured abroad have often been taken to Egypt for 'interrogations' before being transported to secret prisons in Europe, Afghanistan or our facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Since the 1980s, Egypt has also been Israel's closest friend in the region. The largest Arab state in the world, Egypt has had diplomatic ties with Israel since 1981. The accord cost the Egyptian president at the time, Anwar Sadat, his life. In the last few years Egypt has opened up several free trade areas with Israel. In the most recent crisis between Israel and Hamas (Hamas has kidnapped an Israeli soldier, and Israel has responded by invading Gaza and kidnapping half the members of Israeli's parliament), Egypt has been putting heavy pressure on Hamas to go along with Israeli demands.

Still, one would think the country of the pharaohs would get a little more scrutiny in the western press - after all, we do give them more financial assistance than any other country in the world, save Israel. Every year, over 2 billion dollars goes from American coffers to the Egyptian treasury. More than half of that is earmarked for military spending.

But while the American-Egyptian relationship provides Mubarak with more guns to control his citizens and more jobs to placate them, the relationship also poses potential problems for the Cairo-based regime. Any group that challenges Mubarak and his National Democratic Party can instantly gain points by arguing, regardless of its other political ideas, that Mubarak is too close to America, too close to the murdering of innocent Israeli civilians, too close to the war in Iraq. Ordinary Egyptians think the US government is essentially a terrorist organization. Having such a tight relationship with the US creates quite the PR problem.

During the run up to elections last spring, one of the largest opposition groups was the Egyptian Movement for Change, popularly known as Kifaya (Enough). In the States, the organization got huge press. The group made its position clear: it wanted Mubarak out. It was willing to talk to any journalist who would listen. While the group is an umbrella organization that includes nationalists, Islamists and pan-Arabists, most members come from the more western school of thought: The group has called for freedom of speech, assembly, fair elections, and all the other components that make up a liberal's wet dream. To the casual observer, it seemed that Kifaya and Washington would be natural partners.

Such a partnership has never materialized. Perhaps the first step in understanding why is to check out Kifaya's manifesto. It begins this way:

We are Egyptian citizens, in agreement, despite our different political perspectives, opinions and jobs, that our country faces dangers and enormous challenges. For example, the American occupation of Iraq, the continuing Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people and the plans to redraw the map of the Arab people including a plan for the Greater Middle East, which threatens our nationality and our identity and which requires the gathering of all effort to completely face on all levels...political, cultural and civilizational.

Kifaya talks about democracy and judicial independence later on in the document. Much later. The next several paragraphs continue to talk about the crimes of the west. You can find out more on Kifaya on their website. It's in Arabic, but they have their manifesto in English (the above is a translation from the Arabic. I imagine they have more freedom to be strident in English).

The reality is that any group that wants to challenge the government on anything hear immediately gains credibility by distancing itself from the US and Israel. One person I spoke with who works with a democracy promoting NGO here said that the reality of the situation is that only home grown organizations independent of the West can change anything.

It makes you wonder where those 2 billion dollars are going. On Thursday I'm having dinner with an employee of USAID, an organization that is responsible for disbursing about 500 million of the 800 million dollars earmarked for nonmilitary aid to Egypt. Maybe I'll have a better idea where all that money is going after dinner.