Enslaved by history

 
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By Khaled Diab

Failing to acknowledge the legacy of slavery on all our modern societies makes the present an unnecessary slave to history.

A scene from Twelve Years a Slave.

A scene from Twelve Years a Slave.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Like Ferguson before it, the upheavals in Baltimore have been linked by numerous historians to the legacy of slavery. Describing the United States as originally a “slave holder’s republic”,  historian Gerald Horne explained, which led to a view of Africans as “the enemies of the republic”, resonating right down to the present. “The origins of [the] urban police department lies precisely in the era of slavery. That is to say, slave patrols,” he added.

While the impact of slavery and then segregation are clear to see in the poverty, marginalisation, mass incarceration and prejudice with which African-Americans have to live, it is by no means a uniquely American experience – the whole world is struggling to deal with the legacy of one human claiming ownership of another.

Owing to its superpower status and the harsh cruelty of its particular brand of enslavement, the American experience has become the global benchmark. But the reality of slavery is far more diverse. Although Africa is the continent most bled by slavery, slaves have been of all races, nations and groups. The very word “slave” refers to the “Slavs”, who were a major source of slavery in medieval Europe.

Even in the Americas, there were some white slaves, who predated their black counterparts at a time when Africans were too expensive to be economically viable. For the British, the earliest source of slaves for their American colonies were drawn from their prototype colony, Ireland.

A white woman sold as a slave wife to an English settler in Jamestown, Virginia. Image: http://immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com/2.+Indentured+Servants+and+Slaves

A white woman sold as a slave wife to an English settler in Jamestown, Virginia.
Image: http://immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com/2.+Indentured+Servants+and+Slaves

England’s blood-soaked re-conquest of Ireland in the 17th century – led by theocratic dictator and Protestant Puritan Oliver Cromwell –  involved clearing vast swathes of the country of its Irish Catholic inhabitants. Many thousands of the displaced were sent to the Caribbean as slaves.

Some historians who remember this forgotten episode prefer to use the term “indentured servant” but, to my mind, this is just a euphemism for slave, since these so-called servants were “personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited”. In fact, an English adventurer of the time described these hapless Irish as “derided by the negroes, and branded with the Epithet of ‘white slaves’”.

By one of those quirks of history, this brings us to another Baltimore, this time in Ireland. In 1631, this village in Cork was sacked by Barbary pirates, whose inhabitants – mainly English settlers whose compatriots would a few years later enslave the Irish – were carried off into slavery.

European slaves in 19th-century Algiers.

European slaves in 19th-century Algiers.

Between 1530 and 1780, these Muslim pirates captured up to 1.25 million Christian Europeans, according to one estimate, causing the inhabitants of many coastal areas of Europe to flee in fear.

From our contemporary vantage point after centuries of Western global dominance, it is hard to fathom that Europeans were ever slaves. But Middle Eastern slave markets were well-stocked with them. These included, at various periods, Caucasians (i.e. from the Caucasus), Slavs, Albanians, Greeks and even Norsepeople.

However, owing to the Islamic restrictions on enslaving “people of the book”, by the 14th century, Africa was the primary source of slaves in the Middle East. Perhaps as many as 14 million Africans were carried off into slavery by Arabs/Muslims, comparable to the Transatlantic slave trade, albeit over a longer period.

Slavery in the Arab and Muslim world differed significantly from that practised in the Americas. Though, like in America, many slaves were engaged in back-breaking work in abysmal conditions, perhaps the majority were employed as servants, concubines and soldiers. In addition, freeing slaves was considered a noble act in Islam and, hence, many were liberated.

Shagaret el-Dur.

Shagaret el-Dur.

Moreover, not all were of a lowly status. A fortunate minority of slaves enjoyed a higher social status than free men and women. For instance, one of the most creative eras of my native Egypt’s history occurred under the Mamluks, slave warriors raised to rule, and the only woman to govern Egypt in the Islamic era was Shagaret el-Dur, a former slave girl. But I’m doubtful that such prestige or power compensated its holder for the early trauma of being kidnapped from their family and regarded as someone else’s property.

Though viewed more negatively, African slaves, too, could rise to high positions of influence. One example of this was the position of Kizlar Agha, the Ottoman chief eunuch and the third most influential position in the Sultan’s court.

For various complex reasons, slavery took longer to die out in the Arab world than in the West, with the countries of the Gulf not abolishing it until the mid-20th century. Despite this, the social, economic, political and cultural legacies of slavery are given very little attention in the Arab world.

The Kizlar Agha.

The Kizlar Agha.

For example, though the long and diverse history of slavery in the Arab world means that just about anyone of us could have a slave as an ancestor, the insult “abeed” (“slaves”) – which has even made it across the Atlantic – is only used to deride those of African extraction. Alongside classicism, the legacy of slavery also colours the attitudes of some Arabs towards domestic servants and migrant workers.

Few Arabs I’ve encountered ask themselves how does the history of slavery affect our relationship with the places where slaves originated and how they perceive us. Within our own societies, this legacy can lead to discrimination and can help facilitate the exploitation of bonded labourers.

Failing to acknowledge and challenge the impact of slavery on our modern societies makes the present an unnecessary slave to history.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 May 2015.

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The concealed links between Israel’s “invisible” citizens

 
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By Khaled Diab

An electoral campaign video targeted at Israel’s “invisible” poor unwittingly highlights the long-neglected links between Mizrahi Jews and Arabs.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel's marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel’s marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

Friday 6 February 2015

It is a very powerful electoral message. The ad features middle-class Israelis complaining about how tough they have it, while phantom figures around them beg for money, scan their shopping at the supermarket checkout, fill their petrol tanks and clean their homes.
[YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4PyeR1YsD8]

This savvy appeal to the almost 1.7 million “invisible” Israelis who live below the poverty line was not produced by Meretz, Hadash, Labour or any other party on the left of the political spectrum. Surprisingly, the video is the work of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party on the right, most closely associated with Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrahi populations.

Analysts suggest that this video is part of a bid to break free of Shas’ traditional image of being a religious and ethnic party, and to appeal to a group not explicitly targeted by most of the other parties: Israel’s economically marginalised.

“The target audience is obviously broader than anything any ultra-Orthodox party tried before,” Israeli journalist, blogger and analyst Dimi Reider observed. “The ad’s inclusivity is particularly startling when one looks at the other parties hoping to swoop in on the social-economic protest vote,” he adds, pointing to how Labour, for example, has fielded only one Mizrahi candidate, who occupies the unelectable 23rd position on the party’s list.

Shas’s rehabilitated leader Aryeh Deri, who was imprisoned on bribery charges, is credited with this apparent shift to the left, though much of the party does not seem to share his politics, while his leadership is in doubt.

Despite Shas talking the talk of the poor, it is still solidly, like religious parties across the Middle East, walking the walk of the neo-liberal business elites, as reflected in its backing for Likud-led privatisation programmes and austerity measures. “Their campaign is a great one but it is really far away from their politics in the real political world,” notes Mati Shemoelof, a progressive Iraqi-Israeli poet, writer, journalist and activist. “They are part of the problem and not the solution.”

While Shas’s campaign video features poor Jews, there is an elephant in the room. Missing from the picture are Palestinian-Israelis, the invisible among the invisible, who make up the bulk of Israel’s poor.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel account for 44.5% of Israel’s poor, according to a report by Adalah, an NGO that advocates for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Over half of Arab families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to a national average of 20 percent, according to the report. This is a reflection of the fact that Arabs on average earn 32% less than Jews, while the net income of Arab household is less than two-thirds of what their Jewish counterparts take home, the report observes.

Although the Mizrahim are generally somewhat better off than the Arabs of Israel and their relative situation has improved, they still lag considerably behind the Ashkenazim. This is reflected in the fact that Ashkenazi Israelis earn 30 percent more on average than Mizrahim.

Despite being in a similar socio-economic boat, it is highly improbable that the Mizrahi and Palestinian citizens of Israel will find common cause – at least not in the forthcoming elections. The bulk of Israel’s Sephardim and Mizrahim sit firmly in the anti-Arab, nationalist right. After decades of jettisoning their Arab and Middle Eastern heritage to assimilate into Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated “melting pot”, and expressing bitterness at how their native societies rejected them, few have the appetite to admit that they share much in common with their Palestinian compatriots.

Previous attempts to make this link essentially failed. Take the Israeli Black Panthers, a radical political group that emerged to agitate for Mizrahi rights. Many Panthers believed that the Mizrahi class struggle was intimately connected to that of the Palestinian-Israelis and that social peace in Israel was not possible without peace with the Palestinians. “There will be no equality and no chance for the Mizrahim as long as there’s an occupation and a national struggle,” believed former Black Panther Kokhavi Shemeskh. “The national struggle will not be over as long as the Mizrahim are at the bottom of the ladder, and are practically an anti-Arab lever.”

However, this view was not common or popular among the Mizrahim, and the movement faded into obscurity, though it is notable that Mizrahi intellectuals helped pave the way to the peace process.

Were they to set aside their nationalist narratives and embrace their common struggle for socio-economic and cultural equality, the Mizrahim and Palestinian-Israelis could form a formidable voting bloc that would carry significant weight, since together they make up an estimated 60% of Israel’s citizenry (about 40 percent Mizrahi and 20 percent Arab).

Beyond their shared socio-economic woes, Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis have in common that they believe that their history is insufficiently taught in Israeli schools, and that their Middle Eastern culture is still, despite improvements, regarded as inferior. But the younger generation are taking greater pride in their heritage, which could pave the way to joint action to end discrimination against them, dilute the “us” and “them” formula of the conflict, and drive home the realisation that Israel, rather than being a Western “villa in the jungle” of the Middle East, actually possesses a very Middle Eastern socio-cultural complexion.

Moreover, in the bitter identity politics that have resulted from decades of conflict, both the Mizrahim (sometimes referred to as “Arab Jews”) and Palestinians in Israel, contradict the simplistic narrative that Arabs and Jews are completely different animals. In fact, as anyone who has lived in the Holy Land can attest, Israelis and Palestinians share much in common culturally and socially, and the differences within each society are greater than the differences between them.

As I outline in my book, Intimate Enemies, in which I also explore these “conflicting identities, if the civil rights path to liberation is pursued, rather than being stuck in the nationalistic abyss dividing Arabs and Jews, the Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis may well become the future bridge to peace and justice the two sides desperately need.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 3 February 2015.

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Gaza’s forsaken and forgotten people

 
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Gaza’s humanitarian disaster and the rising tensions there are forgotten by the world. Principle and pragmatism demand an end to the blockade.

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Image courtesy of UNRWA

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Tensions between Gaza and Israel are mounting once again. There have been Israeli airstrikes and Islamic Jihad rockets. Israel recently claimed that it had intercepted a Gaza-bound arms shipment, though the claim seemed rather implausible.

It has also uncovered what it described as the “most advanced” tunnel into Israel from Gaza which says could’ve been used to mount attacks. On the other side of Gaza’s hermetically sealed boundaries Egypt claimed to have destroyed a mind-boggling 1,370 smuggling tunnels.

This has sealed off what little economic breathing space Gaza had to withstand the naval and land blockade of the Strip. And the figures speak for themselves.

Although Gaza has been overshadowed by the catastrophes related to the Syrian civil war and other regional events, the forsaken and forgotten territory is enduring a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.

Official unemployment runs at nearly 40%, with the actual figure probably significantly higher, and some 80% of the population receives aid, according to UNRWA, the UN relief agency. Gaza also endures severe fuel shortages, endless blackouts, while raw sewage and seawater contaminate the water supply.

Even though things are relatively quiet for now and Hamas is sticking to the ceasefire negotiated in 2012, the situation, driven by desperation, could spiral out of control at any moment. “It is only a matter of time until a flare-up with Israel escalates into a major conflagration,” warned the International Crisis Group, the conflict-prevention think tank, last week.

To prevent this destructive eventuality, the ICG calls on Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza in return for continued guarantees that rockets will not be fired into Israel.

Personally, I think that the ICG’s blueprint may delay a confrontation for a time, at best, but it will not prevent it.

The only way to do that is for both Israel and Egypt to end their siege of Gaza and for Hamas and all the militant groups to provide iron-cast assurances that they will not carry out attacks on either of their neighbours, who will also refrain from launching military operations on Gaza.

Hawks in both Israel and Egypt will immediately object, and claim that the blockade is the only way to contain Hamas. In fact, officials in both countries have indicated their desire to go beyond containment and to bring down the de facto sole ruler of Gaza.

Echoing Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz has warned that, if rocket fire resumes, Israel may invade Gaza to topple Hamas.

But Steinitz’s proposal betrays a severe absence of intelligence. After all, previous efforts to dislodge the Islamist movement – including major military operations since Hamas came to power, in 2006, 2008/9 and 2012 – have only strengthened its grip on power.

Besides, even if Hamas is faltering or on the brink of collapse, there is the troubling question, asked by many in Gaza, of who will come after.

Israel once supported Hamas and its precursors as a supposed counterbalance to the PLO, and, in the process, contributed to creating something far more radical. Many fear that Islamic Jihad, not the Palestinian Authority, would dominate such a post-Hamas Gaza.

Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Gazans since at least 1991, when it began its permanent closure policy in the Strip, with little noticeable effect on Israel’s security or on prospects for peace.

In fact, sealing Gaza off from the outside world has turned what used to be a relatively open and liberal society dependent on shoppers and tourists into an insular prison colony controlled by religious fundamentalists.

This proven inefficacy, as well as the humanitarian crisis, may be what prompted outgoing UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi to speak out strongly. While acknowledging the legitimacy of Israel and Egypt’s security he concerns, he said: “I think the world should not forget about the security of the people of Gaza.”

Grandi added that the blockade was “illegal and must be lifted”. “I also want to make a strong appeal for export to resume because the lack of export is the main reason for the poverty of Gaza,” he added.

And it is not just Grandi who is fed up with the blockade; others in the international community are too. Even the European Union is losing patience. In a recent report, the EU’s heads of mission called for a “strategy for a political endgame resulting in Gaza’s return to normality”, naming Israel as “the primary duty bearer” due to its role as the occupying power, while urging Hamas to instate a “categorical renunciation of violence”.

If the  status quo stays in place, the ever worsening situation in Gaza will only succeed in radicalising a new generation. After all, some, having lost everything, may decide they’ve got nothing left to lose.

Ending the Gaza blockade is both the principled and pragmatic thing to do.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in The National on 2 April 2014.

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Nawal El Saadawi: “I am against stability. We need revolution.”

 
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By Nikolaj Nielsen

Renowned author and feminist Nawal El Saadawi believes that her fellow Egyptians “must pay the price for freedom”.

Thursday 11 July 2013

 

Imprisoned by former president Anwar Sadat, exiled by Hosni Mubarak, and hated by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, 81-year old dissident and feminist Nawal El Saadawi still sees hope for an Egypt free from the clutches of religious and military rule.

“We will never allow a military government rule or a religious Islamic rule, never,” she told me in Brussels on Wednesday (10 July).

Nawal El Saadawi in Brussels. Photo: ©Nikolaj Nielsen

An avid campaigner for women’s rights in a society deeply ingrained with patriarchal values, Saadawi was a director in the ministry of health in the 1960s working to stop female circumcision.

Her campaign for women’s rights continued, despite her being jailed in 1981 over her publications.

Released two months after the assassination of then-president Anwar Sadat, she fled Egypt in 1988 following numerous threats against her life.

“Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed,” she said.

The liberation of women from religious and patriarchal doctrines is a common theme in her numerous novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction books, some translated into 30 different languages.

Upon her return to Egypt in 2009 after a three-year exile for a play she wrote, Saadawi moved to set up the Egyptian Women’s Union, which she formed at Tahrir square in January 2011.

“I was trying all my life to organise women and so, two years ago, we started the Egyptian Women’s Union. Fifty percent of our members are young men who are progressive and non-patriarchal,” she noted.

Both the United States and Europe can keep their aid, she says, noting that their conditions have condemned Egypt to poverty, submission, and misery.

“The free market is not free, it is only free for the powerful to exploit the weak,” she noted.

Saadawi describes governments in the US and in Europe as capitalist, patriarchal and theocratic systems that promote class oppression.

The EU, for its part, handed over approximately €1 billion in aid to Egypt from 2007 onwards.

But a report published by the European Court of Auditors in June said corruption and lack of accountability squandered funds paid directly to the Egyptian authorities.

The court said women’s and minorities’ rights were not given sufficient attention despite the critical need for urgent action to counter the tide of growing intolerance.

“The whole philosophy of the world, capitalism, patriarchy, and religions – we are still living in the post-modern slave system,” she said.

As for the Americans, Saadawi says they buy influence over the Egyptian military elite, which is complicit in forging a false sense of stability for Israel’s benefit.

“Revolution came out in the streets because we are fed up with poverty. We are forced into poverty by US aid. US aid increased poverty in Egypt,” she noted.

On Thursday (11 July), the US approved the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt despite the political unrest in the country.

The planes are set for delivery in the next few weeks.

Not a military coup

Despite her criticism of US-Egyptian-military scheming, Saadawi describes the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood, their arrests, and forced isolation by the army as part of an ongoing revolution to establish a civil secular society based on social justice.

The deposition of Egypt’s fifth president Mohamed Morsi is not a military coup, she insists.

She said the army was initially reluctant to intervene, but armed Muslim brothers forced their hand in a revolution that has yet to see its final outcome.

“I heard women and children screaming because of the bullets and blood oozing on Tahrir square and people were saying where is the army?” she said.

With Morsi out, Saadawi says there is now a greater chance to put in place a secular constitution where everyone is equal, regardless of religion, gender or class.

“We must write this constitution before any election,” she said.

But the task ahead is fraught with difficulties.

On Wednesday, an arrest warrant was issued for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, for inciting violence in a speech that saw thousands take to the streets.

Nine other warrants on the leadership were also issued.

Critics say the arrests risk usurping the interim government’s plan for national unity.

Saadawi, for her part, dismisses the warning.

National unity, she says, will come from a fiercely independent and free-thinking younger generation.

“I am against stability. We need revolution. We need to move ahead and pay the price for freedom,” she said.

___

Follow Nikolaj Nielsen on Twitter.

This article first appeared on EUobserver.comIt is published here with the author’s consent.

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The Mubarak regime’s legalised robbery

 
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By Osama Diab

Since the ‘Mubarak mafia’ were not outlaws but were the law, proving that Egypt’s lost billions were ill-gotten is an elusively difficult challenge.

Monday 17 September 2012

“Tell us Mubarak, how could a pilot make 70 billion?” protesters chanted during the 18-day revolution which ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February of last year. The chant was a reaction to reports that Mubarak’s family fortune could be as high as $70 billion.

I was part of a BBC investigation team that was formed to reveal unexposed facts about “Egypt’s Stolen Billions”. The team produced a documentary on unfrozen assets in the UK related to the Mubarak regime which was aired recently on BBC Arabic.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sA0mOBVvoG8&feature=share]

Decades of authoritarian corruption helped Mubarak and his family and friends accumulate tens of billions of pounds, leaving millions of Egyptians living in dire poverty. It is impossible to measure accurately the economic cost of Mubarak’s rule, but figures from the World Bank suggest that $134.4 billion (817 billion Egyptian pounds) worth  of public assets went missing over the past 30 years.

So far Switzerland has frozen $800 million and the the UK about $120 million in assets related to the Mubarak regime, but Egypt hasn’t yet seen a penny of it returned. To do so, Egypt must prove that the money was “ill-gotten” first.

“It is crucial that the recovery and return of stolen assets is lawful,” Alistair Burt, UK Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said in an official statement published on the website of the British embassy in Cairo last week. “It is simply not possible for the UK to deprive a person of their assets and return them to an overseas country in the absence of a criminal conviction and confiscation order.”

However, this statement, even though it sounds reasonable, ignores the legal challenges involved in proving the wrongdoings of the Mubarak regime.

To identify the truth amid the many rumours surrounding this sensational issue, it was necessary for the team to find solid and documented evidence of the systematic impoverishment of Egypt at the hands of its former rulers, who received the official status of being a network of organised crime from the Swiss government in May, as the BBC team has discovered.

During my quest in Cairo, I sipped tea and ate liver sandwiches on street cafes with dissident government officials. We spoke to economists, lawyers, activists, members of parliament and bankers over more than six months. Their reactions to our investigation ranged from daily calls to offer assistance to suspicion I was a spy working for the Mubaraks.

They were all trying relentlessly to expose facts about the Mubarak regime’s corruption. The problem is that they were trying to prove it according to existing laws which were put in place by the Mubarak institutions.

The parliament – which is responsible for drafting and passing legislation – was completely dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party through vote-buying, rigging and political intimidation.The cabinet was also dominated by businessmen belonging to the ruling party. Since 2004, the Council of Ministers was unofficially known as the “businessmen’s cabinet”.

Reda Eissa, an independent economic researcher, shows through his research how certain companies benefited from tax laws and breaks introduced by these institutions for their own benefit. Companies owned by figures close to the regime ended up paying almost no to very little taxes. The Six of October Development and Investment Company (SODIC), a real-estate giant by Mubarak’s in-law Magdy Rasekh, was paying about 0.5% in tax, according to Eissa’s study.

I found out from my sources that in Mubarak’s Egypt, the laws allowed some banks, such as the Arab International Bank (AIB), to escape the monitoring of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) or any other local authority. This meant that some Egyptian banks could transfer any sums of ill-gotten gains without the knowledge of the CBE. The transactions simply did not appear on any records accessible to the authorities as stated by the law.

The founding charter of the AIB, which was established as a joint project in 1974 between the governments of Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, states that the bank falls outside the authority of local governments and is therefore exempt from taxation, exchange controls and the CBE’s auditing regulations.

The bank was the subject of many allegations for being a channel for suspicious money transfers before, during and after the revolution. More than a year after the revolution, the bank finally responded by stating on its website that it falls under the jurisdiction and supervision of the Central Bank.

The team was also able to meet many dissident bureaucrats who have gathered hundreds of documents and are still struggling with them in the Egyptian courts. These dissident bureaucrats provided the BBC with proof of another “legal” practice which allowed for the exploitation of the country’s wealth. The government, namely the ministries of tourism and housing, had the legal authority to allocate land by  direct order at prices they decided to whomever they chose without recourse to any proper tendering process.

The bureaucrats gave us evidence that in many cases the land was gravely undervalued and given to either Mubarak’s in-laws or close friends. The documents, of which some are official government reports, show that due to this undervaluation Egypt has lost tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds in revenues – even though the practice was perfectly “legal”.

“We talk about $200 billion that were stolen illegally, but if you discuss the lawful mechanism that was unethical, we are talking about a trillion dollars,” says Mohamed Mahsoub, the current Minister of Legal Affairs in the recently-appointed cabinet.

When a mafia-like group ‘owns’ a state with its legislative, judicial and executive powers, corruption no longer becomes illegal. This ‘organised crime’ network, fostered by the family of Egypt’s ousted dictator, was not operating outside the law, because they were the law – in fact, they were everything.

Laws were simply drafted by them for their benefit. Law enforcement institutions were also their own private property. Accordingly, any effort to prove the Mubarak regime money was ill-gotten should not focus on whether they brok laws of their own making. What is acquired on illegitimate grounds should, by extension, also be illegal. The focus instead should be on the much easier task of proving the regime was an unelected dictatorship which benefited financially from being in power, even if on paper, it was all “legal”.

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter

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Egypt’s middle-class cyberheroes

 
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By Osama Diab

Social networking and blogging voices the dreams and aspirations of the young and middle-class in Egypt, leaving other underrepresented groups as marginalised as ever.

Friday 25 November 2011

News of the prominent and outspoken Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy’s arrest and assault, which left her with two broken wrists, spread around the twittersphere at something approaching the speed of light, and then was picked up and covered by most major news outlets. Of course, this level of attention is unsurprising as Eltahawy is not only a brave journalist and campaigner, she is also well-known and admired both among Arab secularists and among liberals in the West.

When Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the Egyptian political activist and blogger, was arrested, my Facebook newsfeed, in a matter of minutes, was dominated by posts condemning his arrest. Profile pictures were changed to a Guevara-style silhouette version of his picture in solidarity with the young activist. He was quickly portrayed as the ultimate freedom fighter and the symbol of resistance. He indeed is. Abdel-Fattah comes from a family of political activists and has been an active force of resistance against Mubarak’s tyrannical rule for nearly a decade. He extensively blogged and participated in numerous protests against the ousted and the current regimes.

Despite my empathy with Alaa Abdel-Fattah as a fellow blogger who fell victim to his opinions, he is neither the only nor the most vulnerable victim of Egypt’s successive ruthless regimes, including the current transitional military junta. Khaled Said, Mina Daniel, Maikel Nabil Sanad, and now Abdel-Fatah, have all caused online uproars following their arrest or killing. They are most definitely and without doubt victims, but so are tens of thousands of others whose cases go unreported because Egypt’s middle-class, educated online activists fail to identify with them.
Egypt’s internet demographics explain the selectivity of victims, heroes and symbolic figures in the country’s online struggle for democracy. The internet penetration rate is still a low 20%, which means that if you are a member of Egypt’s online population, you are most likely a member of an educated middle-class in a big metropolis, mainly Cairo and Alexandria.
There is also about a 65% chance that you’re a male, and about a 90% chance you’re aged between 13 and 34. In order to be an active contributor in cyberspace, you also require a certain level of technological expertise, such as video-editing and blog-managing skills, which again would probably be higher among educated, male and young users.
Even among active internet users, there are still different levels and shades of contribution – not everyone contributes equally or has the same impact. In 2006, a study carried out by Forrestry Survey found that only 13% of internet users are active creators or users generating, rather than just viewing, content, while the majority of users were described as ‘passive spectators’ (33%) and ‘inactive’ users (52%). In other words, the majority of internet users are there to view content with a very minimal contribution of opinion, information, etc.
What this means is that people who play an active role online are a tiny percentage, not just of the population at large but even of internet users. They are mainly young, middle-class, urban and predominantly male. Looking at these figures, it is no surprise that the revolution’s cyberheroes match the profile of the typical Egyptian Facebook user.

The background of the majority of social networkers dictates the narratives and views you find in Egyptian cyberspace.  This explains why it is very hard to find accounts of  other victims from different backgrounds in Egypt’s shanty towns and rural areasAge, gender, residence and social status are all factors that confine online participation and lobbying power to certain groups.
Online activism did undoubtedly play a big role in educating, raising awareness and mobilising people in the build-up to the Arab revolts of earlier this year. But if we have more men than women, urban  than rural people, young than old online, then these groups are better-positioned than others to mobilise, express their opinion and lobby policy-makers, even if young people have yet to make it in large numbers into mainstream politics. This poses a challenge to the whole idea that new social media are more empowering compared to traditional media outlets.
If empowerment is restricted to certain groups of people, then social media kind of loses its perceived altruistic nature. Even the very idea of media empowerment was also introduced in cyberspace by those very people empowered by the media. This participatory media was  utilised by educated online communities to make up for the lack of democracy in the real world. Being unable to vote or affect public policy for decades has made the internet a haven for those who long for political rights and desire to play an active part in shaping their own future and the public policy of their country. Therefore, an old, illiterate farmer’s wife in a Nile Delta village will probably be a lot more sceptical about how Facebook can empower her.
In a way, this is reminiscent to when only white male Protestants were allowed to vote in the United States – a strategy employed to shape public policy in favour of a certain privileged group. Even though it is logistically and practically impossible to connect every Egyptian to the internet and get them to participate equally, especially when the illiteracy rate is still as high as 30% and nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. However, we can still find some consolation in the fact that more and more people are coming online every day. The number of internet users is expected to rise exponentially by 2012, which will enable more people to learn some of the 21st century’s tricks of grassroots, bottom-up campaigning.

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Sexual harassment: No online way out

 
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Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more.

 Monday 20 June 2011

Today is a day dedicated to blogging about sexual harassment. The idea is for all the bloggers in Egypt and outside it to raise awareness about the issue by writing about it – all on the same day. However, I always ask myself, does the average sexual harasser who would hiss at and follow a high school girl in Dokki or grope a tourist walking down Tala’at Harb Street read these blogs (many of which are written in English) or even hear about them? The answer is an obvious ‘no’.

Internet usage in Egypt is still largely confined to educated circles. If you surf the web for knowledge (other than pornographic knowledge) in Egypt, read blogs and have a Facebook account, then you are most likely a university student/graduate and probably a member of at least the middle class and most likely wouldn’t around groping that high school girl around the corner. 

So how could we avoid turning this event into ‘people who think sexual harassment is bad’ writing for ‘other people who also think sexual harassment is bad’ in an infinite loop, where everyone is exchanging similar information, knowledge and opinions in our beloved political blogospheric circle, instead of trying to think and act outside this circle.

At the end of today, we will all feel quite good about our contributions and think we must be on the right track, but even though I hate to be the bearer of bad news, we really aren’t. In fact, sexual harassment is just so ingrained that even the toughest stain-removal blogging won’t be able to wash it off.

In order to combat sexual harassment, a consensus among those who blog about it today needs to be reached that there are a complicated and inextricably intertwined mix of social, economic and political reasons behind it.

Let’s take a quick look at the economic factor. It’s not only extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions that lead people to sexual harassment; many poor societies don’t suffer from this social cancer the same way Egypt does, after all.

It is this weird urban mix of dire poverty and extreme wealth which creates this immense feeling of social frustrations and anger at rich people. The victims of this kind of poverty-driven sexual harassment are usually the wealthy western-dressed girls driving around the city in their luxury cars, who embody, in the eyes of their tormentors, the lack of social justice, while their perceived physical and social vulnerabilitymakes them easy prey to these economic and social frustrations. So here, the magic ingredients of this distasteful dish of sexual harassment are poverty and social injustice, mixed in with a potent dose of misogyny. 

Part of being a ‘Man’ in our patriarchal society is to be sexually explicit by showing sexual interest in everything that even hints at femininity. If a group of teenagers hanging around a street corner see a girl passing by and one of them refrains from oogling her out or making a remark about her, let alone ask the other guys to stop it, he would probably end up on the receiving end of their derision and mockery. Victims of this type of harassment are usually the less fortunate girls who are forced into commuting their way around the city and rubbing shoulders with hundreds, if not thousands of men, on a daily basis.

This kind of male peer pressure also increases the chance of sexual harassment. This again is combined with economic reasons; a high unemployment rate and poor economic conditions increase the number of young guys wandering aimlessly around the streets of Egypt. They have endless hours on their hands, due to the lack of work, and little financial ability to do anything meaningful to kill time.

The conservative solution of enforcing gender segregation is not working either but could be possibly increasing sexual harassment. Gender segregation would only widen the communication gap between men and women, creating more gender-based social problems, such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. We should not give up on trying to solve a long-term problem through short-term ‘comfort ‘ measures, such as women-only metro cars and beaches.

As for the political aspect of the problem, it is simply the political system that allowed for these economic and social misfortunes to flourish and control our lifestyle. Additionally, it is the authoritarian political system that stripped many citizens off their dignity to the extent that they see no problem in infringing on someone’s privacy and personal space without invitation. The slightest sense of self-respect would stop any individual from doing that out of embarrassment, even if they continue to harbour misogynistic beliefs.

Even though I see the nobility of the intentions behind calling the 20 June a day for blogging about sexual harassment, this unedifying phenomenon cannot be blogged away as long as the reasons behind it are not tackled. Even if we reach a million blog entries today, there will still be a zillion sexual harassment incidents tomorrow.

A more holistic approach is needed when combating sexual harassment, and the only entity that has the ability to address this inter-connected complex situation comprehensively and put a framework for solving it on the political, social, economic, legal and security levels is the government. Therefore, the Egyptian blogosphere’s main duty should be to lobby the government to do more through its education programmes, media apparatus, poverty alleviation schemes and the establishment of a more socially just atmosphere, rather than trying to address the harassers because they are simply not listening.

This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Baksheesh and social tipping points

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s ‘baksheesh’ culture helps poor people get by and maintains relative social peace, but it encourages subservience.

21 January 2011

One sure sign that I’ve arrived in Egypt is that my wallet and pockets suddenly get fatter as they pile on the Egyptian pounds to deal with the country’s largely cash-based economy. In addition, I always endeavour to carry plenty of lower denomination banknotes to facilitate the prodigious amount of tipping ahead.

With the relative uncommonness of tipping in northern Europe, I experience quite a culture shock for the first few days of any visit. In Belgium, tipping is only common at restaurants and occasionally at bars, though quite a few Belgians I know never tip.

In Egypt, leaving sweeteners at eateries is only the tip of the tipping iceberg. Alongside haggling, tipping is a pervasive feature of the Egyptian economy. Millions of Egyptians depend on these gratuities for their survival and exist in a kind of parallel ‘baksheesh economy‘, abandoned by government and employers alike. In fact, the cynic in me might quip that, with the grinding poverty, neglect, marginalisation and disempowerment that poor Egyptians endure, tips could be the only change, loose as it might be, that some are willing to believe in.

In a country with high unemployment and overflowing with surplus labour, well-off Egyptians tip everyone from deliverymen, unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants to the even less necessary toilet attendants who hand them a napkin to dry their hands and the bagger who packs their shopping at the checkout.

Expat Egyptians are often expected to go that extra mile, and dig deeper into their pockets and tip at a greater angle than locals. By the end of any visit to Egypt, I experience something akin to tipping fatigue.

My wife speaks fluent Arabic, is streetwise and can haggle better than a local, but the language of baksheesh is one she’s never warmed to nor cared to master. Despite years of experience and my awareness of the economic importance of tipping, I also dislike the practice which, I am well aware, I unwittingly connive in perpetuating.

When I pay baksheesh, I do so partly because it is a social norm but mostly out of a sense of guilt at the wide economic gulf generally separating me from the person I am tipping. And in a society where the LE 35 minimum monthly wage (less than £4) is irrelevant, where labour protection is a joke and where social safety nets are tattered and threadbare, baksheesh helps somewhat to redistribute wealth and, at its best, is an informal expression of social solidarity and cohesion.

But, as my wife rightly points out, baksheesh is neither the most efficient nor the fairest way of seeking greater socio-economic justice. For people like me who believe in equality and egalitarianism, part of the problem is that baksheesh reward subservience, punish dignity and encourage a master-servant sort of mentality between the well-off and the poor.

Though tips may take the edge off poverty and maintain social peace, looked at unflatteringly, they also serve to keep the poor in their place by constantly reminding them of how their economic survival is not down to their hard work but due to the patronage of their “betters”.

In anticipation of a tip, ingratiation and hypocrisy are often the order of the day, though I make a point of tipping less or not at all in such circumstances. Very proud workers might forgo tips which, for many menial service sector jobs, is tantamount to financial suicide, while others will swallow their pride at the altar of economic survival, which necessitates that the sensitive tipper must try his best to be subtle and considerate when tipping them.

Baksheesh also provide employers in the service sector with the opportunity to dump the responsibility for their workers on to the customers’ laps and, hence, act as a disincentive to work, except in circumstances where a tip is forthcoming.

The baksheesh culture makes it difficult to read the intentions of certain strangers and decide whether they’re doing you a favour out of the goodness of their heart or in anticipation of your papering their palm with banknotes. Misread the signals and you could end up unintentionally insulting a generous stranger or being insulted by a mean one. The same can also apply to poorer people you know personally.

Far more troubling is how the baksheesh culture has become endemic, over the past few decades, in the underpaid civil service and public sector, which, one could say, has effectively privatised the government and made it accessible only to those who can pay.

Though I too have been guilty of discreetly greasing some palms to expedite paperwork to which I’m entitled, the occasions on which I have done this have left me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of self-loathing and a “never again” vow.

Usually, however, I obstinately refuse to pay which brings along its own set of frustrations in the form of stonewalling, bureaucratic origami and long and winding paper trails. A few years ago, my wife and I gave up, in anger and frustration, on registering our marriage in Egypt because it was transforming our holiday into a helly-day, and I’ve yet to pluck up the courage to try to register our son’s birth.

As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty. On the down side, tips provide poor incentives to work, create subservience and even promote petty corruption. And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 6 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Just say moo

 
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By Osama Diab

Animal rights activists are calling for global vegetarianism, but the Middle East is not ready to sacrifice its meat-eating lifestyle.

9 November 2010

As you sit down at the iftar table, you sneak a glance at the chicken, bulti and mouza (beef shank) fattah on your family’s plates. And then you load your dish up with koshari, tomato and cucumber salad, and as a special treat, meatless mahshi (stuffed vegetables).

Hard to imagine? The idea of choosing to follow a vegetarian diet isn’t new to the Western world, but in the Middle East, the notion is still novel. The American animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to change that. PETA has recently become active in the region, but the organisation — which works to stop the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific experiments — is facing an uphill battle.

However, that hasn’t stopped PETA from trying to promote vegetarianism in the region through several characteristically quirky initiatives.

In Amman in July, a Jordanian PETA activist wearing a green ankle-length gown covered in lettuce was arrested for trying to conduct what police said was an “unauthorised” one-woman demonstration; she was carrying a sign urging “Let vegetarianism grow on you” in Arabic. At least the police had a sense of humour about the incident: according a 25 July AFP report, the woman was escorted to a restaurant to change her outfit before heading to the police station.

July was a busy month for PETA. Here at home, PETA recruited two women in tight white t-shirts, black mini-skirts and red leggings to dump a large mound of red chili peppers on one of Mohandiseen’s main streets and wave placards with “Spice up your life, go vegetarian.” As Daily News Egypt reported on 18 July, the move backfired: people rushed to collect as many free peppers as they could, with two women even coming to blows over the coveted chilis, which sell for as high as LE 10 per kilogram on the local market.

“Of course, I will not stop eating meat, however expensive it may be,” restaurant owner Mohamed Hassan told the Daily News Egypt. “But now I have a whole lot of peppers, which should last me at least three days.”

Suffice it to say that the Middle East isn’t exactly fertile ground for promoting a lifestyle free of animal products.

A Western lecture
Due to a long history of Western imperialism and foreign intervention in the region, many Egyptians are sensitive to and sceptical about anything that seems to be handed down from on high by the West, especially the United States. There must be some hidden agenda behind it, the argument goes.

Manar Ammar, a local PETA volunteer and animal rights activist, disagrees that a vegetarian lifestyle is too foreign a concept to catch on here. Ammar is a vegan, meaning she does not eat any meat, eggs, dairy and any food prepared or processed with any type of animal product. In support of this philosophy, she cites Surat al-Anaam (Livestock), verse 38 from the Qur’an: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.”

“Ali Ibn Abi Taleb [son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)] said ‘Do not make your stomachs become the graveyard of animals’ long before PETA ever existed,” she adds.

She argues that the notion that vegetarianism is a form of cultural imperialism is wrong. “However, the true cultural imperialism is adopting factory farming from the West and applying it here,” she says.

Even without a hidden agenda, PETA’s push for vegetarianism seems culturally clueless in countries where the charitable distribution of meat is an integral part of Islam and common social customs.

Muslims believe that after Prophet Abraham proved his obedience to God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Ismail, God stayed the prophet’s hand and sent a sheep to be sacrificed in the boy’s stead. On Eid el-Adha, every Muslim able to afford it sacrifices an animal as a symbol of Abraham’s devotion to God, and distributes the meat among family members and the poor. The nation’s poor already follow a vegetarian diet based on fuul and taamiya out of necessity, and for many this is the one time of year when they get meat.

While distributing molokheyya and mahshi might be equally appreciated, the religious symbolism of the holiday would be seriously watered down.

Distributing meat is not just a religious duty, but a sign of social status, wealth and generosity. As such, an ‘ordehi‘ (meatless) meal has a negative connotation for many of us, and is considered a gift of lesser quality. It is hard to imagine that celebrations, such as births, weddings and Ramadan iftars without meat or even our beloved Sham al-Neseem holiday without fish and eggs.

Egypt flirted briefly with vegetarianism as a public policy, but had to abandon the effort. In the 1970s, with the price of meat skyrocketing, the government attempted to promote a vegetarian diet for economic reasons. The campaign tried to convince people that plant-based food, such as protein-rich fuul, was a healthier option than our four-footed brethren.

In response, satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote one of his most famous poems, Il Fuul wil Lahma (The beans and the meat), with tongue-in-cheek verses announcing that the writer would rather die eating meat than live eating beans.

It’s a sentiment many of us seem to share. “I can’t imagine Egyptians giving up meat,” says Abdulrahman Sherif, a businessman. “Rich Egyptians just can’t live without meat, while poor Egyptians can’t live without at least looking forward to it.”

Saving the world with veggies

Activists like Ammar are hopeful that this climate can change if people understand the economic, health and environmental repercussions of eating meat.

“Poor people will not be giving up meat for animals rights but rather for human rights, for their own right to be fed all year round instead of one day each year,” the PETA volunteer says. She claims that to produce one kilo of meat, 16 kilos of feed are required. “Now imagine if all that land is used to grow vegetables, grains and fruits instead of feed, every one will be fed.”

While reallocating resources away from meat production may yield more food, it ignores the fact that there is already enough food to begin with. On the Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) notes there is “enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life”. According to the WFP, “the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment,” along with recent financial hardship that have hit families in recent years.

Ammar believes that Islam glorifies humbleness, compassion and looking after one’s health more than it promotes meat. “The Prophet (PBUH) was a semi vegetarian according to many trusted sources. He ate meat rarely and even washed up after eating camel meat. Islam calls for sustainable ways of living in harmony with the planet and its creatures. Throughout the Qur’an, the miracle of creation and animal diversity is very obvious and repeated.”

While vegetarianism (at least by choice) is currently practised by a handful of the nation’s educated elite who might perceive it as the cool thing to do, Ammar is confident that when people are educated about the lifestyle, they will adopt it as a way of healthier living that can save the environment and spread compassion.

It is possible that people will adopt a more healthy and environmentally friendly life when they are educated about it. But there are many other things this nation needs to learn first, such as skills to support themselves and their families. One-third of the country’s population is illiterate and almost half live on less than two dollars a day. Many unprivileged Egyptians struggle to put food on the table – any food, and they have more pressing issues than to watch what they eat.

That said, the way in which meat is produced remains a significant problem and one that should be addressed. A 2006 United Nations study titled Livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options states that “[Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.”

Air pollution, water shortages, climate change and land degradation are all issues of critical concerns to us as a nation, and they have more complex causes than just simply global meat production. Some sort of action is certainly needed, but convincing people one by one to give up meat may not be the quickest or most effective way to solve these problems.

Vegetarians are confident that what they’re preaching will certainly lead to results. Given the cultural climate and PETA’s oddball attempts thus far to change hearts and minds, however, don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, pass the shawerma.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved

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Egypt’s heartless economic growth

 
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 By Osama Diab

Economic growth in Egypt has mainly benefited the well-off, with many of the poor falling off the tightrope of the poverty line.

18 October 2010

Two and a half years ago, a usually hectic Cairo became quiet and empty. It was the afternoon on a working day, when streets are normally congested with endless queues of cars. Government officials blamed the lull in activity on a sandstorm. But it wasn’t sand that kept people at home – it was a storm of anger, sparked by textile workers in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla.

On 6 April 2008, Mahalla carved out its name as a centre of labour resistance. A hundred kilometres away, much of Cairo went on a general strike in solidarity with Mahalla’s textile workers. Many across the nation also went on strike at home or protested in solidarity with them. And many have continued to commemorate the date of 6 April in the years following by staging demonstrations. There is also a prominent opposition youth movement named after the 6 April events.

While the city of Mahalla was literally set on fire due to clashes between the police and the public, government officials in Cairo were busy concentrating on their goals of achieving high economic growth rates and attracting foreign investment. The Egyptian cabinet prides itself on recent signs of economic wealth. Egypt’s economy (nominal GDP) has tripled in less than 10 years, from LE373.6 billion in 2001 to LE1,008 billion in 2009. All economic performance indicators have been positive, especially since the appointment of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s cabinet (aka the ‘businessmen cabinet’) in 2004. 

Investment has also been flooding into the country in large amounts, making Egypt a major destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Middle East and Africa. In 2001, Egypt received US$500 million in FDI, which increased 24-fold to US$12 billion in 2007, according to the World Investment Report.

It wasn’t long before the new money became visible. North Coast resorts, Italian designer shops, international high-end cuisine from all over the world, and mansions and luxury compounds springing up in New Cairo and 6 October City are all signs of this newfound wealth. Ahmed Ezz, businessman and National Democratic Party secretary-general for organisational affairs, famously argued that the increasing sales of luxury cars are living proof that Egypt is much more prosperous now than before. But, more accurately, these increased sales are living proof that the 1% of Egyptians who can now afford luxury cars are more prosperous.

No one can deny the rapid expansion of Egypt’s economy in the past decade. Egypt saw high growth rates of 7% for three consecutive years prior to the global economic downturn. The government is proud, but is the average Egyptian also proud?

Not really, because it was only when Egypt was witnessing this impressive yet questionable growth that labour strikes spread like wildfire. Social tension, if not social unrest, is on the rise, and political stability is at stake. 

Despite significant growth and the flow of large amounts of cash, many Egyptians still struggle to put food on the table. Labour strikes have been increasing in number as a new way of demanding change. It is obvious to any observer that something has gone wrong: the new money was not enough to stabilise the country socially and politically. On the contrary, an increase in negative social and political vibes have coincided with positive growth, an irony many experts and analysts are trying to grasp.

“We want to reach the poverty line”

Hundreds of strikes have been calling for the settlement of overdue payments or an increase in extremely low wages. A climax was reached on labour day this May when Egypt’s workers collectively demanded a minimum wage of LE1,200. Their slogan was “We want to reach the poverty line.”

With all the ostentatious signs of wealth and prosperity surrounding Egypt’s poverty-stricken, and with high inflation triggered by rapid economic growth, LE1,200 seems to be only just adequate for workers to survive. But the government does not agree.

It seems that Egypt’s government suffers from its businessman mindset. It is happy that the country is making profit, but fails to recognise there are other aspects to a country that need to be addressed: a nation is not just an enterprise.

The missing link in Egypt’s development formula is the social and political dimension neglected by the Nazif cabinet . The cabinet runs the country in the same way its members run the companies they own, where the only goal is to make profits on the balance sheet at the end of the year.

They also see a booming economy in the circles of the other businessman they are surrounded by, and it can be observed, from their statements – such as Ahmed Ezz’s pronouncement on luxury car purchases – how isolated they are from reality.

Trickle-down should not be left to nature

The government has been promising Egyptians that trickle-down will eventually happen and that citizens must wait and be patient before they can reap the harvest of economic growth, when the wealth trickles down to all layers of society.

We have been patient, but everything seems to be going in the opposite direction. According to the Human Development Report of 2010, Egypt ranks 123 out of 182 when it comes to income equality, with the richest 10% controlling 27.6% of Egypt’s wealth. Egypt ranked 111 out of 177 in the 2006 report.

According to Ahmed el-Sayed el-Naggar, economist and editor-in-chief of the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies’ annual economic report, there are two things that are vital if the whole of society is going to benefit from economic growth and if income is to be distributed more equally: taxes and wages.

One of the main objectives of taxation is redistributing wealth. In most tax systems, the more you make , the greater the percentage the government charges you in order to carry out its infrastructure projects and offer social services, such as pensions, healthcare, and so on.

In Egypt, there are only three tax brackets, with the highest starting at LE40,000 a year (LE3,333 a month). In other words, citizens making LE40,000 a year are positioned in the same bracket as those who make hundreds of millions. According to el-Naggar, the fewer tax brackets there are, the less efficient and the more unequal the system is. Imposing higher rates on upper-bracket income is a conventional and well-known way to redistribute wealth, he says.

Let’s compare the tax system in Egypt with that of other countries. In the United States, the bastion of capitalism, the highest income tax band is 35%, while it reaches 52% in some European countries, such as the Netherlands. In Egypt, Law 91/2005 reduced the highest income tax band from 42% to just 20%, as part of the government?s tax reform plan.

el-Naggar believes the current wage system in Egypt is one of the worst in the world. “It forces people to take bribes and steal, because it’s impossible to live off that income,” he says.

According to el-Naggar, the minimum wage in the government for a university graduate is LE108, which is only enough to buy 2.5kg of meat. In contrast, in 1979, the minimum wage for graduates was LE28, which was worth 35kg of meat. “So even if we have growth, the upper class is in total control of the newly obtained wealth,” says el-Naggar.

“The growth was more in the financial economy than the real productive economy,” explains el-Naggar. “The other thing is that growth is not real unless accompanied by social policies that improve the distribution of wealth through having a fair wage system, a fair taxation system, and a fair subsidy system.”

 This article was first published in the al-Borsa newspaper on 26 September 2010. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Osama Diab.

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