Sunday, June 15, 2008

Big Brother gets in on the Telecom Game

If you've traveled before and bought a SIM card for your international phone (since the US refuses to join the GSM revolution and provide customers with phones that can be used elsewhere) you probably had to give them a photocopy of your passport. Well, now Egyptians have to provide identification to use their phones as well.

"The National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority requested that mobile phone operators block service to anonymous subscribers as a public security measure. Vodafone, Mobinil and Itisalat have reportedly started disabling text-messaging capabilities for anonymous subscribers. The measure has affected several hundred thousand customers who did not register their names and addresses when they bought phone lines."

Critics claim this is to monitor political opposition - so phones used to send mass SMS messages to organize protests/strikes, etc. can be monitored. Regimes are always a little behind politically motivated youth in discovering technologically sophisticated ways to engage in political opposition - looks like they're finally catching up.

Buried in the back pages of the NYTimes - this is why peace is elusive

"Israel announced plans to build 1,300 more houses in East Jerusalem, angering Palestinians who warned that such plans threatened chances for a peace accord by the end of the year. The announcement brought to more than 3,000 the number of houses that Israel has approved for construction since the renewal of the peace talks on land that Palestinians think should be part of a Palestinian state. Palestinian negotiators condemned the latest plan, while Israeli officials said that most of the proposed housing would be on land that Israel has already annexed."

Yes, East Jerusalem is supposed to be Palestinian Jerusalem (the other half of Jerusalem for the Jewish population). This in addition to the leaked White House memo that gave Olmert the go-ahead to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

I visited the Israeli Embassy about one month ago (shortly before I left for Egypt). The meeting was meant to be a briefing of the political situation in Jerusalem for the undergraduate students with whom I was traveling as a teaching assistant. Instead of a briefing we got an introductory class in propaganda (which was either extremely insulting: ie, the Israeli diplomat thought we were all so ignorant of Middle East politics as to believe the BS he was spouting, or extremely flattering: ie, the same diplomat thought some of us had some connections with the foreign policy establishment that would merit him taking the time to try to indoctrinate us). Either way, the theme of the talk was that the conflict with the Palestinians was a tertiary matter and that Ahmadinijad's Iran was a modern day incarnation of Nazi Germany (and yes, he did make this explicit comparison). He basically said that if we don't get off our pacifist-Middle class-social justice-seeking petards and bomb Iran the whole world will soon be in flames. Where do they find these people?

Fixing Egypt's Educational System

One of the legacies of Nasser's social policies was a state-funded educational system that is free to all those who achieve qualifying scores (which makes the dreaded secondary school exams in Egypt the biggest event in many students' lives). Their scores on these exams determine which school they attend (Cairo University being generally considered the best of the public schools) and which faculties they will be placed in (Engineering, Computer Science being the most coveted, Law and Education being closer to the bottom). The upside is that education is free for all (in contrast to the US system where higher education costs are skyrocketing). The downside is that the schools are overcrowded (about a quarter of a million students in each of the major state universities); the faculty are severely underpaid (which either means they can't get good faculty or they have to moonlight with menial jobs to make ends meet). When I recently visited some of Egypt's universities during exam time even the hallways of the universities were filled with desks to accommodate students.

Another result of the overstretched state education system is that students have to supplement their public education with extra fee-based courses (like computer certification programs run by private businesses) in order to set them apart from their colleagues. There is also a recent proliferation of for-profit private universities being established by wealthy entrepreneurs to serve Egypt's upper class. I visited one of these universities recently (Future University: pictured here) and it had state-of-the-art equipment for its medical and engineering schools and very nice lecture halls with stadium seating. Of course these schools are only available for the uber-wealthy - with tuition being around $5,000/year, much more than most Egyptians take home in a year.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Dumbing Down Democracy

I've seen a couple of condemnations of this NYTimes article floating around the blogosphere. The primary criticism is that it seems to suggest that Egyptians harbor some nationalist pride that is hurt when foreign leaders criticize their own government. My estimation is that this is incorrect - it isn't that Bush criticized some beloved figure in Hosni Mubarak - it was that Bush deigned to criticize the Egyptian government for actions the US is also guilty of (human rights abuses in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, supporting Israel's blockade of Gaza, funding corrupt Arab regimes, financing secret prisons in Eastern European countries, etc.) I have spoken with a few government officials and numerous academics: the bottom line is that Bush's remarks are condescending (his speeches are littered with words like "teaching," "tutoring," "nurturing," and "fostering)." If the Bush administration is setting any example at all it is to flout international law and consensus and pursue unilateral foreign policy without regard to international norms. One government official said Bush: “spoke as a professor trying to give lessons.” And this was directly after leaving Israel to celebrate its 60th Birthday (at a time when Egyptian support for Israel's blockade of Gaza is a particularly contentious subject in the domestic political scene).

Strikes in Egypt - Gaining Ground or Losing Out?

There seems to be two distinct views of the recent waves of strikes in Egypt. One side cites the relatively low turnout of the planned strikes that took place several weeks ago. This side also points to the decline of the public sector (where most union activity historically took place) and the resentment of the official state-sponsored labor unions run by discredited regime touts. The private sector, so goes the reasoning, is much less amenable to unionization not only because it can be grounds for dismissal, but also because these factories are often isolated (far away from city centers where political activity is at its highest) and smaller than their public sector predecessors. They also claim that the government has given in to public sector strikers (usually for an increase in wages) in attempts to mollify the workers before the plant is privatized - thus paving the way for the disappearance of the unions altogether.

The alternative view is that the wave of strikes is something new (not seen since the middle of the century) and combined with the bread riots and the skyrocketing cost of living, presents a generally new direction in state-labor relations. The decline in standards of living, combined with the increasing poverty level (from 16% in 2000 to almost 20% in 2005), the police presence and repression of political dissent, and the regime's unpopular policy to police the border with Gaza (to buttress the Israeli regimes blockade of Palestinians) seems enough to spark major social unrest, whether in the form of labor strikes or protests with the main political opposition, the Muslim Brothers.

Gender in the Middle East

Gender in the Middle East is a perennial hot topic, and there's a few topics that come up again and again (women in the workplace, family planning, women in Islam, etc.) But one strange policy I've noticed is that groups of young men are not allowed into certain establishments unless they bring an equal number of young women with them. I first encountered this in Lebanon in Monoe (sp?) where groups of foreign men from AUB would ask us (the girls) to go with them to neighborhood bars so they could get in. I noticed it again when I booked a reservation at a jazz club in Cairo - the reservation system said "couples only" - and explained that too much testosterone ruins any party (which I wholeheartedly agree with).

But this policy does belie a more systemic problem: too many unemployed or underemployed young males with too much time on their hands. The higher education system in Egypt (although free to all those who achieve qualifying grades on their secondary school exams) is very poor, and the job market is too small even to accommodate those who graduate with the necessary skills. The result is large roving bands of shabab getting in street fights and otherwise causing trouble. I have noticed an inordinately large number of sports clubs (gyms) - maybe this is an effort to deal with the problem?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Police

The police are everywhere! We've been to five universities since we've arrived, and armed personnel and paddy wagons (anywhere from 1-3 vehicles) have been stationed at the main gates to all the public universities (higher education in Egypt is free – with the exception of AUC – where I saw the most guards). The one exception was the Future University – a for-profit private school established to serve the wealthy families of the New Cairo Developments. In contrast to the public universities, with their aging infrastructure, inadequate facilities and low-paid faculty (some universities have around ¼ million students) – the new private universities look like space age monstrosities: the one I visited was built in the shape of the Roman Coliseum, but with silver steel accents and blue tinted windows. In addition to the campus installations, there's lookout towers everywhere (although the windows are so dirty I don't see how they do much looking). There's also guards stationed along the expressways, up on perches that make them level with the road (they're in little white cubbies that remind me of something you'd find in the children's reading room at a library).

Every time . . . .

Every time I travel in the Middle East I make so many female friends . . . and I learn to dislike men even more. I know that it's a function of under-education, poverty and joblessness, but women (even their own women) are treated as sex objects. I always expect to be jeered at, and to be forced to change my behavior (like cross the street, or not sit down at a certain cafe) to avoid groups of males. But I was walking with one of my Egyptian female friends today (she was wearing hijab), and because we were walking on a highway (waiting for a taxi in front of my hotel) at least 5 cars beeped and pulled over all in a manner of minutes. She jerked me aside and told me to walk the other way. I didn't understand why, but she told me that any women walking on a street like this alone (even with a headscarf) is considered a prostitute. So - not only is reasonable behavior considered a sign of loose morals, but there's also an inordinate number of Egyptian men cruising for prostitutes at 2 in the afternoon. I know the matter is more complicated (we have parallels in our own society, etc.) but it just really pisses me off.

Egypt's Nouveau Riche

I was absolutely shocked when I saw the new real estate developments going up on the edges of Cairo (these developments have names like "New Cairo," "Hyde Park," "Fern Valley," "Palm Sands," etc. At first impression they look like an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean. There's a huge main gate (comparable in size to the façade of a large grocery store) with the name of the development complex usually in stand-alone letters (ala the Hollywood sign) surrounded by perfectly manicured landscapes. The homes themselves are almost unbelievable. These aren't McMansions – they're compounds (usually in Spanish-Mediterranean or French-Rococo styles – the more ostentatious the better). They have armed guards stationed at regular intervals, and many of the larger developments have their own private schools for the residents' children (these buildings rival some of the grandest mosques I've seen during my travels – particularly Shrouk Academy in the new Shrouk development).

From the looks of it many of the houses remain empty. This is in contrast to the rest of Cairo - where overcrowding and population concentration around the Nile have been perennial problems for the government since the 1960s. Of course these homes come with all the most modern amenities, again in contrast to the rest of Cairenes, many of whom still practice un-mechanized cultivation (you can see them bent over in the fields along the Nile delta from the main Cairo highway).

Construction and real estate are two of the biggest growth sectors in Egypt – both dominated by the military (it buys most of the land from the government at subsidized prices, develops it and resells it for huge profits and it dominates the building materials industry (cement, etc.) I did notice that some sort of military complex was adjacent to one of the largest new developments – there were training fields, barracks and lookout towers (another ubiquitous part of Cairo's architecture: the panopticon).

The Star City Shopping Center is another sign of the rising class of uber rich. The huge structure (financed by Saudi investors) covers a few city blocks and is flanked by tall Pharonic Statues and various manifestations of the Sphinx. It's also gated – and anyone who doesn't look the part of shopper is quickly ushered away by armed security personnel. Inside you're greeted by a huge incense burner that fills the foyer with (a bit too much) perfume. Inside you'll find all the stores you would find in any shopping center in the US (and many European chains you wouldn't find – like the French company Vero Moda, Mango, etc). I didn't get much chance to peruse, but there's also many upscale coffee shops, home décor stores, electronics stores, a Virgin Megastore, and of course a prayer room (conveniently located next to the bathrooms – where many women were doing their ablutions in the sinks).