Posts Tagged ‘Cairo’

flagsLast week prominent international relations scholar, and my personal academic idol, Stephen Walt published an insightful Foreign Policy article entitled “National Stupidity: In International Relations, Pride Goeth Before a Fall.” Inside his article, Walt outlines the valuable role that nationalism — the sentiment, belief, or feeling of identification with a particular nation — played in purging the world of some of its greatest historic afflictions (such as the rampant colonialism demonstrated by the British, French, Ottomans, and so on).  Nationalism is alive and well in modern international relations. Glancing across headlines, we rarely see a week go by where ethnic Kurds don’t flex their nationalist muscles against their Iraqi, Syrian, or Turkish overlords. Looking eastward, major Asian powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been spatting over a series of contested rocks in the South China Sea that may or may not possess the catalytic lifeblood of most geopolitical conflicts: oil. While I agree with Walt that nationalism has negatively pervaded many of the most critical foreign policy headaches currently plaguing wonks worldwide, I think there’s a bit more to the nationalism onion that needs peeling back.

Victimization, what I loosely define as the feeling of being wronged, slighted, or harmed, has been politically operationalized to magnify nationalist sentiment for years. During my study of US-Iranian relations last semester, the underlying theme of victimization was constantly mentioned as a fundamental barrier to true social/cultural rapprochement between the two countries. Yes, major heads of state are participating in direct talks on nuclear, economic, and diplomatic prerogatives, but the feeling of victimization seems to be alive and well within both American and Iranian societies. In the opening minutes of Ben Affleck’s award-winning movie Argo, onlookers are greeted by chanting mobs, chador-adorned Iranian women, and crazed men scaling the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I have no doubt that these fleeting minutes of Hollywood storytelling did more to sully the image of modern Iran in the minds of the average American movie-goer than any poorly-scripted sabre rattle speech delivered by Senator Ted Cruz (TX) ever could. Similarly, annual footage of a handful of fanatical Iranians burning the American flag in celebration of their conquest of our “den of spies” back in 1979 isn’t making anyone more likely to endorse the easing of sanctions. The point is, the more we paint ourselves as victims of some wrongdoing – no matter how long ago that offense might have occurred – the less likely we are to see the current situation on the ground through a moderate lens, and the more likely our governments are to commandeer our sentiment in a way that promotes an “us versus them” foreign policy. We’re seeing Chinese emotions run high as Japanese leaders refuse to visit war shrines. We’re seeing Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire IDF twitterverse dedicate immense amounts of time and effort to publicize every Palestinian “threat” (despite Israeli vows to expand settlements amidst ongoing peace discussions – but that’s another story). We’re witnessing Bashar al-Assad and his regime loyalists emphatically denounce the efforts of foreign terrorists to destabilize his and the Syrian peoples’ homes, and we’re unfortunately seeing Egypt — my country of focus — descend into chaos.

cairo-bombingToday, on the eve of the third anniversary commemorating the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011, Egypt witnessed horrific (although predictable) violence inflicted against it. Three bombings rattled the Cairo metropolitan area in the early morning hours, and additional violence in form of a rudimentary bomb/clashes between protestors claimed the lives of at least a dozen more individuals. Though official spokesmen of the Egyptian regime were careful not to overtly blame the now outlawed, criminalized, detained, and terrorist-deemed Muslim Brotherhood for the attacks, surely few believe that the government is referring to anyone else as they vow to “pluck [these enemies] from the roots without mercy.” As General Sisi, President Mansour, and Prime Minister Beblawi continue to brandish the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization hell-bent on leading Egypt down the road to chaos, I fear that they may be snowballing to a point of no return. The more the anti-Morsi regime continues to portray themselves as under attack by the “others”, the more their exclusionary political platform will continue to take hold in the minds of the average Egyptian. Just as every Palestinian rockets serves the purpose of advancing Netanyahu’s right-wing ideology, every car bomb in Cairo will continue to reinforce Sisi/Mansour/Beblawi’s demonization of the Brotherhood – Egypt’s most powerful and organized political party. Granted, those that perpetrated the attacks of January 24th, the suicide bombing in Mansoura in December 2013, and other violence across the country last year, most likely have a political platform that mandates the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi as President. However, continually condemning the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization based on the violent acts of a few individuals who have decided to manifest their political frustrations in the form of irrational violence is a foolhardy maneuver at best. Lest these very esteemed Egyptian political figures forget their history, the Brotherhood is an organization born and raised in the shadows of Egyptian politics and society. The Brotherhood was able to recruit intellectuals, consolidate power, and foster political support while operating in an ambiguous grey zone of illegality for over 80 years. Now that the Brotherhood has had a taste of political power and legitimization, a taste that they subsequently squandered by trying to abruptly accrue additional political clout in November of 2012, you cannot put the qitta (cat) back in the haqeeba (bag) and expect them to acquiesce. The Brotherhood represented a very substantial proportion of the Egyptian population who now, after having fought and died in the streets of Cairo, have expressed solidarity with their fallen political comrades even as they are met with the barrel of a gun. Continuing to condemn 10 million+ Egyptians as the “others” will only lead to additional violence, alienation, and turmoil on par, or greater than that, which we have seen today.

Egyptians of all political affiliations, genders, ages, and religious identities are suffering. No one group stands to gain from the kind of senseless violence and political exclusivity that has become the norm in Egypt. sisiGeneral Sisi, poised as he may be to become Egypt’s next president, has a lot to learn about appealing to all Egyptians before he may effectively consider himself a representative and guardian of the people. Just as Walt mentioned that nationalism can be a saving grace during times of duress, times that Egypt is surely experiencing at the moment, nationalism derived from victimization may also be the divisive factor that plunges a state into destruction. Though I think Egypt is a long way away from descending into the kind of disorder that we are unfortunately witnessing in Syria, very frightening and foreboding paths are presenting themselves. I remember playing cards with my Egyptian friends during my waning hours in Cairo last summer, and we were stunned to listen to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of ongoing clashes between pro/anti-Morsi forces on the May 15 Bridge. Crowds were flinging Molotov cocktails, chipping up pieces of the road to throw at their adversaries, and indiscriminately firing birdshot at each other with a level of furor never before seen. Though Eygptians are very proud of their ability to elicit change on January 25/June 30, they were shocked to see the type of widespread violence that their countrymen were inflicting upon each other. “Egyptians are not like this. We are not like Afghans, Syrians, or Iraqis,” I recall them saying. Now, more than 6 months after my departure from Cairo, I see the trend of mutual-victimization taking over more than I ever could have expected. If such violence is capable in Cairo, the umm al-dunya of all places, it is sadly no longer preposterous to start juxtaposing Egypt with the ongoing conflict in Syria. Walt’s article on nationalism could not have been more relevant given current developments in Egypt and around the world, however the idea of politically-instrumentalized victimization is not something that needs to be written about in prominent magazines to be pertinent. Victimization is a tool used by both the weak and strong to rally public support, and current events would suggest that world powers are increasingly viewing their adversaries through this lens. I fear that today’s violence in Egypt will serve as prelude to even bolder attacks on major metropolitan areas around the country, and that the responses handed down by the Egyptian security forces will plunge the country into even greater dichotomy. As former-president Morsi’s trial finally ensues, and as General Sisi prepares to assume his throne, Egyptians should strive to scale back the victimized undertones and make an effort to enact political decisions with the whole of the Egyptian people – women, youth, Muslim Brothers, etc. – in mind. The more the current regime tries to stifle the Brotherhood and simultaneously cast themselves as victims of the Ikhwan’s terrorism, the more likely their exaggerated condemnations will turn in to self-fulfilling prophecies.

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A photo I took while having some tea with a friend on the Corniche (kudos Instagram)

As I wake up each “morning” around 11am-3pm (I know, I know – don’t judge) I turn my pillow over, adjust the air conditioning as necessary, and expose additional bits of skin hiding under the heavy polyester blanket to the cool air circulating throughout my bedroom. After snoozing my iPhone alarm a few times, I typically peel myself from bed, rub my eyes a few times, and meander to the bathroom like an extra in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Sure, the lack of a proper shower/tub/curtain/door is a little peculiar; and yes, the water takes a lunar cycle to heat up; but these are things one can adjust to quite easily. Though, once I ride the elevator down to the lobby and step outside the doors to my building, I’m instantly hit with the reminder of where I am. I quickly spot the Himalayan mound of trash, the fruit vendors, the shopkeepers, the dirt, and the plethora of wild cats and dogs rummaging through all of the above. Then there’s the heat. Dear God, the heat.

I mention these things because finding the intersection of West and [Middle] East has become a recurring trend in my adventures this week. The bitter culture shock of living in Cairo has long gone, and I’m actively creating a routine of frequenting the posh coffee shops such as Cilantro and Kosta and eating at not-so-posh ful, falafel, and koshary joints. Amidst all of this I’ve encountered some new friends. Last week I mentioned my local Egyptian friend Amr who is as Egyptian as they come, and I enjoy his company precisely because of this. We talk about politics, music, religion, culture, youth, etc., and I can never get enough of learning about life according to a young Cairene. However this week I had the privilege to meet a group of Egyptians (and other international expatriates) from a fundamentally different pocket of Egyptian society. Many of these new friends are western-educated, speak English as well as (if not better than) me, and enjoy discussing the various sadistic plots from the past season of Game of Thrones (spoiler alert: they all die). In the spirit of Egyptian hospitality, I was invited to join them for a delightful weekend on the north Mediterranean coast in a city called El Alamein. As I sipped a Mango smoothie and engaged in a lively debate regarding whether or not I thought the local beach was the best beach I’d ever been to (which it was NOT, I should say. See: Oahu, Maui, San Diego), I had to keep reminding myself that this little resort town and the people therein were as much a part of Egypt as the bustling streets and niqab-wearing women in Cairo. Though it was a weekend largely devoid of practicing Arabic, reading the latest Morsi news, or playing human Frogger, it served another important purpose in my journey throughout Egypt. This weekend showed me that Egyptian society is not confined to political protests, men in gellabiyas, and fastidious attendance to daily prayers. Some Egyptians simply enjoy having a beer, watching Jon Stewart, and sharing stories of their exposure to vast international cultures. It was a refreshing weekend, and now I’m back in Cairo preparing for Arabic language courses throughout the summer.

Observations:

– Very few people speak fusha (pronounced fuhs-hah), or Modern Standard Arabic, here in Egypt. Back in the States, most Arabic professors stress that students must learn fusha because that’s what everyone in the region speaks. They give some credence to the fact that regional dialects exist, but if I had a nickel for every time I was reassured that “everyone understands fusha” well, I’d have a lot of nickels. Whether it’s a function of the lack of formal education among many of the city’s shopkeepers and taxi drivers, or whether it’s because I picked the Arab country with perhaps the most deviant colloquial, I’ve had a lot of difficulty using what little Arabic I brought with me. For example, in Modern Standard Arabic the word for “the price” is said to be السعر (al-sihAr) while Egyptians exclusively say بكام (al-bihKAM) to settle their bills. It’s a little frustrating knowing that a large portion of what I have already learned/will learn in future fusha classes will be of nominal value here in Cairo, but I’m hoping that the strong foundation in classical Arabic will pay dividends during future travels in the region.

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Anti-regime posters plastered on a wall in Tal3at Harb Square near Tahrir Square

– The upcoming protests on June 30th have the entire city country galvanized. Conveniently when I was up north this weekend, large pro-Morsi protests were held in the outskirts of Cairo and a crowd well over 6 figures large turned out to wave flags and recite Quranic verses. The anti-Morsi protests slated for June 30 are expected to gather well over 1 million attendees – including almost every young person I’ve met in Cairo to date. Listening to everyone complain and proclaim their grievances against the current regime is very interesting from a politically philosophical standpoint. Egypt is experiencing its first ever taste of democracy, but I’m afraid they’re not giving it time to mature in their palate. Though their claims of government incompetence and corruption appear valid, the idea of forcefully ousting a president who’s term has lasted less than one year is a bit alarming. There are ~80 million people living in Egypt, almost 40 million of which live in the Cairo metropolitan area. If a small/medium/large subset of these highly diverse millions felt entitled to overthrow the government every time the regime failed to deliver something they desired, the country would descend into chaos as it endures a perpetual revolutionary cycle. Democracy, in all its grandeur, requires patience. Democracy also means that the losing team must semi-peacefully ride the pine until their chance to compete in the next elections finally approaches. Such is what Republicans will do until 2016, and what Democrats did all throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As people ask me “do you think Morsi will step down?” I find myself unable and unwilling to answer. I personally don’t see anything short of widespread death and dispersion at the hands of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood as suffice to call for his ouster. On the same token, I don’t think a man who has been consolidating politically power for the past 12 months is prone to relinquishing it very easily. However, I do recognize that some people are literally starving as a result of his regime’s inability to responsibly manage the provision of basic civil services. Time will tell what is to become of this great country, and I hope the best for the people of Egypt regardless of the outcome of June 30th and onward.

– On a less serious note, updated ‘Shisha Sesh’ count: 6. I think grape, melon, and peach are my favorite flavors thus far.

As usual, thanks for reading!

One week down in Cairo and wow… just wow.

living_in_cairoI expected “different”. I expected “unique”. But they didn’t tell me Cairo would be like this. Cairo (al-Qahira) is an amazing amalgam of noise, humanity, cement, river, and dirt, yet somehow it all just works. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout western Europe in my lifetime, and I’ve even been to far corners of the United States that might as well be foreign lands (ahem.. New Orleans), but there’s just nothing that compares to being in the thick of things here. When I was growing up I assumed that the rest of the world, and the United States for that matter, acted and operated like Southern California but while utilizing different languages and wearing funny clothes. Though I’d like to think that my perceptions of international cultures has matured since then, I’ve found that my preconceived notions of Egyptian culture were far from how things actually are. Yes, there are McDonalds’, KFC’s, and Baskin Robbins in Cairo, but no amount of chicken nuggets or rainbow sherbet can shield you from all that’s going on outside your window.

First impressions:

– As expected, I was woken up at the ripe time of 3:08AM for the first call to prayer (Fajr) on my first morning in Cairo. It’s one thing to hear an adhan (and do play the 11 second clip of Hafiz Zeeshan Kasimuddin’s recitation on the right hand side of the page to hear the best version I’ve heard to date) bellowing through your windows each morning, but it’s another to hear TWENTY adhans from every local mosque steamrolling into your 7th floor apartment. To be fair, I do think the adhan is hauntingly beautiful – especially Hafiz’s. It’s something that just screams “Middle East” or “Islam”, and I’ve grown to like hearing it five times each day (the other times being 11:56AM, 3:32Pm, 6:59Pm, and 8:32PM – in case you were wondering). If nothing else, it’s a humble and frequent reminder of where I am, what I’m doing, and why I’m here. Now, on the other hand, the relentless cacophony of young men hawking melons, sodas, and butane canisters outside my window is a battle I’m far from winning at the moment.

– Everyday things are expectedly cheap by western standards. Though I realize that items here are priced proportionally with what the average Egyptian is making at his/her job, it’s hard not to act like Russel Brand/Dudley Moore in the 2011/1981 film “Arthur”. During my first few waking hours I was in dire need of an internet connection to get back in touch with the western world. I stumbled upon a cyber cafe, nestled myself between some rambunctious young boys playing Counter Strike, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto, and fired off a few requisite emails. On that note, it was a welcome sight to see Egyptian children leading childhoods similar to mine: in cyber cafes playing “shoot ’em up” games, as my father would say. These cafes are typically run by old men who barely know what a computer is, much less how to operate them, and who rely on their grandson to take a break from slaying murlocks to come manage your computer or printer. Anyway, I digress… it cost me about 7 Egyptian Pounds (or 1 U.S. Dollar) for a little less than 2 hours of computer time.  For another frame of reference, a 25 minute taxi ride from my apartment to the city center ran me about 12 L.E. (or about $1.70). This is not an attempt to brag about wealth discrepancy, but rather to shed some light onto just how different the economies of Israel and Egypt — neighboring Middle Eastern countries might I add — really are.

– Crossing traffic is everything people, blogs, etc. said it would be. There is no better way to explain it other than human Frogger. One must be deliberate, yet careful. Patient, yet hasty. Crossing the street is an invariable battle of wills, and drivers are not kecairotrafficen to being the “suckers” who let the pedestrian waste precious seconds of their time. In a game of chicken to see who is more courageous, jaywalkers extraordinaire glide between cars (often no more than 1-2 inches away from being struck) while drivers speed up and slow down to prevent or permit safe passage. When a walker has made his/her choice to venture forth, drivers often speed up to try and see if you have the nerve to keep going. Should you accept this challenge, you’ll find the car stopping just a few inches in front of you coupled with a reluctant wave of the hand as he admits defeat.

– While we’re on the subject of cars and driving, it’s worth mentioning what the overall driving experience is like in Cairo. When it comes to traffic rules, there ARE NO traffic rules. Cairo is the wild, wild, east(?) when it comes to driving, and truly anything goes. The streets have no lanes, and I have yet to see a traffic light (or sign, for that matter) anywhere in the city. Drivers are free to drive anywhere, park anywhere, and honk anytime with impunity. Regarding honking, I’m already picking up on what certain honks mean. Cairo’s streets are inundated with honking horns, and in addition to the adhans which I mentioned earlier, they have to be on a short list for new national anthem. Some honks mean “watch out, I’m wedging my 1974 Citroen sedan in between you and the median”. Some mean “I’m here on this motorcycle in your blind spot, don’t merge into me”. Some are solicitations for people to jump onto their moving minibus. Some, I’m convinced, are because they simply like the sound. All of this is in conjunction with hundreds of locals filling every available cranny in between vehicles (usually in motion) like sand over rocks. Oh- and Egyptians absolutely refuse to use anything even remotely resembling a sidewalk, and there appears no way to convince them to do otherwise.

– Shisha (hookah). Is. Everywhere. Shisha is endemic in Egypt, and anywhere there is a ledge, curb, table, or surface of any sort, there is an old man sitting there smoking on it. I had my first Egyptian shisha-sesh (say that 5x fast) tonight, and I’m sure my lungs are going to hate me for what’s in store over the next 7 months. To allay the concerns of my less-familiar friends and family back home, shisha is flavored tobacco smoked out of a waterpipe (the hookah) in cafes and among various social events. People typically smoke shisha when having a cup of tea, browsing the internet, or simply having a conversation among friends.

Takeaways:

amr and meNow that I’ve no doubt succeeded in terrifying my followers with accounts of me hopping between moving vehicles, waking up to midnight loudspeakers, and digesting 50-cent felafel sandwiches, it’s worth noting the more important takeaways from my first week in Cairo. Egyptians have to be the most hospitable and welcoming people on earth. Not because their country is full of rich historical sites and treasures and they’re trying to make a pound or two off of you, but because it’s in their DNA to be friendly and helpful towards their guests. Knowing nothing about me other than what he could find on my limited Facebook page and subsequent profile picture, my new friend Amr (who may or may not be waking up to for Fajr prayer as I write this) has taken me under his wing and shown me the beauty, charm, and plethora of mobile phones that Cairo possess. I’ve been fascinated by his stories of life as a young, in-love, future college graduate, and I hope to impart on him the same kind of cultural lessons from my home back in America.

More to come soon. Ma’a Salaama!

golden domeHello and welcome back to my resurrected blog: al-Ra˚yee: My Take on Issues in Int’l Relations! Let me apologize to what few readers I have left for the stagnation (to put it lightly) over the last few months. School, work, and other real life commitments (which I’ll get to in a minute) monopolized my time, and I sincerely regret not being able to post about the slew of juicy issues over the past several months. I had high hopes to post some of my graduate work, however the style of my writing assignments was vastly inconsistent with style of the previous posts on this site. Perhaps I will post some of my work down the road when I have a chance to creatively overhaul them, we’ll see.

This blog will be dramatically changing its focus over the next several months. I will be traveling throughout the Middle East (Israel and Egypt, to be specific) for the remainder of 2013, and feel it necessary to maintain a blog of my adventures, impressions, and thoughts. Though the blog will assume a new role in primarily chronicling my time spent in the region, it will not fail to deliver the same critical remarks about current and local events as it always has. I hope that by living in the region, I will gain a more informed perspective on issues of critical importance to Israel, Egypt, and the United States. No longer will I be the unfiltered American that you all have come to know, love, and despise, blogging from the cozy confines of his metropolitan apartment in Washington, DC. I hope to safely immerse myself in current events inside the region (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and provide critical analysis that you may not read see on CNN back home. As a disclaimer, I am no journalist — simply a student passionate about international relations — so please forgive me for my often biased, incomplete, and impulsive commentary.

I hope to contribute to this blog at least once a week (when possible), and wholeheartedly welcome any and all comments/questions about the topics of my various posts, about Egypt, Israel, Cairo, or the United States in general, or about anything you see fitting to direct my way. I hope you find my adventures provocative, insightful, and refreshing, and look forward to sharing my journeys with all of you.

Next stop: Tel Aviv, Israel — just a man, his beard*, and a laptop…

(* – for the first time in my life I am growing out my beard past the length of stubble that my various jobs somehow found tolerable. It has been about a month since shaving, and I already feel like a completely hairy new man. There’s just something about man and his infatuation with facial hair, and I’m sure you’ll see me commenting about it frequently from here on out. No shave-2013: engaged!)