Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Cerelac effect

MSN conversation:

An ex: Hi ya 3assal. - Winking emoticon
Amnesiac: Yes hello.
An ex: How is job hunting going?
Amnesiac: There is a project which I might be joining, depending on funding.
An ex: Project eih?!? You’re going to open a mobile shop wala eih? Ha ha.
Amnesiac: Not yet.
An ex: What about human rights?? You’re not going to work in them anymore?
Amnesiac: It is a human rights project in a human rights organisation.
An ex: Mesh fahem 7aga khaales. [I don’t understand a bloody thing.]
Amnesiac: Eshta. [Marvellous] - Amnesiac puts foot through screen.

This conversation invoked the ‘Cerelac’ effect in me. When I was seven, my Mum decided that she really couldn’t live without Marks and Spencer and we moved back to the UK after we had been in Egypt for a year or so and my Arabic was just beginning to get good (ensuring that I forgot everything within a month). I had developed a taste for Cerelac while we were in Cairo, and was devastated to learn that its creamy reassuring fattiness wasn’t available in the UK. Either that or my mother had paid our supermarket to hide their stocks of it.

Anyway I pined for Ceralac with the intensity of a convict’s wife frenziedly knitting jumpers for her man, and upon our return to Egypt grabbed the first packet of Cerelac I saw between my sweaty palms like a crazed Crack addict. I got home and prepared a bowl of the stuff while the angels sang in the heavens and small fluffy birds tap-danced in the clouds, and then…first spoonful. Nothing much. Yes, sweet, but saccharine sweet…And watery…And just not as nice as I remembered it…And actually annoying, and how could I not see that we had nothing in common anyway?!?

Stalker update
After a lull, my friend the moustachioed stalker has returned with a new tactic: missed calls at ungodly hours. As a counter-attack I got the Pig to call the number stalker guy calls me from, using my phone so as to make this man (who is of limited intelligence) think that I sold my landline to someone and then killed myself out of sheer longing for him and his moustache – so that he will stop calling, though I think that even my expiring would not deter him. So the Pig rang, and informed the male voice which answered – in the Pig’s best gangster voice – that someone keeps giving him missed from this number, and 2elet 2adab and he should stop etc etc. To which the voice responded that he has never rung this number, and that “asly saa3at a7’oyia 7amada beye7’od el mobile.” [“Sometimes my brother 7amada borrows my mobile.”]

If I must have a stalker can I not have one with a bit of class? Not only does he have a bad moustache and wear green MC Hammer-style slacks, but he also has to borrow his brother’s mobile no doubt because he has run out of credit. Talk about bee2a! [‘Environment’ – literal translation is fun.] I have come to the conclusion that stalkers are like cars, and attest to one’s social status. I have a Fiat 128 stalker. Other, minor Z-list celebrities have stalkers who shower them with gifts, and leave dog poo on the doorsteps of people who criticise the object of their affections. For the love of God I admit full responsibility for the former boyfriends - who are nice people and all but suited me about as much as a leopard-print flared catsuit does. Must similarly unsuitable men be thrust upon me in the form of unsolicited stalkers?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Dirty knickers

'Linguistic somersaults in an age of aggression and state terrorism' is an excellent article in which the author lists commonly occuring instances of doublespeak used by governments and their media acolytes to sanitise and disguise the dirty knickers they do not wish the public to see.


Birth pangs: Dead children and smashed infrastructure, brought about by the need to get at “root causes” as we try to bring into being political regimes that provide “stability.”

Collateral damage (or "we didn't mean to"): Killings that are not deliberate as regards particular individuals, although highly probable as regards unknown parties in the vicinity of the target.

Detainee: A prisoner held by us; taken into custodial care for information and neutralization as combatant, but as in Guantanamo, provided water-boarding and a virtual tropical vacation resort (Rumsfeld); so we refused to allow the Red Cross in for fear that its positive reports might cause people to surrender and come just for the amenities.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


An addendum to Forsooth’s debriefing about the events of last Friday night. As we were preparing to leave, severely Inebriated Man was showing signs that he might vomit at any moment, i.e. heaving and swaying between repeated slurring of ‘I’m alright guys.’ He was promptly frogmarched to the WC while the rest of us formed a huddle and either attempted to swop phone numbers, or discussed cigars. Having unfortunately sobered up and reverted to my default state of uncharitable and morose, I pointed out the injustice of having to hang around while Inebriated Man communed with the toilet bowl, when earlier on in the evening I had in fact wanted to vomit while he subjected me to a (drunken) discourse on telemarketing, my bete noire. I then launched into a particularly animated round of ‘ya3ni eih da’ and ‘eih el 2araf da’ complete with full ‘I can smell poo’ grimaces.

Unfortunately, I released a particularly vituperative ‘eih da’ accompanied with a facial distortion usually only witnessed in Cubist art, just as a woman was walking past - and I somehow managed to end up looking her right in the eye as the words left my mouth. Now we had remarked this lady earlier on the evening because she had a certain la Cage Aux Folles gender uncertainty vibe about her. Given Egypt’s distinct absence of a come as you are, strength in diversity philosophy, it is pretty safe to say that she must frequently receive the type of crappy stares and comments against which I railed in another post*. Imagine my horror then as the words left my lips, and her stare hardened to such a degree that she could have used it to knock me unconscious. Lady! Peace and love sister, I was talking about telemarketing.

Why do these things always happen to me?

*Ebony, Irony and Abdallah. The ever cooperative Blogger will for some reason not let me open individual posts in a new window, thereby preventing me from obtaining a URL for it. Nor will it allow me to upload pictures. Not that I'm ungrateful or anything. In its infinite generosity it does(sometimes) allow me to post posts, sometimes even on the first attempt!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

ScUm el donya

I was astonished to discover yesterday that Egypt has a Green Party, an oxymoron if ever there was one. Protecting the environment in Egypt is – unsurprisingly - the main thrust of their platform, and in terms of a challenge this must rank alongside the Campaign to Rid the Night of Darkness, or Popular Party for a Ban on Hair Gel in Professional Football.

I don’t mean to deprecate their efforts since their objective of preventing us all from choking to death in Cairo is important, and unless it is realised we won’t be able to continue stepping all over each other and be abused and harassed by the state and its minions etc. In any case when I arrived I spied an artist-type elderly gentleman sporting a beret and a yellow handkerchief in his breast-pocket, which only cemented my commitment to the cause; seeing a spiffily dressed senior citizen who looks like he might break into a Charles Aznavour song at any moment always gives me a warm feeling. I was further impressed by a sign kindly thanking us not to smoke, and even more so by the fact that 30-odd Egyptian males were actually taking heed of this injunction. At the NGO I used to work in we would use the ‘visibility test’ to determine whether the boss had arrived yet or not; if we could see his secretary clearly he still wasn’t there yet. If we could just about make her out through a cloud of smoke he had been in the office for ten minutes. If however we required night vision goggles to assist us as we felt our way to her desk he had been there for some time, and was probably in a meeting.

I had tagged along to this seminar with Sharshar, whose friend was talking in it. The speakers were discussing Cairo’s environmental, urban planning, poverty and overcrowding issues as well as the fact that the city can boast the dubious honour of being the world's most polluted metropolis. They even endeavoured to formulate solutions to these gargantuan problems other than blowing the whole place up and starting over – although numerous audience members did tout the idea of moving Egypt’s capital somewhere else. I was thinking Miami, because it has nice beaches and the military aid won’t have to travel as far. It is incredible that Cairo has sixteen million people squashed into it compared to Alexandria’s four million and Tanta’s one million, but unsurprising all the same given that nobody wants to leave and go live in the new cities given the spectacular lack of infrastructure planning put into them – people have a house, but no school, hospital or supermarket (no orders at 2 a.m.!!). Someone made the incredibly sad remark that Heliopolis - which was the 19th century equivalent of 6th October City - was constructed by the Belgian Baron Empain purely for profit and yet 100 years later remains a paradigm of architectural elegance. He compared it with Medinat Nasr, constructed by the government presumably for the people, and aesthetically speaking the Borat to Baron Empain’s George Clooney; it functions and all, but is ugly, unappealing and crude.

Another speaker posited the idea that people litter the street as a way of expressing discontent with the government. This prompted me to think that mass protest could take the form of people dumping the contents of their waste bins and car ashtrays etc in front of a government minister’s flotilla of cars as it passes – this would at least fill the time as we wait half an hour for them to be on their bloody way. My thoughts were interrupted by a particularly enervated audience member behind me who, being so incensed by corruption, maladministration and crappy streets was speaking with great gusto, and in the process kept knocking me on the head with his prayer beads.

After the usual round of ‘Masr deih balad 3azeema’ platitudes someone pointed out that even in Amreeka Shababeeka corrupt individuals steal from government coffers and in the process rip off the people, but the difference is that at least they do it with a sense of national pride; they stay in the country and perversely the money ends up back in the economy. Compare with the Egyptian situation where thieves with an equivalent sense of commitment don’t exist. A bright spark quipped ‘yes, they’ve all run away to America’ which rounded off an interesting – if long - evening and again confirmed that Egyptian humour seems to get better the harder circumstances get. Should the country actually implode as the Green Party and others seem to be forecasting, my sides will presumably be aching with laughter.

The taxi-onomy of oppression

I saw a taxi today with a sticker proclaiming li kol zalem nehaya [‘every oppressor meets his end’] which I thought was a powerful variation on the usual ‘baby on board’ and ‘I’d rather be diving’ themes.
I will not mention how apposite this slogan is for taxi drivers themselves. Nor will I bring up the fact that they themselves manage to squeeze an enormous amount of oppression into a ten minute journey, in the form of relentless discussion of whether Egypt is better than the UK, and/or questions pertaining to my marital status, and finally another (this time heated) ‘discussion’ about the legitimacy of charging 50 L.E to go from Tahrir to Doqqi.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Diary of a Nobody

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see -- because I do not happen to be a 'Somebody' -- why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.


One of the perks of being unemployed and idle is having acres of free time to read. I have just discovered The Diary of a Nobody which is the fictitious diary of a late 19th century city clerk, Charles Pooter. Much like a modern-day blogger, Pooter records the mundane events which occur in his life and that of his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and his friends Mr Gowing and Mr Cummings. Pooter is pompous, obsequious and class obsessed in a uniquely British way, and continuously (and unwittingly) commits social gaffes which he diligently records in his diary - something of an Inspector Clouseau-type buffoon. All in all he is a joy. An excerpt for your delectation:

April 29. -- I am getting quite accustomed to being snubbed by Lupin, and I do not mind being sat upon by Carrie, because I think she has a certain amount of right to do so; but I do think it hard to be at once snubbed by wife, son, and both my guests.
Gowing and Cummings had dropped in during the evening, and I suddenly remembered an extraordinary dream I had a few nights ago, and I thought I would tell them about it. I dreamt I saw some huge blocks of ice in a shop with a bright glare behind them. I walked into the shop and the heat was overpowering. I found that the blocks of ice were on fire. The whole thing was so real and yet so supernatural I woke up in a cold perspiration. Lupin in a most contemptuous manner, said: 'What utter rot.'
Before I could reply, Gowing said there was nothing so completely uninteresting as other people's dreams.
I appealed to Cummings, but he said he was bound to agree with the others and my dream was especially nonsensical. I said: 'It seemed so real to me.' Gowing replied: 'Yes, to you perhaps, but not to us.' Whereupon they all roared.
Carrie, who had hitherto been quiet, said: 'He tells me his stupid dreams every morning nearly.' I replied: 'Very well, dear, I promise you I will never tell you or anybody else another dream of mine the longest day I live.' Lupin said: 'Hear! hear!' and helped himself to another glass of beer. The subject was fortunately changed, and Cummings read a most interesting article on the superiority of the bicycle to the horse.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Ebony, Ivory and Abdallah

My landline has been on the blink for about a month, despite several thousand complaints to the Egyptian Telecom company. It didn’t bother me that much initially, given that I communicate mostly by MSN, text message or even through face to face conversations, though it's becoming unfashionable. However I realised recently that something is missing from my life - apart from a job and a sense of purpose - and concluded that it is my lack of a landline and consequent inability to order sundry items by telephone at 2 am.

So when I opened the door this morning to find a pair of telephone engineers at my door, I received them with the same wonder and joy with which the three wise men must have been greeted in the manger. I ushered them in and they did their thang. I say ‘they’ but in fact what happened was that the slightly younger engineer did all the work while the other boss guy leafed through photographs of Tunisia he found lying about and generally chilled. He also periodically wheezed his way to the back door to smoke a fag, using my cooker to light his cigarettes.. Now, as is customary in our house when workmen come a-calling, Mahmoud the bawwab accompanied the engineers to protect my delicate female honour (regardless of the fact that my auntie upstairs is so fierce she can castrate a man with her voice). Mahmoud is Sudanese. Throughout his sojourn chez moi boss guy had repeatedly referred to someone called ‘Abdallah’ when asking Mahmoud to transmit messages to his schmuck colleague working on the roof (His Excellency being too busy looking through my personal effects to go up himself). As we were leaving I asked him who this Abdallah was, at which he pointed at Mahmoud and asked ‘ommal what’s his name?’ Closing my eyes rather than flick him on the forehead I said, ‘Mahmoud…MAHMOUUUUDDD,’ prompting him to exclaim ‘Mahmoud?!? But the blacks are all called Abdallah’ before buggering off.

With hindsight, I would have turned up the flame on my cooker when boss guy was lighting his cigarette to singe his eyebrows or at least burn off his moustache. His remarks reflect the generally odd attitudes to race I have encountered here . On the whole people don’t see the beauty in black, and there is the same ‘the lighter the better’ attitude which pervades for example black American video clip culture. When one of my Egyptian cousins got married she plastered so much white powder on her face I was convinced that she was going to perform a mime show for her wedding guests. The interesting thing is that I’ve spoken to numerous people who are adamant that no racism exists in Egypt because according to them Egyptians come in a range of colours, and “look how we loved Ahmed Zaki God rest his soul!” But yet a black African friend of mine who lived in Alexandria was constantly tormented by taunts, stares, finger pointing and general rudeness, and her experience is consistent with other anecdotal accounts I have encountered. It seems that what is driving this behaviour is a cocktail of ignorance of the other, combined with these warped attitudes to colour and beauty, and topped off with a garnish of complete indifference to the feelings of strangers. I remember as a teenager getting royally pissed off when, while walking in Cairo, random strangers would point at me and pronounce ‘agnabeyya,’ as if identifying a variety of cheese.

The insularity of Egyptian society can still shock, and attitudes towards ‘the other’ - whether it be me, Mahmoud, a Russian dancer or a refugee – are tiresome to say the least. But such attitudes possibly have nothing to do with race, or even xenophobia, and more to do with Egyptian society’s insistence on compartmentalising the world and his mother into broad categories (Egyptian/foreign/Muslim/Christian…) which both dictate the way individuals are treated and the behaviour expected from them. Hence why even an Egyptian who does not conform to the rules governing the category to which he is allotted will feel alienated within his own country.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

[Consumer] Power to the people!

Rich donors in ze west: When attempting to bring about political reform in Egypt, forget funding dull workshops and their buffets. Cut to the chase and demonstrate the marvel that is a liberal democracy with cashmere sweaters and chainsaws. And I wouldn't mind a new winter coat.,,1948445,00.html

Cuban democracy funds spent on Game Boys
Richard Luscombe in Miami
Wednesday November 15, 2006 Guardian Unlimited

Cuban dissidents who were given millions of dollars by the US government to support democracy in their homeland instead blew money on computer games, cashmere sweaters, crabmeat and expensive chocolates, which were then sent to the island.
A scathing congressional audit of democracy-assistance programmes found “questionable expenditure” by several groups funded by Washington in opposition to President Fidel Castro’s rule on the communist Caribbean island.
The Miami-based Acción Democrática Cubana spent money on a chainsaw, Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations, mountain bikes, leather coats and Godiva chocolates, which the group says were all sent to Cuba. “These people are going hungry. They never get any chocolate there,” Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s executive director, told the Miami Herald.

He also defended the purchase of a chainsaw he said he needed to cut a tree that had blocked access to his office in a hurricane, and said that the leather jackets and cashmere sweaters were bought in a sale. “They [the auditors] think it’s not cold there,” Mr Acosta said. “At $30 [£16] it’s a bargain because cashmere is expensive. They were asking for sweaters.”
The audit analysed $65m of spending by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from 1996 to 2005 and concluded that poor management was to blame for the waste. “There were weaknesses in agency policies and in programme office oversight, and internal control deficiencies,” the report states.
None of the 36 groups that received money were identified in the report, but others admitted to the Miami Herald in advance of its publication today that they had been investigated.
Frank Hernandez Trujillo, executive director of Grupo De Apoyo a la Democracia (Group for the Support of Democracy), said his organisation received more than $7m from USAID, a programme that has formed a central piece of President George Bush’s policy on Cuba.
“I’ll defend that until I die,” Mr Hernandez Trujillo said of his decision to spend part of his group’s allocation on boxes of computer games. “That’s part of our job, to show the people in Cuba what they could attain if they were not under that system.”
Most of the items were distributed to dissidents in Cuba by US diplomats in Havana, who were sometimes unaware what was in the shipments.
David Snider, a spokesman for USAID, said he was awaiting a final copy of the report, but admitted that an investigation was under way into three cases highlighted by the audit.
The US government has previously accused the Cuban government of hijacking consignments sent to its Havana mission.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Faced with a dilemma

I had an interesting dinner discussion tonight with some Americans about the case brought against the AUC’s decision to ban the niqab. The advisory report recently presented to the Supreme Administrative Court states that such a ban breaches women’s freedom of religious belief, their personal freedom and is discriminatory. The American woman was appalled by the issue on several levels, but her overriding objection was that as a private institution the AUC should be able to choose and enforce the policies which reflect its liberal democratic philosophy. By this rationale the AUC should be allowed to ban the niqab because it is not in keeping with its tight jeans and tank top outlook. However what if the shoe was on the other foot, and a top private university was demanding that all women wear the niqab or be denied admittance? Would this be acceptable as an autonomous exercise of policy?

While the main thrust of AUC’s case against the niqab was that it compromised security regulations, it is clear that the case is at least in part motivated by the same suspicion of, and repulsion against the niqab, which fuelled recent debates in the UK on the issue. And it is easy to see why liberals experience an almost visceral reaction at the sight of these faceless women. I have been scared witless on a number of occasions when, rounding a corner, an amorphous black mass has suddenly descended on me. Beyond the sinister appearance, there are also the deeper, intellectual challenges posed by the niqab; the implication of separation, the seemingly contradictory exultation of beauty yet transformation of the female face and form into something so formless…

But as any female who has walked the streets of Cairo will tell you, to have your sartorial choices (and therefore part of your identity) dictated by others’ perception of what is right and wrong is suffocating. It seems somehow disingenuous to fight for women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want except where their choice offends liberal sensibilities. If – as is almost certainly the case here – the objection to the niqab is primarily political/cultural then this should be stated frankly (rather than hiding behind the facade of security concerns), so that the arguments for and against can be fully explored.

The European Court of Human Rights arrived at some hard, very non-PC, conclusions when faced with this issue. One Layla Saheen brought a case challenging Turkey’s ban on the higab in public institutions. The Court (which jealousy guards its European conception of democracy and religious pluralism) referred to an earlier case where it had stated that the higab “had a proselytising effect” and that as a religious precept imposed on women, it was hard to reconcile with gender equality. Turkey and its rigorous secularism is an entirely different context from that of Egypt however. In the absence of an all encompassing official policy of secularism, Egypt would surely be in violation of its human rights obligations if it allowed private institutions to implement such a clearly discriminatory policy targeting only one section of a religious group.

Liberals may be repelled by what women choose to do with the freedom liberalism affords them, but ultimately to place conditions on this freedom is surely to rob it of all meaning.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Marriage and other unfathomable mysteries

Various conversations about marriage (in philosophical terms rather than proposals), have been making me consider how the blazers this institution works. (It should be said that the enforced idleness of unemployment is also directly responsible for such fruitless rumination.)

When I first met ex-colleague Lion, she had been engaged to Perfect But Boring for about a year. Lion and I shared an office, and towards the end of each day, just as energy levels were slipping and our energies were concentrated on downloading music, Lion would receive a phone call. Every day the response was the same ring ring"ufffffff”, and I knew it was her fiancé. There would then follow a murmured two minute conversation during which Lion would mime vomiting/strangulation, before hanging up and contemptuously throwing the mobile across her desk as if it was a turd.

I met Perfect But Boring once. He was an entirely unassuming sort, seemed very polite, but I probably wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a crowd if I saw him again. He had the type of job of which in-laws’ dreams are made; job security, good money, prestige within his field…but he failed to arouse any significant emotion in Lion other than a feeling of intense horror at the prospect that she would be casting her lot in with his for the next sixty years. After stifling weekends of silent lunches and passionless drives, she would return to work with her spirits so low they were practically seeping out of her shoes. Whenever we discussed it, she would point out that while dull, Perfect But Boring worked in the same field as her and offered stability. I pointed out that her chair possessed the same qualities. Pressure from her family, resignation, and above all fear, meant that she never left Perfect But Boring during the time we worked together. She had sufficient strength of character however to repeatedly stall the marriage using the pretext of work commitments.

It was no surprise then, that Lion recently informed me that she had left Perfect But Boring, and was marrying a distant relative who was everything her ex wasn’t; dashing, good-looking, and generally pulse-elevating. He was also younger than her, unemployed, and unlike her, entirely un-academic. She swears that he resembles the hottie with the vacuum cleaner in Elissa’s Agmel A7saas clip. Sharshar says that he looks about 18 and has what is known in England as the gift of the gab i.e. is a bit of a chancer. I cannot judge, given that I haven’t yet met him. Their marriage was practically an elopement, Lion informing her colleagues that she would be married only on the day of the wedding itself, in a town three hours away, on the first day of the Eid - thereby guaranteeing 100 percent non-attendance.

God knows that left to their own devices and the stigma of being alone, allegedly ‘emancipated’ Western woman manage to navigate themselves into unhappy marriages. Women in the UK must generally guide themselves through the romance minefield alone, there being no class, religion or family status signposts to signal who is, and isn’t, a suitable Mr In Sickness and in Health. Women in Egypt’s choices are informed if not dictated by the double-edged sword of factors completely unrelated to the content of Mr X’s character. I don’t know which situation is worse; to have to choose from a vast ocean of potential candidates and possibly never find a match, or to have your choices limited and in the process unwittingly strike out a soul mate…Situations like that of Lion would seem to indicate that the spark between two people which comes into existence entirely independently of salary and surname must be present if the marriage is not to end up in the divorce courts or, even worse, one or both partners are not to suffer a slow, agonising, spiritual death. But as I can attest, relationships founded solely on this spark will lead to the same loneliness, because if two people have nothing in common, they have nothing to feed the bloody spark with, and it and the relationship will eventually and inevitably kick the bucket.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Just another day at the IDF office

Moral selectivity and business as usual yet again as Israel's shelling of a residential area elicits nothing more than the usual slap on the wrist from the useless buggers international community.

An IDF officer claimed that the deaths of some 18 people had been caused by an “error in the aiming devices” – Perhaps the same technical ‘glitch’ which manifested itself during Israel’s peregrination in Lebanon this summer. The glitch which mysteriously causes Israeli heavy artillery to be aimed at Arabs, usually of the civilian, female, and child variety.

It is crap like this which devalues the laws of armed conflict, and makes people want to punch me in the face when I insist that even in the face of such brutality there is still a place for human rights norms. So up yours Peretz, IDF and Olmert.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Me no understand

I came across this interesting article about reported growth in the Egyptian economy. (It is produced below cos I know you won't open a link. Also, sodding Blogger is acting up and won't let me do rich text or whatever it's called.)

I understand nothing about economics - macro, micro, or miniscule - but I sometimes hear the grown-ups anxiously whispering downstairs about the dire state of the Egyptian economy, its impending collapse and the armageddon which will ensue.

I'm therefore wondering whether anyone can help me out with the following queries:

1. Is the Egyptian Gazette independent?
2. Who organised this London forum?
3. Is the alleged growth referred to in this article mere government propaganda?
4. Can you recommend a publication which will help an economics layman and maths retard to understand the basics of economics? It can't have algebra in it, and preferably not graphs with those lines that look like a heart-rate monitor reading. Pie-charts are acceptable. Also, it should tell me how, for example, the growth of an economy is measured. I know it's not with a ruler, but that's where my understanding stops.

Ta in advance to anyone who deigns to illuminate my economics darkness.

The Egyptian Gazette, Monday 6th November

Egypt's economy gets guarded praise at London forum

Special to The GazetteLondon - Economists have hailed Egypt's surging economy - with a warning that the country must overcome significant challenges if its boom times are to be sustained.

The economists, including Egypt's foremost businessman Naguib Sawiris, gathered in London for two days to examine the evolving relationship between Egypt and the UK.The high but guarded praise came on the opening day of this prestigious conference, at which British and Egyptian politicians, diplomats, business people and education experts were gathering to mark the two nations' growing friendship since the Suez Crisis 50 years ago.In the Evolving Economic Relations Session, leading Middle East economic analyst Fiona Moffitt told this unique gathering that the Egyptian economy - currently growing at an enviable 6.9 per cent per annum - was the source of huge optimism both at home and abroad. “Egypt's reformist economic team have done exceptionally well,” she said. “They've overhauled customs, massively reduced corporate tax, revised tariffs and brought in financial sector reform. But their hard work has only just begun: they face substantial challenges that need to be solved if the economic revival is to keep on course.” The economic boom has encouraged massive foreign investment in Egypt, led by British companies: some 200 have now invested a staggering £18 billion, making the UK Egypt's biggest Western investor.Moffitt said Egypt's economic challenges now included creating jobs, solving unemployment and under-employment and addressing a 'mismatch between the education people receive and the skills needed in the job market.' Improving the lot of the lower-income population was also crucial, she said. 'Growth will need to exceed the current 6.9 per cent - it will have to be 7-9 per cent - and, crucially, be sustained year on year.' She outlined ways Egypt could maintain its economic surge, including encouraging more foreign investment, improving educational standards, creating more employment - 700,000 new jobs are needed each year - and by boosting tourism.She also said state subsidies of E£100 billion a year had to be addressed to ease Egypt's budget deficit. “A number of hard decisions are going to have to be made with large social and political consequences, in areas like privatisation and reduction in subsidies and these will be controversial. They will test the government's political will and its commitment to reform.”Sawiris, the CEO of Orascom Telecom Holding, backed Moffitt's call for unemployment and under-education to be tackled as essentials for the long-term good of the economy. He also made a plea for the reformist government to “open the door a little bit” to multi-party politics - and not to lose heart in privatisation because “good private sector management and good private sector money means better salaries and better incentives.” But he warned those who doubt Egypt's commitment to change that there was no going back on economic reform. “We have a great business environment now, run by a great government team,” he said. “They are composed of intelligent people who are really focussed on reform. The first impression you gain as a businessman is the qualities of the people you see around you - and the team now in Egypt is a winning team.”The conference considered how Egypt and the UK can develop closer ties in politics, economics, international relations, cultural heritage and education, through government and the public and private sectors.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

German state

I attended a seminar the other day on the Coptic Question in Egypt.

Religious minority rights are the Fiat 128 of the Egyptian human rights scene, neglected by the majority of human rights groups. This is perhaps because other rights are more ‘hip,’ or perhaps – as is more likely – analysis of the minority issue in Egypt tends to be from a political or even worse, religious perspective, rather than in human rights terms. A political approach morphs what is in essence an equality issue into something much bigger and much less straightforward; hence when the Muslim Brotherhood pronounce their support for Coptic rights they are accused of exploiting the issue for their own gain, and when groups abroad (both Egyptian and foreign) lobby in favour of Coptic rights their efforts are inevitably rebuffed with accusations that they are pro-American and anti-Egypt.

A religious analysis inevitably leads to a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversational dead-end, and/or intractable doctrinal wrangling about theological minutiae.
Human rights (the major ones at least) have the virtue of being relatively value-neutral when compared with religion and politics; the rights to live free from torture and to freedom of association whilst they may have their origins in moral precepts, have the virtue of not being grounded in one particular creed or political philosophy – one size fits all, if you like. The problems surrounding implementation, and the extent to which governments actually give two hoots about their human rights obligations is irrelevant at this stage, when what is being considered is the theoretical approach which best suits the problem.

I’m warbling on about this because these were the thoughts which ran through my mind as I listened to the speakers. What amazed me was that during the five hours I attended, human rights were mentioned just once, and when possible solutions were discussed (in the breaks between the audience’s persistent haranging of the Muslim Brotherhood representative) it was exclusively in political terms; the obligatory Marxist analyst surmised that the class war was the root of the problem, while MB guy managed to transmit in short staccato bursts between interruptions that he thought that the problem is not that Egypt has Islam as an official state religion, but rather the state’s treatment of its people. An interesting discussion about the merits or otherwise of establishing a secular state ended without consensus, a Coptic researcher coming out fully in favour while MB man pointed to the example of France, whose rigid secularism cannot always accommodate the demands of its religious minorities.

Despite their ideological differences, unsurprisingly all the speakers shared a common belief that the Coptic issue is part of a larger problem, that of the state’s treatment of its people. As such it is a prime candidate for resolution through human rights, which is after all concerned with regulating the relationship between the state and the individual. A straightforward example is the right to freedom of religious belief, a fundamental element of which is the right to express that belief through worship etc. The building and repair of churches (and not mosques) in Egypt is subject to onerous bureaucratic procedures in conflict with this right – lobbying the government on this very specific point is a crucial part of any larger programme, political or otherwise.

Detractors will raise two issues at this point; firstly, the failure so far of human rights to realise true equality for religious minorities in Egypt; and secondly, the general climate of political disenfranchisement which has rendered citizenship and its attendant rights a theoretical notion. It is crucial, in order not to raise the white flag and throw the whole human rights caboodle out the window, to count accomplishments rather than failures - and there has been progress in Egypt. As for the issue of political disenfranchisement, a pessimist might suggest that regime change of any denomination would not bring instantaneous improvement in this area, simply because people have virtually no experience of what it means to be a citizen, of demanding their rights, and of holding their government to account - rather than being controlled by it. This will not change overnight, it requires democracy and rights education of the type provided by a human rights programme.

A more intractable issue is that of Islam and human rights’ diametrically opposed approaches to the issues of apostasy and proselytism. Not being sufficiently conversant with Sharia law, I am unable to speculate about whether its notorious inflexibility surrounding freedom of religious belief is due to doctrinal misinterpretation, a bad press, or an unbridgeable ideological gulf between its approach and that of human rights…What is clear however is that complete freedom of religious belief cannot happily coexist with laws which forbid or impede conversions out of only one faith.

On a lighter note, the Arabic for secular state (dawla 3almanaya) sounds very like the word for German state (dawla almanaya), and during the occasional interminable, boring comment by an audience member my mind wandered. I childishly amused myself by imagining that what was being propounded was the establishment of a German state where leiderhosen, techno music, Audis and everyone renaming themselves Klaus (even women) would instantly eliminate all religious strife.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Why why whyyyyy Delilah

A round-up of stuff which has happened so far:

1. Had wicked never-ending conversations with Mildred’s wonderful 3 year old daughter who responds to everything with why? Example:

Kid: [Pointing] What’s that?
Amnesiac: A belly button ring.
Kid: Why?
Amnesiac: I got it cos I like it.
Kid: Why?
Amnesiac: Cos it’s blue.
Kid: Why?
Amnesiac: Cos I like blue.
Kid: Why?

These conversations have the potential to – but usually don’t – end in exciting existentialist conclusions. Two hours later.

2. Had eyebrows threaded by a woman who, judging by the pain, was using a pickaxe. She commented on my lack of swearing, screams or any other expression of agony. I didn’t possess sufficient Arabic vocabulary to explain to her that I had in fact got into shock.

3. Acquired and I hope lost a stalker.

4. Got duped into visiting the extravagantly-named Blue Hole, which is in fact just a bit of sea. The trip was made worthwhile however by this exchange at the checkpoint which leads to the Blue Hole:

The Pig: Hello. Is this the correct direction for the Blue Hole?
Checkpoint officer: Yes.
The Pig: Thanks.
Checkpoint officer: Where are you going?

5. Went with friend Sharshar to a martial arts studio to pursue my secret ambition of becoming a professional kickboxer. Sharshar also nurses a desire to be a ninja. We were both delighted to be taken into the Sensu/manager’s office which was so dimly lit it felt like we had walked into a mine, and whose red lighting gave it a brothel-type effect. It had all the kitsch of a Quentin Tarantino film, Sensu guy sitting bald and buff behind his desk which (I could just about make out) displayed a selection of ‘self-discovery through sword fighting’ type publications. The effect was only marred by Sharshar being forced to lower his not inconsiderable mass into a beanbag (mysteriously there was only one chair and yet three beanbags), and audibly suppressing laughter and ninja noises.

6. Made outrageously half-hearted attempts to find a job, while telling myself that some wowzers blazers human rights gig will fortuitously materialise in a poof out of thin air/Erin Brockovich style-ee.