Tag Archive | middle-east

Blame America

Early on in the chilling and powerful Costa-Gavras film Z about the Greek military coup in 1963, there is a telling scene.  A political organizer has just given a rousing speech to a collection of Greek radicals.  His aid challenges him about what he has said; “You blamed the Americans for this problem, but the Americans had nothing to do with it.”  To which the organizer responds;  “Always blame the Americans, even when you’re wrong, you’re right.”
i felt a bit like the confused aid this morning while chatting with Gihan from Cairo when she told me that Obama was responsible for the violence happening in Egypt right now.  But knowing her as i do, i knew that this was not an effort to deflect national responsibility for her country’s problems.  She is a deeply fair and thoughtful person.  So i started digging.

What i knew already was that the Obama administration was in the middle of negotiations between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Egyptian military when the election of president Morsi took place 2 years ago.  The extremely powerful and corrupt Egyptian military was afraid of losing power to the also corrupt, newly elected MB government.  US aid and recognition were critical factors in brokering this transition.  [Egypt is on of the largest recipient of US aid in the world]  But after a brief honeymoon of international praise for his having brokered a settlement in Gaza, Morsi’s stock both domestically and internationally started to tumble.  Morsi’s attempted power grab and failure to negotiate with any of the country’s opposition groups began his slide towards last weeks well-supported (by Egyptians) military coup.  It is rare that there is such wide-spread public support for a military coup.

The problem struck when the protesters were again returning to Tahrir Square in huge numbers and Obama said that Morsi was the elected leader of Egypt.  While this is true on it’s face, it gave the MB the false impression that the US would back them as they pushed back against the protests.  A push-back which included killing some of the non-violent protesters.  This type of response to civil unrest was central to unseating Mubarak almost 3 years ago now.
revoltion not a coup
This situation is unusually murky.  Is it a military coup, or a revolution?  While they say they are inspired by the huge protests, the military is clearly being opportunistic.  Will there be elections new in Egypt? It seems almost certain that there will.  But the arrival of multiparty elections in Egypt was a political gain from the revolution which overthrew Mubarak, not these recent giant street protests.  One of the things which came to light after the 2011 revolution was just how powerful the military was, with tremendous land holds and control of the government infrastructure.

Egypt is likely on the road to a more pluralistic and democratic government, my hope is the US does not continue to be a pothole in this road.

When protests really matter

Americans, and in particular US Americans, often ask me if protests make any difference.  Surely the politicians are corporate executives and are set in their ways.  Surely protesters have no real power and protest in the street won’t influence their thinking.  I have some personal experience that disproves this thinking.  When i sat on the Cornell University board of trustees, at one point the board was inconvenienced by a couple hundred students protesting against apartheid in South Africa, because the students had surrounded the building the board was in and the board could not leave.

One of the thousands of US protests against apartheid

One of the thousands of US protests against apartheid

So the efficient Cornell board re-opened its completed meeting and spent an hour talking about the oppressive and racist government in South Africa.  While campus security forcibly removed the protesters, the board decided to set up a committee which would review the university investment policies.   A year after this forced meeting started they would start selectively divesting from South Africa.

When the committee started to do it’s work, almost no one linked it’s creation and actions to the protest, they were too far separated in time.  These protests and thousands like them would ultimately help free Nelson Mandela and liberate South Africa from exclusive white rule.

When leakers were heroes

When leakers were heroes

In 1970, 300,000 protesters surrounded the Pentagon. Inside that building sat a defense contractor named Daniel Ellsberg who was writing the secret history of the Vietnam war for the highest brass of the Pentagon to review.  He had access to all of the military’s top secret documents.  He looked out his window, saw this tremendous protest, which included all three of his daughters, and he decided that he was on the wrong side.  Ellsberg would leak his secrets to the NY Times and Washington Post in what would ultimately be known as the Pentagon Papers.  These papers would show that the US had staged the Tonkin Gulf attacks that had been used to justify the war in the first place, as well as many other lies about the war.  These papers and the huge national protests that ensued would force Nixon to promise to withdraw from Vietnam as part of his re-election campaign.

The largest protest ever?

The largest protest ever?

Over the last couple of days the largest protests in Egypt’s history and perhaps the largest protest ever in the world have raged in Tahrir Square.  [See pictures].  The Daily Kos is reporting unofficially 33 million people, which would make it about 1/3 the countries total population.  The military has given the fairly recently elected Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi 48 hours to satisfy the demands of the protesters before it acts (as it has in the past) to solve the problem.   Five of Morsi’s top ministers have already resigned.

Similar mass protests forced out Honsi Mubarek just two years ago.   After years of dictatorship, Egypt is still finding its democratic legs.  And as is more often true than many people realize, these protests really do matter.

Lazy Day – Networking is not working

i barely got out of the hotel today.  i watch Aljazeera and the BBC and SkyNews and soaked in the work news of Greece teetering on the edge, Syria in Civil War, Egypt looking at a counter revolution and floods in the UK.

i spent a bunch of time on this kids laptop that i got from Angie a couple of years back.  The  argument back then was that a splash proof keyboard would be handy for an 8 year and that i could care less about the bright blue carrying case and the vomit green details on the machine.  In fact, Willow has never spilled anything on this machine despite using it all the time and i have on at least a couple of occasions.

Willow and i watched both a Harry Potter flick and How to Train Your Dragon.  Though i slept through part of Dragon.  i was not even dressed for most of the day.   Hawina and Corb came over and Hawina took Willow to the licorice shop.  I spent some time on Facebook.  It feels now like a lazy day.

Except it was not really.

I did logistics organizing around money transfers that ultimately required 4 people in the states to help me.

I gchated with Gihan about what was happening in Tahrir Square and scheduled an interview with her for after the big demonstration tomorrow.  [For those not following Egypt, there is an encampment again in Tahrir Square of people dissatisfied with the President Morsi’s self expanded powers.  Some people think this might be the start of a second revolution there.  Aljazeera on Morsi presidential powers]

Tents in Tahrir Square. But only thousands of protesters not millions, like last year.

i wrote 9 postcards and a letter to my mother.  i have written 145 pieces if mail since the start of this trip on October 1.  It does not take long to write them and people love to get them, especially people who i dont have strong relationships with or friends who i dont tend to email.

At absurd o’clock this morning i was flirting with Sarah Taub from Network for a New Culture in Death City.  We agreed to do a long weekend event that we would organize at Sofia House in Louisa.  It will likely be on practical polyamory, using a mixed format (like the communities conference) where there it is about half featured speakers and about half open space where anyone can present and participants select from the offered workshops.  Sarah and i discussed briefly outreach, content, logistics and food.  After i got off with Sarah Taub i wrote Sara Tansey and Sky asking if they would work on it with me for an April/May time frame. By morning Eastern Standard time Sara confirmed her interest and it moved out of the “good idea” stage into the “likely to happen” stage.

NFNC propaganda picture

Elephant Journal wrote back and said that they loved the Cat Calling piece i wrote recently and wanted to run it with more background on Gihan.  Which is like a request to write a public lover letter to a very inspiring personality.  Gihan was tickled and agreed to edit.correct what i crafted before i sent it to Elephant Journal (which ran a rewrite of the Wanderlust Film review i blogged about).

Willow and i walked around Oosterpark around 11 PM for exercise and air.  When he is with me he stays up late, generally much later than this.  He often sleeps in the next morning as well.  I dont see much harm in it. And i may be on the next cover of Negligent Parenting Magazine.

I answer some marketing and customer questions for the community hammocks business.  I helped push forward a Belgium TV show which wants to do reportage about community through the lens of food.  I had a Skype conversation with Abigail about which career options at U of O to pursue.  I have 4 separate IM sessions on community room assigning and waiting list issues.  Aubby and i chatted about her party celebrating Tofu workers, and communards who are self destructing their memberships.  i wrote about 20 emails pulling these and several other things together.  I wrote on several online newspaper articles why Small Modular Reactors are a terrible solution and started a blog post on it.  I posted a handful of links on Reddit.

Part of the reason i love Aljazeera is it is the only place you are actually going to see the spokes person for Egyptian president Morsi make the official statement on the meeting with the judges and why he is not stepping down from his extra ordinary powers.   Later in the day i FB chatted with my new friend Mahmoud who is, i believe, not part of the Muslim Brotherhood (president Morsi’s party) but certainly is sympathetic to  their struggle and cause.  Mahmoud and i will Skype tomorrow to help me create my own “balanced” piece (anyone who has read a lot of this blog knows that “balance” is not something i am often interested in).  I also succeeded in dragging my old mentor Crystal into the Egypt discussion and pending blog post, which makes me very happy.

This morning at absurd o’clock Angie and i started organizing another event for later in the year on repairing gender relations, with a full queer inclusive component to it.  Angie is starting some google docs, which will also push it into the “likely to happen” stage.

it is not just who you know, it is what they are willing to do with you

Perhaps 20 years ago some rich guy advanced the idea that most of networking was in fact not working.  And i think internalized this somehow and don’t think much of my own networking and can walk away from a day like today, feeling like i have not done much.

Revolutionary Experience > Cat Call Culture

I spoke with many revolutionaries in Egypt, and heard several fascinating tales. But the ones which haunt me I heard for Gihan. They were the tales of her experience in Tahrir square and afterward. Of the extraordinary temporary community which was created and how the act of revolution changed peoples lives. And very specifically hers.

Gihan in Tahrir Square - Dec 2012 (post revolution)

Gihan in Tahrir Square – Dec 2012 (post revolution)

She recalls when she was first in Tahrir Square she held up a sign so it was in front of her face, so she would not have to be seen. And with time she dropped the sign lower, chatted with the people passing by and the media, inviting them in – to be part of what was become more inevitably their revolution as well.

Gihan circa 2010

Gihan tells of her experience of cat calling [this is the verbal harassment many people – mostly women – get from men they dont know on the street. Frequently, but not exclusively about their appearance]. Before Tahrir Square she would just walk away from this type of harassment, feeling it was ubiquitous and hopeless to change.

After the revolution she found herself doing something else. When someone cat called her, she would turn and face them and ask “Were we together in Tahrir Square?” Millions of people from Cairo and other places participated in this popular revolution at least for part of it. Everyone she asks says “yes”

Tahrir square in it’s hayday

“What you just did hurt me and I know you would have never done that in Tahrir Square.” And then she turns to walk away – but every cat caller, asks her to stop and apologizes. And I think more importantly, they likely retire from this type of harassment.

The courage it takes to tear down a dictatorship not only changes the political landscape of the country, it empowers and emboldens the people who make it happen to take on other cultural injustices which surround them.

Tourist versus Traveler

Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, I went to eastern Europe to talk with the people who had made the revolution happen. I was advised to get there quickly because “once the history books are written, the truth will be lost forever.” I fell in love with then Czechoslovakia. The revolutionary spirit was still vibrant, everything seemed possible and the motivated and talented Czechs seemed to be just the right people to share my organizing skills with.

When I promoted my campaigning, fund raising and media skills in service of their post revolutionary efforts I was told politely “We have so many westerners here we dont know what to do with them. Go back to the west and if we need you we will call you.” Dissatisfied with the terrorist regime which had recently taken over the US (George Bush I), I embraced my refugee status and settle in the Netherlands where I had a lovely new girlfriend and political work to do.

Soon I would volunteer for the Amsterdam anti-nuclear group WISE (the World Information Service on Energy). Some months after I arrived Honza Beranek (whose house Christina and i are now staying at in Am*dam) from the Czechoslovakia arrived for an internship. When WISE asked me to leave the collective for being too much of a campaigner, which was not their mission, Honza who was upset with the collectives choice that he made me an offer “Come to Czechoslovakia, we are fighting the Americans who want to build reactors in our country and we dont know how. You’re an American, you can help.”

So I had my invitation and I went for what would be 7 or the most exciting and satisfying years of my activist life. The point is with my invitation I stopped being a tourist and started being a traveler.

So it is in Egypt. In Cairo, were we knew no one before we arrived we did the touristy things: Climbed into the pyramids, took a camel ride and went to the Egyptian Museum. Here in Qena, a town I never would have even known of without my invitation from Mahmoud, I am a traveler. I see the city through eyes of locals, I am being guided by students and talking with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6th movement and presenting at their college in a way unlike the experience of tourists who come through this city. [Blog posts on all of this to come.]

One need not share my political mission to step out of being a tourist. I had never met Mahmoud before I came to Qena, but we were Facebook friends through a friend of Abigail’s who is working for the region. Knowing nothing about me except some of my writings, he was happy to invite me to his city and into his home. I find the world I full of such hospitality and encourage me traveling friends to do the extra work to arrive with an invitation and leave the tourists behind.

Hope for Egypt

Just as you would be a fool to generalize about the US by spending a week exclusively in Manhattan, I was equally foolish thinking I understood much about life in Egypt after a week in Cairo/Giza. Coming to the small city of Qena opened my eyes to several other sides of this country on the Nile. My journey started at the Giza train station where I said good bye to my overly protective handlers that included my first driver in Cairo and my first tour guide.

Missing are the camels, children and horses which make it worse

And my train was an hour late in arriving, so unsurprisingly the locals started chatting me up. This does not happen much in my experience in the US, where someone from clearly a different race and culture is approached by friendly Americans who ask if they can help. In Egypt, it is common place and has happened to me repeatedly. A financial analyst and an Egyptian cop (just returning from a UN peacekeeping expedition to the Conga) were more than happy to talk about both the revolution and how I was going to get off at the right stop, which no doubt had no signs I could read. In the end the friendly cop rescued me from my train wagon and took me off the train in the lovely town of Qena.

The first thing which struck me while I was waiting for my host was the near riot going on in the train station. Perhaps 50 people were noisily gathered demanding tickets for what appeared a closed booth. What struck me is how this would never occur in the US.  If there were no tickets, you might complain to your friends or fire off an irate text message, but you would not think if protesting at the ticket booth.  My Qena friends explained it was because there is a black market in train tickets and these prospective passengers suspected the ticket agents might be holding back tickets to profit from reselling them.  Apparently, protests similar to the one i saw have resulted in tickets being released in the past.

The second thing which struck me was the streets. Unlike Cairo, they were quite clean and the traffic was fairly tame by international standards. Ahmed told me that the popular local mayor put a hefty fine on littering. And nearly overnight the behavior of the locals changed and the litter nearly vanished.

But more important that the traffic, litter and pocket riots is the way the local culture is changing. I am speaking of the tribes which dominate Upper Egypt. [Upper Egypt refers to the southern portion of the country I am now visiting, which is up river on the Nile.] When I asked about homelessness in Egypt, everyone said that only the street kids in Cairo were homeless, in the rest of the country and especially in the more tribal regions of the south, clans took in anyone who was part of their group who fell down on their luck and made sure there was a social safety net which included housing.

But other aspects of tribal culture have been more oppressive, and perhaps nowhere this is more true than the institution of marriage. For literally thousands of years it has been common practice for marriages to be arranged and for them to always be inside the tribe. Yet in the last years and especially since the revolution these cultural norms have been shifting. The personal freedom and responsibility granted by the successful revolution brought with it challenging of cultural institutions, including tribal behaviors, which stripped individuals of their free will. Arranged marriages are being stepped away from, without shaming the culture. Even more importantly, in my eyes, young members of tribes are choosing to marry outside the tribe and even outside their race without blow back from their families and clan. African neighbors and even westerns are moving into the extended family housing which is tradition in Upper Egypt.

When they tell you nothing changes under the sun, tell them that in the oldest cultures in the world, under the hot dessert sun, freedom and self determination are starting to blossom.

The New Egyptian Antiquities Museum

Generally, i dislike museums.  The Egyptian museum in Cairo where i spent a couple of hours recently was worse than most.  As Sky described it aptly, it is more of a warehouse than a museum.  It is poorly lit, there are lots of displays with no descriptions on them at all.  There are so many objects in it (140K our guide says) that it feels endless and impossible to experience in any way except the most cursory.  [If you spent 10 seconds in front of each exhibition, you would be there for 9 days straight]

In Athens recently we went to the New Acropolis Museum and this is one of the very few adult museums in the world i actually like (the others are the now closed holography museum in NYC and the Dali Museum outside Barcelona).  The New Acropolis Museum is big and well lit and has a quite manageable collection of items to see and a good mixed of multimedia exhibits as well as “static” ones.  It is also an attractive modern building.

New Acropolis Museum in Athens

So this got me to thinking about what it is that could make the Egyptian museum better. For starters, there is no way that they are going to abandon this museum, it is a huge historic building and replacing it or even moving the thousands of items (almost all ancient and many fragile) is a tremendous job. And I am confident that there is a huge entrenched bureaucracy, which will view all change as bad. There are simple things which could be done to improve this space. Better lighting and displays would help a lot, even for just the most frequented 0.1% of the items here. Yet this is the uninteresting part of the thought experiment.

Right next door to the museum is the one of the old party buildings from the Mubarek days. During last years revolution, this building was partially burned and is now (like many buildings in Cairo) abandoned. It is very well situated, huge and probably structurally sound. If our objective is to improve tourism quality of experience, increase revenue for the existing museum and serve a greater number of people, employing this building for that purpose would likely be cost effective.

The first thing would be to recognize that the existing museum, largely unaltered since 1901, misses a huge fraction of the population which wishes to be served by the building. While a grand building, perhaps 90% of the exhibits are not wheelchair accessible, there is no air conditioning and at best the displays are labeled in only Arabic and English. When we take over the old party building next door, these should all be design considerations. We should assume that in our thought experiment no money will come for the Egyptian state to build this place.

Two million people in Eygpt work directly in tourist, another 10 million are indirectly employed by it (the country is the largest in Africa with a total population of 82 million).  During the revolution Mubarek was desperate to hold power.  He order the police to stop protecting the Egyptian museum, so that looters were break in and he could pose the false choice of “me or chaos” but just as Christians protected Muslims praying and Mosques during the the street fighting, a human chain formed around the Egyptian museum for weeks.  And it was not just tour guides and others employed by the industry, literally thousands were there day and night to make sure that the chaos around revolution did not damage these national treasures.

The human chain around the Egyptian Museum during revolution to prevent looting

The only copy in the existing Egyptian Museum is the Rosetta Stone. This three language translation artifact could have an entire room dedicated to it in the new museum, rather than the poorly described and under appreciated display which currently exists.  Even without the original, museum goers would be drawn to a more robust description of this decrypting relic. Sadly, probably the start up funding for such an effort would need to be corporate and the entire thing can’t happen without brilliant negotiators with the existing museum and the Egyptian state.

In my thought fantasy about this new museum, the existing museum could be a feeder, temporarily providing materials for exhibits in well lit, wheel chair accessible, climate controlled, multi-lingual display cases.  With the intention of improving the original museum when the exhibits returned to their home in the existing neighboring museum, with funds drawn from the new revenue stream of the New Egyptian Antiquities Museum.