Saturday, March 26, 2011

We Love You...

Picture Perfect
One of the principal myths that allowed the January 25 movement to achieve the goals that it did, was creating the sense of a loving relationship between the military and the people. This fiction conveniently glossed over the common knowledge of widespread misappropriations by the military, the fact that Egypt's military spending is wildly disproportional to spending on basic services, the deadweight loss of forced service for those Egyptian men who cannot pay their way out of it, and the reality that the military has not really done much of anything for Egypt for almost the past forty years (and there is a strong argument of even longer than that, but let's not go there).
We don't trust you Papa Smurf

Be that as it may, the fiction worked, and the military was hoisted up on a pedestal and returned the favor by giving the movement the space to push out the sitting president and parts of the ruling structure around him (not including, naturally, those expansive segments of the system under direct and indirect military control). Since then, however, the reform movement has splintered along innumberable lines with innumerable demands, which not only has resulted in a loss of unity and purpose, but also given the other enemy of reform, the Muslim Brotherhood, the space to position itself to the military -- and the military's U.S. backers -- as the only alternative path for stability, a sense now reinforced by the lopsided referendum results.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stop Dithering

There is a train of thought suggesting that the reform movements spreading throughout the Middle East are the result of a carefully crafted plan put together by the Obama Administration. On the sinister side, it is seen as a part of a “New Imperial Plan for the Middle East”:
"The new imperial plan for the Middle East capitalizes on the willingness of the modern middle-classes of the region to enthusiastically serve the international class of super-rich..."
To put it gingerly, that is an idiotic analysis. Others like to think it is all the beneficence brought to the world by the radiating graces and professorial intellect of President Obama, complete with his magical ability to channel American goodness to cavemen enlightened by Google Earth to come to know there is a split between rich and the poor in their countries (…again, a wee bit off).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Loss - Now Grow Up

The “No Vote” lost…overwhelmingly.  There is no point in sugar-coating the outcome; when you lose an election by 40, 50 or 60 percentage points, it is a landslide loss.  Yes, the voting process was unprecedented and civilized, and yes it got the blood flowing in the veins and raised civic awareness, and yes, the no vote had to campaign against the odds, but the end result is that the groundwork is in place for the Muslim Brotherhood, in alliance with the thugs of the past, to set the terms for the Constitutional direction of Egypt. 
The reform movement in Egypt needs to mature, and do so with immediate effect.  Not in six weeks, six months or most probably six years, will it be possible to educate and convince forty million Egyptians of the importance of defending individual rights enshrined in a modern Constitutional structure that supports a liberal political and socio-economic society.  Instead, the focus of the reformists must be on educating and convincing those in positions of authority of this, which requires a credible and organized political leadership that understands how to engage in the real world of politics, and not just in the kinder world of promoting popular engagement.  As important as the grassroots are, without top-down leadership, this revolution will continue to fall victim to cunning opportunists who are capitalizing on the military’s anxiety with being in the spotlight, the White House’s misguided accommodation of political Islam, and Egyptian society’s conservative leanings, to further their own, pessimistic agenda.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I Voted!

Just say no
For a day at least, cynicism took a backseat to hope.  I joined a patient, committed and polite populace in my voting district that looked overwhelming driven to make it known that they are not going to be taken for a ride.  Lines were long and uncannily single-filed.  There were smiles, candy, exceptionally cordial volunteers and, best of all, not just hope, not just a sense of novelty, but a very palpable expectation for better days ahead.   They will not always be beautiful spring days, and the downside risks of the wrong outcome are worrying, but today Egypt has changed for the better.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Vote No

Going dry?
All sorts of people and outlets have formed arguments on how to vote in the upcoming referendum on amendments to the Egyptian Constitution. Unfortunately, much of the discourse has been too esoteric to give people any true sense of the meaning of the proposed changes – length and nature of the transitional powers of the military, powers of a future president, amending versus redrafting the Constitution, implications to the longevity to the January 25 movement, the constitutionality of the proposing changes to the Constitution, etc. None of this speaks to the actual impact on daily life.

So here is one very practical reason to vote no – protecting your right to drink a beer. There is little doubt that a democratic majority of Egyptians would happily vote in favor of banning the sale of beer in Egypt, or at least the sale of beer in Egypt to Egyptians (a dubious distinction that already exists in Egypt during Ramadan, when a holier-than-thou paternalism prevents heretical Egyptians, but not heretical foreigners, from booze). And while reflecting the will of the majority, it would be a step symbolic of all of the misguided notions of living in a democracy, allowing a totalitariat of the masses to run over individual rights. But that is precisely what this referendum would encourage in stipulating that the next parliament control the drafting process for the next set of amendments to the Constitution.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Treaty of Tripoli

How so very topical
Despite the comforting comparisons of the Muslim Brotherhood with political movements in Europe, and the enthusiasm with the group’s active role in the pushing for regime change in Egypt, there is the uncomfortable truth that there are core principles of the Muslim Brotherhood that are regressive, exclusionary and bigoted. 
There should be no space in the 21st century to party proclamations that over half the population is “unsuitable” to run for presidency by sole virtue of their religion or gender.  Nor are the following type of half-assed accommodations by “reformists” acceptable:  
Our adherence to the jurisprudential opinion refusing the appointment of women or Christians as president does not mean we impose this opinion on the people, who have inherent jurisdiction in this regard…I personally accept for Copts to be appointed in hundreds of positions, including sensitive leadership positions in the country in accordance with the criterion of efficiency and competence, regardless of their proportion in society.”
One might suppose coming from a base in which Copts and women were meant to accept their rightful place as irrelevant to the body politic, such a message might be seen to be uplifting.  But in truth, only contrived relativism could make that actually seem reasonable.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan and Egypt

A natural disaster of biblical proportions, nuclear meltdown, burning oil refineries, a tragic death toll, and Japan’s Nikkei braves the conditions and remains open for regular trading.  By contrast, the Cairo and Alexandria Stock Exchange has been shut down for almost six weeks, pulling out excuse upon excuse to protect against market corrections that become more self-fulfilling and inevitable by the day.  Egypt once housed one of the five largest stock exchanges in the world…little wonder it no longer does.

The sun shall rise again

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trade, Not Aid

In all of the clamoring for how to support the cause of reforms in Egypt -- through everything from aspirational declarations of common values, to a dubious openness to dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood (nb: let’s at least agree it is not a secular organization), to targeted economic aid, “democracy-building” initiatives and debt relief packages -- what is the single biggest act that the United States can do? Close on a bilateral free trade agreement. It is not so much that other forms of assistance are not without merits (notwithstanding the largely misguided criticisms that are in vogue concerning USAID programs, USAID and other foreign aid programs have produced many real benefits in Egypt), but that a free trade agreement offers so much more.

The biggest threat to derailing the vision for a modern and developed Egypt is an economic one. The need for vast and rapid improvements in the quality of life for Egyptians is beyond debate, but how to achieve it is not. As questions about the religious-secular divide and constitutional reform dominate internal and external discourse on Egypt, the outcome of the battle over the orientation of the Egyptian economy will have the greatest impact on what kind of Egypt emerges from January 25.

The starting point is not looking good. Despite producing positive economic returns, endemic corruption, inept governance and the disjointed and slow pace of implementation of economic reforms have discredited capitalist principles for many Egyptians. Further, the self-defined “intelligentsia” of Egypt still clings to globally-discredited socialist ideas (even if Egypt’s economy was brought to its knees by the disastrous socialist experiment under Nasser’s tutelage). 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Sixth Amendment

No photos please
It seems Egypt is taking to heart the right to a speedy trial (though somewhat less so on the U.S. Constitution’s take that such trials also be in public and before impartial juries, but let’s not digress). How speedy? Really speedy. Charges against dozens upon dozens of selectively targeted people (the selection process itself being highly suspect in nature) have been drummed up in a matter of days, allowing the prosecution to then incarcerate the unfortunate ones who did not manage to leave the country quickly enough, dress them in snappy white jump suits, and then have them pictured in a courtroom cage or prison cell. The scene typically is accompanied by wailing women, abusive shouts from the judges, prosecutors and gallery alike, and then inevitably followed by widely-published news stories condemning the accused for eternity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

#4 - How Not to Run an Economy

What is the thinking behind the economic policy espoused by Egypt’s latest government (ie, the one appointed and formalized yesterday, not to be confused with the two other cabinets that have come and gone in the past five weeks)? Seemingly, a hopeful return to the unmitigated failures of state-led growth plans that promises to have Egypt become one of the BRIC members, only as Bolivia rather than Brazil. One million new nurses needed at state-owned hospitals? Sure, why not? May as well add another couple of dozen to the guys manning the automated parking machine at Cairo Airport too, since the other 350 or so that already are there seem overworked. The endless delays in reopening the stock market, and the various, increasingly strained theories used to justify doing so, is having a highly detrimental effect on investor confidence, as evidenced, by among other things, a massively undersubscribed bond offering (notwithstanding junk-bond type yields). One way to guarantee losing investor confidence is to deny people access to their own money.

So far, the government has hidden behind the illusion of relatively marginal movements in longer-term macroeconomic indicators, and proudly pointed to exchange rate stability (itself, a misguided barometer of economic performance that is misusing foreign reserves and punishing further the already beleaguered Egyptian exporters to subsidize commodity imports). The wider population seems to have accepted the line that all of this is understandable in the context of a political revolution – but it should not.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Resala Raqam Saree

Now we’re talking – the tip of the iceberg on Ahly’s corruption.
The allegations of corruption wracking Egyptian soccer are particularly painful for Al-Ahly SC…  [t]he club chairman Hassan Hamdy is suspected of corrupt practices in cohorts with Yasser Mansour, one of Egypt’s wealthiest businessmen, whose financial largesse is believed to have attracted players to the team. Mansour is being investigated by prosecutors for allegedly having benefited from close ties to the Mubarak regime.  At one point, Yasser’s brother Mohammed served as Mubarak’s transport minister. The brothers also have family ties to former tourism minister Zuheir Garana and former housing minister Ahmed Maghrabi, both of whom have been arrested on charges of corruption.  Al-Ahly’s predicament is reinforced by the fact that Hamdy doubled as the head of the  government-owned Al-Ahram advertising department, which allowed him to funnel lucrative advertising and sponsorship opportunities to his team. One such contract is Vodafone’s two-year, $10 million sponsorship of Al-Ahly.
You can run, but you cannot hide.  The league will restart at some point, and Ahly will find itself challenging for relegation spots in the brave new world of playing on a level field.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Plog Numero Due - fresh green fields

Surprising, how the millions of overnight political experts in Egypt sort of missed commenting on the 800 pound gorilla with whom they are faithfully entrusting themselves (though I think we can all agree, they do manage to prepare the best grass fields in the local stadiums, and have become proficient in paving roads and the Jeeps are ok too). Nice to see the NY Times actually send their own investigative reporters to do something, rather than formulate their "news" on the basis of the handful of social media outlets that are consistently measured and unbiased...shame it was so unintentionally timed after the cement had dried from the military coup d'etat otherwise known by its various other, warmer and fuzzier names.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

First Bost

I have felt compelled to start this ‘plog’ in consideration of the idiocy currently prevailing in much of the world, and particularly in my country of origin (but, mercifully, not the country of citizenship) Egypt. Countering widely misguided views of big ideas, like democracy and liberty, in the context of the wild-eyed excitement of a "revolution" is not an easy task, particularly when virtual reality is considered an apt substitute for 7,000 years of factual realities, but I shall nonetheless try.

For openers, I will limit this to a few, summary thoughts. You cannot "breathe" freedom. You can breathe air. Medieval retards who aspire to return 85 million, already largely retarded people to an eighth century fantasy world are not inspired democrats, political prisoners or freedom fighters; they are retards. And, incidentally, dear President Obama: kindly keep your na├»ve and subversive ideas about how to interact with such retards to yourself. Egypt is not a “test case” for your social studies experiment on how to interact with them.