Back to school

School in Egypt starts these days, and the local papers are quoting a study conducted by the Ministry of Education that estimates annual spending on private lessons to have reached some LE13 billion. This does not even include private lessons for university students.

This turn-over makes the private lesson industry one of the largest sectors of the Egyptian economy, I guess. For comparison, the Egyptian construction industry is not much heavier. (It’s amazing how much money Egyptian households are able to mobilize given the official GPD per capita.)

Meanwhile, the government tries to attract private investments under public-private partnerships to build 50 new elementary and secondary schools. As part of his presidential campaign promises, Mubarak promised 3,500 new schools until 2011.

However, I’ve heard of newly built schools financed by international donors that 12 months after their inauguration are falling apart, as no funds and capacities exist for maintenance.

I’m wondering what over 700,000 civil servants working in the administration of Egypt’s educational system are actually doing. They are the true obstacle to reform in this sector.

She’s not going to be quiet


Interested in Raed Jarrar’s adventure at JFK? You too can have your very own “I am a robber� (or whatever it says in that funny moon-man language) t-shirt.

In fact, “we will not be silent� apparently comes from a Goethe-quoting German resistance group who distributed pamphlets in 1942 and 1943. Not clear where or when they used the phrase (anyone?), but their first pamphlet supposedly closed with a phrase that remains relevant today: “every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure.�

Anyway, the shirts are available in Arabic, Farsi and Spanish–with an English subtitle–from an American Artists Against War group. Purchase is by donation to their campaign (though what this entails other than pissing off Jet Blue employees and JFK mukhabarat is unclear) on their website.

Google in the Middle East

As posted before, google has based its Middle East activities in Egypt, to the surprise of observers who expected the search engine would select Dubai.

I spoke to the regional manager of google, Sherif Iskander, a few days ago, and he told me that it was simply the size of Egypt that has attracted google here (time zones also were an issue).

Egypt has the region’s largest number of internet users as well as small and medium entreprises (and advertisers), the market segment that google’s business model is based upon. The booming tourism industry is a major client for google, and financial services which are underdeveloped in Egypt could become another major source of revenues soon.

But google can only sell its products if there’s content. Less then 1% of the internet’s content is in Arabic, although it is one of the world’s most spoken languages.

The research that Iskander referred to showed that 85% of the region’s internet users would in fact prefer content in Arabic. Google is thus working on creating more content. Until now, it has arabized its search function, its news portal and its email service. It also offers translation tools from English to Arabic and vice versa.

It also hopes to lower the significant cost barrier to local content, by offering advertising tools that automatically generate ads on local websites.

As access to the internet improves across the region – in Egypt ADSL prices came down recently – now it’s limited PC penetration and the lack of local content that is preventing the region from seeing higher numbers of internet users, it seems.

EU summit on Middle East conflict

This gets little attention at the moment, as the dispute with Iran over its nuclear program and international assistance to Lebanon dominate international diplomacy headlines, but I was disappointed by the outcome of the summit of the EU foreign ministers.

It was hosted in Finland (which is currently performing EU presidency), and the Finish foreign minister made an interesting remark before the summit, indicating a softening of the EU’s stance on Hamas.

Disappointingly, he draw back soon afterwards, saying that Hamas would have to accept preconditions before any talks, including the recognition of Israel. While there was certainly debate on integrating Hamas, this shows that there is no majority amongst EU members.

But if the EU wants to launch an initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the shadow of the other regional issues, it needs to do find a more pro-active stance on Hamas, then just replacing the Palestinian authority by paying cash sums to the population.

However, the EU appears to increasingly see itself as the main player in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as several European nations are preparing to send strong troop contingents to Southern Lebanon, and as the Bush administration is busy with November elections in Iraq and elections to Congress.

Motives of German train bombers

More information is coming out on the motives of the two train bombers that failed to blow up two regional trains in Western Germany about two months ago.

The head of the German Federal police, Jörg Ziercke, told the magazine Focus that – based on first interrogations of one the subjects who is held in Lebanon – the “initial detonation� for the plans was the publication of the caricatures of Prophet Mohammad in the German press.

“Youssef el Hajdib, who was arrested in Kiel, understood this as an attack of the Western world on Islam�, Ziercke is quoted as saying.

By accident, one of the bombers was later on discovered on footage of a local TV station that showed him during a demonstration in Kiel, a city in Northern Germany, in February, protesting the publication of the caricatures in German papers. On the footage, he is walking right next to the leader of the demonstration.

I find this interesting, as I have rarely read something on specific motives of Islamist terrorists beyond a general rejection of the West, as well as the specific events that radicalized them.

Ziercke adds that the death of el Zarkawi in Iraq on 7 June further encouraged the terrorists to carry out their plans.

Luckily, they didn’t manage to build their bombs (which didn’t explode anyways due to errors in their technical design) in time for the soccer world cup.

300 Egyptians seek asylum in the Czech Republic

From Fustat:

During July and August, the Czech republic has recieved 300 egyptian asylym seekers, this is in sharp contrast to January when they recieved one.

The authorities thinks it´s the neighbour Italy that they wan´t to reach. The asylum laws in the Czech republic is somewhat milder than in Italy. Most of the Egyptians claim to be economic refugees, and that is not a reason for asylum in the Czech republic, or in any other country in the European Union. Some 90 egyptians left three different reception camps near Prague en massé last week, in what authorities think was an organized attempt to go to other countries. 19 of those where spotted by the police, and returned to the reception camps.

I don’t have statistics to back it up, but I have the distinct impression that there has been a major increase of Egyptians trying to cross over to Europe over the last five year.

The Brothers in parliament

Samer Shehata, a very smart professor at Georgetown whom I’ve had the pleasure to spend some time with earlier this year, and our very own soon-to-be-professor Josh Stacher have a jointly written article on the Muslim Brotherhood in the new issue of Middle East Report. Thankfully, unlike most of the magazine, it’s online. It’s a thoughtful and timely piece about how, in the nine months or so since they’ve entered parliament with a record 88 members, the Brotherhood has influenced the parliamentary process and has worked effectively as a reformist political force in Egypt, most notably lending its support to the judges’ cause earlier this year.

There’s some fascinating information in there about the organization of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary delegation, notably how it has not only turned out to be a professional and well-organized group in the People’s Assembly but also how it has impact the parliamentary process:

The Brotherhood’s small parliamentary office in Cairo’s al-Manyal neighborhood no longer affords enough space for the deputies to meet collectively, given the fivefold increase in their numbers. So all of the Brotherhood MPs stay in the Ma‘adi Hotel when Parliament is in session. “When Parliament meets, we forget our houses,” says ‘Ali Fath al-Bab, the only one of the deputies elected three times. “We take our suitcases—even those who live in Cairo—and stay in the hotel.” The MPs room and eat together, and discuss the following day’s agenda in the hotel’s conference halls. They also chat informally and attend plenary lectures by speakers from outside the Brotherhood on topics related to those they are tackling in the People’s Assembly.

Yet the Ma‘adi Hotel also performs a more basic function: giving the MPs a place to stay so they can attend parliamentary sessions regularly. Fath al-Bab notes the difference from the 1995–2000 term, his first, when he was the only Brotherhood MP. Nominally, half of the MPs, or 228, must be present to constitute a quorum. Should the number fall below 228, however, the session is still considered lawful, as only a simple majority of those present are needed to pass legislation. Recalling his first term, Fath al-Bab explains, “By the end of the night, there might be 30 NDP MPs left and they would still be passing legislation.” But the Brothers’ regular attendance is changing that: “The NDP now has to have 100 people in Parliament at all times to maintain their majority.” Other Brotherhood MPs say the size of the Brotherhood’s bloc changes the dynamics of the legislature in other ways as well. As Husayn Muhammad Ibrahim, vice chairman of the bloc and a twice-elected MP, notes, “Our presence has had an effect. The NDP MPs are forced to be more critical toward the government and better prepared. It has changed how they act, but not how they vote.” The quasi-official daily al-Ahram concurs that the “Islamic trend” is playing a “noticeable and distinguished role that cannot be denied” in legislative sessions. Because of the Brothers, these sessions are more serious than previously in Mubarak’s tenure.

The MB’s parliamentary competence is nothing new — they like to boast of this and have even produced a handbook to MB parliamentary activity in the 2000-2005 parliament — but the article explains very well how the scale of the MB’s presence has changed. For a frame of reference, I recommend reading Mona el-Ghobashy’s 2005 paper.

There’s also some discussion of how well-informed the Brothers’ interventions in parliament have been, and how they make a real effort to inform themselves seriously about topical issues — even inviting experts from other political trends, including the NDP, to speak to them.

This “parliamentary kitchen,” as the Brothers call it, is divided into specialized teams that gather information about issues the MPs deal with in the Assembly. “In Parliament, you have access to a library and a central information office,” explains Ibrahim. “Neither is useful. A kitchen is a necessity and all the blocs need one. The kitchen consists of people with knowledge and experience…. Its job is to use civil society and consult experts to organize information we use in Parliament.” The parliamentary kitchen has been around since 2000, when 17 Muslim Brothers were elected to the People’s Assembly. But as the size of the bloc has increased, the kitchen has been forced to expand the scope of its activities. The result is that Brotherhood MPs are better prepared and informed about the issues. As Mansour argues, “The parliamentary kitchen gives us better tools to do our jobs.”

The parliamentary kitchen also has a second, and in many ways more important, function. Whether researching public health, judicial matters or environmental problems, the kitchen reaches out to society at large when gathering information. “We think that anyone who has knowledge is approachable,” Fath al-Bab states. “We don’t just rely on Brotherhood sources.” The kitchen is responsible for organizing the MPs’ seminar series, which has featured non-Brotherhood speakers such as Diaa Rashwan of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, NDP Higher Policy Council member Hala Mustafa and the chairman of Cairo University’s Political Science Department, Hasan Nafa‘a. While this outreach benefits Brotherhood MPs first and foremost, it also encourages civil society activists, who the regime and ruling party ignore at best and smother at worst, simply by providing an attentive audience.

Of course the Brotherhood MPs are still unable to stop bills, but they are having an impact on the atmosphere in which bills are discussed and in the media coverage of parliamentary debate — since there actually can be a real debate now. Samer and Josh document very well the public outreach that MB did during this year’s avian flu crisis. The paradox about the hysteria about the bird flu in Egypt was that trust in the authorities is so low that people did not believe government statements (who can blame them considering the long track record of lies?) The MB’s effort at calming a nearly hysterical population seems to have had more success:

Health experts, the media and the opposition roundly criticized the Egyptian government for underestimating the threat of avian flu, being insufficiently prepared and mishandling the crisis.[5] The Brotherhood MPs, meanwhile, applied immediate pressure on the government to devote greater attention to avian flu in order to lessen the impact on the nation’s economy. Drawing on the group’s organizational resources, the Islamist parliamentarians spearheaded a nationwide campaign to inform Egyptians about bird flu, calming nerves and dispelling rumors about the disease. Days after the first Egyptian bird flu case was announced, dozens of Brotherhood MPs stood outside Parliament eating grilled chicken while photographers snapped pictures.

I think you could probably find more occasions (the ferry and train disasters, the Lebanon war, the judges’ crisis etc.) where the Brotherhood (cynically or not) jumped on the opportunity to a public service that would make themselves look good, appear responsible and make the regime look bad. Some call this opportunism, I like to call it politics. The fact remains that the MB is the only political force that pulls off these kinds of stunts. They mention some of this, notably th
e judges’ crisis at length. In this case I think it was not only opportunism, but a genuine realization of the importance of judicial independence to meaningful political reform in Egypt.

One thing I regret about the piece is that while it does a a great job of showing how competent and reform-oriented the MB has been in parliament, it insufficiently looks at the areas in which they have failed to deliver. There are two things — unkept MB promises — I have in mind, specifically.

Firstly, around January of this year Brotherhood spokesman Essam al-Erian announced that, in light of the sectarian tensions of the preceding months, the MB would prevent a definitive position paper on its stance on the Coptic question — one that would revise their historic position or at least reconcile the sometimes contradictory statements that Supreme Guides have made about Copts over the year. This was particularly important at the time as a new informal dialogue between senior Brothers and independent (i.e. non-Church) Coptic intellectuals, led by Al Watani editor Youssef Sidhoum, had just been started. The Brotherhood never produced anything, and later a spokesman even said it the Brotherhood had nothing new to say and stood by its previous statements. I find this extremely disappointing and interpret it as a sign that the MB was not able to form a consensus on the Coptic question, which only feeds the suspicions of Copts and Muslim secularists that, no matter how reasonable some Brothers might seem, many of them are bigots (an intuition that I personally think is correct.)

The second broken promise was made by Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, who around February of this year pledged the Brotherhood would “soon” revise its internal charter to provide for more internal democracy. He spoke of several changes, but most notable was his mention of more open elections of the Supreme Guide and having their terms limited to four or five years, renewable once. In my mind this was explosive: one of the oldest political groups in Egypt, where party presidents tend to stay for life, was willing not only to break with its own long-established tradition for the appointment of Supreme Guide (which, in real terms, is a lot more than a part president) and impose the very limitations that the opposition is united in demanding from the Egyptian presidency. I have no idea what happened to that proposal, but we haven’t heard about it since. It’s as if after making a big fuss about how moderate they are during and shortly after the parliamentary elections, now they’ve forgotten all about it.

Of course, there’s been a massive crackdown in the meantime, so maybe they’ve just been distracted. Still, this does not inspire confidence. One could also add their bizarre performance during the Lebanon war, which seemed to have been pretty badly thought out.

My own thinking on the Brotherhood is that it is in a crisis, and not only because key members are in jail. As the biggest political group in the country, it is a “big tent” that gathers a lot of people with different views, even if they are all nominally Islamists. The internal debate taking place among the Brotherhood — which we don’t know much about — seems to be at a stalemate. At a time during which they face a massive police and propaganda campaign (just read Al Fagr or Rose Al Youssef these days) they still do not show a clear indication of what they are about beyond vague ideas about Islam and more competence than the NDP. It is as if they have many well-meaning (and probably not-so-well-meaning) middle managers running about, getting to know their constituents and generally doing a pretty good job but no CEO steering the ship. Or several of them going in different directions. Their intellectual production (policy papers etc.) also, to my knowledge (and this isn’t my forte, so please tell me if I’m wrong), seems to be pretty weak. Even Kifaya, with all its disorganization, seems to be more intellectually coherent, or more to the point, intellectually productive. Now some people might say it’s unfair to expect so much of the Brotherhood. Maybe. But the pressure is on them to prove to Egyptians, and the world, that they are not what their enemies say they are. As Samer and Josh show, they’ve done that in part by sterling parliamentary work. But it’s still not enough.

The T-shirt incident in full

In Raed Jarrar’s own words:

Then I once again asked the three of them : “How come you are asking me to change my t-shirt? Isn’t this my constitutional right to wear it? I am ready to change it if you tell me why I should. Do you have an order against Arabic t-shirts? Is there such a law against Arabic script?” so inspector Harris answered “you can’t wear a t-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a t-shirt that reads “I am a robber” and going to a bank”. I said “but the message on my t-shirt is not offensive, it just says “we will not be silent”. I got this t-shirt from Washington DC. There are more than a 1000 t-shirts printed with the same slogan, you can google them or email them at . It is printed in many other languages: Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, English, etc.” Inspector Harris said: “We cant make sure that your t-shirt means we will not be silent, we don’t have a translator. Maybe it means something else”. I said: “But as you can see, the statement is in both Arabic and English”. He said “maybe it is not the same message”. So based on the fact that Jet Blue doesn’t have a translator, anything in Arabic is suspicious because maybe it’ll mean something bad!

Meanwhile, a third man walked in our direction. He stood with us without introducing himself, and he looked at inspector Harris’s notes and asks him: “is that his information?”, inspector Harris answered “yes”. The third man, Mr. Harmon, asks inspector Harris : “can I copy this information?”, and inspector Harris says “yes, sure”.

Inspector Harris said: “You don’t have to take of your t-shirt, just put it on inside-out”. I refused to put on my shirt inside-out. So the woman interfered and said “let’s reach a compromise. I will buy you a new t-shirt and you can put it on on top of this one”. I said “I want to keep this t-shirt on”. Both inspector Harris and Mr. Harmon said “No, we can’t let you get on that airplane with your t-shirt”. I said “I am ready to put on another t-shirt if you tell me what is the law that requires such a thing. I want to talk to your supervisor”. Inspector Harris said “You don’t have to talk to anyone. Many people called and complained about your t-shirt. Jetblue customers were calling before you reached the checkpoint, and costumers called when you were waiting here in the boarding area”.

it was then that I realized that my t-shirt was the reason why I had been taken to the secondary checking.

I asked the four people again to let me talk to any supervisor, and they refused.

The Jet Blue woman was asking me again to end this problem by just putting on a new t-shirt, and I felt threatened by Mr. Harmon’s remarks as in “Let’s end this the nice way”. Taking in consideration what happens to other Arabs and Muslims in US airports, and realizing that I will miss my flight unless I covered the Arabic script on my t-shirt as I was told by the four agents, I asked the Jet Blue woman to buy me a t-shirt and I said “I don’t want to miss my flight.”

She asked, what kind of t-shirts do you like. Should I get you an “I heart new york t-shirt?”. So Mr. Harmon said “No, we shouldn’t ask him to go from one extreme to another”. I asked mr. harmon why does he assume I hate new york if I had some Arabic script on my t-shirt, but he didn’t answer.

The woman went away for 3 minutes, and she came back with a gray t-shirt reading “new york”. I put the t-shirt on and removed the price tag. I told the four people who were involved in the conversation: “I feel very sad that my personal freedom was taken away like this. I grew up under authoritarian governments in the Middle East, and one of the reasons I chose to move to the US was that I don’t want an officer to make me change my t-shirt. I will pursue this incident today through a Constitutional rights organization, and I am sure we will meet soon”. Everyone said okay and left, and I went back to my seat.

There’s more there…