December 16, 2005

“This Probably Looks Stalinist to You”

CAIRO - I met “Praktike” in the lobby of the Hotel President on Cairo’s Zamalek island. He is an American student studying Arabic at the American University of Cairo and the founder of the group blog American Footprints, formerly know as Liberals Against Terrorism.

“Let’s go somewhere off Zamalek, shall we?” I said. “This city is huge and I need to see as much of it as I can.”

“What would you like to do? Have lunch? Coffee? Smoke shisha?” A shisha is an Arabic water pipe, like a bong for flavored tobacco, also knows as a hookah, a hubbly bubbly, and an argileh.

“How about all of the above?” I said.

“I know just the place then,” he said, “in a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out.”

He hailed us a cab and we hopped in the back. I had no idea where we were going, but a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out sounded perfect. Those kinds of neighborhoods in Beirut – Gemmayze and Monot in particular – are terrific.

Praktike had a long conversation with the driver in Arabic as we blasted our way through Cairo’s homicidal maniac traffic. Clearly his Arabic studies were coming along. I can easily give taxi drivers directions in Arabic, but I can’t hold down conversations. The problem, if that is the word, is that almost everyone speaks English in Beirut. Learning Arabic there not only isn’t unnecessary, it’s almost impossible. Locals won’t speak Arabic with foreigners unless the foreigner is already fluent or the local doesn’t speak English or French. A British expat friend of mine has lived in Beirut for almost ten years, is married to a Lebanese Druze woman, and has two half-Lebanese children - and he still can’t speak Arabic. A Lebanese-American friend of mine who studied Arabic in the U.S. says his Arabic gets worse the longer he stays in Beirut.

“Here we are,” Praktike said as he paid the driver. The total fare wasn’t even a dollar.

The neighborhood looked grim and depressing, not at all what I expected from a place that hip young people had colonized. But I didn’t say anything.

“You have to revise your expectations downward in Cairo,” Praktike said, as though he knew what I was thinking. “This probably looks Stalinist to you.”

“It isn’t that bad,” I said. “Libya is Stalinist, and this is better than that. But it’s not pretty.”

“No, it’s not pretty,” he said. “But you get used to it.”

He led me into what counts in Cairo as a nice restaurant. The floors were orange tile. The chairs were made of wicker. A mild feeling of gloom hung over the place like a cloudy day just before rain. It was not even remotely like what you can easily find in Beirut’s fashionable neighborhoods.

“Do you like living in Cairo?” I said as we sat down. A beaming waiter brought us two menus and bowed.

“Well, it’s a big sprawling mess,” he said. This was certainly true. “You either hate it or love it. I think I’m in the latter category. I was bored back home in the States, and I’m not bored here at all.”

I worried that I would be bored and alienated into depression if I lived in Cairo after I saw all the sights. Going from Beirut to Cairo was like descending into a poorly lit basement. Some Americans who would visit Cairo and expect to like it won’t go anywhere near Beirut. This is incredible to me. For one thing, far more people have been killed by terrorists in Egypt than in Lebanon over the past fifteen years. Forget its reputation: Beirut is culturally, intellectually, economically, and politically more advanced by an order of magnitude. It’s unfair when Lebanon is described as Third World. Egypt, though, without question is Third World.

How far the mighty do fall. Fifty years ago Cairo was a relatively wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan jewel of North Africa and the Middle East. Don’t even think of blaming Islam for its present wretched condition. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his secular Free Officer regime demolished this place with intellectual, political, and economic bulldozers. Hosni Mubarak’s ridiculously named National Democratic Party, which is really just a euphemism for the calcified military regime from the 1950s, has done absolutely nothing to improve things in the meantime. Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Glain aptly described Egypt as a “towering dwarf.” I don’t think the description can be improved on.

Praktike and I ordered sandwiches, soft drinks, and a shisha to share. I asked him for a rundown of the current state of Egypt’s politics as he saw it.

“There are 21 political parties,” he said. “But 16 don’t really exist. They are newspapers, not parties. Their reporters aren’t really reporters. They have no handle on policy or ideas whatsoever. Some of them even sell access. If someone wants to smear a businessman, for instance, space can be bought for that in their pages.”

The main opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been active in Egypt for 77 years, and they have built a formidable political machine through the mosques even while banned.

The two main liberal opposition parties, the Wafd and Al-Ghad, are tiny, disorganized, and woefully unprofessional. They are more like fringe parties than broad-based popular movements. It’s not that the Muslim Brotherhood truly represents everyone else – they don’t. It’s mostly because the liberal parties have not been around for as long and they have not been free to operate normally or build themselves up. They have no idea how to build grassroots support for their positions in a country where a one-party dictatorship controls or co-opts just about everything. The Muslim Brotherhood is Mubarak’s most powerful opponent by mere default.

We passed the shisha pipe between us. The tobacco flavor was apple, which is widely considered the best.

“You have to realize, too,” he said, “that a lot of the so-called independent candidates are really just NDP guys who didn’t get selected to run in their district. Some races are NDP versus NDP, even though they don’t look that way on the surface.”

What did he think of the Muslim Brotherhood?

“The MB is going to win around 100 seats in parliament,” Praktike said. (As it turned out they won 88.) “That’s 100 out of 444 seats, plus another ten appointed by Mubarak directly. That’s a lot of seats considering that they only ran 120 out of fear of being smacked down by the state if they posed too much of a threat.”

It is a big deal that the Muslim Brotherhood won more than half the seats they contested, especially since the NDP still cheated and even opened fire with live ammunition on voters.

“All the ministers are members of parliament,” Praktike said. “So the Minister of Energy,” for example, “has to face an election. In all the races where these big guys are running we are seeing vote-rigging, vote-buying, intimidation, and cheating.”

During one of the early rounds of elections in Alexandria a street battle erupted between NDP guys wielding swords and Muslim Brotherhood members who came at them with chairs. The army fired tear gas at groups of voters in Brotherhood strongholds to keep them from reaching the polls.

How extreme is the Muslim Brotherhood, really? That’s the argument that never ends in Egypt right now. That’s precisely what the Brothers want. They cleverly don’t reveal their thoughts and positions on political lightning rods. Would they actually ban alcohol if they came to power? Who knows? They won’t say. Will they force women, even foreign women and Christian Egyptians, to wear the veil? Your guess is as good as mine.

Islam is the solution is their rallying cry. But they say they want to build an Islamist state democratically.

They also claim, at least sometimes, that they are not sectarian – a rather difficult thing to believe considering that they want an Islamist state. “I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally,” Praktike said. They chanted “Muslims and Christians, we are all Egyptians.”

That’s nice to hear. The problem Christian Egyptians have (and they make up between 10 and 15 percent of the population) isn’t that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t recognize their right to live in Egypt and be Egyptians. They worry about losing some of their already-diminished rights and being forced to live by the code of another religion.

Right now the regime is secular. And yet Christians are blatantly discriminated against when it comes to government jobs. In a country where huge swaths of the economy are controlled by the government, that’s a serious problem. There also is the matter of constructing churches. If you want to build a mosque, go right ahead. If you want to build or even repair a church, expect years of bureaucracy and being told repeatedly “no” from regime apparatchiks. If the Muslim Brotherhood ever ascends to power, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have every reason to believe the already-existing discrimination against them from the secular state will only increase under the rule of an Islamist state. Christians don’t have the numbers, the political clout, or the organization, to fend off Islamist oppression if it ever arrives. Only liberal and moderate Muslims can do that.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not armed. They are not a wing of Al Qaeda. They are a right-wing religious conservative party. And it’s hard to say how far they would go if given the chance.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is run mostly by old people,” Praktike said. “The Old Guard is definitely less moderate and less democratic. But they are also more willing to make concessions to the regime. They really don’t believe in democracy. The younger members, though, are more democratic. At least they seem to be. They talk a good game, but the way this will all play out if they ever come into power ultimately is unknowable.”

Surely it depends on how they come into power, he explained, if it ever happens. If they violently seize control, as the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran, the odds that Egypt’s future will be democratic are probably miniscule. If, on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is ever elected to power under a constitutional system and the rule of law, they will be all but forced to make compromises with liberal and moderate Egyptians who will field their own successful candidates at the same time.

It looks to me like the Muslim Brotherhood will have a powerful impact on Egyptian politics one way or another. They already are the most popular movement opposed to the hated regime. Mubarak has three options. He can do nothing but maintain the status-quo, which is his quarter century-long specialty. He can slowly cede parliament to the Muslim Brotherhood while empowering, rather than attempting to destroy, the liberal democratic opposition in order to soften the Islamist slide. Or he can damn the consequences to his country and his soul and turn Egypt into a full-blown Stalinist state to buy himself just a little more time.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:19 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 15, 2005

Hanging with Hezbollah

The LA Weekly has published my first-person account of meeting and hanging out with Hezbollah.

Word has it that these guys are media savvy, that they know how to make a terrific impression on the press. It isn’t true. If they were friendly and civilized I would have written that they were friendly and civilized. But they weren’t, so I wrote this instead. They have no one to blame for this bad press but themselves.

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December 14, 2005

A Eulogy and a Letter

Lebanon is a sad country today.

Michael Young, opinion page editor of Beirut's Daily Star, wrote Gebran Tueni’s eulogy – the second time this year he has had to do this for a friend and colleague murdered by a Syrian car bomb.

It seems only yesterday that I watched as a stunned Gibran Tueni looked down at the crumbled body of journalist Samir Kassir, shortly after the latter's assassination in his car on an Achrafieh street. Perhaps it was his own death that Tueni saw foretold; or more likely he was trying to come to grips with what was then the still-novel happening of seeing journalists and politicians butchered at the start of their working day.

An-Nahar has paid too high a price for its criticism of the Syrian regime. Tueni himself only recently returned from a spell in Paris, well aware of the dangers to his life. It is to his considerable credit that he accepted the risk of an uncertain homecoming, though how desirable, in hindsight, it would have been for him to spend his days working out of his home - isolated, but safe from the death squads dispatched to liquidate him.

That Tueni's death was linked to the Mehlis inquiry, and reports that the German investigator would name Syrian suspects in his latest report, cannot be doubted. At the least this murder must be dealt with in a different way by the international community, because the United Nations investigation will take many more months - time enough to kill many more people. What happened on Monday was a finger in the eye of the Security Council, and few could miss that the road on which Tueni was killed is essentially the same one used on a regular basis by UN investigators descending to Beirut from their Monteverde redoubt.

In killing Tueni, the murderers hoped to strike a mortal blow at Lebanon's most prestigious newspaper. For them, the real danger has always been independent thought - against which they can only muster media that threaten, crowds that threaten, and security services that best them both by implementing the threats. Ideas are absent from their endeavors; human development is absent; amelioration is absent; self-determination, freedom, imagination are all absent, crushed by a regime that can only warn that if it goes down, the region will go down with it.

There are those who cretinously swallow that contention hook, line and sinker; who argue that the gentlemen in Damascus must be left alone, maintained, because their departure might indeed bring disorder. That incredible interpretation somehow assures us that Gibran Tueni was, in the end, a martyr to order. A remarkable order it is, then, the very same that protected Saddam Hussein until 2003, and that today props up the authority of a cornucopia of greater and lesser criminals, from Nouakchott to Sanaa, wardens all of what Ghassan Tueni has called "the great Arab prison."


A rapid sign of daring would be for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to compel the government to endorse an international tribunal in the Hariri case as soon as possible. If Hizbullah opposes the measure and threatens to withdraw from the session, or from the government, then the ministers must go ahead and vote anyway. The majority will win. A Lebanese consensus should not mean giving a minority the right of veto when it means defending against state-sponsored terrorism. The message on a tribunal will have a strong impact in New York, where the Security Council must know Lebanon is willing to partly internationalize its security, since it has been left with no other choice.

None of this will bring Gibran Tueni back, nor his charm, elegance and perpetual dissent. Nothing will reassure us that the venerable An-Nahar can survive this latest crime. Ghassan Tueni will soon have to bury another child, the most heartbreaking duty of all. But deep down it's another wish we have: that the Tuenis, Ghassan but also Gibran's widow and children, will stick to their guns and demand that the truth come out. At the end of the day, his murderers remain most afraid of one thing: the truth.

The great Syrian poet Adonis, who lives now in Beirut and Paris, wrote a letter to Gebran’s father Ghassan who has now had to bury three of his children. It was published on the front page of An Nahar newspaper. (Translation from Arabic by Tony Badran.)
Dear Ghassan,

You know better than all of us, you the wise experienced one, that fatherhood in such a moment, as it bows under the weight of the tragedy, must also explode like springs from the earth.

I know you are the person most deeply worried about what's being imposed on us in Lebanon: to live only with ghosts. Ghosts of destruction and murder. Not the destruction of matter alone, or the body alone, but also the destruction of the spirit and the mind and the intellect. Life -- soaked in a moving carcass, and the human being -- poured into a temple of terror: that is the Lebanon that they want for us today.

They want us to be cornered into a spot where it would seem as if death -- by murder -- is the only thing we see before us. It's as if it's imposed on us all to declare fear and succumb to it.

In your remarkable experience, in your epic life, dear friend, we find what teaches us to overcome the fearsome and the tragic, and what pushes us to open our bosoms to the truth, and to our right to it, which is our right to life.

In them also we find what tells us: if we must die -- murdered -- then let us die standing on the peak of light.


(Paris, 12/12/2005)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:14 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 13, 2005

The War Against the Pen

I have a lot of Egypt material left in my notebook that I need and want to write about. Rather than merely summarize what I heard and what I saw I want to dramatize it. But right after I got back to Beirut the car bomb siege against journalists started again. So I’m taking a brief detour from writing about Egypt to deal with this.

TCS just published the report I wrote last night and this morning. It includes the most up-to-date material I have, including background, analysis, interviews with some very pissed off Lebanese, and a bit of advice. Please click here and read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:00 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 12, 2005

Car Bombs Resume in Lebanon

I hate to say this a mere week before my wife will join me in Beirut, but the car bombs have started again.

This time Gebran Tueni was murdered in a town called Mekalis above Beirut. Of course he was anti-Syrian. And of course he was a journalist. He was the editor, in fact, of An-Nahar – considered by many to be the best (Arabic language) newspaper in Lebanon. He was also recently elected a member of parliament.

At least three other people were killed in the car bomb that targetted him.

The lying fascist scumbag of a regime in Syria denies having anything to do with this. If they were smart they would bump off one of their Lebanese stooges once in a while just to make it look slightly less obvious to the gullible.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:09 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 11, 2005


CAIRO - There’s no way around it – your first impression of a new city and country will be powerfully influenced by whatever you see in your first fifteen minutes of walking around. It’s important, then, that you choose the location of your hotel very carefully.

Mine was the Hotel President on the Nile River island of Zamalek, supposedly Cairo’s “Beverly Hills.” It was instantly obvious that I was no longer in Beirut. The streets were 95 percent quieter, although I heard blaring horns faintly in the distance from a busier part of the city on the mainland. There were trees there on Zamalek – trees! Beirut has almost no trees at all. The streets were twice as wide compared with what I was used to, and so were the sidewalks. Cairo – at least Zamalek in any case – was much more pedestrian friendly. I could actually walk around without having to constantly wade into treacherous streets to dodge dumpsters, electricity polls, and rudely parked cars that Beirutis seem determined to throw up in the paths of anyone who dares walk around.

A vaguely vegetable smell, presumably from the Nile, coated the air like a thin slime. I later found out it came from the lush Nile delta where farmers were burning crop waste in the fields. That explained why it smelled neither rotten nor foul. The city was enveloped in a dense fog-like haze, partly from automobile pollution, but also from the burning. It gave my sleepy Zamalek neighborhood a surreal ghostly pallor that only added to the dislocation I always feel when arriving in a new city in a new country for the first time.

Nile in Haze.jpg

Foreign embassies were all over the island, most of them right next to each other. They were the former mansions of rich Cairenes, and they truly were glorious homes from around the turn of the last century.

Zamalek Embassies.jpg

Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized their property, though, and most residents of the island have been living in apartment buildings (most of them ordinary and uninspiring) ever since.

Zamalek Towers 2.jpg

I walked along Mantazan Street on the bank of the Nile. The river was not nearly as wide as I imagined it would be, at least not as it wrapped itself around Zamalek. Two commercial pleasure boats – one lit up in neon, and both playing Arabic music too loudly – passed each other on the otherwise dark and quiet waters. International hotels skycrapered behind them.

Every single last person I passed on the streets was a man, though for what it’s worth I did go for my first walk around midnight. Cairo is twenty times larger than Beirut, but it is two or even three orders of magnitude more conservative. I felt like I was walking around a gigantic North African village, not an upper-class neighborhood in the Arab world’s New York City.

I was surprised that Zamalek was considered upper-class. It didn’t look like it or feel like it to me. The sidewalks were crumbling. Almost every apartment building, whether ugly and modern or lovely and Victorian, was coated in layers of soot and grime. Many parked cars had been idle so long on the side of the road they looked like they were covered in volcanic ash. The leaves on the trees were covered in dust. Only the embassies were clean and well-maintained.


I wouldn’t describe Zamalek as ugly. It wasn’t. It was just dour on the outside. Inside was different. I could see through windows into the living rooms of some apartments in the beautiful old buildings, and I envied the people who lived there. You can’t feel sorry for someone who has high ceilings, color-washed walls, wedding cake moldings, and chandeliers in their living room. My house in the States is not as nice as many of these.

But the neighborhood outside wasn’t kept up. Civic pride did not appear to be something Egyptians valued. The same is certainly true in the middle class areas of Beirut, but it’s worse in Cairo even among the elite, and Cairo didn’t have to rebuild after a war.

When travel writer Douglas Kennedy visited Alexandria in the 1980s he met renowned Egyptian painter Sarwat el Bahr who explained a key Egyptian concept to him. “Do you know why America does not understand Egypt? Because they do not understand the meaning of the word Maaleesh. In English, Maaleesh means ‘doesn’t matter,’ and it is the one word you need to understand Egypt. In America everything is now, now, now - make the money now, make the career now. But in Egypt, everybody believes in life after death, so everything in life is Maaleesh."

That’s how much of Zamalek looked and felt to me. It was no “Beverly Hills of Cairo.” There was just something tired and resigned about the place, like a mildly depressed person who doesn’t feel like getting out of bed at 11:00 in the morning. Zamalek disappointed – considering what it was supposed to be like – and I went back to my hotel and picked up my copy of Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.

Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”
What I saw wasn’t nearly as bad as all that. And the next day, when I found 26 of July Street and the streets adjacent to it, I changed my mind about Zamalek. (I later changed my mind again and again about not only Zamalek, but all of Cairo.)

26 of July had an elevated freeway that ran right over the top if it, giving the street a dark Blade Runner-esque feel. That may sound like a complaint, but somehow it worked. It reminded me a bit of Chicago, a city I love dearly and wish I could visit more often. You can barely see the sky from the sidewalk, but the street is brilliantly lit up at night. All the usual neighborhood goods are for sale: shoes, watches, clothing, glasses, pharmaceuticals, snacks, and so on.

While most of the street was painfully ordinary, it did have its moments.

I found a terrific Italian restaurant called Maison Thomas. The sign in the window said “Le Caire Fondee en 1922,” decades before Nasser drove all the non-Arabs out of Egypt in his Arab Nationalist “revolution” from above. Maison Thomas, unlike so much of Cairo and even the quieter back streets of Zamalek, felt truly modern. Its patrons were well-dressed, most of them more so than I was. The waiters and waitresses dressed sharply in black and white. Women and men – and I couldn’t tell if they were single or married – went there on dates. None of the women wore the hijab, the veil, or the abaya. Almost everyone seemed to be in a good mood, and almost everyone smoked imported cigarettes rather than Egypt’s crappy brand Cleopatra. My charming and disarming waiter seemed like the happiest man alive, as if nothing in the known universe pleased him more than bringing me a pizza and a 7-Up. (I should add, for the sake of those who have a hard time jettisoning rigid Islamic caricatures from their heads, that pork – real non-halal pig meat – was available at this restaurant. See here for more about that.)

A first class bookstore across the street called Diwa carried some of the most sophisticated titles from the West as well as from the Middle East. A whole shelf was devoted to Arabic literature translated into English and published in beautiful eye-catching trade paperback editions. Many of the original English titles were among the finest works of literature the West has ever produced. In the history and current events section I found books by Edward Said, David Frum, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Lewis. (No Salman Rushdie, alas.)

Down the street and around the corners I passed antique stores selling the most exquisite furnishings collected from multiple centuries and civilizations. Gold and silver jewelry was ubiquitous. Several stores sold Christmas lights and trees – although most were made out of plastic. I found a Korean restaurant called, simply, “Korean Restaurant.” Fantastically expensive clothing stores were offset with a “Timberland” store for the middle class. Most of these stores were above apartment buildings, many of which were English and Victorian.

Egyptians were more formal and polite with me than Lebanese. Almost everyone called me “sir,” which made me feel like a fraud when I was bumming around in jeans and a t-shirt. I enjoy being called “sir” when I’m dressed up and sipping French wine in a dark and exclusive piano bar in Beirut. But at a coffeeshop or corner grocery it’s really not necessary.

The nice thing about it, though, was that it politely concealed Egypt’s rampant anti-Americanism. Europeans who hate America often want you to know it, and some aren’t bashful about making it personal. Egyptians, like Arabs generally, are way too polite and hospitable to get nasty about it. I believe, although I could be mistaken, that anti-Americanism is stronger in Egypt than in any of the other Arab countries I’ve been to. Among other things we can blame our client-state “pal” Hosni Mubarak, our corrosive relationship with his military dictatorship, and his deranged state-run media machine for that. Hostility to the United States is definitely stronger in Egypt than it is in Lebanon. Yet Egyptians are kinder, gentler, and sweeter somehow. Lebanese, though I love them, are French by comparison.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:18 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 10, 2005

Arrival in Egypt

Many thanks to Lebanon.Profile for substitute blogging while my Internet access and free time to write were lacking. Be sure to bookmark and blogroll his Lebanese Political Journal if you enjoyed reading his comments here. I have time to write about Egypt properly now, so we’ll start at the beginning.
CAIRO - I love flying in and out of Beirut. I’ve done it several times now, always at night. The view from the plane is spectacular. Lebanon is small – less than 50 miles wide and less than 100 miles long. The coast and the western side of the mountains are almost totally urbanized. You can see that coastal and mountain geography defined sharply in the night as though the country were rendered on a gigantic three-dimensional Light-Bright. Be sure to book a window seat when you come here.

After flying over the dark waters of Mediterranean for forty minutes or so, I was over Africa looking down on the Nile delta. They say it is shockingly green down there, so green it is almost black. What I saw was different. Unlike the shimmering electrified Lebanese coast, the whole earth was dimly illuminated. From 10,000 feet it looked as though a white pillow case had been thrown over a tangled coil of Christmas lights. I could see perhaps 100 villages at all once, revealed as somewhat more brightly-lit smudges evenly spaced like squares on a quilt.

Fifteen minutes later Cairo appeared in its much brighter chaos, a sprawling disorganized amoeba of twinkling stars. Dozens of towers lit up with green bands rose above the swirling mass of white and yellow lights. Presumably these towers were mosque minarets, but I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen green-banded mosque lights at night anywhere else. What else, though, would they have been? Green is the holy color of Islam, and Egypt is almost 90 percent Sunni Muslim.

The airport was sleek and modern, better and in nicer condition than many airports in the West. It made Egypt look grand and important. The people, though, were another story. The overwhelming majority were men, and as many as half wore dingy coats and ties with a lot of browns, yellows, and greens. No one who lives in Beirut would dare dress like that. Beirutis are as fashionable as Italians. Stepping into Cairo from there was a trip into Retroville.

The line at the Passport Control booth moved achingly slowly. I sighed.

“Welcome to Cairo,” said a pasty-white bespectacled European standing behind me.

“You have been here before,” I said.

“I live here,” he said. I was pretty sure from his accent that he was German.

“Things move slowly in Beirut, too,” I said. “I have an apartment there.”

“Cairo is nothing like Beirut,” he said. “Egypt is much slower, much poorer, and much more bureaucratic. These boys,” he meant the passport control agents, “are not very well educated. They have a hard time keying Latin letters into the computer. I would move to Beirut in a minute if I could.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“Five long years,” he said. “I am an engineer and a German.”

As I hauled my luggage out the front door the usual phalanx of taxi drivers descended on me.



“You need a taxi!”

Yes, I needed a taxi.

“You can drive me to Zamalek,” I said to the driver nearest to me, “for ten dollars.”

“You won’t do it for twelve?” he said.

“Sure, I’ll do it for twelve.”

As he took me into the city I felt I was approaching the center of an important and powerful capital. You don’t get that sense in Beirut at all. Beirut, in terms of population, is Portland, Oregon. Cairo is bigger than New York City.

Apartment towers followed the freeway and spread for miles in each direction away from it. Most of them were blocky and grubby, not unlike some of those in the Bronx and outer Paris beyond the Periferique. They reminded me of the worst in southern Beirut on the way to the airport, only bigger. That wasn’t all I saw, though. Brilliantly and masterfully illuminated architectural set-pieces – sometimes mosques with soaring minarets, sometimes mid-century Coptic Christian churches, other times glorious Egyptian palaces and villas, including President Mubarak’s – promised an exciting city to come.

One street of shops even along the airport highway was clearly set up for the wealthy and upwardly mobile. I don’t have the kind of money to spend at some of those places, and I could tell that much from the car. The Egyptian economy is moribund – even downright Latin American – but somebody there was doing okay.

The buildings kept getting taller and older and I approached the center. Cairo suddenly became an architectural wonderland, a gigantic outdoor museum for Islamic, Ottoman, and Levantine urban sculptures. There were no bullet-pocked or mortar-shattered towers like there are in Beirut. But almost every single last building needed major renovation, or at least a paint job. Cairo did not appear to be in as bad a shape as Castro-ruined Havana, but it was no Paris either. It was a grand city. I could see that that from the car. But it needed millions, if not billions, of dollars set aside for upkeep and repair. I could see that from the car, too, and I could see it at night.

In the lobby at the check-in desk at my hotel was a sign from the Ministry of Tourism. The law stated that “all bills must be settled with foreign currency or credit cards.” It didn’t specify which foreign currency. Presumably they wouldn’t take money from Colonel Ghaddafi’s mad outdoor Libyan laboratory next door. But “anything but our own!” is more or less what the sign said. It did not inspire confidence in the economy.

It was late, and I didn’t have time to find hunt around for a restaurant. So I ordered food at La Terrase near the top floor of my hotel. La Terrase advertised itself as one of the finest gourmet restaurants in Cairo. I dearly hoped that wasn’t true, that it was merely overblown self-promotion. The décor, if it could be called that, was only one step above that of Embers, the chain of corporate family restaurants in the American Midwest. It was utterly non-descript, and I was the only diner. I ordered the steak au poive with French fries. The meat was greasy and stringy. The sauce was off. I didn’t get fries, I got rice. That would have been fine, but the rice was soggy and overcooked. There were no greens on my plate, not even a sprig of parsley to throw away.

My room had a balcony on the twelfth floor overlooking the Nile and the sprawling urban behemoth beyond. Just across the river was a mosque minaret. Sure enough, it was lit up in green.

Green Mosque on Nile.jpg

More people live in Cairo than live in Lebanon and Syria combined. I know Beirut very well. I cannot get lost there. Standing on my balcony, though, I felt like I would always be one wrong turn away from being lost forever in Cairo.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:02 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 9, 2005

On Democrats and Arabs

by lebanon.profile

Sometimes you just have to cut to the chase...

The Democratic Party critics of the President and Arab critics of American policy have a lot in common.

They love to go on the attack against people taking action, but offer no alternative. They snipe at President Bush and the oh-so-evil neo-cons, but offer few alternatives.

And when they do offer alternatives, the two groups sound exactly alike: "let the people choose their government; it should not be imposed from above," "Muslims should have a government culturally sensitive to their religion," "you must understand that America cannot support democracy because it has supported so many heinous regimes in the past," "America must first deal with Israeli aggression, and then everything will fall into place in the Arab world."

Where is the alternative in those statements?

I wanted to vote against President Bush in 2004. I couldn't do it. I just didn't vote.

It breaks my heart to see leftists, liberals, and Democrats fighting against freedom in this region. Seymour Hersh makes claims in support of Syria. The Daily Kos and Atrios refuse to link blogs supporting democracy in the Middle East. American academics choose to fight the Bush Administration by visiting the military dictatorship in Syria, and giving anti-Bush speeches in support of the Arab status quo throughout the region.

What really hurt me was Democrat responses on March 9, 2005. On March 8th, Hezbollah held a rally in downtown Beirut. The Democrats, liberals, and leftists chose to latch on to them as the voice of Lebanon. They argued that President Bush needed to mind his own business because a militant organization with full Syrian and Iranian support held a rally.

Partially thanks to American liberals and international leftists nearly 1.2 million people (in a country of approximately 4 million people) came to the streets on March 14. We wanted to make it clear to the world that Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria did not represent us, that we desire to live in freedom, and that we would no longer tolerate living under a military regime that assassinates our leaders and tortures our citizens.

It's okay to dislike President Bush. It's just fine to criticize him for the deficit. It benefits the American system to catch him when he's guilty of cronyism. Jump up and down and turn red in the face about Guantanamo, torture, Halliburton contracts, and Supreme Court nominations. But don't undermine him when the freedom of millions of people are at stake.

There's no comparison to Iraq. There's no threat of invasion, and President Bush isn't mining for evidence of WMD.

If President Bush, Jacques Chirac, the European Commission, Kofi Annan, and the United Nations come together in support of the same action, then it's difficult to argue that President Bush is doing the wrong thing.

The Bush Administration is currently repairing relations with European nations, using international institutions to support American foreign policy, practicing restraint, and masterfully using diplomacy. When it comes to American policy regarding Lebanon and Syria, there is not much to criticize if you're not pro-Syrian regime.

And yet the President continues to be attacked. Even worse, his critics are giving cover to a military dictatorship. President Bush didn't "sex up" intelligence dossiers. Dick Cheney hasn't been chatting with members of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian regime is just plain guilty of assassinations, mass graves, supporting terror in Israel/Palestine, supporting organizations wanting to destroy Israel, and supporting terrorists in Iraq.

What are the counter-solutions offered by Democrat critics, leftists, and Arab critics? Criticize Bush more. Attack him for things unrelated to policy on Syria. Bring up failures in Iraq over and over again. Assert that America can't withstand another Iraq. Compare Iraq to Vietnam and Syria to Cambodia and Laos.

Where does that leave us in Lebanon? President Bush is demanding democracy in Lebanon and an end to terror in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel without costing the American taxpayers anything extra. Secretary Condoleeza Rice and Ambassador John Bolton will get their salaries, regardless.

Either come clean and say you hate Bush and everything he does (including hugging children and giving flowers to elderly women), or criticize him intelligently. We read what's being said over there and we hear it repeated to us by people supporting the Syrian regime.

Let's see the viable alternatives. When it comes to American policy towards Syria that is applied through the unanimous passage of Security Council Resolutions, there isn't much to criticize.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 2:59 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

December 7, 2005

American Views of the Middle East

by lebanon.profile

Americans are aiding and abetting pan-Arabism.


This isn't a joke.

The way Americans think about the Middle East is the very way that pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists want them to think about the Middle East: it's a region of Arabic speaking Muslims who don't drink alcohol, hate the United States, want to destroy Israel and massacre Jews, and want a revolutionary socialist government.

That's the equivalent of non-Americans saying, "The United States is a country of white Protestants who trace their heritage back to England and Germany, listen to country music, are xenophobic but simultaneously enjoy foreign wars, go to church every Sunday and Bible study throughout the rest of the week, don't travel, watch Nascar, drink Miller High Life, and eat only chicken pot pie, meatloaf, tuna casserole, cranberries, hamburgers, pizza, American cheese, freedom fries, and stuffed turkey."

That description probably doesn't even describe a single American family. It discounts massive segments of the American population that have driven American political and social life.

This is going to sound very gauche and politically incorrect in an American context, but stay with me. You'll see how we feel when we're categorized as a massive monoculture of uneducated Muslim Arabs.

One can't even begin to quantify the contributions of different racial, ethnic, and religious segments of the American populace: Irish Americans, Jews, African Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Polish Americans, etc. And different groups have had profound effects on different regions. There's a reason why Illinois has Casimir Pulaski Day.

The term Arab is about as useful as the term American. It doesn't tell you all that much. A recent immigrant from the Asian subcontinent and the descendent of Mayflower migrants have little in common culturally. And it's similar here.

The Lebanese and Yemeni are worlds apart.

Catholics established many of the major educational institutions throughout the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine). Lebanese Catholics established the most prominent newspapers in Egypt, including al Ahram, the current Mubarak mouthpiece.

The richest family in Egypt is Coptic Christian.

Muhammad Ali, the great 19th Century leader of Egypt who remains a national hero today exalted as the modernizer of Egypt, was ethnically Albanian.

Circassian Muslim migrants from southern Russia protected the Hashemite family in Jordan and continue to have a significant presence in the Jordanian government.

The Alawites rule Syria. Sunni Muslims see the Alawites as heretical.

Armenians significantly shaped the foundations of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. Armenians dominated the oil industry in Iraq in the early years.

Writing this is very awkward for me. I'm picking and choosing ethnic contributions. It's almost the equivalent of saying George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Oprah are Black. Emma Goldman, Saul Bellow, Justice Brandeis, and Betty Friedan are Jewish. The Daleys and Kennedys are Irish. LaGuardia and Giuliani are Italian. See how much minorities defined and continue to define America. African Americans and issues surrounding racism dominated 19th and 20th Century American politics. And African Americans make up a small percentage of the American populace.

The percentages of minorities in the Middle East are far greater. They're almost all Muslim in Iraq, but look at how important sect and ethnic identity are. Lebanon has no sect that can claim to be the majority.

One shouldn't make a claim that the difference between black and white are greater than the difference between Christian and Muslim.

It frightens many people in this region when Westerners push their form of democracy. This is because we understand what that will become in our context: demographic democracy. We begin arguing about the specifics. In Iraq and Lebanon I've heard phrases like, "We hate them and will take arms against them. They support federalism."

The best way to win an election in which sects, not political parties, are competing is to reduce the number of opposing voters.

Israel worries about the same problem. Israeli sociologists fret that Palestinians will outnumber Jews in Israel by 2050. The Jewish state will no longer be the Jewish state. Lebanon, created to make the possibility of a Christian state, is no longer majority Christian.

Pan-Arabism was created to give unity in an ethnically fractured context. The concept of America brings together a Mexican American investment banker with a Dutch American dishwasher, why can't the concept of Arab bring together a Druze Syrian goatherder with a Mauritanian doctor?

It's a nice ideal, but not plausible. What brings Americans together is a system of laws that work, an economy that works, and dreams that sprout from combining those two.

Arab, contrarily, is a contrived identity that is forced onto a diverse people. Arabism doesn't come with a system of laws that work, and the economy normally tanks if it isn't supported by oil, foreign donations, or massive theft. The military dictator uses his authority, then, to support his own sectarian community. Those great pan-Arab leaders Saddam Hussein and Hafez al Assad used their pan-Arab power to empower their communities (Sunni and Alawite) and oppress and massacre other sects.

In 1958, Egyptian President and pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser unified Egypt and Syria creating the United Arab Republic, but the whole thing broke down by 1961 because Nasser wasn't all that interested in what the "Arabs" in Syria wanted.

Despite its many failures, the dream of pan-Arabism remains strong in certain parts of the region. Minorities see the ideology as a way to dominate the state for themselves. More frightening, however, is the way Islamists use Arabism to assert their agenda.

It is sincerely frightening to hear Americans endorse the idea that everyone in the Middle East (outside of Israel) is Arab and Muslim. Iraq has taught Americans that the Sunni aren't the only Muslim sect out there, but Americans still see Lebanon - a country with a Christian President and more Christian members of Parliament than of any other single sect - as a Muslim country that should take up a form of secular democracy.

Americans forget how gerrymandered their own political system is, minority congressional districts and all. They forget that their very own Constitution was crafted because Virginians and Massaschusites (?) wanted to preserve their very different interests. The entire American system was created to protect states' rights, but unify a nation.

We need to come to a similar solution in the Middle East. Lebanon crafted a very flawed constitution in 1926 that has been governing our democratic country ever since. We had our very nasty civil war, but hopefully - like what happened in America - we will rise from it unified (even though we lived under foreign occupation for the last fifteen years and are still plagued by foreign aggression).

Most countries in the Middle East don't need to come to terms with horrific practices like slavery. However, overcoming ensconced military dictatorships with modern military arsenals, listening devices, satellite images, and massive security apparatuses will be far different than gathering Minute Men, holding up lanterns to indicate troop movements, and receiving training and assistance from foreign armies in Valley Forge.

We will need to convince our rural, feudal, estate holding elite and our urban, cosmopolitan elite educated in foreign philosophies and concepts to come together to create a document to govern a system that is good for them both in a way that still represents the interests of the people. That's going to be very difficult given that most of the monarchies and dictatorships in the region have already unified these two groups under state authority.

There's no need to be misguided or confused by concepts like Arab, Sunni/Shia/Kurd, liberal democracy, and freedom. You don't need to know any of that stuff. And promoting an inaccurate ideal only hurts the people you're trying to help.

American foreign policy should better reflect American history. The United States is the most successful example of democracy building. Asserting the potency of the American example is the greatest gift America can give us.

Posted by Charles Chuman at 5:17 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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