January 06, 2006

Shaken Down by the Police

(This is the second half of a two-part narrative I started two days ago. You can read the first half here if you missed it.)

GIZA, Egypt – Mohammad led his horse and mine away from the abusive policeman and toward the City of the Dead at the base of the Pyramids of Giza. I had no idea what the policeman’s problem was, why he screamed and cracked his whip at us on the sand. But I would find out soon enough.

“Welcome to the beginning of the great Sahara Desert,” Mohammad said.

Pyramid 1.jpg

I have climbed to the top of the Mayan pyramids in the Petén Jungle of the Guatemalan Yucatan. Spectacular as they are, their life size is smaller than I had expected before I arrived. The pyramids at Giza are much bigger than I had imagined, impossibly large monuments that seemed the size of small moons. No doubt they’ll still be standing thousands of years after we all are gone. Egypt one day may no longer be Egypt, but the pyramids will remain as though they belong to eternity. They will weather as slowly as mountains.

You’d have to laughingly wish the Taliban best of luck if they or anyone like them decided to take down the pyramids with ack-ack guns as they did the Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The pharaoh’s tombs at Giza aren’t going anywhere unless someone detonates a nuclear weapon right at the base. Even then I wouldn’t count on them being destroyed. They would probably have to be nuked again.

“Are you a Yankee?” Mohammad said. “Or are you Southern?”

“I’m a Yank,” I said. “I’ve never even been to the South except through airports in Georgia and Texas.”

“Can you believe you are here?” he said.

I didn’t know what he meant, and he read that on my face.

“Every day people tell me they can’t believe they are here after flying thousands of miles.”

“I came here from Beirut,” I said.

“Ah,” he said. “Okay. You live in the Middle East. You know where you are then.”

We had quite a distance to go before we would actually reach the pyramids. So Mohammad kicked our horses into high gear.

“Hold my hand,” he said as we galloped next to each other at what seemed like full speed. “I won’t let you fall.” I trusted him and gripped his hand hard. Never before did I ride a horse at such speed. I bounced a good foot off my own horse’s back every couple of seconds. It took some time to figure out how to use my leg muscles to hold steady.

When we finally reached the first pyramid Mohammad slowed the horses down to a trot. Thank God I could relax again.

A man dressed in Bedouin garb ambled by selling warm bottles of Coke. I bought one for 50 cents and offered Mohammad a sip.

“Can we climb to the top?” I asked, not really sure I actually wanted to.

“No,” Mohammad said. “A tourist recently tried it. He fell and lost himself. It is no longer allowed.”

“Hop off,” he said. “You can climb partway up and I’ll take your picture.”

I handed him my camera and climbed maybe two percent of the way up the side. A fall from even that height would be treacherous. The stone blocks that make up the pyramids are enormous, each almost as tall as I am. (And I’m six feet tall.) I could easily see how climbing all the way up could get someone killed. The pyramids are as high as skyscrapers, and there was no ladder, stairway, or path I could see.

He snapped my picture and I carefully hopped down again.

Me on pyramid.jpg

I knew it would be a long time before I went back, if I ever went back, so I walked around the base for a bit, looking up and trying to memorize what it looked like before climbing back on the horse.

“Hi ho silver,” Mohammad said as he kicked our horses into full speed again.

“Slow down!” I said. “I’m a city boy!”

“You’re doing fine,” he said. “No one ever falls of a horse here.”

I wasn’t worried about falling so much as I was worried about smashing myself on the horse’s back. Holding still on a galloping horse is harder than it looks if no one has ever explained how to do it.

He led us to a lookout point where all three pyramids were visible in a line, the perfect place for a photo. I suddenly wished I had come in late afternoon when the light was better for pictures. The afternoon sun washed out the color and there weren’t any shadows for contrast.

Giza Pyramids.jpg

“You see those three small pyramids in the front?” Mohammad said. “They are for children. There are three more on the other side. They are Japanese.”

“Japanese?” I said.

“They are too small.”

Har har.

“Show me your teeth,” he said.

“You want to see my teeth?” I said.

“Please, show me your teeth.”

I showed him my teeth.

“What do you think I am,” he said. “A camel?”

All the Arab jokes I’ve heard so far are either not-funny one-liners like his, or long stories about humorous situations that don’t have any punch lines.

Mohammad was right. The pyramids really are the beginning of the great Sahara desert. The suburb of Giza was just barely visible in the haze on one side while sand stretched to the horizon in the other direction. Metropolitan Cairo had reached its absolute physical limit and could sprawl no more.

Two uniformed police officers on horseback rode up to where we were standing. They exchanged pleasantries with Mohammad as he handed them several Egyptian pounds. Then they left. The entire meeting took less than ten seconds.

“Why did you just do that?” I said, feeling defensive on his behalf as I narrowed my eyes at the officers’ backs.

“They are poor, and good people,” he said. “The state does not pay them. Look after the poor, and God will look after you.”

They did seem like nice enough gents in the nine seconds I saw them in action, as long as I didn’t think about the baksheesh he just gave them. But I wondered what would happen if Mohammad didn’t give them any money, and I remembered the shouting match he had earlier with the enraged policeman with the gun and the horse whip.

We got back on our horses and rode toward the Sphinx, more leisurely this time, probably because I had asked him earlier to slow down. Mohammad rode silently, but he seemed to be in a pleasant enough mood.

“What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood?” I said. Who knew if he would actually give me his real opinion?

“Those are bad words, my friend,” he said. Okay, I thought. That was probably his real opinion.

“Bad words?” I said. “Why, exactly?”

“They are bad people who know nothing,” he said. “I have no school. But I know war is terrible and that we should take care of our country.” I hadn’t said anything about war, but it was the first thing he thought of when I mentioned Islamists. He wore a somber look on his face now.

He was a simple man and probably charged too much money to lead me around on a horse. But he seemed a genuinely decent fellow who wasn’t jerking me around and telling me only what I wanted to hear. Some Middle Easterners in the tourism business say “I love America!” in a rather unconvincing tone of voice. I can tell when they do it just for form’s sake. Mohammad did not seem the type to pull that with me.

“What do you think about Hosni Mubarak, then?” I said.

“He is a good man,” he said.

“Hmm,” I said.

“What?” he said, aware that I didn’t agree. “What do you want to say? Tell me what is in your heart.”

“He’s a dictator,” I said. And an asshole, I wanted to add.

“I understand what you mean,” he said and nodded. “In America you change presidents without fighting. Here if we change presidents we could have a war.”

“Maybe,” I said. “And maybe not. It’s awfully convenient for him if you think that.”

“Listen, my friend” he said. “If we have a president who is not from the army, we will have another war. Only the officers know how to keep us at peace.” I presumed he meant only the officers know better than to humiliate Egypt by picking another losing battle with Israel. Perhaps he’s right, but that’s setting the bar awfully low on what makes Hosni Mubarak a good man or something else. Even Syria’s Bashar Assad knows better than to go full tilt against Ariel Sharon.

The pyramids were much bigger than I had imagined, but the Sphinx was a great deal smaller. It looked especially tiny with the gargantuan pyramids as a backdrop. Only in close-up photos does it take on any size.

As we got near the Sphinx, the angry policeman returned on foot. He cracked his horse whip on the sand again and stared holes through Mohammad and me with his black eyes. He didn’t look like a starving policeman to me. He was fat, as a matter of fact, and his rosy cheeks made him look like a boozer.

“This man will guide you to the Sphinx,” Mohammad said.

Oh, for God’s sake, I thought. The Sphinx was right there. Only a blind man would need a guide. Mohammad didn’t want to pay this jerk off, so now I had to do it? I suddenly like him less now that he dumped me off to go with this cretin, but it was hard to say how much pressure he was actually under. I myself witnessed part of it, and it was a lot. There is practically no legal recourse at all when you’re abused by the police in Egypt.

The menacing officer stared at me with undisguised hatred as I dismounted my horse. I smiled at him as though I were the perfect American idiot utterly clueless about what was happening. What I really wanted to do was break his face with my fist.

“Do you speak English” I said in the most genial voice I could muster as we walked together toward the Sphinx.

He actually smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. Playing nice was paying off. What else could I do? I still hated the bastard even though he decided to cool it. He didn’t care at all about making a civilized impression on foreigners. I despised him for that on Egypt’s behalf as well as my own. The code of Arab hospitality was completely lost on this man.

It only took two minutes or so to reach the Sphinx. Other tourists were there snapping shutters on their digital cameras. I took several pictures and ignored the policeman completely, refusing to look at him or acknowledge he even existed.

Sphinx.jpg

I walked around to look at the Sphinx from several different vantage points and stayed much longer than I would have if the bastard weren’t on my case. You want baksheesh? I thought. Then you’re gonna wait for it, pal.

I kept the policeman waiting for as long as I could stand, then started walking back toward Mohammad and our horses without looking back at him. Clandestinely I pulled one Egyptian pound (that’s less than 20 cents) out of my pocket for the baksheesh he “earned” in no way whatsoever. I didn’t want him to ask for money and see me pull a big wad of cash out of my pocket and demand I give him one of my larger bills.

“Hello again, Mohammad,” I said as I approached.

“Hello, Mr. Michael,” he said. “How was the Sphinx?”

“Grand,” I said.

The policeman walked just behind me and to my right as I fantasized about cracking him in the nose with the back of my elbow. I mounted my horse and let the bastard wonder if I was actually going to give him baksheesh or not. Then, not wanting to start yet another furious incident, I handed him the Egyptian equivalent of 17 cents.

“Shukran,” I said in the iciest tone I could manage.

No, fuck you, you sonofabitch, is what I was thinking. Would you treat my mother this way if she were here instead of me? Even tourists at the pyramids, of all places, get a taste of the petty humiliations people have to put up with every day in Third World police states. Imagine living in a country so messed up that it could be your job to roam around all day with a whip and a gun angrily extorting money from everyone you come across. No wonder Mohammad was fed up with this man and had the nerve to defiantly scream at him earlier.

This is what you have to put up with thanks to your pal Mubarak, I wanted to say to Mohammad as we rode away. But I didn’t. He was a nice enough man, and he knew that already. He was shaken down by the police every morning when he went to work.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 6, 2006 06:39 AM
Comments

If you could weave your descriptions into a novel, it would have a wonderful, Graham Greene-like quality. The mixture of comedy and tragedy reminds me of "The Comedians."

Posted by: MarkC at January 6, 2006 07:12 AM

Thanks for a disturbing look at the oppression and grinding poverty Egyptians live with every day.

We have lived in the light so long, few of us have any appreciation of what the darkness is like.

Posted by: TallDave at January 6, 2006 07:49 AM

Excellent story and writing.

I have been around the maypole a few times in many places. Its sad to say that just south of our border is one of the most corrupt and poor countries in the world. No one really knows this because of the face Mexico shows the world.

The "Mexicans" are dirt poor, but the Indians in Mexico are even worse off, its unbelievable how most of them live.

Papa Ray
West Texas
USA

Posted by: Papa Ray at January 6, 2006 10:38 AM

I lived in Iran during the early to mid 70's before the revolution. In order to get anything done in a reasonable timeframe you had to pay off somebody or multiple somebody's. I remember the times when at the end of summer when it was time to go back to the states we needed to go thru the maze of Tehran's international airport. My dad, who was Iranian, would pay the guy at the drop off point, we'd wait a bit as he paid the guy at the ticket counter and then the same thing would happen at customs. Normally going thru the airports myriad of formalities for people not paying graft would be several hours. This is just at the airport, if you wanted to get a table at a restaurant, Russian Voldka or basically anything else you had to pay and pay. FYI, looks like you have nice weather in Egypt but it's typical rainy dreary days here in Clackamas OR.

Posted by: Darby Shaw at January 6, 2006 11:42 AM

When I'm faced with an aggressive person in unfamiliar territory, I do exactly the same as you did: smile and pretend everything is hunky dory. Why do we do that? Is it an American thing?

Posted by: Bonnie at January 6, 2006 12:02 PM

Excellent article, as usual.

So, Michael, do you think there was any truth to your friend's claim that only the millitary could keep the peace in Egypt?

Ratatosk

Posted by: Ratatosk at January 6, 2006 12:39 PM

Bonnie,

I pretended everything was hunky dory because my only other option (other than making him wait and paying him next to nothing) was telling him to go fuck himself, which would only have made my situation much worse.

Ratatosk,

What Mohammad said was probably true up to a point. The Muslim Brotherhood would tear up Egypt's "peace" with Israel. But they would not actually start a war unless they wanted to lose again in six days. Liberal Egyptians, though, would likely strengthen Egypt's relations with Israel if they had the chance to do so.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 6, 2006 01:05 PM

So what do you think the ratio of Liberal to Conservative to Fundamentalist is in the country? If a full and open election happened, do you think most Egyptians would move toward liberal or fundamental politics?

Posted by: Ratatosk at January 6, 2006 02:06 PM

Tosk,

Liberals look to be about 5 to 10 percent of the country. Fundamentalists are 25 percent. The rest are either government supporters or non-threatening conservatives.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 6, 2006 02:10 PM

Hi Michael,

I read your on Lebanese Dailystar and I've only recently been following your blog. Very informative and entertaining at the same time.

Although I very much enjoyed this particular post on Cairo because I can relate to it, I felt that you maintain a certain level of ostentation over the Egyptians!!!

Although I am not one to talk because I ridiculed my Egyptian friends after reading it, but common Michael 6 days!?!??! I know it happened in 67, but 73 proved otherwise and in this day and age we can't expect the Egyptian Army to commit the same mistakes. I'm Lebanese, but had I been Egyptian I would have taken that as an insult, but then again if that was your intention then its another story!

Best.

Hani

Posted by: Hani G. at January 6, 2006 03:57 PM

Now Mr. Totten, you have a taste of what it is like to live under the bolsheviks. Imagine feeling this way, every day, for 40 years like my grandfather.
Frydek-Mistek

Posted by: Frydek-Mistek at January 6, 2006 07:48 PM

Michael,

I must say that reading your articles in general is a great entertainment resulting from such a great style you have in writing. It is not too informative for me though, but it is definitely insightful for anyone who haven't visited the region before, but relied on media to know the situation.

Also you said,

"All the Arab jokes I’ve heard so far are either not-funny one-liners like his,[...]"

Beleive it or not, I had the same thoughts when I arrived to North America. I really wondered whether the people here are too silly or it is just about cultural-language gap!

"But they would not actually start a war unless they wanted to lose again in six days[...]"

I do understand your saracasm, but you know that it is Israel who started that war, right?

Thanks again for the great articles.

Posted by: Yassine at January 6, 2006 08:19 PM

Great article. I'd like to write about how "aid teaches corruption" -- because in Kenya, so many poor, cute kids say "how are you" in English, and a few say "give me money." Cute, from a 6-year old. Not so much 20 years later when they're 26 and cops and not smiling.

Corruption is everywhere when the gov't is involved -- gov't decision makers have power but they make decisions about Other People's Money.

Yassine notes a half-truth: Nasser was mobilizing troops on the border in an "open secret" of preparing to attack Israel -- with no recognition of Israel's 1967 borders, nor its right to exist. So Israel made a defensive pre-emptive attack, and wiped the Arabs out. Humiliated them ... I'm sure much of the anti-Jew, anti-Israel, anti-American hate is based on this perceived humiliation and shame.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as noted, Israel did NOT pre-emptively defend. (Having learned that the aggressive Jew-haters would claim "Israel started that war".) The Jew-hating Arabs attacked first, and still got their butts kicked.

Until the UN and EU start pointing out how Palestinians fail to allow Human Rights in Palestine, like a free press, the Palestinians will be stuck in an anti-civilized culture.

The US is stupidly supporting Mubarak in his own anti-civilization cultural corruption. At some point, possibly soon, the Egyptian people may think "anything is better," including Islamism.

(A bit like Dems hope Americans feel about Bush & Reps?)

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at January 7, 2006 02:20 AM

I do understand your saracasm, but you know that it is Israel who started that war, right? - Yassine

Yassine, why not read up on a little bit of history before making remarks that demonstrate your own ignorance. Perhaps you could start by typing "cause of six day war" into Google.

However, assuming your prejudices outweigh your desire for truth, I've outlined below the main facts of the build-up to the 1967 war.

On May 15 1967, following Soviet misinformation, Egyptian troops began moving into the Sinai and massing near the Israeli border. By May 18, Syrian troops were prepared for battle along the Golan Heights.

On May 16, Nassar requested the withdrawal of the UN Emergency Force which had been stationed in the Sinai since 1956.

On May 22nd Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping on May 22nd 1967 (cutting off Israel's only supply route to Asia and stopping Her flow of oil from her main supplier, Iran)

Nasser himself described this closure as "an act of war".

By the end of May the progress to war looked unstoppable. Israel was surrounded by hostile countries making active threats to destroy her and the general consensus at that time was that the combined Arab forces, armed and supplied with the latest Soviet equipment were considerably superior to those of Israel. They certainly had many times the weaponry and man power.

Israel launched its preemptive strike on June 5th, 1967 in an obvious act of self-defence. No doubt Israel should have done nothing and waited for her own destruction.

Posted by: Steve M at January 7, 2006 03:33 AM

Thanks for your honest reporting, which is truly irreplaceable. You are blazing some sort of trail here.

That said, in my opinion this 'man in the street' in Cairo has, as so often, a better sense of his options than the Western liberal.

It makes more sense to give credit to people like Mubarak for keeping Egypt out of more wars when your country is more likely to lose them than to win them. This guy knows that in the chaos which follows a lost war the local thugs in uniform crack down harder.

Plus, you might think better of someone standing between you and having the Muslim Brotherhood in power if you were actually risking being under their rule for 30 years.

Posted by: ZF at January 7, 2006 07:26 AM

“…Liberals look to be about 5 to 10 percent of the country. Fundamentalists are 25 percent. The rest are either government supporters or non-threatening conservatives…”

Reminds me of el Prseidente’s Veterans Day speech two months ago:
“…the militant network wants to use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against non-radical Muslim governments”

This type of talk is quite offensive: 1.4 billion Muslims around the world will be glad to learn that the US government has officially segmented them into two broad categories “Radical/Al-Qaeda types” and “Non-radical Muslims”….or to use MJT’s prose “fundamentalists” and “non threatening conservatives”

This being said I agree with (most of) Michael’s analysis of the situation in Egypt: it’s just a big backward third-world country run by fatigued Soviet-style bureaucrats.

In relative terms, even a corrupt country such as Lebanon looks like a Liberal/modernist oasis in the middle of the desolate Arabian Desert…
Your guide was wrong: the great Sahara starts 5 miles south of Beirut!

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at January 7, 2006 09:04 AM

Michael, another great article. Thank you.

Posted by: Asher Abrams - Dreams Into Lightning at January 7, 2006 01:00 PM

Tom Grey,
You are over-rationalizing in every possible way to make israel appear as an innocent victim, which is way far from truth. And a pre-emptive attack doesn't change the fact the israel started the war. Yet if this is justified, then any rogue regime can declare a war and occupy some land and then claim to be pre-empting...

And saying that the arabs hate israel only because they were humilated in that war is too naive, maybe you should note the other half-truth.

Even an avarage israeli knows that the Octobre War (1973) was a success for the arabs and great shock for isreal that left a big sense of insecurity in the israeli society resonating even till these days, when israel still tries to find reasons for the lose of the intelligence war. And BTW, the "jew-hating arabs" you mentioned actually "israel-hating arabs". Wouldn't israel be the state it is with its policies, an avarage arab wouldn't mix israel with judaism.

Steve M,

You expect me to reply to this?! Just the fact that you are a western talking about ignorance, is enough to ignore you. You wasted your time with your list, so stop demonstrating your ignorance.

Posted by: Yassine at January 7, 2006 06:03 PM

Totten, after spending time in the M.E. do you think the "clash of civilizations" is going to happen? I haven't visited the region but it looks like some sort of black hole with a religion excuses rape, slavery and murder. Does the average person have any ambitions other then killing jews and world conquest?

Posted by: Mike#3or4 at January 7, 2006 06:39 PM

Mike #3or4: Does the average person have any ambitions other then killing jews and world conquest?

Is that a serious question? Give me a break! The average Arab's ambition barely differs from yours.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 7, 2006 07:36 PM

Nice wrap up to the first half!

Posted by: Shawn in Tokyo at January 7, 2006 08:24 PM

Michael,

Great writing. I have lived in Cairo for six months now, and you captured it vividly. I've taken three sets of visitors around the pyramids over the last month, and have been tormented by the constant requests from money from guides who point at the pyramids and say "alabaster stone" or open an unlocked door for you. Are they official? Who knows? Even the ticket takers don't have badges or uniforms, so you have no idea who's legit and who's not. And who pays what for the privilege of standing by an outlying pyramid with a flashlight? Or are they on the Government payroll? It would make a fascinating case study. One wonders if the Ministry of Tourism has all this documented in a plan somewhere.

Compounded by the miserable straits that I imagine these guys are in. I gave some guy at Saqqara 10 pounds yesterday after he followed me to the top of the pyramid of Pepy II saying "no tourists" while at the same time pointing out the well-worn path to the summit. "I'm not going to give you any money, friend" I told him 10 times. And then I gave him money and rode away feeling disgusted. At him. At myself. And at a government that won't even pick up the trash at one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in the world, let alone give ID badges to the staff, post admission prices or do anything that seems likely to make people want to come back.

Posted by: Brian at January 7, 2006 11:50 PM

Do you really think that if Mubarak disappeared one day, Egypt would be any different?

Forgive the impertinence, but you seem to have a very naive view of how cultures and societies are created and change. Everywhere you go, you tell us the same thing: the country is in a terrible mess because its current leader is an asshole. In your observation, the leader of the country is always the cause of the disease, and never a symptom. Hence your (entirely impracticable) solution is always the same: get rid of Mubarak! Get rid of Gaddafi! Get rid of Assad! Get rid of Saddam!

Have you still learned nothing from Iraq?

Posted by: A.F.T. at January 8, 2006 12:31 AM

"You expect me to reply to this?! Just the fact that you are a western talking about ignorance, is enough to ignore you." - Vassine

Well, I certainly can't argue with logic like that. You're clearly much more knowledgeable than I gave you credit for.

Posted by: Steve M at January 8, 2006 02:11 AM

AFT: Do you really think that if Mubarak disappeared one day, Egypt would be any different?

Let's rephrase that question and see how it sounds. Do you really think if Mubarak stopped oppressing the liberals and democrats that Egypt would be any different?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 8, 2006 02:46 AM

AFT,

I wonder if you paid any attention to this part of the article:

Fifty years ago Cairo was a relatively wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan jewel of North Africa and the Middle East. When I squinted at certain parts of the city in or near the old urban core I could see the former grandeur behind the peeling paint, the grime, and the decay. The city looks good in some photographs as long the sprawling slums aren’t included. Their smaller-than-life size conceals the backwardness, the gloom, and the depressed condition of the place since Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak took out their blunt instruments and went to work on it.

In the 1950s Nasser purged Egypt of its tolerance, its riches, its openness, and its variety. He brought in Soviet advisers, ramped up the secret police, and ruthlessly smashed everyone who opposed him. Nearly all the Greeks, Jews, and other minorities were expelled in his attempt to make Egypt into a monolithically Arab country. His nationalization of industry and private property turned the economy into an incompetently micromanaged catastrophe.

Go ahead and blame Egyptians for putting up with this guy (adoring him, actually) if you want. I do. But if he were an Ataturk Egypt would not be what it is now.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 8, 2006 02:54 AM

Isn't it interesting how people's perceptions can differ so greatly? I lived in Egypt, Cairo, for five years, but my memories are those of a great (but not so clean) city that offers a variety of lifestyles no other city I've lived in so far can compete with.

The lack of time probably made you say: "I saw nowhere at all that looked like an interesting or a pleasant place to hang out." There are plenty nice places to go to. If you ever go back, ask for information ahead, who knows maybe you'll have a great time.

Posted by: Natasha at January 8, 2006 03:09 AM

Natasha,

I did ask ahead, and I did find some nice places. (I'm also not done writing about Cairo yet.) The average, though, is awfully low compared with Beirut, Istanbul, and Tunis. Better than Tripoli, though, and from what I hear (and believe) it is better than Amman.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 8, 2006 03:23 AM

The trick to riding a galloping horse is to not actually sit in the saddle. You're hovering above it, using your legs like shocks. Or something like that.

As least you're not trotting, where you have to learn how to "post."

Posted by: B. Durbin at January 8, 2006 12:23 PM

Yassine you should think before you write things like this:
And BTW, the "jew-hating arabs" you mentioned actually "israel-hating arabs". Wouldn't israel be the state it is with its policies, an avarage arab wouldn't mix israel with judaism.

Sure sure you keep telling yourself that. How come 700,000 Jewish refugees were forced out of Arab countries in 1948 when the state of Israel was born ?

And then you showed your bigotry when you said the following:

Steve M, You expect me to reply to this?! Just the fact that you are a western talking about ignorance, is enough to ignore you.

So just because someone is western, they are ignorant ?

Posted by: Jono at January 8, 2006 06:04 PM

Way to go, Yassine. Don't ever let the facts get in the way of your prejudice.

Posted by: ADrian at January 9, 2006 01:38 AM

So, Michael, are you now suggesting that everything would be OK if only Nasser had not come to power? Do you think that Egypt should return to its previous form of government? I have to assume that you know what it was.

You seem to have a view of history that, frankly, borders on infantile: to read your analysis, all that matters to a country is whether the current leader is a goodie or a baddie; all else follows.

Have you ever stopped to think why a country like Turkey might be capable of producing an Ataturk (and his colleagues in the Young Turk movement and the RPP - he hardly acted alone), whereas one like Egypt has produced only kings and military dicatators?

You might also consider, by way of additional example, why Russia has almost fully reverted to an authoritarian form of government where the state controls the key strategic sectors of the economy, and why Iraq is on the brink of reverting to a state where civil institutions are corrupt and authoritarian, while religious insitutions hold the only moral authority.

Do you really think that if Kemal Ataturk had been born an Egyptian, Egypt would today be a liberal democracy, or that if Gamal Abdel Nasser had been born in Turkey, it would be a military dictatorship?

Here's a clue: if you want to understand why some countries become democracies and others don't, start by understanding how Western democracy came about ... you need to go right back to the middle ages, before the Magna Carta, and follow it right through the early parliaments, the Reformation, the English civil war and the restoration, the influence of the enlightenment philosophers and so on, as well as the intertwined economic developments, such as the enclosure movement, mercantilism, the corn laws, the industrial revolution and so on. When you understand what a complex set of forces and insitutions combined to produce what we have, you might be able to look at places that have ended up with different forms of government for reasons you don't understand in a more sophisticated way.

Posted by: A.F.T. at January 9, 2006 04:17 AM

AFT,

India, Panama, Taiwan, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Mali are democracies. Discuss.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 9, 2006 04:24 AM

Well, to start with, it's not really a binary question, Michael. The practice of democracy differs sharply between each of the places you named, and in each case, there is a complex series of historical and cultural factors that shaped their respective systems.

To be honest, of the countries you name, I've only spent any length of time and studied the history and culture of two of them: India and Indonesia. The system of government of each of those places has institutionalised features that you and I would not regard as remotely compatible with democracy if they appeared in the United States, but for the sake of this debate, let's accept that they are both "democracies".

On a macro level, there are a couple of interesting parallels between the two countries that may have assisted the transition to democracy. First and foremost, each was colonized by a western power for several hundred years before gaining independence. In each case, it was a pervasive form of colonialism that co-opted the existing power structures into the colonial administration. Local resistance was probably reduced because both countries are heavily regionalized: in fact, neither was a nation in any sense of the word until a colonial power began to adminster it collectively. Instead, power was widely dispersed among local nobilities, which were more easily co-opted than a pre-existing national power structure might have been. And yet, the national boundaries made a certain amount of geographic sense: by and large, they encompassed whole peoples who shared enough basic similarities to make the national project succeed without being torpedoed by secession or irredentism.

One consequence of the length and depth of colonial rule was that the colonial system ended up generating a large class of western-trained administrators. In addition, the colonial administrations, and the economic needs of the colonial system produced a stable middle class that had enough wealth to consider how to cultivate themselves. Both colonial adminstrations set up an education system that helped spread education throughout the middle class, among other things, taught children (and teritiary students) about western institutions such as laws, courts and parliaments.

Both countries had a long tradition of religious pluralism, which kept a check on the counterveiling power of religious figures. Both countries are well-endowed with natural resources, but neither is so rich that it has not been necessary to develop other sectors of the economy.

And also, by the way, both are riddled with corruption, have only semi-functioning judicial systems, and have a huge underclass, large parts of which are co-opted into the political process as unquestioning voting blocs by money or sectarianism.

So, there you go. Short and superficial, I acknowledge, but even for that, many times more sophisticated than your "Mubarak is a bad man" theory of Egypt's failure.

Why don't you give it a go now. Here's your topic: If neither Ataturk nor Nasser had lived, Turkey would today still be a democracy and Egypt would still be an authoritarian state: discuss.

Posted by: A.F.T. at January 9, 2006 05:30 AM

AFT,

I don't have to time to write long essays in the comments. I'm trying to work out the logistics for a trip to Iraq (which is a HUGE pain in the ass, believe me), and I'm also working on another blog post about Egypt and two articles about Lebanon. So I'm going to have to pass.

Briefly however: Egypt could very well be in even worse shape if Nasser had never been born, and Turkey might still be a democracy without Ataturk. Granted.

That said, Egypt is in worse shape now than it was before Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak took over - and that is my primary point. Egypt progressed backwards in the last 50 years, and the men who ruled it during that period don't seem to have what it takes to reverse the trend. If you don't agree, please tell me why.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 9, 2006 05:38 AM

Michael:

There is no question that the last 50 years of government in Egypt has done little to nothing to promote the country’s development and growth. But still, the conclusion of your two-part narrative is ridiculously arrogant and naïve. “This is what you have to put up with thanks to your pal Mubarak, I wanted to say…” Puh-lease. Like underdeveloped autocracies are the only countries in the world that exploit the tourism industry. I’m from New York City - basically the capital of the world and one of the two centers of global commerce - and we exploit the bejesus out of non-New Yorkers every day. Want to look through a telescope off the top of the Empire State building? $2.00. Want to drive across the George Washington Bridge? $6.00. Want a souvenir tee shirt? $20.00. I know you’re inclined to blame everything bad in the world on bad illegitimate government, which is fine to a point. But perhaps you might also consider that Cairo is a city of something like 18 million people plopped down at the edge of the Sahara desert. Not exactly a recipe for success, no matter what kind of government exists. Would Egypt be better off with a liberal Democratic government that encouraged the rule of law and the growth of an entrepreneurial middle class? It goes without saying. But there would still be people at the Pyramids “shaking down” tourists for money. Just like in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and any other place where the government is liberal and democratic, and the streets are paved with gold.

Posted by: Chris at January 9, 2006 08:50 AM

Chris,

Tourists don't get shaken down by the police in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. In Mexico, sometimes.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at January 9, 2006 09:04 AM

I was hassled by a policeman at Saqqara, January 2002. He had a black uniform and some kind of semi-automatic weapon. He pointed at the pyramid and said 'pyramid', then hung around me for a bit. I walked away slowly, and he followed, muttering 'baksheesh'. Blanking him completely worked, though it was a very long three minutes. It is possible to resist this kind of shakedown, though it depends a lot on the specific situation.
It must be awful to live that way, though, it means a total loss of self-respect.

Posted by: Steve K at January 9, 2006 09:55 AM

Michael, as much as you dislike Mubarak - don't start thinking the Muslim Brotherhood would be a better alternative. Under the MB, Egpyt would be turned into another Taliban-type Afghanistan or Iran under the fascist mullahs. The MB creates and supports islamic terrorist groups all over the world. They are not just some little alternative political group in Egypt.

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Posted by: odzież dzieięca at January 9, 2006 03:50 PM

That said, Egypt is in worse shape now than it was before Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak took over - and that is my primary point. Egypt progressed backwards in the last 50 years, and the men who ruled it during that period don't seem to have what it takes to reverse the trend.

I don't know enough Egyptian history to confidently disprove that Egypt is "worse", but I strongly suspect that the reality is a lot more ambiguous (at least) than that. For example:

- Was the prior disposition better for many, or only for some? There are plenty of places where where a colonising power or aristocracy managed to concentrate enough wealth to build magnificent buildlings and live beautifully, while the vast majority of the population were uneducated agricultural laborers. Are you sure that across the whole Egyptian population living standards have fallen, education and literacy has declined, access to medicine has declined and so on? Or are you just extrapolating from the fact that there used to be nicer streets in central Cairo, things must have been better for everyone?

-The previous form of government: a combination of an idigenous monarchy and a colonial adminstration by a foreign power is, presumably, not one that you would advocate returning to. So your comparison set is not really a valid one anyway - you need to consider what forms of government were possible given the historical, social, cultural, etc. factors that were applicable at the relevant times.

And in any case, your exclusive focus on the three individuals that were the titular heads of the country, as if they were all that mattered, is an infantile view of history. You need to consider in the full range of circumstances that would need to have been different for things to have turned out better. It's elementary that it would have had to be a lot more than changing the identity of the three individuals at the top.

Posted by: A.F.T. at January 11, 2006 05:27 AM

You're pretty ignorant for someone who's lived in the Middle East. Haggling, "baksheesh", and tourist police are not unique to Egypt. Furthermore, you clearly have minimal affinity for the desert, ancient Egyptian history, or Arabic culture in general, so what are you doing in Egypt? And instead of complaining about the money you had to pay, realize that 17 cents just bought you a bodyguard for 20-minutes. That's a pretty good deal. Not only that, but compare the prices for a pyramids visit + guide + horse + ride to/from hotel in Egypt and a visit to St. Peter's in Rome, and I think you'll realize and appreciate the difference.

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