Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do Algerians Hate Us?

The football-mania that preceded and followed the Egypt-Algeria match in Sudan for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers started with hostile internet and media campaigns, and developed into rioting and stone-throwing of players and fans, then morphed into a social and political battle that included harsh diplomatic statements and demands for cutting diplomatic ties.

Egyptians have been particularly alarmed at the amount of hatred and contempt of Egypt that could be felt from the words of the Algerian press (and Algerian fans online) and the huge amount of stones and knives thrown on thousands of Egyptians fans in Khartoum.

The mass media in Egypt dealt with this unpleasant incident in two ways. The first was to ignore the problem altogether, emphasizing instead on the many political and cultural bonds that connect the two nations together. Hate speech that could be abundantly found online was dismissed by referring to the fact that its perpetrators are merely irresponsible teenagers. This approach failed to answer a crucial question: why do Algerian teenagers harbor such ill-feelings towards Egypt in the first place?

The second approach did the exact opposite. In an act of chauvinism, it spilled oil on fire by generalizing the misconduct of the opposite party. So a bunch of Algerian youth burning the Egyptian flag or shouting anti-Egyptian slogans meant for sure that all Algerians "hate and envy Egypt." In the meantime, Egyptian misconduct towards the Algerian team was totally ignored.

Neither of the two approaches is constructive; the first evades important questions through denial, the second offers prejudiced and chauvinistic answers. The question remains: Do Algerians indeed hate Egypt? If so, why?

Because Arabs share many things, such as a common language, culture, and history, they are seen by many as forming one nation, something that prompted some politicians and political parties to build castles in the air about a constitutional unity among all Arab states from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean. This dream did not materialize because of myriad regional and international hurdles, but the idea of cultural unity and social harmony among Arabs was entertained, and strong proof of its existence was certainly evident.

The recent history of Egypt and Algeria in particular witnessed periods of mutual cooperation during some of the two countries' brightest moments of glory. For example, Nasser's Egypt provided substantial support to the Algerian rebels in their fight against French occupation, and a few years later, the Algerian leadership provided generous military assistance to Egypt during the 1973 war against Israel. However, in the quest for understanding the mounting tension between both peoples, these examples do not count much, simply because official policy does not necessarily reflect public temperament.

The social, cultural and economic differences between the populations of the nations that make up the Arab League are huge. In fact, the Arab world is, as one analyst explained, an "anthropologist's paradise." What is common, for example, between a Lebanese Maronite, a Southern Sudanese from the Dinka tribe and a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman?

It is naïve to believe that the tension that predated and followed the key game between Egypt and Algeria was generated by football alone. The intense competition was just an opportunity that revealed, or revived, the animosity and ill-feelings that are customarily hidden behind the sweet "Arab brotherhood" talk. The curse of football is usually blamed for the untamed transgression of its fans, but the recent volatile situation was a blessing in the sense that it was an eye-opener to Egyptians, revealing the diluteness of Arab feelings and highlighting the ill-feelings of some Arab people towards Egyptians.

It is perplexing to understand why many Algerians see Egypt merely as a puppet of the state of Israel. And why do our brothers in Islam and Arabhood today so joyfully rag Egyptians about their humiliating defeat against Israel that occurred some forty years ago? And how can one reconcile the warm feelings of brotherhood with the cold, bloody assault on Egyptian fans in Sudan?

Answers point to the cultural differences between the two populations, the impact disapproval of Egyptian foreign policies, particularly towards Israel and the Palestinian problem, may have had on the way Egypt and Egyptians are perceived in the Arab world, and the alleged "haughtiness" of Egyptians vis-à-vis fellow Arabs.

In all cases, the frequent mistreatment of Egyptian citizens in oil-rich Gulf States, and the frictions that usually erupt during inter-Arab sports competitions led many Egyptians to believe that the notion of "Arab nationalism" is nothing but a big mirage; it only exists in the rosy fantasies of idealistic leaders.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on December 3, 2009.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Niqab and the Boundaries of Debate

The worst thing about the current debate over niqab (face veil) is that it gives the impression of a "healthy" and "free" society that openly discusses all contending views of its most pressing problems.

This is an illusion. Neither is Niqab a pressing problem in today's poverty-stricken, underdeveloped Egypt, nor is the arena of debate open to all issues. Mental coercion has narrowed down the list of acceptable discussions.

Setting the boundaries of legitimate thought and expression is crucial for the wellbeing of any society. The wider the margins accepted, the more the liberty the society enjoys. These margins are not necessarily dictated by overt state control, as in the case of Third World dictatorships; sometimes, subtle mechanisms and indirect propaganda techniques delineate the framework of permissible thought.

That’s the case in established democracies, allegedly the beacons of freedom in today's world. In the United States, for example, ideas that are taken for granted, such as that capitalism is the superior arrangement of economic activity and that democracy is the best form of governance, are rarely disputed.

The mass media play a crucial role in this "thought control" process. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman describe the effect of the mass media in the US as "brainwashing under freedom." Their function is to "train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment" to their government and to the prevailing economic and social order. As such, the so-called "free market of ideas" is in essence guided; ideas that could jeopardize the privileges of the rich and powerful in a highly unequal society are abandoned.

Only in such an illiberal milieu could infamous ideas such as Fukuyama's "end of history" be entertained and cherished. Fukuyama's theory vowed that the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy is irreversible. In his conception, both constituted the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and "the final form of human government." A weak and flawed argument, an insightful scholar like Fukuyama took only a few years to repent for. Clearly, the strict - albeit invisible and implicit - intellectual boundaries that delineate permissible thought produce ideas that perpetuate the status quo; thinking outside the box is discouraged, and possibly chastised.

In Egypt, the space for thought and expression has been tightening at alarming rates, with the mind of Egyptian society tilting towards the right. The heated discussion over whether Niqab is religiously obligatory or not makes any contentions that the Hijab (headscarf) is not obligatory (a debatable issue among theologians) seem awkward and intolerable, and thus excludes it from public debate. Under this suffocating censorship, no one would dare - like Ismael Adham did in the 1930s - write a book entitled Why Am I Atheist?

Censorship went hand in hand with the scarification of unsacred parties and issues. For instance, any explicit or implicit critique of the military establishment (or, say, its performance in the 1973 War against Israel) is today inadmissible. The number of sacred cows has been increasing.

Prolonged practice is the most effective means of indoctrination. After long periods of time of exposure to the same ideas, censorship of other ideas becomes voluntary. In Egypt, Islamists are not currently in power, but they need not worry much. That introspection is inhibited by intimidation and dissent is discouraged denotes that the doctrine of rigid Islamists has already been under way. History tells us that the control of power is often preceded by the control of ideas.

Already under a secular regime, novels have been banned by a "liberal" minister on the grounds they are blasphemous, various intellectuals were convicted by courts of being apostates and citizens were arrested for eating during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

Creativity and imagination recede when the mind is constrained by so many restrictions. Scrutiny and inquiry are substituted by stereotypic answers to all questions of life and destiny.

The withering away of the critical evaluation of ideas, thoughts and beliefs is giving way for the triviality and fundamentality of extremist minds. So at a time when the advanced world has been exploring the applications of Nanotechnology, investigating the secrets of the big bang and decoding the map of the human genome, our minds have been preoccupied with discussing the possibility of marriage between man and jinn, figuring out the mandatory length and width of the piece of cloth covering women's bodies and preaching about the benefits of drinking Prophet Mohamed's urine.

Pity the nation that was once the hub of thought and knowledge in the region.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on October 29, 2009.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Search of a Political Abu-Treika

The current weakness and fragmentation of opposition parties and the nonchalance of public opinion suggest that perhaps nothing can disrupt the plan to groom Gamal Mubarak to the presidency in Egypt but a charismatic figure whose exemplary character can awaken people and mobilize them in defiance of the state.

Egypt, one can argue, is in need of a political Mohamed Abu Treika. The 30-year old football player has turned in the last few years into a real legend. This is not only due to Abu Treika's exceptional skills on the pitch, which helped his team (Al-Ahly) win 18 titles and Egypt's national team win two African Cups. It has more to do with his rare personality that combines exceptional kindness, decency, and modesty, qualities that bestowed on him unprecedented popularity among nearly all Egyptians.

A character with such undoubted recognition is badly needed in the political sphere if Gamal Mubarak's ascendance to the presidency is to be thwarted. However, there is a stark scarcity of charismatic leaders in political opposition parties. For example, the power base of Mahdi Akef, the octogenarian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is confined to the members of the MB. Liberals, leftists, Copts, and wide segments of women will not elect the leader of a movement that invites religion into politics, and relegates women to a secondary position in society.

Likewise, the chances of Ayman Nour, who came next to Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, are minimal. Nour was portrayed by some Western commentators as Egypt's Nelson Mandela, but he is seen in Egypt as a replica of Lebanon's vocal Walid Junblat. He is powerful enough to be a trouble-maker, but he is personally weak and politically fragile to contest the prevailing balance of forces. Divisions within the ranks of his party (and his family) further weakened his position.

This scarcity of popular figures could be partially explained by the fact that incapacitating charismatic figures, who could have jeopardized Mubarak's hold on power, has been a longstanding strategy of Mubarak's regime. The sidelining of Field Marshall Mohamed Abu Ghazalla (Egypt's strong Defense Minister in the 1980s), Amr Moussa (Egypt's Foreign Minister from 1991 to 2001) and Kamal Al-Ganzoury (Egypt's Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999) are three cases in point.

The need of popular leaders could not be more imperative today. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, and the regime is adamant about pushing Gamal Mubarak to the seat of the presidency. To be able to overcome the alliance of the formidable state, the ruling party and the business class, Egypt needs a popular leader, whose competence is not questionable, and who is free from any aura of corruption, and likely to receive the support of diverse, and conflicting, political forces and social groups.

To many observers, Mohamed El-Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the 2005 Noble Prize laureate, meets all these criterions. Being an astute diplomat with a long experience in international affairs will secure him external support if he gets elected. In addition, and because El-Baradei is independent from the petty rivalries of Egyptian political forces, and free from any ideological affiliation, he will likely be supported by these forces, at least for one term that could herald Egypt's transition to democratic rule. Such an approval will be easier to obtain if Gamal Mubarak's bid in the upcoming presidential elections is unchallenged.

It could be rightly argued that El-Baradei, and many other suitable candidates, do not meet the rigid conditions spelled out in Article 76 of the constitution, which was notoriously amended in 2007 to facilitate Gamal's takeover of power, and exclude potential rivals. In heated moments, however, constitutional constraints count less than overwhelming popular support, particularly if this support is channeled through an administrative body, such as a coalition of all opposition parties from right to left.

If Gamal makes it to the presidential palace, he will not owe his seat to popular support or admiration, but to people's apathy and the absence of real contesters. Therefore, the duty of all Egyptians at this critical juncture is to find apt and honorable candidates and back them up in the quest for hampering a disgraceful father-to-son transmission of power in the sixty-year old Egyptian republic.

Otherwise, Egyptians will live to see the proud nation of Egypt slip into a hereditary republic, or a mere real estate whose ownership is smoothly transferred from father to son whenever he wishes.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on September 10, 2009.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Egypt is today in a transitional phase. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, but Egyptians are still uncertain about whether incumbent Hosni Mubarak is intending to run for a sixth term, or if he is willing to witness, or indeed oversee, a transition of power to another president.

Hosni Mubarak is in the eyes of one group of analysts a replica of power-hungry Third World authoritarian rulers, who would not relinquish authority under any circumstances. They stay in power as long as they stay in life. Mubarak's infamous statement a few years ago that he will continue to serve the nation "until the last pulse" of his heart reinforced this group's conviction that Mubarak's disappearance from the stage of Egyptian politics will only accompany his death, and never before that.

A number of reasons, however, suggest that Mubarak may not run for a new term, preferring instead to groom his son Gamal Mubarak as his successor.

First, those in the corridors of Egyptian politics and economics who began pushing for the "tawreeth" (inheritance of Gamal) scenario a few years ago based their strategy on buying time. This choice was inevitable then for two reasons. First, they realized that imposing on Egyptian people a sudden and unwanted father-to-son transmission of power could trigger wide-ranging public protests that might jeopardize the entire plan. Second, they realized that this strategy goes best with the personality of President Mubarak, who has exhibited since 1981 a natural tendency towards moderation and gradualism, and an inherent aversion to "electric-shock" policies to which his predecessors grew accustomed.

Buying time was fitting when the plan was launched around nine years ago, but, today, the pro-Gamal clique understands that buying further time is a failing strategy. If in 2011 Hosni Mubarak (at the age of 83) runs for a new six-year term, biologically speaking, the possibility of his death or incapacitation during that term will be high. Talk about the deterioration of Mubarak's health is already rife, and there are indeed visible signs that support that talk. Certainly, if Hosni Mubarak passes away as President, Gamal will lose his main base of support, and his chances of rising to power will be greatly reduced.

Secondly, throughout his reign, Mubarak's concern for the stability of his country and regime outbid all other priorities. Now, at the age of 81, it makes sense to believe that Mubarak is speculating over Egypt's fate following his demise. Even if one succumbed to the accusations of Mubarak's harshest critics, who believe that the President's concern for Egypt's national interest has diminished over the years, and has been replaced by a narrow interest in the wellbeing of himself and his family, one would still be left with Mubarak's apprehension about the safety and welfare of his family after his demise. A smooth transfer of power that maintains stability, and with it the safety of his family, must be looming high in his calculations. Such an arrangement will likely work out if Gamal succeeds him as president.

Thirdly, opposition forces are in shambles, unable to disrupt any of the regime's grand schemes. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most effective and organized opposition force, has been subject to a serious of security crackdowns since their impressive showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections. These measures have undermined the group, and diminished its capacity to defy the regime. Other opposition groups are weak, internally fragmented, suffer from a lack of resources, and their influence in the Egyptian street is limited.

In brief, politics in Egypt is in a miserable state of stagnation and fragmentation. Opposition parties and intellectuals are engaged in heated, theoretical, political debates, while average Egyptians are too busy making a living to care about the subtleties of political affairs. Nobody is more aware of the nature of this situation than the regime, for it was the architect of this "de-politization" process. Thus, Mubarak and his cohorts are probably concluding that Gamal's takeover of power will pass by smoothly, with minimal opposition and civil unrest.

Fourth, there are indicators that Mubarak's regime has strived lately to secure America's acquiescence of Gamal's rise to the presidency. The regime has also tried to convince major political and societal forces to back, explicitly or tacitly, the grooming of Gamal for the presidency. Last July, Pope Shenouda III suggested that Gamal would be the best candidate to succeed his father. Along with the Egyptian Orthodox Church, other political forces (including the Muslim Brotherhood group) may have been enticed or intimidated to take similar positions.

Will 2011 be as important as 1952, 1970 and 1981 to Egypt's history?

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on August 27, 2009.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Effectiveness and Efficiency

A frequent question they ask at business schools is about the difference between "effectiveness" and "efficiency." The model answer is "effectiveness is doing the right things, and efficiency is doing things right." In other words, effectiveness is about taking the right decision, while efficiency is about implementing that decision, competently and precisely.

In terms of human resources, Egypt's population of eighty million is a real treasure, if only their time, effort and dedication are channeled into productive outlets. Egyptian society, nevertheless, often fails the test of effectiveness. Two examples in this context are noteworthy.

The zeal and energy with which Egyptians support their national football team are astonishing. During the three-week African Cup of Nations hosted by Egypt in 2006, Egyptians were united on one goal: winning the trophy. Their overwhelming support certainly contributed to the success of the Egyptian team. The same spirit infused 2008 when our team won the African Cup for the sixth time in Ghana, and also very recently with the dramatic defeat of the Italian team, the world champion, in the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.

These intense emotions are, however, hardly felt in other vital fields, which makes one wonder: is there no national dream in Egypt other than winning a football cup? As a Third World country, Egypt faces a myriad of economic and social problems, the least important of which is more crucial to the wellbeing of people than the performance of the football team. If the time and effort dedicated to supporting the football team was used to eradicate poverty, develop slum areas, or increase production, we would have had a very different Egypt.

This lack of effectiveness was also witnessed when an Egyptian woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, was stabbed to death earlier this month at a courtroom in Dresden, Germany, at the hands of a xenophobic German. For this incident to cause widespread shock and outrage in Egypt is normal. But the kind of reactions that followed the tragedy revealed other important aspects.

In response to Al-Sherbini's murder, a great deal of time and effort were exerted in both online and offline campaigns exhibiting irrationality, over-emotionality, and the absence of a sense of direction. Among others, these campaigns asked the German government to submit a formal apology to its Egyptian counterpart, set up legal committees to defend the rights of the victim's family, and called for boycotting German goods.

To start with, the crime was perpetuated by an individual, not representing the German state or people in any direct way. These campaigns' references to "German racism" are tantamount to calling any Muslim "a terrorist" just because a group of Muslims hijacked a plane, or demolished a building. It is the same kind of unjust generalizations to which Muslims have been subject since the events of September, 11th.

In addition, casting doubt on the integrity and competence of Germany's judiciary overlooks the fact that Germany is a democratic country, with a fair and efficient legal system that treats all citizens and expatriates equally. Racism does exist in society, but state institutions are immune to their ramifications.

Ironically, the general public that has been so furious at Marwa's murder has never shown the same resolve against fundamental issues, such as Egypt's human rights record, the spread of corruption, or the rights of Egyptian communities abroad at large. Nor did it address the issue of racism inside Egypt, the signs of which are most evident towards dark-skinned African communities.

Obviously, the general public is not always capable of moving between multiple levels of analysis. And for an issue to attract its attention, it has to be sensationally dramatic. In this sense, elections are "too boring," economics is "extremely sophisticated," and politics is a "dirty game." The encroachment upon the rights of all Egyptians in these domains is pardoned, but the rights of Marwa El-Shirbiny, "the martyr of the veil" will "never be sacrificed."

Said differently, the rights of all Egyptians are trampled upon in various ways by an authoritarian, corrupt regime, but nothing much is done to protect these fellow citizens, or preserve their rights. On the other hand, even though the German assailant was caught, and will soon be tried, the pro-Marwa El-Sherbini campaign still draws many followers and sympathizers, because the veil is "sacred," and Germans are "racist." The death of Marwa was a sad tragedy, but juxtaposing these two realities is sadder.

In Egypt, there is no scarcity of energy. There is a scarcity of how to use it.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 16, 2009.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Cultural Renaissance in Egypt?

There is much talk within Cairo's cultural circles of an existing, or imminent, cultural renaissance in Egypt. The increase in the number of new bookstores and new publishers over the past few years gave the impression that Egypt is about to revive its long dead cultural life. A number of factors, however, suggest just the opposite.

To start with, much of the ongoing cultural activity is closer to “imitation” than it is to “creation.” Where creativity is scarce and exposure to the “other” abundant, plagiarism of others' theories and ideas becomes commonplace. Indeed, in Egypt, even the genres through which art and culture are expressed are borrowed from the outside, particularly the West. One cannot overlook the recent rise and spread of a number of artistic genres, which have been until recently alien to Egypt and the entire Arab world, such as standup comedians, TV sitcoms, and self-help books (that aspire to teach you almost everything in life). These genres share one common aspect: they were born and nurtured in the West. In contrast, indigenous forms of expression, such as religious chanting, traditional crafts making and storytelling of epic poems, are withering away.

Similarly, the vast majority of the shows produced by the nearly 500 Arab satellite channels, that broadcast around the clock, are just replicas of famous Western shows. It is extremely rare to find an Arab program that is centered on a creative idea, which is not plagiarized.

In a globalized world, the dominance of the West has been overwhelming. Even religious preaching has been affected by the mindset of the Western civilization. Patrick Haenni argues in L'Islam de Marche: L'Autre Revolution Conservatrice (Market Islam: The Other Conservative Revolution) that the concepts focused upon by the modern, televangelist preacher Amr Khaled are compatible with the tenets of globalization. Unlike preachers of earlier generations, who have reduced Islam to the notion of Jihad, the drive for syncretism between Islam and globalization has characterized the approach of Khaled and many other preachers. These preachers' brand of Islam, described by Haenni as “air-conditioned Islam,” is centered on concepts like self-improvement, personal salvation and economic success. No wonder then that the values of success, hard work, efficiency and self-development are among Khaled's favorite topics.

There can also be no cultural renaissance as long as levels of scientific and cultural production remain as low as they are today. In 2007, the total number of books published in the entire Arab world -- Egypt included -- stood at 27,000. That’s less than the annual production of many developing countries. The tradition of translation, one of the channels for passing on the knowledge of other cultures, has also faltered in the region. To cite just one example, Greece translates five times more works than all Arab states combined.

In addition, the quality of education in Egypt has been rapidly deteriorating for the past few decades. Today, no Egyptian university could be found in the list of the top 500 universities in the world. Graduates of Egyptian universities are not in demand, even in neighboring Arab states, which were until very recently the prime recruiter of the Egyptian work force.

An increase in the number of bookstores does not always indicate a cultural awakening. Indeed, it could point to the exact opposite, reflecting the dominance of consumerism, and the decline of cultural taste. The sales figures of blogs-turned-books are bigger than works written by prominent novelists. One can blame it on new marketing techniques, which have found in the book market a new field, mostly to sell works of shallow content and low linguistic quality. In other words, nothing fundamental has changed with regards to the quantity and quality of cultural production, except for a sly attempt at decanting old wine into a new bottle.

Certainly, a cultural awakening cannot go in tandem with the absence of creativity, low levels of production and a deterioration of standards of education. Indeed, the distinguished Syrian philosopher and poet Adonis argued that because of their negligible contribution to thought and science, Arabs have become extinct:
"If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world."

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on July 2, 2009.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Investing in Tragedies

Following the failed assassination attempt on President Mubarak's life in Addis Ababa in 1995, the Egyptian regime quickly used the occasion to serve its own interests. Just like opportunists who appear at the corner of every disaster in search for hidden opportunities, the Egyptian regime decided to use the unpleasant incident to bolster Mubarak's legitimacy at home. Representative of different segments of the society, such as MPs, members of professional guilds, sheikhs and priests, athletes, artists, etc, were asked to visit the presidential palace to pledge allegiance, and promise continued support, to the president and his regime. For weeks, state-run television channels aired hours of sham celebrations, which included pre-prepared proceedings full of pretense speeches and forged emotions.

Unsurprisingly, the strategy backfired. Initial popular relief that the president survived the terrorist attack turned into indignation at the regime and its cheap propaganda methods.

Something similar took place following the sudden death of President Mubarak's grandson last month. The genius minds running Egypt's official media found in the tragedy an opportunity to increase Mubarak's scant popularity among his people. State-owned television channels broadcast religious songs and Quranic recitations around the clock. Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, called upon Egyptian women to mourn the death by wearing black. And members of the ruling National Democratic Party missed no opportunity to express their grief over the painful misfortune, and to assure Mubarak that all Egyptians are “his sons and daughters.”

Under monarchial rule, the personal tragedies of ruling families were routinely turned into national ones. But Egypt is no monarchy. The mere existence of a "ruling family" in a sixty year-old republic is an offense to the country and its people. Anyone with a shred of wisdom and decency knows that Egyptians should be only loyal to their country, not their de-facto ruling family.

To attempt to 'nationalize the mourning' of Mubarak's family is both opportunistic and pathetic. It is opportunistic because it capitalizes on Mubarak's personal loss to garner support for his leadership and regime. And it is pathetic because it reveals that the proponents of the regime, in their desperate quest for increasing the regime's popularity and acceptance, found no other means but this unprincipled and tasteless method.

Indeed, in Mubarak's Egypt, failures are abundant and successes are scarce. No real "success story" has been achieved in politics, economics, and science over the nearly three decades of Mubarak's rule. Among the regime's staunch advocates, there are of course those who argue that the triumph of the Egyptian football squad and scientist Ahmed Zoweil's winning of the Nobel Prize in chemistry are among the achievements of Mubarak's era, but what kind of idiots would swallow such delusions?

In contrast to the state of mourning applied for the President's grandson, the Egyptian state and media did not mourn the tragic death of the 1,034 Egyptians who were aboard the ferry "Salam 98" that drowned in the Red Sea three years ago. In fact, at the time relatives of the deceased were beaten in the Port of Safaga for daring to protest against the negligence and corruption of the government, President Mubarak was at Cairo Stadium celebrating the Egyptian football team's victory of the African Cup of Nations. So why should Egyptian people now mourn the death of his grandson? After all, in civil states, all citizens are supposed to be equal.

The human heart is covered with sadness and sympathy when a young boy -- any young boy -- dies. That this son is the relative of the president, or any senior official, does not add any further sadness. The architects of the media campaign, however, overlooked the fact that the public's sympathy with the heartbreak of the president has not changed its assessment of his failing approaches and policies. Their grief was a sign of respect for death itself, a feature of life Egyptians have always revered.

On the personal level, feelings of compassion prevailed. But these feelings have not blocked rational thinking. They have not made Egyptians forget that the mismanagement and corruption of their state over the past few decades led to the death of thousands of Egyptians. In burning trains, drowning ferries, in bread lines and in slaughter houses, wrongly labeled as "police stations," death has found a fertile ground. The state mourned none of these victims.

Regimes short on legitimacy act in many respects like opportunists devoid of decency. This statement should come as no surprise, for ruling without legitimacy is, in the final analysis, equal to killing without a license.

Nael M. Shama

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It’s a Shame Culture, Stamp Sexual Harassers

Sociologists consider Egyptian society a 'shame culture,' in which the status of people as perceived by others counts for almost everything. In contrast to a 'guilt society,' where people feel guilty about their wrongdoings even if they are undetected by the society, in the 'shame culture,' the opinion of the group is very relevant. Because of the widespread belief that "there is no smoke without fire," people are keen not only to 'be' innocent, but also to be perceived as such by others. Suspicion is sufficient to ruin one's reputation, even if he/she are not proven to be guilty.

For millennia, Egypt has been a hydraulic society, with most of its population relying in subsistence predominantly on the River Nile. Egypt is a huge desert, except for the banks of the Nile and the tightly-packed Delta region and this is where life could have been sustained. Until modernity, which brought massive immigration to cities, the village has constituted the prime unit of Egypt's society.

By virtue of immigration from the countryside to the city, the ethos of village life has permeated urban life, whether in values, mentality or language. In Whatever Happened to the Egyptians? Changes in Egyptian Society from 1950 to the Present, prominent thinker Galal Amin provides several examples of that infiltration.

The term 'Rayyis' (commander or leader) is traditionally used to refer to craftsmen, but has been frequently used in modern times in reference to the Egyptian President. Men salute by kissing each other's cheeks, even if they have just departed, is another village ritual that has become prevalent in the city.

In the some 5,000 villages of Egypt, the individual is subservient to the needs and wants of the group. Family and clan matters become, automatically, of direct concern to the individual and mutual interdependence in daily life and business matters is the norm. Conformity thus is imperative. Describing life in the countryside, pedagogy expert Hamed Ammar writes that the compelling moral in the village is that "the individual, to be in line with the group, should express group sympathy; if the group is angry, he should be angry, if it is insulted, he must feel that he is insulted."

In other words, group opinion is not only crucial, but also binding. In the case of deviation, punishment through humiliation is the group's instrument in exercising control and eliminating dissent. Being shamed by the group is thus avoided at all costs. A man's reputation is his Achilles heel; he would go to great lengths to preserve it.

That is why Egyptians, when asked about their life ambitions, say that they want nothing from life but 'elsatr' (literally, cover or protection). In effect, what is sought is protection from poverty, from being scandalized, from losing face in community.

Having said that, and in light of the growing rates of sexual harassment in Egyptian society, one can devise a remedy that takes advantage of that preoccupation with one's image in the eyes of the community. Stripping harassers of dignity and respect – or 'blackening their face' as the Egyptian expression goes – could frighten them and dissuade them from committing these disgraceful acts.

That could be effectively done by stamping sexual harassers on their face with an ink that leaves no permanent marks, quite similar to the blue ink in which voters dip their fingers to avoid double voting. The effect of that ink could last for days or weeks, depending on technical feasibility and the judgment of legislators. It is reasonable to believe that, technically speaking, the mass production of that ink at low costs is not impossible.

To avoid defamation in the eyes of neighbors, work colleagues, relatives and the society at large, stamped harassers may well choose to stay at home until the effect of the ink withers away. This could be a very powerful deterrent.

Theorizing about the idea is certainly much easier than its actual implementation. A long list of legal and operational considerations should be carefully checked before enforcement.

But the idea is still worth consideration. The English writer Arthur Clarke says: "new ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along." The initial reaction might not necessarily be the final one.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on April 9, 2009.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sex at First Sight

The unprecedented court verdict that handed ten rapists the death penalty for kidnapping and gang raping a woman in the governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh revived once again the debate over sexual harassment in Egypt, the reasons behind it and the best means to combat it.

A plethora of explanations are provided to account for the rise of sexual harassment rates in Egypt. Sexual frustration, economic hardships, moral decadence, and gender inequality in addition to a myriad of psychological disturbances are all plausible explanations. It is certainly hard to attribute the phenomenon to one factor only; a combination of factors came into play over the past few decades to produce the ugly trend.

A number of assumptions are imperative here.

First, breaching the private space of individuals – both men and women -- has lately become common in Egypt. Admittedly, 'private space,' which is considered to be "the region surrounding each person, or that area which a person considers their domain or territory," is habitually contravened in public places (streets, governmental offices, queues, etc).

This development could be attributed to the population boom that Egypt has seen over the past three decades. Since 1981, Egypt's population almost doubled. Living in densely-populated environments produces a 'culture of crowdedness,' which promotes certain values and demotes others. Cairo's shantytowns are crammed with people, and homes are too proximate and in some cases overlapping; privacy is a nonexistent luxury. As a result, the sacredness of people's private domains has disappeared, giving way to a communal way of living, where property, showers, clothes, etc, are shared.

However, this type of involuntary communal living is not necessarily conducive to cooperation and harmony. In the crowd, and under harsh economic and social conditions, some people tend to believe that they are at war with everybody else. After all, an abundance of human souls are competing for scarce bread and medicine. Suffice it to observe the belligerent self-seeking attitude in queues or on the streets of Cairo to learn that conflict – perhaps, even, 'the war of all against all' – has become the prime form of interaction among Egyptians.

What is prevailing is a life outlook that is individualistic and materialistic. It is individualistic because the sense of the community has diminished, and has been substituted by a self-centered, interest-driven posture. It is materialistic because, beneath the façade of popular religiosity, the spread of corruption, aggression, intolerance, and bad demeanor attests to a serious degree of moral decadence.

Secondly, it could be argued that in such an environment, women are more vulnerable to breaches of privacy than men. In male-dominated societies, women are perceived to be both weaker and inferior. And religious texts are often misconstrued to prove this assumption right. The toll of the lack of privacy has fallen primarily on women.

Thirdly, women are predominantly seen through the prism of sex. Therefore, violating their private domains would, before anything else, impinge on their bodies.

Admittedly, the efforts of the National Council of Women and the state's feverish promotion of the role of women in public life did not change the notorious, deep-seated beliefs and perceptions of women. To many Egyptian men, the simple fact that a woman could be a good mother, a caring wife, a supportive friend, or a skilled manager does not really exist. Their minds seem to be fixated on the equation between women and all sorts of sexual nuances, hence the rise in sexual abuse.

According to the Ministry of Interior, twenty thousand women are raped each year in Egypt (i.e. an average of 55 women are raped every day). Since the victims are mostly reluctant to give an account of their ordeal, the numbers are estimated to be much higher. “If the Ministry of the Interior gets 20,000 then you should multiply it by 10,” Engy Ghozlan of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) told Middle East Online last year. Sexual harassment is also on the rise. In a study conducted by ECWR in July 2007, 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreigners reported being harassed, half of which described it as a daily occurrence.

In Egypt, the general outlook towards women has changed from 'love at first sight' a few decades ago to 'sex at first sight' today. The first idiom reflected the romantic and peaceful character of Egypt in the 1940's, 50's and 60's. The second reflects a lust- driven, animalistic approach that reduces the identity and role of women to the pleasure of sex.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 26, 2009.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In Defense of Terrorists!

Tolerance among the contending ideologies that dominate Egypt's political and cultural milieu is scarce. The major ideologies that battle for Egypt's mind and soul are marred by their tendency not only to claim that their version of truth is overriding, but also to rule out altogether the validity of 'different' interpretations than their own. For instance, many factions within radical Islamic movements curse the society, call its members infidels and boycott it. Likewise, the liberal intelligentsia, ironically, has a long record of emulating the attitude of its chief adversary. These so-called liberals curse the organizations that endorse violence, call their members 'terrorists' and dismiss any other explanation. The circle of exclusion is therefore firmly sealed.

Scientific analysis is the foremost victim in a milieu characterized by these dogmatic stances. Likewise, rational thinking is clouded by emotions; fear, pain, pleasure, etc, are believed to be the enemies of reason.

For one of these two motivations (whether ideology or emotion), the perpetrators of the recent assault on tourists in Al-Hussein neighborhood, and similar deadly attacks against civilians, are frequently dubbed as "cowards." In war, the enemy is commonly depicted as "coward," though that might not be the case at any epistemological level. That posture either mirrors state propaganda or is a reflection of the dominance of emotions in the processing and retrieving of information.

The theory of 'mirror images' maintains that in hostile relationships, each party holds a mental picture that is diametrically opposed to the picture held by the other party; each party has a positive, virile, moral and benevolent self-image and a negative and malevolent image of the antagonist. Overconfidence in winning military battles and lack of empathy for the other party usually ensues. This kind of black-and-white thinking, research discovered, leads to the prolongation and escalation of conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict and the American-Soviet Cold War are two cases in point.

The adjective 'coward,' and other degrading descriptions, conform more to the contemptible communiqués of ministries of interior than they do to scientific inquiry or even common sense. By undertaking the attack, the perpetrators have, obviously, antagonized the formidable Egyptian state and risked their physical survival, or at least became vulnerable to imprisonment, plus torture and minus the possibility of a fair trial and a just verdict, hence jeopardizing their present and future welfare. In addition, they rose for what they believe in, abandoned compliance and took a daring initiative to change what they perceived as unjust or corrupt.

Condemning the violent and callous method they used and the political ideology that sanctions shedding the blood of innocent people does not, however, negate the need to discard emotional and ideologically-based readings of social phenomena.

In life, grey is the dominant color; 'black and white' assessments are illusions produced by either ideology or emotion. Accordingly, in the quest for truth, hunters of logic are constantly tempted to rummage around concepts and judgments that are taken for granted. Unlike laymen, they search for the defects of one's self and the advantages of one's adversary.

Politicians act in a different fashion than scholars, however. The rapid increase in using the ambiguous and elusive term 'terrorism' is illuminating. To eliminate dissent and garner support, terms and phrases such as 'terrorism' and 'coward terrorists' have become commonplace in today's world, but that does not necessarily make them scientific or credible. To defame internal and external opponents, 'terrorism' is certainly a convenient affront. That is precisely why it became part of the political dictionary of all parties in the conflict-ridden Middle East. It is analogous to the opportunistic, interest-driven use of the term 'mob' by authoritarian regimes in description of anti-regime protests, though -- or perhaps because -- the term implies, as one scholar pointed out, "gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, [and] lowness of state and habit."

There is a treasure of knowledge and wisdom in the closet of social sciences that could be used to assess political and social phenomena. In Social Movement (Key Concepts in Political Science), for example, Paul Wilkinson defines a social movement as "a deliberate collective endeavor to promote change in any direction and by any means, not excluding violence, illegality, revolution or withdrawal into 'utopian' community." Neither violence nor irrationality, he adds, deprives these groups of the label 'social movement' and, of course, no mention here of the terms 'mob' or 'terrorists.'

Condemning Al-Hussein attack, and attacks against civilians in general, is an imperative moral stance. But that stance should not impinge upon reason. This nation will arguably not progress before ideologically-free and emotionally-free assessments of social and political phenomena prevail.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 12, 2009 under the title "Enemies of Reason."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Justice and the New Traffic Law

In an attempt to invigorate Egypt's new Traffic Law that went into effect last August, hundreds of drivers were arrested last month in various cities for driving in the wrong direction. According to the new law, driving in the wrong direction is penalized by up to three years in jail.

Laws, theoretically speaking, are devised, passed and enforced to serve justice and create order. But this new law is shrouded in multiple layers of injustice and inequality.

First, the law's many clauses are replete with tough penalties, arguably to restore order to the messy, chaos-ridden streets of Egypt, The Egyptian populace could happily accept this severity had they acknowledged that law in their country is, systematically and sincerely, enforced upon all citizens.

But that is certainly not the case. Laws in Egypt are, to borrow the phrase of Sir Francis Bacon, "like cobwebs, where the small flies are caught and the great break through." By and large, application of law in Egypt is inconsistent, and prone to prejudice and discrimination. In addition, corruption is rampant and connections to the powerful and the haves is a safety valve to law offenders.

That is where the famous Egyptian saying 'the law is on vacation' derives its validity and endurance. For example, how ironic it is that, on one hand, nobody has been held accountable for the death of the some 1000 passengers who were aboard the ferry 'Salam 98' that drowned in the Red Sea three years ago, but, on the other, hundreds of drivers were, in the blink of an eye, arrested and sent to court for violating traffic laws?

The state has decided to flex its muscles on drivers and flatten them on other citizens. How just is that?

Secondly, over the past few decades, the personal security of people and the inviolability of their possessions have been sacrificed on the altar of 'regime security.' For the most part, police officers are accustomed to believe that the safety of the President and his family and entourage comes first, hence they are entitled to receive more attention, and absorb a larger budget. As a result, an increase in theft, shoplifting, pick-pocketing, harassment and burglary has been reported since a bigger and bigger slice of the Interior Ministry's budget has over time been reallocated to expenditure channels that are wary of threats to 'state security.'

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Interior has apparently suspected that these types of crimes are less threatening than traffic violations.

In simple words, an average Egyptian is now more vulnerable to criminals and thugs who are mostly not chastised, but this same average Egyptian is more severely punished for minor offenses, such as traffic regulations. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, he/she loses on both counts. How just is that?

Thirdly, lawmakers failed to realize that planning for Plato's republic is different from planning for an anarchic and frenzied city like Cairo.

Instead of devising a comprehensive plan for the development of huge Egyptian cities such as Cairo and Alexandria that integrates the knowledge and expertise of urban planners, engineers, sociologists, and economists, lawmakers naïvely thought that the new decree would magically decrease congestion and restore order. That could be a textbook example of putting the cart before the horse.

In effect, the helpless drivers are paying for everybody else's sins. Road infrastructure (traffic signs, traffic lights, lane markers, etc) are either nonexistent or in poor conditions. Likewise, urban planning has been alien to Cairo, which was allowed to swell in the past few decades into one of the world's biggest metropolises, without taking into consideration the effect of that growth upon the city's social development, economic activity and everyday life. The result has been over crowdedness, ailing services, suffocating pollution and chronic road congestion.

The archive of Egypt's legislation is also full of decrees that were, for decades, so leniently enforced by municipalities, such as using the basements of buildings for parking purposes. Instead, basements have been used for commercial purposes and, consequently, double-parking has become commonplace.

Against the backdrop of these realities, the law has taken its toll on drivers whose 'good conduct', lawmakers believed, was bound to bring back order and tranquility to Egyptian streets. How just is that?

The wise words of French political theorist Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) could not be more relevant:
"There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because the law makes them so."

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on February 12, 2009.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Broken Wings of Egypt's Propaganda Machine

Since the beginning of Israel's war on Gaza, the official Egyptian propaganda machine has been working at full capacity, but what it has produced is a mixture of sheer lies and half-truths. There is a political and moral imperative to evaluate the basic arguments of that machine.

1- Hamas is responsible for the war.
Hamas was the result of the lingering Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not the cause of it. The clock of Egypt's propaganda machine, however, started ticking on Dec. 19, 2008 when Hamas rejected an extension of the truce with Israel if its unjust conditions are not amended, particularly the lifting of the blockade imposed on Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians. Israel's aggressive intentions need no elaboration; it had fought the Arab world five times (in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982) and occupied the land of four Arab states (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt) before Hamas even existed. Today's offense is reminiscent of the invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and the West Bank in 2002 waged to demolish the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority respectively. Israel's target has always been the obliteration of Palestinian resistance, irrespective of the banner it raises.

The moral and political responsibility of the current aggression lies primarily on Israel, whose war machine has brutally bombed civilian quarters in total disregard of international law and human rights conventions. Moreover, it is highly questionable that Israel would not have carried out its attack had Hamas agreed to extend the ceasefire. Besides, the current aggression is an extension of the so-called truce, during which Israel had turned the Strip into the biggest concentration camp on earth, and deprived it of basic food and medicine supplies.

Nevertheless, Egypt's extremely insolent propaganda machine blames the victim and is satisfied with directing meek condemnations at the assailant who would have carried out the attack in all cases, driven by a military doctrine premised on aggression and expansion, and internal political ambitions that thrive on Palestinian blood.

2- Egyptian diplomacy is doing its best to stop the Israeli aggression.
Egypt's diplomatic reaction to the war on Gaza has been, at best, cold. It is interesting to note that on the day following the start of the Israeli offensive, the Egyptian President contacted one foreign head of state: the King of Bahrain Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa. If the conflict-rich Middle East resembles a jungle, then Bahrain – the smallest Arab nation -- would be the jungle's harmless ant; and ants do not have any leverage over elephants.

Any student of international politics knows that any serious diplomatic effort to stop the aggression would have approached Washington, and major European and Arab capitals that can make a difference in the Middle East. Egypt remained aloof for the first days of hostilities. President Mubarak's first statement came on the fourth day of aggression and its diplomatic effort commenced only after Israel had started its ground operation.

Furthermore, Egypt has not been enthusiastic about the idea of convening an emergency Arab summit. One could also wonder why the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel continues uninterrupted. Verbal condemnation and humanitarian relief is all what Egypt could do in the face of the slaughter in Gaza. An article appearing in The Middle East Times a few years ago carried the title: "Egypt Slips from Powerbroker to Event Planner." Inspired by the current crisis, the title could be rephrased to "Egypt Slips from Powerhouse to Ambulance."

3- The Rafah Crossing is subject to an international treaty that Egypt must respect.
In response to mounting popular pressure on Egypt to guarantee permanent opening of the Rafah Crossing, Egyptian top officials contend that the treaty signed in 2005 by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the European Union to regulate the Rafah Crossing is binding to Egypt. Thus, the gate will remain closed, except for the treatment of humanitarian cases.

Contrast the Egyptian regime's absolute adherence to this insignificant treaty that it did not even sign with its domestic disregard for the constitution, laws, and basic principles of human rights. Contrast that posture also with the number and intensity of Israeli violations of international law, human rights conventions, and Security Council resolutions over six decades. In the period between 1967 and 2000, for example, Israel had been the subject of 138 Security Council resolutions. Most of these resolutions called on the Jewish state to end its occupation of Arab land and to act in accordance with the basic principles of international law. Israel flouted them all.

The reason why a treaty that encroaches upon Egypt's sovereignty and that aggravates the human tragedy of Gaza's population is so revered by Cairo is political, not legal, namely destabilizing the rule of Hamas in Gaza and emboldening its rivals in Ramallah.

4- Hamas is totally under Iran's control.
Hamas receives political and financial support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, but that does not necessarily mean that the former is a stooge of the latter.

First, Iranian financial support to Iran has been minor. Shaul Mishal, professor at Tel Aviv University, says: " I don’t really see Iran stepping forward and filling the gap for Hamas as far as money is concerned, and whatever assistance is provided will certainly have many strings attached – perhaps too many to make it worthwhile, for the amounts of money we would be talking about."

Secondly, sectarian differences and Hamas' inclination to ward off outside influence propelled her to put Iran at arm's length. Anat Kurtz, a scholar of Hamas at the Israeli Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies explained that Hamas is, first and foremost, "a nationalist organization – it is Palestinian before being radical Islamist. Too close an affiliation with Iran could undermine its goal of establishing itself as the leading actor in the Palestinian political scene.” Another Israeli scholar, Meir Litvak, argued that Hamas "might like some kind of beneficial partnership [with Iran], but subordination ― never."

5- Egypt has always served the Palestinian question.
Egypt staunchly supported the Palestinian cause in the few decades following the loss of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. But when Egypt's rulers saw a contradiction that could not be reconciled between its national interests and its pan-Arab commitments, they opted for the former. The product was Egypt's separate peace treaty with Israel in 1979 that neutralized the strongest and most populous Arab country, thereby depriving the Palestinians of their only stalwart Arab ally.

The argument that "Egypt has always served the Palestinian question" is clearly used to tickle chauvinistic feelings, but it is not scientifically accurate. Obviously, to thwart supra-state identities (such as Islamism and Arabism), the Egyptian state has opted for reviving nationalist Egyptian feelings.

6- The Egyptian officer killed by Hamas militants is a martyr.
Perhaps. But what about the Egyptian soldiers who were killed by Israeli fire across the Egyptian-Palestinian border? In the period between 2004 and 2008, at least eight Egyptians were killed along Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip. They were buried in silence, no reverence, no attention. In contrast, heroes are made of the Egyptian victim of Hamas; prime media time is generously offered to highlight the agony of the deceased's loved ones and a military funeral is held in honor of 'the brave officer who was safeguarding Egypt's sacred land'.

In other words, Egyptian bloodshed at the hands of Israeli Apachi helicopters and F-16s is cheap and neglected. But hostile Palestinian bullets are an opportunity to legitimize Egypt's antagonistic stance toward Hamas and mobilize people against it. Double-standards reveal hypocrisy and reflect policy too; the crimes of Israel are forgiven because Israel is an ally, Hamas is a foe. No wonder the Israeli commentator Zvi Bar'el wrote in Haaretz that following the Egyptian media gives the impression that the real war is between Egypt and Hamas, not Israel and Hamas. President Mubarak spelled out his intentions when he told a European delegation that "Hamas must not be allowed to win."

The bloodbath on Egypt's doorstep is a reminder that Israel comprises the real threat to Egypt's national security, not Hamas. But the strategic calculations of the nation have been overshadowed by the narrow interests of a ruling elite.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on January 15, 2009.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Egypt's Pathetic Foreign Policy

Three years ago, an expert on Egyptian politics argued that Egyptian foreign policy "sometimes seems like an aging movie star." Last month, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, confirmed this argument by emulating aging celebrities who blame others for their loss of glamor and attention. The Iranians, he said, are trying "to impose and spread their own ideology in the region" by using the card of the Palestinian question. He warned Hamas and other Palestinian factions of coming under the influence of the Iranians who "provide nothing for the Palestinian cause, save hollow speeches and unfounded allegations."

Apparently, there is always someone Cairo blames for the ineptness of its foreign policies. The protraction of the Lebanese crisis in 2006-8 was blamed on Syria, the unfriendly decision of the US Congress in 2007 to freeze $200 million of US aid was blamed on the influential Jewish lobby, and the collapse of the Palestinian reconciliation talks is now blamed on Iran.

The pointing-fingers discourse could be reflective of the kind of planned propaganda campaigns without which political processes rarely function, but it is a dangerous sign when rhetoric replaces politics or is considered synonymous with politics.

In Lebanon, Egypt contentedly remained in the spectator seat, leaving the playground to a myriad of international and regional players, such as the United States, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the sheikdom of Qatar. Egypt gave the Saudis a carte blanche to meddle with the crisis on behalf of moderate Arab regimes and focused on shouting anti-Syrian slogans. Likewise, Egypt's stance toward the rival Palestinian factions is biased and inflexible, therefore more conducive to failure than success.

Perceptions of power and legitimacy are important to any country's foreign policy, but the Egyptian leadership is keen on losing both. First, blaming other parties is a self-defeating approach because, in essence, it admits that important matters are controlled by these parties thus exposing the helplessness of oneself. So when Egypt accuses Iran of sabotaging national reconciliation in Palestine, it implicitly acknowledges that any development on the Palestinian file would not be achieved without the latter's acquiescence.

Secondly, legitimacy in the Arab state system is derived from championing Arab causes and standing up to the nemeses of the Arab world. Egypt willingly forfeited both since it had opted for the go-it-alone approach with Israel and the rapprochement with the United States. In the 1980's and 1990's, Egypt tried to regain its legitimacy by returning to the Arab fold and mediating to solve the Palestinian question, but the commitments of its strategic alliance with the US exposed her acute legitimacy deficit more than once. Joining the US in a military alliance that attacked a sister Arab country and blocking humanitarian relief from reaching the Gaza Strip, which Israel had turned into a big prison, are two cases in point.

Egypt's legitimacy coffers are today emptier than ever. Serving narrow state (or regime) interests, there is no 'patriotic' role it can boast of on the national level. And just like a bankrupt merchant would re-check his accounts in desperate search for an old, unsettled debt that would balance his financial records, Egypt does nothing but reminding others of its 'past' sacrifices for Arab causes, imprudently revealing her current policies' lack of legitimacy.

Syria's Assad can boldly preach Arab nationalism and can call some Arab leaders "half men" because they colluded with Israel while his Lebanese protégés courageously withstood the offense of the mighty Israeli war machine in 2006. And the Iranians, who offer the Palestinians nothing but "hollow speeches and unfounded allegations," can take pride in developing 'Islamic' nuclear capabilities, and resisting the 'malicious designs of imperialist powers', thereby risking an imminent American/Israeli attack. On the other hand, the best the Egyptian regime can do is brag about the majestic grace of permitting – infrequently, of course -- the entry of basic foodstuff into the besieged, poverty-stricken, Gazan territory, now under barbaric attack.

Minor blunders could be beautified but sheer failures are resistant to cosmetic surgery. Mubarak or Aboul Gheit's warning that "Egypt cannot accept outbidding over its stance on the Palestinian cause" is tantamount to George Bush's insistence that invading Iraq was politically wise and legally sound. Both statements are funny and pathetic; funny because they are so out of touch with reality and pathetic because the marriage of poor policies with poor rhetoric deserves nothing short of resentment and scorn.

In international relations, power can survive without legitimacy, and legitimacy can survive without power; lacking both is disastrous. Hence, what other than blaming Hamas could one expect from Egypt in response to Israel's brutal war on Gaza?

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on January 2, 2009.