Who gave those to you?

Here is  very interesting story from Egypt’s Al-Masryoon newspaper on Mohamed Hussaneyn Heikal (for more on his background see this post from mregypt).  

Basically, Heikal was one of the most important Arab voices of the 1950s and 1960s (close ally of Nasser) and still has a huge following throughout the region.   As a sign of his popularity,  he has how own_show on Al-Jazeera which consists of nothing but him giving lectures on Arab history (usually that he was involved in).  Due to his position of influence during this period, Heikal obtained a tremendous amount of primary source documents related to Egyptian foreign policy and there are usually the subject of his show.  For example, he will pull out a letter  that Eisenhower sent to Nasser (which Heikal stores in his house) and then talk about it for an hour.  

Some people in Egypt, however,  wonder whether Heikal has the right to do this.  For one, there’s the question of whether a private citizen should be permitted to own so many primary source documents or whether they are the rightful property of the state.  Secondly, there’s a question of whether Heikal has the right to talk about what might be classified information on the air.  According to this article,  an NDP person is calling for an investigation into both of these questions.  Heikal  does not talk about current Egyptian politics on the air nor is he especially critical of the Government, so I don’t think its a question of domestic politics.

Stuff to check out

1)  America’s Finest:   Except for  Lou_Dobbs, most  major American TV stations are mediocre and unserious in their coverage of important news — unless we now consider Tweeter updates as “serious and critical.”   There is, however, one huge exception to this trend.  Check out this clip and see what I’m talking about.  I learned more from this 8 minute clip about the financial crisis than I have from watching CNN for months. 

2) A Pattern?:   This didn’t get  much coverage but there was a  third potentially violent incident in Egypt about a week ago.  

3)  Universal Culture:   If you are Saudi Arabia you are supposed to “own” the Gulf.   So when you tie little upstart Qatar in a football match that’s embarrassing.  Its the same feeling us Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans have when we lose to Boston College.  So watch this Youtube_clip of a Saudi prince going into the locker room and chewing the team out.  He basically says “this was totally unacceptable…your passing sucked, the attack was pathetic, the midfielder looked like he was sleeping” but not only that “you represent the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this was a disgrace – so get it together.”

Who says Saudi culture is  different than American?   Delete_the_F-words and this could be an Arab Bob Knight.

The Akon Disaster — UPDATED

A couple weeks back I wondered why Iron Maiden wouldn’t come to  Cairo .   Probably for the same reason that the Akon Concert in Cairo was a disaster.   Unless a Western-style concert culture exists, acts like this are hard to make work in places like Egypt.  From Sandmonkey:

So, here I am, preparing for my trip back to Cairo, when people start sending me messages and e-mails about The Akon concert in the Cairo Opera. Now, I didn’t know he was singing in Cairo to begin with, let alone fathom the concept of whose bright idea was it that this man should be allowed to sing in the Egyptian Opera..but whatever. My people are silly, and they do irrational shit like allow Akon into the Opera House. Anyway..

The news is however that the concert was a very rare breed of disaster, which makes my heart just sing a little bit. The man was slated to show up at 9 M, but showed up at 1 am instead; The people who paid 1000 LE per VIP ticket ended up being sent to the Hospital because the VIP Lounge collapsed before the show even begun; He shows up finally all drunk, sings for half an hour, and then attempts to do some crowd surfing(very bad idea), and then he starts calling for help in his mic because the crowd apparently kidnaps him and take him all the way to the parking lot and then put him on a car, which he ends up destroying and then ends the concert… Yeah… Sounds like a great time.

UPDATE: Inanities has a hilarious, must-read  account of the concert, including pictures of the madness.  Somebody get whoever Inanities is a job at the New York Times…..

Traffic Week: On Automotive Darwinism

If you’ve lived in the West long enough, you’re sure to have participated at some point or other in conversations about who’s traveled to the scariest driving country. This usually comes up as something of a feat of strength along the lines of: “I survived a taxi ride in Cairo, I can survive any kind of driving”, the challenge to which is typically: “Cairo? Oh, but I’ve seen how they drive in Dakar, and Beijing, that’s even worse.” The barometer of comparison is of course, Western driving culture.

I unfortunately don’t escape this pattern. I’m typically in a bit of an automotive shock when I travel from a country where drivers respect the rules of the road to one where anarchy seems to reign ( I use the word anarchy here with the due dose of sarcasm- of course there is some kind of system of rules in these countries, it’s just not a Western one). In most Western cities for example, you would never see a taxi driver passing a cigarette to another taxi driver while they’re both rolling next to each other at 50 km/hour on a busy motorway. And until I had witnessed that from the backseat of the cigarette-soliciting taxi in Cairo, I had never even wondered whether this was legal or not. Two Fridays ago in Beirut, I had the rare privilege of being driven in an armour-plated 4×4 which belonged to a public official. Although I was childishly relishing the experience, I kept snapping out of it every 25 seconds by the gasping fear that the vehicle was about to collide with oncoming cars as it whizzed in and out of lanes without signalling and that it would then roll over and off the road, tumbling down the mountain to the bottom of the valley where I would find my untimely death.

To be sure, driving behaviour in Lebanon in 2009 is leagues ahead of what it was in the 1980’s, when road chaos was just one victim of the breakdown of central authority because of the war. Back then, traffic lights were as decorative as the uncollected litter and indeed did not work at all. Today traffic lights do show their alternating colours, and Lebanese traffic police have begun to pull cars over and hand out tickets for violations. But the frenzied manoeuvring, whenever possible (ie when there’s no police being visible and looking menacing), is very similar to what it was back then.  So when a relative of mine a few days ago realized there’s no traffic police standing at the intersection, she most certainly seized the opportunity to keep speeding right through despite a red light.

What is wrong with driving in these countries? Is reckless driving symptomatic of a wider societal malaise? Is it merely a behavioural illustration of populaces that are less inclined temperamentally to respect order and defer to rules? Is there such a thing as “automotive” Darwinism with some cultures being “automotively civilized” and others being “automotively developing”?  While my life was flashing before my eyes at a rate of twice a minute in that 4×4 two weeks ago, I thought: the reason people drive this way, is because they can get away with it. A Lebanese will drive on the dotted line separating the lanes on a Beirut motorway, but you better believe that when that same person is driving one week later in Paris, or London, or Montreal, he most certainly will not. Why? Because either a) he will get ticketed within 2 attempts of doing something which is expressly prohibited by the law, or b) he will hear from his entourage of their experiences being ticketed for prohibited behaviour. To be very honest, when I’m driving in Europe or North America, the only reason I stop at a red light despite the fact that it might be past midnight and the intersection completely deserted, is because of the fear that a police car might be hiding behind a tree waiting to catch me, and also, because of the memory of being caught before. The knowledge that a sanction is very likely and prohibitively expensive is a very powerful deterrent. The perfect illustration of this can be found in this BBC video showing a car gingerly going up a one-way street, while a traffic policeman is busy yawning and stretching his arms above his head. When you watch that video, don’t focus on the car. Focus on the policeman. Because the problem I’m discussing doesn’t lie in a refusal to comply, it lies in the negligence to enforce. Anyone who dares say that reckless driving in these countries is “part of the culture” is only looking at the car in the BBC video, instead of looking at the yawning policeman. That policeman is yawning instead of ticketing because he is inadequately trained. Obviously the police academy did not spend enough time teaching him the importance of his public appearance, his maintenance, his ethical duties to stop and punish every single traffic violator, in short, how to fulfill the tasks for which he was posted to that location. The yawning policeman is also probably overworked: this video could very well have been filmed in August instead of February, when the desert sun pounds your head like a ton of lead, making you not only miss cars going the wrong way, but possibly also  elephants re-enacting a choreography from Fame. Many taxi drivers in Egypt are accountants, teachers, pharmacists, who supplement their income by working extra shifts driving a cab. If the traffic policeman is as overworked and underpaid as the taxi drivers are, his motivation to properly do his work is probably as low as his chair.

In Lebanon, while cars are being pulled over and fines are being slapped on motorists, it’s probably not frequently enough and for amounts that will hurt the wallet enough to prevent a repeat offense. Ghassan Rahbani, a member of the younger generation of Rahbani brothers (the famous musical duo who composed Fairouz’s songs), was on a talk show recently. He told a story of being stuck in traffic and honking his horn out of frustration. The police pulled him over and fined him 5,000 LL (about US $3). He asked the policeman if he had change for a 10,000 LL note, which the policeman did not. So Ghassan gave him the 10,000 LL note and honked a second time. This story got a lot of laughs on the show, but it illustrates how the fines are not taken seriously enough to correct the at-fault behaviour because the amounts are so ridiculously small. Similarly, my relative who burned the red light wasn’t scared of doing so because she had never been caught and fined before. She didn’t have the memory of a stinging punishment to stop her from committing an offense. Driving in Lebanon has improved because a concerted effort has been made and continues to be made to control and regulate the driving culture and implement a universal respect for the rules of the road. But until this is done with enough uniformity, without any impunity, and with fines that are important enough to act as deterrents, motorists will still think they can get away with it.

So, the moral of this post is: let’s stop talking about reckless driving, let’s stop suggesting that people from the Middle East or other developing countries are genetically predisposed to becoming bad drivers, let’s stop talking about Egyptian motorists being “under a lot of pressure” and Lebanese motorists still suffering the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the war. Because these same people travel every year to Europe, North America, Australia, where they drive just as soundly as any John Smith or Franz Schweizer. Let’s start talking instead about inadequate and insufficient enforcement. And by enforcement, I should make clear that we should not only look to policemen, but beyond them as well. The policeman is only as good as the police academy training he got, and the training can only be up to a standard that is allowed by the funding from the responsible authorities. And let’s not forget, the policeman does not write the laws, he only upholds them. Ultimately, it’s the Ministry of Justice and Parliament who should be legislating with enough sophistication and concern for the health and safety of motorists to develop an automotively developing country. And they should back that up with sufficient willingness to enforce their legislation to cause a trickle down effect that will wake up the yawning policemen of the Middle East.

Blast in Cairo

From Daily News Egypt:

CAIRO: Seventeen people were wounded, including 11 French tourists, three Germans and three Egyptians when a bomb went off in the tourist district of Al Hussein, near the popular Khan Al Khalili market in the heart of Cairo at around 7 pm.

A conflicting report by Reuters, however, claims that four people had died, two of them tourists, but their nationality has not been disclosed. The report said that eleven people were also wounded, six seriously.

The Daily News Egypt correspondent present at the scene shortly after, said that at around 8:10 pm another explosion was heard, but that it did not incur any casualties.

No smoke was visible.

By then at least 1000 riot policemen had filled the area, which was sealed off completely.

Read CNN here and BBC here

I know nothing except what I read at DNE but here’s my preliminary thoughts:  This is consistent with the kind of random violence that commentators have been predicting for a while now and is not likely connected to any organized groups.   The militant Jihadi groups of the 1980s and 1990s have been broken up by the state and, for the most part,  made their own decisions to give up violence.  The other group that comes to mind is Al-Qaeda but they are not thought to have a presence in Egypt.  However, this does not mean violence has disappeared.  Given the horrible socio-economic conditions in Egypt, there are enough reasons why Egyptians would be so pissed off at the world that they resort to violence.   But its random acts, commited by individuals with no connections to organized militant groups (because they don’t exist anymore in Egypt).  Both Ibrahim Eissa and Hussam Tamem have been saying for a while now and based solely on the information that’s available, I think this is what is happening here.  We should probably not read too much into this incident; Unless a pattern starts emerging, its probably not significant. 

Of course, if there are any new developments, expect to read about them here at MediaShack.

Why No Stop in Cairo?

Iron Maiden, a  great band,  is  playing_Dubai February 13th.   I know for a fact, however,  that there are a lot of angry  rock  fans in the Arab world, especially Egypt,  who are wondering why Iron Maiden’s  Mid-East tour consist of just one city — Dubai — that doesn’t really qualify as “Middle Eastern.”     I just had a conversation with Mr Egypt, a rock fan and an Egyptian nationalist, and he’s more than a little annoyed that little upstart noaveuxe riche Dubai gets an Iron Maiden show while his country, the region’s cultural capital, gets nothing. 

This raises an interesting question — what prevents Iron Maiden, and in general other big rock acts, from playing Cairo or even a more expansive regional schedule?   After all,  big names have played Egypt in the past:  The Scorpions and Skakira have made appearances in recent years  and the Greatful Dead, one of the most popular rock acts ever,  did   three_epic_concerts in Cairo  back in ’78’.    So what’s the problem here?  

1)  The anti-Devil worshipping factor?    This was my initial assumption.   Egyptians have many positive qualities but they also have a tendency (generally speaking)  to be annoyingly judgemental of those who look differently.  They might not say it, but when many people see someone with long- hair and tattoos they are thinking “deviant, devil worshipping godless freak.”    Back in 1997, for example, 100_heavy_metal and rock music fans were arrested  on suspicions of satanic worship and many  politicians jumped on the soapbox talking about how much this was an affront to local morals. 

There is a debate within Islam about what kind of music, if any, is permitted.  Many Islamic scholars say its never permitted.  Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a moderate,   says  it ok as long as it has an Islamic message, meaning he considers almost all Arab pop music (ie Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab)  as problematic.   I’m not sure we could say Iron Maiden’s music has an Islamic message, but if you listen   closely to the lyrics of their classic_song, alot of Egyptians could at least  sympathize.    After all, it’s not as if they are Marlyn_Manson.

And Mark Levine makes a great point in his awesome book:   Unlike in the 1990s, today,  the Brotherhood is more concerned about making allies against government oppression, so they’re not going to make a big show about what kind of music people listen to. 

2)  Or is it a question of Business? 

I think this is the main reason no good rock acts come to Cairo.  It comes down to business and a lack of infrastructure.  After all, Iron Maiden is a band which draws crowds of 300,000 — in South America.  But once you’ve reached that stature you don’t go places unless your guaranteed of a certain degree of success but  Egypt just doesn’t have the appropriate music facilities for these kinds of acts.   Big name Arab singers don’t make the bulk of their money from touring  and perform much more low-key concerts on 1 or 2 k seat auditoriums. 

Second, I doubt concert organizers could guarantee the sale of 15-20 k tickets in Egypt, probably the minimum necessary to make it worthwhile.  Yeah, the  Egyptians who frequent the Harley Davidson shop in Zamalek would probably attend.  I definitely would if I was in Cairo.  I would be the first person in line to buy tickets.   Mr Egypt would probably be the second.  But this is a pretty small bunch, so, if I was in charge of scheduling Iron Maiden’s concerts, and my job depended on picking places that would sell enough tickets to make a profit, I would probably skip Cairo.

What is he talking about?

I still am confused after reading Egyptian author Alaa Aswany’s Sunday editorial in The New York Times:

PRESIDENT OBAMA is clearly trying to reach out to the Muslim world. I watched his Inaugural Address on television, and was most struck by the line: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” He gave his first televised interview from the White House to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television channel.  But have these efforts reached the streets of Cairo?

Quite frankly, this is one of the stupidest articles I’ve read about the Arab reaction towards Obama and the American elections!  I was ready to stop reading by the time I got to the second sentence when Aswany expressed astonishment that Obama said the US is a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Non-believers, as if this is something extraordinary that’s not happening in Germany or India for instance.  Or as if Egyptians and Arabs  don’t already know this about the US. 

I know that I’m disappointing many of those working on improving  the US image in the Arab world, but seriously if you reread that article you’ll notice how silly it is.

In Cairo, which is seven hours ahead of Washington, some people I know stayed up practically all night waiting for the election results. When Mr. Obama won, newspapers here described Nubians — southerners whose dark skin stands out in Cairo — dancing in victory.

Ok,  if we believe Aswany’s account the poor, illiterate, underprivileged and politically and socially oppressed Nubians (even more than the rest of the Egyptian society) rose up dancing in joyous victory that Obama won.  I wish Aswany would inform us which papers said this nonsense because I read them all and  this is the first I’ve heard of the Bedouins dancing in the streets when Obama won.  Nor did I see any talk in the Egyptian papers about a feeling of happiness that filled the Egyptian society that would be solved just because Obama got elected. 

But Aswany didn’t stop there and went on to talk about  “our”  supposed admiration for Obama.

Our admiration for Mr. Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president.  This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt.   That is why the image of President-elect Obama meeting with his predecessors in the White House was so touching…We saw Mr. Obama as a symbol of this justice. We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm ….

 These empty statements  leads me to recall the Angry Arab when he says ” you have the right to be stupid, but please don’t speak on behalf of (the Egyptians) as you are being stupid.”  I can only raise one question here: ” What does the average Egyptian possibly know to favor or admire with Obama?  Can anyone present a reason to tell us why would they care to know who is Obama in the first place? They have nothing against him for sure, but the point is why would they be keen to know who he is?  How would that effect them?

Although Aswany points out that Obama ignored  Gaza, he thinks that “we”  are still enthusiastic for him, because, according to him, the “Egyptians still think that this one-of-a-kind American president can do great things.”  Frankly,  this piece looks like a primary student learning how to write a composition. I think even if an Egyptian  child read that last part he would just ask him one simple innocent question “why would the American president do great things for you?” Although I think he answered that question when he said it’s because he embodies the great American values. I just wonder what values is he talking about? And the Egyptians just left all their problems to learn about these values? And above all to know how they are embodied in Obama?

Mr Egypt is an Egyptian who lives in Cairo.