Goose bumps, whoppers and polliwogs

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

June 30 2011

Philip Whitfield

Cairo: Through the ages revolutionaries have pondered if lying is acceptable. What would your Mum say to the murderer banging on the door yelling: Is your son home?

Latin scholars might suggest: Non est hit, meaning he is not here with me, squirming out of a catch question because Johnny’s eating lunch on the kitchen table.

Casuists argue that’s not lying. It’s the foundation of a defense – in contract law to avoid honoring a signed agreement because of a misunderstanding: the legal argument non est factum.

Egypt’s diffidence, its horripilation or the national outbreak of goose bumps, is the angst of America’s Founding Fathers. Their heebie-jeebies at the thought of empowering people with democracy were understandable. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely – Lord Acton writing to his bishop adding: Great men are almost always bad men.

The Founders were determined to hold their leaders’ feet to the fire in the new democracy. They chose to bifurcate power between man and institutions. Good officials were recruited then shackled by law. The Founders believed human beings could not remain good for long when holding the reins of power.

Egypt doesn’t trust the meddlesome muckety mucks, mucking about from Mansoura to Mit Ghamr, the mines of Minya to the monuments at Marsa Matruh. They espy a mobocracy emerging, political control ceding to undisciplined indolents.

It was this skepticism that led to the American Constitution’s checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, and to a deliberate three-way arm-wrestle between the presidency, the congress and the judiciary.

Where did this novel idea come from? Philosophers look to Augustine, who framed the concepts of original sin and just war. As he sifted the ruins of Roman imperialist destruction and began City of God, he declared that left alone man would not achieve justice. The best that man could do would be to temper the effects of sin. Hence the conservative’s argument for limited government.

The present day philosopher Thomas Fuller said Thomas Jefferson’s point is not merely that the people ought to rebel whenever they are oppressed, not merely that they should rebel whenever there is a whiff of oppression. But that they should rebel regularly, whether they are oppressed or not – raise a little hell, tar and feather a few officials – just to keep officials uneasy in their seats of power.

Egypt risks taking the miasmic path to Utopia – no amount of horror or suffering is too great a price to achieve paradise on earth. Hitler, Stalin and Lenin fooled their fellow travelers for a while. History exposed their evilness.

The Founding Fathers’ vision of government power over society was Sisyphean, the mythological Greek king condemned to eternity in Hades. To try to escape he rolled a great boulder to the crest of a hill. But whenever he managed at great effort to reach the crest, the boulder rolled down again. Sisyphus would begin the struggle again, reach the crest, and again the boulder would roll down.

That’s the basis of the objectivism missing in Egypt today. Objectivism in this context requires a helmsman’s statecraft, not opportunism. Statecraft rounds out the political mix inserting a proper political philosophy as the Founding Fathers did. The paradox is that by demonizing the institutions of the state, utopian love of country is achieved.

If you correspond with the nobs in Egypt you can expect a letter in response that concludes: Your Obedient Servant. It’s deceitful. The petitioner is more often contemptuous of the receiver. The responder is anything but an obedient servant.

He looks in the mirror and sees a highfalutin honcho. Take a headcount in the executive wing at Tora Jail, Egypt’s Most Wanted and convicted in absentia and check out the empty palatial residences, their owners freely frolicking in the fleshpots.

In Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals Kant pronounced: Lying is wrong with no exceptions. Hang the consequences, he’d say.  Kant would tell the assassin at the door his son was chowing down in the kitchen.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion Kant equivocates. He offers a get out: The conception of right does not take into consideration the act of will as far as the end result is concerned. In other words Kant argues means can justify ends, in violation of all he previously said about truth.

Kant says the question of right should take into account voluntary choices if they are free so that one can harmonize with the freedom of another according to universal law. I disagree. That legitimizes terrorists.

There’s another problem. Averring to Franciscan thinking, the Catholic hierarchy maintained so-called mental reservation during investigations of allegations of child abuse. Caught out lying, the priests dug around in the philosophical toolkit and pulled out the verbal chisels of equivocation and evasion in their defense.

We never said we cooperated fully they fudged. Egypt’s public prosecutor says interrogating the Mubaraks is a nightmare. He says they are masters of evasion.

The hybrid of popular revolution and military coup in Egypt almost forces the powers that be to lie in Kantesque, Franciscan equivocation. The uniformed regime is involved in businesses ranging from munitions to tourism and olive oil production. That conflict of interest pits armed peacekeeper in tension with its role as employer/manager/custodian.

It is not a meeting of equal minds when one has an arsenal of weaponry to back up his argument and the power to throw adversaries in jail and try them in military courts.

Kant wisdom brackets authority to compel with right doing. Hence Kant’s broadside fired across the bows of skeptics: Now, everything that is wrong is a hindrance of freedom. Compulsion or constraint of any kind is a resistance to freedom.

The military did not create Egypt’s new freedom. They are nudging liberty’s progress forward – the Arab Spring becoming a Summer of Discontent.  Duty requires them to permit the founders of the new democracy to forge Egypt’s destiny. And those that step forward must prove themselves trustworthy, not polliwogs – tadpoles learning to swim with the frogs in the grown ups’ pond.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.


Tut-tut Tut doomed or entombed?

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

June 28 2011

Philip Whitfield

Cairo: Belt tightening isn’t enough. Beggars can’t be choosers they say when the kitty’s dwindling. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are funding feeding fellahin foul. Egypt could weigh up some assets worth more than their weight in gold: Tutankhamun?

Instead of borrowing into oblivion, turn the tables on the foreign bankers rubbing their hands at the prospect of drowning Egypt in debt. Offer a lease and sale deal for King Tut.

Sounds farfetched? Tutankhamun and Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibitions make $100 million a year crisscrossing America. At home the country’s archaeological mausoleums only rake in $80 million pay dirt digging dirt. Tut-a-mania tourists are putting off coming to Egypt. And Tut’s ultimate resting place at the yet to be built Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza is some years away.

Put on the thinking cap. Instead of charging foreign museums $20 million a year staging Tut fests more drastic solutions might be considered.

Let’s make a Tut-plan. The world’s 20 major museums in the United States, Europe and Asia request their governments to pony up $1 billion each to rent Tut – loose change for those sending good money after bad to Greece, Portugal and who knows next.

Under the Tut-plan each government gets the equivalent of 10 percent interest on the $1 billion leasing fee out of the $100 million a year Tut rakes in currently.

Egypt has the benefit of $ 20 billion. Invested at 10 per cent, and saving paying 12.75 percent issuing bonds, Egypt benefits by about $4.5 billion extra a year, a Revolution Bonus for each of Egypt’s 17 million families.

Under the Tut-plan Egypt doesn’t borrow a penny. There’s $20 billion in the reserves. Tut’s where he spends most of his time anyway: in museums abroad. The donor countries are assured of their investment. No beefing up their embassies to check their collateral is safe, as they do now. Tut’s on their dry land.

Egypt could also arm lock the governments that refuse to return the Rosetta Stone (UK), the Bust of Nefertiti (Germany) and the Dendera Zodiac (France), all purloined by itchy-fingered colonialists years ago.

Rather than harry them, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s minister for antiquities could offer to deal: pay Egypt an annual leasing fee (another $10 billion) and Egypt’s Revolutionary Bonus goes up to EGP 200 a month per family.

When the leases run out, Tutankhamun comes home to his new digs in Giza. The 10 million foreign tourists will be back then and there’s a new reason to come and visit.

Egypt rescues itself from the claws of debt. Foreign banks aren’t exposed to more dodgy lending.

Think this is stupid? The government mulled it over when Tut was discovered.

After The Times of London disclosed the find on November 30 1922 Egypt went into a paroxysm. Hysterics howled: hawk Tut and the contents of the coffins within the sarcophagus – the golden mask of the Pharaoh, the diadem embellished with cobra and vulture, the 16-row cloisonné pectoral, armlets, rings and much more.

While the archaeologist Howard Carter and his chum Lord Carnarvon went back to Luxor, the powers that be vacillated and plonked the lot in the Cairo Museum.

The world and his wife came to visit. Elisabeth, Queen of the Belgians; British prime minister Lloyd George; the French actress Cécil Sorel and the Maharaja of Poona made pilgrimages to the site of the Pharaoh’s tomb.

Egyptian Railways put on a Tutankhamun Special between Cairo and Luxor for the mobs of tourists from Japan and America anxious to see the Valley of the Kings where the 18-year-old boy king had been buried since 1352 BC.

Why not stir passion once more? The curse of the Pharaohs? In the hot debate in the 1920s over what to do about Tut protagonists argued selling Tut’s gilt would gild the nation’s lily. Antagonists countered: expect revenge if Tutankhamun’s tomb were desecrated.

Ancient Egyptians believed the sun descended to the King of the Dead every evening to overpower the forces of darkness. The sun shared the radiance of eternity during the night before returning at dawn to climb to the heavens once more.

Desecration, it was argued would end in death.

Some say Tut took his revenge. Carter’s buddy Lord Carnarvon died suddenly in 1923 after being bitten by an insect. The Curse of the Pharaohs legend was born. Fearful collectors descended on the British Museum to rid themselves of Tut-like treasures.

Flushed with $30 billion to spend on bug spray, Egypt’s could zap clouds of killer-mosquitoes the gods bid bite blaspheming blaggards.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.

A perfect storm of butterflies

International Herald Tribune Daily News

June 23 2011

Philip Whitfield

Cairo: History and prose join at the hip. Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s opening words in Shakespeare’s Richard III: Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun (sic) of York, reveals olid jealousy to dethrone his brother Henry.

Some of Shakespeare’s most puissant words appropriated a momentous event, a dastardly Machiavellian plot to heist the crown of England by one sibling rival over another.

What about this rallying cry? Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood. Not Shakespeare’s, but said to be Daniel Burnham’s, America’s preeminent city architect-planner, the designer the first skyscrapers after Chicago’s Great Fire eviscerated four miles of downtown. Burnham’s inspiration? The pyramids in Egypt.

What’s heard in and around Giza, today? Mealy-mouthed casuistry. Confuse, not clarify. The grand aspiration of freedom and democracy is doused in driveling prate, WIFM – What’s In It For Me?

And cop-outs. Fear stalks. Some Egyptians observing the stealthy wannabes salivating over political trophies are ordering packing cases. They’ve tickets to Europe to live out their salad days. Oldsters browse brochures for elder care in Eastbourne.

Why so? With a weather eye on the gathering clouds, they foresee a perfect storm, the confluence of bad politics, weak economics and non-deterministic social unrest.

It’s what the meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz described as the butterfly effect. A small miscalculation yields widely divergent chaotic outcomes. Theoretically a butterfly’s flapping wings could cause a hurricane, he was to say, pinching a colleague’s comeback: One flap of a seagull’s wings could change the weather forever.

The chaos theory has been around since Henri Poincaré the French mathematician who died 100 years ago. Poincaré’s theory identifies predictable and random factors in order to take preventative measures.

What’s predictable in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood is by default the best-organized political party. It’s network of social and outreach programs define the movement. Banned, tortured and imprisoned for 50 years the Brotherhood emerges as the Freedom and Justice Party.

What’s random? The Brotherhood’s on-off alliances with the Wafds and others, some skeptical such as the new liberal Justice Party and the Free Egyptians backed by Naguib Sawiris. The Brotherhood may or may not seduce comrades from other parties. Brothers who’ve fallen out are forming their own parties including al-Wasat and al-Nahda. Other Islamists are making party plans.

The most unpredictable group is Hosni Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party, banned from running. All their followers aren’t criminals, just misguided. They’re not being offered a right-leaning Conservative choice acceptable to them. Will surrogates masquerading as reformers slip in?

There are many others, some with as much chance of assuming office as Britain’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party been fools of themselves since 1983.

Yet the time for frank talk is now. Eight out of 10 Egyptians gave an unequivocal go-ahead for constitutional amendments allowing the parliamentary election to be held in September. It would be a travesty if the poll were to be put back, as hinted.

Neither the government nor the military has a mandate to ignore public will. What credibility will be left if the result of the constitutional vote is ignored because it doesn’t sit well with the elite?

Meanwhile, the economic prospects are dire. The major foreign earner, tourism, languishes in the doldrums. Exports are comatose. Workers are sluggishly returning to their jobs. Unpredictable are foreign investors, who see projects falling behind.

Least predictable are social attitudes. Unrest there is. The worst violence has abated though harassment is widely reported. Given the enormity of Mubarak’s crimes the gush of energy is understandable, though not forgivable.

Chaos theory identifies the probable causes to be eliminated. Egypt has its head in the sand. The government is not addressing the need for national debate in a constructive manner. Why? They aren’t running for election. They’re timeservers holding the fort.

They put off appointing an information minister. Why? Writing the brief would cause pandemonium. Censorship would have to be addressed. Egypt’s rulers prefer lurking in the shadows of doubt, sufficient to scare off some investigative journalists who weigh up timidity versus Tora.

Society’s divisiveness needs addressing openly. Bring political opponents together to bellyache on TV and across the nation in open televised sessions. The electors deserve the chance to size them up, to sniff out equivocation before voting.

The government should come clean about the economy’s parlous state.  Require publicly owned companies to announce rationalization schemes to achieve viability. Include the numbers of workers to be let go. The political parties should publish their plans in manifestos. Do they intend more featherbedding? If so, who and how? Who pays?

On the social front, the youthful Revolution leaders should speak convincingly. They are the credible ones to persuade the violence-inclined to end harassment. Start programmes to engage the miscreants’ energies usefully.

In The Tempest Shakespeare’s oft-quoted metaphor ‘What’s past is prologue’ translates: What’s happened merely sets the scene for the really important events to come – those on which greatness will dilate.

The actors with butterflies in their stomachs should be bidden adieu.

Is this momentous moment in Egypt’s history to be fumbled? No. Yield to a statesmanly visionary with wisdom and the gifts to articulate an inspirational cause, a plan worthy of those who sacrificed their lives for liberty.

Virtue trumps calumny.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.


Who’s in cahoots with whom?

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

June 21 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Remember the double entendre? Hercule Poirot: Love is not everything. Jacqueline De Bellefort: Oh, but it is. Poirot: It is terrible mademoiselle all that I have missed in life. Jacqueline: Good night Mr. Poirot.

John Guillemin’s 1978 cut of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile elegizes ironically no less poignantly than 2011’s suspects confronting Armageddon.

The Belgian sleuth eavesdrops on chitchat between oddball toffeenoses pottering around pyramids, indulging at Aswan’s fulgent Old Cataract Hotel and swigging gin and tonics on the S.S. Karnak, a paddle steamer on the River Nile.

Substitute Egyptians who were rolling in it, now nibbling fava and cucumber on the state sponsored jailbirds’ slim fast special.

In the movie, a ménage à tois and voracity unveils nine suspects in a series of murders, most prominently the shooting of Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles), jilted lover of the cad Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) apparently by Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow), the cad’s cuddle. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) and the maid Louise Bourget (Jane Burkin) are wiped out after inadvertently eye witnessing Linnet’s death.

The argute Poirot (Peter Ustinov) figures out that Simon and Jacqueline were the killers, tricking them into believing he possessed conclusive gunpowder tests. Overwhelmed by the detective’s phrenic reasoning, Jackie shoots Simon then turns the gun on herself. The irony: Poirot was bluffing. He had zero evidence to support his assumptions.

But he knew how to get a confession, as we shall consider later.

What’s concerning about the upcoming trial of those charged with plotting to murder unarmed civilians in Tahrir Square is that there appears to be an incomplete montage of mug shots on the prosecutor general’s wall.

Play Cluedo? We’re not talking about Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with a cleaver or Miss Scarlet with a candlestick in the study. We’re in Heliopolis Palace, the luxurious residence and executive offices of Hosni Mubarak during the most critical 18 days in contemporary Arab history beginning January 25, 2011.

Or, if you want to be precise, the exact whereabouts of the Mubarak mob between 3.30 pm and Midnight on February 2/3. The Associated Press reports 846Egyptians were killed and more than 6,000 injured in the national mayhem: Egyptians shot in cold blood by marksmen under orders from the commander in chief and/or the minister of the interior and/or security force bigwigs (all accountable to Mubarak) before/after the police were withdrawn and the armed forces assumed their roles.

I don’t want to go to a liman: been there seen that as a visitor to incarcerates in the appalling Kanatar Jail where the threat of brief detention invoked Mrs. Mubarak to throw a wobbly.

But, may I plead that it is not a treasonable offence to ask the question: Name the apparatchiks in the palace vestibules when the orders were sent out to lock, load and fire bullets into the crowd in Tahrir Square.

Specifically, who was in cahoots with Hosni Mubarak? It beggars belief that his sons were his sole advisors. Neither is known to have fired anything more lethal than water pistols. Neither presented themselves for national service as millions do. Both were detested, disrespected by uniformed ranks.

The hangers on? Bureaucrats who grabbed huge tracts of land? Bullyboys masquerading as parliamentarians skulking under cover of immunity from prosecution? Who knows whom among Mubarak’s elite clutch?

Was Mrs. Mubarak, the most powerful cook in the kitchen cabinet, solicitously offering tea and biscuits when a million or more protesters were baying for her husband’s blood?  So far as can be discerned, she’s out on what’s described as police bail: uncharged but restricted in her movements.

Hold the popcorn. You would expect the nation’s 16th vice president Lieutenant General Omar Suleiman educated and trained at Cairo University, Ain Shams University, Moscow’s Fruze Military Academy and the Egyptian Military Academy to be close at hand to Mubarak. You’d imagine Mubarak seeking his counsel.

Facing accusations General Suleiman was reported to have told the public prosecutorial team last month he relayed hourly updates of every bullet fired at protesters and the number of those killed or wounded. What of the others in Heliopolis Palace?

Hercule Poirot has the gift of an open mind. He likes to ruminate, sharing his thoughts with his sidekick Col. Johnny Race (David Niven).

Frustrated at the lack of progress in the investigation of Death on the Nile, Race blurts out: Why doesn’t someone murder her (Mia Farrow)? To which Hercule Poirot replies: Well maybe the world’s lending libraries will band together and hire an assassin!

Which raises an interesting point. Why are these trials being held in Egypt? In South America, where this coup de théâtre plays frequently, the politicians act out shady dramas to avoid dispatching their former presidents to the death chamber. America switches trial venues if a fair trial is unlikely near the scene. Britain puts the big baddies in the Old Bailey wherever they’re from.

Under intense pressure from abroad the former Yugoslavia’s mass murders eventually were rounded up and dispatched in double quick time to the Court of Justice in the Hague, which conveniently got their countrymen’s judges and jurymen off the hook.

The International Criminal Court is recognized by 114 countries. Thirty-one are African states, 15 are Asian, 18 are from Eastern Europe, 25 are from Latin American and the Caribbean and 25 are from Western Europe and elsewhere.

Isn’t it interesting that Egypt isn’t among them? If you want to play in the world, you join up.

However, that doesn’t prevent any signatory, or NATO from filing an application to have Egypt’s post revolutionary trials held in The Hague.

Agatha Christie’s secret as the most read novelist in history? The sting in the tail. Egypt should take a leaf from her books. Send the prosecutor general’s bundles of evidence to The Hague to conduct the trials in full view. Justice will be in plain sight, prime time.

If that’s not acceptable, appoint a blue ribbon commission of international jurists with a mandate to investigate ‘all security activities concerning Egypt between January 10 until February 14.’ They should ask whose brass hats were hanging where? Washington? London? Paris?

In a sense either investigation would be equivalent to Poirot’s bluff. Faced with a trial of Nuremberg proportions the cabal in charge of Egypt’s file would probably do a Poirot and corral all the suspects in Tora.

But that would only beg the question of plea-bargaining.

Like Poirot said: You must think of everything.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.

Tahrir Square’s ‘conspicuous’ flaw

International Herald Tribune/ Daily News

June 16 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Jack Welch built what became the most valuable company in the world making tangible things. Welch was a kid with hope in his heart and an empty pocketbook when he left community school. Today, his net worth is more than $700 million.

He grew GE from a $12 billion American company in 1981 to a global mega-corporation in 2001 manufacturing $280 billion of goods worldwide — 20 years never cutting a single job in America.

How, he was asked a few days ago. Vision and desire, he replied. On your own? No, my workers did it themselves. Every day they woke up thinking: How can I find a better way?

Opinion polls find Egypt’s revolutionaries mostly hoping for prosperity. Few put democracy at the top of their wish lists. Analyzing the national psyche requires understanding the realism of people on the street.

An expert on the subject Dr. Rachel Bowlby, Professor of English at the University of York, is the world’s foremost authority on why people want more money to buy stuff. She’s the author of a slew of seminal works such as “Just Looking”, “Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping” and “Shopping with (Sigmund) Freud”, who explored the connection between psychoanalysis and consumer psychology.

She, like many serious historians monitoring the changes in human behavior, says the droves moving to cities all over the world in the mid to late 19th century marked a watershed: the seminal transformational experience when urban centers in Europe and America exploded into major metropolitan areas.

As Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, until last year the executive director of UN-HABITAT, the UN’s Human Settlements Programme, points out London went from 800,000 in 1800 to over 6.5 million in 1900. Paris grew from 500,000 to over 3 million and by 1900 the population of New York was 4.2 million. The masses became serial shoppers.

Cairo’s population explosion came later, gathering momentum over the last 20 years. From 250,000, according to the official census in 1882, to 13 percent of Egypt’s population in 1960, Cairo and its contiguous collar counties now stands at 18-20 million, nearly a quarter of the nation, and an eye-popping density estimated close to 30,000 per square kilometer, threatening to topple the slum league-leaders in India and the Philippines.

Back in 1899 the venerable Norwegian-American sociologist and economist Professor Thorstein Veblen studied the Second Industrial Revolution’s pre-World War I trends, coining the phrase conspicuous consumerism. By that he meant your current condition could be transformed by creating a new identity by spending on new clothes, shoes and the like.

Before then most people shopped for necessities such as a bar of soap. Then along came the first international advertising blitz shilling a branded product: More doctors proscribe Ivory soap than any other.

Waterfield Scott, one of the earliest writers on advertising, explained that people started buying particular brands such as a bar of Ivory soap for its ‘spotless elegance’ ignoring the soap’s properties, which he described as ‘a prosaic chunk of fat and alkali.’ (From the Arabic al-qily, salt ashes).

Spool forward to Tahrir Square January 25. Everyone knew the Mubarakites were rapacious rapscallions, bombasts – braggarts with bulging, bloated billfolds. Most of the country could put aside their differences, coalescing around ‘freedom and liberty’ to dunk the doppelgänger.

Rachel Bowlby and her ilk, experts on social change, point out that liberty to most people means freedom to satiate unsatisfied desires. Instead of buying clothes to cover up, folk want to spend a few pounds in a department store on a new outfit in what Emil Zola in Au Bonheur des Dames called the cathedral of modern trade.

The anthropologist Victor Turner likened this shopping to a religious experience, a ‘liminal moment’, suggesting that people crossed a department store’s threshold to slough off the mundane for exquisite pleasure, even aspiring ecstasy.

The nation had come to the end of its tether, fed up with unrequited promises — window-shopping with empty purses.

As clothes embroider a new identity, in other words indulging in conspicuous consumerism, today Egypt yearns to strut a brand-new, crisp demeanor, a purposeful plurality joining the world’s democracies.

The fly in the ointment — the pauper’s predicament. The Mubaraks left the cupboard bare.

And there are too many Cairo kleptomaniacs at large including, it’s said, 400 pussyfooting in Belgravia, immune from extradition or the illegal rendition and torture they once aided and abetted.

There’s another angle. The euphoria in Tahrir Square was glorification in the bulletless booting out of Mubarak by the peaceful protesters. They hung together in harmony and stood their ground.

Among them people who are determined to define the new era positively. In a textile factory I know, the workers told their boss they wanted to down tools and take off for Tahrir Square on January 25.

So do I, said their boss, an Englishman. I’ll come with you. But, what shall we tell our customers in Europe? If we stop work and don’t deliver, we’ll lose them and then we’ll be out of work.

The workers met. Here’s the plan, they said. We’ll step up production so that we can leave early. Great, their boss said. And the plan worked.

There’s a new spirit in the stitching-thread sheds. The customers in Europe are thrilled. The workers have their jobs. They have lambent pride, the country cleansed of tyrannous martinets.

They don’t feel the Revolution was to further Mammon’s march. Neither do they covet a better life in the consumer society. Or that acquirement is a cult impugning Egypt’s cherished culture. They say productivity, quality, reliability and service should be the quintessence of the national endeavor. They’ve lit up an inner strength that counters bouts of disillusionment.

These Nasr Citizens are the revolt’s unsung heroes. Greater buying power is a freedom for individuals to determine which goods they can buy to save effort, be useful and meliorate self-esteem.

Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress participated in the recent symposium at Cairo University on The Nonviolent Revolution in Egypt: Learned Lessons. Home, she wrote in the Washington Post the pertinent question is can Egyptians keep the spirit of Tahrir Square alive and transition to a pluralistic democracy?

She concludes: The Egyptians taught the world a lesson about how to use nonviolent direct action to effect massive societal change. The Middle East, and indeed the world, needs them to succeed with their transition to democracy.

To do so demands a more laudable purpose than money grubbing. The 18th century Romanticist Movement’s leading light William Wordsworth is bethought lovingly, for Daffodils written in 1804:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils

Social historians, particularly those who study the evolution of humongous cities, render even greater courtesy to the poet Wordsworth’s thoughtful treatise the Lyrical Ballads co-authored with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge who contributed The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

In Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth addressed what he saw as the negativity of consumerism in a sonnet The World Is Too Much with Us:

Late and soon,
Getting and spending,
We lay waste our powers.
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away,
A sordid boon!
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.


A problem with Egypt’s credit card?

International Herald Tribune Daily News

June 9 2011

Philip Whitfield

Why are the media so coy? In war reporters’ lingo the leader of an army carted off the battlefield is toast. That’s what’s happened in Yemen. The headline in the Economist Gone for good? was nearest to the truth. President Ali Abdullah Saleh is unlikely ever to return to Yemen the Guardian’s Brian Whittaker wrote.

I’ll bet a steak au poivre in the Semiramis Grille to a pitcher in Estoril we’ve seen the last of Saleh’s Sana’a shenanigans. Saudi’s leaders won’t foist Saleh on Sana’a again. The New York Times reported his suffering 40 percent burns from a bomb blast requiring months of convalescence.

Warriors’ death throes are revealing. Wounded, the politically hebetudinous Saleh in a croaky voice beseeched his murderous militia to confront the tribal fighters… before being wheeled on to a Riyadh bound jet.

Hosni Mubarak famously told the Tahrir Square demonstrators at 10.45 pm on February 10: The blood of your martyrs and injured will not go in vain. I assure you that I will not relent in harshly punishing those responsible. I will hold those who persecuted our youth accountable with the maximum deterrent sentences.

There’s something for judges to ponder.

Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad last spoke publicly on March 1. He said: Syria is a target of a big plot from outside.

Since then Assad’s troops have murdered countless innocents inside his country and Bashar remains silent, sending satraps to mince words.

Great warriors don’t forget their publics before leaving. Alexandria the Great, dying aged 33: There are no more other worlds to conquer. Admiral Lord Nelson before his final battle: England expects every man to do his duty.

Some were less than sagacious: Major General John Sedgwick, commander of the Union army in the American Civil War, shot while looking over a parapet at the enemy: They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…

Tyrants try to justify their despondence. Exemplars slip away unpretentiously. The heroes of Egypt’s Revolution deserve immortality. From my balcony observing the gorgeous blaze of flamboyants, I wonder if we couldn’t plant scores of flamboyant trees in and around Tahrir Square for generations to come to marvel at the promise of renewal, to recall the valiant who sacrificed their lives for justice.

For the moment, much needs repair. Face facts: On Tuesday the Central Bank revealed Egypt’s international reserves decreased from $ 28.02 billion in April to $27.2 billion in May. The trend indicates that in the blink of a global financier’s eye — 2 years and 9 months — Egypt’s rainy day fund will dry up.

Egypt’s game might end sooner. In the next 33 months, there’ll be many more distress signals from countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere.

If Egypt succumbs, the country will be in hoc to who knows who? Independence will be a chimera, a catastrophic cherubic cacophony, a crepitating clattering confusion feeding the lenders’ rapacious greed.

The tragedy is the lack of a visionary leader. Who can make sense of the different voting systems proposed for the people’s assembly elections by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces? What’s certain is that sophisticated computer systems exist to crunch the numbers and forecast the result pretty accurately. Are our unelected leaders giving them a whirl beforehand?

Others are second-guessing. Abu Dhabi Gallup polled 1,000 Egyptians across the country. The Muslim Brotherhood had the support of 15 percent, the National Democratic Party (which is banned) 10 percent, the liberal Wafd nine percent and the newly launched Wasat Party five percent.

The US Agency for International Development published an opinion poll this week after 1,200 people ticked boxes from April14 to April 27.

One finding is alarming. Less than one in five named lack of democracy as their reason for joining the protests. Nearly two-thirds said they supported the protests because they were unhappy over low living standards or a shortage of jobs. Some 80 percent said they anticipated their economic situation would be better in the coming year as a result of the revolution.

Here’s the issue: In a true democracy money is not the means to wealth. It’s the result of effort. Most people born with a silver spoon squander their windfalls in the early years of good fortune.

True enough, workers are entitled to a decent wage. But to earn the right to a fair minimum wage requires a fair minimum day’s work.

The economic Stone Age might be round the corner. As Barney Rubble famously said to Fred Flintstone: Don’t count your bowling balls before they’re hatched.

Crisscrossing Cairo on the buses, I observe empty buses at 7:30 a.m., which is rush hour in Chicago and other affluent cities where workers jumpstart the day early. On the other hand, from 2 -5 pm it’s a nightmare trying to zip through the crowd with so many government workers heading home prematurely or more likely into the cavities of the black economy.

We all hear the new phrase oft repeated: Has the revolution arrived? Shorthand for: Why are you still bilking me? Reward is proportionate to value given, not price asked.

Daily, we read about demands for higher pay. Perhaps we could be better informed if the profligacy of government-operated enterprises was exposed to scrutiny. Workers have a right to know if their firms are technically bankrupt.

Cairo is awash with rumors of mergers and acquisitions, particularly in the financial services industry. They can’t continue bleeding cash. They’re looking for white knights to come to the recue. Problem is Egypt’s running low on cash and has resorted to raiding the cookie jar, or selling off the family silver.

As the storekeeper said to Barney Rubble’s wife Betty: There seems to be a slight problem with your credit card.

Betty: Really? What’s that?

Cashier: It’s no damn good.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.

Hubble bubble budget trouble

International Herald Tribune Daily News

June 7 2011

Philip Whitfield

Cairo: Have you heard the one doing the rounds? Three leading economists going hunting took a small plane into the wilderness. The pilot told them they could only bring one moose back because it was such a small plane.

At the end of the trip they talked the pilot into letting them lug three dead moose onboard. Soon after, the plane stalled and crashed. In the wreckage, one of the economists looked around and asked: Where are we? Just about a hundred yards north of the place where we crashed last year, the other economists yelled back.

Statistics are great. Moldova has one of the smallest military forces in Europe, and the highest rate in the world for death by powered lawnmower. If someone you know died falling out of a tree, you’re probably Brazilian. You are more likely to be killed by lightning in Cuba than anywhere else.

In Egypt, the tectonic plates of the free economy and socialism rubbed up against each presaging a seismic event. The interim government’s draft budget reversed the last government’s march to a market economy. The fault lines of the economic and therefore the political battle ahead have been laid down.

An oxymoronic statement from the Ministry of Finance said the budget primarily aims to generate employment and bridge a fiscal deficit, which the ministry estimated might reach 11 percent of gross domestic product in 2011/ 2012.

You can have both, but not the way it’s planned. The rich are being clobbered with a 10 percent tax on capital gains and a 5 percent increase on the income tax rate for large corporations. On the other hand, the threshold for income taxpayers is going up from EGP 9,000 to EGP 12,000. The poor are promised better social programs, subsidies for food and fuel and a new minimum wage.

State investment in so-called key sectors (munitions?) is being increased from EGP 40 billion pounds to EGP 56 billion. Subsidies for essential commodities are being raised 26 percent. Increased support for low-income housing goes up by 50 percent and EGP 500 million is going to state-funded medical treatment and EGP 500 million for pharmaceuticals. EGP 2.7 billion is going to pensioners – up 71 percent.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is being asked to approve a budget that spends EGP 514 billion and anticipates income of only EGP 350 billion. That’s a 47 percent overspend. Or, in my money, if you’re earning EGP 5,000 a month, you’re spending EGP 7,350.

And you’re getting a lot less for your money. The International Monetary Fund’s figures show Egypt keeping a grip on inflation at around 3 percent from 2000 – 2003. Since then it’s hit as high as 16 percent. Those are the official figures. Unofficially? Take a guess. I’m spending 350 percent more on the same stuff from the grocery store.

The cabinet should read Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Remember Wilkins Micawber’s assertion? Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

The government has a smoke ‘em out policy. While economists discombobulate, they’ve been sifting the dottle from the nation’s tobacco manufacturers. It’s pretty fuggy. The Health Minister says tobacco taxes are going up another 70 percent.

Even though last year taxes on cigarettes went up 40 percent and tax on shisha tobacco, or water pipes went up 100 percent, the nation’s 10 – 14 million smokers (depending on the source of information) carried on puffing.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) says total value of tobacco sales in the local market (including taxes) has reached almost EGP 15 billion for financial year 2011/2012 versus EGP 10 billion for the previous year – up about 50 percent.

The way to jinx this budget is to quit smoking.

Obviously the interim non-elected government and the SCAF have to put in place a financial framework until democratic elections. Worrisome is who gives them the authority to tilt towards socialism? Is it a bribe?

Commentators suggest it’s recognition of popular opinion. Who dares second-guess the public’s mood on such a vital issue? The Wall Street Journal’s Matt Bradley in Cairo reported: A draft of Egypt’s first state budget since the ouster of its former regime has worried some economists and financial analysts that policy makers are capitulating to populist concerns at the expense of economic growth.

He quotes Magda Kandil from the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies saying: The problem is whether this is good for the economy or not, or whether we can sustain this going forward or not. I would say no to both questions, she says.

Investment analysts and some economists are cautiously optimistic, calling the draft a temporary and reasonable response to Egypt’s precarious political circumstances and the public’s aversion to the former regime’s pro-market economic mindset.

EFG-Hermes’ research head Wael Ziada said the draft budget could have been worse. People looking at the Egyptian market forecast would see a lot of socialist, very popular steps taken in order to appeal to the masses after the revolution, he said. What we have seen is an indicator that we are not seeing steps taken in this direction. There are some very sensible steps toward making ends meet but not in a very opulent fashion.

Don’t you love these masters of circumlocution? Never ask investment bankers for a straight answer except: Is it the right time to buy stocks? The answer is always: Yes.

However, if we’re starving, we can always recall the story of a physicist, a chemist and an economist stranded on a desert island, with nothing to eat.

A tin of soup washes ashore. The physicist says: Lets smash the can open with a rock. The chemist says: Let’s build a fire and heat the can first. The economist says: Lets assume that we have a tin opener…

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based writer. He can be reached at or twittered @mohendessin.