Let’s start anew

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

September 25 2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Teacher’s rest, mother’s pest, father’s little worry. That ditty sung in the playground as we swung our satchels at each other has special meaning for the thousands of expats planning their evacuation from Egypt.

Teachers rest was our jingle-jangle for the autumn half-term holiday, which ends in early November.

The 150,000 or so expats are wondering whether to admit their kids into schools back home to catch up on their work – and give up on Egypt. They’re attending crisis-planning sessions, which anticipate chaos at the airports after the election on November 21.

Last Wednesday at one such, someone whose opinion is much harkened said he could anticipate headlines such as: Hundreds Killed as Egypt Votes.

I tossed that into the junk box of my mind. Next day, however, when I faced down an extortionist, a baby faced taxi driver, I found myself soft-shoe shuffling in Dokki’s Massaha Square as he lunged at me with a pinhead-sharp screwdriver.

My life hung on a thread…all over two Egyptian pounds.

Unafraid but abashed a little later I retired for lunch at the Semiramis with a dear friend. She had her story. Her nurse, one she’d known for 30 years, a German woman of impeccable standing who virtually brought up her children, was murdered in her home in Nasr City.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she described the incident: a burglary that ended in her brutal death. She was 83, frail, a lover of Egypt, a saint who had years left to befriend Egypt.

Why on God’s earth should she be killed for the demon of cupidity, the avarice of desire? A few quid to satiate addiction?

As you do over a meal we chitchatted about this and that. I mentioned I hadn’t bumped into a mutual friend.

Don’t you know: she left with her daughter and the grandchildren for Canada?

Canada? Does she know anyone there?


Why leave? She had an experience too excruciating to publish.

She was my mentor and friend. An Egyptian, she fled too befuddled to bid goodbye.

Then I heard of the CFO robbed of EGP 10,000 on a busy highway in full view of passing motorists who deigned not to intervene. Held at gunpoint, he relinquished the means to satisfy the company’s obligations, which included paying staff.

I recounted my own experiences: being threatened by a silly Billy in my bedroom. I gambled he wouldn’t have the heart to assassinate an elderly gent in his Y fronts; returning from a business trip I see my flat has been turned over, my computer invaded.

How did I know? The bugaboo stole two cigarettes left to tempt and to finger – mouse poison to catch rats.

I’m told by an impeccable source Mugamma is ‘misplacing’ expats’ passports left for visa renewal; so many that consuls general have platoons at Cairo International Airport to calm nerves and get the fleeing evacuees out.

Why should the expats be singled out in this way? Many, like me, don’t come to live off the backs of Egyptians’ sweat. We come to learn from the custodians of ancient truths; to offer our two-peneth. We pay 20 per cent of our earnings in taxes – unlike those who evade criminally rather than pay their dues.

If that sounds vainglorious or sanctimonious it shouldn’t. I yearn to live among people who respect their neighbors as themselves. I thought I’d found the place.

Some years ago I left a wallet with a couple of thousand on the counter of a pharmacy downtown I’d never used before. Two hours later I returned and was handed it back intact.

In eight years in Egypt I can’t add up the multitude of miniscule gestures that I value more than gold. I have been received with extraordinary hospitality. Sometimes I could weep to be so blessed.

Yet something’s changed post February 11. I have often remarked that some Egyptians are on a short fuse. They want everything now. They can’t wait.

Intellectually I can understand it. As Uriah Kriegel, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona posits in his paper “The Same Order: The Monitoring Theory of Consciousness” we have no conscious knowledge if we’ve not been schooled to meditate.

The taxi driver lunges because he’s broke and sees a likely looking dope. The goon reaches for his pistol because he is bereft of reasoning. The government caves because it abhors criticism. SCAF oscillates this way and that to assuage misguided patriotic bigots.

Mubarak dons a suit for his court appearance to signal he’s not a prisoner anymore. Who cares? He’s been hanged in the court of public justice: belittled by his peers, a more demeaning end than a noose.

Arab pride is mephitic, noxious, pestilential — as out of place as 19th century regal puffery and buffoonery. Ignoring consequences is feckless.

It’s time to confess. The past half-century has delivered little to be proud of. Neither East nor West. Europe has suffered the ignominy of abasement: the shame of imperialist chicanery, the humiliation of gunboat diplomacy, deceit and meanness.

America’s ambition is one of history’s fleetest, begrimed by greed.

Obama and Cameron are revealed as bantamweights. President Mahmoud Abbas unveils wisdom not blathering cant: Give that which was promised Palestinians, he says calmly. Hand over the birthright you determined: a homeland.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, is a latecomer realist. He climbs the UN podium to say: Hey, you guys, the problem in Israel/Palestine is your creation. Listen up. There are several solutions. Instead of two states in perpetual disharmony, let’s consider one state in amity: peaceful coexistence.

Aristotle described friendship as a single soul dwelling in two bodies. In Greek mythology our ancestors had two heads and four arms, who, if they offended their gods would be split down the middle resulting in the creation of humans condemned to eternity searching for their soulmates.

Egypt has to settle its kindred antitheses in dialogue. Apportioning angst is acerbic aberrance of Arab affinity.

Neil Sedaka sang it exquisitely: Come on baby let’s start anew…’Cause breaking up is hard to do.

Philip Whitfield writes commentary in Cairo.


Yearning to breathe free

International Herald Tribune/Daily News Egypt

September 12 2011

Philip Whitfield

SHARM EL SHEIKH: The unexpected consequences of the Arab Spring are as clear as the crystal waters of the Red Sea that lap ever so gently around my ankles on the shores of White Knight Beach.

Israel’s dictatorship of the Middle East is crumbling.

Without tossing as much as a pebble into Israel, the political leadership in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem is drowning in the deep end of international relations.

Across the spectrum, Al Qaeda’s bullyboys are sinking fast as well. Throughout the tumult of 2011, the revolutionaries that put their trust in the power of explosive belts wrapped around misguided youth were AWOL.

You ask how can that be so when a gang of soccer hooligans overran the Israeli Embassy in Cairo? When Israeli jets screamed into Cairo to pick up the surprisingly large cadre of 80-some diplomats from its mission in Giza?

When, apparently, the incident caused the interim Egyptian prime minister and his cabinet to tender their resignations?

Surely, you say, Israel should be the aggrieved party? Not in the least. At long last Israelis know first hand what it feels like to be dispossessed, denied the right to live in a place they regarded as their own.

Every Palestinian in the world lives and breathes that feeling every minute of every day – the inalienable right to raise their kids and grow up in their homeland; the hopeless despair of longing for self-determination.

It’s no good their crying to America. The deceit that characterized the Netanyahu government’s shameful sham offer to enter into peace talks with Palestine is in plain view. Instead of conciliation Netanyahu chose further conquest – expanding the illegal settlements on the West Bank.

Now Israel is disintegrating. Their economy is in ribbons. In their tens of thousands they take to the streets sleeping in tents for days on end to protest the futility of a system that puts the cost of food and housing beyond reach; a society that spends more on military might per capita than any other civilized country.

Ironically, Netanyahu is in a more precarious place that Mubarak or Gadhafi. They could have avoided political annihilation by introducing freedom and democracy.  Netanyahu can’t. In his terms, Israel has both.

The global family of nations is putting Israel in quarantine. Israel’s way presages endless strife. The peaceful revolt sweeping the Arab world is prevailing.

When activists took to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya their message seemed to be directed at their own corrupt leaders. Now we see the wider significances.

More than a hundred million marchers are demanding that the root causes of their discontent are eviscerated, not pruned.

See how rulers try to cling to power. The military leadership in Cairo outlaws strikes. How can they possibly force people to go to work when they refuse to labor for a pittance, when they seek decent healthcare and a proper education?

Let me offer an example of the way it should be. In the hotel where I am 120 journalists are arriving from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

They are learning that the 1,500 hotel workers here not only receive a fair wage and their share of the service charges, they also receive a share of the hotel’s profits. They live in accommodation that is equivalent to the 5-star hotel’s guests.

They eat the same food as the guests. Their healthcare is free, paid for by the hotel. They receive regular health checkups. If needed they are flown free of charge to specialist hospitals abroad, for procedures such as open-heart surgery.

As most come from far afield in Egypt, their families are brought here from time to time at no expense to the employees.

What’s the result of this extravagant overhead? The 2,000 rooms are booked solid. There’s not a spare bed to be found. Egypt’s tourism industry is being recognized as never before. On Friday, these particular hotel workers will be honored by almost 1,000 VIPs from the world’s top hospitality companies with an award that recognizes them as Egypt’s leading all-inclusive resort.

On a balmy night I sip a beer with folk from Britain on the terrace at the Queen Vic in SOHO Square. Some tell me they’re on their fifth or sixth visit to Egypt. One woman has been here 21 times in recent years.

Israel and the head-in-the-sand Arab leaders who deny respect and refuse to dignify their citizens choose not to accept that democracy, freedom and liberty are the bedrock of economic progress and success.

They finagle elections. They issue dictates as to how the people should live. They slam courtroom doors shut when evidence might embarrass. They deny accused access to their lawyers. They refuse to allow people the right to be tried by their peers.

Israel’s tin ear to the majority’s demand for justice for the Palestinian people is their downfall.

When will they understand that the revolutionary thinking sweeping across the Arab world is unquenchable? Egypt’s young people have shown how it works: non-violent activism.

Neither does the old saw that Islamic extremists are behind it hold water. The Muslim Brotherhood says they had nothing to do with Friday’s demonstrations in Cairo. They say they have chosen the peaceful path to change.

It’s right to commemorate those who lost their lives in the attack on the Twin Towers in New York 10 years ago. It was a dastardly, cruel revulsion.

The response to invade Afghanistan and later Iraq was an even greater miscalculation. The world is a more dangerous place as a result. Military force achieved nothing.

Now the world faces an even bigger challenge: formulating a response to the demands for freedom coming from a region of 600 million people.

Will the West intervene? Yes, they should. But this time, the West should leave their gunboats in their ports. For this is not a catchphrase war, a war on terrorism. It is a triumph by ordinary people from the mountains of Sinai to the deserts of Arabia; from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

Emma Lazarus’ beautiful sonnet penned for the base of the Statue of Liberty says it all: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Countless millions have embraced the hope to set about making a new life beckoned by Liberty’s beacon. The tide turns to address the tens of millions who yearn to breathe free here and now.

Around me I see people, some veiled, some topless, congregating together in harmony. They chat; they laugh; everyone enjoying the respite from their woes, none more so than the Europeans – laid low by economic collapse, so ignorant of the circumstances of the revolution. But so endeared by the exemplary hospitality unfailingly dispensed by their Egyptian hosts.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo-based commentator.