Spending spree: skyrocketing skyscrapers

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

February 22 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Music hath charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak — William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride (1697). My feet are killing me — the teetering tiptoeing on high-heel skyscrapers at Cityscape this week.

Both reveal post-revolution Egypt in its true colors. The middle class is on a hell-for-leather spending spree. Crowds descended on the huge International Convention & Exhibition Center to get their name on a new home.

Crowds jigged among the juggling red-nose clowns helping to flog des. res. in Portoworld. Tourists tumbled in to take a peak at Turkey. Million pound (sterling) London mansions drew interested punters.

And Ian Marsh beamed, regaling tales of Russians splashing out in Hurghada (Sixty thousand Egyptian pounds gets them a studio apartment and escape from Vladimir Putin).

Who said there’s an economic crisis round the corner?

That’s why we’re here, a 40ish couple from Heliopolis confided. If the pound’s going to be devalued and inflation continues going through the roof, now’s the time to buy a place on the North Coast.

Buy low, sell high, a couple of investors from Alex told me. Look, Sharm’s down now. But it’s the most popular value close to Europe. Can’t go wrong getting into the market now. It’ll turn around.

Maybe. But when?

Cityscape’s a bit of a gamble. Or so you’d think post-revolution. And the exhibition’s group director Chris Speller agreed his board of directors had thought twice about facilitating such a huge gathering of real estate professionals.

All the big players are there: Amer, Al-Futtaim, Citystars, Coldwell Banker, Emaar, Kuwadico, Orascom, Palm Hills and SODIC among them. And lots of less familiar names – the moneymen who risk their shirts raising billions.

Speller said his board had left it to the Egyptian property tycoons to decide.

There was never any doubt in their minds: The show goes on, Speller said. They know the market and they wouldn’t be investing in an event like this if they weren’t sure of domestic support.

They certainly looked happy. Particularly the armies of saleswomen on their skyscraper heels – topping off their ubiquitous black business suits.

It’s a shock for those of us who catch a whiff of teargas from time to time doing our job to mingle with the mob that don’t seem to have a care in the world about the vicissitudes of revolt.

There again, history is on their side. Take a neat pair of semi-detached houses in England. In Number 36, the Jones who bought just before the war broke out in 1939 paid 600 pounds for their new home. In Number 38 the Smiths lived in an identical home they bought in 1945 when the war ended for 4,000 pounds.

Why such a disparity?

Buy land, they’re not making it anymore, said Mark Twain.

On the other hand, investor confidence from abroad has evaporated. It’s going to take a long time to convince them, according to the roundtable experts speaking at a real estate summit meeting upstairs from the main halls.

Beltone’s Angus Blair put his finger on it. For Egypt to have a real revolution, he said, there needs to be what he called a multi-polar change of attitude. Before everything else, he said, Egypt needs to reform and invest in its education system.

Which wasn’t really apparent when Sherif Oteifa, the General Authority for Investment’s (GAFI ) senior advisor wheeled out a Powerpoint presentation, which looked like a plate of warmed up GAFI stew.

Among a slurry of bullet points were old familiars: Plans to cut red tape, more transparency, build a million affordable homes in the next five years and one intriguing one: Law 4 of 2012 to have commercial disputes resolved with the government rather than in the courts.

Would that really speed things up? Does it mean tricksters won’t be given a judicial knuckle rapping? Whose government — SCAF’s?

It all sounded like instant PR, as it did to one member of the audience. He homed in on a chart of public-private-partnerships in the works. According to Dr. Oteifa there are 45 projects worth 64 billion Egyptian pounds, ranging from schools and hospitals to roads, bridges and the Metro.

It was four new hospitals costing 4.5 billion that stuck out, for one expert in the audience. The number didn’t make sense, he said. Hospitals don’t cost a billion, he informed us. (We didn’t hear whether it was too much or too little.)

The prof. didn’t have an answer. But he assured everyone the government wouldn’t be paying. Egypt would find private investors at home and from abroad to stump up the cash. That went down like a lead balloon.

Which sank even further after one chap told sad stories of Koreans and Chinese investors biting their nails to the quick waiting for gas, electricity and water to turn up. Huge projects were scuppered, he said, because the government couldn’t get the taps turned on years after the footings went in.

Back to the real action, downstairs in the exhibition halls, where the crowds had thickened, lured to each display by sweet music. It’s surprising how much thought goes into the ambience by the booth directors (yes, such careers exist).

And music works, I observed. Hyde Park’s Garden House Project lures people in with a shiny black Mercedes (16,000 a month on the drip) and the dulcet tones of elevator music wafting through their air.

The razzmatazz of the samba, with salesmen appropriately dressed in quirky white sailor suits and bright blue neckerchiefs is a riot, presumably emblematic of what you get up to in Porto.

But you’ve got to give it to La Vista for best musical effort. They hired in a quartet from the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to play Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major — Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

For a fleeting moment we could have been in the salons of Salzburg, Vienna, Paris or even Prague or Budapest. But we were in Cairo, lingering among the dreamers in the glow of longing for what might be.

The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home — Confucius

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


Mission Impossible?

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

February 20 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: John McCain, war hero, legendary upholder of freedom and justice — your mission senator, should you decide to accept it, is to rescue Egypt from a venomous viper’s nest.

You wear the scars of excruciating torture. Five years of incarceration in the infamous Hanoi Hilton’s dungeons seared your soul.

You have known the captors of the NGO workers in Egypt for 25 years.

Should you or any of your congressional colleagues fail, the President will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, John.

McCain is familiar with the territory. This week’s visit to Cairo is his fourth since the Arab Spring sprung. Less than nine months ago he led a delegation of American businessmen representing companies including General Electric, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Dow, Marriott International and Exxon Mobil.

McCain rang the opening bell at the Egyptian Stock Exchange. He said Americans want Egypt’s revolution to succeed so that the world would be more secure.

That was then. Now the senator with more knowledge than any other on earth of the perilous path being trod, says unless the NGO workers are released, Congress may cut off all aid to Egypt.

McCain’s the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, a position that humbles US presidents with trillion-dollar budgets. Egypt’s economic woes and military spending are small change in McCain’s world.

On the face of it, McCain’s mission may, as he says, be focused on resolving the crisis over the prosecution of American NGO workers in Cairo. Far more important, however, is the realignment of the region.

Probably the easiest to read is Tunisia. Their large secular middle class is being incorporated into the coalition the Islamists who won their election formed to write a new constitution.

Libya’s a nightmare. Lawless Tripoli. Armed gangs holding Gaddafi loyalists in torture chambers pose all manner of threats.

Syria’s Assad is the embodiment of evil, a prince of darkness so deep in a cave he’s unaware of reality.

Egypt’s problems? Minor by comparison, by Washington’s standards. NGO hostages? If McCain twitched his pinky a posse of navy seals would hoist them out faster than green grass through a goose.

When you’re in it as deep as McCain you’re focused on wars not spats. He’s trying to navigate a non-violent policy through treacherous waters to tame the rages in Syria and Iran.

Just at the moment it seems that is Mission Improbable. The implications for the region of a nuclear-armed Iran and a collapsed Syria are unimaginable.

America has a perfectly capable ambassador in Cairo. The embassy has protected accommodation all over town to take care of 19 Americans the Egyptians might like to arraign.

If Egypt thinks the American administration will allow itself to be humiliated with Sam LaHood the son of the US Transportation Secretary appearing in white overalls in a cage in a Cairo courthouse next Sunday it’s confirmation Egypt’s puppet government is in cloud cuckoo land.

Here’s how McCain might see things.

Egypt has charged 44 people with spending money from organizations that were operating in Egypt without a license. That’s comparable to running a red light in Talaat Harb Street at four in the morning.

What about the US presenting charges to the International Court of Justice with clear evidence of 1,000 cases of murder, torture, rape, arson and theft by the leaders of Egypt since the Arab Spring?

What does that mean in practice? Every politician that’s cooperating with the military junta and every general in SCAF will be restricted from travelling out of Egypt. They’d be arrested when they landed.

No more shopping trips to Paris and London. No more facelifts in Switzerland. No more summer holidays in Florida retreats. No more EU meetings.


The latest word is McCain has no intention of demanding the NGO workers’ immediate release or negotiating with the Egyptian government directly. That would be demeaning for a real-life military hero.

McCain spent five and a half years in various prison camps in North Vietnam, three-and-a-half of those in solitary confinement. He was beaten and tortured repeatedly before he was released, along with other American POWs.

He refused an offer of early release, saying there were plenty of other captured soldiers before his turn to be freed.

McCain earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

Though McCain had lost most of his physical strength and flexibility after a painful nine months of rehabilitation, he returned to flying duty.

He says he plans to express the seriousness of the issue to Egyptian military leaders. He says the NGOs are not sowing unrest but rather helping Egypt develop civic institutions.

He will also try to explain the congressional politics of the moment and the real possibility that Congress will cut off US aid to Egypt over the crisis.

McCain said he realizes that the generals may not be in control of the situation and may not be able to solve the NGO crisis even if they wanted to.

McCain says the Minister of International Cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga is behind the kerfuffle.

Ms. Abul-Naga won’t know what’s hit her if she is confronted by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-American born chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. At a hearing on the issue last week, she said Abul-Nager should not be exempt from punitive actions.

This is not about sovereignty, she said, but about patronage and corruption. She said no further US assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation.

Or, as the Commander-in-Chief might have said to his top agent: Senator, this isn’t Mission Impossible. It’s mission Difficult, which should be a walk in the park for you.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Don’t shoot the messenger

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

February 9 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match, Cleopatra was told by a hapless messenger conveying the news that her beloved Antony had jilted her, according to Shakespeare.

As with journalists in Egypt today, he was trying to save his eyesight.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counts more than 50 journalists in Egypt shot at, sexually assaulted, beaten, or detained in the past two months. Security forces shot at least two journalists and a third was beaten up in police custody in the last few days.

Police fired pellets at Mahmoud al-Ghazali, a correspondent for Nile TV as he reported on clashes between protesters and security forces in downtown Cairo on Saturday morning. One went straight into his eye causing extensive injury, according to the CPJ

Online journalist Salma Said was shot around 1 a.m. on Monday by security forces while she filmed clashes in Bab Al-Louq neighborhood in central Cairo. She said three pellets hit her in the face, along with dozens more in her legs and stomach putting her in hospital.

Mohamed Rabee, a correspondent for the online independent daily Al-Badil, was grabbed downtown and beaten by plainclothes cops for an hour after they caught him dictating copy to his editor.

Without truth seekers such as these brave people we would know nothing.

Mohamed Abdel Dayem, the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator says Egyptian authorities have an obligation to enforce the law, seek and punish the culprits.

These attacks show how tenuous the situation is for journalists in Egypt. Authorities must ensure journalists are able to carry out their work unharmed, Dayem says.

The pattern is clear. SCAF and its puppets want to operate in a murky fearful world devoid of human rights.

Cornered, they resort to medieval methods. Faced with their vindictiveness they bolt cowardly.

On Monday SCAF’s delegation seeking aid for the military fled Washington DC rather than explain themselves. According to Reuters the Egyptian Embassy said the delegation had cancelled its meetings this week with U.S. lawmakers.

The Egyptian delegation had been scheduled to see Senators including Carl Levin and John McCain, the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Last week, the Egyptian army delegation met State Department officials who outlined both the US position on the pro-democracy NGOs and the new conditions that Congress imposed recently on American military aid, which runs out in March.

The conditions say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must certify that Egypt is holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate foreign aid subcommittee, said he would not favor continuing US military aid to Egypt even with conditions if it continued its crackdown on local and US-funded pro-democracy groups.

Leahy told Reuters he would not agree to continuing funding money to Egypt that reflects the assumption that they are committed to democracy, if they are not.

How is Senator Leahy’s virulent opposition to continuing aid to Egypt linked to firing birdshot into the eyes of journalists in and around Tahrir Square?

The pen is mightier than the sword — English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1839) in his play Richelieu.

Freedom of expression is the underpinning of America’s independence — the right of a people to determine their own future, not to be subjugated.

The US Constitution’s First Amendment says: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

James Madison’s original draft of the Bill of Rights said: ‘The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.

Each phrase is pertinent in Egypt today and exposes SCAF as a perpetrator of secret self-interest.

Without the assistance of NGOs to help democratic movements to foster freedom of choice we would not have witnessed the overwhelming joy of Egyptians lining up for hours to cast their votes, unmolested by the bully boys of old who for decades trucked in their supporters, well-bribed and cajoled.

There is good reason to believe the Egyptian government will retreat from holding a trial of the NGOs. The rights Madison espoused and which have been fought for the world over would attract international jurists from the four corners of the earth.

A trial could last months, possibly years – with Egypt in the dock, its credibility being chipped away by the masters of human rights debate. In the meanwhile any attempt to restore relations with the free world would be on hold.

Perhaps the generals and their puppets don’t care. Perhaps they want to throw in their lot with the likes of China and Russia, Iran and Burma. Some say they’ve decided already to junk America, the EU, the West and other democracies.

What would that mean? An end to free speech, the messengers expelled or silenced.

These days test the mettle of the young revolutionaries and their supporters. They rose in influence by mobilizing public opinion. Now they must use the goodwill they generated and the undoubted respect they have in the community to convey the threat to freedom’s march.

Every revolution comes to this point.

It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own — Herbert Hoover (1874 –1964), 31st President of the United States.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.


OP-ED: What now? Don’t bite the hands that feed

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

February 6 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: The irony of it. What President Obama failed to do in three years, Field Marshall Tantawi achieved in half an hour: Uniting the disparate Democrats and Republicans in Congress. More than 40 signed a letter saying future aid to Egypt hangs in the balance.

Currently there’s no way to certify the conditions for military aid are being met, the Washington Post reports, quoting a senior administration official: We’ve told the Egyptians we’re in a very difficult situation.

The Egyptian mission to the United States is on the rocks. SCAF’s top brass is holed up in Washington DC forced to extend their planned seven-day stay.

Tit-for-tat? Not really. But the labyrinth of diplomacy conceals a multiplicity of maneuvering. Egypt prevents a bunch of Americans working for NGOs helping Egypt towards democracy to leave Cairo. America keeps a similar number of Egyptian military negotiators in Washington for more talks.

Football supporters are slaughtered en masse in Port Said while the security forces stand idly by.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a leading member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Chairman of the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations says: We want to send a clear message to the Egyptian military that the days of blank checks are over… Congress could block future aid unless changes are made.

Leahy said if the Egyptian government pressed what he termed ‘its assault on the NGOs’ it would mean that several certification requirements could not be met. He underlined the $1.3 billion the US gives Egypt in military aid is at stake.

The question now is whether the United States will stand by and allow the Pakistani model of military dominance and a hobbled civilian government to be replicated on the Nile, according to two insiders: Dr. Michele Dunne the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who served in the White House on the National Security Council staff, on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and in its Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and in the US embassy in Cairo and Shuja Nawaz also an Atlantic Council director.

They say there are three conditions for continuing military aid to Egypt: 1) Maintaining peace with Israel; 2) Allowing a transition to civilian rule; 3) Protecting basic freedoms. Only the first is apparent, they say.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can’t sign off on the aid package unless she’s assured SCAF meets benchmarks of democratic reform.

We are very clear that there are problems that arise from this situation that can impact all the rest of our relationship with Egypt, she said after meeting the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr on the sidelines of an international security conference in Munich on Saturday.

We do not want that, Clinton said. We have worked very hard the last year to put in place financial assistance and other support for the economic and political reforms that are occurring in Egypt, she said. We will have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances.

Clinton says the travel ban on NGO staffers must be lifted and the NGOs should be allowed to reopen their offices, their property must be returned; an investigation of their activities ended and the NGOs should be registered without conditions.

Diplomatic exchanges between the US and Egypt are testier than ever.

What should be done?

The military’s primary role should be to secure the national borders. The talk in Cairo is of huge quantities of guns smuggled in from Libya. That might explain the spate of bank robberies, kidnaps and ransom demands. Criminal gangs appear to be using the security vacuum to step up their terrorist activities.

The northern border is a problem as well. Sinai is insecure.

Both border security operations could be assisted by America’s high-tech surveillance and intelligence.

In the cities and towns, SCAF has a role to play assisting the police to secure banks and to deploy the number of forces required to ensure the criminals are kept locked up.

The police need training to manage the unstable situation. European governments have more experience than America handling urban terrorism. It is for the Egyptian government to approach the EU to see how fast their expertise can be used to bring the Egyptian police up to speed.

To alleviate Congress’s concerns, the parliament should review the conditions under which NGOs can operate in Egypt and the NGOs should agree to restrict their activities to educating democracy advocates.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups will be suspicious. They fear America and its allies use NGOs as a backdoor entry for covert activities. Those fears need to be assuaged.

Likewise the Islamist recipients of foreign aid should come clean. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

But the security situation is so dire that failure to act immediately may plunge the country into an abyss.

Calls to bring the presidential elections forward are apposite. SCAF’s leadership has fallen short of what was expected. A civilian leadership is required as soon as possible. That means a new constitution needs to be drawn up and passed by the elected representatives Egypt’s voters have sent to parliament to do that.

Procrastination has to come to an end. We need to move forward, says Amr Moussa, a contender for the presidency.

More than that, however, the people who began the revolution have a duty to regroup and to consolidate behind their own candidate for the presidency. The Muslim Brotherhood is evasive concerning the presidency.

Egypt needs transparency. It needs an early opportunity to register its support for a future president that will put stability and safety at the forefront of the political debate.

The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms. It requires change of heart — Mahatma Gandhi.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Foul play at Port Said

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

February 3 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: All but mourning must be set aside. Moliere said if grief is suppressed too much it might well redouble. The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves, Sophocles wrote in the Oedipus.

It was proper for Field Marshal Tantawi to announce three days of general mourning. It was right to vow to track down the perpetrators of the worst massacre ever to occur at an Egyptian football match.

It is wrong for SCAF to adjudicate the issues. Their opinions are tainted by loyalty to their colleagues and codes of conduct that are peculiar to the security forces.

SCAF must retire to the sidelines for the inquisition on the massacre to get underway.

The primary issue cuts to the heart of the crime and, moreover, to the sorry state of security. Those who wielded lethal weapons must be identified, charged and tried. Some may be found guilty of manslaughter or even murder.

But will those responsible for allowing the massacre be arraigned? If the past year’s experience is anything to go by, they will not. The recidivists perpetuate their crimes. Those uniformed criminals and others occupying high places must not be allowed to pollute justice yet again.

Unfortunately Tantawi has already assigned blame. In his call-in to Ahly’s TV station he said securing the football match was the responsibility of the police force. He may be correct.

But he may be entirely wrong, deflecting reproach elsewhere. Tantawi can’t be allowed to get away with that. He can’t have it both ways: If SCAF assumes all power it must accept all responsibility for the consequences.

We know the police will lie to try to save their skins. We know that irrefutable evidence provided by TV cameras of people being killed, such as at Maspero, are distorted afterwards to fictionalize truth to permit culprits to escape prosecution.

That’s why Tantawi must yield the power of investigation to a panel headed by a judge of impeccable impartiality that is empowered to unearth the truth wherever the search may go.

A judicial inquiry should be ordered with wide terms of reference. The inquiry should consider every aspect of Egypt’s security, not just at Port Said’s Al-Masry Stadium and not only during the 90 minutes of the match and the mayhem that followed.

Why? Tantawi said this: If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed. Everyone will get what they deserve. Thus Tantawi opened the post mortem on the match far beyond the attack on the pitch.

Having said what he did, Tantawi must in respect for the families of the victims allow a judge trained and experienced to conduct the discovery stage unfettered by military codes and loyalties. It is not a job for someone who has a vested interest in protecting uniformed officers.

The evidence should be handed to the public prosecutor for justice to take its course in a civil court. Already there are allegations that require testing. What happened cannot be a coincidence, Ziad El-Elaimy, a Social Democratic Party MP claimed. This massacre and three armed robberies happened only one day after the Interior Minister came to parliament trying to convince us of the importance of maintaining the State of Emergency, he said.

The security forces are to blame for the large number of deaths, Adel Aql, a football association official said in an interview with ONTV. They are supposed to secure the fans’ exits with an iron fist. Protocol calls for them to close all gates leading to the visiting team’s fans until they are sure of their security, he added.

The Port Said MP Al-Badry Farghaly confirmed reports that the Port Said governor and the city’s head of security did not attend the match, which, Al-Ahram said is uncommon for matches between the two teams, who have a long rivalry.

That is another reason to appoint a non-partisan, independent judge to assemble the evidence and hand it to the pubic prosecutor to arrest the culprits and arraign them for trial.

There comes a major issue. Was the massacre premeditated?

Al-Ahram reports the trouble started in the second half of the match when a small group of Ahly fans raised a banner insulting their rivals and a security official and a medic saying Masry home team fans swarmed the field throwing stones, fireworks, and bottles at Ahly fans.

The conspiracy theorists would have us believe the fight was organized to influence parliament to abandon attempts to put an end to the State of Emergency, which Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi recently said would only be applied to acts of thuggery.

Ziad El-Elaimy, an MP with the Social Democratic Party, said: What happened cannot be a coincidence. This massacre and three armed robberies happened only one day after the Interior Minister came to parliament trying to convince us of the importance of maintaining the State of Emergency.

The terms of reference for the judicial inquiry should specifically include  an explanation from the governor of Port Said and security chiefs as to where they were, why they were there and what they were doing on Wednesday.

The stability of society rests not only on the strength of the security forces; nor on the integrity of the new breed of parliamentarians who are demonstrating laudable discipline raising the tone of national debate.

All will be lost if the people cannot regain their self-confidence and confidence in the emerging ruling class. This is going to be extremely difficult under the constant glare of media attention and the eyes of the world trained on every twist and turn of this imbroglio.

There are extremely disturbing trends towards anarchic violence. The spate of daylight robberies and distain for the rights of women to walk unmolested are not isolated incidents. They illustrate how far a nation in denial has to travel to regain its stature.

How Egypt responds to the dreadful night in Port Said will determine the future State. Three days of mourning provide a solemn period of reflection.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest and third by experience, which is the bitterest — Confucius.
Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

Mood indigo

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

February 1 2012

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Trouble comes in threes. Tourism’s tanked. Foreign investors are queasy. This week the neighbors acted up, moving on with Red-Med — the superfast rail link the Chinese want to build across Israel to bypass the Suez Canal.

The Suez Blues: India, China, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia groan about delays and the time it takes to ship goods to Europe through the canal. Skippers complain it takes an age to join a convoy, moaning over being charged an arm and a leg.

The Red-Med: Owners say it would be cheaper, easier and faster to sail into Eilat on the Red Sea and drop cargo onto bullet trains that could be in Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast 30 miles from Tel Aviv in just over two hours.

Asian shippers could use the new Malaccamax monsters on the stocks in South Korea. The huge container ships breach the Suez Canal’s upper limits and shave thousands of dollars off each trip.

Red-Med makes it more feasible for the Chinese to tap into the 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas starting to flow from Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan fields in the Mediterranean and future gas from the new Sara and Mira gas fields further north.

Mood Indigo: Combine Red-Med with the Suez blues. No wonder jazz buff Barack Obama likes the idea. Red-Med eases his concerns about the vulnerability of the Suez Canal under Muslim Brotherhood management. The nod to Israel gives Jewish Democrats another reason to vote Obama in again this autumn.

Netanyahu described Red-Med as a strategically important new hub between two continents when he outlined the proposal to Israel’s cabinet on Sunday. He said Chinese railway contractors and businessmen assured him the trains could be running within five years. Red-Med would supplement the Suez Canal and overcome the capacity problem the canal now faces.

Wall Street could raise the $5 billion required in a New York minute.

Egypt has been caught napping.

While the Planning and International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga runs around goading the government to lock up foreigners running NGOs that support democracy, Asia’s entrepreneurs are ensuring their trade won’t be held hostage to political pique.

Ms. Naga was warned her Mubarak-era habits would get her into hot water; little did she know how deep. Seen from an American perspective, Egypt’s deceit over the NGOs is a pretty clear indication of what’s in store.

You have to be more than cute if you take on an American president in re-election mode. The Iranians humiliated Jimmy Carter, holding 52 Americans hostage through 1980. What they got was Ronald Reagan, who defined the toughness Americans expect from their presidents.

If Ms. Naga thought Obama could be humiliated, she didn’t reckon on Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Teflon resolve to pursue the strategic objectives of the administration, prioritizing regional security and democracy in the Middle East.

Obama’s firmness is bound up in the policy inherited post 9/11 to channel millions of dollars of assistance through the same agencies used in Serbia: Freedom House, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

There’s never been anything furtive about this. It’s well documented. The April 6th Youth Movement received training and assistance from Freedom House according to countless testimonies. Just as newspapers report Islamist groups receiving funding from abroad.

What’s significant is the vehemence of the pursuit of the American NGOs. It indicates the direction Egypt is taking after Islamists gained power with SCAF sitting pretty in the catbird seat.

Was this anticipated? No, it wasn’t. Until last week before the last votes were counted the Muslim Brotherhood was saying the new era would look pretty much as before. Now they’re sworn into office they’re changing their tune.

I don’t see the point of asking politicians what they’re up to. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus — He who lies once is not to be believed twice. Or as Churchill put it: In war the truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.

Instead, I sat with a businessman I’ve known for many years. He’s a moneyman that people confide in, agnostic so far as politics go. Over recent months his clients have sought his advice, as I have, too.  Some are wealthy. Some are people earning a crust operating retail, import and export, construction and professional services.

Up until this week, he’s been saying everyone is in a wait-and-see mode. Now he says they’re coming in with four-year plans. One says he’ll merge a few companies to strengthen the balance sheet and renegotiate his corporate banking facilities. Another says he’ll open a few more shops to take advantage of so many locations for sale.

Another prominent businessman says he’s sent his wife abroad. He fears the next wave of arrests will include his family, though he says he’s done nothing wrong.

So, I said, sounds like everyone is OK?

Not exactly, my business friend says. The first two discovered the bank has changed policy and now will only lend them a sixth of what they expected and on terms worse than a car loan.

The guy picking up a few more shops discovered permits would cost a king’s ransom under a new open drawer policy.

So what does it all mean, I asked?

The election was a Pyrrhic victory. These four-year plans are based on the projection that after four years everything will be turned upside down. Nothing will look the same.

If the people who voted in the Brotherhood get more money, jobs promised for life for their kids, subsidized food and cheap housing they’ll vote them in again. That’ll be a disaster. My clients will leave the country, he said.

If it doesn’t work for the Brotherhood’s supporters, we’re in for bigger trouble. The Mubarakites will try to get power back. That’ll be a catastrophe.

Ah, you mean like Pyrrhus: If they win one more battle, the country will be utterly ruined?

What about you, my friend asked?

Glad you asked. I was in Mugamma for my visa. They used to give me a year. Then it became six months, then three, then two. This year it’s one month at a time.

January’s visa cost me three pounds and ten piasters. February’s stamp went up to fifty-three pounds and ten piasters and an extra eight pounds for processing.

At least they didn’t confiscate your passport like those American kids, my friend said. You got your visa.

Sure. More victories like that and I’ll soon be broke.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.