Blue light special

Philip Whitfield

April 23 2012

ASSUIT: K-Mart introduced the phrase to a generation of Americans — the moment when a flashing police lamp announces a surprise special offer in a store, entering the lexicon in films such as Troop Beverlyå Hills, Beetlejuice and Dawn of the Dead.

Egypt’s blue light special moment came the day before the sandstorm hit. Thousands and thousands of shoppers engulfed a phenomenon that opened its doors in downtown Assuit. They came from miles around, professors and students from the two universities nearby, moms and dads, some pushing strollers, generations led by grannies. Singles, all out for fun on the town.

The object of their ecstasy? A grocery store that’s become a cult in Egypt  — Kheir Zaman, Metro’s discount store chain that offers 25 percent savings on food basics such as rice, pasta, eggs and milk, all own-brands that are shaking up the nation’s food-purchasing marketplace.

The spacious store is the 33rd Kheir Zaman in Egypt and is breaking all records. Within a few hours the tills had registered more than LE 100,000, beating well-entrenched Metro stores in places such as Mohandessin by a long chalk.

By 10 pm there were 800 pouring over the shelves. At Midnight a new crowd surged in and stayed on shopping until 3 am. Operations manager Ahmed Fouad sent out an SOS to the central bakery for more dough to bake more batches of bread in the two-deck over upstairs.

The company’s president Mohanad Adly hopped on to the next plane to Assuit, which turned out to be the last one to leave the sand clouded runway. He was reading a printout: LE 8,049.97 at 10 pm. Another 204 customers at 11 pm spending LE 22,846. By 3 am 2,100 shopping baskets and about 8,000 people in all, had passed through the checkouts registering LE 92,000 and change.

By the time Adly arrived another LE 36,000 had been rung up. Never seen anything like it before, he said congratulating 90 new members of staff, almost all of them local university graduates, picked by the ineffable Hanan Houseen, the staff services manager, who had waded through 700 applications and interviewed 400 with Aliaa Salama from the HR department.

They’re absolutely the best you could find anywhere in the world, they said.

It wouldn’t be Egypt if SCAF and officialdom hadn’t engaged in skullduggery. Adly had picked the spot for his second store in Upper Egypt three years ago — the first to open was in Luxor.

The owner of these coveted 1,200 square meters, Dr. Ali Sabra, a doctor whose family runs a well-known chain of pharmacies in Cairo, said when the previous governor of Assuit heard about such a prestigious company coming, he asked for a LE 3 million donation to grease his political campaign. Sabra refused.

Incensed by being asked to pay a bribe to sell toiletries and groceries, Adly dashed off letters, one to Hosni Mubarak. He heard nothing, until a few nights later, watching a TV interview, he saw Mubarak being asked if he’d like to say Hello to anyone? Mubarak responded: I’d like to say Hello to the Governor of Assuit.

I knew the store was nixed, he told me. We pulled the equipment out and put the plan on hold.

With Mubarak on trial and a change of governor, word came that the store would be bribe-free. Dr. Sabra was inundated with offers to take it. I said Kheir Zaman should have the first option and they came back, he said. We paid the normal fees for permits, about LE 315,000, and everything was fine. No bribes. No baksheesh whatsoever.

The shenanigans, which were kept secret, doesn’t explain the phenomenal crowds flocking to the store since last Tuesday’s soft opening and the official opening in the sandstorm next day.

Dr. Osama Nadifi, from Assuit, was filling a trolley. We’ve never had such fresh food at such low prices in such a hygienic environment, he said. For example the other butchers in town sell frozen Brazilian beef, which you can get here as well. But on top of that you can get fresh lamb and veal as well as beef…that’s a big draw.

Also it’s the first food and household items supermarket in town.

Mahmoud Saif brought his wife and their new four-month-old baby to shop. They were impressed. Ouama Nafidi, a big wig in the local community, shopping with her pals, was full of praise.

Dr. Sabra said about 4 million people shop in Assuit. They have to be careful with their money. Nobody expected these incredible scenes, he said. Assuit is a quiet place. But not today. We’re celebrating something very special, the opportunity to enjoy quality and prices the rest if the country has.

Not quite the rest of the country. Metro and Kheir Zaman are in 11 of the 27 governorates. Kheir Zaman now has 33 stores in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Port Said, Mansoura, Hurghada, Luxor and Assiut

Together, Metro and Kheir Zaman will have 92 stores before the end of the year, 8,000 employees having built the largest food retail network in Egypt. We’ll be here for the next generation and the ones after that, Adly says, proud of his staff’s accomplishments.

We’re in Egypt for the long haul. I’ve letters from all over the country asking for stores in their towns and cities.

Growth is not without some shady deals by competitors. Apparently with lax security and blind eyes at the customs, dodgy food is turning up even on some of the nation’s prestigious brand-name stores.

Cans of tuna for example. These products don’t carry the white labels in Arabic that prove the products have been authenticated and tested at Egyptian government labs. Some of the stuff being sold by our competitors is rubbish, he says. You have no idea what you’re eating. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot barge pole.

On the other hand, he says, when I was in our new Metro store in Giza I saw a tin of tuna selling for LE 49 alongside the regular tuna that retails around LE 6 to LE 7, so I bought it for my own family. Turned out to be pure white tuna fish. Delicious.

Discriminating Arab diplomats have marked out the Giza Metro, opposite the zoo, for late night shopping. Spotting the shelves being loaded up for the opening, one Arab ambassador took his entourage on a Harrods-style spree, spending LE 5,000 piling up a train of baskets at the checkout.

Seems blue light specials are popular with everyone, no matter how much housekeeping’s in the budget.

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.

The Arab Spring’s summersault

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

May 30  2011

Philip Whitfield

CAIRO: Take stock. Egypt’s democratic dream hangs by a thread. Libya’s death throes and Syria’s killing fields are civil war nightmares. Yemen is a chimera, Bahrain has been bludgeoning and Tunisia is a memory. Scorching rays overwhelm the Arab spring’s refreshing breezes. Which way should we look for the revolution’s resolution?

Are we in an interregnum, a temporary freedom, or an antebellum, a period preceding more bloodshed? The raging undercurrent swirls groping for an identity that responds to a sense of Islamic belonging while respecting other faiths and global concerns. Pluralism necessitates compromises, which riles zealots, branded bigots.

Take a wider view. The G8 Summit in Deauville last week offered Egypt respite if promises to democratize are fulfilled. Others weighed in with billion-dollar boons. The International Monetary Fund said MENA’s non-oil countries need $160 billion injected in the next three years. The region needs to prepare for a fundamental transformation of its economic model.

Egypt could become the breadbasket of the Middle East, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s Jonathan Charles said. The woefully undeveloped agricultural industry employing 30 percent of the population only yields 16 percent of production. Agriculture is ripe for reconstruction.

Take heart. History’s lantern illuminates visionaries’ solutions. Let’s look closer at Europe, remembering that World War II took 60 million lives, ended uncertainly and yet today reaches accord on baffling, discordant matters.

Who would have thought it? European nations tried to shuck off their suzerains in the 19th century. The French turfed out Louis Philippe. Germany, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Spain, Romania, and Belgium underwent revolutions.

But, as the historian A.J.P. Taylor reflected, history reached a turning point and failed to turn. The revolutions mostly failed. In Italy, the monarchy returned. The French ended up with a dictator, Louis-Napoleon after a coup d’état in 1851. German states’ unity failed. Austria returned to rule Hungary. Other revolutions lost their luster and died out.

A hundred years later after World War II culminated in 60 million deaths, Europe was ready to begin an arduous journey to resolve their differences amicably. Their thinking was based on ideas promulgated by Count Richard Nikolaus Graf Coudenhove-Kalergi the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat and a Japanese mother.

He’d mooted Pan-Europa, political, economic and social cooperation, arguing that the constitution of a wide market with a stable currency was the vehicle for Europe to reconstruct its potential. He, like Jean Monet, the father of European unity, never sought public office.

Monet’s vision of European cooperation was based on a new economic order. During a meeting in Algiers in 1943 Money declared: There will be no peace in Europe if the states are reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty. The countries of Europe are too small to guarantee their peoples the necessary prosperity and social development. The European states should constitute themselves into a federation, Monet said.

France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 making it practically impossible for France and Germany to go to war.

Production of coal and steel as a whole was placed under a common authority. No more fighting over the rich Ruhr region. The benefits enjoyed by one part of Europe would be distributed across the whole.

The treaty establishing the European Economic Community followed six years later. Since then eight treaties have expanded the renamed European Union’s governance, the last at Lisbon in 2007, affirming the EU’s three pillars of cooperation over economic, social and foreign policy.

These monumental agreements have grown an economy to $18 trillion by the 500 million people in 27 countries of the EU, bigger than the USA’s 307 million people’s $14 trillion and compares with MENA’s 460 million people’s meager $2 trillion – the latter in spite of holding about a third of the world’s energy resources.

Visionaries aren’t guiding the pacesetters in the rerum mutatio, the hiatus between revolution and new order. Pragmatic tinkerers hold the line. Where is the bold, valiant sage with the farsightedness to unite the Middle East in a modern Khilafah, unified in one polity? The region shares history, culture, and language. The same or similar books, newspapers and magazines are read. Mostly they watch the same TV programs and movies.

Since 1945 the more than 20 members of the Arab League, at least on paper, recognize each is a part of an Arab nation, the Ummah Arabiyyah. Yet they remain divided politically and economically. The Middle East economies are more competitive than complementary.

Dr. Hani Fakhouri, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, says practicing dangerous demagoguery has led the Arab League in particular and the political leaderships of the Arab world nowhere. Over six decades of agreements covering the Arab economic market, defense, employment, education and water and food security have yielded not one result of significance, he says. Free trade among Arab states amounts to only 5 percent of all Arab states’ trades.

Authoritarian, corrupt regimes in the Arab world are the obstacles to meaningful, constructive progress that will enable the region to catch up with the rest of the world, Fakhouri says.

The three great ancient civilizations: the Chinese Qing dynasty, the Indian Mughal empire and the Ottoman empire in the Middle East were overtaken by European hegemony. The resurgence of China and India is apparent. Unfortunately the Middle East languishes in unfulfilled aspiration more than half a century after achieving independence.

None of the countries embroiled in revolution and those contemplating change can expect to emerge into a successful new era without unseating the tyrants. But that’s only half the job. To satisfy the revolutionary calls across the region, a new union is required that demolishes borders to permit the free movement of people, goods and capital and the bureaucracies that thrive on nitpicking national regulations.

That will radically reduce the cost of goods and services, eliminate the hundreds of thousands of officials pickpocketing the public’s purse and entice global investment into the region rather than scatterings of consumers.

The 1.4 million-strong militias in the region’s 22 countries need streamlining into a force whose mission exceeds protecting themselves from themselves.

Above all, leaders should spend their time developing the potential of its young people rather than finagling ways to choke the craving for manumission, freedom from servitude.

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

Too many cooks spoil the brouhaha

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

May 26 2011

Philip Whitfield


Elvis crooned: Wise men say only fools rush in …some things are meant to be. Are we to believe that villainy preordained Egypt’s crepuscule, a dark place? Or may we take heart that after the miscreants are culled the virtuous will open the windows to enlightenment?

Optimists like me prefer the latter. But we have to adopt new thinking. Which is why Egyptians shouldn’t shy away from putting their thinking caps on. The problem is that thinking aloud is fuelling dissent.

The Irish writer Brendan Behan said the first item on the agenda of any political party is the split. Apart from the fisticuffs after the First Conference of Egypt announced 124 names to ‘defend and continue the revolution’ there’s been a raging Twitter argument all week regarding Friday’s May 27th Tahrir demonstration.

One tweet: Mubarak and Adly must be executed for high treason after the civil suits are done with and we can get our hands on what was stolen from Egypt. Lest we forget, Mubarak and Adly killed more people in 18 days than Israel killed Palestinians in 40 days of ceaseless bombing.

Others are weighing up the pros and cons of another mass demonstration. Some say the army might crack down ruthlessly. Another quotes Malcolm X: If you’re not ready to die for it put the word freedom out of your vocabulary.

One important point being debated: elections are still a vague issue and not set. First prepare the land then cultivate (the philosopher’s tree of life).

Let’s step back. Civilization’s originators on the banks of the Nile bequeathed humankind with a methodology to grow thinking into scientific discovery. Look skywards. The moon appears to be the same size as the sun. But science took that unproven thought and established a rational argument that we believe even to this day that the sun (1.4 million km) is 400 times bigger than the moon (3,475 km). We can’t prove it for sure. But we can believe it based on the science to hand.

This interregnum between revolution and rebirth, between January 25 and the elections in September, is the opportunity to agree the truth.

People are questioning everything they believed previously. The stick in the water that appeared crooked yesterday was straight all the while, distorted when examined under water. Our collective vision was impaired by lies and deception. Barbarous solecism has made skeptics of all.

Today, we have the encouraging spectacle of people all over the country articulating their thoughts. In Maadi we hear a group bantering the pros and cons of this and that future for Egypt. We hear similar impromptu exchanges in Giza, Dokki and Mohandessin. No doubt you hear many more.

People are relishing their freedom to express themselves, without fear of being shut up in cells for daring to question the nobs. Rightfully, they discuss pragmatic ways to undo wrongs. They suggest new laws to be debated in assemblies. They want better wages, better housing, more food and more education for the kids.

The nation will be asked to find people to set the new course, the policymakers. Hopefully they will appoint bureaucrats to execute the mission with integrity. The Interior Ministry is already sacking its scallywags. Other ministries should clean out their smelly stables. New Egypt needs new cohabiters not autocratic, corrupt minister/minders. There can’t honestly be the same people making the regulations and regulating their own departments.

The new edifices should be built after society has established what is known for sure. Existentialists proclaim existence precedes essence: we are thrown into existence without a predetermined nature and only then do we construct our state through our actions. We are free to act independently. We create our own human nature through free choices. Think carefully what’s important to prevent the rogues returning.

We’re experiencing the limitations of public protest. January 25 was successful because the aim of removing the Mubarak regime was shared across the country. Everyone in Tahrir Square could show a shoe. The aims thereafter diverged, expressing views from right to left, from young to old, from poor to wealthy, from those of different religions and those with none. Their complaints and demands are critical to determining Egypt’s future.

The core of the new era must be agreement that tolerance is the essence of the revolution’s philosophy on which all other aspects of society can flourish.

The April 6 Youth Group and the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution who’ve called for mass demonstrations on Friday as a ‘second revolution’ withdrew from the three-day National Dialogue Conference the effort to draft a new constitution and to prepare for elections. They objected to the presence of some leaders from the deposed NDP as well as prominent figures from the previous regime. Some reports said former NDP actors were ejected.

This intolerance bodes ill. Cool it. There are too many cooks spoiling the broth. On Friday the gathering in Tahrir should not descend into name-calling. Tahrir Square is not a parliament. It’s a place to come together in solidarity to show the powers that be that vox populi is a force to be reckoned with. The April 6 Youth Group and the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution should re-request the people’s support. They can’t assume to have it. They should vote for a representative council. Then they can assert their influence on those who have taken it upon themselves to defend the revolution, not flounce away from the fray as they did from the First Conference of Egypt.

Choosing a representative council in Tahrir Square and giving them a mandate to consolidate their views is the political way forward. Neither should those who are so vociferous on the Internet shun the opportunity to join the council. Put up or shut up.

The multifarious views can be consolidated into demands by which candidates for office can be benchmarked. That way the Tahrir protesters will not be ignored. Friday’s demonstration should go ahead, proceeding with a definitive action plan that advances the process of democracy, not dissent.

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

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

May 23, 2011

By   Philip Whitfield

Anyone with a mobile phone knows the truth. We are in the throws of the knowledge revolution, as meaningful as the agricultural or the industrial revolutions, which shaped social revolutions across the globe.

At his farewell lunch last Thursday the British Ambassador Dominic Asquith coined an apposite phrase. Diplomats bewail hanging around for months with nothing moving, he said. Then in a week, the situation leaps forward decades. Dominic should know. He came to Cairo from Baghdad.

The issue for Egypt is to figure out which revolution comes first. The Tahrir revolution was a political revolt made possible by the IT revolution. Information and knowledge (information in context) was spread effectively on Twitter and Facebook to the chagrin of the rulers who pulled the plug on the Internet for a few days.

Control of information is a primary goal of governments. Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe are among the worst repressors of freedom of speech.

Britain reserves the right to impose information blackouts when the government believes national security is at stake.

The United States was founded on five inalienable rights. One, freedom of speech, is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Words that are deemed obscene, defamatory, would incite riot, or are fighting words are exceptions.

Yet as we’ve witnessed this year, the spread of information and knowledge, ignores jurisprudence. Wikipedia published secret cables between diplomats. The British courts are to consider prosecuting Twitter for carrying information about footballers’ extra-marital affairs. So all you need is a few seconds on a mobile to read diplomats’ thoughts and soccer players’ indiscretions.

The situation in Egypt is clear-cut. The press cannot criticize the military under the current law. Neither can it spread unfounded rumors. On the other hand, such is spread on Twitter. So what’s the point of continuing with a prohibition that is ineffective? A sensible approach would be to include a redefined definition of freedom of speech in the new era constitution.

The industrial revolution crept into Barak Obama’s Middle East speech last week. If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland ($232.6 billion in 2010), the president said.

Obama said the US will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.

Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, he said, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

Lunching with a group of business leaders last week, we agreed that Egypt’s new era offers extraordinary opportunity for investors and companies in Egypt. The key is to encourage and mobilize the millions of young people who find it so difficult to get good jobs.

We should take heart from Brazil, Russia, India and China. For decades the BRICs disappointed. Under pressure from their populations they eased restrictions and mobilized their workforces. To them it has been a revolution of their societies.

What’s needed in Egypt is a tangible demonstration that Egypt has vanquished corruption, supports entrepreneurs and is committed to a market economy, not stultified government ownership. Words aren’t sufficient to quell the skeptics.

The election of a new president and parliament offers the opportunity to show the world that Egypt is embracing these changes. Reelecting wolves in sheep’s clothing spells disaster.

The agricultural revolution is long awaited. You can buy produce shipped to Scotland that is in far better condition than the fruit and vegetables on the shelves in Cairo.

This is because in Egypt the produce is mostly transported domestically in un-refrigerated conditions. I’m told if the finance were available for commercial loans the costs of introducing cooler vans could be amortized over 10 years and would make the sale of pristine produce viable.

Egypt’s sluggish approach and preservation of protectionism is doomed. As Twitter proves, the Information Age is a world without communication borders, sharing information, which begets knowledge, which begets wisdom.

The wise will ungag Egypt to allow ideas to flourish.

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

Tying a Windsor

The International Herald Tribune Daily News

April 28 2011

By Philip Whitfield

Two billion will be glued to the goggle box on Friday watching Prince William Arthur Philip Louis of Wales and his fiancée Catherine Elizabeth Middleton ‘getting spliced’ as we Brits say.

Or, as William’s dad harrumphed on the dear couple’s engagement day: “They’ve been practicing for long enough.” He should know as a womanizer before, during and after his marriage to William’s mum, Princess Diana.

As with many a center-stage drama, the real plot is unraveling in the wings. Truth be told, according to the British Tourism Board, visitors to the UK declined by 15 percent in July 1981 when Charles and Diana were married and by 8 percent in July 1986 when his brother Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson.

Asked on the radio the other day how many VIPs would be trooping through Heathrow Airport for the wedding, Anita the Greeter told listeners it was a very manageable 20 parties. Whereas, there’d be 40 to 60 regulars getting the VIP treatment.

Why are the Royals struggling to hold their grip – beyond the couple of hours of nuptial rubber necking and the peculiarity of the tabloids’ attention?

Egyptians will recognize the answer: The Brits are fed up with the antics of society’s apparently untouchables. In recent times there’s been the disclosure of Prince Andrew’s sordid business dealings with unsavory oligarchs. His brother Prince Charles (or to give him his formal title Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, KG, KT, GCB, OM, AK, OSO, CD, SOM, GCL, PC, AdC (P) FRS (Charles Philip Arthur) has to labor under the loathing of a public that remembers Diana adoringly.

And with the singular exception of the Queen who reached 85 last week, the rest of ‘The Firm’ as the Royal Family calls itself, evokes considerable distain prancing around at gymkhanas or wobbling out of West End nightclubs at an ungodly hour when most of their subjects are safely abed.

At times such as now, it’s as if the Windsors are a unique breed, prodded by a band of livestock merchants eyeing up the potential of a new generation of frisky youngsters to morph into media freaks.

Even their handle disguises the Windsors’ provenance. Realizing the family moniker Saxe-Coburg and Gotha wouldn’t cut the mustard with British troops limping home from the trenches, King George V name-changed to Windsor eighteen months before Germany admitted defeat in World War I.

The last time an English monarch lost his head on January 30th 1649 it was chilly enough for 49-year-old Charles I to wear two vests for the short shuffle to the scaffold outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. He asked a hanger-on, a bishop, to lend him a cap to keep his head warm for a minute or two before it was severed with an axe.

Charles’ unexpected last thoughts? ‘Does my hair trouble you?’ The executioner paid £100 for the two-second wallop replied in Olde English: ‘Tuck it in, your majesty.’

Charles’ crimes were to claim the divinity of kings, unbeholden to common folks, and tried as ambiguously as those such as the Mubarak gang on a charge sheet listing ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer.’

The Brits did without a monarch for 11 years, before reverting to kings and queens after deciding a monarch’s foibles were preferable to Mr. Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship.

But, whereas Egyptians summoned up the courage to topple a perduring Pharaoh and his edacious offspring, the British are cowards when it comes to cutting the Windsors down to size.

Mostly, the Brits fear a republican-style presidency, conjuring up scary visions of ‘President’ Tony/Gordon/ Dave et al while the occupants of 10 Downing Street and the Foreign Office are reduced to parliamentary hogwash. Would a British President flip-flop partners à la mode de Sarkozy to boost his election chances?

There are more subtleties. To royal nitpickers, the current heir fell on his sword being divorced, compounding the misdemeanor by bedding and wedding a divorcée. The Supreme Governor of the Church of England, as he would expect to become if and when crowned, is supposed to be above such imperfections.

It’s suggested by some that Prince Charles should take a pass, as the hoi polloi seems to desire, and wave William and Kate through the gate into Buckingham Palace. Others suggest that would be a pity: let King Charles #3 and Camilla take the flak leaving William and Kate free to come in after the regicides have settled for clipping the royals’ wings along the lines of Scandinavian heads of state, who oftentimes take the bus or bike it into the office.

That way the Brits end up with the best of both worlds: keeping their King and Queen while pretending they’re ‘just like us’ – stopping off at their local grocery store to pick up a frozen pizza on the way home (as they do now) and joining the line at the department store when they need new pants (as Kate did the other day).

The cable from Cairo? Your loyal servants observed the Royal Wedding with bangers and mash at a street party in Maadi. Next week, they’ll obediently resume aiding natives unseat locally unelected heads of state. God Save The Queen.

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