Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dear readers,

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't posted any new material in the last few weeks. I've accepted a new job coordinating election observation efforts in Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections for the International Republican Institute. According to their social media policy, I should not be publishing my own commentary on events surrounding the NGO's work. However, I am trying to find new ways to write in the meantime. I hope you all will stay posted and bear with me!

Also, this piece- Egypt's New Downstream Diplomacy- was published on the Cairo Review's blog last week.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The great "Egyptian Dream"

Presenting, ladies and gentlemen, a new guest blogger: Ian Wylie is one of the staff of Project Tahrir, and he's written the following reflection on ideas of prosperity and meritocracy in the new Egypt:

Last week in Minya, a meeting on youth unemployment ended with a majority of its attendees declaring it a failure. Hosted by a local NGO, it united factory owners, government officials and young people in mutually criticizing each other’s ideas on the obstacles to employment in their city. However, the meeting illustrated how young activists are introducing new socio-economic ideas to solve the problem of unemployment in the local economy. The result is a clash of these ideas with the status quo, represented by factory owners and the local government.

As a case study, Minya is representative of a number of Egyptian cities with an industrial base. Minya has seen strong economic growth in the past decade because of its strategic location on the Nile. But like a number of cities, Minya has a high unemployment rate for college - educated young people between the ages of 18 - 25.

In this respect, Minya is not particularly unique: college-educated youth are having difficulty finding white-collar jobs, typically taking blue-collar jobs for which they are overqualified. These jobs require some schooling but no more beyond high school. Young Minyans are in turn reluctant to accept these positions, preferring to hold out for a place in the government. This has created a shortage of labour for Minyan factory owners, who are struggling to find personnel to fill their entry-level, manual labour jobs.

For the factory owners, it is a poisonous sense of entitlement that keeps young people from taking factory jobs and being employed. They make demands for higher salaries and are resistant to manual labour. They want a desk job with a good salary at the outset. These demands are seen as unreasonable. Instead, young people must drop their haughty expectations and accept a low salary for the prospect of a higher return at a later date. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Tahrir sit-in continues

Though it's faded from headlines, the sit-in in Tahrir square is ongoing.  Protesters have extracted some impressive concessions from the SCAF (and I will now stop postulating that Tahrir has lost its effectiveness as an arena for change).  For an excellent overview of what's happened since July 8th, read the Arabist's cheat sheet.  Here's a summary, though I really recommend reading the full post.  

"Consequences and outcomes of the protests and sit-ins that began last Friday.
  • The military [has confirmed] that parliamentary elections will be around November, resolving the confusion over the fact that there is little time to prepare for their original stated schedule of September. 
  • The draft electoral law has been finalized by the government and presented to the SCAF, which has yet to decree it into law. It provides for a half list-based, half single district-based, electoral system. 
  • PM Essam Sharaf is said to be negotiating the terms of a cabinet shuffle with the SCAF. 
  • Nearly 600 police generals have been retired, and a total of 4,000 ministry of interior officials moved about. 
  • The SCAF and government have promised to appoint dedicated judges for the prosecution of former regime officials and make their court sessions available on live television.
The future of the protests now hangs on several things. One is whether they are satisfied with concessions so far — this does not seem to be the case... The other question is the one of whether popular support for the strikes continues."

Minya's "invisible force"

Conspiracy theories tend to strike a chord in the Arab world. After this week in Minya, where circumstances surrounding our field interviews turned very fishy, I'm starting to understand why.

First, we noticed a conspicuous security vehicle at a number of our destinations. It dawned on us: were we being followed? Our NGO partners in Minya confirmed; regrettably, the hotel alerted somebody/something to our arrival. The police became ever-present as the week went on. By the third night of our trip, they attempted to drive alongside of us as we strolled on the Nile Corniche and trailed us when we walked two blocks from the hotel to get a sandwich.

Our conspicuous police contingent
Our interviews with Egyptians grew shorter and more rushed by the day.  NGO staff started entering the interview room at their own discretion, interrupting the conversation.  Often they would urge us to finish and leave the premises, though for fairly trivial reasons.... like lunch.  When we insisted on continuing (because, for example, lunch is not a limited time offer), we were told that the director of the NGO bids it so.  Upon further protest, we were told that the police bid it so.

One of our interviews was openly sabotaged on my last day in Minya.  Two volunteers from a meeting between businessmen and youth agreed to participate, but it was they who were asking the questions. The young men wanted to know the purpose of our project; we explained.  They wanted to know why we care what's going on in Egypt; we answered, diplomatically.  They pushed, asking with unmasked suspicion exactly why our countries want to know what people in Minya think.  At that moment, a man slid open the door and hobbled in to the room, uninvited and unannounced.  He stood, filming my colleague and I with his hot pink camera phone.  The scene was bizarre but nonthreatening, until he too started questioning us with hostility and contempt.  "Anything you want to know about the revolution you can find in Tahrir," he spat, and told the two men that they were not authorized to participate in such interviews.  Our translator suspected these men belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood (a particularly insular and hierarchical organization).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

More reflections from Minya, Upper Egypt

A second day of field interviews in Minya, Upper Egypt led to the following observations:

1. Former affiliations with the NDP still inform Egyptians' ideas about politics:
Our interview with Aza'a, a young Muslim woman in the village of Abou Korkas who was not just a member, but a local representative of the NDP, proved revealing. She served on a local council under the ruling party and also ran as an NDP candidate for a higher level of governance (whether this was at the district or governorate level was not clear) in 2010.

Aza'a, a politically active woman from Minya
Aza'a did admit that there were some negative aspects of the old regime, though she was reluctant to delve into details. Life after the revolution is better, she said, because there are "less restrictions" on the people. But when asked if Aza'a would support another political party now that the NDP has been dissolved, she stated that she does not trust any other political parties. Why did she trust the NDP, we asked? "Because it was the governing party," she frankly stated. The NDP was the only party able to solve problems in society, and it was therefore the key to change. Clearly, no opposition parties- whether young or old- have won the same sort of legitimacy in her mind.

[As a side note, I've found that for many Egyptians, association with the NDP had much more to do with a desire to participate in civic life than loyalties to the party itself and its policies. Aza'a chose to get involved in politics, which is an unusual choice for jaded Egyptian youth who found the political realm under Mubarak to be frustrating and fruitless, because she saw the impact government policies have upon the people. With no opposition parties that could be taken seriously, the NDP was simply the sole option. She also expressed a notion that people "have to make a decision," implying that to shirk politics in favor of social activism is short-sighted.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The smartest way to preserve the revolution

FYI: I'm traveling throughout the Minya governorate in Upper Egypt this week with Project Tahrir people to assist in field interviews.  Fascinating stuff, and I'll blog as much of it as possible.

While conducting field interviews in Egypt's Minya governorate today, I asked a room full of young men if they have come into contact with any political parties since the revolution. Do they support a particular political party? Have political parties come to their village to campaign? They shook their heads unanimously and were silent for a moment. "But the Freedom and Justice party is the only one with a real vision," one man piped in, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood's newly established political party. They are the only organized, professional group, he said. The other men concurred- their vote would go by default to the Brotherhood in September elections.

One of Minya's young community leaders
Two hours later and a few miles away, I asked the same questions to another group of young men. They rattled off at least seven political parties they have seen campaigning in Minya and expressed firm liberal affiliations, with the Masr el Horreya party in particular. Clearly, these two groups of Egyptians relate to politics in remarkably different ways. While the former relates to politics via a conservative Islamist movement that has earned more legitimacy in their community than parties could hope to, the latter is savvy to the fluid world of liberal Egyptian politics where parties die as quickly as they are born. But a powerful unifier was, and is at work: the importance of civic education. All are activists in Egypt's bid to get elections right in the fall.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Support Project Tahrir

I want to take a moment to promote the project of a few Canadian colleagues I've met in Cairo. Project Tahrir has been traveling throughout Egypt to document how the revolution has affected individuals' lives. In their own words,

"Using intimate media (video portraits, human photography, and immersive soundscapes) and personal interviews (captured in video, audio, and text), we enable ordinary Egyptians to share their own stories with the world. We are offering the rest of the world an opportunity to really get to know the people who are living through and driving this unprecedented political movement."

They are looking for funding to continue their research, which I find not only worthwhile, but an important effort to add a new dimension to the world's understanding of the Egyptian revolution. Check out their webpage if you are interested in knowing more!