Election day announced in Egypt

I’ve decided to keep writing this blog from the United States to highlight important news stories in Egypt.  I don’t intend to limit myself to any particular issue, rather I hope that some salient themes will surface as I follow developing stories over weeks and months.  It must be an exciting time for Egypt, especially for those who are desperate for something new and hopeful that the presidential elections next year will bring some change.

The elections (not the presidential ones, but the parliamentary ones next month) seem to dominate domestic politics these days.  Mubarak recently announced the date of the elections as November 28.  Run-offs on December 5 and the new parliamentary session to begin December 13.  As Al Masry Al Youm notes, though, previous constitutional amendments that Mubarak pushed through make the legitimacy of the elections highly questionable: judicial supervision has been greatly marginalized and the voter ID system is susceptible to corruption.  The calls of Mohammed El Baradei’s National Association for Change for changes to electoral rules and procedures, which El Baradei set as conditions for his running for president, have been largely ignored.  As I noted in an earlier post, the Muslim Brotherhood has decided not to boycott, eying the benefits of long term engagement with the regime. The largest liberal opposition Wafd Party, though, recently threatened to boycott the elections after state television refused to airs its political ads, reports AFP.  This came as a surprise, because Wafd was the first party to state its intention to participate in elections after El Baradei threatened boycott earlier in the year.

If the opposition is nervous about how to approach the elections, the government is at least equally so.  In previous posts, I’ve described accounts of new police crackdowns and media restrictions, including the firing of Ibrahim Eissa from his editorship at al Dostoor, restrictions on mass SMS messaging, and relicensing of news outlets that broadcast internationally. Both of these trends are continuing. Earlier this week, police arrested (and here) approximately 57 members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the MB stronghold of Alexandria who were campaigning for a female MB candidate. A new law prohibits the use of religious slogans in campaign materials and the campaigners were allegedly putting up posters in violation of this law.  In softer moves to stem the opposition, the government has shut down 12 satellite television stations and warned 20 others in a move seen by critics as intended to suppressing religious programming that could bolster the Muslim Brotherhood candidates at the polls.  Miret El Naggar provides a good overview of the recent wave of government restrictions infringing Egypt’s independent media from covering the run-up to the elections and opposition parties from campaigning effectively.

More media restrictions in Egypt

News broke last week in Egypt that the government telecom regulator has cancelled the existing licenses held by nine broadcast services which provide satellite feeds out of Egypt and will require them to apply for new licenses. It is expected that the new licenses will place massive restrictions on journalists’ ability to broadcast from the street and transmit news abroad, an action seen by opponents of the government as a move to limit coverage of the parliamentary elections in November. Independent media coverage of violence and voting irregularities in the 2005 elections were crucial to the opposition movement, and restrictions on the media this time around could have serious implications for the outcome.

Speaking of elections, Time carried a smart analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision not to boycott the November vote.  Abigail Hauslohner points out that, in comparison to El Baradei’s nascent reform movement, the Muslim Brotherhood takes a longer view of politics in Egypt.  The group has been around for decades and doesn’t plan on leaving the national stage. They have chosen participation in a clearly corrupt system in the hope that they can continue to exert some influence, rather than boycotting and losing their significant minority foothold in parliament. Quoting Kent State University political science professor Joshua Stacher, Hauslohner writes,

Stacher questions the political logic of staying away from the polls: “The strategy of a boycott is all predicated on the idea that somebody on the outside will watch and see a boycotted authoritarian election and do something about it,” he says. But the manipulation of the vote and the violence against opposition candidates have been widely exposed in previous elections to little effect. It’s not as if there’s widespread belief that Egypt allows genuine competitive elections. So the Brotherhood views its participation as part of a strategy to build up opposition forces and capacity.

With American and other foreign support for the emergence of true democracy in Egypt lacking, a boycott would probably achieve very little.  In this decision, the Brotherhood has displayed its political cunning–a trait few Westerners would probably attribute to what the US government labels a radical Islamist organization.  In a truly free and fair election, it is widely believed that the Brotherhood would win a huge majority because of its massive grassroots support network as well as the small and divided nature of all other opposition movements.  Government crackdowns on the Brotherhood will likely only continue to grow more frequent and abusive in the run-up to the elections.  It remains to be seen what will result from the diverse opposition’s uncoordinated efforts and the Egyptian government’s campaign of arbitrary arrests and restrictions.

In the News in Egypt

This week has seen some compelling stories coming out of Egypt and having to do with media censorship, religious arrests, the upcoming parliamentary elections, and a $50 million painting.

The AP reported yesterday that an Egyptian court convicted 11 officials from the Ministry of Culture in connection with the theft of a Van Gogh painting from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza in late August. The officials, which included the deputy minister Mohsen Shalaan, received three year prison sentences for negligence and incompetence. As the story goes, the thieves pushed a couch to the wall where the painting was hanging and stood on it as they cut the canvas from the frame. Surveillance cameras and security guards were ineffective in preventing the crime. In the course of the trial, some officials testified that  security systems at the museum were underfunded by the Ministry of Culture, a charge the minister Farouk Hosni denied. The painting, “Poppy Flower” remains missing, but the damage to Egypt in this situation is all too clear. This mishap is not only embarrassing because a valuable piece of artwork was lost. It points to graver questions of accountability and transparency at high levels in the Egyptian government.

There were at least two episodes of multiple arrests on the basis of religion this week in Egypt. There have been religious tensions and even violence in the country in the past year between the majority Muslims and the minority Christians, but the most recent arrests involved conflicts within the Muslim community. Today, the Canadian Press reported that Egyptian authorities arrested 12 Shiite Muslims, including an Australian and two Iraqis,  “for allegedly challenging Sunni tenets of Islam and insulting the religion.”  That charge emerged from a Saudi religious talk show episode in which an Egyptian Shiite challenged the Sunni host on the issue of the succession of the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of Islam. Not a particularly notable disagreement, as this questions marks the fundamental difference between Shia and Sunni Islam.  It is, of course, lamentable that the free expression of thought has been restricted in this case. More troubling, though, is that these arrests came on the same day that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Hizbollah territory in southern Lebanon and raised anxieties in that small country and throughout the region about Shiite minorities in Sunni majority countries.

In another, seemingly unrelated incident, the Muslim Brotherhood yesterday claimed that the government arrested 21 of its members in raids in Alexandria and Daqhiliya province. Egypt’s main opposition movement alleged the arrests were meant to intimidate the group in the run up to parliamentary elections next month. In 2005, the Brotherhood (which is technically outlawed but whose members can run for election as individuals) scored an electoral upset by grabbing a third of the seats in parliament. The group announced earlier this month that it would not boycott the 2010 elections, despite pressure to do so by other opposition groups including former IAEA chief Mohammad El Baradei’s National Front for Change.

Two censorship issues also emerged in recent days. AP reported that Egypt’s telecom regulator will begin to require companies to obtain licenses to send out aggregate text messages. This presents problems mainly for news organizations and political groups, both of which rely heavily on the internet and mobile phones to transmit information and mobilize supporters. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood (and possibly other opposition groups like Mohammad El Baradei’s) may be denied a license due to their illegitimate legal status. In the run-up to parliamentary elections next month, it will be interesting to see how this issue plays out. A take-to-the-streets protest movement like that which emerged across Tehran after the fudged presidential election last summer would be impossible to coordinate under severe communications restrictions.

This news about censorship comes on the heels of a huge media censorship story that came out last week–the firing of independent newspaper El Dostour’s editor-in-chief for his political views in support of Mohammad El Baradei.

Elections in Afghanistan

Topping the headlines today is news coming out of Afghanistan about violence and corruption amidst elections for the country’s parliament.  These are the second parliamentary elections since the US invasion in 2001, and they come a little more than a year after the disputed presidential reelection of Hamid Karzai.  Both of those previous elections were marked by voter intimidation threats, terrorist attacks and widespread corruption; this time seems similar, if slightly less violent and corrupt.

The New York Times has reported the death of at least 10 civilians and extremely low turnout (election observers were reported to outnumber voters at some locations), especially in the cities of Merja and Kandahar where “Explosions were heard every half hour through the morning.”  The Taliban called for a boycott of the “Americanized elections” and threatened to attack anyone involved with them.

The Christian Science Monitor presents a shrewd analysis of how some corruption issues have been improved in the past year, though challenges remain, such as the bribing and bullying of election workers, the weakness of the election commission assigned to handle complaints and the unreliability of the voter registration poll.

On the eve of the Afghan elections, foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer published a piece drawing parallels between Karzai and America’s man in South Vietnam during the late 50s/early 60s, President Ngo Dinh Diem.  Kinzer quotes H.D.S. Greenway’s comparison of the two American puppets:

“Both were originally viewed by Washington as the indispensable men to carry forward American policy. But both came to be considered remote, out of touch with their people, corrupt, and difficult to control. Both seemed to be unreliable partners for the United States, and, as victory became ever more elusive, they were criticized for their conduct of the war. Both seemed to favor overtures to the enemy that the United States was not yet ready to make. Both had brothers whom Washington deeply distrusted.”

The US administration accepted ahead of time that the elections would be flawed, so it doesn’t seem they’ll be rethinking their strategy any time soon.


My thirteen month adventure in the Middle East came to a close last week as I returned to the States for the foreseeable future. Part of what I hoped to learn by going abroad for my first year after college was to figure out if I could/want to devote significant amounts of my time, energy and thoughts to this challenging part of the world. And the answer is a resounding yes! It’s not the most comfortable, convenient, tolerant or progressive part of the world, but the Arab world is never a boring place for a thoughtful Westerner like me. I already feel torn between my native home and my adopted (and also ancestral) homeland.

I’ll need some more intensive Arabic study to achieve fluency, but after that I’m very interested in working in the region again, hopefully in an Arabic-speaking environment. I don’t know where exactly I’ll end up. I have the strongest relationships in Egypt and Cairo, like New York, is pretty hard to beat. But I also feel like I should spend some more extended time in my grandparents’ homelands of Syria and Lebanon. Beirut might give Cairo a run for its money, and there are probably more interesting jobs there.

The first week at home has been disorienting. People wear shorts here, and women aren’t completely shrouded in black. Sometimes when I interact with people here, even strangers, I feel the urge to inquire about their health, their matters, their children–as is customary in Oman. I miss that warmth. But returning to New York City was exhilarating–the diversity of people is not typically found in the Middle East. Yet the depth of Cairo is missing; most things here are new and rational, or at least capable of being explained. I yearn for Cairo’s ambiguity, mystery and randomness. But not its heat, dirt or the poor quality of its food. Some fuul and falafel from Gad would be good, though.

Fast Times at Jaamiyat Nizwa

Tomorrow is my last day of class at the University (i.e., Jaamiyat) of Nizwa here in Oman. It’s been an insightful and challenging six weeks of classes–I can’t say I’m very sad to see them end.

After working at AUC for nine months, I was pleased to have the chance to learn first hand about another university in the Middle East. The University of Nizwa is very different from AUC. It was founded only six years ago (compared to AUC’s 90), is government run (AUC is private), and has almost no foreign students (AUC has about 10%, mostly study abroad students from the US). Like AUC, the University of Nizwa’s courses are almost exclusively in English–an interesting phenomenon across the region and the world that is leading to the marginalization of many languages, Arabic included, from the realm of serious academic writing. As at AUC, there is a foundation year for English instruction and general training before the four years of the bachelor’s degree begins–and as at AUC, it seems that this one year is not nearly enough to get Arab students up to international standards of English proficiency. I’ve met the expat community in Nizwa, many of whom are English instructors at the university, and they all agree with this assessment.

I don’twant to belabor the comparison too much, because AUC and the University of Nizwa are organizations with fundamentally different missions. Nizwa is closer to the norm in the Middle East–a government-funded university that seeks to prepare citizens for the workforce. AUC is an anomaly–a US-styled liberal arts institution that serves mainly the Egyptian elite and operates mostly outside the bounds of the restrictive Egyptian regime. Yet there is one more comparison I can’t help but point out, and it centers on two notable (and possibly interrelated) differences: Western influence and gender relations. AUC students are overly concerned with style and image–they wear tight-fitting clothes (men and women), carry expensive designer handbags, listen to iPods while they text on their Blackberries, and inevitably end up in positions of power in Egyptian government and business. Guys and girls spend time together, and while I never saw anything more affectionate than a hug, there were definitely romantic relationships among the students. University of Nizwa students, reflecting the more conservative and isolated environment of Oman relative to Egypt, wear traditional dress (white dishdashas for men, black abyas for women–more on this in a later post) and almost exclusively interact with students of the same gender. When walking across campus, students go out of their way to avoid the appearance of interacting with students of the opposite gender. Students here also know a lot less about the West than young people I have met in other parts of the region–Western media and entertainment is present, but it hasn’t infiltrated the culture and it’s clear that many Omanis have never met an American before.

Being a student at this university for six weeks has been interesting. There are 15 students in my program, all American. Most of the women cover their hair and wear abayas–a sign of respect for the local culture and an attempt to blend in. Most of the men wear Western dress, since the double standard means that it is impolite for women to wear western clothes but just sort of funny if men try to wear Omani clothes. Some of the guys purchased dishdashas, qimas and misars (the last two being the white hats and the turbans that are worn in this country) and wear them occasionally to the befuddlement of many Omanis. No matter what, a pack of American students moving across this conservative campus is hard to miss. From the first week, we were a spectacle and students were not at all shy about approaching us or just staring. I’ve found this behavior throughout Oman, which has made it very easy to make friends with locals and learn about this country. There’s a certain creepiness lacking in people’s friendliness here that always bothered me in Egypt and Jordan–it’s a nice change.

My classroom experience has been, let’s just say, challenging. The program failed to separate the students by language ability so there is a huge range of abilities in my class of five guys. Tim, a rising senior at Georgetown, has spent a total of ten months in Morocco which gave him an expansive vocabulary and a very strange accent. He has a tendency to read out loud in Arabic, which ends up sounding like Gregorian chanting–in Arabic. Colin, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin and an analyst in the US National Guard, spent 16 months at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California and has remarkable reading and listening skills. He’s a smart, logical guy with more of a US-centric point of view than me so we’ve had some good talks about culture and language and US policy in the region. Peter and Jonathan, rising seniors at UVA and Stanford, were in Jordan last summer at the same time as me.

Our teacher is Mohammed, a member of the sultan’s diwan (which is sort of like the royal court but different in ways I still don’t quite understand), is a teacher of Arabic to native Arab speakers. We are the first non-native speakers he has ever taught. The program thought that teachers who learned English would be able to sue their experience of leaning a foreign language to teach foreigners their own language. Bad idea. Arabic is a pretty complicated language and it is taught very differently to native speakers and foreigners. Long story short, we were never really able to learn from Mohammed in a way that was useful for the learning style we had become so familiar with in US universities and other programs in the Middle East. He always defines words we don’t know by giving us synonyms that we don’t know, and then explains himself in a roundabout way that then introduces another dozen words we don’t know. He also encourages us to take sides of non-controversial topics like whether traditional or modern markets are preferable. Most annoyingly, he feeds us phrases and whole sentences, requiring that we repeat the words that he dictates to us. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised–this type of rote memorization is widespread in educational institutions in the Middle East (my Egyptian friend Ahmed told me similar stories from his master’s level courses in Cairo University). But it raised the issue in my mind about how much of poor teaching in the region is due to culture and how much is due to poor pedagogical technique. How are pedagogy and culture related? And how can you improve pedagogy without infringing on culture? Or are there some cultural elements that are superior to others because they result in better educational outcomes? What exactly do we mean by better?

Perhaps I’ve learned something from this method, but in the moment it just made me very frustrated. The lack of organization among the instructors was also a source of frustration and ultimately apathy. Class times were fluid and teachers often moved between the three groups of students. Most troubling was that there was no thematic continuity, no effort to improve our fluency in media Arabic, which was the stated goal of the program. It became clear that everyone had different goals in the program–the students wanted to learn, but the program facilitators wanted mostly to share Omani culture with us and didn’t seem to care that this was supposed to be an intensive program for advanced students. Different expectations and poor communication, alas.

A typical class day looks something like this. I wake up at 6:45am in my hotel room. We’re staying in a hotel in Nizwa (though an apartment or homestay would have been much more fun), and I lucked out with a single! Grab an unappetizing breakfast from the restaurant downstairs before hopping on a university bus with the other program students for the 20 minute ride to campus. Most mornings I listen to an Arabic podcast that I’ve downloaded from iTunes. Classes start at 8:15 with an hour and a half session in which we usually read articles from the newspaper and talk about them. After a half hour break, we have another hour session on a reading that we prepared the night before–on topics ranging from the Bermuda triangle to the genocide in Darfur to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After another break, we finish the class day with an hour about Omani culture. Topics in this lecture have ranged from palm trees to weather patterns, usually pretty dry stuff!

We have an hour for lunch in the school cafeteria where I bargain with the Syrian guy who arbitrarily decides the price of the food I’ve selected from the buffet. Sometimes I sit with university staff, mostly Omanis, who are always curious to talk to that foreigner who speaks Arabic. By now it’s 2pm and I go to meet with the language partner that the program arranged for each of the students. My partner is Naqiya, 23 year old student in the translation department at the university. I was pleased to be paired with a female partner, since interacting, let alone speaking for two hours a day, with a woman in this culture would otherwise be impossible. I’ve found this to be one of the most fulfilling parts of my time in Oman. Naqiya has helped me improve my vocab and reading skills, but she’s also been my first resource for questions about Omani culture. We’ve talked about my girlfriend in the States, but she gets very embarrassed when I tell her that we’re not necessarily going to get married–in Omani culture, cross-gender relations outside of the family and before marriage are not really acceptable. Naqiya cannot really imagine how I would start a relationship with a woman without intending to marry her as soon as possible. It’s this sort of breakdown in understanding–which I experience as well when I try to imagine marrying more than one wife–that I find fascinating about living in a different culture.

Around 4pm, I take the bus back to the hotel with the other students. Sometimes the language partners take us on short trips in the area–to the souq, ancient villages, mountains, farms. I spend a few hours each night in my hotel room, watching Arabic news, reading online and practicing vocab. Dinner usually comes in the form of a falafel sandwich, a shawarma sandwich and french fries from the restaurant in the hotel. A few of the other guys and I have made a tradition of going to dinner one weekend night to the Turkish restaurant down the road and then to a hotel bar for a beer or two. Not a bad way to end a week here in Nizwa.

Oman, Arrival

I arrived in Oman in early June by way of Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which I will talk about in a separate post). My arrival in the capital city of Muscat overlapped with the landing of Cyclone Phet on the Omani cost. The capital along with most of the rest of the country were rained out for several days, delaying the start of the intensive Arabic program which was my primary reason for spending two months in this Gulf country. (Another reason: everyone says that the Gulf is so different from the rest of the Middle East that it’s practically its own category, and I wanted to find out for myself what that meant.) The cyclone was a big event in Oman, more for what didn’t happen than for what did. Four years ago, another cyclone (which is the name for hurricanes when they occur in the Indian Ocean) slammed into Oman and in the flooding that resulted dozens of people died. This time around, people were more cautious and the government kept people off the roads–significantly reducing the loss of life. I learned my first lesson about Oman within the first 48 hours–wadis (i.e. valleys that flow with water) are hugely important to the livelihood and culture of the natives.

The program got off to a slow start. I’m here for a seven week program called the Summer Arabic Language and Media Program (SALAM), sponsored by the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, held at the University of Nizwa and administered by the World Learning Center. It’s a collaborative effort and in many ways an organizational disaster–but more about that in a moment.

To understand the program, I’ll give some background about Oman. Most Westerners, even the educated ones, probably couldn’t find Oman on a map. It’s a small country situated on the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula. It borders Yemen to the southwest, Saudi Arabia to the west and the United Arab Emirates to the north. It sits on the western side of the Straits of Hormuz, across the way from Iran, and in charge of one of the busiest sea lanes in the world and the most strategically important in terms of oil. Oman’s central position on the Arabian Sea made it an important trading partner in recent centuries and afforded it control over a not insignificant empire on the eastern coast of Africa (Zanzibar was formerly a part of Oman). Nowadays, Oman’s trade is much reduced (though it does export significant amounts of natural gas) and it is home to a diverse population of native Omanis (real Arabs, some might say, because they are from the peninsula where Islam was born), Indians, Pakistanis, East Africans and Brits (colonial remnants and tourists). It’s not as well endowed with oil as some of its neighbors and for that reason (as well as some others), Oman remains more modest and traditional than Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. It’s diversifying its economy while holding true to its roots. The country was put on the path of modernization 40 years ago, when Sultan Qaboos wrested control from his father in a bloodless coup and implemented reform programs that brought paved roads, electricity, modern medical care and near universal education to almost all parts of the then very poor country.

The program I’m a part of is funded mostly by the sultan’s diwan, or court. His Highness (as everyone refers to him here) gave an American-based non-profit $100,000 to bring American students to Oman for advanced Arabic training and cultural immersion with the goal of creating student ambassadors for the country. The non-profit handled most of the program details and outsourced the academic component to the University of Nizwa, one of three institutes of higher education in the former capital of the imamate of Oman. Until something like the 1950s, Omani tribes (there are hundreds) were often at war with each other (for land, resources, honor, etc). Muscat and the coastal areas formed a political entity ruled by a sultan while Nizwa and the interior region formed another one ruled by a religious leader, or imam. Sultan Qaboos’ father united the country, sending the imam fleeing to Saudi Arabia and integrating Nizwa and the interior to form the state known today as the Sultanate of Oman. Because of its history, Nizwa is an interesting place to spend some time and it has fewer non-Omani residents than other cities like Muscat and Salalah, which makes for a more authentic experience and a better Arabic learning environment. However, the university here completely dropped the ball on developing a curriculum for the program, organizing classes effectively and recruiting qualified teachers. It’s not an ideal situation, but I’m still learning a lot of Arabic and learning about yet another part of this diverse region.

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