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Mauritania cuts Israeli ties 9, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, North Africa.
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Haaretz confirms what has been on the cards for some time now: Mauritania are severing diplomatic ties with Israel. At the end of last week, the Israeli embassy in the capital Nouakchott, closed the embassy and returned to Tel Aviv. This followed the withdrawal of the Mauritanian ambassador to Israel last month. The break in relations is due to the Israeli invasion of Gaza. This leaves Jordan and Egypt as the only countries in the region to retain official diplomatic ties with Israel. Qatar, who had an Israeli trade office stationed in Doha until recently, severed their ties last month in the wake of the Gaza conflict too. Whilst the loss of diplomatic relations with Mauritania will not have any immediate practical ramifications for Israel, this further loss of ‘friends’ and soft power in a region where they are already bereft of both, can only increase their sense of isolation and count as a firm step back in the peace process.

An outstanding critique of Egyptian society 4, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Below i have copied and pasted an article by Inanities regarding the Cairo International Film Festival. It is without doubt one of the best blog posts that I have ever read. Aside from the fact that the author can clearly write exceedingly well, the story of the film festival leads her on to a discussion of Cairo and indeed, Egypt as a whole. It provides a perfect encapsulation of the many, many problems that affect Egyptian society. It is very much worth your time.


Cairo International Film Farcical

Mysterious sheets of plastic appeared on the railings of the Cairo Opera House on 17th November. The railings separate the Opera grounds from the busy central artery of Tahrir Street, an extension of the Qasr El-Nil bridge popular with ambulant lovers taking evening strolls.

The sheets’ function was revealed the following day when guests of the Cairo International Film Festival made their appearance at the opening ceremony, parading the red carpet in their diamante-studded, perfumed glory. The sheets had been strategically-placed to protect the good and the grand of Hollywood and Spain and Egypt from the unwholesome, hungry stares of Egypt’s hoi polloi.

Rows of security guards along the red carpet, a 100 metre gap and metal railings were apparently not enough to protect the A-listers from whatever mischief the CIFF/Opera organisers feared the no-listers would engage in: they were not prepared to risk the evening being defiled by the uninvited participation of the unimportant in any form.

This attitude – exclusion – seems to be the ethos of the 32 year-old festival. 2008 was my second film festival, and I have yet to understand who, exactly, it is for. Article 1 of the CIFF regulations (available on its lamentably inaccurate website, about which more later) states the following:

The goal of The Cairo International Film Festival is to promote films, to create artistic links between different nations, to encourage comprehension and meetings between cinema professionals around the world and to develop the Film industry in the Arab world, in the Middle East and all over the world

As I understand it, this goal encompasses behind-the-sheets ordinary people of all nationalities, (“different nations”) and actors, film directors and producers and journalists (“cinema professionals”). In short it means everybody.

In theory.

The reality is very different. The most important thing to bear in mind for the uninitiated is that the CIFF takes place in Cairo, which is in Egypt, which – for all its wonderful qualities – remains a class-ridden autocracy of individual fiefdoms where rules are designed to fit wallets and who you know is more important than who you are.

This stratification has necessarily seeped into all areas of the CIFF. Witness Omar Sherif’s remarks in the opening ceremony about Egyptians being poor but “always smiling…smiling at the sun and the blue sky, and knowing that if they don’t get their reward in this life they’ll get it in the next”. Which is perhaps why it doesn’t matter that the smiling buffoons had been kept behind the sheets.

Within the CIFF fiefdom Hollywood has most currency, followed by Egyptian stars, followed by popular Turkish soap opera actors. This year Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Julia Ormond and Mira Sorvino brought the LA starlight to the Festival, guarded by Amr Badr, a cigar-smoking individual whose job as far as I can tell is to keep members of the lower species known as the press as far away from his charges as possible. We were batted away like flies.

The flights and accommodation of these guests are paid for by the Festival. Is it conscionable that in a week’s stay in Cairo they are brought out for only 1 or 2 press conferences and spend the rest of the time sight-seeing? The question again poses itself: who is the CIFF for?

CIFF’s relationship with the press is a story in itself. I attended ten CIFF events (film screenings/press conferences/symposiums) this year, only five of which went without a hitch. Finding out about the timing of these events was in itself a challenge because I made the mistake of relying on the CIFF website, whose schedule is as reliable as a pubescent teenager.

I went to the Good News cinema on Sunday expecting to watch Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe. Having been informed that it was playing in the main auditorium I waited as a press conference for another film came to an end. It ended, and I was then ejected from the auditorium “so it could be cleaned.”

I went back upstairs to the smaller screen where I located the man who had given me the wrong information. “No, Fawzeyya is playing here, and it’s for the judging committee only.” No apology was offered, no explanation.

I didn’t have the chance to ask why he had chosen to neglect communicating this minor detail to me an hour ago, because next to me an extremely angry Palestinian woman was trying to extract some sense out of a Good News employee.

She had come specifically to watch Palestinian film Salt of This Sea, at the Good News cinema. The problem is, Salt of This Sea had at some point been moved to the Opera Creativity Centre. I had found this detail out entirely by chance two hours before, from the film’s director herself. God knows how many people missed the film because of the organisers’ failure to update the website.

The woman said that this was the second time she encountered this problem. The Good News man said he wasn’t responsible, that the CIFF organisers bore responsibility. But of course.

(Unfortunately, it was crap) I got to see Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe in the end, seated on the cinema floor (no problem, I have a press card, I wasn’t paying) with my friend (who had paid for a seat).

When I went to the Creativity Centre to watch Under the Bombs on Wednesday I was accompanied by the same press pass-less friend. Not a problem since the CIFF website announced the screening as open to the press and public.

They refused to let my friend in at first on the pretext that attendance was by invitation only, and that we had to go to the press centre to get an invitation. Tired and frustrated by a week of similar incidents I must admit that I lost my rag with the Creativity Center official who told me that in fact no, I had not seen an (American) friend admitted into the Creativity Center without an invitation earlier this week to watch Salt of This Sea. I had. He wasn’t having any of it.

Voices were raised, as was blood pressure, until another Creativity Center official took my friend aside, took an invitation (for an entirely different film) out of his pocket and gave it to him saying “this is my fiancee’s but I’m giving it to you”(!) before admitting him.

Is there an equivalent word for ‘je m’en foutisme’ in English? Its literal translation is not giving a damn-ism, and should be the CIFF’s motto.

On Friday I turned up at 11.30 a.m. for a symposium on human rights. A CIFF official appeared at 11.45 a.m. and announced that the symposium would begin at 1 p.m. “as had been stated on official invitations.” Some of us lower-level amoeba hadn’t received this invitation. Who cares. Our time isn’t important, after all.

The not giving a damn extends to guests, too. Annemarie Jacir, director of Salt of This Sea told me that some of the actors and crew involved in her film had been invited to the Festival, and that visas would be waiting for them at Cairo Airport.

Then, she told me via email, this happened:

Then they ‘suddenly’ couldn’t help us and told us 3 days before flying that there would be no visas for them at the airport nor would they help get them one. So it was urgent because Ossama [Bawardi, the Palestinian producer] had a flight landing him in Cairo airport and suddenly was told he had no visa to enter. The festival wouldn’t even help us change the flight or give any solutions so I ended up paying myself for a new ticket since Cairo fest refused to take responsibility for it. I am of course totally broke and it cost us a lot of money that we simply don’t have.
CIFF had “discovered” that Jacir’s Palestinian crew members hold Israeli passports and summarily dropped them.

This is aside from the fact that upon arriving in Cairo Jacir was hustled into a symposium at the last minute. She had no prior idea what the symposium was about or what was expected of her. Aleya Hammad, the symposium’s moderator (who in an urgent whisper asked her who she was while she was on the podium), described Jacir’s feature film as a documentary.

At the beginning of Charlize Theron’s press conference, as photographers and cameramen fought in front of her to get the good angles, press conference moderator Ezzet Abo Auf said (in Arabic) “let’s have some order, we don’t want to look bad in front of our guests.”

This obsession with image. With makeup, and fireworks, and revolving stages that spin out their startled occupants as the crowd claps and the music plays and ugly reality is kept at bay outside, 100 metres and a million miles away behind a plastic sheet.

I reject the argument that because CIFF is held in Egypt, we should forgive it the incompetence of its organisation, the constant screw-ups, the continual late starts, the complete absence of a relationship with the press…etc.

That stuff (independent political parties, World Cup bids, independent film festivals, historical parliamentary buildings, police-citizen relations) is repeatedly messed up in Egypt is clearly not because of some entrenched incompetence within the fabric of Egyptian society. Rather, the problem is twofold: firstly, talent is usually inextricably linked with creativity, and original thought, and is therefore a potential risk. Secondly, raw natural talent lacking the benefits of wealth and connections is necessarily crushed by poverty and its associated concrete ceilings.

Which means, inevitably, that many of those at the top are dullards, and all take care of interests other than those of the many million they are meant to represent.

CIFF – like everything else in Egypt – is the embodiment of these factors, the embodiment of this calamity. Its mistakes therefore aren’t just minor errors, or the product of good ole Egyptians and their quaint time-keeping. Rather, they are the manifestation of a sickness.

Egypt: An autocratic state with a silver lining 21, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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In the past few days there have been two saddening stories which testify to the unpleasant nature of the politics and daily life to which Egyptians are subjected by their government. Firstly, as reported in the Daily News English, an American woman handed in a video tape to be copied at the video shop in the Marriott Hotel. On viewing this material the manager of the shop immediately telephoned the Tourist Police who then contacted State Security and began a search for the American woman. On the tape was footage shot at recent clashes between Muslims and Coptic monks at the Abou Fana Monastery in Minya. Additionally, the police reaction to this event was also, apparently, caught on film. The tape also showed vivid scenes of some of the poorest slums in Egypt.

There are several disturbing and unpleasant reactions to this story. Obviously, the fact that they are searching for this woman now, for unspecified reasons, is a travesty. The images that the woman filmed would no doubt have been damaging to Egypt’s image, if (and this is a large if) they would ever have reached the surface or public consciousness. Yet now we will never know and the government, by reacting in this way, just announced to anyone paying attention that they are a repressive government who cannot remotely stand any scrutiny. People’s imaginations will now take over and paint a picture of what was on the footage, perhaps even worse than the original.

The second story comes from the Kuwaiti Arab Times. A 17 year old boy in Luxor, instead of completing his maths exam as he ought to have, decided to write a tirade abusing the Mubarak government and Egyptians generally. He castigates Mubarak as a ‘tyrannical leader’ and Egyptians as a ‘cowardly people’ for putting up with Mubarak’s tyrannical reign. Needless to say, taking a 17 year old boy into custody for writing a rant against the government when he is completing his life-changing Thanawiyya Al Aaam exams, with all the pressure that comes with such crucial exams, is hopelessly ridiculous. Out with the mitigating circumstances of a boy failing such exams and what this means for his future, he is just 17 years old: since when are they taken seriously? To elevate this minor, petty, insignificant and pathetic cathartic rant by a sacred teenager to where the story is covered by the International Press is madness.

Yet among these somewhat depressing stories, there is a glimmer of hope. Whilst such repressive measures are obviously in place, as evidenced by the first example, these actions are still freely reported. This provides a crucial difference to countries such as China or yet further along the scale, North Korea, where such incidents would be wholly denied or erased completely. The free press in Egypt is thus seemingly strong and resolute. Yet, the apparatus of the government itself does not appear to be wholly hell-bent on secrecy and stonewalling as one might think would accompany such repressive and oppressive acts. The quotes for the second story are directly from the Ministry of Education; not the sign of a government institution committed towing an unbelievable party-line or stooping to Soviet-era levels of absurd propaganda pushing. Thus, from these two examples, there is, in fact, more than a glimmer of hope.

Indeed, in many ways one of the nastiest aspects of these stories speaks to the question of informing in Egyptian society. The notion of a snitch is an insidious and corroding idea that instantly brings to mind Soviet Russia and the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Firstly, there is the manager at the Marriott’s film shop. He will argue that he was simply obeying the law, not wishing to reproduce slanderous material, but instead of simply refusing to copy the film, he chose to call the police. Secondly, there is the question of how the authorities found out about the teenager’s exam. Obviously, a teacher marking the exam informed the authorities of the dreadful, real, imminent and existential threat to society posed by the no doubt half-incoherent, hormone-fuelled, bitter ramblings of an angry and failing 17 year old boy. The meanness, pettiness and sheer stupidity of this act of informing makes the mind boggle.

So is there a problem with informing and snooping generally in Egyptian society? The biggest problem that this brings with it is that we’ll never know. I doubt very much that there are similar levels of snooping as the almost herculean efforts of GDR such as collecting people’s smells (yes, that’s what I mean), routine post interception and where one in thirty people were paid informers,  but you never know…

The Saudi interfaith dialogue 6, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia has once again sought to assert its place as the de facto leader of the Muslim world. King Abdullah gave a speech at three day conference at Mecca on the future of Islam and other religions, following on from the much publicised Saudi call for an interfaith dialogue. The King called for unity among Muslims and for Islam to speak as one voice in its dialogue with other religions. An important corollary of this move would be that Saudi Arabia would command a prominent place at the heart of such a movement, controlling as it does the birth place of Islam and its two holiest sites at Mecca and Medinah.

This is not the first time that the Kingdom has sought such a role. Indeed, this is but a reprisal of policies that go back to the reign of Ibn Saud. However, it was his successors Saud and Faisal that had to cope with Nasser’s powerful call for nationalism, the vogue concept of the age. Egypt’s and Nasser’s popularity in the early sixties posed significant problems for the Kingdom and any aspirations that they might have had of being a leading country in the region. Both Saud and later Faisal realised that Saudi could not hope to compete with Egypt and Syria in the nationalist stakes. Saudi’s relative distance from the Levant-Egypt axis, its small population and relatively poor military put paid to any such notions.

The best policy that they had to combat this was to champion their own credentials as a pan-Islamic religious leader and to portray these as inclusive Islamic values versus the splitism which pan-Arabism promoted. Internally, the Saudi ulama wrote, decreed and proteolyzed on behalf of the state’s new adopted goal and against its ‘competition’. For example, Al Baz, one of Saudi’s preeminent theologians wrote many denunciations of pan-Arabism as being “introduced by Christian Westerners to fight Islam and destroy it through trickery…it is known in Islam that the call to Arab nationalism, or any other form of nationalism, is false and a grave mistake.”[1]

Externally, the Kingdom began to organize Islamic meetings and conferences. For example, in 1956 Pakistan and Saudi agreed to set up a loosely defined ‘Islamic Conference,’ in 1962 Saudi organised a rather unsuccessful Muslim World League Conference and the so called ‘Casablanca group’ of Saudi, Morocco, Mali, Ghana and Guinea established a joint military command and common market in 1963.

However, Saudi did not have to cope for long with Nasser’s challenge which was severely curtailed with the humiliation of the 1967 war and his subsequent need to come to the Al Sauds, cap in hand, to bail Egypt out of the mess that it was in.

Fast forward some forty years and Saudi are doing the same thing again; seeking to use their central place in Islam as a means of securing and augment their status. This time they are not reacting against any nationalistic causes but against Iran and their recent hogging of the international limelight. Not only are they rumoured to be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons – a huge sign of prestige – but their clearly positioned anti-Western stance is attractive to many Muslims. Their support of Hizballah, alleged support of insurgents in Iraq, vociferous anti-American and Jewish rhetoric, not to mention their historic anti-American antipathy are an unfortunately powerful elixir which garners them not a small amount of prestige. Saudi, with their intertwined history and obvious dependency on America, can play no such cards. Thus, they have employed the same tactic again; uniting behind the banner of Islam where they are guaranteed to have a central place.

Can Mubarak offer anything to this Saudi challenge? Whilst Egypt will always command respect throughout the region owing to its history, population and soft power (i.e. films, music etc), with the economy precariously placed, the population severely displeased and the government far from popular, there appears to be little choice. Egypt must join the Saudis in their plan if they are to compete at the present time. Showing ones Islamic colours is the vogue trend in the Middle East at the moment and for Mubarak not to join in with Saudi’s interfaith dialogue would be a mistake. Indeed, the one card that Egypt can play lies in their recognition of Israel. How can the Saudi’s claim an interfaith dialogue if they will not recognise the only Jewish state in the region? Whilst this is no easy role for Egypt – in some quarters they may well be castigated as dealing with the devil – handled correctly it is a golden opportunity to (re)gain international prestige.

[1] P.11-14 Al Baz, Sheikh Abd al Aziz Ibn  Naqd al Qawmiya al Arabiya Ala Daw’a Al Islam wa al Waqi  (Beirut, al Maktab al Islami, 1385 (translated by Al Yassini) quoted in P.12 al Yassini, Ayman  ‘Religion and Foreign Policy in Saudi Arabia’  Discussion Paper Series – Centre for Developing Area Studies (No.2, McGill University, 1983)

1000 years for Egyptian fraudster 18, May 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, Middle East.
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The BBC has just reported that an Egyptian man has just been sentenced to 1000 years in jail for conning people out of money over a two decade period. The farcically long sentence is, however, but half the story, with the other half discussing and highlighting the apparent trend and propensity for Egyptians to willingly give away their money on a promise of amazing financial returns.

The BBC comments section is full of similar stories. Indeed, taking just this one man, how many people must he have conned to amass his $52 million fortune? It seems that the notion of caveat emptor has not made it to Egypt. Whilst it is tragic that people lose their life savings in such scams – and indeed tough measures need to be in place to dissuade such fraudsters (though perhaps not this though) – doesn’t a tiny, small, mean-spirited but honest potion of your brain say that they got what they deserved? Perhaps his con was elaborate and utterly official-looking. Perhaps; but I doubt it. And by the sounds of many stories of this nature, most are absurdly low-key and simple.

Such scams are, obviously, not only apparent in Egypt. I must get 3 emails a day asking me for money or my passport details in return for a share in something or other…lost bank accounts, oil deals or whatever. Apparently, these scams really do entice people into sending away money or details and when they get nothing in return, they are surprised. I simply can’t muster up an ounce of sympathy for pathologically stupid actions such as these. At this point a cliché rushes to mind. However trite it is (and it certainly is) to use clichés, it must be remembered that clichés are clichés for a reason: a thread of truth runs through them; which is to say that in this case, a fool and their money are easily parted.