Saturday, December 31, 2011

What a Difference a Year Has Made

It's the last day of 2011 and I honestly can't say that I'm sorry to see this year go. Last year at this time we were looking forward to a winter of visitors who would be coming to see Egypt and ride with us to get to know the countryside. The weight of the moribund political system here was a familiar didn't talk politics, it was easier not to think about them, we just got on with our lives. As we moved into January, there was, however, an odd sense in the air. There were the protests over Khaled Said's murder, very unusual and moving protests with thousands of people lining the river and ocean walkways dressed in black and speaking to no one. Something was happening and none of us really knew what, but given the stagnant quality of life in Egypt, everyone was more curious than fearful. When the protests were announced for Jan 25 last year, I had a feeling that they were likely to be something more than normal. I took a friend from our area into town for supplies on January 24, and we basically stocked up on necessities like rice, sugar, tea, Cheetos, know what I mean. We ran into another friend in the grocery store who said that she'd been thinking of taking some visitors to the Egyptian Museum the next day and I told her that I couldn't really justify my feeling, but I thought maybe that the next day was not going to be the best day for a downtown trip and that they might want to keep an eye on the news. We are still laughing over the warning, but she and her family are being moved back to the US soon as her husband's company is downsizing in Egypt.

Like virtually everyone else in Egypt I was totally blown away by the events of January 25 and the following three weeks. We stayed on the farm glued to Jazeera English, CNN and BBCWorld. Time went into a strange form with calls checking in with my kids in New York twice a day when the phones were working, and manic rage when the internet and phones were cut here. Fear and anxiety for young (and old) friends in Tahrir and other protests in Egypt became the overwhelming emotions as story after story of the horrors being inflicted on prisoners, citizens, and protesters flowed in. After a while, the horrible became disturbingly normal. People I knew from internet connections were arrested and beaten, friends of friends were shot by snipers, and one of my closest young friends was attacked and nearly killed by a mob of thugs near Kasr el Aini hospital when she went to give blood. The local neighbourhood watch committees filled us with pride at the willingness of the Egyptians to care for themselves came to the fore, since it was pretty obviously that the part of our government that was supposed to be a source of order was in fact a source of disorder. I'm old enough to remember where I was when John Kennedy was killed, when the Berlin Wall was built and when it fell, what I was doing on the morning of the Cuban missile crisis, to have gone to classes in university through clouds of tear gas...I've seen plenty of excitement, thank you, in my life, but nothing ever came close to those three weeks.

Like many in Egypt, we wept with delight on February 11 when Mubarak stepped down, thinking also like everyone else that this would mean some real changes. On February 12 we drove down to Beni Suef to buy some new goats for our herd, a maie Google and two females, Twitter and Horreya. And then we began watching events unfold. Oh my, what a year. What disappointment. We did have a few brave visitors who came to see a post-revolutionary Egypt, and most of them were fascinated and delighted. But as summer came on and events became more complicated and less visitor-friendly, fewer and fewer people came to visit Egypt.

This fall has been a time of watching elections, protests, strange responses to protests, and much worry about the future of our country as it isn't clear that the military really have any intentions to follow the work of Jan/Feb to its conclusions. Tonight I understand that a prayer/vigil is planned for Tahrir to commemorate the martyrs of the struggle. Hopefully, it will be peaceful. I'm hoping for an improvement after the elections, but the signs are not so brilliant. We may have another interesting January to find our way through. Guess maybe it's time to stock up on Cheetos.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Parliamentary Surprises

People have been voting in Giza
the past two days in the parliamentary elections. My neighbours went to a school in Abu Sir to vote as they did in the referendum, but in much larger numbers. My grooms asked for time off to vote and I told them that they absolutely had time off to do so. Later in the afternoon, I sat and we chatted about the voting process. I've read all sorts of comments on the voting results, which seem very much to favour the Islamic parties. So many people find this worrying as they are concerned that the Islamic parties might not be friendly to tourism, might insist on women wearing hijab, might not be friendly to other nationalities and so on. Personally, I feel that this is a momentous new experience for Egyptians and that we really have almost no idea what the results mean to most people. I suspect that we are going to have to just wait and see.

My grooms and gardeners were happy to talk about who they'd voted for and why. When they said that many of them had voted for Salafi's I don't mind saying that I was somewhat surprised. These guys don't seem like Salafi people, really. But when I asked them why the Salafi's or the Brotherhood, their answer surprised me. They pointed out that both parties, having been outlawed during Mubarak's years, had been unable to rack up a history of illegal political activities as had the old NDP. They were, in essence, political novices and as such deserved a chance to try to make things better. I asked about the worries that people have about the Islamic parties affecting our country's main industry, tourism, something that is the basis for our work as well. "Well, if they don't do a good job, then we can vote to get rid of them" was the response. So their votes for the Islamic parties were more a way of avoiding voting for any felool (remnants of the old regime) than they were a vote for the Islamic principles of the parties.

Things in Egypt are seriously not what they seem on the surface.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Both Spinning in Space and Standing Still

I have the serious sense of the world moving both too fast and too slowly these days, and to be frank, it makes me a bit dizzy. An unhappy motherboard on my laptop has left me with an iPad that can post but not photos, for the most part, and I won't really be able to intersperse my ideas with some lightening photos. So bear with me.

Where has our Egypt gone? In some ways it is still the same place and in others it has changed almost beyond recognition. Before the revolution the standard line of the government was that they were the only dike between stability and the chaos of Islamic tides. Governments believed this and so did many people. What we've found since the uprising in Jan/Feb has been that the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis, the Sufis, and many other Islamic groups have more than enough internal disputes that no one group is likely to be taking over from the previous government. What we've realized is that this entire propaganda campaign was a diversion from the reality that since the early 1950's Egypt has been a military dictatorship and that this, in fact, hasn't changed. There are many, myself among them, who have a strongly nagging suspicion that the protesters of winter did the military here a huge favour by insisting on the removal of Mubarak and, more importantly, his sons from the picture. There was a lot of debate about the question of whether the very powerful Egyptian army would accept Gamal Mubarak, who never even served in the armed forces, as a successor to his father, and I believe that we have a resounding "No!" as our answer. The military were delighted not to have to force a confrontation and to appear to do the will of the people. They didn't exactly come down that hard on the Mubaraks, allowing Gamal the freedom to come to Cairo from Sharm el Sheikh for months, and allowing Hosny's chief of staff access to the Presidential palace and all its shredding machines for months. After all, maybe the Mubaraks had the wherewithal to perform a resurgence. It's only been in the past few months when it's obvious that the Mubaraks are truly history that the Supreme Council, a ruling group of generals, have taken even half-hearted steps against the previous regime.

Instead, they have adopted the old ways of creating dissonance among Egyptians by ambushing Christian protesters and then claiming in the government controlled media that they were being attacked. This story has only worked among those who only read, listen to or watch only the government controlled media as everyone else has been broadcasting videos and eyewitness accounts of the reality of the situation. Unfortunately one of the aspects of the old Egypt that hasn't changed is the large number of people who do rely on the state media for information, an unsettling thought to say the least. The "government's" inability to handle the issues of seeing Egypt through this period have been publicly on show and privately indicated. The prime minister has attempted to resign many times and has been told, probably very forcefully, that his resignation will, on no account, be accepted. This is likely because the military know that it is the only facade that gives them the slightest shred of legitimacy and they can't afford to lose this. But it seems pretty clear to everyone that the main concern of the military council is the maintenance of their freedom of action without the inconvenience of civilian oversight. They get about $1 billion in military aid yearly from the US and one of their primary concerns is not threatening this lucrative source of income. There has been significantly less concern with reassuring the world that Egypt is still a safe tourism destination (which it is, by the way, unless you are unlucky enough to find yourself in front of a tank...which is an occurrence of very low probability), to look to the reorganization of our schools (which have basically been holding pens for the young and have utterly failed at education), to provide a reasonable standard of living for employees of the state like teachers and doctors (they could share out some of that military largesse?), or to provide any security for the citizens of Egypt who have been living since last January without any traffic or parking police for the most part. It's okay, we can live without the Central Security Forces, who unfortunately seem to have no problem working...usually NOT for us.

One of the things that has changed is the willingness to discuss our situation among people in general, and this is definitely a Good Thing. You hear discussions and arguments over current events in Egypt everywhere now, whereas before January they were generally carried out in low voices in closed rooms among close friends. As an Arabic speaking foreigner, I can hardly buy a coffee without discussing something. People are now willing to talk about, and go on strike for, things that they have long been vexed by. While the strikes are truly inconvenient for most of us (though we saw a nice decrease in traffic during the transit buses and fewer minibuses) it's totally understandable. Everyone was gagged for so many years with repression and the inability to speak out. The Maspero incident in which the army attacked the the Christian AND Muslim protesters left real scars and worried Christians here in Egypt. Rumours abounded immediately afterwards about army checkpoints that were stopping cars and rounding up Copts. I've found no confirmation of them, but the damage that they do to the national psyche is obvious. Out here in the villages, religion is still not an issue and we have Copts and Muslims living and working side by side. The idea of conflict over this is still considered ludicrous.

The list of things that haven't changed, however, is staggering. Whatever is passing for an Egyptian government is still almost utterly disengaged from the concerns and needs of the people. Election dates are postponed and changed at random, procedures for elections are totally unclear and are changed at random. This is enormously confusing and is leading to a real sense that nothing really has happened to change the essence of the Egyptian government. The schools have been a cause for serious concern for years, with crowded classrooms taught by untrained teachers who rely on rote learning turning out citizens with only rudimentary skills at the basics and virtually no ability to analyze a situation and make an informed decision. Essentially, they've been factories for an ignorant and compliant populace.

An additional serious problem that I have only really become aware of in the past 6 months is the issue of the education of families in maternal, prenatal, and postnatal nutrition. My housekeeper had a baby and returned to work after two weeks bringing the baby with her. While this may seem way too early, it's worth noting that she probably works much less in my home than in her own, she has a number of adults available to help with care for her son, and she has decent food here. I've had meals with farm families and noticed that the men generally eat first, with the children next and the women last. These means that women who are pregnant and nursing don't necessarily get the nutrition they need. Magda has had more children that she needs (let's not even open the topic of her husband who doesn't help to support the family and stands in the way of birth control in a really secure fashion.) Now she's on pills having tried a number of other unsuccessful forms of birth control but she has always been too tired and improperly fed to be able to nurse her babies properly. When this last son was born, I began buying the formula to supplement as one can is about 40 LE. To feed this child properly would take over half her monthly income...and she has more kids at home to feed. So basically we have taken on the job of feeding this baby, who is now beginning to eat and gets homemade baby food while he is here almost every day. I've begun noticing the other infants around me and most of them are small, thin, rather unresponsive, the victims of postnatal malnutrition. Their mothers are often exhausted working hard around the house...housework in the villages is no joke. Food is prepared absolutely from scratch, keeping a house clean next to the desert is a full time job, and there is little time to put one's feet up. Additionally there is almost no knowledge of proper nutrition or even the need of a nursing mother to drink sufficient fluids. We find ourselves raising children here who due to improper nutrition have a bad start in life and then compound it with the schools. While I'm definitely not an advocate of cradle to grave imposition of lifestyle, it is absolutely the role of government to provide education to its population whether children or adults. The government here really hasn't tried much.

One of the senses that many of us have these days is the sense of there being simply so much to do to put Egypt to rights. How is this going to be done? Will we get a government that responds to the needs of the people? Will we just get another one that milks the country for wealth? Every question is still in the air.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Hard Lesson

Living in a country during a revolution changes you whether you like or expect it or not. One of the changes that I've seen in myself is the extent to which I am interested in social and political trends in Egypt and other parts of the world. Sure, I was interested in them before to a certain extent but that interest has been honed and given new tools since the revolution. Before revolution I prided myself on the fact that I read the news from a wide variety of sources, having come to the conclusion fairly early in my life, around the time of the Viet Nam war, that no one source could be trusted implicitly. During January and February, I promised my kids to stay safe on the farm so I picked up a Twitter account that I'd opened in curiosity a year or so earlier and decided to see how it worked.

And did it ever work! From a few friends that I knew through blogging I gradually expanded my circle of informants to most of the activists tweeting in English, and from there to the frontline journalists who actually went out into the field to report on events in Egypt. Gradually the list expanded to include journalists and activists throughout the Middle East, North Africa, other parts of Africa and lately into Europe. Activists talk about what they want to do, plan to do, hope to do, and about what went wrong or right with what they've already done. It's quite enlightening and humanising to listen to their worries, fears, and dreams. The journalists tend to post a link to an article as it's published so I get a jump start on reading rather than waiting for a wire service or newspaper to pick up the article. They also post links to many of the more obscure but incredibly interesting and useful blogs, reviews, and online papers. Additionally, once you collect a reasonable amount of journalists on your Twitter feed, you get to eavesdrop on their debates, discussions and jokes that never, ever make it to a written page. This is both enlightening and highly entertaining.

On Friday evening I opened Twitter to find references to Norway's catastrophe and immediately turned on Al Jazeera English. This is my first choice for the news, again a change since the revolution when we saw here the amount of time and investment of interest and personnel that they put into their coverage of events in Egypt. Additionally, their lack of advertising is a huge comfort. This time, however, I was appalled to see them interviewing one Justin Crump, apparently some kind of security analyst from the UK, about his ideas about the bombing in Oslo. The horrific details of the shooting on the island had not come out on the news yet. Despite the interviewer's insertion of "but, but", Mr Crump quite comfortably declared that this was likely an Al Qaeda action or the action of some other Muslim terrorist, and proceeded to list all the reasons that this might be so. Disgusted to see this yet again (the broadcasts of 9/11 will live in my memory forever with their seamless condemnation of the Arab perpretrators...something that totally astonished me at the time), I turned to Twitter. There was discussion as to who might have been involved in the action and, as journalists contacted friends in Norway, suggestions of people to follow on Twitter who were in place as witnesses or who had immediate access to the ongoing investigations. I followed the breaking news and discussions avidly through the evening.

At one point, a security analyst who specialises in following the jihadist bulletin boards online tweeted that someone on one board had claimed the bombing for the Friends of the Islamic Jihad, a group that no one had ever heard of. Subsequent tweets mentioned that the claimant was not the best of sources and suggested caution, but caution was not on the agenda of the New York Times and later the BBC, who quoted the New York Times as a source. They came out with the news that it was the work of Arab terrorists and many people followed their stories as the gospel...I mean, after all, the BBC AND the New York Times couldn't be wrong? Could they ever be! Yesterday there was a day long discussion on Twitter as to whether Will McCant, the source for the bulletin board tweet was irresponsible in tweeting his information if idiots were going to pick up the information and run with it as the Word of the Almighty. I don't know that anyone ever came to any conclusions in the discussion other than the fact that no one liked what had happened and everyone was uncomfortable with the fact that once again, the ubiquitous "Arab terrorist" was going to be blamed for something, causing innumerable problems for any of us connected with the Middle East. My personal opinion is that the problem was caused by the general assumption that something seen on Twitter, or the internet in general, is by definition true, an assumption that is utterly wrong. Twitter posts and internet posts are not necessarily fact-checked or verified. They are opinion, information that could be either right or wrong, that is passed on, and they must, as such, be subject to fact-checking and verification. This did not happen on Friday night.

When the Norwegian police announced that the gunman who had been massacring young people at a political summer camp on an island near Oslo and who appeared to be responsible for the car bombing of the building in downtown Oslo was most definitely Norwegian, some of the speculation by news papers online changed to whether or not he had been trained by Muslim terrorists, not much of an improvement by my standards, and on Saturday morning many news sites still had not changed their stances in the face of the facts. The reaction by the mainstream media (often abreviated to MSM on Twitter) to the events of Friday was, on the whole, fairly ghastly. An article in The Atlantic has a very good discussion of the sudden about face that the media had to make in the light of the fact that this was in fact the act of a homegrown right wing Christian xenophobic Norwegian terrorist.

Interestingly enough, the fact that he was a Christian Norwegian suddenly seemed to change the man from a terrorist (something that is foreign, fearful and incomprehensible) to a madman (which somehow is understandable). I don't find it understandable at all myself. There is some level of derangement in anyone who can comfortably contemplate the destruction of other people to "enlighten" others or to change history. But then the natural progression of my logic is that the sanity of most military organisations is called into question and I'm sure that many people really don't want to go there. But I would most certainly state that this individual is definitely a terrorist and, in terrorism terms, a very successful one at that. Considering the difference in population between the US and Norway, he managed to kill a larger percentage of Norway's people in his bombing and shooting than the percentage killed in the attacks of 9/11. And he seems to hold the record for the most number of people killed single handedly in a single incident.

I'm hoping (ever the optimist!) that there is a lesson learned from the past two days. One would imagine that the Oklahoma City bombing would have clued in the US that they have to watch their local non-Muslim terrorists, although the main change seemed to have been a toughening of policy against foreigners. Europe has definite issues with governments banning the wearing of niqab and taking action against halal and kosher slaughter. A Dutch friend of mine told me that this was initiated as an animal welfare bill that called for the anaesthetising of animals before slaughter so that they wouldn't be in any pain. My understanding of anaesthetics and euthanasia of animals is that drugs are prohibited in animals used for food for a very good reason, the fact that the residues are harmful to humans, so I have to first question the logic of the initial push and then wonder why it became ethnic/religious.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families in Norway who were devastated by the past few days, but I also pray to see some understanding in the world that xenophobia and extremism breed terrorists, and that terrorists come from any and every background.

2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Friday, May 27, 2011

Love And Hope Spring Eternal

I've been writing this blog for about eight years now and right from Day One I've been getting emails, mostly from women, about moving to Egypt to pursue a relationship with someone. Many of these inquiries stem from holiday romances, some from people met at univerisity abroad, some from internet romances that someone wants to pursue. Our revolution hasn't changed the incoming traffic one bit, other than my correspondents report even more nervousness from their friends and relatives who worry that a move to Egypt will automatically end in disaster. I finally decided that it was time to put out a list of things to think about before marrying into Egypt.

I spent 25 very interesting years married to an Egyptian man whom I met in Canada while in grad school. We married and had our kids in Canada but we were visiting Egypt very regularly before we moved to Egypt. Some years while the kids were still very young, I spent a month or two staying with my in-laws while my husband would travel back and forth between Cairo, Khartoum and Toronto. When I finally moved to Egypt, I'd been visiting it since 1976 and had spent a fair bit of time exploring and learning my rudimentary Arabic. I had decided that I loved Egypt's chaos, its happy loopiness and randomness, and it was actually my idea to move here against all of my husband's objections. We had a good life, our children had a varied and rich childhood, and while there were some ups and downs, I wouldn't have missed a minute. I did NOT move here cold without having visited quite a bit, nor without knowing some Arabic (enough to do daily tasks fairly independent), and I knew (or at least thought that I did) my husband's family quite well. In other words, I probably made the transition from Canada to Egypt under the best of circumstances. I'm not sure that most other people will be so blessed. So here is my open letter:

Dear Whoever is thinking of moving to Egypt for a partner,

I really should have a sort of form letter for this because I don't know how many emails I've sent to people who are thinking of following a friend to Egypt. First, the reality of life here is not seen anywhere in the western media. Life here is nothing like what they show on the news or in magazines. It is not especially dangerous, but it is not a life for someone who is unaware of his/her surroundings. Tell all your friends and relatives that you are not moving to the moon or to the 2nd circle of hell. That said, there are some serious questions that you need to ask and answer for yourself before making any kind of permanent or even semi-permanent commitments to a life here.

1. Do you like living in Egypt? Is this a country that fits well with your lifestyle and personality?

This must be decided for you and you alone. Life is impermanent and people come and go in it. So if you think about living in Egypt, it's important to know that you would like living here with or without your partner. I suggest coming on a visit to see if you can cope with the life in Egypt, whether it is in the pollution, crowding, and excitement of Cairo or in the much slower life of the villages or smaller cities. Don't just visit the pyramids and museums. Go everywhere. Check out shopping centers and souqs. Talk to other people living here. Go grocery shopping. Try cooking. Look for a job ...if only to see if you would be happy working here.

2. Are you willing to learn Arabic?

It is possible in some places to live in Egypt without knowing Arabic, but to be honest, you will be missing out on most of the life here if you can't simply carry on a conversation with the people around you. Even a simple task like grocery shopping can be much more effective and interesting if you can ask what new foods are and how to prepare them. Getting lost is less of an issue and Surprise! many of the things that people say around you are not cause for concern. Written Arabic and spoken Arabic are almost different languages, but there are many language schools here in Egypt and abroad that will help you to learn the language.

3. Do you know what you are getting into? Relationships are complicated and more so across cultures.

If you are considering an alliance with an Egyptian partner, you need to meet his/her family. You never marry a person, no matter where you live, you always marry his/her family and their history. This is true of marriage within your culture and religion and even more true if you are moving outside of your culture or religion. Your partner's unconscious assumptions about the role of wife and mother or husband and father are determined largely by what existed within his/her family, just as yours have, and it's a very good idea to meet the role models, to say the least. As well, although it is totall unPC to say anything about social class or anything like that, if your family backgrounds are too different, the adjustment can be very difficult. With a new geography, new culture, and new language, why make things harder than necessary? The more you know, the better you are prepared.

4. Do you realise that every country has a different family law? What you are accustomed to is not necessarily what is going to be what you have to deal with here.

Learn about family law in Egypt and get a good lawyer to explain and protect your rights if you choose to marry and live within Egypt. Egyptian family law is currently closely tied to the family's religion and this must be understood and taken into account. As we are currently in the process of reworking the constitution and government (hopefully), much of this is still unclear, but most definitely the family law that you are used to wherever you live now is nothing like the family law in Egypt. Family law is the law that determines marriage, divorce and child custody. For example, a woman's rights to divorce and other things can be specified in her marriage contract...a legal document that is the basis of every Muslim marriage, while divorce is forbidden by the Coptic church. Inheritance is so complex under Islamic law, which will be applied to a Muslim family no matter what anyone might wish otherwise, that it almost is a course of study on its own.

These are the main points. You need to see for yourself. That's the main thing. Egypt is safe to visit, so you should. Think carefully and do what is best for you.

Wishing you all the best,

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Wrong People In the Wrong Place

Yesterday about 350 bloggers in Egypt wrote posts regarding the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. (As a personal aside, I find this propensity for supreme councils to be a bit burdensome...couldn't they have an easier name? Somehow SCAF actually does work better as a name.) Most of these posts were in Arabic, but some were in English, which meant that I could read them. I really wish I'd learned to read Arabic, but at my age, time is a bit short to reach a real level of competency.

Most of the posts were, quite naturally considering the state of affairs in Egypt, not exactly pro-military rule. Everyone is upset over the arbitrary detentions and the fact that frankly nothing much is working properly. It's true that nothing much is working properly, and I believe that the fact that our undear and barely departed fearless leader entrusted the country to the SCAF has a great deal to do with our current problems. One post, written by the son of a military man, points out that the army simply isn't equipped for the job. "And here comes the problem, the army / SCAF may be great at doing their job "protecting the people" but they're certainly not knowledgeable, trained, experienced or ready to do a totally different job: "Leading a country of 85 million people in a pivotal point of its history". It doesn't mean they're bad people, it doesn't mean they're on the "dark side of the force", it's just that you're asking a mechanic to remove your tonsils. Those inflamed, complicated, infected tonsils that have been part of your body for years and that you have to remove now, with a great deal of surgical precision." But we were left with the mechanics to remove our tonsils and to treat our cancers. Not wonderful.

This post hit home to me, being a balanced consideration both of what the SCAF was doing wrong and also a consideration of why this might be happening. I do believe that the top ranks of the military (unfortunately those who do make up SCAF) are part and parcel of the old regime. They make outrageous salaries, have incredible perks, and are basically accustomed to being immune to the normal problems of Egyptian life, living in their bubble world, much like the wealthy businessmen who did so well as long as they could call on the influence of friends in government.

It's worth looking at what the military in Egypt actually do. This is a huge institution that ingests vast quantities of poorly educated young men each year for a two year stint of work and, for much of them, deprivation. I live between two main Army bases, Beni Yusuf and Dahshur, and my farming neighbours and my staff have plenty of stories of their time spent in the military, stories of terrible food, long work hours at tedious jobs of maintenance or sometimes working at the homes or farms of the military commanders. We've all seen groups of conscripts doing basic construction work along roads or such things. One of my neighbours (someone who's moved out of his fancy house at this point) was an officer in the police and used his recruits as drivers, gardeners, handymen and general lift-and-haul personnel at his home. This didn't raise a single eyebrow anywhere as it was standard for someone of his rank. So basically, the largest portion of the army consists of poorly educated conscripts who are enrolled in a two year course of indentured servitude....they may be learning to be soldiers, perhaps will be taught the rudiments (never more than the rudiments) of driving a truck or car, some mechanical skills, or perhaps will simply water a lawn somewhere. The better educated members of society generally get assigned to higher ranks on conscription and can either do a desk job or with the right kind of connections, avoid the entire experience all together. Then you have the lifers who have gone to the military college and dived into the the military pool with the hopes of surfacing as a brigadier general someday. These people have almost nothing in common with the conscripts. When the tank commanders did not fire on the protesters in Tahrir during the revolution, this was the work of the conscripted officers. These were men who were doing their two year obligation and when looking at the protesters could think "There, but for the grace of God, go I". They knew that when their time in the military was up, they could easily be those same protesters. This could never be said of the higher ranks. They are bosses and will always be least they hope so.

But what does this huge institution actually DO? Well, it hasn't fought in a war since 1973, so that isn't its job at this point. Theoretically, its job is to be ready to fight in a war and this is the rationale for the massive military aid that the armed forces receive from the US, to use an example. I've known some of the military personnel who have come to do training with the Egyptian military, and without exception, their advice to me has always been "just hope that you never need them". A helicopter pilot noted that his students would do anything to avoid flying...a troubling habit as a pilot relies on practice to be able to do his job. If pilots of any kind don't fly for practice, when they need to do so under stress they are unlikely to be of much use. An engine mechanic had the same sort of it would appear that the zest for military work in the middle to lower management range is somewhat lacking. But there also seems to be little concern about this from the upper echelons. Perhaps they are concentrating on something else?

As a semi-outsider I have noticed an interesting pattern in the Egyptian business community in that virtually every company of any size had some sort of general or something attached to it. So the military is a business school? I wouldn't call it that as many of these individuals were there for their connections to the old regime rather than for their abilities to actually do anything. Those that I met were, on the whole, extremely rigid, not likely to consider any new practices or ideas, and tended to be happy to work in strict chain-of-command situations. When pushed to release information, or change a business paradigm, or learn something new, they were often shocked into immobility. The military, however, have extensive business enterprises. They do a lot of construction work, they own and run hospitals that, while they are meant for military personnel, are actually used for private patients, and the number of entertainment and vacation properties that are run by and for the military is rather staggering. The Egyptian military have an extraordinary number of business enterprises that go back to an initial concept that the military should be self-supporting, but now go quite beyond that.

But does all of this economic activity make them qualified to run a country? On the contrary, their interests mean that they are more concerned with protecting themselves from any interference from outside the military than they are in integrating with the rest of society. It's known that any system soon aligns itself with whatever it takes to preserve that matter what the pronounced goals of any system might be said to be. Would I be surprised if it somehow is "difficult" or "inconvenient" to hold elections that might see civilian oversight of the military? Absolutely not. Their slowness to deal with old problems, and they are almost without number at this point, is hard not to notice. Out near where I live, farmers are wondering about planting and selling crops in the coming seasons as there used to be some guidance from the ministry of agriculture, guidance that is entirely lacking at this point. They don't know how the market is going to work, whether the government will pay a certain price for needed crops as in the past, or what to expect from life in general. As a result the prices of many agricultural products are rising as the farmers are hesitant to sell something that they might need for themselves. Our Egyptian farmers are wildly underrated, but I've seen them to be industrious, canny individuals who know how to coax the maximum number of food crops out of the valley's soil. They do, however, need some input from the ministry of agriculture and this doesn't seem to be forthcoming.

At this point the SCAF are in the unenviable position of being criticised quite correctly for their mishandling of the daily security issues, their inability to get ordinary police back to work, their detention and abuse of protesters, the lack of information and preparation for democratic elections, the lack of effort on the part of the ministries to assist businesses or the farmers. They were given a job that they were not prepared to do, and that many argue they had no real intention of actually doing properly. If, in fact, they have been working with honorable intentions, perhaps they should be asking for some help to accomplish this task. At the very least, they could arrange that the "bad guys" of the old regime are not appointed to current positions of power. The current policies do leave everyone asking whether they can be trusted to help to run honest elections if and when they decide that they will occur.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Appalling Manipulation

Last night a group of Salafists came to a church in Imababa looking for a Muslim woman called Abeer who was supposedly being held in the church. Oddly enough, this event occurred very shortly after a television program was broadcast during which a woman called Kamilia Shehata spoke denying that she had changed her faith from Islam to Christianity. Kamilia had been a rallying point for months for Salafists who claimed that she had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Christianity. During the television program Kamelia Shehata announced that she had not converted to Christianity and apologised to everyone for the problems caused. Zeinobia in her blog Chronicles of Egypt provides a timeline and some analysis of this bizarre event, the subsequent attack on an Imbaba church.

I was following the initial reports of the events in Imbaba before I went to bed last night and I turned in thinking that while it looked unpleasant, probably things would be ok in the morning. I couldn't have been more wrong. This morning when I sleepily booted up the laptop and checked Twitter I found that the situation had escalated to a major incident in which over 200 people were injured, about 8 were killed, and almost 200 people were finally arrested. We don't need this and I have to wonder just why this is happening now. I've done a bit of research online to learn more about the Salafis as to be honest I hadn't heard of these people before about March. I can abbreviate some of the considerable information in a couple of places such as Wikipedia and a blog called The Middle Ground. I plan to read more over the next few days.

Salafis are basically to the right of the Wahhabis, the ultra-strict sect of Islam practiced by the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, although according to other sources, they are supposed to be less strict than the Wahhabis. They disapprove of the Wahhabis as being much too liberal and not adhering to a sufficiently strict version of Islam, being a seriously strict fundamentalist group themselves, while according to the other sources previoiusly noted, the Wahhabis feel much the same about the Salafis. Many of the Egyptian Salafis found themselves locked up by the Mubarak regime for involvement in various outlawed Islamic organisations. Quite a few of them were released during the revolution, and the exact fashion in which they were released is in question to a large degree. Since the end of the revolution the Salafis have been identified as being responsible for the destruction of or damage to a number of Sufi tombs and shrines, claiming that they are idolatrous. Sufis are roughly the other wing of Islam and are primarily known for their belief in a personal relationship with God and being fairly relaxed on a social level. Islam is a huge and complicated religion with as many schools of belief as there are versions of Christianity.

Like many people here, however, I find issues of timing and the types of confrontations to be puzzling and suggestive. There aren't that many Salafis in Egypt, but they are taking up a rather large portion of the news coverage (which is still strongly influenced by the old regime) and they are seriously aggressive on many occasions. I can't recall any previous "Salafist" events at all, so this is a change that has happened after the military council took power when Mubarak stepped down. The non-issue of Kamilia Shehata, whose interview was broadcast on a Christian television channel, has been allowed to be blown out of all proportion. I find it fascinating that the mysterious Abeer should suddenly appear as a new "victim" at just the moment Kamilia Shehata retired. Almost as if they needed a new cause to justify their trouble making. And what are they accomplishing with all this? The main thing is to keep everyone off balance and create or magnify sectarian issues. And who would benefit from this action? The only people I can see benefiting from the discord within Egyptian society would be the military, since they have ruled Egypt since the change from a monarchy in the 1950's, and I'm very sure that they are not all that thrilled at the prospect of answering to the public, which could become the situation if there really are free elections in the fall. They plead inexperience in ruling the country, but the fact is the military, in the persons of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, have been ruling Egypt for about seventy years. One of the main problems facing the revolution is the fact that much really has not changed in the running of the country. As I was writing this post, Al Jazeera covered a story from Tunis that noted that Tunisians are extremely worried that the military might take control of the country should an Islamist group win in elections. Gee, that rings a bit of a bell for me at least.

None of us are really clear what happened last night although there are a few eyewitness reports. Sarah Carr, who spent quite a lot of time in Tahrir and is well-acquainted with Egypt's security service staff noted the presence of quite a few on the scene...and they did not seem to be concerned with calming the situation down. There are also other blog posts that acknowledge the lack of personal information but stress the importance of looking at the issues closely to remedy the problems. There have indeed been stressful relationships between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, although it is quite questionable as to what extent these were manufactured or exacerbated by the Mubarak regime. I was pleased to note that a multicultural multireligious event will be held next week in Maadi despite today's events. I'm sure that it's been planned for ages, but they could decide to postpone or simply forget about it.

People often wonder why people in the Middle East seem to be prone to conspiracy theories. If we have learned anything from the revolution this year, it is probably the fact that little here is as it seems. We are well aware that previous regimes have found it easier to run Egypt if the Egyptians are not unified as one people as they were during the revolution, and I suspect that the military council would also find this to be true. I'm quite sure that the army and what is supposed to be national security could protect churches against Salafist groups if they really wanted to. But do they?

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Goodnight, Ali

I lost an old friend today. Ali, also known as Ali Capone, Alibird, and AliDon'tBiteMyFeet, was found dead in the aviary today. There was no indication of attack, illness or anything to suggest why he would have died. I have to assume a coronary or something. He was about 22 years old, a fairly respectable age for an African Grey parrot. We don't know exactly how old he was but he was a fairly young bird when he came to live with us.

My kids bought Ali for me for Mother's Day when we were living in Alexandria. He was young, frightened, and not at all happy with human beings. I put his cage in the kitchen so that he would see people all the time. We put a bowl of treats (nuts, grapes, and so on) next to the cage. Every time someone came through the kitchen they would take a treat from the bowl and offer it to Ali, usually saying as people do "Here, Ali". Gradually he calmed down among us and got to look forward to the attention. It took months before I was able to touch him without significant blood loss, but in a year or so he would come out of his cage and wander around the house on the floor quite comfortably. African Greys are well known for their speaking ability and Ali was very vocal. With people talking to him all the time and giving him goodies, he began with whistling. When we copied his whistles, it became a game where he would copy any whistle he heard. Soon he began muttering. It was extraordinary to hear long conversations from this little grey bird, but the meaning was just out of reach. Without really thinking, you found yourself hearing this voice coming from the cage and saying "What?". We felt silly responding to a parrot like that but he sounded so real. Then one day in the midst of the mutter a word came out clearly: "What?". Well, of course. The next word he said was "Here", another natural since that was what people said to him when they gave him treats.

When we moved to Cairo from Alexandria, Ali came with us and he really came into his own in the new house. By now he was used to being loose in the house much of the day and sleeping in his cage at night. He had a nice perch on the top of his sleeping cage and when I came down to the kitchen I would hear a quiet "Hello Ali" from under the covers. If I didn't take them off and open the door, the greeting would come with greater volume and urgency until I finally did. During the day if I was cooking in the kitchen he would wander around the kitchen floor, pulling on cupboard doors trying to get them open and murmuring "What here Ali?" to himself. His vocabulary was increasing and his use of it was more skilled. He would encourage himself in his activities by saying "Come on Ali", and would be totally delighted if he got the cupboard doors open. He loved to pull all the pots and pans out of the cupboard. The sound of them banging on the floor seemed to give him enormous pleasure. He would follow me out to the living room and climb up my leg to sit on my lap while I read, or cuddle up under my chin when I took a nap on the sofa. Every now and then he would say something so direct, real, and off the wall that it would astonish me. One day when my daughter came home from school to find me making spaghetti sauce in the kitchen. She wandered in asking me what smelled so good. A little voice came from the cage saying "What's it look like, stupid?" We were both dumbstruck and looked over to Ali who merely scratched his head and looked innocent.

Ali didn't like the kitchen cupboards in our next house. They were too heavy for him to pull open, so he turned his talents to other occupations like removing the rubber seal of the about three times. Expensive hobby. He also proved himself to be incredibly efficient at stripping the toaster cord of its covering while it was still plugged in, and we decided that maybe Ali needed a safer place to live. We built an aviary in the garden and found him a nice African Grey girlfriend Mona to share it with him. He liked the arrangement and after a couple of years he and Mona surprised us with two baby African Greys. They were great parents and took good care of the babies, but when they were fledged we moved the kids into the house to work with them so that they would be comfortable with humans. We didn't think that keeping four Greys was such a good idea. The babies, Pobble and Atilla the Hungry, were female and male respectively, and were so much fun to train. They were being hand fed so we took them with us to our house in Sharm el Sheikh that summer and had to clip their wings when they learned to fly in the living room. We found homes for them with good families. Pobble took after her father and was a real talker but Atilla was like his mother Mona and specialised in whistles.

While the years were passing, we collected other birds in the aviary. At various times we had African Ringnecks (the infamous Killer Kelly and her motorcycle gang) and some Cuban Amazons that I found sick and miserable at a bird seller. A friend brought me a really unhappy Grey who had pulled out all his feathers, but Fritzi recovered well in the company of Ali and Mona. When I finally moved from Maadi to Sakkara, I built a big aviary for the birds so that they would have plenty of room to fly in. Brilliantly, I thought that I might be able to use chicken wire to screen in the rooms inside (three 3 metre x 3 metre rooms joined by a small service room) but Ali, Fritzi and Mona had other ideas. They chewed through the chicken wire to make holes so that they could fly from one room to the other. Life was getting interesting. I bought some chickens to clean up the food that the parrots loved to toss on to the floor, then someone brought us a couple of ducks, a pair of turkeys, a couple of geese, some doves and pigeons and we had a major avian habitat going on.

You might think that a duck, goose or turkey could bully a half pound parrot but that is definitely not the case. Ali and Fritz took over monitoring the terracotta jar where the chickens liked to lay their eggs and we had to coax them away from it to collect them. There was no question....ever....who ran the aviary. Every morning when I'd go out to feed him, I'd hear a cheery "Hello Bird". As far as Ali was concerned we were all birds. If I was late with breakfast the calls of "Here Ali" "Here Bird" would increase with time. And everyone loved playing the whistling game with him. He would copy your whistle and embellish it a little with a sort of competitive streak. He drove the gardeners crazy when they cleaned the aviary because he would waddle along behind them and nip at their feet. They never would wear closed shoes for that work. I knew better.

There is great disturbance in the birdosphere today. A wonderful little grey creature is sleeping under the papaya tree and I will miss him forever. Goodnight, Ali Bird.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Chance For Research/Activism in Hospitals

I'm typing on top of the world right now. For the past three weeks I've had my right hand in a half cast because I tripped on a piece of wood in my living room and flew through the air hitting my kitchen door with my middle finger, breaking the bone inside my hand. That's right, it was that finger that is so useful in driving through Cairo traffic. I got an xray and went to visit my good friend and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mostafa, who has already reconstructed my left shoulder for me two years ago and did a double knee replacement for me last summer. He laughs over the fact that I'm the age of his mother but manage to do some pretty creative stuff to my poor old body....calls me his "bad boy"! Today I did a second xray to show that the break is knitting well, was given a brace to protect my hand for a while, and a prescription for some calcium to help the hand finish its work.

Body issues taken care of, Mostafa and I caught up on what's been happening lately. Despite being a very busy orthopedic surgeon here in Cairo, he's lately agreed to help at one of the government hospitals in administration. A government hospital job isn't going to make him rich. Salaries in them are laughable. He's doing it because he realises that someone needs to try to help this hospital improve. The salaries for the staff are too low. Cleaners might make LE 300 a month, a wage that will feed no one, so they don't work too hard and they try to get tips from patients. Who can blame them? Nurses here are not well paid or well trained and they are looked at by most Egyptians as being only slightly more respectable than prostitutes or dancers. Not great. Mostafa told me that in learning more about how the hospital was working...or not working as the case may be... he found that the communications between patients and staff are not good, with patients often being highly suspicious of the staff. We talked about how the Egyptian habit of bringing family members to a hospital to help care for a patient, while still definitely necessary, can often be counterproductive in terms of contagion. This is especially true in cancer wards where chemo patients are taking immune system battering meds while surrounded by possible sources of infection. He shook his head in wonder that he's surprised that the stress of trying to analyse and treat a seriously ill institution is not simply breaking him down. Somehow he's staying calm about the whole thing.

It occurred to me that this could be a chance made in heaven for some serious university students to help him do some research on what was working and not working in the hospital. Anthropology, sociology, medical and urban planning students could find some fascinating data here. As well, there is a major opportunity for community organisers to help to establish something like a hospital auxiliary, perhaps a group for would-be nurses to learn about their chosen field...something like the Candystripers that work as volunteers in hospitals in the US and Canada. I'm going to put word out about this chance for research and/or activism and let's see what happens. The government hospitals have long been disastrous in Egypt and have been the source of much head-shaking and concern, but perhaps the better way to view the problem is to see it as an opportunity for parts of our society to come together to seek solutions. Doing research and setting up programs hasn't been so easy in the "old" Egypt because pretty much everyone had something to hide. Perhaps this is the time to change all of this. If you know of anyone who might be interested in helping in this project, or maybe with another one like it, do contact me and I will put you in touch with my overworked friend.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, March 28, 2011

How To Kill A Revolution

This following post was passed to me by a friend in Moscow who had spent some happy years here. We traced it to another friend who is Dutch/Egyptian. I have no idea who wrote it but it is perfect. I'm truly concerned that this is absolutely right. If anyone knows who wrote this I really want to know.

This is a note that’s been circulating on Facebook about a conspiracy re. the Egyptian revolution. I have to admit that over the past few years more and more conspiracy theories have been making sense to me. This one does too.

The Coup

Egypt just had what many see as a revolution. Certain demands, including the trying of a strongman, were forcefully made by millions all over Egypt. To give the impression that all that would take place, Mubarak appointed a Supreme Military Council (SMC) and then went on sabbatical to Sharm El Sheikh. At present, the SMC is in full control. The Egyptian people are supposed to put their full trust in the SMC, go to sleep, and, before they know it, all their dreams will come true. Personally, as an Egyptian citizen, I’m having trouble sleeping soundly. So, please indulge me by allowing me to take you on a short hypothetical journey to make my point. Please imagine that I am a high-ranking member of the SMC, the military high command that a deposed president appointed after his resignation. My council has been entrusted with a monumental task. We are required to appear to hand over power in an orderly manner to the people and to arrange for free and fair elections for parliament as well as president. But we have one small problem. We don’t want to go. If we go, it will be as good as signing our death warrants. Who the hell will protect us from all the corruption we’ve been involved in for decades? How will we be able to live with open budgets that could fall under civilian scrutiny? What will happen to our businesses and contracting companies? How will we explain the American FMS money we’ve been living off for so long? What will happen when they start probing into our personal wealth files? Imagine, civilians giving orders to the military; sacrilegious stuff. No, sir! It is not just that we don’t want to go. The clear fact is: we cannot afford to go!

But we now have another problem. For the moment, the people trust us, but some of them are starting to make funny noises about Mubarak; they are demanding he be put on trial. That is crazy. He is the one to whom we owe all this good life. If he is put on trial, many heads will roll, our own being on the frontline. So, we must devise a plan to soothe the masses. We need to play our cards right to be able to fool the people. We shall use our customary methods of intimidation, but not too much before the situation is fully under control. Right now, the situation is too precarious to take the risk of starting another revolution. We are treading on thin ice. Our top priority is to regain control over the public in order to destroy their ability to rise in large numbers again. That is the only weapon we cannot deal with. Actually, we were so relieved on the 11th of February. The numbers were so huge we could easily have been forced to leave with Mubarak. Fortunately, we escaped unscathed, but we must never allow the masses to rally in such numbers again.

Okay, here’s the plan - First, we shall use a few ex-ministers, all civilians of course, as highly-publicised corruption scapegoats to give the gullible public the impression that we are fighting corruption, tooth and nail. They will buy us some time. Next, we shall give the public a tame new cabinet, with a few old ministers we do not want to let go of. This we shall do after much histrionics in clinging to the Mubarak-appointed cabinet. So when the new cabinet takes over, relief among the population will be so high, it will buy us even more time. All along, we shall keep issuing pacifying statements and releasing small numbers of prisoners to keep the charade alive.

Then comes the next phase: splitting the population. To do that, I now need to play the constitution card. Now, everyone is aware that the protesters did not carry a religious message; they wanted secular rule. But we all know that Egypt contains extreme religious factions. What better way to split the nation than to set them up in acrimonious confrontation? We, the SMC, are fully aware that we could have followed the demands of the protesters, given them an elected council to draft a new constitution in line with those demands, held a referendum after several months to give everybody a chance to understand the new document and embark on a serious attempt to make Egypt a prosperous and transparent country, in which the role of religious parties would be roughly proportional to the numbers we saw among the protesting crowds. In that scenario, religion would not be a threat and everybody would be able to live in harmony and religious tolerance. But, we already told you we do not want that. We wish to split the nation and religion is our best chance of doing it. So let’s play with the constitution. We do not want to tamper with the articles that give the president almost omnipotent powers and total immunity from any kind of punitive measures. Such articles might serve us well in future and, at the same time, we must not give the population too much rope; they’ve been reined in quite nicely for the time being. In line with our objective, we shall appoint a ten-man council, all loyal lackeys with heavy religious agendas in order to suggest some meaningless modifications in the 1971 constitution as a temporary means of moving to parliamentary elections thereafter. That way we shall appear to be taking serious legislative action towards open elections within a few months. Once we put these modifications to a referendum and they get the green light, the rest will be easy, because we know that the only political forces capable of contesting any elections, already well organised and in full combat gear, are the remnants of the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are both devoid of scruples and can thus help us drive the scam home quite convincingly. None of the troublesome protesters of the square will have time to mount a serious challenge. Of course, we shall have no problem fixing the referendum results; we’re veterans at that game. With no serious monitoring, we can determine the result beforehand. This time anything over eighty percent will look suspicious, so we’ll have to go down a bit, but not too much lest the margin over fifty percent be too low to account for some election irregularities being sufficient to tip the scale. Let’s go for around 77 percent. After that it will be plain sailing. The population will be split down the middle and the religious parties will gain much ground. Fear of religious domination might even persuade secular elements to insist that we remain in control. Whatever puppet of a president or majority party ‘wins’ the upcoming elections will be putty in our hands. We won’t have to go and everything will be fine. Of course, Mubarak will never be allowed to stand trial.

We realise that what we are doing is tantamount to a coup d’etat against the people, but we have no other way. The coup’s victim was not Mubarak; he was just another participant. The real victim was and still is the poor people of Egypt and what they believed was a revolution.

We, the SMC, all pray for Egypt. God bless Egypt.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, February 27, 2011

When Is Aid Not Aid?

Sometimes having lived a long time and having a good memory is an asset. I never thought much about it and it's only recently that I've realised that I have achieved an age that actually counts as such. Perhaps it's having children hitting their thirties that suddenly makes you realise that you have become one of the "older generation". But many of the experiences I've collected, the thoughts and possibilities I've encountered, seem to be coming together now in a sort of critical mass that is presenting me with ideas I haven't examined much up to this point. I've never been terribly focused in my activities throughout my life. I've studied a variety of things, worked in a wide variety of jobs and from time to time have found myself utterly fascinated by quite an odd collection of things. When I was about 13, I ran across a reference in a book to the fact that in the Middle Ages bubonic plague changed the face of Europe irreparably when it killed off roughly 3/4 of the population in its repeated passes. I went to the library (no internet then) and read everything I could get my hands on about the Black Death and its ramifications. Because of my age, my poor parents had to okay many of the books I wanted to read and they were very understanding, although perhaps a bit bewildered at the rather macabre topic.

Lately, I've been watching the events here in the Middle East with total fascination...hardly surprising since I live here and they have the power to touch my life. I'm following the news outlets and some of the less known reports via Twitter. Much has been written about the power of social media in all the uprisings/revolutions taking place and that in itself is a source of fascination. Twitter is undoubtedly one of the most useful tools I've seen developed for communication. I became interested in it a few years ago when it was used to notify people that protesters had been taken by government forces so that efforts could be made to free them, rather than have them fall into the black hole of detention. I've listened in on debates on Twitter and read alternative witness accounts of activities. Amazing stuff for anyone interested in the social sciences.

However, one thing more than anything else has come to the fore in my search for information and the explanations of the rise and falls of dictators in this region and it, oddly enough, is an old bogeyman from my youth. I grew up in California, went to Berkeley during the late 60's and moved to Canada in protest against US policies in the early 70's. I was in no fear of being drafted, but I felt very strongly that the US was completely wrong in its pursuit of the Viet Nam war. When protests and demonstrations finally seemed to reach the ears of the government, finally began to activate the hands and mouths of the legislators and the government finally acted to stop the war, we all had some hopes that someone somewhere had actually learned something.

Some forty years on as I read account after account of the amount of "aid" given to many of the dictators providing so called "stability" in the Middle East I'm reminded of something that I heard way back when I was still very young. My parents were Eisenhower supporters. My father had served as a non-combatant medical technician in WWII and brought my mother to the US as a war bride. After the war he attended Stanford University and was then hired by the Department of Defense where he did a lot of things for the US Navy that he could never discuss at home. Long after his death we've been putting together the picture of what he did from friend's accounts, journals and so on. One of the things he did, rather incidentally, was to help set up the internet in the Pacific Northwest after his retirement. Another thing was to work on modeling, making sort of prototypical computer games that would analyse tactics and strategies. He didn't like being part of a war machine and his real love was space exploration, for which he bargained with his bosses to be allowed to work. All of this explanation is to say why this statement made by President Eisenhower in his farewell address in 1961 has always stuck in my mind.

"A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

My father was part of the military-industrial complex as much as he hated being so, and I was always aware of this conflict within him. When demonstrators were protesting the Viet Nam war, they called attention to the role of Dow Chemical in the development and manufacture of napalm, and to the development and use of Agent Orange, a particularly dangerous form of dioxin by Dow and Monsanto. Over the years, the term military-industrial complex has gone out of style and Noam Chomsky has pointed out that the military aspect was actually just a face of a culture driven by industrial imperatives. Military products are nice to produce because among other things, you can blow them up, necessitating the production of more of them.

It seems wildly obvious to me, however, that the industrial aspects of the western culture have gotten totally out of control. If you read any articles on the aid that has been "given" to many of the Middle Eastern countries, many of whom are currently involved in unrest, revolutions, and protests from unhappy citizenry, it is admitted that the major portion of this aid has been military aid. In countries with massive issues of poverty, environmental issues, poor educational systems, and hunger...they are given military aid. Brilliant. And what does this aid get the country? It gets them the right to buy arms from the aid giver at lower prices, better financing, and sometimes simply takes one government's money, passes it to another government for some quick skimming, and then puts it back in the economy of the first government when the products are "bought".

This is a self-perpetuating cycle. True, it does benefit the originator of the aid in that it helps provide employment for people in the area of the economy that produces arms or the spare parts to repair them or the means to transport them...but the bottom line here is that it's all either destructive or imaginary. No one is actually producing anything that will help someone eat, learn, or become healthier. The best possible outcome is that the arms will simply grow old, like the out-dated tear gas canisters collected by protesters in Cairo. If they are actually used in warfare, they have no beneficial purpose to anyone. So why not simply pay them to build something useful instead, like bridges and dams and new roads, hospitals or schools...or to repair the ones that are falling apart?

Let's face it, aside from a few situations like the Israelis invading Lebanon and the US invading Iraq, invasion has pretty much gone out of style. So do we need to protect against invaders? In Egypt, who is going to invade us? What would seven million Libyans or seven million Israelis do with 80 million Egyptians? We don't need tanks. We can just assign 5 or 6 Egyptians to every Israeli. And running Egypt is no piece of cake as anyone can tell you these days...not exactly a job that any decent invader would aspire to. Even more to the point, the last major military actions have been carried out by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, and EVERYONE can see how well those have gone. Obviously, someone is benefiting from all that activity but it sure as hell isn't the Iraqis or Afghanis or the Americans sitting back home wondering what is going wrong with their schools, banks and economy. Someone once estimated that if the money spent on the Viet Nam war were simply converted to nickels and dropped on the country, every square inch of Viet Nam would have been covered to a depth of 3 or 4 feet. It would have been higher if they'd used something cheaper than metal.

It's time for people to stop listening to the nonsense and do as they recommend in the detective novels. (See? Even trashy novels can add your knowledge.) Follow the money. Before you let your country offer military aid to someone, check how it works. Maybe it will actually save some money just to give it to the people of your own country. Much of the billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains stashed away by autocrats all over the world has been skimmed. Want to help someone? Build some tractors, pay the shipping, and give them to the farmers..and skip the bureaucracy. Or buy books and paper and desks and ship them to needy schools. But then no one would profit except the workers who build and the farmers who need, and as we all have seen, that would never do.

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Thoughts on Recent Events

I began this blog about 18 months after 9/11 in an effort to help friends and acquaintances of mine, mostly from the US, understand why I insisted on living in this backward, terrorist-ridden woman-hating country...that was pretty much how Egypt was described in the media back then. I looked online for webpages or information about the joys of living in Egypt (and there are many) but I couldn't find anything. So with all good intentions, I decided to write about living here as a long term resident and lover of Egyptian society and life. In March, my blog will be about eight years old.

From the beginning, I chose to avoid discussions of local politics, partly because I'm not an Egyptian citizen, not for want of trying but because of some utterly inane bureaucratic hitch in the Mogamma that prevents me from being given citizenship even though my husband and children carry it. As someone without formal citizenship I was very aware of my precarious position under a regime that was notoriously touchy about criticism and I had no wish at all to be deported or barred from entering the country that I consider my only home. In addition, I don't read or write Arabic and I really felt that it was rather inappropriate for me to be sounding off about things here that I could only partly understand for lack of complete information...and I was quick to find a group of much younger Egyptian bloggers who were doing an infinitely better job, at great personal cost.

I chose instead to try to talk about aspects of daily life here that could give the country a more human face, things that anyone could relate to in terms of family life, philosophy, those smaller things that keep us going when the larger events threaten to trample our souls and that are universal to all people. Sometimes I feel that maybe I did too good a job as I get a lot of email from people who for various reasons want to come here to live and work. I always have to point out that Egypt has never been without its problems (no country is), that it is essential to learn to speak (at least) Arabic so that there is a possibility of communication, and that this isn't Indiana with pyramids. Egypt has its own culture and way of life and doesn't need to have anyone else's imposed upon it. With my children grown and studying in the US, I had a constant pressure to remember to be tactful as they were not keen on hopping a flight to try to dig their old mother out of one of the Egyptian prisons.

With the January 25 protests and in the days following, I found myself sitting by the television at the farm, following events on Twitter and the net, and biting my tongue almost off. My son and daughter are still in New York studying and working, and they pointed out the wisdom of not being in Tahrir given my citizenship and the knee surgery that I underwent last summer. (I'm not so nimble on the ground although I am still fine on horseback.) I was devastated like everyone when Mubarak unexpectedly did not step down on Thursday night and cheered with most Egyptians when he finally left on Friday. And again, I was constantly asking myself if it would have been right for me to be there or not. A large part of my spirit says "Hell, yes!", while the part that probably keeps me alive, fed and safe, says "Maybe no". In the end, the deciding vote was cast by my work and lifestyle which meant that if I disappeared a group of people who depended on me for their living and a bunch of animals to whom I am terribly attached, would be set adrift with no one to provide for them. In addition, I actually hold my farm in trust for my daughter and I need to protect that trust. So discretion won out, at least for the short term.

Watching the revolution from the safety of the countryside was rather surreal. Out here the main difference in life was that many of us had a very hard time getting hay and feed for our animals. In our area people helped each other out with supplies so that no one would suffer too much. Thankfully, I'd withdrawn a reasonably large amount of cash from the bank before they all closed during the protests, and this helped a lot. I still had staff responsibilities even if the banks were closed, and animals could care less about politics...they simply want to be fed. Out here the neighbourhood watch was quickly instated and extremely efficient. At the height of the problems you had to go through about 6 checkpoints to get near my farm. If the driver and/or passenger wasn't recognised, they had to show ID, declare who they were coming to visit, and they had to call that person to verify the fact. Even now the checkpoints are in place and cars are carefully vetted. We could hear the tanks rolling around in the desert for much of the revolution. I understand that some archaeological warehouses were raided the first night that the police vanished, but things were quiet here other than the odd time the villagers caught people who had been stealing from stores in the Pyramids Road area trying to smuggle their loot through this area.

My staff, like many rural Egyptians, are mostly at the lower end of the educational scale with many of them illiterate. Even those who could read were incredibly confused. They were accustomed to reading the usual newspapers and watching state TV, so when Al Jazeera began showing what was actually happening in the streets, they didn't know what to think as the government newspapers and TV shouted out that A) Nothing was happening at all; B)There were small protests instigated by foreign powers variously and sometimes simultaneously identified as Israeli, Iranian, Hamas or simply "foreign"and C) Al Jazeera was lying about everything just to make Egypt look bad. I guess that the unspoken word there was that Qatar was also trying to bring down the Egyptian state. When the government satellite cut Al Jazeera Arabic, we would let people come to the house to see it in English, as that hadn't been cut. I spent hours talking to them about what was happening, what was hoped and why it was so important to them...and how it might change their lives but that it would not be an easy road.

Family and friends were, naturally, concerned. My children offered me a flight to NYC, but I declined saying that I felt safe and I wouldn't miss this for the world. As long as it was possible we spoke to each other daily. I don't want to think about my long distance bill. When the net returned after being cut off for a bit, reception out here was still a bit dicey and it took days to respond to people who were writing worried about me. And at the end of it all, I felt drained, happy, bewildered, concerned and frustrated. It's taken a week at least to work out all those emotions.

I was drained as many of the young people who were involved in this revolution were those who I'd been following online for many years. After a while they feel like friends, although I'd never met them, and concern for their safety and relief when they were released from custody was enormous. I was delighted with the outcome inasmuch as our unesteemed head of state departed finally with his family. The cronyism, corruption, and violence were never far from anyone's sight, so I was cheering for the revolution from day one. I think everyone in Egypt is a bit bewildered at this point. This is the first time in probably over eight thousand years that Egyptians have had a say in their government. They have gone through any number of systems of monarchy to military dictatorship and now finally have a chance to have the people of the country speak for their needs. In a sense, they have the chance now to reinvent democracy on their terms. There certainly isn't much in the way of baggage to encumber them since everyone acknowledges that what existed here was certainly not any kind of real democracy. Everyone is looking about asking where to go from here, but they are not simply looking. This afternoon a neighbour took Catherine (a friend of my daughter who is staying here and helping me) into Zamalek for a meeting of a group of people who are wanting to help to rebuild Egypt. There are many groups of this sort on Facebook that I know of and quite likely many more being organised offline. People are collecting money and hospital supplies to help the victims of violence during the protests, they are establishing food banks, going out and sweeping and repairing the streets, directing traffic and taking care of neighbourhood security. Many of the police are either on strike (the lower ranks do get appallingly bad wages and working conditions) or in hiding.

While in many respects, the country seems to be quite normal in these post-revolutionary times, in many others it is not. The stock exchange has been closed indefinitely for some time now. I don't understand stock exchanges when everything is terrific, so I have nothing to say about that now. The strikes that are being held are totally understandable in that no one has had the freedom to complain about anything for longer than anyone can remember, but they are definitely inconvenient at times. Banks were closed all last week and we have had no assurance that they will open this week. This is primarily because the employees of the National Bank are on strike. But the strikes are not indefinite, they come and go causing temporary problems. These are growing pains and I remember being inconvenienced plenty of times by strikes in Canada. In Egypt, people simply have not become accustomed to any labour unrest. A group of my neighbours got together on Friday morning to check out the situation for horseback riding in the desert here, something that is important for both our sanity and some of our budgets. On Friday it was fine, but one neighbour reported seeing soldiers jogging in the desert on Thursday morning. No one is quite sure what that means.

My theory is that Egypt works on a special chaos filter and very close to the red line at the best of times, so when things aren't quite normal...they really aren't that far off normal. On February 12, Catherine and I drove down to Beni Suef (with the ever protective Mohamed of course) to buy some goats to improve our flock. We picked up two males (one Alpine/Syrian cross and the other Saanen/Syrian cross) and three females (all Saanen/Syrian cross) to breed with our flock of baladi goats. The males were named Google and Twitter while the females were dubbed Mona, Zeinobia, and Nadia, after three of my favourite Twitter posters during the protests. We saw nothing unusual other than a couple of burned cars on the side of the road, a couple of tanks and a four year old boy in the village where we bought the goats who picked up a stone and brandished it at us shouting "Horreya" (Freedom)...only to be firmly scolded by his mother who told him that was enough. The revolution is over.

But is it over? Not really. The military leaders are the same military leaders who were in power under Mubarak, while the cabinet is largely made up of the same old gang of suspects. There is still an awful lot of housecleaning to do. Much of the frustration I mentioned has to do with the influence of other countries in Egypt's affairs through the use of the aid given, primarily to the military. Most of the US aid was given in the form of credit that could be spent in the US arms industry to buy tanks, planes, guns and tear gas canisters...though oddly enough many of the latter were way beyond their expiration dates apparently. Wonder where the money for the new tear gas went...or are there huge warehouses of the stuff lying about? Basically the aid went to prop up a regime that was everything the US government claims to hate. They've gone into Iraq and Afghanistan to rid the poor citizens there of repressive regimes supposedly...while causing major collateral damage to both countries. When the protests in Egypt began, the leaders of the free world sided with Mubarak, although no one can believe that they were unaware of the real situation here. Maybe they only lead the "free" world and don't really have anything to do with the oppressed world except to sell the governments there arms. At any rate, the Egyptians "freed" themselves and with a much lower cost than we would have had with help from the US military.

During the protests there was much discussion of the "Tunisia" effect referring to the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime only a short while earlier. Of course, there are still issues there as the "interim" government of Tunisia has also kept on entirely too many of the old regime. Within days of February 11, protesters in Bahrain marched to demand reform and more voice in their government, perhaps a constitutional monarchy rather than what currently exists. Like the Egyptians, they marched without weapons, chanting in peace, and when the government soldiers, mercenaries for the most part unlike the Egyptian army, encountered the protesters, they were fired on with tear gas canisters at point blank range. The army's responses to peaceful protest has been so violent in Bahrain as to be termed a massacre at times. And the governmental tactic has been to ban the press, penning them in the airport so that there can be no international oversight...except that there is no such thing as no oversight anymore. Telephones shoot videos and can transmit them abroad. The protesters across North Africa (Libya is fighting a vicious battle with largely foreign troups as well against the citizens) are for the most part following the nonviolent doctrines of Gandhi and the governments opposing them fail to realise that they'd get further by allowing discussion and participation than by reacting with violence. Watching the idiocy of the regimes' responses is wildly frustrating. We all know that they have huge stakes to protect, but the violent approach in the long run simply does not work. Soldiers might be able to shoot 10, 20, 100 people...but can they hold out over 1000 or 1,000,000? What the Egyptians learned early in February is that you are as free as you can imagine, or you are as oppressed as you allow yourself to be, and that lesson seems to be one that is easy to learn.

Photos of Tahrir by Zena Sallam

copyright 2011 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking About Love

Valentine's Day is and its connection to romantic love is celebrated worldwide in February. It is not a particularly Egyptian tradition, and in fact November 4 is celebrated as well as the Egyptian holiday of love. Rather cynically, one could easily suggest that the cute stuffed animals, the roses, the chocolates, the cards, and the rush on intimate dining spots are all a ploy by the commercial interests to get us all spending more money after we've recovered from the giddy rush of the Christmas season, especially since there is no real historical evidence that either the day or the saint have anything to do with romantic love. But the ease with which many cultures have adopted the day of thinking of one's loved one suggests that this is something important to us all.

If you examine the day and the relationships that it celebrates, it is indeed important to us all, for without the bonds of friendship and love between partners it would truly be difficult for us to renew the human race...a fact any single parent will attest to. It is always a good thing to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our daily struggle to survive. As a widow for ten years, it's been rather a long time since I got a Valentine's Day bouquet or card, and I have friends who are just entering the long period of adjustment to this state. It's hard to lose a partner and Valentine's Day can be especially painful in the first years. Those of us who have survived that first traumatic year take care of our friends who are struggling through. We call, visit, email and try to be there to help keep their heads above the waters of loneliness.

So what is this love we are celebrating? Is it only the feelings of warmth engendered by the sight of a smile, the warmth of physical contact, the wish to spend more time together and perhaps marry? When thought of in this fashion, this love that we celebrate on Valentine's Day is not just romantic love ("Oh my, look at that gorgeous one! Wouldn't I love to be the number one for that!) but it is truly love in general.

We love many things and people. We love our husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children. We love our pets, our gardens, our neighbours (hopefully), our friends and so on as well. Are they truly different kinds of love? From the vantage point of my early 60's, I'm not really sure that they are. Truly, I'm not interested in marrying my terrier who might wake me at night with his barking, nor most of my friends. At the same time, my husband was both loved by me and was my best friend. I knew I could count on him when the chips were down and we shared many secrets that were known only to us. But just as chocolate comes in many flavours that appeal to many sorts of people, or even to any one person at different times, love also comes in many flavours.

Too often we look for love as if it were a beacon or spotlight that might shine on us through the eyes of a loved one. We think of it as a gift that another person or being might bestow upon us if we are worthy, and far too many people feel that they have no hope of being worthy of such a gift. Does love sail out of the moonlit sky like a flying saucer, does it suddenly drench us like an unforseen rainstorm, or fall splat on our forehead like the gift of a passing bird? It certainly feels like that sometimes.

When my husband died, I was devastated, bereft, lost in a number of worlds that seemed completely unfriendly to me. I went through my days in a haze, expecting to see him walk through the door just returned from a business trip that took too long, listening for the sound of him sneezing as he got up in the morning. It was a terrible period for me. One evening, I went out to the farm where I was boarding my horses and took my old mare out for a walk in the summer night. We were alone in the darkness listening to sleepy birds, hearing snatches of music from distant village weddings, noting our time by the call to prayer in the night. My mare walked along the darkened paths calmly, responding to my random comments with a flick of her ear, and I thought to myself how good it was to be alone with someone who cared about me and not about my late husband's businesses. I realised just how much I loved this creature who trusted me to guide her and who offered to guide me when the way was too dark for my feeble human vision. With this realisation, an extraordinary sense flooded through me of the warmth of my mare, the beauty of the trees against the night sky, the softness of the air moving slowly across the fields.

With the loss of my husband, I thought that I had also lost the love that we had shared and that lit our world and warmed our children. Alone with my mare in the night, I realised that nothing outside of us can either take or give us love. The love is within us waiting to come out to touch other living things, whether human, animal, or vegetable. As I passed a village home, a woman called out to me inviting me to tea. I wasn't willing to stop or break the spell, but I found myself able to smile with real warmth at her to thank her. Her answering smile washed over me, leaving me comforted again to the center of my soul. That night, I knew that I would survive my loss and that I would in fact thrive.

When we think of the holiday of love, we must remember this fact. Love is not given to us; we give it and then receive the warmth of our gift. When we cook with love, the food is more delicious and nourishing; when we care for our plants with love, they flourish; when we spread our love and joy among our friends and family, it shines back at us as the sun is reflected in the moonlight. And the more you give, the more you get.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani