Monday, February 20, 2012

Letters from Egypt: My Trip to Cairo’s Public Schools

On the rare occasion, I get an assignment that allows me to witness contributions that are being directly allocated to those in need. Yesterday was one of those days.

I visited four public schools near the Khan el-Khalili to document an international company’s work and commitment to social responsibility. While I will withhold the names of schools and the company, I was somewhat alarmed at what I saw but in some ways not surprised. I suppose I should backtrack. First, these schools were chosen after the company had conducted a study and likewise wanted four schools near one another. The Ministry of Education approved the company’s contribution, but “suggested” which schools should receive the help.

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the recipient schools are part of al-Azhar system where all students are Muslim with the bulk of the curriculum consisting of religious doctrine. It’s definitely not surprising since the Salafist party (al-Nour as documented in How Illiterate Egypt Votes) gained control of the Ministry of Education after forming a coalition with other parties. Most of the books I saw in the classrooms were all a part of the Qaran, or actually various copies of the Qaran itself. The only educational tools regarding reading, writing and arithmetic were mostly provided by USAID.

Each presentation began with select children reciting a passage or two (or three, four , etc.) from the religious book and songs. An Egyptian industry colleague said to me that he was a product of Egypt’s public school system and these schools scared him with their hard-lined rhetoric. He said, “When I went to school, it wasn’t like this.” Interestingly, he is my age (29) and from Port Said – where it is even more conservative than larger cities like Alexandria and Cairo.

Singing for visitors
 School supplies were being handed out to the less-fortunate children (those that are unable to afford the yearly school fee of LE 45, or $7.50, and orphans) as well as school fees paid for those students that met certain criteria. At one school, the so-called headmaster pulled the company executives in a room and discussed how it was to be a mosque, but he needed monetary contributions to make it. The point: he didn’t ask for more help for the children to give them a better education, he went straight for the mosque. He said how the contributions helped, but the mosque was in need of being built. This reminds me of that story in the New York Times that documented young Pakistanis attempting to clean the streets only to have men at the mosque tell them they should instead be cleaning the mosque (please read my blog, Small Changes).

And despite the sometimes scary banter that ensued from recitation or just the yelling from the headmaster and staff at these children, it was a great experience. I’ve never been to one of these schools before. The last school I visited was near Dead City, an area that is composed of tombs and mausoleums where people reside among those buried. Some residents of Dead City began as tomb keepers, others moved from poorer areas within Egypt unable to afford housing elsewhere. One headmaster told the story of how a man living in Dead City approached him to allow his children to attend the school. Although Egypt has mandated that every child be afforded an education and children are supposed to be able to attend schools in their area, proper documentation of residence is required. For those living in Dead City, this is impossible. Even after several requests to the Ministry of Education, many are still unable to be admitted into school. And if a child is admitted, the LE 45 ($7.50) per child annual school fee is difficult to acquire.

It broke my heart to see some of these kids, especially the orphans. The future of Egypt will directly impact them, maybe more so than others. And in my opinion education should be the first priority. When the industry colleague asked me my thoughts on this, I simply said I was only a guest in this country. I asked him, “If you disagree with this, why don’t you and others like you try to change it?” He said, “We’re a small percentage.” I reminded him that small percentage helped jump-start the revolution.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Letters from Egypt: Powerful Message

“What is happening to the people? Now we walk around in fear. Everyone [is] angry and think they can just take what you have because it is their right,” said an Egyptian friend yesterday. On her way home from work last week, she hailed a cab and simply said “Autostrad.” She was on her way home to Helwan, but the taxi refused to take her the entire way.

He said that he must turn at the next right because if he kept going, he would have to travel for awhile before he could turn around again. She offered to pay him more money, but he refused and dropped her on the Autostrad after 8 pm. While she was standing there waiting for another cab or microbus, a dark colored Mitsubishi Lancer came with men and they attempted to grab her. She caught onto something and they were forced to drive off. When they grabbed her, they said, “We will f*** you and leave you.” She said, “I knew that they would have done that and let everyone take me. I wouldn’t last.”

I think with writing these blogs, the only people who understand the gravity of the situation are those who have lived here. There is another major problem with the above situation that many of you wouldn’t even contemplate – an Egyptian man would NEVER let a female get out on the Autostrad at night by herself. Egyptian men are proud. Women are delicate and need extra care, a sentiment that is commonplace in this society. I asked her, “Why didn’t you say something to the effect that it was too dangerous and if anything should happen to you, God will hold him responsible?” Using religious rhetoric almost always gets you farther.

 “He didn’t care. People don’t care anymore. You think that matters?” She added, “If I went to the police, they would just blame me. Say it was my fault and that the men in the car were just my ‘clients’ (insinuating she was a prostitute).”

A friend shared a blog called “Dear Seif, Mother-to-Son Letters about the Egyptian Revolution.” Rania’s blog yesterday, A Dirty Game of Jenga, One Human at a Time, highlighted the tragic events and how it’s affected her school and family. The children of recently murdered Dr. Hany Louka and Nermeen Khalil attend this school, as does a young boy who lost his brother in the incident that occurred in Port Said after the soccer match. She wrote, “A year ago today, people would screech to a stop, get out of their cars and would seat their children on top of a tank. Sometimes the soldier in the tank would carry the child and pose for a happy picture. I wonder when people look through their numerous tank pictures and video clips captured on their phones… do they wear that same smile of nostalgia on their faces?”

I’ve also wondered the same as I posted this picture numerous times of the old man shaking hands with military personnel after Mubarak left office on February 11. She noted that the term “civil disobedience” has not been used since the 1919 revolution (when Egypt and Sudan rose up against British occupation). Her blog noted that many believe that the military wants to send a powerful message to anyone who opposes them: support them or face chaos.

“Who writes the script that it’s okay to beat an elderly woman with a baton? Or to kick a woman repeatedly – sole of a shoe on bare skin – in the chest instead of covering her exposed upper body? Who writes the script that it’s okay to have no security protection in a heated soccer match and to seal shut exit doors? Who writes the script that it’s okay for a man to be killed then dismembered and burned right after he drops his wife at the airport? Or that a single mother gets shot twice in the head on her way to work at 7:00 in the morning? Who can come up with such a scenario?”

The violence is taking a toll on everyone. In my cab from a business meeting in Heliopolis last Wednesday, I got nervous looking out my window and not recognizing the route that my taxi had decided to take. Up ahead a truck was pulled over on the side of the road and the only thing I could think was, “My pepper spray isn’t working and I don’t have another weapon.” I’ve never had these feelings prior.

It saddens me to see the situation coming to such a climax, and I imagine that good, honest Egyptians must feel devastated. On Saturday (February 11 – the year anniversary of Mubark stepping down) numerous people were carjacked in the parking lot of the Citi building in New Cairo during midday. Rania said, “I say a prayer before starting the ignition – I usually do that anyway – but I say it more often every time I find a truck slowing down in front of me and another truck closing in on me from behind.”

“My mind wanders every Monday, thinking whether or not it was the right decision to allow you (her son) to stay an extra hour in school for your paper mache club. Yesterday, while driving to pick you up from school, I saw an ambulance with its blaring siren going down the same street. I kept following it with my eyes and pleading, ‘Please don’t take a left… please don’t take a left… please don’t take a left!’ It didn’t take a left. May God protect who the ambulance was going to pick up.”

She signed her letter “Love you, Your Mentally-Exhausted Mom.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

Letters from Egypt: A Crisis Emerging

Taken in 2008 when a cab fight just meant a lot of yelling, unlike today.
Egypt has been unstable for a year, but now the term crisis is starting to become applicable. And I’ve seen the shift myself. It feels like things are spiraling out of control.

Just yesterday I took a cab to a popular area within Maadi to my dentist. I noticed my cab’s meter was running a little fast. I said something to him about it in Arabic. Previously, when mentioning to a taxi that you notice the rigged meter (particularly saying it in Arabic), they instantly chuckle and say, “Okay, as you like.” Not this time. My cab driver refused to acknowledge that his meter was wrong and I told him that I knew exactly how much the fare was. We exchanged a few more words and then as I got out, I still paid him what the meter said as it wasn’t that much of a difference (more of the principle) and he grabbed my wrist.

In my 3.5 years of living here with all the numerous cabs I’ve taken, I have never had this happen. When he grabbed my wrist, I began hitting his car and screaming. He got out of his car and began yelling in my face and I continued as well. Men came running and tried to get him away from me and police finally came up and I was shuffled into the building. You didn’t have this occur so often previously (not with females and particularly not with foreign females) because police would instantly arrest the taxi driver. As mentioned in previous blogs, the police have been severely crippled and unable to enforce even basic law.

I was shaken, but more than anything, I’m upset that the Egypt I’ve known is completely diminishing. Forget the curfew implemented during the revolution. There isn’t a curfew now, but everyone wants to be home by 8 pm at the latest because of the escalating situation. A friend tried to break up a fight a couple of weeks ago between two men that just had a bump in – which is usual with Egyptians and their driving. Earlier, men would just shout at one another and get back in their cars and drive on their way (some instances a stick would be used to ding the car or break a window). This time, one man returned from his car with a gun. Thankfully he had the safety on and nor was it loaded, but this is just yet another example of the escalation from old Egypt to the new regime.

The accusation by the military of the US inciting the Port Said violence, being aligned with Israel, has created xenophobia toward foreigners. A picture was even taken with a sign translated to, “No to American/Israeli plan to divide.” Please read more on Egypt Unbound’s “Spreading Xenophobia in Egypt

But violence isn’t only being targeted at foreigners. On February 6, the body of Siemens executive Dr. Hany Louka was found mutilated and burned in a Cairo suburb, the 6th of October. Details surrounding his death are inconsistent with authorities reporting that an Egyptian pharmacist and Jordanian female have been taken into custody for the crime just moments after finding the body. However, the supposed culprits have no ties to the victim and would appear that authorities picked them at random to close the case. Police said it was a botched robbery, but Dr. Louka’s body was found at his car. A source told me that his iPad and iPod were still in the car. What kind of robber leaves a nice car and electronics behind?

Yesterday (February 12) UN freelance consultant Nermeen Gomaa Khalil was shot in the head while driving through a crowded Cairo neighborhood, Mohandaseen, in an attempted carjacking.

An attempted kidnapping took place with a young woman in front of Vodafone in Zah’raa Maadi last week.

Two children were kidnapped for ransom on their way to the German school a week and a half ago.

Men have been seen walking around with machine guns near the exit for the Autostrad in Zah’raa Maadi.

The US Embassy sent out a warning of more carjackings occurring near Carrefour in Maadi.

Everyone wanted a new Egypt. This is certainly a new Egypt. 

Read about the Aussie journalist now among the latest foreigners accused of being an "agent to incite people to strike": Egypt Likely to Deport Australian Journalist

Friday, February 3, 2012

Letters from Egypt: Two US Women Kidnapped TODAY

In my line of work, I am constantly discussing situations like that of the kidnappings prevalent in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and also with Somali pirates; however, I didn’t think that I would ever see it become a rising trend in Egypt.

I had heard reports of kidnapping of children, and no, it isn’t just foreign children. I never wrote about it because I couldn’t confirm and didn’t want to heighten fears to unnecessary levels had the stories been embellished. I heard of one Egyptian child being taken outside Wadi Degla. The car was stopped and while the father offered to give up his car and all the cash he had on him, the kidnappers instead took the son and demanded more money.

It was reported that two German children were abducted for ransom, which has been paid.


Picture I took on my way from Sharm el-Sheikh to Dahab in the Sinai
Two American women have been kidnapped in the Sinai on their way to see some of Egypt’s famous tourist sites . On their way from St. Catherines, Bedouins with machine guns held up their bus and after taking the tourists’ valuables, opted to grab the women as well. Police and army search parties have been formed to find the kidnapped victims. I hope for a safe and speedy return of the women.

On February 1, Chinese workers were kidnapped. If they learn anything from their kidnapping counterparts in Nigeria and Somalia, they will realize that China does not pay ransom. Bedouins kidnapped 25 workers at a cement factory, but didn’t demand money (because again China nor Chinese companies will pay ransom) yet instead insisted that fellow tribesmen be released from prison. The Bedouins that have been jailed between 2004-2006 were part of an investigation into bombings at the Taba resort (city that borders Israel) in which 31 people were killed.

In January, Bedouins also seized 50 German and British tourists although they were released after a few hours. Four armed men also attacked a hotel in a Red Sea resort area that is popular among Israeli tourists.

Unlike most of Egypt, I’m actually working today (and obviously writing a blog in my spare time). When I got into my office my Egyptian colleague said, “Today is going to be a dark day.”

Unfortunately, many of these guests are going to forever have their view of Egypt marred. Listen, those of us that live here always find room to complain about this country (I complain about my own country too, ie the ridiculous 1% crowd), but there are some wonderful aspects about Egypt as well. I was just on a business trip to the UAE and met up with some Egyptian friends and discussed how I just needed a detox from Egypt. They suggested that I look into moving to Dubai. I said, “Hey, I might complain a lot about Egypt but I also have some really great and hilarious stories. I’ve had a blast here despite the bad times and if I have to live anywhere in the MidEast – I’m glad it’s Egypt as Egyptians really are the personalities of the Arab world.” And I mean that. 

It's disheartening to say the least to see My Egypt turn into this. There are so many more positive things about this country - even if sometimes I find it difficult to see - instead of what those of you outside of Egypt are continuously seeing at the moment.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Letters from Egypt: Riots and Robberies

The WSJ’s article title “Egypt Soccer Riots Rekindle Fears of Instability” must only pertain to those not currently living in the country since I’m not sure the term ‘stability’ has coincided with Egypt since January 25, 2011.

Looking at my previous blogs discussing the anarchy that continues to spiral out of control (including the blog Maadi Thugs Use Stun Gun to Attack Females), “rekindle” might not be the appropriate word since it implies that there was at some point the feeling of stability.

And now in what is supposedly the “deadliest soccer violence since 1986,” Egypt has made more headlines with at least 74 people dead after the country’s rival teams played a match yesterday. The US Embassy sent out an alert that warned of more demonstrations after yesterday’s incident caused the cancellation of a soccer match scheduled today. The Embassy warning said, “The high level of emotion over these occurrences, coupled with already-planned demonstrations in the downtown area, have elevated concerns over the likelihood of street clashes and significant traffic congestion.”

People are gathering in Tahrir to wait the arrival of the bodies of those killed yesterday and even outside of Tahrir, crowds of people are forming. I can confirm that at noon today, Gazeer Square on Nasr Street, began seeing a gathering.

Last night mass mobile texts were sent out calling for more protests against the military.

Maybe the WSJ article was discussing Egypt’s financial situation when it used the word “rekindle” although that’s still incorrect since the economy in Egypt is nowhere near the pre-revolution levels. In fact, S&P downgraded the country’s credit rating and is currently considering further action.

  • ·         A foreign oil firm located in Maadi was said to have been the victim of robbery on February 1. With power lines slashed and security bars cut, the company’s office was wiped clean of files, computers and furniture.
  • ·         HSBC branch in New Cairo held up at gunpoint on January 30 seizing about $150,000. See YouTube video of assailants making their getaway
  • ·         An armored vehicle was attacked in Helwan (Cairo) on January 31.
  • ·         On January 28, a French tourist was killed in Sharm el-Sheikh after a robbery took place at a money exchange place.

While crime has significantly increased since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, the crimes listed above were previously considered rare.

In my own building, my neighbor’s car was broken into while a month later he received a phone call that men were stealing his motorcycle. He went outside to stop the culprits and was able to recover it, but the men had a car ready to load the motorbike up and pretended that they had back-up in the area. I have had someone attempt to break in through a door in one of my rooms as well as a man entering our building at 8 am trying to get into apartments hoping that the doors were not properly closed.

For those of you living in Cairo, new police numbers have been issued. I have added a new page on my blog that gives a detailed list of the numbers for the Cairo area. If you have numbers for other governorates and would like to pass them on, I will be more than happy to add them. There is supposed to be one English speaker in each group; however, I will also state that after the revolution, the police are of little help. It isn’t as though they don’t want to do their jobs, but they have little power to help enforce much-needed order.