Monday, May 26, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Heading to the Polls (Again)

As I ventured downtown Thursday night, people were putting up more General Al Sisi signs. The sites consisted of 3-4 people (depending on the size of the sign) as music blared, unlike previous times that had crowds in the hundreds/thousands celebrating. A friend’s uncle spent LE 1,500 (over $200) for four regular signs and one large sign in support of Sisi (exactly who got that money, I wonder). Some of the Egyptian flags being sold on the street have Sisi's picture printed in the center, yet there are no signs or ads remotely featuring the general’s opponent, Hamdeen Sabahy.

Although the military leader is expected to win by a landslide, be on the lookout for his opponent to be granted a government position once the winner [Sisi] has been announced (e.g. ministerial cabinet or even prime minister). It would not be a free and fair election without another candidate. After all, transparency is the backbone of Egyptian society – past and present (and in the near future).

A few snapshots taken earlier today kicking off presidential elections:

Ladies lining up to cast their ballots; however, previous elections had double/triple this amount

Every medan and crosswalk features much of the same

Egyptians showing their support

Flags are everywhere, including this coffee shop

Are they happy about the elections or the day off from work?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Letters from Egypt: When Elephants Fight, the Grass Suffers

Picture source: Wikipedia
I went over to grab a friend last night to treat them to a farewell dinner at one of my favorite places in Cairo (The Lemon Tree on the Imperial Boat in Zamalak). I say farewell because the friend will travel to the US for work, but since he is a defense contractor working alongside the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) – the situation is more than a little uncertain.

Paperwork was not filed within the allotted time by the EAF, and even though the EAF renewed some of the contracts, the money has not been provided to keep certain divisions. So it appears as though many US-Egypt conjoined activities will be halted until funds are freed up or dismissed indefinitely. Some Egyptians would be happy to hear that news. “We’ll just get the money from China” or “Who cares? We don’t need the US” are just a couple of statements I hear in response to any discussion of the US withdrawing financial support to Egypt (in this case, I’m referring to the military aid).

As we were leaving the building, each security staff member as well as others employed at this building stood up to shake my friend’s hand and say, “Thank you sir. This is my last night.” They were only told yesterday after 6 pm that it was their last day at work. Turning the corner, another contractor was sitting with two of the Egyptian staff members who have tears in their eyes.

Their job consisted of sitting in front of the building, guarding the embassy-issued vehicles, signing in guests and other security functions. It wasn’t a highly-involved job, but it was a job. It probably didn’t pay that much, but it paid. Egypt’s unemployment rate pre-revolution (2011, not to be confused with the 2013 coup) stood at a little over 10%, but has increased since to 13%. This one contract employs an estimated 200-300 Egyptians doing everything from cooking and cleaning to IT specialists and communications. And this isn’t the only contract under review.

The top generals and officials will not feel the pain, and while 200-300 people seem insignificant compared to the total Egyptian population (over 80 million), there will likely be more cuts. And this will continue the road to instability. Remember, the Arab Spring was started by a vegetable vendor in Tunisia unhappy with the lack of job opportunities.

Last night was a somber moment that made my heart ache for these guys.

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers (Kenyan proverb)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Letters from Egypt: Harassment at Security Checkpoints

Army checkpoint at Nekhel in the Sinai
It’s been awhile since my last blog, but with the title of this one, you can probably imagine that I’ve been doing a bit of traveling. And I haven’t been alone, many of you have also been venturing outside of Egypt. But traveling inside Egypt proved to be more trying for one couple as they traveled to Taba for Easter weekend.

Check points have increased throughout the country as more threats have been issued affecting Egypt’s national security. And the Sinai in particular is on high alert especially with the recent additions to the US Terrorist Watch List (Ansar Bayt al Maqdis) and the Egyptian Interior Ministry naming another to its own terrorist list (Ajnad Misr). You would think that the increased checkpoints would make you feel safer, not violated.

My friends, D (non-Egyptian, but Arab descent) and her husband M (Egyptian) of 20 years, drove from Cairo to Taba on Easter weekend. Like many others, the couple brought some adult beverages: D with her vodka and M with his Heineken. Rolling upon one army checkpoint at Nekhel, approximately 140 km from Taba, officers began searching their car. Coming across the vodka and beer, the officer said that they had to confiscate the alcohol. The reasoning? He said that the couple didn’t have Duty Free receipts to claim purchase. However, Egypt brews its own beer and wine (as well as making some local spirits which I do not suggest you try) including Heineken. Why would anyone need proof of purchase from Duty Free for local products?

D debated this confiscation while men searched her car as other cars passed easily through the checkpoint, even a microbus holding four passengers. If any car should be stopped and thoroughly searched, shouldn’t it be a microbus?

So D demanded the return of the alcohol on their way back to Cairo and one army man showed her to an area in the desert where other empty beer bottles lay and said, “This is where your bottles will be.” Then he said, “You should be thankful we’re being so nice, it would be much worse if you were stopped by police.”

He was right. It was much worse. About 90 km later, only 50 km outside of Taba, the couple was stopped at a police checkpoint. Cops began rummaging through the couples’ suitcases, where D’s undergarments were obviously terroristic in nature. The officer would call one person out to inspect the items, holding each piece up for all to see, and then another and then another before D counted 16 men going through her delicates. Then they turned their attention to a condom that was found on M’s bag leading the officer to begin questioning M.

Now when stopped, the first thing that any official will ask – army and police – is for your ID. In the Sinai, everyone in the vehicle will have to show ID. On Egyptian IDs, if you are married, it will say on the back of the female’s ID, “Wife of XXX.” M asked the officer, “So this is illegal now? Condoms are illegal?”

The police wanted D out of the car, but she began yelling saying that she wouldn’t get out of the car because she knew that their reason was not search the car, but to check her. M responded that they couldn’t ask him to get his wife out of the car and said, “You have her ID, you looked at it. Did you not see the back? It says, ‘Married to XXX.’” The cops stopped searching and waved them through.

D was upset, and rightfully so. It’s a violation of your privacy to have such a show of your under garments. In addition to that, no man is supposed to check a female’s things. You can request at the airport, should they stop to search you, to be searched by a woman instead. However, how can you request another woman check your luggage when you’re in the middle of the desert? M told D that he was sorry, but he couldn’t speak up because it was night time and he was scared that if he said anything, something far worse would have happened.

Heightened security checks are understandable, if they are serving the purpose to combat militant actions; however, can anyone say after reading this story that the one car that remained on the side of the road while others freely passed were a threat? Are bras and panties now up for debate? Or is it that latex is now banned yet no one else has received the memo? Either way, be careful when traveling in vehicles outside of Cairo. It seems that it’s a free-for-all for alcohol and cheap thrills that may be at your expense.