Monthly Archives: February 2012


Street in the Tunis Medina. Note 'Ultras' grafitti

After wandering around the old city (Medina) this afternoon, I took a quick look at the Cathedral which stands at one end of Avenue Bourguiba, opposite the French Embassy – twin symbols of the period of French colonial rule, both built in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

To one side of the cathedral nave is a very fancy reliquary, approximately contemporary with the building itself. It purportedly contains part of the body of King Louis IX of France, who died of fever in Tunis at the start of his second failed crusade. Angels representing the Church and the French state support a French cathedral (very different in style from the one in which it is housed).

I can understand the historical reason why the Archdiocese might want this here. But today a reminder of the Crusades, and particularly of the aggressive alliance of Church and state power that drove them, seems an odd, insensitive choice for a prominent church in a majority Muslim country.

Also of interest, mosaics of early Popes from Tunisia or, more accurately, from the Roman province of Africa.

There was a fairly steady stream of visitors, among whom I was a rare foreigner. Saturday afternoon is for many Tunisians a time for shopping and strolling, and most seemed to be groups of family or friends out doing just that, perhaps enjoying the relative quiet of the cathedral compared to the bustle of the nearby Medina, shopping streets, and fresh food markets.

Tunisia’s Christian population is small, and its Catholic population smaller. I suspect the cathedral largely caters to resident foreigners, including refugees and those associated with the African Development Bank. But if anyone knows for sure, I would be interested in learning about it.

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The road ahead on Syria: how I see it

The Friends of Syria conference today produced a chairman’s statement and some moderately strong language from Secretary Clinton. Where is this going?

The assembled dignitaries were under pressure from Syrians, including the National Council (SNC) represented at the conference, activists and, indeed, the media, given some of the questions directed to the Tunisian Foreign Minister and Secretary Clinton at the end of the day: pressure to do something now to make the killing stop. Arab League and UNGA support weigh on the side of what seems to be majority public opinion on this. On the other side are the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and caution about western imperialism (driven in part by assessments that NATO stretched its mandate in Libya).

What to do?

In the news conference, we were told that the question of arming the rebels had not been discussed. This may be true in the sense that it was not part of the official agenda. But we can be sure that private conversations between the most involved powers are indeed taking place on that subject. Many may be resigned already to some form of direct military intervention, probably under an Arab League banner or joint AL/UN branding, with Turkish and other NATO support as necessary. But getting from here to there is not straightforward, for reasons mentioned above, and no doubt all concerned would indeed prefer to see a political solution as called for in the chairman’s statement.

So we have a process.

Processes have a bad name due to the farce that the ‘Middle East Peace Process’ became after the death of Rabin. But they can be diplomatically and politically necessary. Along with attempts to set up machinery for immediate humanitarian relief, the commitment to follow up conferences in Istanbul, Paris and possibly a fourth venue is, I think, more significant than it sounds.

Why? Because it can get us from here to there. A series of meetings, which will review progress by Kofi Annan on the political front as well as the Assad regime’s actions – Clinton said the Friends would be “constantly evaluating what is happening inside Syria” – will either mark movement toward a peaceful outcome of democratic transition or, more likely alas, show that with the best efforts and intentions, the Friends are unable to bring Assad around to such an outcome. Clinton feared that “there will be more killing before he finally goes” as do, I suspect, most observers.

Following such a process will both strengthen the resolve of those Friends who are at the moment disinclined to pursue any military option, and increase pressure on China and Russia to reassess the cost of their support for the present regime. Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem told journalists he hoped that Russia and China would change their position. I think the planned series of conferences and constant evaluation are designed in some significant part to achieve precisely that.

This is all politically necessary. The cost will be measured in many more deaths and ruined lives in Syria.

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Friends of Syria Conference: observing journalists in the wild

As I arrived at the Palace hotel where the Friends of Syria conference took place today, so did several hundred demonstrators. Waving Syrian and Palestinian flags, and banners against imperialism, Zionism etc, they entered the grounds barely impeded by the few police deployed at the entrance. Chants and slogans accused the US, Sarkozy, Qatar and others of cowardice, and said the Syrians and Arabs were not traitors.

As they got closer to the entrance, more police and security emerged from several directions to corral them at a distance. Photographers and camera crews emerged from the hotel at the sound of chanting, to get images and interviews. A few individual demonstrators got close to the hotel before being escorted back. I saw no violence, although one demonstrator told me that the police had treated them badly at the starting point of their march. A journalist told me that the police used batons on a few of the demonstrators in front of the hotel, but I did not witness that myself.

It was pure luck that I arrived at the same time as them, and so took some of the first images and video. I gave it all to the crew of Tunisia Live, one of few English-language news services based in Tunisia. They work as fixers for visiting journalists and seem to know their stuff – so if you need such services in Tunisia, give them a call! Some of the images are available here.

A much smaller group of pro-opposition demonstrators were waiting to one side, clearly with permission to be there, unlike the group who had marched to the hotel. Security let those who supported the conference in turn chant and march into the hotel, holding back a surge of pro-Assad demonstrators (video here). I saw a few of them around the lobby where the media were covering the conference with their (apparently brand new, identical) pre-Ba’ath Syrian flags. The presence of demonstrators supporting intervention was not only allowed, but actively facilitated by the police and security. The opposing demonstrators were not. This was almost certainly part of one of the conference’s aims, to introduce the Syrian National Council (SNC) to the assembled officials and receive recognition as “a leading representative” (not the representative) of the Syrian people. Dr Burhan Ghalioun, President of the SNC, addressed the conference.

I had applied for a press pass, planning to accompany a local independent journalist. In the event, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff did not issue me a pass, but allowed me to stay, so I spent the afternoon in a kind of official limbo. However, since they had apparently not provided enough passes, I fit right in with the others working there uncredentialled. Other aspects of the organization, particularly on the media side, were below the usual standard for an event of this type. Then again, Tunisia’s government is still finding its feet, and (as Secretary Clinton emphasized at the news conference later) the conference had been put together quite quickly.

I got to see journalists and diplomats at work and experience an international conference from the outside. There is a lot of sitting around and chatting involved, in between interviewing, filming, writing and editing. In my previous experience of such events – the Edinburgh European Council in 1992, the Sharm El Sheikh ‘summit of the peacemakers’ in 1996 – I was on the other side of the tracks, as a press officer or otherwise. The novelty of having no responsibility beyond observing was quite refreshing. I made some contacts. Mostly I watched people at work.

I admire the profession of journalism and many journalists individually. This is probably not a popular position today, in the wake of the Murdoch empire’s hacking scandal and other lapses in professional standards. But if the job is to be done right, it is a demanding one, one I’m not sure I would be cut out for. And it needs to be done right. Several journalists in both Egypt and Tunisia have complained to me of low standards in the profession in their countries. But it is clear than many are trying to do the job properly. Their countries need them to keep trying. We all need our journalists to do their jobs well.

The taxi home was very expensive, as taxis are in the evenings here. But it was worth it.

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Walking Blues, Tunis Edition

Distance Walked: ~5 km

Blisters: none

Tunis is in some respects a more walkable city than Cairo. Without the same population pressure (the population of the whole of Tunisia could fit into Cairo a couple of times over), and without encroaching desert to set limits to expansion, the city is simply easier to move around. Fewer people in more space. The generally wide streets, apart from in the oldest parts of the city, are a legacy of French colonial planning and, in more recent developments such as Lac and Nasr, globalized city norms. The latter is one of the few parts of the city with a concentration of high-rise residential buildings, driven by the need to house workers of the BAD (Africa Development Bank), Libyans and others who have recently expanded the capital’s population. Lac has some of that, but is home to more commercial buildings and embassies, an area heavily influenced by the Saudi investment that built much of it. In general, though, it is a pleasant city to stroll around, with most buildings of 2-3 floors only, a changeable and interesting sky overhead, and space to move.

There are hazards. Some sensitive buildings still sport outcroppings of barbed wire a year after the revolution – the Interior Ministry and the Libyan Embassy downtown, for instance. At the moment a sanitation workers’ strike means one has to step around the occasional pile of refuse sacks. In places, cars parked on the pavements mean stepping out into the street. Rain has left patches of mud here and there. Nothing too difficult.

After a meeting this afternoon with a charmingly cynical radio journalist, I stepped out into rush hour and decided to walk home from the city centre. This gave me a chance to process the conversation as well as get my legs moving. Journalists are professional cynics, so interviewing them has the pleasant side-effect of making me seem, to myself at least, as a sunny optimist. The media scene in Tunis has become chaotic and somewhat rancorous after years of stark repression. It is a complicated and uncertain time, as media professionals try to navigate a newly free (mostly free) landscape in which much is expected of them. My sense so far is that they are not confident of their ability to build media of the kind demanded in a young democracy, given the habits – particularly habits of thought – that the bad years engendered in them, and the lack of clear legal and economic frameworks within which to operate. I have much to learn in the next few weeks. I think journalists here also sense they have much to learn, with high stakes.

My route took me from the busy downtown past the aforementioned Libyan Embassy, heading north-west. On one side, other diplomatic and municipal buildings squatted between private houses and small businesses; on the other, recreational areas including one of the city’s several football (soccer) stadiums. Football is, of course, a serious preoccupation of much of the population. Football-mad writer and philosopher Albert Camus grew up next door, in Algeria, but he would surely have found a comfortable niche here. Tunisians watch and play football more or less universally. To not play football in this society, I have been told, is just odd.

I crossed Route X, which separates downtown Tunis from many of the residential areas – happily there are bridges, although I dare say my Cairo-honed street-crossing skills would get me across anyway. North of X stretch areas of low-rise housing and small pockets of retail and light commercial buildings. The architecture and street layout feel very Mediterranean here, not the bland globalism of Lac or Nasr. White houses, often accented in blue or with tile, mostly nestle behind white concrete walls.

As I entered my neighbourhood, I decided to find some food. “King Fast Food” served up a very tasty, and typically spicy, shawarma sandwich for 2.8 Dinars (just under $2/1.4 Euros/1 pound 20) and I was ready to walk up the hill to the house in which I am staying.

The city is too spread out to make walking everywhere an option. Taxis are more or less essential for getting to meetings – and so far they have been good experiences. But this weekend I hope to find time to get into the old city of Tunis, the Medina, where walking is the only sensible option. My kind of place.

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Alien Invasion

Amid all the considerable political and media noise about foreign NGOs in Egypt and excitable discourse of interference in Egypt’s affairs, there is rather less attention to the arguably far greater foreign intervention represented by Salafism.

This is not an original observation on my part. Secular and liberal-minded Egyptians say it. But their voices are not loud in parliamentary debate or the state-dominated media. Salafism is largely alien to Egyptian society, long a minority tendency but recently grown more significant due to funding by Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, by means of support for radical preachers including airtime on transnational and local television channels.

Similar processes are underway, although with a much more recent history and more limited social reach, in Tunisia. This has been thrown into relief by the visit to Tunisia of Egyptian Salafist preacher Wagdy Ghoneim. Many in Tunisia have reacted strongly and negatively to his visit and message. In particular, his advocacy of female genital mutilation (FGM), a dangerous practice unfortunately widespread in Egypt and some other parts of northeastern Africa (among people of all religions), but hitherto unknown in the northwest (Maghreb) has produced outrage. Protests have disrupted his preaching events in various parts of Tunisia. The Tunisian Ministry of Health has publicly warned against FGM. At least one legal case is reportedly underway to shut down his activities.

In an interview this morning on the business-focused Express FM radio station, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, President of the Constituent Assembly responsible for drafting Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution, responded to a question about Ghoneim briefly and rather dismissively: (I paraphrase) Tunisia is a diverse society and open to all sorts of influences, and Ghoneim is free to come and say what he will. But one must recognize this for what it is – alien interference.

Salafism may be too widespread now in parts of Egypt, and (at least temporarily) too politically powerful for leading political figures to call it out in this way. Criticism of Saudi Arabia has long been a red line for much of the media there due to its financial as well as political clout. But one can hope that if Egyptians feel empowered by their revolution to question the political forces that have been shaping their society, such as questioning the costs of accepting US and other western aid, that they will begin in larger numbers to question also the decades-old attempt to Salafize them.

(I recognize that ‘Salafize’ is almost certainly not a real word. It should be. It is now.)

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Tunisia Needs Tourists

Sidi Bou Said & Bay of Tunis by TheEdWebb
Sidi Bou Said, a photo by TheEdWebb on Flickr.

Tunisia needs tourists. Come! It’s beautiful. The food is great, too.

More photos available here:

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American University [no longer] in Cairo

As I mentioned in a previous post, my last full day in Cairo included meetings at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The University still owns its original downtown campus, just off Tahrir Square. That campus is quite beautiful, with architecture drawing on local Islamicate and other influences. The Mugamma3 (‘Complex’), the neo-Stalinist government behemoth nearby that overshadows Tahrir itself, looks even more alien when seen next to the AUC’s more harmonious buildings.

Recently, AUC has moved. It is no longer in Cairo.

AUC, new campus

As part of the Mubarak regime’s planned expansion of Cairo into the desert, in commercial and residential developments that have little to do with the lives of the vast majority of Cairenes, AUC moved out of town to a new campus. Before I visited, various people said to me things like “you might as well be in Dubai” or “you might as well be in Arizona” when speaking of the architecture. When speaking of the 50-60 minute bus ride, they tended to say things more like “you might as well be in Libya”.

AUC library, new campus

So far as I can tell, the new campus is quite functional. The offices I saw were fit for purpose. The library is of a suitable size and seemed to have plenty of natural light. There are paved areas and green areas for sitting and talking, which is really the main point of a university, after all. None of the buildings is too tall. None that I saw was terribly ugly and some were quite elegant.

It’s more or less inoffensive. Architecturally it could be, indeed, in Arizona or Dubai. It doesn’t much speak of Cairo, but has the aura rather of a franchise. It is a node in the network that is globalized higher education. Out there among the gated suburbs and half-finished high-rise commercial buildings, it fits in rather more comfortably than one might wish of a university.

And that’s a real shame, because there is talent on that campus, among faculty and students, and Cairo could benefit from having that talent integrated into the heart of the city. Not halfway to Libya.

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Tunis at night

Yeah. It’s pretty civilized here.

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in which the drive-by political sociologist benefits from chance encounters with two of the excellent people of Shubra el-Khaima

It started off as one of those bad Cairo days. They happen.

The morning taxi driver’s meter mysteriously stopped working half-way to my destination, and he overcharged me, swearing at me when I was less than graceful about it. Then I arrived, after a 50 minute bus ride, at the American University [no longer] in Cairo, about which I will write soon. The gate security were very polite, but there was no permit on file for me to enter for my appointments. That took quite a few minutes of sitting around and phone calls to resolve, and I was late for my first meeting. There was no 2pm bus back to my part of town due to exams, but I was able to scramble onto the one bus running at that time, which dropped me some way down the metro line from anywhere I wanted to be. The metro worked fine, as it almost always does, but I was still running late. I checked in for my flight to Tunis, but the hostel’s printer would not produce my boarding card. An attempt to email it to a friend to be printed out didn’t work.

One of those days.

Then things began to look up.

I had to get another taxi to Zamalek to the office of my lovely friend Hind Wassef, co-founder of Diwan bookstore, who was going to save the day by printing the boarding pass and buying me coffee. Friends really are the only true wealth. Given the morning’s experience, I was not looking forward to the taxi ride, but I flagged down a big old Peugeot of the kind I knew wouldn’t even have a working meter. Payment would be a matter for me to estimate and the driver to accept or haggle about.

The driver complimented me on my Arabic, asked where I was from, and then asked for my honest opinion of Egypt. I said something non-commital about the times being confusing, but the country being fundamentally a wonderful place. I was in no mood for controversy. He responded with what turned out to be a quite detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary process so far, proclaiming himself tired of all the ‘talkers’, whether they be revolutionaries, parliamentarians, or the military junta, but basically optimistic. I asked in turn where he was from, and he proudly told me he was from Shubra al Khaima.

Interlude: a few words on Shubra al Khaima

Flickr - Bakar 88 - Light Rain in Cairo, Egypt

By Andrew A. Shenouda from Cairo, Egypt (Light Rain in Cairo, Egypt) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Shubra al Khaima is a working class district of greater Cairo, swollen in recent years by mass immigration from rural areas. When it is discussed on television talk shows, as my new friend pointed out, it is always in terms of the `ashwaaiyaat, literally the ‘random’ or unplanned areas, i.e. slums or favelas. It is the crowded home of large numbers of Cairo’s working poor and unemployed. Government services are feeble to non-existent, and social services often fall to the charitable activities of religious organizations including the Muslim Brotherhood.

The driver dismissed talk-show characterizations of his home, saying he always felt completely safe there, at any time of day or night. People knew their neighbours and looked out for each other. It was a good place.

We discussed the political situation some more. He expressed a strong preference for a clear separation of powers. The judiciary were good, clean, and just, ‘best in the world’ but he had much less faith in the other branches of government. Parliamentarians were like kindergarteners at the moment, although they would grow up. Ministers should not also be members of the People’s Assembly – the latter had an important job to do in monitoring the former. He hoped to see Ahmed Shafik (Prime Minister for a while after the fall of Mubarak) become President, since Egypt needed a tough, practical man in charge.

The conversation was pleasant, fast-paced, sophisticated. The ride more than made up for the morning’s bad experience. I gladly overpaid, this time, without being prompted.

On my way back to the hostel later I stopped in at the excellent Nomad gallery, a favorite from my time living in Cairo 1994-9. The manager on duty was eager to talk politics as well, with no prompting from me, once he found out I could speak Arabic. Everyone in Egypt is talking politics, a stark difference between now and the stagnant 1990’s. The People’s Assembly was a mess, but they would learn. If they didn’t, a new one would be elected in due course, or “there is always Tahrir” – i.e. the population knows they can keep the rulers in line through public expressions of dissent. He would prefer a president from the middle class, who knows both the wealthy elite and the poor and can deal with everyone. A priority was someone who would not stir sectarian tension, but deal equitably with all citizens, and someone intelligent. He also turned out to be from Shubra al Khaima, and confirmed the taxi driver’s account of an area with strong social solidarity and mutual responsibility.

This was another satisfying conversation of the kind it is quite easy to come by in revolutionary Egypt. These are ordinary citizens, thoughtful about the political changes underway, concerned about the economy, hoping for the early return of tourists in large numbers, but upbeat about their country and its future. Come back in two years, said the manager, and you’ll see how well we’re doing.

I think I’d like to.

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Dickinson’s global reach

My employer, Dickinson College, is a liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania. It is also the hub of a global network.

Image courtesy of ravedelay on Flickr, cc-by-2.0

The first person I went to see after arriving in Cairo was my former advisee, Anum Khan, who graduated from Dickinson in Middle East Studies and won a Fulbright to study at the American University Cairo and conduct research on women in Egypt. I recommend her blog.

One of Dickinson’s many study abroad partners is AMIDEAST, with whom I have worked in establishing study and internship opportunities for our students in Jordan and Morocco. I enjoyed visiting their Cairo office and spending time with country director Matthew Kuehl, whom I met at one of Dickinson’s regular study abroad fairs last year.

I have spent a couple of entertaining evenings with the poet Mohamed Metwally, an enthusiastic participant in Dickinson’s annual international poetry festival, Semana Poetica, last year.

As academic co-director of the Across Borders citizen exchange programme, I have been privileged to meet some very talented, driven young Egyptians determined to work to improve their country’s environment and society. They make me very hopeful.

And as I prepare to move on to Tunisia, a promising young journalist and student who is helping me with contacts and arrangements immediately recognized Dickinson as an institution with a strong reputation in global study, inviting me to meet officials at his own university to discuss possible future collaboration.

And so the network grows.

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