Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Inequality

Abdur-Rahman  al-Kawakibi, a Muslim revivalist and Sayyid (claimant of lineage descended from the Prophet) from Aleppo, Syria of the late 19th century affectionately known as Abu Du'afa or "Father of the Weak" for his arguments on behalf of the downtrodden (quoted from Hanna Batatu's seminal work "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq", p. 368):

Human beings share the hardships of life in an unjust way...for men of politics and religion and their hangers-on--and their number does not exceed one percent--enjoy half or more of what congeals from the blood of humanity, and squander it in self-indulgent luxury...And those who trade in precious and luxurious commodities and the avaricious merchants and the monopolists and the like of this class, and they number also around one percent, live each of them as live tens, or hundreds, or thousands of workers and peasants...It is not a question of equating...the active and enterprising with the indolent and the sluggard, but justice requires other than that inequality, and humaneness imposes that the elevated should take the lowly by his hand and bring him close to his rank and mode of life.

That last bold emphasis is my own, and extreme laissez faire, Adam-Smith-invisible-hand advocates should take note (be they western or eastern).  Let's face it, the poor tend to work much harder than the rich, they simply don't have the money and power to aggrandize and praise themselves for it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the real issue in the Middle East is nothing to do with this stupid "moderates" versus "extremists" talk.  Anytime that framework pops up it is either a gross misunderstanding of symptoms versus causes or else a deliberate smokescreen by the powers that be in Washington and Middle Eastern capitals.  The real issue is the needs of the people for ma'kal, malbas, and maskan (food, clothing, and shelter), personal safety and dignity, and free expression -- against the elites who want to hoard those things for themselves.  It is no different than the struggles in many other countries.  The attempts to suppress those demands are what produce the warped economic circumstances, repressive political systems, and twisted ideologies of rulers and rebels.  Seek to honestly address the basic issues al-Kawakibi pointed to over a century ago, and open up the public space for all to have their say in dealing with those issues, and only then will you start to see solutions emerge.  Preferably through gradualism (honest, not fake as despots and elites usually trick people into), or otherwise Thomas Jefferson's quote rings true enough anywhere in the world where the circumstances become too dire: "A little revolution now and then is a good thing; the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cairo Poverty Out-takes

Ok, latest book I'm reading is "Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis.  While he's not so good at suggesting solutions, merely delineating the problem in broad outlines easily fills a 200+ page book.  The scope of global poverty, exploitation of the poor, patterns of similar abuse of the poor around the globe, the growth of slums, the destruction of even earlier-existent public services within the slums, etc, etc. are laid out in amazing starkness.  People living on and in piles of excrement, slavery, destruction of slums (which them re-emerge elsewhere with an even harder life for the residents who survive), International Financial Insitutions (IFI's) further impoverishing them, I mean the list is just never-ending and the death toll to say nothing of the abject misery that occurs under our noses every day is simply staggering.  To that end, below I've copied a few bits from the book specifically referring to some of these problems in Cairo, a city I love but which breaks my heart and always has in so many ways.  Keep in mind, that Cairo, for any of the problems I lay out below and as horrendous as they are, isn't even at the bottom of the global rung (and to be fair, as bad as his Cairo out-takes are, they're not as bad sounding as some of the realities of city life there are for the poor - just the challenge of writing a global survey on such a big topic I suppose).  Places like Dhaka or Uttar Pradesh in India or Kinshasa or...well, let's just say that most of the poor of Cairo are greatly abused in a way you and I can scarcely imagine, but even their abuse as a whole pales in comparison to others around the globe.


p. 190: Cairo's slums have also been mined in recent years for human body parts. "Most clients in these procedures," explains Jeffrey Nedoroscik, "are wealthy Persian Gulf Arabs. Whereas there are other countries in the Middle East that have transplant centers, few of them have the enormous numbers of poor who are willing to sell their organs. In the past, laboratories would send recruiters into Cairo's slums and poor areas such as the City of the Dead to enlist potential donors."

p. 33-34: The most unusual example of an inherited housing supply is undoubtedly Cairo's City of the Dead, where one million poor people use Mameluke tombs as prefabricated housing components. The huge graveyard, the burial site of generations of sultans and emirs, is a walled urban island surrounded by congested motorways. The original residents, in the eighteenth century, were tombkeepers for rich Cairene families, followed by quarry workers, and then, in the modern era, by refugees uprooted from Sinai and Suez during the 1967 war. "The invaders," observes Jeffrey Nedoroscik, a researcher at the American University in Cairo, "have adapted the tombs in creative ways to meet the needs of the living. Cenotaphs and grave markers are used as desks, headboards, tables, and shelves. String is hung between gravestones to set laundry to dry." Elsewhere in Cairo (formerly a city with 29 synagogues), smaller groups of squatters have taken over abandoned Jewish cemeteries. "On a visit in the 1980s," writes journalist Max Rodenbeck, "I found a young couple with four children cozily installed in a particularly splendid neopharaonic vault. The tomb dwellers had unsealed the columbarium inside, finding it made a convenient built-in shelving for clothes, cooking pots, and a color TV set."

pp. 186-187: In Cairo and other Egyptian cities, children under twelve are perhaps 7 percent of the workforce; this includes the thousands of street children who gather and resell cigarette butts (a pack a day otherwise costs half of a poor man's monthly salary).

pp. 110-111: In Egypt, the decade of the 1970s was also an era of fierce state repression directed against "subversive" urban neighborhoods. A famous example was the aftermath of the January 1977 IMF riots in Cairo. The failed neoliberal policies of Sadat's Infitah had produced a huge deficit that both Jimmy Carter and the IMF pressed the Egyptian president to correct. "To close this gap," writes journalist Geneive Abdo, "Sadat was forced either to end the subsidies or bleed the well-to-do by imposing high taxes on personal income. The bourgeoisie, a key constituency, was too important to Sadat, so the state opted to cut in half subsidies [for staple foods of the poor]." Furious Cairenes, in turn, attacked such in-their-face symbols of the Infitah's luxury lifestyles as five-star hotels, casinos, nightclubs, and department stores, as well as police stations. Eighty people were killed during the uprising and almost 1000 injured.

After filling the jails with Leftists (a repression that had the side effect of benefiting the rise of Egypt's radical Islamists), Sadat focused his rage on the Ishash al-Turguman slum in the Bulaq district, close to Cairo's center, as the fount of what he denounced as a "Communist-led uprising of thieves." He told foreign journalists that the area was a literal nest of subversion, where Communists hid "where it was impossible to reach them, since narrow streets prevented the use of police cars." Anthropologist Farha Ghannam says that Sadat, like Napoleon III in his day, wanted "the city center to be replanned to allow more effective control and policing." The stigmatized inhabitants of Ishash al-Turguman were divided into two groups and expelled to different parts of the periphery, while their old neighborhood became a parking lot. Ghannam argues that the purge of Bulaq was the first step in a hugely ambitious visions - which Sadat had neither time nor resources to actually implement - of rebuilding Cairo "using Los Angeles and Houston as models."

p. 86: Even as metro Cairo has doubled its area in five years and new suburbs sprawl westward into the desert, the housing crisis remains acute: new housing is too expensive for the poor, and much of it is unoccupied because the owner is away working in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. "Upwards of a million apartments," writes Jeffrey Nedoroscik, "stand empty ... there is no housing shortage per se. In fact, Cairo is filled with buildings that are half-empty."

pp. 35-36: Some impoverished inner-city-dwellers live in the air. One out of ten inhabitants of Phnom Penh sleeps on a roof, as do an incredible 1.5 million Cairenes and 200,000 Alexandrians. It is cooler in Cairo's so-called "second city" than inside the tenements, but roof-dwellers are more exposed to air pollution from traffic and cement plants, as well as dust from the desert.

p. 165: In Egypt, despite five years of economic growth, 1999 World Bank data showed no decrease in household poverty (defined as an income of $610 or less per year) but did register a fall in per capita consumption.

pp. 132-133: Nor does the snail's pace of traffic in most poor cities reduce it's lethality. Although cars and buses crawl through Cairo at average speeds of less than 10 kiometers per hour, the Egyptian capital still manages an accident rate of 8 deaths and 60 injuries per 1000 automobiles per year.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Some notes on Al-Jazeera these days

So, I don’t get to watch much TV these days, but I do try to tune into Al-Jazeera every once in a while. There has been a lot of talk about the Saudi-Qatari political rapprochement and how this has supposedly led the channel to be less critical of both the Saudis and the Americans. Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark thinks there’s not much to that argument, As’ad Abu Khalil of Angry Arab fame is convinced it is true. Personally in my snippets of watching, I tend to believe it is true, but that the thesis' applicability is only in certain spheres. They are much more circumspect in their Iraq coverage, tending to give more credence to Iraqi government and American officials and not as much to the various armed and unarmed opposition as they used to, and seem to be neutering their language/word-choice to American sensibilities. This is not absolute by any means, they did a groundbreaking interview with Muqtada al-Sadr just recently, but it does seem to me to be a trend that stands out. Removing the Sami al-Hajj irritant seen in this light could very well be an American olive branch attempting to get Al-Jazeera to be that much more compliant now that they sense the propaganda winds blowing in their direction.

I guess the more I think of it, the more it seems the point mostly is about Jazeera's Iraq, Saudi and American coverage. Outside of that (granted, those are big important topics not to be lightly dismissed), I don’t sense any backing down on topics such as Hizbullah, Hamas, Iran, and resistance to the Israelis or further American “projects” in the region (though their coverage of the deployment of American-trained Fatah security forces to Jenin today was more than a little irksome and uncritical). The broader Palestinian issue is particularly noteworthy. The 60th anniversary of the Nakba (“disaster” in Arabic, referring to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 and Israel’s independence) is being covered prominently with lots of historical notes on events of those times, interviews with the few surviving old men and women refugees, coverage of anniversary conferences (one today in Denmark of European Palestinians seeking their right of return to their homeland), and general discussion of Palestinians’ and their right to return home. Indeed, they are playing a very positive role in helping I think to refocus the Arab world’s attention on the key issue – that right of return. Americans, Israelis, and Abbas & co. are at best willing to talk about borders, settlements, etc., but they’re all perfectly willing to leave the 6 million refugees out in the cold and ignore their most fundamental human rights. That in many ways is what caused the collapse of peace talks in 2000 – the Americans and Israelis considered the topic forbidden to even bring up, Palestinians when push came to shove insisted their basic humanity represented in the right of return was the core issue and not for sale. Al-Jazeera is certainly reminding people of that basic human right these days and deserve a lot of credit for that since Arab regimes are so in cahoots with the Israelis and Americans in trying to bury it.

Anyhow, I am admittedly only an occasional viewer of Al-Jazeera these days, so if others are watching it more and disagree, feel free to chime in. That is my take from my limited sample these days.

[UPDATE: I forgot to mention something else I've noticed lately around the time of the Saudi-Qatari rapproachment. Suddenly Al-Jazeera's broadcast and website have more advertising than before. See, the Saudis being ticked at the Qataris for so long were able to basically enforce an advertising ban on the channel. Saudi Arabia is the biggest advertising market in the region, so anyone who put commercials on Jazeera would get blackballed in Saudi, so they didn't. The result was you typically only saw ads from Qatari state-owned companies. I mean, Rasgas and Qapco are cool and all in their own way, but let's face it, not many Egyptians or Moroccans or Palestinians are making dire household consumer choices over where the plastic in their kids toys comes from, and none of the above has ever likely consumed a drop of Qatari LNG. No offense, but in the face of the Saudi advert blackout, those were just Qatari state subsidies to the channel. Anyhow, it wasn't for lack of eyeballs, Jazeera obviously in a truly free market has the ability to capture huge advertising revenue. Well, now suddenly one does see international companies starting to advertise more and even Saudi and UAE (the Saudi's bestest buddies) events and companies a bit. The blacklisting is thawing along with relations, while meanwhile the coverage on some key issues (see above) is geting dumbed down.]

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