Friday, 25 February 2011
Tuesday, 22 February 2011
In 2007, as inflation rates across the Arab world, including Gulf powerhouses like Saudi Arabia, soared to record, double-digit peaks, a senior colleague of mine at Reuters News predicted many countries in the region were on the cusp of popular revolts.
At the time, I was the Gulf region’s treasury correspondent, covering news related to economic, monetary and fiscal policy. In late 2007 and during the first part of 2008, we wrote a stream of articles focused on measures taken by Gulf governments to offset the impact of rising prices on their populations. There were riots by migrant workers in the UAE over wages, and pressure mounted on policymakers to take measures to quell popular discontent.
Saudi Arabia, for one, introduced subsidies targeted to help lower income Saudis, state employees received cost-of-living allowances and import levies were lowered on various food items to stem a massive rise in inflation that took price pressures to their highest since the 1970s oil boom.
Similar measures were undertaken across the six countries in the world’s top oil-exporting region, and North African states like Egypt also weighed in, albeit to a lesser extent than the Gulf due to the their smaller financial cushions and in the case of Egypt, much larger population.
But the popular revolts we had envisaged would unfold in 2008 did not transpire. Pressure from dollar weakness and soaring cost of living dissipated quickly with the onset of the global financial crisis in late 2008. Middle East economies decelerated rapidly as oil prices plunged from a peak of almost $150 a barrel in July 2008 to just above $30 a barrel before the end of the year. Inflation rates adjusted quickly and suddenly the mounting pressure on governments to allay popular discontent eased considerably.
Yet disgruntlement did not disappear – far from it. The global financial crisis perhaps masked the boiling unrest for a short while, but it also served to aggravate grievances of Arab populations. Slower economic growth meant weaker private sector expansion across the region, frustrating the unemployment problem, and leading to a widening of the income divide. Youth unemployment in the Middle East is alarming. At 23%, according to the International Labour Organisation, regional joblessness among young people is the highest in the world.
Even while inflation rates in Egypt more than halved in 2009 and 2010, they remained in double-digit levels and concerns over unemployment, low wages and corruption continued to brew across the Middle East. Even in Saudi Arabia inflation has held almost consistently above 5%, historically high for a country where inflation averaged 0.8% between 1990 and 2006.
Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vender in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, was the instigator of a dramatic twist in the plot for the entire region. Bouazizi publicly set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his goods and harassment and humiliation by a municipal official, later dying from the injuries and inspiring a revolution that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. The young 26-year-old’s story resonated across the region and has served as a trigger for the popular revolts that my colleague (who also foresaw the gravity of the global financial crisis) had anticipated would take place two or three years ago.
Bouazizi shifted the popular mindset such that Arab youth no longer sought state concessions such as subsidies, higher wages or promises for more jobs. They now demand freedom of expression, a meaningful voice in politics and an end to corruption and repressive dictatorship. Successful popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and the momentum building in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere underpin this new desire for genuine freedom.
It will be difficult for even some Gulf monarchies to silence the calls of their youth by throwing funds from their ample oil wealth at social programmes. This entry by a prominent Saudi blogger underpins this change in mentality: 7,000 people are supporting a call on Facebook for the kingdom to establish a constitutional monarchy, fight corruption, and improve the situation of women. Momentum will have to build more extensively before the population of 27 million (including about 18.5 million Saudis) poses a threat to the regime. But Saudi youth have plenty of reasons to be frustrated with youth unemployment of as high as 39%, as you can see in this study I authored this month.
It is virtually impossible to predict how events will unfold this year, with two regimes toppled in less than two months following decades of political stagnancy, and another appearing on the verge of crumbling amid a violent massacre by Libya’s 42-year dictator Muammar Qaddafi. As Arab youth swallow their reservations and fear of death and rise in peaceful protest, it is fast becoming clear that no dictatorship can cling to the claim it is not a “Tunisia or an Egypt”.
Wednesday, 16 February 2011
There is a saying in the Holy Quran that God is closer to you than your jugular vein. Some days I comprehend this concept more than others. Today is one of those days. This morning, I watched my sister embrace her 3-1/2-year old son Kareem at 6:45 a.m. We – my sister, her husband and myself – were heading out the door for the hospital. Kareem had obviously heard a bit of commotion downstairs and decided to walk across the dimly lit, second-floor family room adjacent to his room, his favourite blanket in hand, and headed down the long staircase, just in time to find his way into his mommy’s arms before she walked out the door.
My sister immediately stepped back inside the corridor, sat down on a hallway chair and gathered Kareem in her arms as she always does, as though he is still a tiny baby, nestling his head on one shoulder while allowing his legs to dangle over the opposite arm as she squeezed him. The tremendous warmth and tenderness she applies to her expressions of love for her sons is something I cannot fully understand since I am not a mother myself. It was one of the timeless moments: even in the midst of a mad rush to sprint out the door so as not to be late for an appointment, we are able to find the time to pause, remembering what’s most important, and clinch the moment as though it were hours.
A couple of minutes later, Kareem left his mother’s arms and cuddled up close to his grandmother’s leg, still clinging to the small, worn out fleece blanket, and we departed. I don’t know whether what is said about the mother-child bond is true, that it is informed by a great deal of intuition, but today as I watched my sister and her son, I knew in my heart there is some divine connection between them that I hope one day, God willing, I will experience myself. I couldn’t help but have the impression Kareem knew his mom wouldn’t be going to work today as she normally does, albeit several hours later in the morning. Even last night, Kareem awoke from sleep at 11 pm, after only three hours, just so his mom could tuck him in and sleep with him.
I came to visit my sister this week to accompany her to the hospital. She is having surgery today to remove a tumour from her breast. They assured us is a basic procedure, she most likely will not even have to stay in the hospital overnight. A biopsy conducted on the mass last month revealed that it is harmless. They said removing it is a precautionary step taken because doctors were a bit worried about the shape of the lump. Biopsies are effective at testing only the tissue that is extracted during the procedure, but cannot provide any guarantees about the surrounding tissue. I’m sure that all will be smooth as I begin writing this entry during the 45-minute car ride to the hospital. I have been praying for that for more than a month since my sister discovered the lump and had it tested. Every prayer, particularly in the early morning, I ask God to give her health and keep her strong for her two boys, the other of whom is not yet two. Since last summer I have never underestimated the power of prayer.
Up until about a year ago, the concept of God for me was very distant. Divinity, heaven, hell, sin, repentance –these were all concepts that appeared so far away. But in the three months prior to the surprise death of my father last August, I found myself drawn to my spiritual side for the first time. It was as though God shone a light on my heart, enabling me to clearly see truth for the first time in my life. I completed my first reading of the Holy Quran less than a month prior to my father’s death, which happened on the second day of the holy month of Ramadan. For the first time after three decades in a Muslim family, I discovered what it means to be a Muslim, which literally means in Arabic ‘one who submits him/herself to God’. When we begin to approach the meanderings of life with patience and constancy, we can come to realise that each step we take is a blessing from God, or Allah as He is called in Arabic. When we are suffering, God is there, testing our patience, and this is a blessing. When we are happy and joyful, God is there, testing our remembrance, and that is a blessing. Encapsulating this reality is the poignant and simple Quranic phrase: “Verily, with every difficulty there is relief”.
I think sometimes we need to be faced with illness, near accidents, and death to remember that really the end of this life is only a breath away – and can happen at any time. We should work toward achieving a state of mind where death would never blindside us. If we achieve this, we will be more capable of appreciating those around us whom we hold dearly and living fulfilled lives without allowing daily troubles burden our minds. People often speak of God and heaven as being far above the clouds and night stars. We often raise our hands and look up to the sky to offer a prayer. But for me, God is right here, in every breath we inhale, in every word we utter, in every step we take. The struggle, of course, is learning how to surrender to this.
So today, I am leaving everything to God and doing the only thing I can, standing next to my sweet sister, who is a year-and-a-half older than me and has been a constant source of inspiration and bravery in my life. The surgery went smoothly, elhamd’Allah (praise to God). She may emerge from this experience slightly changed in her physical appearance. But the spiritual growth that she, and all of us, will derive from this will be immeasurably greater than any scar that may be left behind.
"..Those who believe, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah: For without doubt in the remembrance of God do hearts find satisfaction." (13:28)
Saturday, 12 February 2011
As myself and tens of millions of Egyptians jubilantly relish at the victory of toppling a dictator who ruthlessly clung to power for three decades, it may seem unusual that I have garbage on my mind.
Watching footage of the past two weeks building up to the revolution that would depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I was shocked to see Egyptians picking up paper scraps and splashing water onto the streets of Tahrir Square with mops and matchless motivation, cleansing their surroundings with a spirit of pure delight and good cheer. This struck me as a key symbol that something had fundamentally transformed in the Egyptian mindset.
A daughter of Egyptian parents but born and raised in Canada, I was always deeply bothered by trash during my usually infrequent trips to my homeland as a child. I couldn’t understand the rationale of throwing cigarette butts, candy bar wrappers, empty plastic bottles out of speeding car windows and dirtying one’s neighbourhood and home. One day when I was 13, during the second family holiday to Egypt that I can recall, I posed the question to one of my cousins Ashraf. We were visiting him and other relatives in the Suez Canal city Ismailia, my mother’s birthplace.
My cousin, then a 30-something lawyer who had lived his entire life in the North Eastern Egyptian city, smiled , looked me in the eye, and said in a matter-of-fact way, “ya habibty ya Daliah, this is not Canada. Our government gives us no benefit for keeping the country clean. This culture doesn’t exist here”. I admit that in the almost two decades that have passed since then, most of the details of that glorious summer holiday spent with family in Cairo, Fayoum, Ismailia, Suez and Port Said have escaped my memory. But Ashraf’s words remained etched in my mind. Egyptians had been denied a culture of civic responsibility by a government that defined legitimacy as its ability to incite fear and indifference among its people.
Each time I returned to Egypt following that trip in 1992, I saw the trash accumulate more prominently; as the streets became more riddled with rubbish, I felt inside that it represented another layer of hopelessness afflicting the population. I worked as a journalist in Egypt from 2002 to 2004, but left as living costs soared wildly in part triggered by a state decision to sever the dollar peg in favour of adopting a managed flotation for the Egyptian currency in early 2003. Inflation mounted in the following years due to currency weakness, high oil prices, swelling global food costs, huge population growth. As the people’s frustrations grew more palpable, the trash piles heaped higher and higher.
But I wasn’t prepared for what I would witness during my three visits to Egypt in the past year and a half. People living in our 10-year-old apartment building in the Haram (Pyramids) district of Cairo were throwing entire bags of trash from their eighth and ninth floor balconies onto the empty plot of privately held, abandoned land behind us. It was covered in garbage. I was shocked and appalled. Only palm trees, not a spot of trash, could be seen on that land just five years earlier.
My brother-in-law, who grew up adoring Egyptian cinema and people from afar, was ecstatic about embarking on his first trip to Egypt this past September. He was, regrettably, taken aback by the filth that filled so many Cairene streets. One day, he went with my mom and nephews to visit the Pyramids and a man with a horse-drawn carriage graciously offered to take them on a tour, but said he would use a short cut. Smirking, he told them they should be prepared to see some wonderful “ful and yasmeen” – deliciously fragrant flowers commonly sold in Egypt. My gullible mother and brother-in-law believed him. Until, that is, the old man’s truly Egyptian humour rung clear; the carriage passed through heaps of uncollected pungent trash, situated just off the five-star Mena House hotel adjacent to the Grand Pyramids. They pressed their noses closed and laughed at the redefinition of floral aroma.
While Egyptians always bring light-hearted humour into every situation, desperation was building. I could feel it on every street corner – the people were frustrated, desperate, irritated following 30 years of repression and years of double-digit inflation met with no meaningful increase in wages. Along with the building furore, I was overwhelmed by how garbage was teeming everywhere. Walking along the Nile with my family one day, police officers tried to force us to erase photographs we had taken of the trash amassing along the banks of the great river. It was disgraceful. My mom cursed the government, and Hosni Mubarak, her criticisms silenced only by our pleas for her not to make a scene. Egypt was, simply, overflowing with the sense of indignity and apathy that my cousin had described to me so many years before.
You can imagine my astonishment watching footage of Egyptians rolling up their sleeves and cleaning Cairo’s streets in Liberation Square this past two and a half weeks. It literally moved me to tears. All it took for the patient, good-humoured, inventive Egyptians was the scent of freedom to restore their dignity and faith in the future of their country, and fuel their resolve to rebuild its glory, one piece of trash at a time.
In my elation at the momentous events of the past 18 days, I imagine that during my next visit to Egypt, it will appear exceptionally cleaner – in form and spirit. I imagine the attitude of civic responsibility will spread through the streets and people will take pride in their supreme accomplishment of regaining their dignity and reclaiming ownership of their land. It will take a long time for Egypt to reverse the damage left by decades of oblivious dictatorship. But I have enormous faith that this newfound freedom will echo in every corner of ‘Umm Al Donya’, an Arabic phrase commonly associated with Egypt, meaning ‘Mother of the World’.