Sunday, December 18, 2011

Letters from Egypt: US Embassy Refuses to Help a Jailed American

Register with the State Department, they say. For emergencies, contact such and such number, they say. What the US Embassy in Cairo doesn’t say: We will fail to help any American citizen in need unless it makes national headlines in the US and forces us to act accordingly.

Local news editor for Bikya Masr Joseph Mayton was arrested Saturday, December 17 and held and beaten for 14 hours. Mayton and his wife relocated to an apartment overlooking Tahrir Square. When Mayton’s wife contacted the US Embassy, they refused to help. Not at all surprising as the more I delve into the inner matters of my own embassy, the more I have to wonder if all or most of the employees put the keyword “incompetent” on their resume/CV to get an instant job.

“I called the Embassy – surprisingly they allowed me to keep my phone – and began a dialogue to have someone from the embassy come and have me released. They refused to do so, citing diplomatic issues between Washington and the Egyptian security forces as well as the security situation on the street outside. I was angry at my government.

Repeatedly, Embassy officials said they could not come and retrieve me due to the security officer at the embassy banning all personnel from being near the scene. I was perturbed, considering the American Embassy is, literally, on the opposite side of the street approximately 100 meters from where I was being held.

By early afternoon, a Hungarian national, Mark Fodor, was also brought in, also for taking photos at the same spot I was detained. He contacted his Embassy and the ball was rolling. By around 9 PM the Hungarian Counsel was en route to take him from detention. I was livid, angry that my embassy was telling me they “have to go through the proper channels and were doing all they could to have me released.” Two military officers had specifically told Embassy officials on the phone that to have me released, an embassy employee had to come get me. They never came and even told me that I would have to stay the night until the morning.

Fodor was released when the Embassy official arrived and I remained in my seat, waiting and hoping they would tire of my presence. It was cold and after Fodor – who I had conversed with throughout the afternoon and early evening – was gone, I was digging in for a night in the small, pitch black room.

Somehow, approximately 30 minutes after Fodor was freed, two soldiers came into the room, asked me if I knew how to get home and took me to a side street outside and let me go. It was a strange turn of events, but I had been freed.”

The US Embassy sent an email to employees yesterday instructing them to avoid downtown and the 6th of October bridge. Those of us registered with the State Department have failed to see anything in regards to the recent clashes. If so, it must have mysteriously skipped my inbox although I received two emails today discussing the upcoming presidential elections in the US.

I will admit that as a journalist, you are aware that you may be compromised for trying to get the story out. And this is not anyone’s responsibility but your own; however, it’s unnerving that if you do contact the embassy, it refuses to get involved although the government institution has no qualms about appearing as though it actually cares. This was my point in the blog: US Citizens Left Behind by US Government. Another detail is that the Hungarian national that was jailed for the same violation as Mayton had immediate help. Then again, you do need to take into account how many Hungarians that are located in Egypt as opposed to Americans. However, a friend of mine working for the New Zealand Embassy told me that during the revolution, three Fox News journalists were detained, a New Zealander, Canadian and American. The NZ Embassy helped facilitate the release of all three.

There are other variables to consider, but then there are other stories that need to be highlighted. Such as the lack of an appropriate crisis management or evacuation plan during the January 25 revolution. The more I check into the ongoings at the US Embassy, the more I question the real work being conducted at the government facility.

A former military officer working for the embassy confessed to me in October that alcohol was prevalent in many offices with on-the-clock drinking occurring regularly. Even more shocking, one Lt. Col. accessed personnel files in order to contact spouses in the US to make aware that their counterparts in Egypt were having an affair (this after the Lt. Col. made several advances to the subordinate). Unacceptable and a violation on numerous accounts. You have time to access personnel records for personal agendas, but you fail to have time to help American citizens living abroad?

What’s even funnier is that I visited a place a couple of months ago that only allowed Americans and it happened to be full of US Embassy employees. One US Embassy official was speaking with another man saying that the ineptitude of the Embassy during the revolution was another department’s fault. He said, “It’s not the Embassy’s fault, it’s those State Department guys.” The blame game is not just an Egyptian trait.

So why would I ever assume that the embassy is capable of providing help when clearly more important matters are the priority of the so-called agenda. You will notice that the only reason the embassy got involved in the three American college students detained for throwing Molotov cocktails was because the US media had a field day with the story. When in actuality, that should have been the time that they were not involved. Mayton was trying to get a story, he wasn’t inciting violence. “Diplomatic issues between Washington and the Egyptian security forces” prevented the US Embassy from helping him but allowed them to help three college students who threw Molotov cocktails? Needed: a functioning brain at the US Embassy.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Buy Egyptian

“Next Friday 16-12-2011 is Buy Egyptian Products day. Please don’t buy anything other than Made in Egypt, this is only for one day and it will have a great impact on economy. Plz spread n be positive :)”
-Facebook Group Buy Egyptian

Great idea, but I’m sure you’re thinking, “What is actually made in Egypt?” Let’s look at the products that you can buy (and some reports are that they will be discounted):

  • Bad food that result in an amazing weight loss regime with workout included (running to the bathroom for dear life helps shed those unwanted pounds)
  • All you can pick up trash/rubbish. There’s plenty to go around
  • That random sandal that you happened to trip over while walking to a cab; however, it is up to you to find its partner which always seems elusive
  • Skin bleach because the scars afterwards are an added bonus
  • My bowab’s children
  • New taxi meters that have been tampered with to speed up costs

Disclaimer: All purchases are final, but for any product that seems to have problems functioning, there will be duct tape and silicon provided to help repair damages.

In all honesty, most of the products you’re going to find are manufactured in Dubai. The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is Egyptian cotton. Did you know that the high quality is actually sent abroad and the rest is sold in Egypt at triple the prices that you would pay in places like the US? Unlike going to buy jade in China and silk in India where prices are much cheaper since it’s the place of origin, it would be less expensive for you to purchase 100% Egyptian cotton sheets at TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and the like in the US.

This is applicable across the board. Most of the products made in Egypt that are of somewhat decent quality are shipped abroad with damaged or not as efficient products remaining behind (undoubtedly the items that didn’t pass the quality control). There are very few products that come with the tag “Made in Egypt” that is enticing. Buying any appliance which could be made here will only result in buying a new one a month later.

Better said, a product “Made in Egypt” carries the “Made in China” stigma. The only difference: the Chinese factories are in production 24/7. Egypt is only at 40% capacity currently and meets quota almost never on the few products that it does make – protests or not.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Female Circumcision on the Rise after Mubarak

Badour Shakar died after an illegal circumcision was performed in Upper Egypt, and she became the poster child for the stop of FGM in Egypt. Source: AP
While many people are concerned with reports that Islamists have taken the majority of seats in Egypt’s most recent parliamentary elections, another scary realization has also occurred post-revolution. Female genital mutilation (FGM) – also known as female circumcision – has increased since Hosni Mubarak stepped down from leadership.

FGM is the removal of all or part of a female’s genitalia (primarily the clitoris) for cultural or other non-medical reasons, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There are many reasons that this could take place, but the main belief in the Islamic world is to control a woman’s sexuality – thought to ensure virginity before and fidelity after marriage – and increase a man’s sexual pleasure.

In 1997, Egypt made the practice illegal except in certain circumstances (I really wish I knew the criteria because personally, I can’t imagine there being one); however, after the death of a 12-year old girl, Badour Shaker in June 2007, the Egyptian government banned the practice entirely unless administered by an accredited medical facility. Shaker died after undergoing the FGM operation in a private clinic in Minya, Upper Egypt, and then followed by a 13-year old in the village of Gharbiya.

Unicef predicted that the practice of FGM would decline over time from its 2005 levels of 77% among girls age 15-17 to around 60%. The organization undoubtedly didn’t see a revolution or its damaging effects on such projections. Although the Al-Azhar Supreme Council for Islamic Research – the highest religious authority in Egypt – issued a statement explaining that FGM had no basis in the core of Islamic Sharia or any of its partial provisions. Dar el Ifta, the authority issuing Fatwas (legal opinions issued by Islamic scholars) issued a Fatwa that condemned the practice.

Wife of former leader, Suzanne Mubarak stood firm against FGM and announced the amendment of the Child Law banning FGM. Naturally with the change in regime, the lawyer and head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights Nihad Abu Kumsan said that Suzanne Mubarak was only involved in the fight against FGM for self-promotional purposes. "She was devoid of a feminist vision or a socialist vision," Kumsan claimed. Call me crazy but even if that were true, at least she stood for something worthwhile that is harmful and damaging to young girls throughout the country (and other parts of the world).

Unicef created an abandonment program, which was supported by USAID, with a total budget of  $1.6 million from 2002-2007 (although with placing the blame game on the US for its manufacturing of tear gas, many Egyptians fail to remember the financial aid it receives for programs such as this).

The US magazine, The New Republic, reported that the fight to stop girls from being circumcised in the country has decreased since the revolution due to a lack of funds. The report said that from a 2008 Egypt Demographic and Health Survey, 91% of all women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been mutilated. What’s even more so is a comparison that less-advanced Senegal (located in West Africa) has seen more progress in the fight to stop FGM after several thousand villages have pledged never to circumcise females again.

I didn’t believe that Egypt had such a high ratio of female circumcision, and I had asked several of my female friends. Unfortunately, for many women that have been circumcised, they do not know any different and are unable to tell you if the procedure has in fact taken place.

Suggested Reading:

by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute