This past week, representatives from some 20 countries in the Arabic-speaking world and beyond got together, once again, to talk about Internet freedom in the region. The meeting was particularly interesting, convening as it did in a country where the government clearly doesn’t know what to make of this whole “freedom” thing.
Welcome to the Algerian version of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a three-day annual conference whose second edition was organized from the first to the third of October in Algiers. At the conference, stakeholders from the governmental, private, and non-governmental sectors discussed questions of Internet use and management in the region. While the discussions and meetings were extremely interesting in their own right, it was even more entertaining to observe the way the Algerian state dealt with the conference.
Government representatives did their best to hide the police state mentality that permeates the country. At times, however, they failed, reverting to their standard modus operandi — providing anyone who cared to observe with a fascinating example of what happens when a decades-old police state collides with Internet-era professionals. (In the photo above, the Algerian police partake in a “show of force ceremony” in July.)
Multiple conference organizers from within and outside Algeria told me that government officials did their best to shape the event in the weeks before it began, even going so far as to object to specific discussion topics and veto particular speakers. Most of the time, they got their way.
During the conference, the overbearing security presence made many people uncomfortable. Algerian officials attempted to control discussions by planting people in the audience who were tasked with making comments that followed conspicuously similar arguments. (“A state should monitor its citizens because it protects them the way that parents do their children.”) This feeble strategy quickly became obvious and repetitive.
Participants were often chaperoned, and, in some cases, explicitly forbidden from wandering away from the official conference premises. Those who tried were subjected to a shrill diatribe from an official of the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology. As the conference progressed, the official’s patience wore thin with those pesky conference attendees who thought they could have a free and open discussion. At one point she called on security to remove a young Algerian participant who had asked a perfectly benign yet unscripted question about users protecting their privacy online. The official claimed that the alleged offender was not registered and had forged her entrance badge (which was, naturally, untrue). And when said participant attempted to complain to another official at the Ministry of Post and Information and Communication Technology, he lewdly invited her to his hotel room, harassing her by text message all throughout the night.
Amusingly, the Algerian government was not the only one trying to peddle a pro-surveillance agenda. A Lebanese government official, seemingly emboldened by the host’s security-driven ideological bent, jumped on the bandwagon, declaiming at length about the “security” need for surveillance of personal communications.
Was holding this event in Algeria, a country with such a stifling attitude towards free expression, a good or bad idea? The optimist might argue that such a high-profile event forced Algeria to open up and face, head-on, the likelihood that the Internet, thanks to its speed and decentralized organization, will always be one step ahead of government control. The Algerian government’s nervousness — which they displayed increasingly as the conference proceeded — is proof of this.
Pessimists, however, will argue that the event organizers ceded too much control to a government that was bent on stifling the debate on Internet governance. In a private conversation on the sidelines of the conference in Algiers, one participant who had also attended last year’s regional IGF in Kuwait told me that she felt that the discussions this time around were rehashing all the same arguments. Her feeling is probably justified, especially if one compares the debates in Algeria with the issues tackled by the global Internet Governance Forum, where discussions have touched upon diverse and specialized issues (gender and youth perspectives on internet governance, the role of the internet in disaster management, emerging cyberthreats, and many others). By contrast, the Algeria forum kept circling endlessly around basic and repetitive debates about the issue of government surveillance.
The Arab IGF in Algiers proved that much remains to be done when it comes to Internet policy in the Arab World. But along the way it also demonstrated that digital rights and Internet freedom are unstoppable — however hard the police states might try to prove the opposite.
Originally published on Foreign Policy: Transitions
Few people, even among their most ardent detractors, would argue with a straight face that Muslim Brotherhood supporters, with all their shortcomings, are being treated fairly right now: an apparent compassion deficit has meant that, despite apparent injustice, Egyptians are largely unlikely to find in themselves any understanding or favorability towards the Islamist group’s supporters.
A dozen protesters were given an express trial and handed a seventeen-year sentence for allegedly attempting to break into the Al-Azhar headquarters – a sentence so inexplicably severe that the tongue-in-cheek joke in Egypt was that “had they killed the policemen who arrested them, they might have gotten a lighter sentence.” Dozens of tenured university Brotherhood-affiliated professors, or those who simply sympathize with the outlawed group have been arrested on flimsy charges, and are being fired from their institutions on account of “inexcusably absences.” Kids have been beaten up at school by their peers for their parents’ political affiliation.
Deposed president Mohamed Morsi is being prosecuted by the military regime that removed him, is guarded by the ministry of interior that killed protesters he is accused of failing to protect, while Mubarak-era appointed magistrates will judge him: the farce is obvious to anyone who doesn’t suffer from selective blindness. Perhaps theatrics are the end goal. Having seen the plummeting public interest in the Mubarak trial, it is safe to assume that after a few court sessions, a few shouting matches between Morsi and the judge about the dress code, and severalsubsequent adjournments, the trial will ultimately end up at the bottom of page 4 of the newspaper.
Most puzzling, however, is not the ethical aspect of the process, nor the charade’s likely outcomes. Most fascinating is the fact that, despite a generalized realization of foul play, there is a deafening silence when it comes to pointing out the obvious flaws in the due process these individuals are granted, regardless of one’s opinions or feelings regarding their political affiliation.
Though one might have hoped for marginally better treatment of the subject of Morsi’s trial by state and independent newspapers, they are, by and large, content to adopt sensationalist headlines, offering only simplistic coverage, with little analysis or commentary if any.
Even more puzzling is the perspective of the man on the street: aside from extremists on either side – those who want to sanctify Morsi and those who want his scalp – the general reaction from Egyptians has been to glance over the news, seeing the trial almost as an inevitability, like bad weather – and like bad weather, it has seemed almost unworthy of discussion beyond a sulk and an indifferent shrug.
This lack of sympathy can be explained by a trifecta of reasons – voluntary, exclusionary, and general.
The voluntary, first. Caricatures abound representing a person, the average Egyptian, being tugged on either side by the army and Islamists, accused by each for siding with the other if he so much as opens his mouth. And there is much truth to that image. In a climate rife with accusations of treason, it has become impossible to espouse a view even marginally different from the dominant narrative. No “buts” accepted. The rational course of action is then to remain silent.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters are also to blame for maintaining anunwelcoming, exclusionary platform to ad-hoc supporters. They can, however, be partially excused. It is natural that Brotherhood members, faced with a barrage of societal rejection, would clam up, seeking to create a ‘secure’ environment, less exposed to outside criticism – but also inhospitable to outsiders.
There have been feeble attempts to rebrand the Raba’a protest movement as separate from the Muslim Brotherhood – using the black-and-yellow four-fingeredRaba’a signs in protests instead of Brotherhood insignia, as one example. The rebranding a failure, it was promptly abandoned, with supporters reverting to exclusionary slogans, going as far as tagging “Egypt is Islamist” on churches, and once tainting the entire protest movement with all the Muslim Brotherhood’s reputational baggage. Even the Brotherhood’s traditional gender-segregated style of protesting – men in the front, women in the back – is making a comeback, after weeks of disingenuous PR that would, for example, focus on publishing photos of the minority of unveiled women at protests, to appeal to a larger (and hopefully, foreign) audience.
It comes as no surprise that few are prepared to associate with Muslim Brotherhood supporters, after months of constant displays of violence, and deliberately traffic-paralysing sit-ins in main avenues. They and their protests have become a despicable sight to many Egyptians, even among those willing to acknowledge that the killing of hundreds of Morsi supporters should not be swept under the rug.
The deliberate and unwillful result of those actions is that the Venn diagram of Brotherhood supporters, the Raba’a protesters, and the most vocal detractors of the Brotherhood’s persecution by the state, is effectively a circle, or nearly so.
But there’s a final underlying – and more concerning – reason. Let me give an example from outside of this political dispute. Last Thursday, the government closed down one of Egypt’s most famous mosques, which houses the mausoleum of Al-Hussein ben Ali, the Muslim prophet’s grandson and a figure revered by Shi’ites around the world. The move appeared to have little purpose, beyond spiting the handful of Egyptian Shi’ites who would visit the mosque to commemorate Ashoura.Society’s silence in response was as deafening as the response given to the Brotherhood’s treatment.
Shi’ism, a strain of Islamic of millennial presence in Egypt, is deeply embedded in the Egyptian religious practice. The majority of Egyptians who stood idly as an injustice befell co-religionaries with whom they only have minor differences, are even more likely to remain silent – or even nod in agreement – as injustice sweeps away their political adversaries.
Egyptians seem to suffer from a generalized compassion deficiency and a state of acute avarice, unwilling to extend the same privileges and rights they take for granted. Even among self-proclaimed liberal parties – a misnomer if ever there was one – perhaps the term ‘non-Islamist parties’ is a more appropriate epithet – the failure to point out obvious injustices is widespread.
There’s a nagging temptation, as a friend suggested, to sit back, with a bucket of popcorn, and watch as two parties, equally toxic to Egypt’s future, spar. But the truth of “first they came for the Muslim Brotherhood, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t Muslim Brotherhood” requires a societal awakening to the simple fact that a nation may not call itself civilized if it does not extend the same rights to all, and does not defend those in no position to do so.
First published in Egypt Source.
Update 2: Response from Reuters Foundation journalist Crina Boros – scroll to comments
Tayeb. Let’s be clear that this is no defense of Egypt and the abysmal state of women’s rights in this country. But since the Thomson-Reuters poll came out this week, ranking Egypt as the worst place in the Arab World to be a woman, I was curious to know how they reached that conclusion. So I took at look at the poll’s methodology, and these are a few quick comments.
a) The survey basis
The survey is designed to “assess the extent to which states adhere to key provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)”. Which would be fine and dandy if the CEDAW was the same for all polled countries: It’s not. Not all countries have signed or ratified the treaty (Somalia and Sudan haven’t); and more interestingly, and this is what I meant by “not all the same for all polled countries”, is that some countries have issued reservations that torpeado the very essence of the treaty. Saudi Arabia is a prime example.
If you sign an agreement but add, next to your signature, “I will abide by this treaty only if I think I like it”, then this beats the purpose of the agreement, doesn’t it? This is more or less what Saudi Arabia did. And other countries were pissed. This is how France, among many others, views the Saudi “exception”:
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia formulates a reservation of general, indeterminate scope that gives the other States parties absolutely no idea which provisions of the Convention are affected or might be affected in future.
Given all this, can you really compare countries on their implementation of a treaty, if the treaty is not the same for everyone?
It’s like measuring the height of a group of people – only they’re standing on uneven ground, with some standing on a hill and others in a hole.
This is but one example of why basing the poll of the CEDAW is problematic.
b) The questions
It’s easy to accuse any survey of missing this or that question (because there will always be a question that someone feels is missing…) and I won’t do that. But let’s look at the questions and the weighing.
The pollsters gave equal weight to all questions. Like any weighing, it is arbitrary. But there a problem. Thomson-Reuters says:
“All questions had the same weight, as they were all based on CEDAW articles. We did not attempt to assume any relative importance to different CEDAW articles. For example, we did not try to determine whether female genital mutilation was any “better” or “worse” than marital rape as a form of violence against women.”
Valid point: I cannot measure whether FGM or marital rape is worse. (the mere thought of comparing is frightening). But can we compare other things? Say, sexual harassment vs. weak access to political participation? FGM vs. risking of being fired from work for being pregnant? Surely these don’t have the same weight when it comes to quality of life.
c) The timing
the poll was taken in August/September 2013. And the pollsters themselves are cognizant (page 5 of the methodology document) that
“We are aware that results may have been influenced by events taking place over the period the survey was conducted (August to September 2013)”
Arguably, the in the post July 3rd mess in Egypt and the post Rabaa massacre, it’s easy to imagine that respondents wouldn’t be very optimistic about much in Egypt…
d) The sample
336 experts were polled for their opinion on 22 countries. I’m assuming each expert was asked about 1 country. That makes an average of 15.2 per country. This strikes me as being a rather small sample for a poll of this type, where most questions are .
UPDATED. It appears the “selected experts” aren’t really selected (and perhaps not all experts). A copy of the email sent by the Reuters Foundation asking people to take their survey stated they were looking for “professionals with knowledge on the issue – journalists, activists, academics etc.” to take their poll; were allowed to fill the survey about whatever country they felt like; or if they felt competent enough or so fancied, to fill the survey for multiple countries.
I’ll let you think of the potential problems arising here.
And then – oooooh yes it gets better – they asked the ‘experts’ to forward the email to colleagues. So the ‘expert selection’ aspect, which would have covered for the small size of the sample, is shoddy at best. Sure, many who filled the survey are indeed experts; but it is very likely that many were not.
Again. This is not a defense of Egypt, which ranked last. Frankly I don’t care where we rank. And if putting it last means that this will jolt someone into action, then fine by me. I’m actually concerned that this position would make policymakers dismiss the results altogether and ignore it/attack it for being deliberately biased, which I don’t think it is.
The truth is, Egypt is a lousy place to be a woman. The amount of daily violence women are subjected to is frightening – both overt, but also concealed, insidious. It’s constant. Workplaces are dreadful, but streets are the worse… though probably not worse than public transportation.
We are light-years behind. And we’re in a pretty lousy neighbourhood, too.
There’s a strange practice in Egyptian media: it refers to nearly every country, particularly developing ones, as a “sister country”. Newspaper articles never fail to mention “Sister Tunisia” or “Brother Iraq”. If it’s not a sister country, it is at least a “brotherly people”. Sincere or not, such rhetoric is so common that we barely notice it.
But pause and recognition of this odd practice automatically begs the question:
How do Egyptians really feel about the rest of the world?
The Tahrir Trends survey conducted in May/June 2013 captured a snapshot of Egyptian public opinion at a particularly interesting juncture. It portrays Egypt after nearly a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, yet before the July 3rd coup and subsequent bout of army-driven nationalism and populism – particularly relevant to our analysis here.
Let’s start with the country Egyptians love to hate, despite its position as the top non-Arab emigration destination and as one of the largest Egyptian diaspora hosts: The United States of America.
18% have a positive opinion of the United States. 8% have a somewhat negative opinion and a whopping 53% declared a “very negative” opinion of the country.
U.S.-Egypt politics have long been strained despite generations of Egyptian youth with media-inspired dreams of the United States. The US is local politicians’ favorite scapegoat for virtually everything. Over the last year, all political players have accused the Americans of supporting their opponents. American Ambassador Patterson has practically become a household name, playing the role of Colonial High Commissioner role in the Egyptian collective imagination. Longstanding perceptions of American pro-Israeli involvement in the Israeli-Arab conflict – one of the few foreign affairs issues that Egyptians follow – add to this negative perception.
Oddly, Canada fares worse than the United States: 16% of Egyptians have a positive opinion of Canada while 47% perceive it negatively. I say “oddly” because Canadian self-effacement is widely considered neutral. As one joke goes, you can identify Canadians from the Canadian flag on their backpack – and you can identify Americans from the two Canadian flags on their backpacks. Now, it seems that Canada is suffering from the overspill of Egyptian negativity towards neighboring America.
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia commands the best perception, with almost 70% of respondents saying they have a very or somewhat positive impression of the country. Still, more than one out of nine Egyptians feels “very negative” toward Saudi Arabia. Virtually every Egyptian has a personal connection to Saudi Arabia, which is home to an Egyptian expatriate community of 1.7 million and serves as the main destination of Egyptian (religious) tourism. Although limited and sporadic, this personal experience has shaped Egyptian opinions, as has the last year’s worth of political messaging about Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Opinion of the UAE remains overall positive, at 56% favorable respondents versus the 25% with a negative outlook. The Emirates are also a migration destination for Egyptian workers, but with less political baggage than Saudi Arabia. Opinions are more polarized on Qatar, which has held a palpable political presence in Egypt over the last two years. Nearly twice as many people declared having a “very negative” opinion of Qatar (33.9%) rather than a “very positive” one (18%). More than 20% remained ambivalent, replying that they “didn’t know.”
Unsurprisingly, 90% of respondents said they had a “very negative” opinion of Israel. But that does not necessarily translate into support for Palestine, toward which 41% of respondents hold a “negative” view. Only 17% declared themselves “very positive” about Palestine. In fact, most respondents appear to be rather isolationist. Two-thirds of responses to a later question were against Egypt opening the border with Gaza, even though the border crossing only allows for the passage of people and not goods.
Furthermore, 46% of respondents believe that Egypt should not increase any support to Palestinian governments in either Ramallah or Gaza City. A third of respondents said Egypt should increase support to both; 14% favored an increase of support for the Palestinian Authority only, and 2% indicated they’d prefer an increase in support Hamas.
Iran, which garnered a “very negative” opinion from 60% of respondents, is second only to Israel as a Middle Eastern pariah state. Egypt has no diplomatic relations with Iran. While political opinions on Iran are regionally ambivalent, the past year or two’s feeble detente attempts have clearly backfired. The handful of Iranian visitors who made it to Egypt this year – the first in three decades – suffered endless suspicion from Egyptian citizens, so much that they were forbidden to visit Egypt’s Islamic quarter out of fear that they might convert Egyptians into Shiism. (Yes, we can be that ridiculous.)
Europe, home of our historical neighbors, fellow Mediterranean riparians and largest commercial partners, doesn’t get much love either. European countries suffer from a severe brand recognition syndrome, with many respondents saying they don’t know how they perceive European countries.
For the EU as a whole, 48% of Egyptians surveyed had a negative opinion of the Union, while 21% had “somewhat” or “very positive” opinions. Responses to Northern European countries are even stranger. While 45% fell in the “I don’t know” category, most of the remaining had a negative opinion: 40% with respect to Sweden and 40% regarding Norway. Four-fifths of those votes were “very negative”. Only about 13% of respondents were positive about either country.
Scandinavian countries may be the “happiest Countries in the world,” according to a report published this week, but Egyptians don’t seem to care.
The Netherlands fared marginally better. 19% of respondents had positive opinions, compared to 43% with negative ones.
Dutch presence in Egyptian media over the past several years might actually be due to the antics of Dutch Islamophobes. Compared to Scandinavian countries seldom appear on the average Egyptian’s screen, the Netherlands nevertheless commands more positive feelings from Egyptians.
A quarter of respondents are positive towards Britain – 25%, to be precise. But almost a third of respondents (32%) were “very negative” about Britain, and 11% only somewhat so. Britain’s history of political activity in the Middle East might lead one to expect more negative responses. But as a favored destination for Egyptians tourists and migrants (English being the foreign language we torture the least, and Britain holding the advantage of proximity over North America), Britain holds favorable regard from a strong segment of Egyptians.
France, Egypt’s (well, Mubarak’s Egypt) great friend, has seen its reputation a little tarnished as of late. 28% of respondents were positive, compared to 41% who were not.
Germany’s soft power in Egypt comes in the form of Red Sea tourism: 1.2 million Germans visited Egypt yearly pre-revolution, making them the second largest touristic mass in the country. As such, 31% of respondents were positive about Germany, making it the most liked European country on the survey.
Interestingly, Egyptians seem to like East Asia. 50% of respondents have a positive opinion of both China and Japan. 18%, on the other hand, have a “very negative” opinion, and 25% of respondents stated they “didn’t know.” The distribution of opinions on China and Japan are similar enough for one to assume that respondents found it difficult to distinguish between them.
I’ll venture that the average Egyptian knows as much about Norway as they do about Japan, which begs the question: why the discrepancy? I can hardly think of a justification beyond irrational bias.
So much for the international ‘brotherly’ affection of our newspaper headlines – Egyptians seem to dislike most of the rest of the world. For a country where roughly 1 out of every 9 Egyptians makes his living directly from tourism, Egypt would do well to educate its citizens away from xenophobia.
The survey was done according to the most stringent polling standards, with the results based on face-to-face interviews with 1100 adults who were aged 15 and older. These interviews were conducted between the last week of May and the first week of June, conducted in 22 governorates, representing the country at large (the remaining 5 governorates in total account for 1.8% of the country’s population). As this sample was aimed at capturing a nationally accurate picture of adult Egyptian public opinion, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is 3.4 percentage points. Given the strict probability basis of the sample, including randomization of the selected respondent within any given household, minimum weighting of the data was required.
I’m not sure what the U.S. government was hoping to achieve by suspending some of its military assistance to Egypt, but whatever it was — it failed.
Though the State Department declared that the purpose was to nudge Egypt towards making “credible progress” towards democracy, this is neither serious nor convincing.
The decision is not serious – because, if it were, the United States would have done much morethan cancel war games and a four-year-old order of tanks. The United States merely wants to be seen as doing “something” to sanction the military-led Egyptian government, which clearly isn’t concerned with its already shaky international standing, and continues to wantonly kill its own citizens without a second thought (including on the national holiday a few days prior to the U.S. decision, pictured above). And even as the State Department spokesperson was searching for the most diplomatically appropriate way to say, “We are really mad at you,” Secretary of State Kerry was making reassuring remarks to Cairo, emphasizing the United States’ “commitment to the success of this government,” and that the aid suspension wasn’t “a withdrawal from the countries’ relationship.” That doesn’t make for a very convincing message.
And the decision isn’t convincing because, on the ground, we can plainly see that the aid cut plays nicely into the Egyptian government’s PR campaign. The U.S. decision allows Egypt’s rulers, who are fond of populist glory, to assume the stance of the independently-minded renegade standing against the will of the empire. In fact, not only did the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs backhandedly declare the aid cut an incorrect decision in terms of content and timing, but apparently General Sisi also chose to pass a message to the United States via the visiting E.U. representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton: “threats involving aid will not work, because Egypt has friendships with neighboring countries and is able to overcome its financial crisis.” Business tycoon and regime supporter Naguib Sawiris called the U.S. move “arrogant” and issued a warning: “Don’t underestimate the dignity of the Egyptians.”
Essentially, the message from Egypt was “Keep your aid,” set to the brouhaha of a fawning audience.
To understand this rather peculiar reaction to losing free money, we need to consider two factors.
First: the nature of the aid in question. The United States provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid, as well as $250 million in development assistance, yearly. Aside from that clear imbalance in favor of armament, which is a nudge for Egypt to uphold the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, most of the aid is tied, which means that Egypt is contractually obligated to buy U.S. equipment and employ U.S. consultants. The money flows back to the United States. (Of all developed countries, the United States has the highest proportion of tied aid). Washington’s cuts affect the delivery of military equipment and financial military assistance — so there’s nothing life-threatening or particularly worrisome about them for Egypt’s leaders. Besides, the country is still swimming in freshly received petrodollars that have buoyed the government, emboldening it to flatly declare(link in Arabic) that it no longer needs IMF funds, and to send this newest, glib message to the Americans.
Second: the psychology of the Egyptian rulers. The governments that have ruled Egypt since 2011 have displayed a predilection for sacrificing long-term gain for short-term populist plaudits; it was the military junta, after all, that blocked a salutary but unpopular IMF loan in 2011, against the recommendation of the experts at the ministry of finance. The military regime in power today will once again choose to bask in the street glory of its newfound “rebel” image.
While the Egyptian government is snickering and brushing off the U.S. gesture as insignificant, it is nevertheless slightly miffed — emphasis on “slightly.” But one country is genuinely upset about the aid reduction: Israel. Referring to the move as a “strategic error,” according to Israel’s Channel 2, an unnamed official in the Netanyahu administration was reportedly less than elated with the cuts. While the official was relieved that the cuts didn’t touch the “antiterrorism” activities of the Egyptian army in the Sinai Peninsula, he maintained that the United States must also consider “wider interests.”
But the United States is indeed looking at those “wider interests” — and that is precisely why the cuts are so meager and the Egyptian reaction so tame.
If the United States is serious about pushing the Egyptian government toward a more participatory mode of rule, and if aid must be the weapon of choice (the wisdom of which is a different discussion altogether), then it should, as was recently suggested, “double down” on aid — not to the military, but to civil society. The United States is unpopular as things stand already, but giving means to local organizations would have a greater impact than toying with military aid.
That is, if the United States were serious.
“At least we’re number one at something, even if it’s from the bottom,” quipped one of my friends in Cairo. We had just finished reading the recently issued World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014, which rates Egypt as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education. The report is based on the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Indicator, an aggregate of 114 indicators grouped under 12 categories of “drivers of productivity and prosperity,” including institutions, financial markets, technological readiness, and health and education, among others.
Egypt is listed 118th overall, a full 11 places lower than last year. Egypt is at the bottom among almost all other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region — far behind Qatar and the UAE, which are among the top 20 most competitive nations. It’s even behind the rest of North Africa, including Morocco (77th), Tunisia (83rd), and Algeria (100th). Only Yemen ranks lower (145th).
Naturally there is more to the Egypt section of the report than the dismal statistics on elementary education, but that was the ranking that drew the most attention from the media and the public. Extremes, whether best or worst, have a particular appeal. And while every Egyptian knows that elementary education is rather abysmal, it was a shock to see just how low it scored compared to the rest of the developed, developing, and underdeveloped world. (The photo above shows children peering through a public school gate in Khosoos.)
Though this particular data point quickly became a matter of public conversation, most people have a standard reaction: they agree, lament the times, and shrug their shoulders.
There was no public statement or reaction from the Egyptian state — even though we well know that the government monitors such rankings closely in the event there might be something to brag about. But there’s clearly no chance of that here, so they seem to have opted for silence instead.
Behind closed doors, however, some government officials could be heard casting aspersions on the report’s methodology. And they’re not necessarily wrong: the Competitiveness Report’s methodology is far from perfect, relying on a mix of objective data gathered from international and local statistical sources as well as well on surveys the report’s authors conduct within each country. The survey respondents are not experts in all of the fields they’re asked about: topics can range from business facilities and primary education, to the risk of terrorism. So respondents are sharing their more-or-less-educated impressions. And while the sample is large enough to drown out any particularly biased opinion, it does not take into account the generalized demoralization of a country in crisis or an economic downturn, which would drive responses even farther below a more objective perception.
This is not to say that Egypt’s elementary school system isn’t terrible. But is it really the very worst on the planet? Actual data might paint a different picture. In the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report, an international achievement test that allows comparison between countries and over time, Egypt ranked 38th out of 48 countries in the 2007 edition of the test, the last time Egyptian students participated.
Aside from the elementary education indicator, there are many other alarming areas where Egypt lands at the bottom of the rankings. Egypt also ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the planet in labor market efficiency, for example. This is a serious cause for concern. Egypt’s poor rankings in areas like talent retention (or “brain drain”), where Egypt ranks 133rd, and redundancy and employment termination expenses, where it scores 136th, suggest that labor regulation will top any serious reformer’s agenda.
Indeed, the report offers a few recommendations for change. Besides labor market reform (increased flexibility and efficiency), which is one obvious way of boosting employment, the report’s authors point out how the country’s relatively high fiscal deficit and public debt are weighing down on the macroeconomic environment. Yet Egypt continues to cling to its expansionary policies, accelerating borrowing even as it spends more and more. It’s obvious that this can’t go on indefinitely.
Underlying all of this is a climate of intense political instability and poor security, which undermines economic development and drastically affects Egypt’s rankings. Here, understandably, the WEF has little advice to offer: continuing violence leaves dozens of victims every week, and the absence of any real local and international pressure means that it is unlikely to subside any time soon.
The curfew imposed by the military government since early July — which, incidentally, destroyed the summer tourist season — has not been making things easy for Egyptians. The national house arrest lasts six hours every night, and a full 11 hours on Fridays, the national day off. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood has launched its “traffic paralysis” plan to block main roads and intersections. All of this angers people and disturbs their lives — not to mention their livelihoods. While nearly half the population has stated that the curfew affects their income, its effects go even deeper. “The effect of a curfew is mostly in the signaling value it gives,” the World Bank chief economist for the MENA region, Shantayanan Devarajan, told me. “The fact that there is a need to put a curfew sends a negative message” to the rest of the world and international partners.
Just as the forced, self-deprecating laughs began to subside, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN) published its World Happiness Report, which informed us — surprise — that Egyptians aren’t enjoying life much these days. Egypt ranked 130th, well below Somaliland (100th), Iraq (105th), Burma (121th), and even the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (117th). Of the 156 countries surveyed, Egypt also had the greatest fall in happiness levels year-to-year. The report points out that this loss is greater than a mere loss in income: “freedom to make key life choices” is an equally important factor.
This is a freedom that Egyptians are not likely to gain any time soon. Improvements in happiness, just as in competitiveness, will have to wait.
First published at Foreign Policy: Transitions.
Just in case you can’t get enough of the Lebanese army billboards on the main highways in Lebanon, you can now carry them in your pocket, too: the “Lebanese Army – LAF Shield” has finally landed in your Android and Apple app stores.
Developed by the same company that also brought you “Dating Worldwide” and “Yoshi KSA” (I can’t bring myself to describe the last one so I won’t — just click if you want to know more), the LAF Shield app was launched earlier this week, along with a press release from the army command that emphasized the army’s need for a “direct communications channel with the citizens.” The app aims to “involve the largest numbers of citizens in defending the country,” while also providing necessary assistance in emergencies.
Not living in Lebanon and not having to worry much about the Lebanese army collecting data from my phone, I downloaded it anyway. I had to enter my name (“The Dude”) and a phone number.
LAF Shield opens with the slogan of the army, “Honor, Sacrifice, Loyalty,” and then moves to a snappy screen divided into four sections, which are worth a brief review.
The first two, “News” and “Photos and Videos,” are quintessential army PR, with footage of soldiers training and photos of things blowing up. Hidden in a sub-menu of the “News” section is a rubric called “Statements,” which offers breaking news about violent clashes as well as current information about incursions and danger zones. Needless to say, this is one of the most useful services provided by the app, and as such it deserves to be much more readily accessible.
Then there’s a section titled “Report,” which was largely the focus of the army’s communiqué. This section provides you with options to file reports on thefts, accidents, and suspicious objects or vehicles; it even allows you to upload a photo or a video. Click on any option, and the app will automatically use your phone’s GPS to search for your location (I couldn’t find any possibility for turning this option off from within the app, save for disabling the phone’s GPS), and then offers a text box where you can write your report and send it.
The last section, “Lists” (which comes with a very “Wild West” logo that reads “WANTED” in English), remains under construction, but already includes a “Report” button similar to the one in the rubric mentioned above. Surely that will be of interest to a few bounty hunters out there….
Perhaps the simplest and most useful feature of the app is a list of emergency numbers. The distress signal — a bar at the bottom of the screen that reads “SLIDE ONLY IN CASE OF DANGER” — does nothing but launch your phone dialer to call the Ministry of Defense’s emergency number. This is probably where a geotagged predefined message would have actually been useful.
The Lebanese Army has been putting great emphasis on communication, both locally and globally. Its trilingual website offers content in Arabic, French, and English. The latter, clearly aimed at the international public, is updated reasonably frequently; at the time of writing, the English website was only 48 hours behind the French one, and just four days behind the Arabic. The site provides information about the army and its training, news updates, warnings, and press communiqués.
This new communication drive comes at a very difficult time geopolitically. The Syrian civil war isspilling over into Lebanon and Lebanese militias are getting involved on the ground in Syria, threatening further instability and relegating the Lebanese army to something of a bystander role. As one current Lebanese joke has it: “The Lebanese army is proud to be the third-strongest army… in Lebanon.” Putting a direct newsfeed from the army in everyone’s pocket is, in part, an effort to boost the army’s image and underline its relevance to the current situation.
But there’s a clear security purpose there as well. A police official reportedly told [link in Arabic] AFP that since the latest car bombing in Beirut on Aug. 15, the Lebanese police has received “over a thousand reports a day” from across the country about suspicious cars. So far, “all reports have been false,” he added. By encouraging people to file a coherent report with visual support, the army hopes it will be able to better differentiate the hysterical from the true., the app is likely to need several updates, but as it stands now it’s reasonably functional and well designed. But is it really for security or for churning out propaganda? That remains to be seen. Already today, the app started pushing the army’s daily press release to my home screen, so that’s one point for propaganda. But in the meantime, downloads of the app are quite high (over 20,000 in its first three days, according to the Army command [link in Arabic]), though there are no numbers on app-submitted reports.
It’s worth noting that Lebanon still suffers from quite expensive and underperforming wireless internet service which may undermine the entire effort. The jury is still out on whether users will turn to an app like this in times of distress, particularly given such constraints. In any event, let’s pray we never have to find out.
Originally published at Foreign Policy: Transitions.