Archive for June, 2007

I’ve been meaning to write something about recent energy and environment politics, especially in light of the G8 summit and all the recent unilateral initiatives from some of the worst polluting countries (eg US, China, Australia).  Unfortunately i dont have time.

I did, however want to point to the Democrats’ perhaps recent legislative pushes. They’re working on a bill to remove federal tax breaks than benefit the oil companies such as for oil and gas exploration and channeling the money towards renewable energy sources.

Naturally the oil companies and Bushies arent very happy. They’ve raised the same bull claims about dependence on foreign oil (hello, it’s several decades old and non-reversible). And how we have no substitutes for oil-based products (exactly, dumbass, that’s why you need to find alternatives). Or how it will kill thousands of jobs (the money isnt being burnt, it’s going somewhere else). I pity the people that fall for the same rehashed proclamations.

The other direction they’re working on is raising fuel efficiency standards for US automobiles. Personally, i think it’s about god damn time. Americans need to wake the hell up from the magical 50s and 60s which is ultimately what set this all in motion. Dirt cheap oil combined with (and perhaps helping to catalyze) the suburban boom and America’s all-consuming lust for bigger harder better faster more more more more have led to absurdly low fuel efficiency. Despite a brief slowdown in the 70s, this unrealistic and, frankly, extremely shortsighted trend has continued relentlessly for 6 decades and really needs to be reversed. I mean there are two main global oil demand peaks: the winter led by US and Euro heating fuel and the summer because of the US road trip season.

Down with the auto and oil industries!

Ahem… I’ll end the rant there for now. But i’m sure to revisit.


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Of Slums and Suburbs

I caught this article in the LA Times several weeks ago about the recent mushrooming of cairo’s elite new suburbs. It’s been lingering in my firefox tabs since as i’ve tried to locate several other articles i’d come across in recent months. Unfortunately, poor memory and lack of time have gotten in the way. But i think the picture is essentially pretty clear as captured by this interviewee

“You can live in these areas and be totally detached from Egypt,” said Manar Shorbagy, former director of the American Studies Center at American University in Cairo. “It’s going to work like it did in the U.S. — wealthy suburbs and deprived and abandoned inner cities.”

I wonder how novel this really is for Cairo. It seems to me that for much of its history, Cairo (ie the numerous cities that have over the last several thousand years lain somewhere roughly within the area that is contemporary Greater Cairo) has been constantly grappling with its population. And, as would be expected, those that could afford to remove themselves from the polluted, crowded productive centers moved out into lavish housing only to be overrun by the urban sprawl within a few centuries or decades, as the case may be.

Among the most recent examples are areas such as Heliopolis (perhaps the least affected) and Maadi (where today every house on the market has been placed there by someone either moving to the suburbs or emigrating to the West) . Even Mohandeseen and Dokki, both of which were agricultural land only a few decades ago before being built up with seemingly no planning or regulation, now suffer the same fate of all affluent neighborhoods: the flight of the wealthy and flocking of aspirant.

Incidentally, it’s not just the mansions that are overrun. While they may have housed the most important, albeit dead, Cairenes in Egypt’s distant pharaonic past, the city has also constantly had to grow over and into its tombs and graveyards. Today, the City of the Dead is a vibrant, if impoverished district of reportedly hundreds of thousands of residents.

But just because it’s always happened doesnt make it a good thing. Anyone who’s tried futilely to keep their shoes clean treading carefully through any of Cairo’s squatter slums that house most of the day labor that builds these mega-wealth cities will find it hard not to sympathize with the poverty-stricken people that make up most of the country. Or understand the resentment that brews every time they install a faucet that costs enough alone to build solid walls and connect potable water and sewage to the dilapidated shack they and 7 others call home.

I highly recommend Cairo – The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck – AUC Press. It’s an excellent book for anyone that wants to get a feel for the historical breadth and variety that has flavored Cairo as well as the depth and consistency that can be observed.

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Just caught an article in the March Harper’s by Ken Silverstein. It’s one of the most measured looks at “Islamist” movements/parties in the region and the West’s (particularly, the US) approach to dealing (or, rather, decidedly not) with them.

Naturally, he touches on the oxymoronic so-called “Bush Doctrine”:

Notwithstanding President Bush’s new “forward strategy of freedom,” the United States has marshaled nothing more than a few hollow demurrals against the antidemocratic abuses by its allies, and it maintains close partnerships with all of America’s old authoritarian friends in the region. When reaching out to opposition figures, it has chosen pro-Western elites such as Nour in Egypt or Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq, both of whom are more admired in Washington and London than they are at home.

And the US’s refusal to even listen to Islamist of any color:

Today, there are dozens of active Islamic political parties, both Shiite and Sunni, with diverse political and ideological agendas. Their leaders are certainly not liberal democrats, and some, like Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, maintain armed wings. But it is not entirely accurate to describe them, as is frequently done in the United States, as fundamentalist or backward or even necessarily conservative.

The new Islamic movements are popularly based and endorse free elections, the rotation of power, freedom of speech, and other concepts that are scorned by the regimes that currently hold power. Islamist groups have peacefully accepted electoral defeat, even when it was obvious that their governments had engaged in gross fraud to assure their hold on power. In parliaments, Islamists have not focused on implementing theocracy or imposing shari‘ah but have instead fought for political and social reforms, including government accountability.

The article goes into the Egyptian MB and Hezbollah in some detail and then returns to the matter of policy and engagement.

Those favoring some sort of engagement, or at least accommodation, with political Islam argue that political exclusion breeds radicalism whereas participation requires negotiation, compromise, and moderation. Hence, the West should encourage political participation by Islamist movements—in the same manner that other groups from recent history, for years rejected as “terrorists,” in fact eventually became mainstream political forces, among them the Palestine Liberation Organization, the African National Congress, and the Irish Republican Army.

I would argue further that if one bothers to look closely enough at these groups, it becomes obvious that these changes are already taking place and have been for decades. One need only look at the evolution of the MB in Egypt from the violence of the 40s and 60s to the electioneering of the 80s onwards. Or at Hizbullah whose rhetoric and actions have become more nuanced since joining the cabinet. Or even Hamas for a brief moment in time.

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[PLEASE NOTE: If this letter has been forwarded to you, and you would like to sign on or have questions, please send an email to depaul.letter@gmail.com]
[To sign this letter, please send an email with your name and any academic, professional, or other affiliation to depaul.letter@gmail.com]

The letter’s after the jump.

UPDATE: thought i would point to the solidarity campaign blog.


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I came across this website. Basically, 100 pictures are taken of people’s faces (in a single city/location) and then some sort of algorithm is used to estimate what the average person born of this gene pool would look like many generations down the line. It seems to have been borne of the contrast between the heterogeneity in more modern metropolises like London and the seeming racial uniformity (or “coalesc[ing] around a mean”) of Istanbul, a one-time metropolis of diverse races. There are only a few cities in but they welcome (including instructions) contributions.

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I caught this article on Forbes a couple of days ago. A couple of excerpts:

This year, the world will pass a milestone so profoundly significant that 2007 will become a touchstone for future historians. For the first time, more people will be living in cities than in the country.


By 2030, an estimated 5 billion of the world’s 8.1 billion people will live in cities. About 2 billion of them will live in slums, primarily in Africa and Asia, lacking access to clean drinking water and working toilets, surrounded by desperation and crime.

The article brings to mind the work of Hernando de Soto (the contemporary economist, not the 16th century explorer). Despite minimal economic knowledge i read part of his book, The Mystery of Capital, before lending it to someone for reference (note to self: locate book). His essential thesis, that somewhere along the way developed countries forgot that property rights played a major role in their economic development through enabling people to invest more than they owned by leveraging their assets, rings very true. (he claims the value of this property across the developing world is some 20 times that of all FDIs in the same countries.) Reading through the cited article, it’s clear that the ownership of real estate is a significant issue in slums across the globe. De Soto’s claim is that in many third world countries (his field research targeted 5 cities over 10 years, including Cairo), there are enormous legal and bureaucratic obstacles that face the claiming and transferring of property rights. But all hope is not lost. As the article points out:

Turkey offers some lessons to governments serious about grappling with urban poverty. As Robert Neuwirth documents in his book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World, Turkey has two laws giving squatters legal and political rights, which encourages them to invest in their homes and neighborhoods. Neuwirth, who lived in the squatter communities of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul, writes that a legal system like Turkey’s could benefit squatters all over the world. Of course, that kind of legal reform presupposes a measure of democracy and good government, something much of the developing world doesn’t have.

Well, maybe there isnt much hope of good governance in Egypt, but we can dream. Perhaps Egypt actually does one better, it burns down squatter communities that stand in the way of national development plans. Isnt that better than leaving them to fester?

In any case, i would venture that any realistic reform of property law and process in Egypt will be driven by big business and the quest to lure FDIs. Maybe we can take a queue from Dubai. An article in the Arab Reform Bulletin this month tackles the unique circumstance of Dubai (and other gulf countries, if to a lesser degree) in which immense economic and social progress has delayed the need (or even interest among residents) for meaningful political reform – while they may get good governance, they have little share in its formulation.

UPDATE: Wish i had caught this article yesterday. Ahmed Kanna insists that the world is not flat and that Dubai’s warts (read invisible slums) shouldn’t be ignored. The trade history he recounts is interesting. And he draws a perceptive parallel between the absolute freedom of capital and the complete control of labor.

The Gulf states […] have long been places where the powerful have forgotten about history’s vexing tendency to bind them into an ethical and political relationship with the less powerful. This tendency to forget history—the legacies of power, of territories cut up into nation-states and of unsentimental economic calculations—lives on in contemporary accounts of the Gulf’s staggering prosperity.


The most visible (or superficial) aspects of Dubai have become the focus of so much polemic that the political economy has become invisible. Globalization has made all that is solid, such as national borders and the constraints they impose, melt into air.


Capital enters Dubai and disappears—or, in what amounts to the same thing, it is reborn in phantasmagorical form. Those who possess capital can expect non-interference from the state. They enter the city as lords of a frontier where the rules are checked at the border. Capital and its owners become, in the term of political scientist James Scott, “illegible,” where legibility is the necessary condition for centralized control.


If capital is illegible in Dubai, other migrants to the city—the ones who build the visible city—are all too “legible” and all too manipulated.

The sad state of migrant workers may be common knowledge for anyone who is familiar with the GCC countries (and increasingly others such as Jordan). But i think it is indeed something that is all too often hidden in the backs of minds too dazzled by the lights or distracted by epic issues of the region.

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Court: AUC can’t ban niqab

While i am generally for personal freedoms, i draw the line at niqab. Primarily because, at the risk of sounding like a government, i do believe that it does cross into that zone where it transgresses others’ security (or senses thereof). I, personally, do not feel safe in the presence of people whose faces i cannot see. I dont really care whether it’s a ski-mask, stocking or veil. How long would a male with his face covered be allowed to roam around in public? That’s not to mention the number of stories from around the Islamic world, urban myths or not, of men in niqab assaulting women in public bathrooms and other venues.

I was under the impression that there was a nation-wide ban on niqab on university campuses.  Whether this was initially true or not, a court ruling against American University in Cairo, insures that it no longer is the case. While i harbor a great and growing dislike for the AUC administration, I am sorry they lost this battle.

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