Sunday, November 30, 2008

Election Day in Egypt

I watched Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at 7 a.m., November 5th, in a hotel room in Cairo, Egypt. There were not shouts of joy in the street at the time. It was too early for the newspapers headlines to reflect the victory. But later, the excitement of his election became apparent.

Under the People to People Ambassadorial program, a delegation of 25 lawyers, with their leader, Richard Pena, former president of the State Bar of Texas, traveled to Cairo to meet with Egyptian lawyers and law professors. On that election day, we were received by Dr. Ahmed Fathi Sorour, president of the People’s Assembly - a position equivalent to our speaker of the house. His Masters of Education was from the University of Michigan where he was most impressed with our emphasis on human rights. Dr. Fathi’s recent book, "Facing Terrorism by Law" is a treatise on the balance of rights and national security needed to deal with those who wish us harm.

When asked about Obama’s election, Dr. Fathi responded with "chapeaux (hats off) to the Americans" on this election of Obama and of human rights. He hoped it would finish a period of conflict between blacks and whites. He considers the U.S. to be courageous in its respect for human rights.

An afternoon meeting began with the Dean of Cairo University’s Law School which serves 30,000 students. Egypt based its law on the French Civil Code but many of their professors are American trained. The Dean also extended his congratulations to Americans for their election of a black president. Their university closely follows our treatment of terrorists as Egypt has also had incidents of persons using violence for political gain.

Later in the week, a visit to the impressive Alexandria Library provided an encounter with its director, chief librarian and staff. They first congratulated us with "great joy" on the election. One felt it was "breaking the paradigm" and hoped we could now finish the agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Senator Ismail Serageldin, director of the library, went further. Because of his Harvard training, he knew civil liberties had been abridged four times in U.S. history - the Alien Sedition Act under John Adams, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the Japanese internment during World War II, and Guantanamo and the declaration of enemy combatants. He considered only Lincoln’s act as legitimate. Guantanamo’s preventative detention cannot "square" with the presumption of innocence and the right to silence cannot "square" with torture.

Egypt has lived under "emergency law" since Mubarak became president in 1981. All of the speakers recognized their country lacks our emphasis on civil rights. It is, they said, why they need the United States to continue to be the world leader in enforcement of individual rights. Terrorism requires a "wise balance" of rights and national security as Senator Serageldin acknowledged. All wanted our experience to help guide them as they press for more civil rights. And that is why the legal community in Egypt was so encouraged by the election of Barack Obama. Yes, he was a black man with African roots but he was also a constitutional law professor. And all of them understood the significance of that knowledge.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Desert Road from Cairo to Alexandria

The Desert Road from Cairo to Alexandria is a swift journey from Egypt’s past to its future. In parting Cairo, we crawled through a few of its poorer neighborhoods where camels trotted down narrow alleyways and donkeys pulled trash-laden carts. The dust shrouded Giza pyramids appeared suddenly, facing some of Egypt’s most luxurious hotels. And mountains of nearby sands gave notice of the approaching desert.

Despite its exotic name, the Desert Road is now a four to six lane toll-way reducing the trip to Alexandria to three hours, a far cry from the multi day experience of the past. Thanks to the construction of the Aswan Dam, Egypt controls the distribution of water through the Nile and its tributaries. The fields along the road use this source to irrigate olive, apple, orange and banana orchards, vineyards, date palms, and fields of cabbage, corn and other vegetables. We passed small trucks filled to the brim with tomatoes grown in nearby greenhouses. The government has encouraged cultivation by providing land to would be farmers who are allowed to keep their profits. The farms alternated with new "compounds" - walled and gated subdivisions serving Cairo’s commuters.

Along the road were glimpses of the past as men in the long, flowing galabyas worked the fields or tended goats. Women were more likely to be covered completely in burkas than in the cities. Stretches of barren, dry sand encroached on farms. And pigeon towers adjoined many homes. These cone head hives house trained pigeons who attract fellow birds to roost in the punctured holes. Pigeons, the "food of King Farouk", are served grilled or stuffed with rice and are very popular with Egyptians.

Large, modern roadhouses appeared regularly providing gasoline, food, small stores, cappuccino and an occasional mosque. Children’s amusement parks with names like "Week-end" and "Aqua City" hinted at the heavy use of the road for vacationing Egyptians. And a large prison seemed appropriately placed.

As we approached Alexandria, Egypt’s emphasis on international trade became obvious. Its suburbs host factories that produce cotton ware for such U.S. companies as Docker and Timberland. Because of the duty free zone status, clothes’ labels can read "made in the U.S.A.". Pharmaceutical companies, Pepsi, Ikea, and General Motors are all present as well as Egypt’s thriving natural gas and gasoline refineries. Yet nearby, hand-poled boats are still used to harvest marsh reeds for basket making as in the time of Moses.

Alexandria soon arrived with its modern malls and free-standing McDonalds. The beautiful corniche avenue, built by the city’s businessmen, weaves along the Mediterranean Sea past waves of apartment buildings used by Cairo’s elite in the summer. A beautiful Four Seasons hotel reflects this city’s current international status while newly discovered Roman ruins provide proof of its past glory.

But today, the jewel of the coast is the stunning, six-year old Alexandria Library, funded primarily through UNESCO and U.S. aid. Its goal of being the center of Middle Eastern learning and Arab reform are lofty and exciting. Twice monthly, dialogue forums provide free exchange of ideas. The location adjacent to the University of Alexandria assures heavy use by students of its 600,000 volumes and the large digitalized library. Because Egypt recognizes Israel as a country, the library also serves as a neutral forum to promote resolution of the Palestinian issue. A science museum and planetarium support the Academy of Science that was begun in 1798. It’s a very busy place.

With its 20 million inhabitants, Cairo still dominates the economy of the country. Tourists are more likely to visit the pyramids than any other site. The road to Alexandria, though, tells the story of Egypt’s expanded development which the government hopes will provide needed employment. But it also leads you to the clean, fresh air of the sea, an alluring prospect indeed.

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