Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keep a lookout - there are pirates

Apparently there were pirates following my brother's ship in the Gulf of Aden earlier today.

The ship noticed the pirates lurking about seven miles away. When the ship passed, the pirates picked up speed and came within about two miles before reconsidering and heading off. Luckily, my brother's ship is what they consider a "hard target" - the ship would be hard to take, and they were aware of the pirates straight away. Armed men on deck may have figured into the pirates' reconsideration as well.

Pirates off the coast of Somalia have frequently been in the news in recent months, and not without reason: my brother says the ship sees pirates more often than not. Only two days ago a ship was taken less than 100 miles (160km) from their position.

While this BBC article argues against carrying arms on merchant ships, my brother sees the guns - shotguns, nothing more - as a visual deterrent more than anything. The article doesn't take into consideration the realities of living on such a ship, and in some ways takes the side of the pirates. Merchant marines have little sympathy for the pirates. "I understand why they do it," says my brother. "But at the same time I feel that if you are willing to [hijack] someone to possibly kill them for ransom money then you get what's coming to you. Piracy used to be punishable by death."

The rules of engagement are complicated, and the situation is drawing significant media attention. For now, I'm just glad my brother's ship isn't an appealing target for pirates. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Day with Ayman Nour and al-Ghad

Ayman Nour walking to the al-Ghad Party headquarters in Alexandria
Yesterday I found myself smack in the middle of Egyptian politics.

After a last-minute invitation from a new friend, I hopped on a mini-bus at 9am for the three-hour trip from Cairo to Alexandria. Thankfully the trip was uneventful, and the bus was even air-conditioned. Around 1pm we found ourselves sitting at a beach-front cafe sipping fresh juices (strawberry for me, guava for her) and reveling in the clean air and smell of the sea. We took a long stroll down the corniche (the road which runs along the water) and found ourselves outside Ayman Nour's apartment at quarter to three - 15 minutes early! (Apparently neither of us have gotten back on Egyptian time yet.)

(Quick background: Ayman Nour is a well-known figurehead of opposition politics in Egypt. Formerly a member of the Wafd party, Nour left to form al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party in 2004. Al-Ghad was officially licensed just in time for Nour to run for President in 2005, Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections since Nasser's revolution in 1952. Nour came in second to president Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. Officially Nour received 8% of the vote, but there is speculation that the actual percentage was much higher. Following the election Nour was convicted on forgery charges largely recognized as politically motivated and spent nearly four years in prison. He was released in February of 2009.)

We relaxed in the living room for a while, and eventually the five of us - myself, my friend, Nour, his secretary in Alexandria, and another Ghad party member - left for lunch. Nour nodded out the window to a guard station as we piled into the car. The four men at the station were watching us, and while three of them didn't seem particularly concerned the fourth was looking between us and his phone. He was letting his superior know we were leaving the house, Nour said.

Anyone who argues that Nour's popularity has fallen since his release from prison last year (and multiple tabloid-esque stories in the media) has not seen him in public. From the moment we entered the mall, where we stopped for lunch with other al-Ghad members, the flow of people stopping to speak with Nour, shake his hand, or take a picture with him did not abate until we got back in the car to go home at the end of the night. Men and women young and old approached him, all with smiles and handshakes and waiting camera phones.

Eventually we made our way to the al-Ghad party headquarters for the Alexandria chapter. It was election day at the party - there were two issues on the ballot, and a petition as well. The first issue on the ballot was the deputy election (4 available seats, 5 candidates). The other, a referendum to confirm the party's nomination of Ayman Nour as presidential candidate. The office, the entranceway, and the street outside were full of people milling about, speaking animatedly, talking on their phones, and vying for a moment with Nour.

Eventually my friend and I made our way inside, where there was just as much commotion. People coming to vote, and to sign their names next to their thumb-print on the petition. The petition is for a constitutional amendment to change the current electoral law, an issue supported by figures from Nour to Mohamed el-Baradei, the Egyptian former head of the IAEA. The ruling NDP party, however, has stated that it does not intend to propose constitutional amendments before the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Signing the petition
Yet al-Ghad is determined to prove that change is possible. According to Mohamed el-Wasemy, the Vice-President of the Executive Office for al-Ghad in Alexandria, the party's internal elections are a lesson for both the party and the Egyptian people at large. The ballot counting was something that probably none of us have ever seen before. The ballot boxes are made of glass, a visual reminder of al-Ghad's commitment to transparency. The ballots were counted out loud in front of a crowd of more than 60 people, the tallies marked on a board at the front of the room. During Friday night’s tally, every time the marker made a mistake and marked a tally for the wrong candidate, a dozen voices instantly called out and the error was immediately corrected. Each party member seated or standing in the room was watching carefully.

El-Wasemy called the elections a message to Egyptians. "A free election is not impossible to achieve," he said.

“Political activism is the best way to bring about change in Egypt,” said Mohamed, a member of al-Ghad's youth chapter, echoing el-Wasemy's sentiments in an interview earlier in the day. Mohamed is a fairly new member of al-Ghad and sees the party as the only challenge to the regime. Neither the Reform and Development party or the Karama party have received official licenses, and Mohamed said that much of the other supposed opposition in the country has been created by the regime to play the part of opposition without actually being such.

Whether al-Ghad offers real opposition to the ruling NDP or not, the Tomorrow party faces many obstacles in its battle for change. Mohamed pointed to the broken lock and handle on the door of the room we were in. "Obviously we have no funding," he said. Yet, despite the challenges, many in the party were hopeful as they gathered in the street following the election results.

"Say to me, mabrouk!" called out one of the newly elected deputies. I laughed and said to him, "Mabrouk!" Another new deputy echoed, "And me, and me!" Mabrouk - congratulations.

As the evening drew to a close, the crowd gathered on the street and slowly dispersed. Someone brought cake, and as we stood around talking a young member who spoke a little English walked over. "We call Obama the American Tutankahman," he said. "We like Obama." Why? I asked. "Some people love Obama because his father was Muslim," he said. "But for me, his vision and charisma."

After talk of el-Baradei (the headquarters of his National Association for Change in Alexandria is located in al-Ghad's offices), corporate scandal, and a shocked exclamation of, "What is this language?!" as someone tried to decipher my notes, it was time to head back to Cairo. This time, my friend and I caught a ride with a party member back to the city. It was 11:30pm, and past 2am by the time we arrived back in Cairo.

An eventful eighteen hours, to be sure. I wonder what is next?

Nour surrounded by party members

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Consequences of Being Late

Romans are not known for their promptness. In many cases, tardiness is even expected - if you want to have dinner at 9pm, for example, make sure to tell your guests 7. Being late has its consequences too, particularly for Italy's ruling party.

The People of Freedom Party (PDL), Prime Minister Berlisconi's party, will not be fielding candidates in Lazio's regional elections at the end of this month: an official missed the deadline for submitting the list of candidates by two hours. Berlusconi, understandably, is not pleased with the situation. Lazio is the region in central Italy that includes Rome, and it's one of Italy's most crucial regions.

Tough luck, Mr. Prime Minister - last week a Milan appeals court rejected attempts to register candidates late. Take this as a lesson to be learned: unfortunately for you, time can't be bought.

Sandy Weather

Only in Cairo is 'sand' in the weather forecast...

Incidentally, this reminds me of a particular day in Cairo back in the fall of 2008. I was chatting with one of my flatmates in our living room when our other flatmate came in, amused at's current forecast for Cairo: apparently, it was thunderstorming! The three of us glanced at each other, then out the window, and laughed at the clearly ridiculous proposition of a thunderstorm in Cairo. Not five minutes later, one of my flatmates, peering out the window, asked, "What is that?!" Rain, that's what - somehow going horizontally past our window. Utterly bizarre.

Although, I suppose that wasn't nearly as bizarre as actually having a thunderstorm complete with hail, as Cairo did a few weeks ago. Go figure...