Elections for export
Democratic gestures are under fire in Egypt, new enterprises are booming in Afghanistan, and curriculum reforms are sparking religious opposition in Saudi Arabia.
How many voters cast ballots in the "historic" election in Egypt? The government says that approximately 23 percent of all Egyptians with the right to vote did so, in other words, about 6 million voters. The opposition puts the number at only about 4.5 million, while press reports, especially from those journalists with close ties to the opposition, warn against accepting either of these two numbers. They assert that a large percentage of voters voted twice or more. But what about the magic ink that was designed to prevent voting twice? "But what if the electoral committee `forgot' to dip the voter's hand in the inkwell?" responds an activist on an electoral committee in central Cairo.
As should be in a democratic system, the government press is united with the opposition press insofar as describing the forgeries and other bungles that took place in this election. The English-language government-aligned newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly reported on a group of voters from the city of Helwan, south of Cairo, who admitted they had gone to vote only because their boss had promised them a day off. Outside another polling station in Helwan, a Mubarak supporter parked two pickup trucks and handed out T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Mubarak. In the background, loudspeakers played jingles in support of the president, right in front of the polling station committee members, including judges who presumably know that campaign propaganda near a polling station is prohibited.
At polling stations in Giza and the neighborhoods on the way to the pyramids, voters reported that the ruling party promised each voter 40 Egyptian pounds and round-trip transportation to the polling station. In Port Said, a city considered largely opposed to Mubarak, there was a report that the district secretary gathered all the district employees and compelled them to vote for the ruling party. As the days passed, increasingly more descriptions of electoral improprieties and inappropriate actions came to light. Lists that had not been updated, names listed twice, voters who had to go from polling station to polling station until they could find one where they could vote - all raise tough questions about the democratic achievement that was made.
One of the sharpest critics of the Egyptian regime, political columnist Mahmoud Awad, called the polling "elections for export." He alleges that the election was intended merely to satisfy the administration in Washington, not to forge a new political culture in Egypt. "Ninety percent of Mubarak's supporters are agents of foreign companies and businessmen who received benefits from the banks amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, at the recommendation of the ruling party," wrote Awad in an op-ed column that appeared in the international newspaper Al-Hayat. It should also be said that this "90 percent" has yet to be proved. But if Awad is an out and out opposition man, what would the government say about the criticisms of its own people? One of the most prominent of these critics is Osama al-Ghazali Harb, a renaissance man who edits the important periodical Al-Siyassa al-Dawliya (International Policy) and a member, appointed by the government, of the upper house of parliament. Harb is part of a group of relatively young intellectuals and businessmen who were asked by Jamal Mubarak, the president's son, to serve on the ruling party's secretariat after he himself was appointed head of the party's political department. Except that Harb "disappointed" the boss. When the amendment to Law 76, the presidential election law, came up, making the change possible, Harb voted against it. The law, he said, very much limits independent candidates and leaves the power of the ruling government as is. Harb paid a heavy price for this: He was supposed to replace Ibrahim Nafeh as editor of Al-Ahram but as a result of his vote, Osama Saraya, a more disciplined member of the party, was appointed to the important post instead.
Another prominent member of the group of young people that Jamal Mubarak brought to the party, who wished to remain anonymous since he has extensive business dealings with the government, said in conversation with Haaretz that at first he would speak with Jamal at least once a week, but since expressing his reservations about the law, he has been unable to penetrate the walls of his secretariat. "If this is Jamal Mubarak's style, than it is a guarantee that the ruling party will continue to maintain its stability for many generations to come," he says. Nor did he forget to mention his disappointment with the administration in Washington. "In June, Condoleezza Rice was still dismissive of the new law and the `democracy' it guarantees; after the elections, Washington seems to feel that Cairo is already Athens."
Bribery on the Pakistani border
Two profitable cottage industries have been proliferating of late in Afghanistan: translating for journalists in the field, and bribery at border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the Taliban was in power, reporters used to stay at the Kabul Intercontinental, where they would be received by Afghan leaders, talk with them about the situation and then head out to the field accompanied by their underlings. A reporter for Asharq al-Awsat, which is published in London, recounts that at the time journalists did not have to fear for their lives, everything was well arranged and well planned, and the charges for the escorts were reasonable: $30 a day, and another $25 for the escort vehicle.
Since then, things have changed in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban is no longer in power, it is still in the country, and the Afghan government is running the country in its place, under American control and oversight. Costs have risen accordingly. Translators now charge $100 a day for their services, and the hotel charges a similar amount. Another change is that the translators are no longer government employees, but rather members of the free professions, such as doctors, engineers and lawyers who are happy to forfeit their monthly salary of $40 in exchange for the remunerative work.
And now there are dangers of a new sort. At a press conference held earlier this month, the spokesman of American forces in Kabul recommended that foreign correspondents not travel in vehicles in which an Afghan is driving and his friend is sitting in back. He warned them not to leave the heavily protected hotel building without an armed escort, and when asked if he intended to escort the reporters at the press conference to the airport, he informed them that he himself was forbidden to move through the streets of Kabul in a non-armored vehicle or without an armed escort, and would therefore be unable to accompany them. There had been several incidents in which members of the foreign press were kidnapped by ordinary citizens and "sold" to the Taliban so that the latter could use them as bargaining chips with the government. As such, the reporters became a part of the Taliban's commercial economy.
But how do Taliban members come into a country, and how do they manage their affairs? Australian reporter Paul McGeough, who writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, sheds light on these issues. McGeough made his way from Kandahar in Afghanistan to Pakistan on a motorcycle driven by a local. At the border station between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he saw money offered by the Afghan pocketed by the Pakistani border guard and customs officers, and watched as dozens of Taliban members crossing the border did so. But suddenly, a disturbance broke out when a Pakistani customs official decided to take action and prevent the journalist's entry. He even marched over the line into Afghan territory, but was stopped by a "stream of invectives from the chief of the Afghan border police," who ordered him back onto his own territory. The commandants later explained to the journalist that this did not usually happen. "They're making problems only because you are here. Normally it's very smooth - people pay their bribes and go," he assured McGeough.
Your brother's blood is close to yours
Saudi Arabia has been grappling with the question of how to introduce reforms into the school curriculum for nearly two years. The term "reform" in this context is somewhat limited, as it does not refer to the devising of a new and comprehensive curriculum, but to "corrections" that would calm public opinion in the West. For instance, the government ordered that all statements insulting Jews and Christians be removed from the textbooks - no longer sons of monkeys and pigs, and no longer Crusaders thirsting after Muslim blood. But these corrections are sparking the rage of Muslim legal scholars, especially those with links to radical groups.
"All of the demands for corrections and for the deletion of a few topics of study were not raised in order to develop education in the state but as a response to the demands of the enemy (the United States - Z.B.)," stated a letter of protest that appeared on a Web site of radical opponents of the regime. The letter was signed by 150 clergymen. The main argument of the opponents is that the Saudi regime prefers to accept the dictates of the "other," thereby flying in the face of the rule that "your brother's blood is close to yours."
In November, a summit of Islamic states will convene in Mecca, where King Abdullah will propose new principles for the religious discourse. These will be compatible with the reform he wishes to implement, for which he has already received the legal opinions of 90 Saudi religious law scholars. Yet there is a long way between decisions and implementation, and what is written in the curricula is not exactly what is actually taught in the schools.
Real estate for all comers
The decision by United Arab Emirates ruler Khalifa Ibn Zaid to enable foreigners to buy real estate assets in the state is a veritable revolution, not only in the Emirates. From now on, every foreign citizen - with no need for a local partner and with no limit on amounts - can purchase buildings or land there. The sole limitation is that the purchase is for a period of 99 years, although a further extension is possible. The object of the decision is to draw foreign investors to the UAE, thereby diversifying the sources of income of the state, which is already a leader in the Arab banking world.