Sout Al Horeya

This has been a rough week for anyone covering the Middle East in light of the deaths of beloved colleagues and hundreds more innocent civilians in Syria. As an unapologetic sucker for inspirational music videos, though, I found this one that my Arabic teacher showed in class today a useful pick-me-up. Filmed a  year ago in Tahrir, it’s called “Sout Al Horeya” (Sound of Freedom). At the very least, it’s a reminder of the idealism that drove the early days of the Arab Spring, and that, for all the setbacks since, continues to inspire millions upon millions throughout the region. Enjoy.

RIP Anthony Shadid

I woke up this morning to a flurry of tweets linking to a recent piece of mine. Ordinarily, I’d be flattered by the attention. But this time, the 20 or so mentions instantly knocked the wind right out of me. A few weeks ago, I interviewed legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid for Mother Jones. Last night, Anthony died in Syria.

I can’t add much at this point to the flood of sadness and gratitude that washed over the internet today. Many people who knew Anthony a lot better than I did have weighed in with powerful testimonies to the journalist and person he was. And if you ever read a story by Anthony Shadid, then you couldn’t have helped but sense his greatness. He was the perfect reporter: He braved the harshest and most dangerous conditions to get the story. He had a microscope of an eye for detail. And he wrote like a dream.

I interviewed Anthony over the course of two telephone conversations—one before I moved to Egypt in December, the other after. In the six-month internship at Mother Jones I’d just wrapped up, I’d gotten to interview some pretty cool people. But now, as an aspiring foreign correspondent about to embark on a career overseas, I was about to interview the giant of the profession. I don’t think I could have been any more excited.

You often discover, at one point or another, that your heroes aren’t quite who you made them out to be in your head. In Anthony’s case, it was exactly the opposite. From Beirut he told me about his passion for what he did, for the Middle East, and for people in general. His goal in reporting, he said, was to restore humanity in places where it had been lost. In spite of his almost unfathomable courage in covering conflicts in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, he was no warzone-hopping cowboy. He was almost apologetic as he talked about his exploits. “I would never call myself a war correspondent,” he said. “The region I want to cover is beset by conflict and that’s regrettable, but it forces me to cover it.”

Through the publicist for his his new book—about rebuilding his great-grandfather’s house in a small village in southern Lebanon—Anthony knew that I’d be moving soon to Egypt, where he himself had gotten his start in international reporting. As soon I was through with my questions, he turned the conversation to my upcoming journey.

Do you know where you’ll be staying? What kind of stories do you want to cover? There’s a great falafel place just off Tahrir you need to try. Who have you been in contact with? If you need anything, give me call.

He meant it.

I was at home in New Jersey at the time, and after I’d gotten off the phone, I skipped over to my parents’ room, giddy. It wasn’t just because a famous journalist had been nice to me. It was because Anthony Shadid had long been my paragon of journalistic excellence, as much for the noble, deeply sincere person I envisioned him to be as for his famously lyrical prose and daredevil feats. And he was the real deal.

I talked to Anthony again over the phone three weeks ago to follow up about the situation in Syria before the interview ran online. He said he was frustrated at not being able to secure a visa to go report inside the country and having to write about the conflict from the outside looking in. I’m certain by this point he already had his next secret mission in mind.

He didn’t take such decisions lightly, though. The risks weighed heavily on his mind, especially as a father of two young children. When I asked him whether his experience getting kidnapped in Libya last spring had made him doubt his decision to enter Syria the first time, he readily conceded it had. He paused then for a long time, as if replaying the agonizing calculations in his head.

But he went. And he went again, this time at the cost of his life. It’s such a cruel irony that after having cheated death so many times before in Ramallah, where he was shot, or Libya, where his kidnappers nearly killed him, he died, of all things, of an asthma attack just miles from the Turkish border.

Even under such unusual circumstances, make no mistake about it: Anthony Shadid died in the line of duty. For Anthony, bearing witness to the big stories of the day was a sacred duty. And we’re all the better, wiser, more humane for his having told them.

I’m told I was probably the last journalist to interview Anthony before he died. It makes no difference. I’m so grateful I had the chance to speak to him at all.

Anthony Shadid was–in every sense of the word–a giant. May he rest in peace.

February 11

February 11 is a special day—for many reasons. First and foremost, it’s my dad’s birthday. (Happy Birthday, Dad!) Also Thomas Edison’s birthday. It’s the date Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. And Wikipedia tells me that Benjamin Franklin opened the first American hospital on February 11, 1752.

And oh, it’s the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran too.

Of course, the 11th is also a huge day here in Egypt, which is marking the one-year anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Unlike January 25th, which was commemorated with mass marches/celebrations/protests across the country, with hundreds of thousands overflowing Tahrir Square, activist groups have called for a general strike to pressure the ruling military council to speed up its handover of power to civilian authorities.

I have to confess to being a little disappointed with this plan. After missing the 25th chasing fellowships back in the States (alas, in vain), I was kinda hoping for a replay. My selfish disappointments aside, it is a shame to think that a day as glorious as the 11th should have come to mark not the victory of a revolution but only the opening salvo in a drawn out power struggle that has already claimed far too many lives.

Lucky for me, festivities weren’t in short supply. In Tahrir, the largest crowd I’ve seen since I’ve been here massed on the east end of the square. People seemed a little antsy at first. A false alarm of some sort sent a group of young men scurrying from a small embankment alongside the road. But the chanting soon got going, and the crowd was in fine voice. There was the usual “Yasqut, yasqut hokm el-askar! “ (“Down with military rule!”) and the “People demand the downfall of the Field Marshal!” (shouted in an unusually high pitch, owing to a very strong turnout of little kids), but also cries of “Baladee baladnaa!” (“My country is our country!”) Unlike some of the other protests I’ve been to, which have seemed almost perfunctory, there was an enthusiasm at this one commensurate with the day it was marking.

Off on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, site of deadly clashes in November and then again last week following the Port Said stadium tragedy, the cement wall erected during November’s fighting lay in ruins, hacked down by protesters during the most recent fighting. A few people took advantage of the new arrangement to strike a pose atop the wreckage.

Still, there was a definite edge to the demonstration. The soccer ultras were out in force, waving their red Ahly flags alongside the Egypt tricolor. On Mohamed Mahmoud, where freshly spray-painted graffiti depicted the martyrs of Port Said with angel’s wings on their backs, a dummy of Field Marshal Tantawi, battered and defaced, hanged in effigy. Massive banners railing against the military council adorned the center of the square. The called-for strike didn’t appear to have materialized (though it still could in the next few days)—shops were open, people were out—but the protest movement, coming off yesterday’s sizeable march to the Ministry of Defense—looked reinvigorated.

On a personal note, it’s been something thinking back to last February 11. I was still in college, in the midst of writing my first ever article about Egypt, not quite sure where I was headed with it. I’d been wondering what would happen if maybe just maybe these protests succeeded in toppling Mubarak. Like everyone, I watched on TV as the uprising surged and then stalled and then surged again. And then suddenly, Mubarak resigned. And I raced to call every single contact I could find who could possibly tell me anything about the prospects for a prosecution. I stayed up most of the night writing. The next day, two spots below the Huffington Post homepage’s humongous headline announcing the news was my story: “Will Mubarak Be Prosecuted?”

Thence was born my fascination with this country. One year later, I’m here, in the thick of it. Crazy.

Egypt’s Lone Star

From February issue of Business Today Egypt.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, awash in visions of monopolizing European trade with India, tapped a team of engineers to design a waterway linking the Mediterranean and Red Sea. They failed, but the enterprise continued to tantalize some of Europe’s finest minds. Seventy years later, the first ships sailed through the Suez Canal. Today, the canal counts itself among Egypt’s most prized assets: repository of national pride, hub of international commerce, and improbable tourist attraction.

Over the past year, it has also emerged as one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise flailing Egyptian economy. While foreign currency reserves plummeted by half in 2011 on the back of a 32% decline in tourism and more than 60% drop in foreign direct investment (FDI), canal revenues have climbed at a steady clip. For 2011, they topped $5.2 billion (LE 31.41 billion) and a 9.5% increase from 2010. The banner year comes in spite of 2011’s upheavals, which have repeatedly reached the canal’s shores. Suez was a hotbed of anti-Mubarak activity during last year’s revolution. Thousands of canal employees launched sit-ins in the port towns of Suez, Port Said and Ismailia. Labor unrest persisted into the summer, as additional protests gripped the coast.

The canal’s success in the face of these obstacles, according to analysts, underlines its independence from domestic factors.

“Global trends are much more of an influence [than local ones],” explained Kevin Cullinane, Director of the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University. The canal’s most recent upswing, which began in 2010, corresponds with the global economy’s rebound from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

After dropping more than two percentage points in 2009, international GDP grew by 3.9% in 2010 with exports rising 14.5% — their largest single-year increase in at least six decades. GDP in 2011 is expected to have picked up another 3.1%. Seaborne trade, which increased 7% in 2010, is also believed to have continued its upward trajectory.

Despite lying in a volatile part of the world, the canal benefits from its image as a reliable corridor for trade. The 1888 Convention of Constantinople, still in effect, mandates that the canal stay open to vessels of all nations in times of peace and war. That hasn’t prevented disruptions in the past; Egypt shut down the canal for more than eight years after the July 1967 war with Israel. But feared disturbances in the wake of last winter’s turmoil failed to materialize and they remain low risks.

According to Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University, that’s because of the canal’s centrality to international trade.

“The importance of the canal to global trade relations, particularly between Europe and Asia, is such that the international community would not tolerate disruptions,” he says. “[It] would likely intervene if the safe passage of commercial circulation through the Canal was compromised.”

The Suez Canal, which channels approximately 8% of international seaborne trade, has thus flourished alongside the recovery. Shipping tonnage bounced back a combined 25% in 2010 and 2011 after sliding 19% in 2009. Buoyed by these trends, the Suez Canal Authority plans to raise tolls 3% in March, potentially generating millions in additional revenue.

If the canal has piggybacked off the resurgent world economy, it also sits uneasily at its mercy. A downturn — and corresponding dip in maritime trade — would seriously jeopardize its gains. Magda Kandil, the executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES), cautioned that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and frailties in the European and American economies pose grave risks.

In January, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) downgraded the credit ratings of nine European countries. A few days later the World Bank revised its global growth forecast for 2012 to 2.5% from its previous projection of 3.6% just six months earlier. Its report struck an ominous note. In August 2011, S&P removed the AAA long-term debt rating of the US.

“In the event of a major crisis, the downturn may well be longer than in FY2008/09 because high-income countries do not have the fiscal or monetary resources to bail out the banking system or stimulate demand to the same extent as in FY2008/09,” said a World Bank report.

For the Suez, signs of a slowdown might already be appearing. Year-on-year revenue growth in the first half of 2011 reached as high as 16% in three separate months and never dipped below 8.5%. In the last quarter, it consistently hovered around 5%.

An even more immediate threat lies some 2,500 kilometers to the southeast. Amid an escalating war of words since December 2011 between Iran and Western powers, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf chokepoint through which about 30–40% of the world’s oil passes. The odds of a shutdown are long.

The US has indicated that such a move would trigger a military response. Besides, cutting off its oil from international markets would be tantamount to economic suicide on Iran’s part. But the situation is unpredictable, and cooler heads have yet to prevail. Any disruption in the oil supply from the Persian Gulf would have a significant impact on canal traffic. Oil tankers, many originating in the Persian Gulf, account for roughly 20% of vessels traversing the canal.

On the flip side, problems in the strait wouldn’t be all bad news for the Suez. A rise in oil prices would make the shorter Suez route to Western markets more attractive relative to rounding the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. That said, any increase would be hard-pressed to compensate for the loss of tankers from the Gulf. “If Hormuz were to close, the negative effects on the canal would be felt very acutely, at least in the short term,” predicted Cullinane.

And then there are longer term perils. The ongoing shift in global trade away from advanced industrial countries toward developing ones raises the prospect of emerging South–South shipping routes — for example, West Africa to Oceania and the east coast of South America toEast Africa — obviating much of the demand for the Suez. So could the expansion of the Panama Canal, slated for completion in 2014.

Piracy is another. The threat of attack in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden has jacked up insurance rates on travel via the Suez route, incentivizing the longer, but less risky, Cape route. The good news is that Somali piracy, the leading menace in the area, declined in 2011. Thirty-one ships were hijacked by Somali pirates in 2011, according to Stratfor Global Intelligence, down from 49 in 2010. The pirates’ range of operation has also shrunk, thanks in part to countermeasures by navies and shipping companies.

Regardless of how this all plays out, the Suez will remain a vital channel for international commerce. Kandil argues that however well the canal performs, it will not be enough to steer the faltering Egyptian economy onto the right course. The Suez only accounts for 2–3% of GDP, and its contribution to domestic employment is negligible.

“It may have made up for some of the other losses but obviously not fully because you could have a billion dollar increase in Suez revenue and lose another billion or two in tourism,” she says.

In fact, the canal’s strong run of late —combined with healthy foreign remittance rates — might be offering something of a false sense of security.

“People like to reflect on this so that things don’t seem so bleak overall,” Kandil says. “But to plan your strategy going forward around these sources would be a big mistake because both are unstable […] and there’s little domestic policy can do to affect them.”

More than 200 years after Napoleon’s ultimately ill-fated expedition, the Suez maintains an outsize place in the popular imagination. Its contribution to Egypt’s Herculean struggle to rebuild its economy, however, will almost certainly be minor. bt