Some thoughts on the unrest in Egypt

The news and images coming from Egypt this past week have been unsettling for most.  Scenes of protesting and violence in the streets, so close on the heels of the the Tunisian protests have led many to wonder if we are on the brink of upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East.  Foreign governments have called for evacuations of their citizens from Egypt and have begun arranging for special flights to get ex-pats out of the country.  The wealthy have been fleeing as well.  While middle-class travelers have been sleeping on the floor of the airport waiting for flights, over 60 private planes have taken off, apparently including one carrying one of the most famous names/faces in the Arab world – pop star Amr Diab.

Of course, the majority of the Egyptian population do not have the means or interest to flee the country.  This is a popular uprising fueled, in part, by economic discontent and the huge gap between the haves and have-nots in the country.   Officially around 20%  of the population lives on less than $2 a day.  These are old statistics and unofficial estimates are that closer to 50% of the population live in poverty – unable to provide for their basic daily needs.  Unemployment is high, even among university graduates.

I know many Egyptians here in Jordan.  They fuel the service sector of the economy working as janitors, car washers,  garbage-men, waiters, cooks, and guards.  Restaurant workers tend to work 12-hour shifts for less than a Jordanian Dinar per hour.  Our building guard doesn’t even get paid by our landlord – for his hard work his family of 5 gets the privilege of living out of two tiny rooms and collecting a small monthly stipend from tenants.  For 6 or 7 Dinars Egyptians will wash Jordanian cars 2 or 3 times a week for an entire month.  Compared to life in America these “jobs” and rates of pay are so sub-standard its hard to even categorize.  However, every Egyptian I know here says that life and work conditions  in Jordan are far superior to opportunities available back in Egypt.  They would rather live as 2nd-class citizens and work for next to nothing here in Jordan than face the lack of opportunity in Egypt.

So it is no surprise that the those struggling with poverty and daily existence are now protesting in the streets.  The wonder is not that it is happening now, but that it has taken so long for it to occur.

It is hard at this point to tell if change will be for the better.  Many of the Egyptians I speak to here in Jordan view the unrest as a very positive thing.  They are hopeful that it will prompt true political change for the better.  However, Christian Egyptians (in the vast minority), are very nervous.  Copts in particular have been the victims of much violence over the past several years.  In the midst of the current unrest members of the radical groups who advocate such attacks have been freed from prisons.   Many are speculating that more radical elements will fill the power void that appears to be developing in Egypt.

Of course the media plays of the fears of a radicalization of the Islamic street in Egypt.  The reports of vigilante justice and mob mentality sounds pretty scary.  However, one American friend of mine says he is appreciative of the club-wielders on his street.  With the breakdown in police services and spread of unrest families and neighbors have been looking out for each other.  Curfew starts at 2:30 PM.  After that strangers are not welcome on the street and private citizens will do what is necessary to protect themselves.  My friend is known in the neighborhood and is not really concerned for his safety.  Egypt is a collectivist society and it is not, like some Americans might imagine, truly “every man for himself.”  Just like in the rest of the Middle East, family and tribe and neighbor and guest are words that hold important – almost sacred – meaning.  What may seem like a dangerous man with a club or knife on television may actually be a father standing ready to protect his family and guests.

Of course, my prayer and hope for Egypt is peace.  In the short term that senseless violence and looting would cease and that order would be restored.  However, true peace will not come to Egypt without justice.  Economic justice.  Social Justice (to use a phrase demonized by conservative politics in America).  Political Justice.  And solutions that recognize that all people deserve dignity and opportunity and the ability to not just survive each day, but to thrive.

Of course these problems are not just present in Egypt.  The gap between the economic and political haves and have-nots has been growing steadily around the world.  Personally I am afraid that “every man for himself” thinking has gotten us into these situations, but will not get us out.

My thoughts on Ted Williams, homelessness and the value of fame in America

By now you must have heard of Ted Williams, the so called “golden-voiced homeless man” who in the span of a week went from living in a makeshift tent to being interviewed on the Today Show and being offered jobs with Kraft Foods and the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Even 6,000 miles away here in Amman, Jordan I heard about Ted’s story thanks to viral video and social networking sites.  The world is truly a small place these days.

Ted Williams interviewed on CBS

This story struck a chord with me, as I spent 4 years working closely, through a community-based non-profit organization, with those struggling with homelessness and poverty.  I recently had the honor of writing a couple of guest posts on my thoughts on the Ted Williams’ story over at my friend David’s blog, Signs of Life.  If you are interested in what I had to say please click the links below.

Ted Williams: YouTube, the grace of God, and a slow news day (pt 1)

Ted Williams: YouTube, the grace of God, and a slow news day (pt 2)

While you are over there, take a look at some of David’s previous posts. I’m sure you will find something worth your while.  He’s definitely worth an add to your favorite RSS feed reader.

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

(as reported in the Jordan Times.  Paragraphs below are my summary and additional commentary on articles on the front page of the JT Friday edition)

Top Headline: ‘When we are fasting, we are all one‘  It’s hard to explain to someone living in the West how culturally significant iftar, or the meal to break the fast is here in Jordan.  Life is totally re-oriented during the month of Ramadan so that you are able to make it home to break fast with you family or friends.  We had the ironic experience of eating at TGIFriday’s last week right at iftar.  I am sure we were one of 2 non-Jordanian/Arab couples in the packed out restaurant.  Will write more on that experience later.  That being said many do not have the means to prepare special meals and so this article discussed the numerous iftar tents set up around the city to help the underprivileged.  These tents are sponsored by wealthy individuals, corporations, and also the royal family.

A variety of people take advantage of free iftar tents during Ramadan.  (Jordan Times)

A variety of people take advantage of free iftar tents during Ramadan. (Jordan Times)

In particular, HM Queen Rania has a tent which hosts a different group in need each night. (to check out the Queen’s fascinating website click here and follow the 3rd link.)  There is much concern for the poor here during Ramadan, which is the traditional time to give your zakat, or alms, each year.  But I wonder a bit about the poor the rest of the year.  If they don’t have the means to prepare an evening meal in Ramadan, what about next month?  Who helps out then?   I also wonder if Christians ever sponsor iftar tents or if that is taboo?

Three AIDS cases registered: which brings the number of cases this year to 7.  Not sure how that compares with the States – but a quyick search gave me a stat of over 30,000 cases in the US last year.  I don’t think Jordan is on that track.  The article made a point to note that the three new cases were infected abroad and also pointed out that one was a woman.  I wonder what it is like to have AIDS in this country where honor and shame are so much at stake.  Will this woman’s family have compassion on her or scorn?  Will she receive good medical treatment?  I also wonder if AIDS cases are under-reported here,  The government is definitely concerned about it – any foreigner staying in the kingdom more than 6 months has to get tested!

West Bank settlers take over more land – group: Interesting to see that an Israeli human rights group that I often quote (B’Tselem) is referenced as front page news here in Jordan.  The article reports on 1,100+ acres annexed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.  Half of this land was private Palestinian property.  It was taken for “security” purposes by fencing it off under the watchful eyes of armed settlers and soldiers.  This same method of illegal settlement expansion was going on 10 years ago when I was in Gaza.  Soldiers and settlers would take Palestinian farmland at night by extending the fence by 10-20 feet, citing attacks from that property that never occured. It should be noted that these new security measures are being taken inside Israel’s already existing “security” barrier.

In Urban areas the barrier is a full-fledged concrete wall completely surrounding cities

In Urban areas the barrier is a full-fledged concrete wall completely surrounding cities

In rural areas the barrier is a complex series of fences and trenches

In rural areas the barrier is a complex series of fences and trenches

I’m all for protecting people from suicide bombers, but when an entire town is surrounded by a wall like this it seems like collective punishment to me.  As I’ve said before, it would be as if the rest of California decided to wall in L.A. because of all the gang violence there.  Migth help keep things safer in the short-term, but makes no sense whatsoever in the long-term.  Do the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall or the Berlin Wall mean anything to anyone?