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Thomas Friedman: Imperial Messenger of the Arab Spring

(Photo: AFP-Mark Ralston)

The following is an article I wrote for the Beirut-based Al Akhbar English.

It took Thomas Friedman — New York Times foreign affairs columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for reporting and commentary on the Middle East — approximately 46 days after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Tunisia to weigh in on the matter.

Noted champion of the notion that Iraqis should be made to “Suck. On. This” by the US military in order to “try to build one decent, progressive, democratizing society in the heart of the Arab East”, Friedman eventually turns up in a Tel Aviv hotel to discuss ramifications of the Egyptian uprising with a retired Israeli general. He then proceeds to Egypt itself, an experience that subsequently merits significant reflection:

When I was in Cairo during the Egyptian uprising, I wanted to change hotels one day to be closer to the action and called the Marriott to see if it had any openings. The young-sounding Egyptian woman who spoke with me from the reservations department offered me a room and then asked: ‘Do you have a corporate rate?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I work for The New York Times.’ There was a silence on the phone for a few moments, and then she said: ‘Can I ask you something?’ Sure. ‘Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.’

I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person, the kind of young woman who would have been in Tahrir Square. We’re just now beginning to see what may have been gnawing at her — in Egypt and elsewhere.



Friedman in search of a horse

Thomas Friedman’s latest analysis of the uprisings in the Arab/Muslim world has received the response it deserves from Sarah Carr.

In Friedman’s defense, however, it is presumably difficult for a foreign affairs columnist to devote his full attention to the goings-on in his alleged region of expertise when he is simultaneously penning his latest scheme for the glorious resurgence of the United States of America.

As Friedman explained to Fox’s Don Imus not so long ago, the “gut thesis” of his upcoming book is as follows:

It’s not a man on horseback we need, Don, it’s a different horse right now, and a different horse that demands a different kind of politics that drives the country in a different direction.”

As a result of the horse project, the foreign affairs columnist was prevented from weighing in on Arab/Muslim uprisings for a full 46 days, though he did manage an article about how the U.S. government should take attitude lessons from Singapore’s millionaire bureaucrats.


State Dept should limit self to Twitter communications

Lately I have been concerned about the job security of PJ Crowley, usual emcee of the U.S. State Department daily press briefings.

The bio on his Twitter account reads:

As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, I carry out the Secretary’s mandate to help people understand the importance of U.S. foreign policy.”

However, recent performances would appear to be in direct contravention of this goal (see here, here and here).

Acting Deputy Department Spokesman Mark C. Toner meanwhile replaced Crowley at yesterday’s briefing, although there have thus far been no reports that Crowley has followed recently deposed U.S. allies into a coma. As the following excerpts demonstrate, Toner’s performance confirms that State Dept. employment in fact hinges upon one’s ability to be vague and self-contradictory:


Toner reports that “we are deeply saddened by the apparent sinking of a tourist boat in Halong Bay in northern Vietnam today.”

QUESTION: Sorry, you said apparently sank?

MR. TONER: It sank, okay.

QUESTION: Yeah, it either did or didn’t.

MR. TONER: It did sink. I’m confirming that it sank.


Kings have special qualifications

So do State Dept. spokespeople

As a forum for tragicomic relief, daily U.S. State Department press briefings with P.J. Crowley rarely disappoint.

The following is an excerpt from yesterday’s transcript. In reference to Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who recently sacked the Jordanian cabinet and acquired a new one in an attempt to appease protesters demanding political and economic reforms, the State Dept. authority announces:

I think I saw a story today where [the king] acknowledged that Jordan’s own efforts up to this point have been too slow.”

A member of the audience asks a question on the subject of potential differences between U.S. support for regional royalty and U.S. support for regional dictators who occasionally stage elections. Crowley responds with a lot of words amounting to nothing, but the questioner gets a good line in.

QUESTION: P.J., is your – is U.S. support for King Abdullah in any way different than what had been your support for [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak, because he is a king, he’s not elected?


Erdoğan Reminds Mubarak that Presidents Die Too

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has finally weighed in on the situation in Egypt, issuing the latest in a sequence of recommendations to preferred U.S. allies in the region.

Last year’s post-flotilla advice to the Israeli regime consisted of an excerpt from the Ten Commandments, delivered in both English and Hebrew: “Thou shalt not kill”.

This year’s advice to Mubarak covers the same themes of religion and death. Reminding the Egyptian leader of the plot in the ground that is inevitably awaiting him, Erdoğan has instructed Mubarak to listen to the wishes of the Egyptian citizenry, given the irrelevance of political rank when “the only thing that will come with you when you die is your burial shroud”.

Friedman and Obama trade jokes

Posters for sale on Damascus sidewalk impede Obama’s communication with Arab street. (Photo by Amelia Opalinska.)

Posters for sale on Damascus sidewalk impede Obama’s communication with Arab street. (Photo by Amelia Opalinska.)

Thomas Friedman’s June 3 Op-Ed column on the New York Times website begins with the retelling of Friedman’s “favorite Middle East joke,” which he declares has just given President Obama “a good laugh” during a phone interview concerning Obama’s upcoming speech in Egypt. The joke goes as follows:

There is this very pious Jew named Goldberg who always dreamed of winning the lottery. Every Sabbath, he’d go to synagogue and pray: ‘God, I have been such a pious Jew all my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?’ But the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn’t win. Week after week, Goldberg would pray to win the lottery, but the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn’t win. Finally, one Sabbath, Goldberg wails to the heavens and says: ‘God, I have been so pious for so long, what do I have to do to win the lottery?’

And the heavens parted and the voice of God came down: ‘Goldberg, give me a chance! Buy a ticket!’”

Friedman applies the moral of his joke to the Arab and Israeli press, in which “everyone seemed to be telling [Obama] what he needed to do and say in Cairo, but nobody was indicating how they were going to step up and do something different.” The upshot according to Friedman is that “[e]veryone wants peace, but nobody wants to buy a ticket”—which sounds compelling if we ignore the fact that there is only one character in the joke, and that Goldberg is not Arab.