Tag Archives: Egypt

Dog Not Eat Dog

Dog microchips to be compulsory in England.  Now there’s a headline we’ve all been waiting for.  There’s more:  the chips are made of bio-compatible glass that will not be rejected by the dog’s body.

That story triggered a memory, a tad grainy, of one of those ridiculous toy dogs eating the canine version of beef stroganoff from a porcelain bowl at what looked to be a Michelin starred restaurant.  The image is of some overly precious breed, like a Pomeranian or a miniature poodle.  At the time, I was working in rural Burkina Faso, with the Peace Corps.  It was a period of painful drought across the Sahel, and the people in my community were hurting.

The image came from a news item.  Somewhere in the south of France – one of those caviar communities like Monaco – there was a restaurant catering to the dogs of the wealthy.  Meals were served at Ritz-set tables, full of crystal water bowls and silver candleholders.  Dinner for the pooches cost a ridiculous amount, like $200.  Honestly, that’s my memory of it.

In the pre-web days of the 80s, that story went about as viral as possible in francophone West Africa.  The amount of money to feed one dog one meal equalled the Burkinabé equivalent of, I don’t know, 23 years average GDP, so I guess people were shocked enough to pass it on, like a Youtube video of a fat guy dancing funny.

Everybody seemed to know about that dog restaurant, as if they represented a standard of sorts in the West.  I think that news item alone built a truth, one I heard over and over again:  “In the West, your dogs eat better than our people.”   There was something quite jarring about that idea – personally jarring to my friends that seemed to increase the distance between us.  And something quite durable.  More than cogent political analysis.  More than economic indicators. More than I could imagine, that idea defined how people understood my world and understood themselves.  Lower than a dog.

Historical anachronism?  A bygone era?  Ten days ago, as my wife and I turned from the main road into the Luxor Airport, a billboard caught our eye.  First of all, there aren’t many billboards in that part of Egypt.  Second of all, there aren’t that many billboards that we could read, anywhere in Egypt. Third, it wasn’t trying to sell us a product.  Rather, it had a picture of a horse and brought me back to my employment.  This was a charity appeal.  Brooke Animal Hospital (they are an international charity, and have been in Egypt since 1934).

The billboard was aimed, literally and directly, at wealthy foreign tourists.  After the airport itself, it may constitute their very first impression of Egypt, or of Africa.  It was about horses and donkeys.  I wonder what Egyptians think.  No shortage of human needs there.  I wonder if Peter Singer would applaud this as progress.

The Bad Colonel

A throng of gunmen haul a 69-year-old man through the dusty street. His chest lays bare, face bloodied. He is beaten and sodomized and shot.

What kind of person does not feel compassion? Well, me, the kind who understood the victim was Saddam Osama Gaddafy.

For an humanitarian, compassion isn’t just a nice thing, like a day without dust in Khartoum or stroopwafels in a care package. Stripped to its essential principles, compassion is humanitarianism’s driver. Not money and not adventurism and not do gooderism or altruism or charity and certainly not the twin devils of winning hearts and minds or building the legitimacy of the state. Compassion is what moves us to address the suffering of others, no matter that they are foreign to your family, village, clan, or nation. They are humans.  Compassion is also that common ground between the Christian ethos of Western missionaries and the humanist ethos of Western INGO staff on mission. Jesus would have felt compassion for the Colonel, no?

Compassion became a second victim of October 20th, Gaddafy’s final bad hair day. Like that sentence’s finish, an ambivalence allows acceptance of the inappropriate (Hillary’s laugh), the uncivil (meat locker visitation hour) and the illegal (his killing). It later struck me that I didn’t feel compassion, my heart too easily counterweighted the final half hour of abuse with his forty years of torture, violence and egomania.

While an individual manages to excuse himself for such an emotional, vengeful reaction, I find the official silence of the humanitarian community rather loud. Maybe not on Gaddafy’s death, because we don’t usually report on such singular events, but on the entire Arab Spring. We portray ourselves as defenders of law and of what is right and of fairness. Yet in these historic times we show the lack of compass so evidently present in our cousins, the human rights organizations. They’ve had this right all along. They’ve steadfastly and no doubt unpopularly and no doubt unlucratively documented and denounced the violations committed by the West’s very champions.  Maybe it is easier for them: their mandates force them look at what the law says and look at what the actors are doing.  For us, compassion and pragmatism often dictate when we exercise that part of our mandates to raise our voice.

Here, our compassion, like our neutrality, follows rather a rather lopsided set of mainstream Western mores.  In Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya we humanitarians have seen victor’s justice; the treatment accorded to those on the side of the dictators by those who have raised their fists for freedom and democracy. We have seen the violent abuse of black Africans trapped inside Libya, condemned by the color of their skin to the accusation of mercenary. We’ve seen doctors not wanting to treat “them”. And we’ve seen those jumpy mobile phone videos of a wretched man dragged out of a drainage ditch. We’ve seen a great deal. We haven’t said much.

Clash in Egypt: A Lesson on Sanctimony?

This past Sunday I put on The Clash. Hadn’t heard them in a while. This morning, “Should I stay or should I go” echoing in my head, I’m listening to the al-Jazeera live feed on the situation in Egypt and it clicks. Makes you wonder if that song lingered for random reasons or not. So Mr. Mubarak, you may have convinced yourself that if you go there will be trouble, but take some advice from Joe Strummer and pals: If you stay there will be double.

There is something wonderful and terrifying in watching a people – a community, a population, a country – rise up against tyranny, oppression, corruption, or plain old mismanagement. My younger days included eyes glued to the TV as “People Power” drove Ferdinand Marcos from office and as the Solidarity trade union shook off the iron embrace of Soviet power in Poland. One lesson from those movements is that they are most frightening to those in power in the early stages, before they are organized, when the raw and often chaotic energy means that, literally, anything can happen. After that: bureaucratization, cooptation, and the long march to becoming part of the establishment (and often to assume the same authoritarian policies and practices that had been so vigorously opposed all those years before). A lesson for MSF as well? That is a separate question.

A second lesson from the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, one perhaps more pertinent to humanitarian action, is the sheer power of the people to take control of their destiny, of their lives. A desperate and rather unimportant Tunisian self-immolates and the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak teeters on the precipice. Amazing! That power didn’t come from the guns or bombs or billions of US (military) aid. It didn’t depend on charismatic leadership à la Benigno Aquino or Lech Walesa. These moments of emancipation didn’t spontaneously combust out of the sort of everyday insurrections we see being carried out by thug-led rebel groups across our work. And these transformations certainly didn’t come from us in the West (unless you calculate in the negative sense, of how Western political and economic policies propped up dictators, impoverished the masses …). They came from the people themselves.

 To be more specific, they came from power which the people have always possessed yet failed to exercise. To the humanitarian, the question should come to mind: Where are the victims? Where are the populations whose suffering compels the presence of us Western saviours? Is it time we question the way our advocacy activities (“humanitarian protection”!) require a blameless, passive school of jellyfish-humans, swept up in the tide of bad guy behaviour? What happened to those millions of people in Darfur who we loudly declared to have been delivered to the brink of catastrophe when 13 international NGOs were shut down and expelled in March 2009? Where are those helpless masses of humanity upon whom our funding, our activities, and our identity are dependent? Turns out they aren’t as helpless as we thought.