Wednesday, February 6, 2013

4th of July

Sorry! This was written after July 4, 2012, but some technical trouble prevented it from getting posted. Better late than never:

Greetings, and happy 4th of July everyone. I was fortunate enough to have attended the 4th of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. It was a great way to cap my six month stay in Cairo; I chatted with friends and other guests, and made a few contacts. I could not help but feel a certain sense of awe during the event, however. Just how does it come to pass that a group of Americans, Egyptians and diplomats and dignitaries of other nationalities unite in the singing of Sweet Caroline a few blocks from Tahrir Square?

Ambassador Anne Patterson made formal remarks partway through the event. She began her remarks with famous lines from the American Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

Ambassador Patterson went on to touch on some achievements of the U.S., but more importantly, she highlighted our challenges. I posted the above quotation to my Facebook this morning, and was quickly challenged by a friend who insisted we add a disclaimer that Jefferson’s words do not currently apply to minorities, women and other persecuted groups. America is not perfect. The democratic experiment is not complete; if we ever consider that experiment complete, we’d be fools. The United States was built on the precept that hard work yields a tomorrow better than the today, that continued toil by the forebears paves the way for greater achievements by successors. Whether that applies to science, economic growth, political liberty or the well-being of one’s family, that value permeates American society. This drive has almost always yielded us better tomorrows. We will always have our challenges, but Americans and our society have evolved and triumphed repeatedly when beset with perils that have destroyed other nations. It has taken 236 years for our fledgling democracy to develop into the robust system it is today. 

More importantly, Ambassador Patterson noted how long it has taken us to get this far. To a room full of Egyptian government officials, businessmen and socialites, she gave a stark truth: democracy can fail. Egypt has not yet made a full transition, and its democratic institutions may not develop into what older democracies consider adequate within our lifetimes. The important thing is that they try, and through hard work achieve a better tomorrow. The Ambassador ended her address by saying that if Egyptians were willing to confront their challenges, Americans would “roll up their sleeves” and join them in the effort. 

There are so many good things about America. That people of disparate backgrounds can find common pleasure in something like Sweet Caroline playing beneath red, white and blue banners is a testament to this fact. Yet the sand-colored, reinforced concrete barriers and legions of security guards present speak to the fact that many still cannot tolerate us. I would like to believe that with enough public diplomacy, we can solve almost any problem. Diplomacy is increasingly shifting from state-to-state interaction to people-to-people interaction. However, so long as there remain structural reasons that cause hate by making people vulnerable, like poverty, war, discrimination and persecution, then public diplomacy will only go so far. Perhaps someday, when Egypt is a full democracy and such problems are diminished, we can sing together in Tahrir rather than hiding in what Egyptians refer to as “the American Fortress.”

Friday, June 22, 2012


                                              al-Jazeera image of a protest at Tahrir Square

This post is long overdue.  Though a lot has happened in two months, nothing has stood out as particularly worthwhile to discuss.  Until now.  Events during the final days of the Egyptian elections between felool, or regime remnant, candidate Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherood-backed Freedom and Justice Party, have caused me to contemplate my feelings during these past months, and whether it is right for a diplomat to have them.

I found a place to work in Cairo until after the proposed transfer of power in Egypt from the military government to the civilian administration.  I arrived in Cairo at the very end of 2011 after applying to the American University amidst the media coverage of crackdowns by Central Security Forces on protestors in Tahrir and long bouts of street fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.  My parents and friends were worried, but I was hopeful.  SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition organization, were in agreement and wanted to go ahead with parliamentary elections.  I came to Cairo amidst those elections, and unrest settled down like I predicted.  Though many people were alarmed by the strong showing of Islamist candidates, this past semester has been fairly peaceful when compared to the turbulent year prior.

As the semester progressed, I lost focus.  I forgot my political science training that said that incumbent authoritarian powers do everything they can to retain power.  I forgot my history background that said that men like the consuls before Caesar and statesman like George Washington, who would readily give up enormous personal power for the greater benefit of humanity, are few and far between.  I took comfort when my government said SCAF wanted nothing more than to go back to their barracks.  I dared to hope that genuine change was occurring while I was here.  Official election results have not been announced yet, but I am already beginning to doubt that dream.

I do not think of myself as an idealist, and gladly leave that moniker to others.  I believe there are times when actions of ill repute are the best recourse, though others may hate it.  Pleasing everyone at the expense of your own success and security is a losing battle.  I also believe, however, that no one should make a show of their disregard for others or revel in self-righteousness.  We are all joined in common humanity, if not by national or ethnic ties. 

My personal conflict at the moment stems from my empathies for the Egyptian people and my concerns over regional stability and national interest.  Egyptians desire free and fair elections to determine a government that will finally work for them.  The Failed State Index recently ranked Egypt 31st out of more than 150 countries listed.  Egypt has infrastructure and the government effectively maintains a monopoly on force, but it has utterly failed to provide a system that protects the rights of its citizens.  A democratic transition could change that by making officials genuinely beholden to the selectorate.  However, the Muslim Brotherhood is a group that has previously espoused violence and desires to implement sharia law as the basis for its legislation.  It remains unclear how that will impact minorities like women, Copts, Jews, foreigners, and even Shi’a and Sufis.  The peace treaty with Israel, a substantial cause of the dramatic decline in inter-state warfare in the region since the mid-1970’s, could come under fire.  The U.S. would also lose what was previously a staunch ally against extremism in the region. 

In short, do I side with what is best for the people or best for the interests of my country?  As a diplomat, I should always do the latter, but I feel that, as a human being, I should do the former where I am able.

The recent suspension of the democratically-elected Parliament, reports of voter fraud coming from election monitors, postponing the official announcing of results, and statements and rallies by both sides insisting they are victorious have brought things to a climax that could prove a powderkeg.  If the Supreme Election Committee announces an Ahmed Shafiq victory, whether genuinely earned or fixed, Mohamed Morsi and his supporters may make good on their claim that there will be “blood in the streets.”  If Morsi is announced the winner, it is unclear how the military deep-state will interact with an administration filled with members they had spent the better part of three decades repressing and imprisoning. 

A diplomat’s job is to work with whomever is in charge of the country they are posted to.  The beliefs I mentioned above may not always lead to moral outcomes, but I believe that the U.S. often tries for net positive outcomes.  There is no telling how the new administration will turn out, but how do diplomats handle change? How can diplomats swallow their beliefs when interacting with a government built on lies or, even worse, murder?  How do they go on when a toppled government was a friend and the new one becomes a foe?  How do they cope with wasted financial, political, and emotional investment in a country when a regime may change but the people living there have not?

Whatever the outcome of this election, those questions remain unanswered for me.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dark Side of Traveling

Well, I’m back.

The trip was fairly successful except for one critical low-point.  We were in a car accident. I am extraordinarily fortunate that this event happened while we were traveling in Eastern Europe, and not some of the other places I’ve been. 

Without going into too many details, I realized I was in a bad situation, made a split-second decision after quickly evaluating options, and then aggressively stuck to my plan. That probably avoided a head-on collision. In theory, it was a good plan, but it is important to remember that there are endless ways that tiny, random variables can greatly alter the outcome of an event. Between that and the human condition, many simple, routine actions have a chance to become very serious, very quickly.  This was the lesson I was reminded of during an event that only spanned 30 seconds.

The aftermath took eight hours, plus a lot of waiting.  I’ll break it down by label, beginning with two of the 13 Dimensions.

An accident just happened.  I felt crushed by the immense consequences.  After the initial period of “Am I okay? Is my passenger okay? Are the occupants of the other car okay?”  I found myself unconsciously lapsing into a fit of anxiety and indecision.

“Don’t panic” is terrible advice unless you know how to avoid panicking.  During this episode, and others conducive to panicking, I have found the easiest way to maintain composure is simply to make a decision, and follow through.  My father told me that the worst decision is no decision, and while I can think of some very bad decisions, a failure to act can have significant consequences in terms of both results and morale.  The choice does not have to be huge, and certainly evaluate things as you go along, but I have found that trying to do something productive staves off panic and I ease into a state of mind conscious of both my surroundings and what needs to be done.  In this case, it was checking to see what people needed and whether I could provide it, taking pictures of the accident, discussing with the translator, assisting policemen take measurements, and actively planning logistics.  My passenger had done four tours in Iraq and said he was impressed with my composure; I laughed at that.  Being composed and looking composed are clearly different things, but looking composed calms others and facilitates a productive atmosphere in the midst of crisis.

Oral Communication
I have never been more impressed with the importance of communication.  My companion and I met with about 10 locals immediately following the incident, and only one spoke English. Tensions were running hot, and it was very difficult to communicate with anyone until the English-speaker offered to mediate.  It required a lot of patience to choose the words that would be easiest to translate, listen as they were translated, observe the emotional reply, and understand what was said.  This was also true when I had a certified translator at the police station during the official documentation.  I had never previously witnessed serious real-time translating before, and it is far more difficult than I had imagined, even after working at an embassy. 

I think important things to consider regarding oral communication are, again, patience with the speed of dialogue and an awareness of what exactly is being said in addition to the greater message.  There are many nuances in language that can significantly alter the concepts being conveyed, even while the same things can be conveyed in a myriad of ways.  Reconciling the two is definitely a skill I have not mastered. 

American Citizen Services
American Citizen Services is the section of the U.S. Embassy that assists American Citizens.  I assume most countries offer something similar in their embassies, though if anyone would like to comment on that, I would be very interested in hearing about differences. 

Contrary to popular belief, U.S. Embassy Staff will not rescue you while you are in a foreign country.  In most instances, they are not allowed to.  The vast majority of ACS cases involve passport issues and communications, but some involve emergencies, specifically injuries and arrests and the rare evacuation.  If you are arrested, you are entitled to speak with a consular official under international law who will provide you with a list of attorneys and possibly give you some information on the legal system wherever you are.  They will monitor your treatment, but they are not legal counsel.  Of course, whether police allow access depends on the country.  In case of significant injuries, I am under the impression that ACS staff will facilitate communication with relatives or contacts at home, but they are not medical counsel or providers.  If anything occurs for political reasons, these guidelines do not necessarily hold true, and ACS staff will act according to the situation.  Evacuations are a big deal, and ACS may facilitate transport for American citizens out of the country.  Don’t take this paragraph as gospel; many things are subject to the host country’s laws and what the ACS staff is able to do.

In my case, I notified ACS of my accident by calling them.  They provided a list of attorneys in case I needed one, and asked that I notify them if my status changes.  

In all, that we did not have access to a phone or an internet connection cut us off from many people we normally turn to in times of need, so we were forced to make decisions and act on our own judgment.  I haven’t been in an auto-accident in the U.S. aside from a fender bender, so being in one in a relatively rural area of a foreign country was extremely stressful.  We didn’t have anywhere to go while waiting for our rental replacement, so we napped in the police station at 3 am.  Many people exhibited unwarranted friendliness, and I am very cognizant of how fortunate we were that things turned out as they did.  They could have been much worse; death was a definite possibility.  I just have to take these lessons with me and apply them as best I can.  There was no reason for us to stay in the country, so my friend and I moved on with our trip after everything was accomplished and I am waiting to see how things turn out.