June 14, 2005

Away from Sesame Street


Who can account for Laura Bush this past May 25th?

We know Mrs. Bush was in Egypt on May 22nd.  That’s the day she was photographed with Suzanne Mubarak at the Itahedeya Palace in Cairo, the two sitting in the chairs President Mubarak uses to greet foreign dignitaries in front of a giant woven map of Egypt. 

We know that Mrs. Bush hit her favorite tourist spot, the pyramids at Giza, on the morning of the 23rd.  (That’s where she issued that rather remarkable statement praising President Mubarak’s decision to initiate a flimflam Presidential election process as a "wise" and "bold" step toward democracy.)

We know that Laura Bush, alongside Mrs. Mubarak, also appeared that morning on the "Alam Simsim" television show, the Egyptian equivalent of Sesame Street.  The news photos also tell us that in the afternoon, Mrs. Bush — ramping up her "girl power" theme — posed for cameras as she received a ‘peace charter’ written on papyrus, and listened to girls tell stories and sing songs at a girls school in Abu Sir. 

We also know that the First Lady spent the morning of May 24th
addressing what the press termed "prominent women" from Cairo.  In the
afternoon, she also did a photo op surrounded by female students at the
Om El Kora School in Alexandria, where she stressed the importance of
women’s literacy.

Then the 25th arrived, ushering what some people who travel a lot
sometimes refer to as a "getaway day."  In retrospect, however, it was
fortunate Laura made her exit the day before a nationwide
constitutional referendum setting up a semi-competitive presidential
election in September.  The election (or "phony exercise," as many
called it)  was met with an unusual degree of protest, with the
demonstrations in Cairo receiving world-wide attention.


(A group of young Egyptian girls walk
by a taxi with a poster of Egyptian President  Hosni Mubarak glued on
its hood saying in Arabic ‘A great leader, to a great people’ in Cairo
May 25, 2005.  — Caption: YahooNews.)

I don’t mean to completely denigrate Mrs. Bush’s efforts in the name of
Egyptian women. Still, it’s fascinating how the natural plot turns of
politics continue to throw a harsher and harsher light on Bush’s
pandering to the Egyptian President.

What I’m referring to is the eruption of truth telling over the
past two weeks, in which Egyptian newspapers have been filled with
reports of the abuse of women at the May 25th demonstrations. From the
evidence coming out (in part, from both professional and amateur
photographs), it appears that women demonstrators were systematically
targeted by undercover security agents who had been bused to the scene.
According to witnesses, these men attacked, groped and beat the women
protesters while riot police either stood by, or (as the photo above
suggests) kept others away while the acts took place.

It might be premature, but government opponents across the political
spectrum (from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Center for Socialist
Studies) have been issuing calls to commemorate May 25th as a national
day of mourning. In light of a growing backlash, including rare public
apologies and
condemnation from government officials, some are even referring to the
event as a possible turning point in Egyptian politics. Just
considering the increased political activity and visibility
by female activists in the past few weeks, the lasting impact of May
25th might turn out to be the firm establishment of an Egyptian women’s


In the name of democracy as well the advancement of "girl power," these
developments are "all good," as they say. If there is any big loser
(besides Egypt’s entrenched government), however, it’s us.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the perception in the Arab world will be
that this "democracy breakout" occurred in spite of Mr. and Mrs. Bush’s
actions, not as any result of them.

I guess the lesson of the day is: if you decide to throw in
your lot with the Mubarak’s, Sesame Street leads in one direction,
while the Egyptian street goes off in another.

(image 1: Khaled El-Fiqi/European
Pressphoto Agency. June 10, 2005 at nyt.com; image 2: Aladin Abdel
Naby/Reuters. May 25, 2005 in YahooNews; image 3: Brian Snyder/Reuters.
May 23, 2005 in YahooNews)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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