CAIRO: An unlikely coalition of Islamists, reformists, youths and Socialists are uniting against the overwhelming powers of a cup of coffee.
Starbucks, however, is not just any cup of coffee. Internationally the chain has been criticized by leftist activists for using globalization tactics, promoting consumerism, and stifling competition. Regionally, however, the debate is centering in on the chain’s ties to Israel.
Egyptians and Arabs started circulating emails highly critical of Starbucks months before the opening.
One of the more caustic email forwards includes a letter allegedly written by CEO Howard Schultz thanking customers, stating that $5 billion per year from the US government are no way near enough to pay for all the weaponry, bulldozers and security fences needed to protect innocent Israeli citizens from anti-Semitic Muslim terrorism. Corporate sponsorships are essential.
The true author of the letter admits it was a hoax on www.ziopedia.org, but claims the essence of the letter is accurate.
Although Starbucks as an organization appears not to contribute funds to Israel, Schultz himself has been honored in Israel as someone who [has] played key roles in promoting close alliance between the United States and Israel during the Friends of Zion Theodor Herzl mission award ceremony.
Gideon Meir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, complimented Schultz for helping American students to hear Israeli presentations on the Middle East crisis and in 1998 he was awarded the Israeli 50th Anniversary Tribute Award from the Jerusalem Fund of Aish Ha-Torah, which sponsors Israeli military arms fairs, insists that the occupied Palestinian territories be described only as disputed, and aims to strengthen the special connection between the American, European and Israeli defense industries and to showcase the newest Israeli innovations in defense, according to a Robert Fisk article published in The Independent newspaper, June 14, 2002.
Starbucks claims Schultz received the award for “making significant contributions toward improving the lives of people around the world.
Egyptian-Lebanese film director Arab Lotfy says the campaign against Starbucks and similar American companies “is not just a limited movement. It’s not one organization or group, it’s a point of view that’s spreading. The members come from across the political and religious spectrum but coordinate and cooperate together.
She says their immediate goal is “to make it a losing project, as they did through demonstrations when Sainsbury’s opened in Egypt and was forced to shut down shortly thereafter. Our money shouldn t go to support the Israeli army.
For Lotfy, a socialist who generally dislikes consumerism, the boycotting is also about fighting the imperial position in our area, and supporting local products. She thinks Arabs should get in control of their own destiny on political, economic, and social levels.
Lotfy says boycotting should not get violent, which it did in Sainsbury’s case. You don’t need to break glass, that doesn t stop a project, she said, adding that police aggression often stimulates demonstrators aggression.
Not all boycotting has to be loud even: By just not doing it [buying American products] people start to ask why and become informed.
Nada Kassas, a Nasserite, thinks every country should support their local products, pointing to the Japanese epitome of nationalism, whose citizens staunchly supported their own products until they became strong as we know them today.
She says the Egyptian Committee for Boycotting will campaign through emails, stickers, essays, pamphlets, and communication with people and patrons. In the past, the movement has even reached out to farmers and youth in schools.
Still, she adds that they will likely not protest while there is only one venue because a lot of people do not even know Starbucks and they would simply be attracting attention to it.
Kefaya member and head of the committee Ahmed Bahaa Eldeen Shaaban is quick to point out that the movement is not against the American people, it s against American politics. He believes governments are most to blame as they are the purchasers of large items such as airplanes.
The Committee also includes members from the Muslim Brotherhood, students, and others committed to fighting pro-Israeli and American products. The movement started eight years ago and peaked during the intifada to support the Palestinians but weaned after, resurging during times of MidEast conflict. It operates in many cities and cooperates with other Arab groups trying to achieve similar goals.
Other targets for boycotting have included Coca-Cola, Marlboro, McDonald’s, Nokia, and Nestle, among others.
A Starbucks spokesperson told The Daily Star Egypt that “allegations that Howard Schultz is a Zionist are absolutely false and unacceptable . neither Chairman Howard Schultz nor Starbucks fund or support the Israeli Army. They also specify that Starbucks, as a company, does not support any political agenda or cause.
They say that the wide circulation of charges against them are “created with the sole intent of damaging our image and success.
Starbucks pointed to their Corporate Social Responsibility endeavors around the world, including work with 4OurKidz in Egypt, and aiming to introduce “Knowledge Corners in schools in Cairo and Alexandria.
M.H. Alshaya is the Kuwaiti firm which holds the franchising rights to Starbucks in the Middle East as well as many other foreign brands.
In response to whether they had any sort of screening process with regards to acquisitions, based on political, environmental, or social values, they responded that the presence of the Alshaya group in many Arab countries was evidence of positive reception in the region, but did not respond that there was indeed a screening process or restrictions on acquisitions.
They added that Starbucks’ and Alshaya’s “shared values are about product quality, overall customer experience and employee satisfaction, community development, environmentally-friendly initiatives, and our commitment to the communities that we serve.
M.H. Alshaya have opened over 170 Starbucks in nine countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, and in Cairo s City Center mall on Dec. 28 and will open in Alexandria s San Stefano Hotel.