CAIRO: I must confess that to me, the Iraqi journalist-Bush-shoes-incident was – above all else – as hilarious as it would have been if Muntazar Al-Zaidi had aimed a pie on the US President’s face.
Al-Zaidi grabbed the world spotlight earlier this week when he threw his shoes at Bush during a press conference and called him a dog during a farewell visit to Iraq by the US president who ordered the invasion of his country in 2003. He missed on both counts.
But while I can’t underplay the fact that in this part of the world, hitting someone with your shoes is considered the utmost expression of contempt, the farce factor in the shoe affair was what defined my reaction to it – and sadly I reached the conclusion that the joke wasn’t only on Bush.
But before I get into that, here’s the latest news, just to set the mood: Adidas is seriously considering expanding its business in the Middle East; Cuba has declared Dec. 14 the International Shoes for Human Rights Day; and the Egyptian Presidency has declared that from now on all press conferences will be held at Al-Azhar mosque (where everyone must remove their shoes).
And that’s only a taster of the hundreds of jokes circulating on mobile phone messages, on the internet and in political cartoons in the Arabic press. Indeed within less than 48 hours of the incident hundreds of Facebook groups were created in solidarity with the “Iraqi hero.
But now that the dust has settled and it was announced yesterday that the security agents had destroyed the notorious, and coveted pair – apparently one Saudi Arabian man offered to pay $100,000 for it – to ensure they didn’t contain explosives, I ask was Al-Zaidi right to hurl shoes at a president of another country during a press conference to which he was invited in his capacity as a media representative? And if yes, what will be the long-term consequences of this act?
As a journalist, I believe Al-Zaidi’s impassioned reaction to Bush’s ironic farewell visit to Iraq was unprofessional. Few journalists would disagree with me on this, even though many would argue that his act was mitigated by his specific case as an Iraqi Shia who, according to press reports, was abducted last year by some unidentified militias and one who had seen hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, including hundreds of Iraqi journalists die in the aftermath of the US invasion.
Although I completely sympathize with this view and do not in any way detract from the tragedy of what has happened in Iraq, I still believe that even though the shoe attack was symbolically momentous, it also served to bring home more starkly than ever the complete impotence of the Arab world, whether on the mass public level or on the elite diplomatic one.
Is hurling shoes at those who killed our children, husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, fathers and mothers the only action we are capable of? As expected the Western media coverage of the incident focused more on what the hurling of the shoes means (in that weird) Arab culture than on why, despite how democratic Iraq has become, Iraqis still loath Bush and everything he stands for. In a sense Al-Zaidi s act further entrenched the stereoptype of Arabs in the West.
Like the desperate souls to blow themselves up at checkpoints just to make a statement, what Al-Zaidi did was a very personal “martyrdom operation. Durgham Al-Zaidi, Muntazar’s brother, reportedly said that Al-Zaidi was hospitalized after being beaten by security guards and was suffering a broken arm and ribs, as well as injuries to an eye and a leg. The analogy is thus not so far-fetched.
Under Iraqi law, Al-Zaidi risks up to seven years in jail for “offending the head of a foreign state but knowing how issues like that are dealt with in this part of the world, I seriously doubt we will see him on Al-Baghdadia news channel in a long time, that is if anyone ever gets to see him again.
Adding to the tragicomic nature of the whole sorry affair is the fact that not a single one of our revered journalists or even activists has ever had the grit to hurl a size 10 reminder of the unpopularity of his own Arab leader – many of whom have been around for close to three decades and who have likely caused just as much damage, if not more, during their respective reigns of terror.
In the Egyptian Delta city of Tanta a few days ago an Emergency State Security Court handed down prison sentences of between three and five years to 22 people accused of crimes during the events of April 6 and 7 in Mahalla when protestors, fed up with rising food prices, were met with heavy-handed use of force including live ammunition which led to the killing of three people, including a 15-year-old boy.
Needless to say the murders were not investigated, but what’s new in that? The illegitimate incarceration of close to 15,000 political detainees has also never been investigated as thousands of people die slowly in the notoriously inhuman conditions of Egypt’s jails.
And what about the thousands who have been dieing in road accidents every single year for decades? The horrible loss of 60 lives in the Minya bus accident on Sunday is the government’s fault. Enough scapegoating bus drivers who surpass the speed limit and truck drivers going in the opposite direction on one-way roads.
True that they have violated traffic laws, but who has allowed them to do so? Where are all the checkpoints on the Upper Egypt highways; indeed where is the infrastructure in the entire south of this country where time seems to have stood still decades ago. That also goes for the decrepit Delta roads where hit and runs are almost a daily occurrence as villagers are forced to cross over from one side of the highway to the other because there are no footbridges.
Someone around here certainly deserves at least one pair of size tens for that.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.