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The limit of Egyptian hospitality

When I met with the European Union’s Chief Observer Mario David at a polling station in downtown Cairo last week one thing that he highlighted to me was how welcome he and his fellow observers felt. He described “the salute they give us… the welcoming smiles” he had seen during his time in Cairo. He …

Joel Gulhane
Joel Gulhane

When I met with the European Union’s Chief Observer Mario David at a polling station in downtown Cairo last week one thing that he highlighted to me was how welcome he and his fellow observers felt.

He described “the salute they give us… the welcoming smiles” he had seen during his time in Cairo. He added: “This is a country that is building its democratic process and I think that it is very important that an atmosphere of tolerance may exist here.”

This week we saw smiles drop as Egypt became a less welcome place for the EU observers as they were accused of “failing in their mission” and told that Egypt rejects the findings outlined in the mission’s preliminary statement on the election.

Three members of the European Union’s Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) requested to attend a symposium held by the National Council for Women (NCW) on women’s role and participation in last week’s presidential election. Observing the climate before, during and after the election (as well as the polling itself), is part of the EUEOM’s methodology, which it is employing in Egypt on the invitation of the government.

A video clip uploaded by privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm showed what was quite frankly an appalling scene in which the chairperson of the government-funded NCW, Mervat Al-Tallawi, along with Judge Tahani Al-Gebali and political science professor Mona Makram Ebeid, berated the three EUEOM members in attendance for the content of the preliminary statement issued last Thursday by the mission.

Tallawi, whilst denying that the EUEOM members were thrown out of the symposium, stood by the statements heard in the video clip, which focused on the embarrassed and frustrated EU observers.

“We are proud of army, we are proud of our leader, and we are proud of the new president of Egypt, whether you like it or not,” said one of the angry women from the stage. “You should know that we do not accept this,” said another woman in reference to the preliminary statement, asking them “to take it back”.

In the words of the EU delegation (not the EUEOM), I would also suggest that Tallawi and Co. read the entire preliminary statement and brush up on how an observation mission operates, especially one that has signed a memorandum of understanding with the government allowing them absolute freedom to carry out their mission.

The delegation’s statement also noted that the EU is a “strong supporter of the NCW”, adding that it provides financial support for “their valuable work”. There is no obligation for Egyptians to be nice to the EU just because it provides financial aid for development projects. This is not the problem.

The issue is not what the ladies at the NCW said, as they are, of course, entitled to their opinion even if they have missed the point of the EUEOM. The issue is really quite plain and simple: this is no way to treat anyone, especially a group of people who were invited by the government (that funds the NCW).

The EUEOM members are not in Egypt for their own enjoyment and neither do they have an agenda to destroy the country. They were dispatched to do a job and they are doing that job, and regardless of the wider political reasons for the EU’s decision to observe the election it was just as (if not more) important to the Egyptian government that this election be fully observed.

The rejection of the report is unfounded, because if they had read the full report and understood the mission’s mandate, they would see that these criticisms are raised to be recommendations to the authorities for future elections. The EUEOM is not in Egypt to decide whether the election is legitimate or not.

It was not only the words of those on stage that was appalling to me, the way in which the crowd cheered, clapped and one even praised God while the EU observers walked quickly from the room was also quite disturbing.

One gets the impression that there are some in Egypt who are constantly on the defence and blindly assume that any criticism is aimed at tarnishing the name of Egypt. This is evident in the way journalists are harassed, how foreigners are looked on with suspicion and how dissenting voices within the country are met with demands to stifle them.

This is not to say that the EUEOM believes this is the opinion of the entirety of Egypt or that it should leave the country. In fact the core team of experts and the long-term observers are to stay for a few more weeks to complete their mission and present their findings and recommendations for future elections.

The point is: if you are going to invite a guest to observe the election in the current climate, be prepared to take some criticism. If you don’t like it, then it might be worth politely saying that you disagree with their findings. Instead, the women at the NCW decided to publically humiliate just three people from a team that is made up in total of 150 people for publishing a report that was backed up with factual data.

The foreign ministry attempted to address this in a meeting with EU ambassadors to Egypt on Tuesday. Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said that Egypt welcomes “constructive and impartial feedback”, but added: “It is necessary for reports to be focused on the electoral process itself and not other political issues unrelated to the election”. The EU’s preliminary statement did not deviate from its methodology, which the memorandum of understanding is meant to protect, but seems increasingly under threat since the release of the preliminary report.

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  • Al Masry

    Good news reporting in a friendly form.

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  • Ogmius

    I have been in Egypt for 22 years, and during that time I have invested, I have employed people, and I have exported all my production, to the benefit of the Egyptian economy. I have also made deep – or so I thought – friendships with Egyptians. I have a stake in Egypt, and it is a legitimate one.

    But since the revolution of 2011, and even more so now, I have learned to keep my mouth shut when in the company of my Egyptian friends. They turn on me like scalded rabid cats if ever I voice an opinion about the state of affairs in Egypt, whether that opinion is for or against.

    As a hawaga I do not have the right to an opinion, it seems: and people that I have known in friendship for two decades are the first to remind me of this.
    Very sad.

    • Leyla Maker

      it is the accumulation of almost 2000 years of foreign rule and occupation. but I am Egyptian and I am almost treated that way, changing the way society thinks and believes is not an easy endeavour, but telling the facts and realities is always a winning situation. One day someone will recall your statement and understand your point of view, you may have been brushed off but you are rewarded by making our world a better place and that what the earliest reformers did.

    • Hussein Jeffrey John Mohamed

      That’s not been my experience at all. I’ve expressed my opinions to many of my Egyptian friends who are loyalists of the regime and we are still friends and have great conversations. I think it depends on whom you’re talking with and how you approach them. I’m very good at facilitating a light atmosphere when discussing heaving topics, and I think that, more than anything, is the key to keeping people “on your side” even if you completely disagree about politics. If you take your opinion very seriously and debate it in a very serious manner then sure, people will turn on you.

  • Nihal El-Sayed

    This article attacks Egyptian hospitality, saying that “smiles drop at Egypt became a less welcome place for the EU observers as they were accused of ‘failing in their mission’. Of course Egyptians are going to be somewhat distraught that irrelevant opinions of the EU were negative about their election process. And, as humans, when distraught, they don’t always have a smile on their face. Does that mean they aren’t welcoming?!!

    • Leyla Maker

      it means you do not want to hear the truth, you want to hear only lies, the biggest disease in our society.

      • Nihal El-Sayed

        I only want to know the truth on relevant matters and so to be objective, but not concerning irrelevant topics that is no need to be discussed in such circumstances. The EUEOM members have failed to stay focused on their own mission, which is the electoral process “itself”!

    • sam enslow

      A sad truth is that the Egyptian governments when promoting Egypt mention dead kings and beautiful Nature as reasons to come, but they never say visitors should come to meet the Egyptian people. The government is ashmaned of its own people, most of whom are quite nice. As a result of this policy visitors meet ony those selling them something.
      The EU treated Egyptians like thinking adults and did their job. They did not say, “The great people of Egypt who built the Pyramids…..” There is nothing in the EU report that Egyptians did not see for themselves.
      The reaction to the report suggests Egyptians did not want to be found out. Many articles appear saying the Evil West, especially the US, do not understand what is happening in Egypt. Perhaps they understand all too well.
      I have never read or seen any media coverage of the US in Egyptian newspapers that was favorable. Most complaints are totally not true. But Egyptians (talk of double standards) see no reason Americans or Europeans would be upset by this negative press – and put off fro visiting Egypt or parting with their hard earned money to help a people who hate them.

      • Nihal El-Sayed

        Last time I checked, never heard of any country that promotes its own people to visitors! As a common sense, tourism attractions are to be mentioned instead – this is not the topic to discuss now here, though!
        Just to let you know, Egyptians do not talk of double standards. As welcoming, hospitable and “honest” people we are, happy to see visitors to our country – but when it comes to talking negatively on ‘irrelevant’ topics of an official mission, here comes the other side (that apparently the West are not happy to see) of expressing how upset we are!
        That is not being of double standards, dear. We are just being “honest” about how we feel and react!

        • sam enslow

          Check again. Promotions for most countries feature their people as reasons to visit and show the visitor enjoying new friends.
          Egyptians are people like everyone else, the good, the bad, the ugly. Unfortunately (and this is noted frequently by those in the tourism industry) visitors are hustled and hasseled from the moment they arrive until they leave. It is often only when one goes beyond being a tourist that one meets the good Egyptians. This is a difficult thing to do. If I go to an archaeological site with my doctor, for example, a policeman will come up and ask, “Why are you with him?” The process is not to protect me from bad people as I can see police everywhere. The hustlers are not bothered by the police.

        • Leyla Maker

          I am sorry to say that you are trying to evade the reality, you are trying to separate the general atmosphere in the country. You speak and write English fluently, try to follow any election in any country in the west and compare the atmosphere and do not argue with anyone, just let your conscience judge for you. But if you are trying all the media promotion, you are far away from understanding the basics of democracy

    • Sherief

      Why is the opinion of the EU delegation irrelevant? Let us forget the fact that they come from Europe…shouldn’t we Egyptians judge the message of the election monitors based on what they actually said?

      They said that the climate was not accommodating of a fully democratic election: media bias towards one candidate, the imprisonment of journalists. Aren’t these legitimate criticisms of Egypt at the moment?

      Do we really think that Egypt is representing a fully democratic state that includes ALL voices, even if they are critical of the government?

  • Sherief

    Very well written article. I am not sure why we Egyptians have such a hard time accepting criticism, even if it is constructive and sincere (which I think the EU delegation gave). We have to learn to take criticism with a vow to improve, and as a sign that things can still get better. Until then, we are collectively behaving like a child who only wants to hear praise.

  • nag

    The fact that most of the criticism centered on the idea that the EOM went beyond their mandate, in the view of many it was to be limited to reporting on voting day, is indicative that there is all seem to lack the knowledge and understanding of what election ob is all about- I can understand this from the average Egyptian, but when it comes to the head of the NCW, Mona Makram Ebeed (saying that she has been involved in some 5 missions and they never went that far) is seriously problematic–either they are absolutely ignorant or lying–EOM looks beyond voting–they review the legal, political , and other governing environments–which contribute to the elex being free and fair–balloting et al is part of the observation not all–people need to educate themselves if they wish to be actively and productively engaged–even in discussion–arf

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