Saturday, May 28, 2005

Thoughts On The EU Constitution: The French Vote

Tomorrow, the French will vote in a national referendum to either accept or reject the project for a unified European constitution. The news coverage about the vote has been sounding off in recent weeks on the strong anti-treaty feelings in France and the seemingly "certain" victory of the 'NO' vote.

Despite all the polls and predictions speculating that the ‘NO’ camp is ahead several points in the eve of the referendum, I suspect that political observers are in for a surprise tomorrow. I am not dismissing the fact that the nationalist anti-Europe elements in France are strong and that large numbers of independent voters continue to be largely dissatisfied with the current state of the French economy and the political programs of the Chirac-Raffarin administration. Those are realities that no one can contend with, but I believe that somehow, the French will come to get the bigger picture and vote in a manner that is actually inconsistent with the way they have been publicly expressing themselves in the past few months. That is, they publicly express reservations about the constitution, but once alone in the voting booth; they would, although reluctantly, drop the ‘YES’ ballot in the box. Furthermore, one needs to also note that in the eve of the referendum, twenty percent of potential voters are still undecided. The fact that their neighbor and largest partner in the EU, Germany, voted on Friday to accept the treaty may have something to do with how the French vote tomorrow.

What is important to note about Europe in my opinion is that its biggest global impact will always be measured in terms of its economic and market significance. The enlargement and consolidation of Europe guarantee its continued development as a major market and economic player on the global stage. Europe, at least in the short and medium terms can not and will not be able to come together as a huge cohesive political force that would, as some in Europe hope, counteract the US as a second pole in terms of global affairs. Issues such as common foreign and defense policies for Europe are not within reach for the time being and much is yet to be done to resolve the question of national sovereignty versus continental unity in Europe. A good example of that are the nationalist passions raised by the ongoing EU-wide vote on the constitution.

Let us see what happens tomorrow. The vote in France will be close and if the 'YES' vote prevails, the constitution will still have to face a likely 'NO' in Holland and Britain. But either way, let us remember that the EU’s biggest achievements will continue to be economic and market integration and that the political integration still has a long way to go even if the constitution is ratified by all members.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A Word On Egypt Before I Run

The election “reforms” announced by President Mubarak weeks ago have drawn the interest of many around the world including within political circles here in the US. Initially, I thought President Bush reacted well to the announcement by describing the move as encouraging but cautioning that more needs to be done in order to ensure free and transparent elections in Egypt. The president repeated that theme as he prepared to meet with the Egyptian Prime minister last week. President Bush insisted on independent international monitors , guarantees for equal access to media and a halt to intimidation tactics used against opposition candidates. Several weeks ago, Secretary Rice delayed a planned visit to Egypt in order to protest against the jailing of an opposition leader by Egyptian authorities. Signs were emerging for the first time that the US government was willing to openly challenge one of its closest authoritarian allies in the region. It was great news for those of us who are hoping for a new beginning in the region; a new US policy direction that would stress justice and democracy over short-term US interests.

Today, the first lady called the "initiative" taken by Mr. Mubarak both "wise and bold". This, obviously, shocked me. It shocked me because the first lady should have known better. But, maybe she was just repeating what her aides told her to say. If this is the case, then I would be even more disappointed. See, I think the world of Laura Bush. I think she is the jewel of the Bush White House; the classiest first lady since Jackie Kennedy. That is why her statement is so frustrating to me. Therefore, I think she would pardon my intransigence when I say that her statement about Mubarak’s plan is extremely ill-informed. Here is why.

First, the so-called Mubarak "initiative" is a political trap that seeks no immediate opening up of the electoral system. In other words, it is smoking mirrors or, if you wish, a delay tactic used to extend the power grip of the ruling party under the guise of reform and democracy. Ninety percent of the current parliament in Egypt is controlled by the ruling party. Let me repeat that, 90%!! The proposed amendment to "reform" the electoral system requires presidential candidates to collect 300 signatures from "elected" officials in the "People's Assembly", the Shura Council and local assemblies. It further restricts nominations to members of party politburos. Good luck getting anywhere if you are an independent candidate - it simply won't happen.

Furthermore, this is an authoritarian regime whose ruling party controls all the political, security and defense institutions in Egypt. Now, have you heard of the vetting process used by the Ayatollahs to approve presidential candidates in Iran - it has been in the news lately. Well, what Mubarak and his party are proposing is not that dissimilar from that. Even when we assume no election fraud and no vote manipulation, how would anyone opposed to them obtain 300 signatures from them to run against them!!

Then, there is the issue of intimidation and vote fraud, which have been a fixture in every Egyptian "election" so far. The ruling party will flood the parliament with its agents (as has always been the case), require in the next election that presidential candidates must hail from a party that has at least 5% of the seats while they themselves control 90 percent and lock themselves institutionally, through something they sell to the west as "reform", into a position of power for many years to come. Nicely done!!

Look, this just can not go on the way it is. People's intelligence can not continue to be insulted in this manner by power-hungry dictators and our complicit silence about it. Now, I do not care how popular a government or a political party is, but there is no way, and I say no way, to consistently "win" over 90% of the vote when, among other things, the daily situation of ordinary citizens is by all indicators worsening. It just defies all sorts of logic unless Egyptians are into self-punishment, which I highly doubt. In fact, Egyptians have a long tradition of intellectual brilliance, which is the reason I truly believe that an internal victory for democracy in Egypt would have an immensely positive impact on the region as a whole -- the ever-ellusive Domino effect theory.

So, Madam First Lady, with all the respect that I have for you, I wish you could reconsider your statement. Even if we actually believe that Mubarak has had a call of conscience, which is highly unlikely, and decided to fly straight and grant freedom and democracy to the people of Egypt, wouldn’t we be excessive in describing him as “wise and bold”. Would you ever describe a decision by an abusive parent to beat their children less frequently as “wise and bold”. Don’t you think that would be insulting to the victims in this case? I do. Unless of course you are trying to use the negative image of the US in the Middle East to give Mubarak the ‘Kiss of Death’, hence, achieving the opposite of the impression you gave – Then, as the English would say: Brilliant!!

Friday, May 20, 2005

A Date with An Old Dream in Prague

I arrived in Prague this weekend, having looked forward to this trip for some time. This is because about three years ago I came here for the first time and enjoyed it so much that I promised myself I'd return. Last night, I had an incredibly magical moment on the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) near old town Prague. As I strolled onto the bridge, I was overcome with emotion when I came upon a solo guitarist who was playing an old Pink Floyd song that, for me, carries so much childhood memory. There I was standing on this magnificent pedestrian bridge on a perfect night (75 degrees, no wind, and clear skies), watching an unbelievable picturesque scene and listening to a tune that I had listened to so many times as a child not knowing what my future held.

Fifteen years ago, my closest friends and I used to listen to that particular song at a gathering spot in our neighborhood in Morocco wondering what was there beyond our reach, in those far cities that we only see in frozen pictures. One of my friends used to dream aloud about driving freely on Route 66 with that Pink Floyd hit playing in the background. I too dreamt that scene along with him, but I also dreamt countless other scenes putting me in places the world over. Nonetheless, unlike my friend, I mostly dreamt in silence mainly because I thought it was senseless torture to share dreams that, then, seemed to reside in the realm of the impossible.

Last night, my childhood came back to remind me that "all people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true" (Lawrence of Arabia).

I also realized that our personal achievements are worth nothing if we do not employ them to inspire the next generation to dream with open eyes and do great things for there is an ocean of opportunity awaiting them. To them I say that as you navigate through life in search of your dreams, be sure to carry these treasured tools with you: intellectual curiosity, personal integrity, modesty, perseverance, and hopeful optimism.

Last night made me wonder about my old friends. I have not seen them for over ten years now. I wonder if they too had found a way to see what we all once imagined together. I prayed that they have. In the meanwhile, however, I thought of them with that same old song playing in the background.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Get Your Vote On Sister

Just two weeks after conservative lawmakers in the Kuwaiti Parliament had thwarted a measure that aimed to grant women the right to vote and contest city council elections, the parliament reversed itself on Monday, making way for women to vote and run for office in parliamentary and local elections for the first time in the country's history. The Kuwaiti prime minister, Sheik Sabah al-Jaber al-Sabah, is believed to have forced the measure through the parliament ahead of a planned visit to Washington.

However, because the legislation was passed too late for Kuwaiti women to run in the council elections next month, the soonest they will be able to run in any election is 2007, when parliamentary elections are scheduled. But, it is expected that the Prime minister will appoint a woman minister of Health in the near term.

Better late than never.

Monday, May 16, 2005

American School of Agadir

Last year, while spending a few days in my hometown Agadir (southern coastal city in Morocco), I bumped into the administrator of my old primary school at a local supermarket. After exchanging a few words about our respective lives and families, he talked to me about an idea he had been entertaining for some time. The idea was to open an American school in Agadir, which would make it the first of its kind in the south of Morocco. I became immediately excited about the idea given my interest in human development in general and my desire to see Morocco's young be given opportunities for better and more meaningful education - not to forget my own personal journey. I immediately joined him in the planning process making various contacts and helping with bureaucratic matters, while he pushed to resolve important infrastructure and logistical issues.

A year after that supermarket conversation, I am pleased to announce that this important project will finally see the light of day this summer. The American school will open its doors in the city of Agadir, providing new education opportunities to local pupils between the ages of 3 and 10. I am extremely proud of the discipline and dedication shown by my friend in making this project come to fruition. I hope that the school, born entirely out of a private and local initiative (No government support), can benefit from the support of individuals in both countries. I hope that this new institution can become an effective platform for inter-cultural dialogue and an important engine for positive change.

Friday, May 13, 2005

BRAC 2005

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the anxiously-awaited list of recommended Base closures and realignment public this morning. Find the detailed list on the DOD BRAC website HERE.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

World Economic Outlook 2005

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently released its World Economic Outlook report for 2005, making a series of interesting statements regarding needed actions to mitigate the risk of financial crisis and promote a steady transition to the emerging realities of the global economy. Please find below some summary points I extracted so far from my reading of the IMF conclusions and the WEO report, which can be found in its entirety Here:

1. Although projected global growth is forecast to be 4.3 percent in 2005, volatile oil prices and higher interest rates cause the world economy to face some downside risk. Further, the global economic expansion continues to rely heavily on growth in the United States and emerging Asian economies, while the Euro area and Japan continue to struggle (growth forecast for US is 3.6% compared to 1.6% for Europe).

2. China needs to show greater exchange rate flexibility in light of the fact that investment in China continues to increase - It now accounts for a whopping 45 percent of GDP. By contrast, India needs more investment, especially in its infrastructure, which will require a realignment of government budget priorities and the strengthening of the Indian private sector.

3. The forecast growth of the world economy faces three significant risks: (a) higher interest rates, (b) high and volatile oil prices, and (c) increasing current account imbalances.

4. Two important medium-term transitions that are taking place in the world: (a) the increasing economic importance of developing countries; and (b) the aging of industrial country populations. The IMF believes that the international community has done "too little to adjust to these transitions."

5. Over the next 25 years, China should see car ownership multiply 15 times, and India only slightly behind. The spectacular growth of these countries, although beneficial to all, will strain existing resources. One example of such consequence are high and volatile oil prices.

6. The rich industrial countries are aging. The IMF explains that "not only should they be restructuring their own work environment to make better use of the changing labor force, but also many should be sending capital to younger, poorer developing countries."

7. Rich countries should be saving more and running larger current account surpluses, while poor countries should be investing more, and running larger current account deficits. Yet, today, what we see is that emerging markets are financing the rich. Therefore, the problem is that the current direction of capital flows does not match the realities of global demographic trends.

8. The United States needs to save more. The IMF believes that the administration's pledge to cut by half the fiscal deficit in five years must be backed by "credible measures to achieve it"...and that "monetary policy could help if higher interest rates slow price growth and lead to greater household savings."

9. Regarding oil, the IMF concludes that "Oil price volatility can be reduced by disseminating more timely and accurate information on production and inventories. Unnecessary impediments to oil investment, ranging from uncoordinated environmental standards across the various states of the United States to drastic restrictions on private or foreign participation in the oil sectors of some countries, need to be removed. Energy efficiency can also be improved by raising the price of oil and gas to their true economic cost. In particular, countries that have not passed through oil price increases to consumers, or who do not impose sufficient taxes, should start doing so."

10. The foreign currency reserve build-up by emerging Asian economies is now undermining both global monetary control and the soundness of their own financial systems. IMF expects "greater exchange rate flexibility would slow reserve build-up and allow countries to regain monetary control."

Sunday, May 08, 2005

'What They Need Is a Union'

As I silently watched the heightened frenzy about immigration in the US and how some politicians along with media 'personalities' have successfully portrayed the very foundational basis of this republic as today's biggest threat to American national security, I could not help but note the irony. As I watched political pundits rattle America's fear and anger points over immigrants, I privately became distraught by the hateful speech and the senseless dehumanizing the anti-immigration drive is generating. It appears that some Americans today have conveniently misplaced the diaries of their own fathers.

Therefore, in an attempt to inform the ongoing debate on immigration, it may be of value to visit the attic or the basement and be reminded of who the fathers of this nation were, for you may find that they were not so different from those newcomers who are now seeking an American future for themselves and their children. Americans, today, can trace the origins of their ancestors and the motivations that led them to this country to any of four categories:

  1. Those who fled famine and poverty

  2. Those who fled political and religious persecution

  3. Those who went in search of economic and entrepreneurial opportunity

  4. Those who came against their will (Slaves)
America's new immigrants continue to fall in the same four categories, or combinations thereof, than those who preceded them. The overwhelming majority of America's new immigrants fall within the first category; they are mostly of South American origin escaping dire poverty in search of decent lives north of the border. Some are from shattered communities in Africa and Asia also fleeing pronounced poverty and famine just as did thousands of Irish and other European immigrants during the early days of the republic and at the turn of the 20th century.

The second group of immigrants that continues to seek refuge in America are those who are fleeing political and religious persecution. In the past 30 years, many came from the Soviet Union, South Asia, China, Africa, and the Middle East. They escape torture chambers, mass murder, genocide, and tyranny in search of a better, safer future in America. They continue to do so in the tradition of the early Puritans and the many Americans who once fled political and religious persecution in old Europe.

The third category of immigrants comprises those who continue to come to this country in search of the 'American dream'. They bring skills and ideas and hope to employ them in America for economic gain. Today, they are the agents of globalization; they are the many multinational businesses who seek market presence in the US; they are the many skilled and highly educated individuals who are employed in America's hi-tech and service industry. They come to America in the tradition of the early European industrialists, surveyors, explorers, and entrepreneurs who contributed greatly to the economic foundation of this country.

Finally, there were the slaves. Although we can find great comfort in the fact that slavery has been long abolished in this country, we must know that there are criminal organizations in our midst that continue to trade in human beings, bringing many from desperate surroundings to be enslaved into hard labor and prostitution. There were some law enforcement successes in combating human trafficking including the prosecution of perpetrators in sweat shop cases in New York. President Bush has also talked several times, including at the UN, about the need to combat the problem of modern human slavery, including the forced prostitution of thousands of young women.

Therefore, those who came before are, in a large part, no different from those who are coming now. That is, yesterday's John Doe has a lot more in common with today's Pedro Perez and that is an important comparison to make before objectively debating the merits of the concerns raised regarding the current situation of immigration in the US.

Now, let us discuss three of the main topics raised in this debate, which has undoubtedly become emotionally-charged and fast-drained from important historical and humanitarian considerations.

  1. National security

  2. Integration and assimilation

  3. Economic impacts ('Job loss')
Some State Capitols are enacting laws to deny public services, including health and education, to undocumented immigrants and a Bill is advancing through Congress that would force all States to prohibit the issuance of Driver's licenses to those same immigrants. This is all because some of the 9/11 terrorists had valid drivers’ licenses at one time. The idea is that if terrorists coming to America illegally can not obtain Drivers' licenses, then they won't be able to access planes and secure sites. Now, this misses two important points:

  • First, any American teenager under the age of 21 would probably point you to where you can get a fake ID that is just as good for a beer in a New York bar as it is for boarding a plane at JFK airport.

  • Second, none of the 9/11 terrorists came to America illegally. They all had valid visas, although some overstayed them, and would have been able to obtain Drivers licenses even if the proposed restrictive measures were in place.

Therefore, this is a senseless excuse for denying undocumented immigrants driving privileges and other public services. The cost of such legislative actions can be measured both economically and in terms of public safety. An undocumented immigrant who came to this country to escape poverty in his/her homeland works hard to earn a living in America. He/she crossed a desert in desperation and risked death to get here. I do not think that not having a Drivers license, will dissuade them from living here. If some politicians think that denying driving privileges and public services will turn immigrants away, then they do not understand poverty and economic desperation.

Regarding border control, there is so much the government can do within reason to control the flow of immigration. Border actions in California and Texas did not dissuade immigrants from taking a longer, harder route to get here. As long as the north-south economic divide continues, poor people will risk their lives and that of their loved ones for a tiny shot at a better future.

The point I argue is that we are talking about human lives here; about desperate hopes and dreams that some in this country are dismissing outright in this debate. I do not argue that there can not be improvements to border control but rather that the issues are bigger than the simplistic notions we hear. Those issues have to do with international development and poverty reduction at a global scale; they have to do with human suffering and the desperate hope to overcome it.

On the second point often raised - integration or assimilation of immigrants in American society - let me say this: Did any of America's immigrants ever integrate or assimilate? If so, then integrate what? Did the European immigrants assimilate themselves into America when they came here. Well, if they did, they would be speaking Native American languages and celebrating Native American traditions and belief systems today. It is just ludicrous to talk about integration and assimilation in America. This may be a valid argument in Europe, but not here. The very founding of this nation rests on the idea of diversity. The founders insisted on a republic that houses as many cultural groups, religions, political affiliations, and social orientations as possible so as, in the words of James Madison, "to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers”, as well as “guard one part of society against the injustice of the other part.”

Lastly, many talk about undocumented immigrants taking 'American jobs' at low wages. One advocate of anti-immigration boasted: "There is no such thing as jobs Americans don't want, but there are jobs Americans won't do at low wages." This statement shows a flat-out ignorance of the current realities of global markets and the US economy. This is a classic example of the law of supply and demand. In other words, you can't have it both ways - get over it. You can't demand low prices in a free market economy all while asking for high wages. In addition, the US economy has to compete with rising export-led economies such as China and India. So, we can not reasonably ask US companies to compete with Chinese goods on the basis of high American wages - a realignment of popular thought on this issue is in order because as, Thomas Friedman correctly points out in his latest book, the earth is being flattened; the playing field is being leveled as a result of globalization and information technology.

In one of the rare TV shows I watch, The Wire, a state patrol officer, after coming in contact with the suffering of Eastern European girls who are smuggled into the port of Baltimore in ship containers, said: 'What they need is a Union'. Sadly, that is what the voiceless and faceless undocumented immigrant needs to fight for his dignity in this country. Many would argue that there are many lobby groups and organizations that speak on behalf of immigrants in this country. I beg to differ. What those groups speak for are business interests who employ or profit from those immigrants. So, what interests them the most is the status quo. They are happy as long as the government does not crack down - an alternative everyone knows is far-fetched given the fact that in an era of budget deficits, no government will venture into bankruptcy conducting manhunts across the country.

It would be quite a statement to see undocumented immigrants demonstrate their economic power by collectively declaring a strike or slow-down for a 30-day period. This is also far-fetched because immigrants live in constant fear to be found out and, hence, discontinue the improved lives they have built. But that is what it will take for undocumented immigrants to be recognized for the hard work they do every day in this country as opposed to the slander they now face.

Either that or the dogged leadership of the presidency, at its own political risk.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

'We Are Technically the Head of the Nation Here'

On the day commemorating World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd), the Kuwaiti parliament moved to effectively kill a measure that would have allowed women to participate in municipal elections for the first time this year. In effect, this ends any chance that women will be able to vote or run in elections for another four years. On a day commemorating freedom, the Kuwaiti parliament confirmed that when it comes to women, political freedom is a man-controlled privilege not a universal human right.

The head of Parliament's "human rights committee" (note the irony) and a fervent opponent of the measure explained: "We have no problem with women voting, but we do have a problem with women standing for elections. Islam dictates that the head of the nation must be a man, and we are technically the head of the nation here."

This nauseating statement illustrates the level of ignorance that is rampant at high levels of government in the Middle East and the challenges facing human rights in general in the region. To this kind of vicious ignorance, one can not stay silent. To this kind of stubborn arrogance, one must resist. Women have long served in the political affairs of Muslim societies starting with the wife of the prophet himself and on to contemporary Pakistan and Indonesia, where women served as heads of state. It is true that the main problem in Muslim countries is one of governance and human development regardless of who rules (man or woman). But a society that discriminates against half of its population can not move forward.

Furthermore, the holy words of the Qur'an warn:

"O mankind! Be mindful of your duty to your Lord, Who created you from a single being, and from it created its mate, and from the two of them has scattered many men and women. Fear God, in Whose (Name) you demand your rights of one another, and (be mindful of your duty) towards the wombs that bore you. God is ever Watching over you." (Qur'an 4:1)

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اتَّقُواْ رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍ وَاحِدَةٍ وَخَلَقَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالاً كَثِيرًا وَنِسَاء وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ الَّذِي تَسَاءلُونَ بِهِ وَالأَرْحَامَ إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلَيْكُمْ رَقِيبًا

It is time for the women of the Middle East to march onto the streets and demand their civil rights from the clutches of the arrogant, ignorant men who desecrate the name of Islam so as to justify their abuse. It is time for the enlightened men of the Middle East to walk onto the streets alongside their mothers and sisters, their wives and daughters, in defiance of ignorance and bigotry. It is high time for a Muslim Dr. King to surge and lead a Civil Rights Movement across the Middle East and show the way towards an enlightened, free future for the good people of the region.