|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
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Solidarity businessFrom an open letter to President Bush to fundraising initiatives, the Egyptian business community is staging a show of solidarity with the Palestinians
Over two weeks ago an advertisement containing an open letter to the president of the United States was published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Carrying the signature of Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, the letter condemned violence against innocent civilians, questioned how the US president could request PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to exert more effort to stop the violence when he is under siege and called upon the US administration to play a more active role, as expected of it, in bringing about peace.
As tens of thousands of Egyptians hit the streets to express their solidarity with Palestinians, businessmen are pitching in with their own brand of activism photo: Khaled El-Fiqi
The advertisement, Sawiris told Al-Ahram Weekly, was an attempt to help the Palestinian cause. The well-known business figure said he thought that sending a letter through regular channels to the US president would never catch Bush's attention, but an advertisement would be hard to avoid.
"I felt the situation had reached deadlock." he said. "The Palestinians are the weaker party. The situation had reached a point where President Arafat was under siege and the infrastructure of the Palestinian territories was being torn down," he added.
Sawiris said he hoped to bring the issue to the awareness of the US public and trigger a public outcry which would influence decision- makers.
Asked whether he considered leading a joint effort which included other businessmen in order to widen the campaign, Sawiris said that he believed moving alone was faster. "Gathering people takes time and people always have a tendency to question your motives and think that you have a hidden agenda," he said.
Although he never got an answer from the US president Sawiris received plenty of mail from the public. He says that he has thanked all those who supported him and argued his case to those who were against.
Naguib Sawiris and Mohamed Abul-Enein
While Sawiris' advertisement is a prominent way of showing solidarity, others have not been silent.
Hamed Fahmy, a member of the board of governors of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt (AmCham) -- and its Vice President for Programmes -- says that "a delegation from AmCham is preparing to go to Washington on 29 April" Although the trip is -- in principle -- the Chamber's annual doorknock mission to the US, Fahmy said, "I prefer not to call it that. The mission this time will address, besides the regular economic agenda, the crisis [in the occupied territories]." Fahmy added, "Anybody who has a clear interest in the Middle East, realises that half the battle should be won inside the US. The cares and the concerns of the people in the Middle East need to be heard over there." While Fahmy regards the current popular calls for a boycott of US interests as "a legitimate and clear expression of the broad disapproval by the public [of US policy]," he warned that the actual consequences of a boycott would be malign.
"Eventually we will find that what are perceived as US brands are actually [manufactured with] Egyptian capital -- with the US providing the technology and know-how, in addition to the franchise."
Fahmy commented, "We need to have a greater understanding of what type of protest to make, and how to achieve our aims without harming ourselves. The issue is whether we are initiating economic action against ourselves, or action which will help us attain our goals." On whether AmCham would present the US side with the often reiterated argument that US support of Israeli policies jeopardises its long-term economic interests in the region, Fahmy said, "It is not an issue only of economic, but also political and cultural interests. The US is now more and more concerned with [these issues] which go beyond the economic." On the question of advertising in the US press in support of the Arab and Palestinian cause, Fahmy said, "AmCham has advertised inside the US [on these issues] at various junctures and will continue to do so."
Other moves are also being made in Egypt. Business federations around the country have recently been busy collecting donations in support of the Palestinians. Ahmed Arafa, a member of the 10th of Ramadan Investors Association told an audience at a one-day conference in 10th of Ramadan city, attended by around 10,000 people, that a sum equivalent to a day's wage for all employees would be donated by the city's industries. The estimated amount is LE33 million.
"We stand by the Palestinian cause and justice and their right to a state of their own." Arafa said, adding that many Egyptian businessmen have sent messages to the US president and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary- general.
A prominent textiles manufacturer whose company exports to the US, Arafa pointed out that "the Americans cannot understand that these Palestinian territories are holy places. There is an Israeli state as well as a Palestinian state and none should infringe on the other."
He added that he believes an awareness- campaign targeted at US citizens should be launched by the government rather than business people or ordinary citizens.
Mohamed Abul-Enein, a prominent businessman and chairman of parliament's housing committee, agrees with Arafa that the best way for business people to show solidarity with the Palestinians is to launch campaigns aimed at winning the support of the international public, especially in North America and Western Europe.
"Public opinion in the West, or the developed world, plays a great role in changing the policies of Western governments. Those democracies can never ignore the movements of public opinion," Abul-Enein said. He added that the atrocities perpetrated by the Israeli army in Palestine have dramatically changed public opinion in the West in favor of the right of the Palestinian people to their own independent state. "We, as businessmen, have to play our part in making use of this," Abul- Enein said. He advised launching publicity campaigns in the West to show how hostilities in the occupied territories may damage Western interests.
The campaigns, Abul-Enein asserted, will also be aimed at urging the Western world to impose economic sanctions on Israel. "We will be highly successful if we manage to do this. This is the most effective way to convince the Israeli people to scrap their current government and opt for a peace-minded one," he argued.
Businessmen, said Abul-Enein, could also fund documentary films about the Israeli atrocities in Palestine to demonstrate to world governments and human rights organisations how Israel's behaviour is an outrage to both humanity and Western democratic values.
Nevertheless, Abul-Enein is against imposing any kind of boycott on US products. "This will be highly detrimental to Egyptian and Arab interests rather than to the Americans. The boycott will be understood as anti- American sentiment at a time we are all aiming to win American public opinion," he said. "We have to show the US administration, the US congress and the business community that it is in their political and economic interests to play a stronger role in finding a solution to the conflict," he said.
Abul-Enein believes that US President George Bush is at last showing a greater understanding of the conflict. "We can make use of this by launching publicity campaigns and making direct contacts with the American business community," he argued.
UNDP takes a standTHE UNITED Nations Development Programme (UNDP) announced that it was allocating 1.5 million US dollars to support the purchase of emergency medical supplies and infrastructure repairs in the Palestinian territories. Mark Malloch- Brown, administrator of UNDP, said the funds will be sent through UNDP's Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (UNDP/PAPP). Priority will be given to building roads that have been demolished, repairing damaged and destroyed buildings, downed electricity and telephone lines and uprooted water supply systems.
"I am deeply concerned about the increasing level of violence and the devastating loss of life that has occurred on both sides over the course of the past few weeks," Brown said. "We hope that this assistance will help to reduce the suffering of civilians who are under a 24-hour curfew in some cases without access to food, water, electricity or medical aid."
Although some municipalities have been designated as "closed military areas", making it extremely difficult to gain access to their inhabitants and institutions, it has been possible for UN organisations to provide food and medical supplies.
UNDP/PAPP is one of the leading humanitarian and development organisations in the occupied territories. Since its inception in 1978, UNDP/PAPP has made a considerable contribution to the Palestinian Authority, providing some $400 million US in development assistance, thanks to the international donor community and UNDP itself.
The project has so far led to the building of hundreds of classrooms, roads, water and sewage networks and health care facilities, as well as promoting more traditional areas in UNDP's remit: good governance and poverty alleviation. Since September 2000, UNDP/PAPP has been implementing an emergency response programme to deal with increasing humanitarian needs and emergency employment generation for Palestinians.
"The project is one of our most impressive programmes anywhere," Malloch-Brown said.
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