|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The boycott backlashThe Boycott Israeli Goods (BIG) list is circulating the Arab world with a new-found force. Yasmine El-Rashidi looks into just how hard it is hitting business
Boycott lists are nothing new. Not in Egypt, and certainly not elsewhere in the world. The "Boycott Israeli Goods" (BIG) campaign was in the workings two years ago -- at the start of the Intifada. It made a bang for a few days, and then it whimpered, and died -- into the vacuum of the e-world and its endless pages of voiceless propaganda.
Icons of "little America" are the primary culprits in the Arab-based boycott move
It certainly wasn't the first of its kind, for it was a mirror of Great Britain's anti-Apartheid campaign which called for the boycott of South African products. The only difference, it appears, was the response.
"Everyone was following it," says Alicia Chesworth, a British citizen teaching English in Egypt. "And it worked. The whole country stopped buying South African goods."
The key to the British-based boycott action was a vibrant political and civil society, working together towards an end goal. In Egypt two years ago, the agenda of the boycott list wasn't undertaken with such zeal, not perhaps out of lack of a similar consensus within civil society but rather as a result of its overall weakness.
In recent weeks the picture has been different. The portrait of Arab unity, of solidarity and brotherhood, has changed, and the position on towards an enemy has shifted its weight to solidarity for the sake of lives. The nation, and region, as a whole, are mobilised behind the Palestinian people in a way never quite witnessed before.
At an end of year show at RAJAC language school on the Ismailia road, the theme is Arab solidarity. The six, seven, eight and nine-year-olds are dressed in black. Each and every one of them is draped in Palestinian kuffiyas.
"This is the date the nation was born," they sing -- or scream, really -- into their mikes. "The year is not important. Let us stand in a circle, on one ground, and hold our hands in brotherhood and peace."
The children may not be aware of what boycott, or economy, or pressure, may mean, but they are well aware of the meaning of peace, and killing, and injustice.
"Children have become much more politicised," says Yehia Omar, owner of the Salsabeel Supermarket branch in Medinat Nasr's seventh district. "My daughter is ten. She knows all about America and Israel and the meaning of them. They're teaching them a lot at school, and the television is also doing a very good job."
Of raising awareness, that is.
"I'm very happy with Egyptian television," he continues. "It's promoting the Palestinian cause. And it's bringing the people together."
Salsabeel -- named after one of the pools of heaven -- has begun to feel the slight ripple of the solidarity in its sales.
"There's less demand for Marlboro," Omar tells Al-Ahram Weekly. "And some people have switched from Pepsi to Schweppes, for example. As Egyptians we feel a sense of duty towards our Palestinian brothers, and so we are shifting our habits to help them."
The shifting of habits, in the public's eyes, means boycotting anything American, or any firm with overt links to Israel.
"Some customers ask if something is American," he explains. "If I say yes, they say they want the Egyptian alternative."
The alternatives are easy to come across; alongside the boycott list, is a boycott alternatives list, too.
"Use Saha instead of Vittel, use Anchor instead of Klim," one list reads. "Stop eating Kitkat, and try Mars (German) instead. Stop using Nescafé, and drink Jacobs instead. Boycott Polo and GAP and Levi's," it calls.
Kitkats and Smarties and Wrigley's gum may be do-able, but when it comes to Nescafé, many draw the line.
"I can't stop drinking Nescafé," says Dina Hossam, of Citibank's customer service department. "I believe in the Palestinian cause, I will donate blood, and money. I participated in the demonstrations at Cairo University. But stop Nescafé? I won't. And I don't see what it will accomplish."
To some it is the market shock waves it will send through the nations of origin -- the United States and Israel -- that is mobilising them to support BIG. To others, however, the picture looks slightly different.
"It affects the Egyptians too," complains one of McDonald's' delivery crew. "Our orders are much less than before. My real money comes from tips. What fault is it of mine?"
The immediate affect of the boycott list, it is evident, is that which it has on the locals.
"It backlashes," says Sameh Hemdan, a graduate student of economics at Cairo University. "If the entire region boycotts every single product on the list, yes, in the long-run the producers would feel it. Would it affect their economies? Probably not significantly. We have to be realistic -- what consumption percentage of American and Israeli goods is Middle East-based?" he asks.
The boycott list, in essence, is a statement. One, however, which many feel is not quite loud enough.
"We haven't really seen a difference in sales," says Wael Abdel- Razek, of METRO supermarkets' sales team. "I'd be lying if I said the Egyptians weren't buying American goods for the Palestinian cause. Yes, they have displayed solidarity and brotherhood, but I think at the boycott list they draw the line."
His perspective may ring true in that Levi's, Nescafé, Coca-Cola, and Palmolive are local household names. And as the summer heat begins to hit homes harder, and the insects crawl out of their winter hideouts, Raid and Off! become necessary household items. And for the mothers, the question is how to replace Cerelac, or the "no tears" Johnson&Johnson baby shampoo. Or how, of course, to explain to a five or six year-old that the peculiar-looking "Pokemon" creature is off play-bounds too.
The boycott list may be a statement, but the riots, blood donations, and the collection of food and clothes and toys are indisputably a statement that is much more loudly heard.
Recommend this page© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time