Egypt’s post-Arab Spring baby boom emerges as main economic threat

Here’s an interesting article co-authored by my Cairo friend Tarek El-Tablawy​, who guided me patiently through the ins and outs of the economies of Egypt and the Middle East.

Cairo women

The issue is Egypt’s exploding birth rate. In the past 60 years, Egypt’s population has  quadrupled to about 93 million. The birth rate remains high–straining the society and leaving millions in poverty.

The Arab Spring handle is weak, and Tarek confirms that in the article–but it gets attention, and that’s what you do in journalism today.

It remains clear that Egypt’s main problems are economic, and that an freely elected government (as opposed to strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s sham election set for March 26) would not have the power to enact the necessary steps.


My latest article in my hometown paper

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette remains one of the few American daily newspapers that maintains a keen interest in foreign news. Here’s my latest, about relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

I started writing sports for the Journal-Gazette as a high school student in 1963…and I’m proud of the long association. Articles printed in the J-G are at the center of my upcoming book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?”

Warning! Arabs and Jews in Israel!

“You have to pick those lemons right away. Otherwise the Arabs will get them!”

That urgent warning came from my neighbor across the fence here in Rehovot, a citylemons in central Israel. It’s her lemon tree, but since half of it extends over my property, the lemons on that part are mine. Across the alley, a new house is going up, and the construction workers are mostly Palestinians from the Ramallah area in the West Bank.

Hence the warning.

That’s part of the reality of Israel today—Jewish mistrust and hatred toward Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, and Arab and Palestinian mistrust toward Jews in general and Israelis in particular.

About 2 million of Israel’s nearly 9 million citizens are Arabs. So are about 4 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza, the ones known as Palestinians. It’s an artificial but real distinction. Israeli Arabs are the ones who live within the area that’s been Israel since 1948. Palestinians live in the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war (Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005).

The two groups are culturally the same. Most families have members on both sides of the old cease-fire line that marks off the West Bank. My neighbor doesn’t distinguish, either—to her, they’re all Arabs.

Indeed, there are tensions between the two peoples who make up almost all the population. That’s evident from my neighbor’s warning.

There’s also evidence that these tensions don’t mean as much as we think. Not that there’s deep, heartfelt cross-cultural friendship—people just get along when they casually interact.

Take that building going up across the alley. The Palestinian workers are friendly guys, ranging in age from about 20 to 50. All of them speak some Hebrew, some of them are fluent. They’re using electricity and water from my house, since they don’t have utility hookups over there yet (the owner, who’s Jewish, is paying me for the water and electricity, don’t worry).

So we’re in frequent contact. Beyond the usual “Good morning, how are you,” sometimes we talk because they shorted something out over there, and I have to go turn my circuit breaker back on. Sometimes they block the entrance to my house and I have to ask them to move their vehicles. I lend them tools from time to time, and once I lent a worker a charger for his phone.

Once when their cement truck was blocking our entrance, a worker jumped down from the building and helped my wife carry her groceries into our house. Another time a worker carried our 4-year-old granddaughter over a pile of construction materials.

The workers are amused and surprised when I try out my limited Arabic on them. I lived and worked in Cairo for two years during Arab Spring, and I remember a bit—but by and large, their Hebrew is much better than my Arabic.

So these are the Arabs I’m supposed to protect my lemons from. It’s a regrettable attitude, and it’s fairly common among Israelis whose family origins are in the Arab world. Their parents suffered there, and most escaped or were expelled.

So does the fact that I have an easy relationship with the guys across the alley make me some kind of special case, a hero of coexistence? Not at all.

The more we Jews and Arabs interact, the less the tension. One example of such a setting is the Ramla shuk

Ramla shuk


Ramla is a working class town about 15 minutes up the highway from my house. I’ve been going to the open-air market, the shuk, in Ramla every week for more than 20 years–except for the two years I was in Cairo, of course. And just as parts of Cairo reminded me of the Ramla shuk, so now the Ramla shuk gives me warm memories of Cairo.

Ramla is a mixed Arab-Jewish town. There are Jewish areas and Arab areas, and some mixing along the informal neighborhood lines. And everybody goes to the shuk.

You’ll hear Arabic and Hebrew from stall to stall, among the shopkeepers and customers alike. A woman in a black headscarf asks how much the tomatoes cost, but the shopkeeper doesn’t hear her, so I answer her in Arabic, and nobody bats an eyelash. I’m buying cucumbers at a stand where the shopkeeper is speaking to a woman in Arabic, so I try my hand at it, too—he’s delighted, answers me in Arabic, and then switches to Hebrew to say with a smile, “I’m a Jew, you know.”

Everybody gets along at the Ramla shuk. It’s not a demonstration, it’s not a highly organized meeting of Jewish and Arab peacemakers hugging each other for the cameras. It’s just everyday life.

I’m not going to pretend that everything is rosy in Ramla. Ramla is a poor town, and the Arab residents, Israeli citizens like their Jewish counterparts, are measurably worse off economically. A rundown Arab neighborhood, Jawarish, is known for drugs and weapons. A new neighborhood with shiny apartment buildings just across the highway from Jawarish is, as far as I know, entirely Jewish.

So the seeds of tension that often boil over into violence in the nearby West Bank should theoretically be present in Ramla—but I know of only one terrorist-related incident there in the two decades I’ve been in and out of Ramla—last year a young Arab girl tried to stab someone with a knife. She was captured, no one was hurt. That’s it.

So what’s the difference? Easy. Israeli Arabs have a state. It might not be their state, but it’s a functioning state. They have a welfare safety net, municipal services, education—perhaps not on the same level as their Israeli neighbors, but they have them. Their Palestinian relatives a few miles away in the West Bank can’t count on any of those things, despite the billions of dollars in foreign aid their leadership has received over the past 25 years, much of it aimed at infrastructure projects that often seem to progress only as far as the pilot stage.

But even Palestinians are not all militants, much less terrorists. Most of them just want to make a living, just like most Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Egyptians. Important as they are, political goals and dreams are not the top priority for most.

That’s not to say that Israel has solved the problems of its Arab citizens. My first radio feature in Israel, in 1972, was about Israeli Arabs. Their municipalities got less government funding than Jewish cities, their standard of living was lower, they were unable to build enough housing to keep up with demand. I said it was a powder keg waiting for a match. And sure enough, it has exploded a couple of times.

Things are better today, but not much. Arab towns are still at the top of the list when it comes to unemployment, and at the bottom of the lists when it comes to income and education. So this is not the time for us Jewish Israelis to sit back and smirk with satisfaction.

And it is undeniable that many Israelis share the animosity expressed so graphically by my neighbor. She learned it from her parents, who were refugees from Arab countries. My parents were refugees, too, and I have as little as possible to do with Germans as a result. So I get it.

But we don’t have to live with Germans here. We do have to live with Arabs. So while I Kumquatschose not to argue with my Israeli neighbor, I did tell the Palestinian foreman across the alley that the kumquat tree on my property, right across from their construction project, is all theirs for the picking. He lit up. “We make jam from kumquats,” he said, after I helped him with the word for “jam” in Hebrew.

I hope they’ll harvest all of the kumquats. And I hope I don’t get a hysterical call from my neighbor, warning that “the Arabs are taking your kumquats.” Because then I’ll have no choice but to set her straight.

Russia pulling its troops out of Syria?

Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in to a Russian military base in Syria a few days ago and announced that he’s pulling his troops out of the country. I discussed this development with host P. J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

This is the place to express my regrets over the decision to take KQV off the air at the end of the year. I’ve been doing these Mideast analysis broadcasts on KQV for six years, starting in Cairo during Arab Spring, and it’s been a real pleasure. P. J.’s interest in foreign affairs is a rarity in local media these days, and our discussions have been a welcome change from that norm.

Now about Putin and Syria. His pullout announcement creates an opportunity for the US to get its policy reoriented toward aid, not more bombs.

Putin’s rationale is that the war against ISIS in Syria is nearly won, so he doesn’t need forces there any more. But a quick look at Sputnik News, known to be “close” to the Russian regime (that’s to say, it’s a propaganda arm), gives some perspective.

Sputnik News notes what we all know: Russia has a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and an air base not far away. Russia wants those bases forever, so there will always be Russian forces in Syria. That’s why Russia is invested on propping up tyrant President Bashar Assad–he’s Russia’s man in Damascus.

The Sputnik analysis also notes that other forces will remain behind, notably Iran. Hezbollah (the Iran-backed Lebanese force) and, of course, the US-led coalition.

So this war is not over yet. It won’t be over any time soon. Another round of UN peace talks has ended in a shouting match, and there’s no real hope for a negotiated settlement at this point.

But Russia is scaling back its presence, intent on protecting its direct interests–keeping Assad in power, or at least keeping a pro-Russian government in power, protecting its military bases, but leaving the fighting to others.

It’s a savvy move. Let’s see if Washington has a counter-move.

I’d recommend scaling back military involvement and using the money saved from that to help the millions of refugees and homeless from the six-year war. It’s a way of restoring the American reputation in the Mideast, badly tarnished by decades of misguided military adventures.

The need is there, the opportunity is there, the money is there. It just needs to be redirected. And with the Russian move, the time is now.

Jerusalem move “destabilizes the Mideast”? Give me a break

The warnings of a region-wide explosion over the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and eventually move the US Embassy there are either misguided or misleading, or both. I talked about this issue with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The latest warning of mayhem comes from Russian President Putin, saying what his host, Turkish President Erdogan, wants to hear. It’s hard to imagine that Putin, who is up to his ears in a conflict in Syria, actually believes that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can “destabilize” the region.

Breathless news reports like this one, “Protests were held across the Middle East and Asia over the weekend in protest of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” ignore a key fact–the protests, in Middle East terms, are tiny. If you see Palestinians burning an American flag in Beirut, do you also see that altogether there are only about 100 demonstrators? Likewise “all over Asia,” meaning Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has protests with hundreds of participants–no more.

Even Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza have been small, and Hamas declarations urging a new intifada uprising have not made many waves, at least not yet.

What’s going on here?

Many of us are trapped by an old, discredited axiom: Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the key to peace in the Middle East, and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to end it. The bilateral talks even used to be called “Mideast peace negotiations.”

Both halves of that axiom are wrong. Though it was clear along along, Arab Spring proved that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a side issue in the Middle East. Certainly today, with wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and unrest in other countries, it’s crystal clear that none of this has to do with the Palestinians.

Bilateral negotiations backed by the US have reached their logical conclusion twice, in 2000 and 2008, without bringing peace. It should be clear to all that there’s no point in trying again with the same formula, especially when there are more pressing problems plaguing the region.

No one feels this more than the Palestinians themselves. Shunted cruelly aside after decades of attention and support from Arab leaders who were really just using them to deflect attention from their own failings, Palestinians are understandably quick to latch onto any issue that can propel them back into the headlines.

But even the volatile Jerusalem issue isn’t enough to restore their former glory. Though “widespread,” the little protests are already dying out. I’ll go out on a limb and venture that by this time next week, we’ll be talking about something else.

US Jerusalem move ignites Mideast? Not even

You have to be blind, uninformed, or politically motivated to contend that the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has “ignited the Mideast,” as many media outlets are doing, apparently fulfilling their own errant prophecies.
There were more Israeli demonstrators in Tel Aviv last night against Israeli corruption than in Palestinian areas, Jerusalem, or even the Arab world against the US move.
Al-Ahram, the semi-official Egyptian newspaper, reported “tens of demonstrators” in Alexandria, and above is the Ahram photo of a few thousand in at al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, which is a city of 22 million.
Here’s my previous post explaining the Jerusalem issue in dispassionate terms, which is the way I work. I wish more people would work like that.

Jerusalem–it should be obvious, but isn’t

Does anyone need to recognize that Washington is the capital of the US? That Paris is  the capital of France? That London is the capital of the UK? So why is it such a big deal that President Trump has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? I talked about this with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.


Here are some reasons why it’s not obvious:

  • Everything concerning Jerusalem is a big deal.
  • What you mean when you say “Jerusalem” isn’t clear.
  • Jerusalem wasn’t part of the Jewish state according to the 1947 UN partition.
  • Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital, but Israel annexed that section, including the Old City. 
  • It’s a consensus view that changing anything in Jerusalem harms peace efforts.

So let’s take these one at a time:

Jerusalem is the top hot spot of the Middle East, or at least it was until Arab Spring moved the focus elsewhere.

A plateau at the edge of the walled Old City is home today to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site. They were built atop the ruins of the two biblical Temples, making it Judaism’s holiest site. Jesus preached there, so Christians also have a close tie.

According to an arrangement made just after Israel captured the site in the 1967 war, Israel is in charge of security, and the Muslim Wakf handles day-to-day arrangements. That distinction has blurred over the past three decades as Palestinians have turned the holy site into a political tinderbox through riots and attacks whenever they feel slighted. They hurl rocks at Jews worshiping at the Western Wall below and confront Israeli security forces, who sometimes storm the site in response.

The Second Intifada, or violent Palestinian uprising, began after Ariel Sharon, at the time an opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, visited the site in 2000. Later it emerged that Palestinians were planning the violence for months in advance, but the provocative visit was a good trigger.

Four years earlier, the opening of a tunnel along a buried part of the Western Wall was enough to set off a surge of Palestinian riots that killed nearly 100 people.

This year, after Palestinians smuggled weapons onto the site and used them to kill two Israeli police officers, Israel installed metal detectors at the gates. Palestinians rioted, and Israel backed down, removing the detectors.

So given that history, a change in the status of the city, even on paper, is a big deal.

Jerusalem has more than one municipal boundary, so just referring to “Jerusalem” is ambiguous.

In the 1948-49 war that followed Israel’s creation, when Arab nations sent seven armies in to throw the Jews into the sea, Israel took control of the western part of Jerusalem. A barbed wire barrier split the city for 18 years, until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the rest of the city, Arab villages around it and the attached West Bank. Unlike the West Bank, though, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and then built new neighborhoods for Jews in a ring around the city.

One of the many politically charged battles I lost at the AP was opposition to calling the new neighborhoods “settlements,” though they were built on land claimed by both sides. My reason was that the term “settlement” conjures up an image of four trailers on a wind-swept West Bank hilltop, while the new neighborhoods each house tens of thousands of Israelis in permanent apartment blocks. Whatever…

President Trump did not use the terms West Jerusalem or East Jerusalem in his address, though he did say that borders and sovereignty must be decided in negotiations. That was enough to allow people on all sides to interpret his words any way they want, and many insist that he has recognized Israeli sovereignty over both parts of the city. Don’t confuse me with facts, in other words.

Under the 1947 partition plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be part of an ill-defined “international zone,” stretching south to include Bethlehem.

Israel accepted the plan despite all its shortcomings, but the Arabs

Jerusalem 1949rejected it and sent in their armies. The result was a divided Jerusalem. Like the cease-fire line between Israel and the West Bank, it is just that–not a border.  And as you can see from this map, there is a swath of no-man’s land running through the city, just to complicate matters.

The map is a 1956 UN copy of the

map on which Moshe Dayan himself drew the cease-fire lines with a wide marker, wide enough to seed disputes over territory if anyone actually considered the lines a border. The historic map, signed by Dayan and a Jordanian official, hangs in my backyard office for ready reference.

Despite the lack of clarity, the terms “West Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem” are part of the lexicon these days, but the presence of the Old City in the eastern part complicates everything.

The hilltop referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary is a religious site, and religions do not do well when it comes to compromise. Israel insists it will not give up control of its holiest site, and Palestinians insist they won’t give up control of their holy site. It’s the same site, of course. Given good will, there would be ways to finesse this, but there’s no good will these days–just the opposite. After many rounds of failed peace talks, including two in which Israel offered the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with joint control over the Jerusalem hilltop, but the Palestinians broke off the talks, there are no serious prospects for resolving this dispute with another round of negotiations.

That calls into question the last point, that any change in Jerusalem harms prospects for peace negotiations.

We have seen that bilateral negotiations with US backing have not brought peace. It doesn’t matter here who is to blame–the fact remains that the peace process reached its logical conclusion twice, with an offer of a viable Palestinian state on the table, but the talks did not result in peace. It’s arguable that quite the opposite, they brought escalations of violence.

So there may be reasons to oppose moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, but saying that it harms peace negotiations is either intentional smoke-screening or ignorance of history.

Instead, critics of the move are warning that the US move could trigger violence, even a war. This is the place to point out that the Palestinians are trapped from several different directions. They are trapped by corrupt, inept leaders who line their pockets with money meant to build a viable society. They are trapped by a refugee crisis that they themselves, with the eager prodding of the UN, perpetuated for political reasons, but it has now backfired and left them with no choice but to stick to seven decades worth of worthless promises that the refugees and their four generations of descendants will “return” to villages in Israel that no longer exist. They are trapped by their only reaction to slights, perceived and real–violence and terrorism. In that they are goaded on, wittingly and unwittingly, by world leaders who warn that any step by anyone besides the Arabs will inevitably spark violence, and therefore such steps must never, never be taken.

President Trump’s pronouncement does not change anything on the ground. He did not declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That is not in his power. Israel did that 70 years ago. Trump recognized this reality. It does not come at the expense of the Palestinians, unless they make it so.

It becomes a test for the Palestinians. Will there be a few days of demonstrations, perhaps a few attacks, and then back to daily life? Will this be the time that violence, accompanied by the usual threats and demonization of Israel in world bodies, was not their response, even though there is at present no other response available to them? Or will they succeed in setting the region on fire, reinforcing the view that nothing can ever be done here, because the Palestinians will respond with violence?

And will Israel puff out its chest and lord it over the weakened Palestinians some more, or will it seek new ways to lighten their burdens?

Much of the world, including parts of the Jewish world, believes that this is the wrong time for such a US declaration. That time would be only after there is a permanent peace accord. President Trump and much of Israel counters that there is no wrong time to do the right thing.

Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the right thing, if only because it is indeed Israel’s capital and has been for seven decades. What we do with that, how we proceed, will be the biggest test of all.