Geopolitics

Egypt's Muslim-Christian Fault Line On The Streets Of Alexandria

Protesting against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are worried by the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Muslim prayers in the midst of protests and army tanks (Iman Mosaad)

ALEXANDRIA - Though it pained him, Ibrahim Faouzi finally decided on Tuesday not to take part in the protest on the streets of Egypt's second largest city. Already last week, this young Coptic Christian felt isolated in a sea of mostly Muslim protesters. "Sometimes I felt that people were looking at me funny," he said, showing the cross tattooed on his wrist. So on Tuesday, when a group started harassing him near the al-Kaed Ibrahim mosque, this young Egyptian simply went home. "I was demonstrating to fight for my country, not to have the Muslim Brotherhood take control of it," he said.

Like Faouzi, many Christians in Alexandria seem to have backed out of the protests because of the Brotherhood's increasing role. Absent early on, the Muslim group officially called on their members to take to the streets last Friday, and are now actively participating in the protests. Tuesday, their buses brought waves of demonstrators from the suburbs while militants checked IDs. "We are playing an important role in today's movement along with other opposition parties," says Sobhi Saleh, a former member of Parliament and an official of the Muslim Brotherhood's Alexandria branch. "We are fighting without putting our political ideas forward and with only one goal: bringing down the dictator."

Avoiding being demonized

Alexandria's Christians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, still aren't putting up a united front in the face the Islamist movement's growing role in the Egyptian revolt. Afflicted by the recurring tensions between religious communities, and still traumatized by the New Year's Eve attack on a Coptic Church that killed 21 people, some are keeping a low profile, avoiding gatherings and hesitant to speak out in public. "If Mubarak falls, Islamists will definitely end up in power and impose Islamic law," says Faouzi. "And when that day comes, we will no longer have the right to wear our crosses in public."

On the other hand, Michel Emile, a doctor, refuses to worry. "It's true that there are more and more members of the Brotherhood in the protests, but we shouldn't be afraid of them," says the 40 year old. "The real enemy of Egypt's Christians is Mubarak. For 30 years he has refused to build churches and kept us away from power even though we represent more than 10 percent of the country's population. He uses the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda as scarecrows that he waves every time we demand more rights for our community, saying he's the best guarantee against extremists."

Like him, some Christians were among the tens of thousands of people taking to the street in Alexandria, booing the President, screaming "Allahu Akbar," calling for national unity and warning against attempts to demonize their uprising. "We aren't enemies of the West," read signs held up by protesters. "Christians and Muslims, we are above all Egyptians fighting for freedom," says Mandouh Reyad, an engineer, adding, "the opposition between the two religions was artificially created by the regime to divide the population."

A festive atmosphere

Throughout the march, people point out that no Christian building has been attacked since the police backed out last Friday. Joseph Boulad, a Catholic observer, refuses to dramatize the situation. "As much as we can fear that free elections will eventually bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, I don't believe the current uprising is in any way endangering Christians. The young protesters and militants of the other opposition parties are making sure that their movement isn't taken over by anyone."

In the festive atmosphere in the heart of the demonstration, rumors were flying, including Mubarak's resignation and word of a million protesters in Cairo. Saleh, the Muslim Brotherhood official, vowed that he was ready to share power with the other parties. We have "no desire for absolute control," he said.

Read the original article in French

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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