Geopolitics

'We Are The Cogs' - An Imagined Memo To Egypt's New Interior Minister

Essay: A writer tries to imagine the mentality inside the Egyptian interior ministry, after a new crackdown has reasserted some control of the state's security apparatus. That protesters again paid the ultimate price may be of secondary concern i

Security forces in Cairo in December 2011 (Gigi Ibrahim)
Security forces in Cairo in December 2011 (Gigi Ibrahim)
Issandr El Amrani

CAIRO - With violence flaring again nearly a year after the Jan. 25 revolution began, an Egyptian writer pens an imaginary letter to the country's latest Interior Minister, courtesy of a would-be senior official inside the ministry. It is a portrayal of the sentiment within the security forces that may have led to recent bloodshed.

To: Mohamed Ibrahim, Interior Minister

From: A senior ministry official

Your Excellency,

I believe I speak for the entire ministry in extending you a warm welcome in your new position at the head of our august ministry. Your precedessor was a respectable man, a little too respectable perhaps, not altogether attuned to the bitterness that has taken over our ministry since the regrettable events of late January 2011.

With your leadership, Sir, we will complete the restoration of this ministry to its former glories, burnishing once again its glorious image, so unfairly tarnished by its enemies. It is to inform you of the state of mind of those of us at the ministry who have gone through these difficult times that I am writing to you.

It is true that we were caught by surprise by the conspiracy hatched against us that black month of January, when a day dedicated to our humble service and sacrifice was so cruelly perverted by some rabble, and that some degree of panic after that affected our morale.

I am glad to tell Your Excellency that a lasting recovery is well under way. This ministry has been poorly understood and suffered from the anti-Mubarak sentiment that has prevailed of late in the country. Too many still see us as associated with the former president, but it is only because they do not understand that we live to serve. This we should never forget: We are servants of the state, no matter who is in charge. As you well know, Sir, we run the police, the public administration, the borders, the traffic, and so much else still. We are the cogs in this great machine of state, the indispensable bits that make it run. At times, Sir, my old eyes weep at this thought: What would the Egyptian people do without us!? We are both smaller and bigger than any Mubarak or Sadat or Nasser, great men as they undoubtedly were.

Yet we seek no special recognition — such is our devotion to our great country.

We here at Lazoghly ministry headquarters are happy to see that our friends in the military have began to recognize not only our usefulness, but also our patriotism. They should never forget that our fate is shared, now that they too have been put in the position of doing the difficult, unpopular but necessary work of restoring public order. This can at times be a bloody affair.

I cannot tell you how thrilled my men were to hear that one of your first decisions as minister would be to give them license to shoot-to-kill the thugs, foreign agents and troublemakers that have plagued our glorious nation for the past year. In one bold stroke, you have restored their self-confidence, and it was not even necessary to give them a bonus in the exercise of this license. You have not only told them, but the entire country, that they are in the right at a time when we are being confused with more talk of human rights and such. But the people will look at your decision and approve, for they know better: The thugs that threaten their families and belongings do not have rights.

Needless to say, we must remain vigilant, dear Sir. There are those who would make friends with our former enemies, including the Muslim Brothers, and the political agitators that would sacrifice the stability of our nation for some vague ideas. Perhaps they are afraid for themselves. We should remind them that we, the servants of the state, must stand together against the opportunists and politicians who would gamble with the fate of Egypt!

Read the story in full in Al-Masry Al-Youm

Photo - Gigi Ibrahim

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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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