Saturday, May 08, 2004


By William Fisher

This is a story about Fallujah and the Americans, but it begins in Egypt.

In the first few months of my three-year stay in Cairo, telephone service was a constant and frustrating nightmare. When you picked up the phone to make a call, back would come a recorded (in Arabic, of course) message, “you are not authorized to make this call.” When (and if) the phone rang, it would disconnect immediately.

I finally decided to take time off from my work to present myself at the ‘Central’ – the phone company office – to let them know in no uncertain terms that I was their paying customer and that I expected the service I was paying for.

When I asked Said, my driver, to take me to the phone company, he enquired about the problem. I told him. His response: “Let me handle it.” My suspicion was he would handle it ‘the Egyptian way,’ promises would be made, but in the end nothing would get done. But I played along.

We arrived at the Central and Said asked to see the head man. He mentioned that he had with him ‘an American manager’ interested in technology. In minutes, we were escorted through an enormous hall lined with telephone switching equipment, and into the boss’ office. The office was a huge room littered with old cups of coffee, ashtrays piled high with ancient cigarette butts, files covering the floor, and an IBM computer and a stack of huge Dickensian ledger books hiding the surface of the boss’s desk.

From behind the ledgers emerged a large man with a beer belly. Said addressed him. With my half-dozen Arabic words, I understood him to be introducing both of us. This was followed by much smiling and shaking of hands. Said must have introduced me as Donald Trump or Bill Gates, because the boss and his underlings all seemed embarrassingly deferential. The boss’ name was Hesham.

Said and Hesham started talking. Coffee arrived. I heard Said mention the name of the village where he was born. (I learned later that Hesham was born a quarter-mile up the road from Said, and they had many friends in common.) A broad smile covered Hesham’s face. Little pastries arrived and there was more talking and more coffee. Then Hesham rose and beckoned me to come with him. He led me down the rows of switching equipment, explaining the whole setup in Arabic while Said translated for me into English.

I asked some questions that stretched my technical knowledge to its limits. Hesham answered them all. Back in his office, more coffee. None of this gringo Nescafe; this was real coffee, and I was now totally wired with caffeine. After five or 10 minutes more of seemingly rambling conversation, Said gave me the funny glance he always used when he needed to be in charge.

He rose and I rose with him. I shook Hesham’s hand and thanked him for his time and hospitality. As Said and I headed for the door, Hesham said (I later learned), “what’s your friend’s phone number?” Said wrote it on a slip of paper. Hesham took the paper and went down the rows of switches. He stopped and summoned one of his underlings to climb up one of the very tall ladders to the switch for my phone number. He pulled it out of its socket and handed it to Hesham. Hesham examined it and suddenly looked very embarrassed. He barked a few commands at the technician, who went away and returned in less than three minutes with a box from which he took a shiny new switch, which he put into its housing.

We all shook hands again, and Said and I headed out.

Back at my apartment overlooking the Nile, I discovered I had a twenty-first century telephone, including overseas service with English-speaking operators, and directory enquiry announcements in both Arabic and English.

What does all this tell us about Fallujah and the Americans? If we’re listening, it tells us volumes. It tells us that different people living in different cultures have very different ways of approaching and solving problems. It tells us that being seen to be humiliated is more an affront to some people than to others. It tells us that people have very different senses of time and pride and priorities.

It would be simplistic in the extreme to think that, given American missteps over the past year, any number of cups of coffee at the telephone exchange would now make us welcome in Fallujah. The US finds itself in ‘major combat’ yet again. Not even Nostradamus could predict whether that might have been avoidable. But it now seems clear that the US has managed to squander whatever goodwill it may have had just after President George W. Bush declared the end of ‘major combat.’ It also seems clear that America’s failures can be attributed in large part to the absence of any credible strategy for winning the peace and to its inability to anticipate the kinds of problems it was surprised to find itself facing. And at the tactical level, the US Coalition Provisional Authority and the American military have seemed totally clueless about how to get things done in Iraq, especially in the ‘Sunni triangle.’ It is unclear whether the CPA and the military acted out of built-in biases, or!

lacked the crucial fingertip knowledge of the society, or simply failed to call on or listen to, those who had it.

For the US, Fallujah is already lost, regardless of the military outcome. But if the band of Saddamist generals can miraculously cobble together a force that is successful in returning a semblance of stability to that beleaguered city, we Americans can learn a critically important lesson from our failures. But only if we’re listening.


By William Fisher

I wish John Kerry would write to the American people as follows:

My fellow countrymen:

When George W. Bush ran for the presidency, he promised to unite America. Almost four years later, we find ourselves divided on just about every major political, social and economic issue. George W. Bush has become the most polarizing divider in our history.

Therefore, I have decided that, when I am elected president, one of my top priorities will be to bring us together. As a first step, I will form a Government of National Unity. We are a nation that cherishes diversity, and my government will be as diverse as our nation itself. Even among those who disagree with me on particular issues, we still have far more in common than the ideas that divide us. Until we can all learn to work together, our country cannot realize its full potential at home, much less try to set an example for the rest of the world.

So I am pleased to announce that the following leaders have agreed to serve in my administration.

As Vice President, Senator John McCain, member of the Armed Services Committee.
As Secretary of State, Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
As Secretary of Defense, John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan and a member of the 9/11 Commission.
As Secretary of Treasury, Lawrence H. Summers, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration and currently president of Harvard.
As secretary of Homeland Security, Richard Clarke, advisor to four presidents and head of counter-terrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
As my National Security Advisor, Richard Holbrook, US Ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton Administration.
As Attorney General, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives from Washington, DC.
As Director of Central Intelligence, Rep. Porter J. Goss, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Other similarly diverse cabinet appointments will be announced as I continue to explore this new concept with leaders of all political persuasions and from all walks of American life.

Welding this diverse group into a cohesive and effective team will be challenging. These are strong leaders with strong convictions. But I have known all these people for many years. They are all good listeners and, like me, they are concerned about the future of our country. I am convinced that this new approach is critical if we are to restore American credibility, keep our people safe and at work, and promote peace and security around the world,

Thanks for your support.


John Kerry

Dream on? Well, maybe. But there have been other times in American history when obvious opponents came together for the sake of national unity. I am reminded of the unlikely alliance between President Truman and Midwest conservative Senator Arthur M. Vandenberg. That brought our country to one of its finest hours – the Marshall Plan. Think about it.


By William Fisher

Of course, Arabs are outraged by the awful photographs of the apparent abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers in Iraq. We are all outraged. But one has to question whether there is not more than a little hypocrisy in the reactions of most Arab governments and of the Arab League itself.

A spokesman for the League said in Cairo, "It is beyond the words of despicable acts and disgust that we feel at watching such photographs."

What’s wrong with this picture is that many of the Middle East’s Arab states, as well as Israel, have long, bloody, and current histories of torture and death among prisoners while in detention. Egypt is near the top of the list, and the Cairo-based and gravely dysfunctional Arab League is well aware of it.

Egypt’s record was comprehensively documented in a February 2004 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with detailed recommendations to the League and to the Government of Egypt for corrective actions. To date, neither party has done anything to remedy the situation.

The findings? HRW documented dozens of cases of torture and death in detention. Torture in Egypt, the Report says, is “epidemic, a widespread and persistent phenomenon affecting large numbers of ordinary citizens who find themselves in police custody as suspects or in connection with criminal investigations. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In most cases, detainees are tortured to obtain information and coerce confessions, sometimes leading to death in custody. “ Deaths in custody as a result of torture and ill treatment have shown a disturbing rise in the past two years, HRW says -- at least ten cases in 2002 and seven in 2003. In the September-November 2003 period alone, Egyptian human rights organizations reported four cases of deaths in custody.

Methods include beatings with fists, feet, and leather straps, sticks, and electric cables; suspension in contorted and painful positions accompanied by beatings; the application of electric shocks; and sexual intimidation and violence.

In the past decade, suspected Islamist militants have borne the brunt of these acts. Recently, however, increasing numbers of secular and leftist dissidents have also been tortured by police and security officials. In March and April 2003, for example, demonstrators and alleged organizers of public protests against the US-led war in Iraq were tortured and ill treated in detention. Police and state security agencies continue to use torture in order to suppress political dissent.

Egyptian authorities fail to investigate the great majority of allegations of torture. In the few cases where officers have been prosecuted for torture or ill treatment, charges were often inappropriately lenient and penalties inadequate. This lack of effective public accountability and transparency has led to “a culture of impunity” and contributed to the institutionalization of torture.”

The Prosecutor General’s office opened criminal investigations in some of the cases of death in detention following formal complaints by human rights lawyers and family members. But, says HRW, “none of these investigations have led to criminal prosecution or disciplinary actions against the perpetrators.” Moreover, Egypt’s Penal Code fails to provide for effective punishment of law enforcement officials responsible for torture and ill treatment. It states that any official who subjects persons to “cruelty,” including physical harm or offences to their dignity, “shall be sentenced to an arrest period of no longer than one year, or with a fine not to exceed L.E. 200 [$30].”

One of the reasons for Egypt’s failure to investigate and punish acts of torture by law enforcement is that it has appointed the fox to guard the henhouse. Says HRW: “There is an apparent conflict of interest in placing the responsibility to monitor places of detention, order forensic exams, and investigate and prosecute abuses by officials within the same office that is responsible for ordering arrests, obtaining confessions, and successfully prosecuting criminal suspects.”

Egypt, a close American ally and one of the largest recipients of US aid, is party to all the international human rights treaties prohibiting torture and mandating investigations, and torture is forbidden by Egypt’s Constitution. Moreover, the country now has an official human rights commission, headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gali.

Let us hope the US military will mete out swift and appropriate punishment to the American soldiers who disgraced their country. And let us hope that Egypt and other Arab governments are watching – and learning.