Anya Schiffrin

Arab spring turns to gloomy summer

Anya Schiffrin
Aug 4, 2011 19:02 UTC

By Anya Schiffrin
The views expressed are her own.

The mood at dinner in Alexandria last week was so gloomy that the only time anyone cracked a smile was when I told them about Donald Trump being roasted at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in April. Everyone vowed to get on YouTube straight away to see the look of agony that crossed the visage of the legendary stubby- fingered vulgarian as he was mocked for his hideous taste in architecture.

Architecture is very much on their minds, because among the casualties of the new controlled chaos in Egypt are the historic Alexandrian villas that are being torn down at night by property owners who realize they can now get away with turning their storied houses into apartment blocks. With the police more or less out of commission, these law-breakers are no longer punished and architectural preservationists said that in the new Egypt they are viewed as “snobbish elitists” clinging to a nostalgic past.

The lamenting of the needless cultural destruction was just one sign that, in some quarters, the excitement of the Arab Spring has given away to gloom. Egyptians are riding an emotional roller coaster and this past week has been grim.  The news coverage of tens of thousands of bearded men entering Tahrir square last Friday, and on Monday clearing out the liberal protestors who had been camped there for weeks, shocked the intellectuals of Cairo and Alexandria. “Those pictures. That’s just not who we are,” one economist told me.  ”I see Iran before my eyes. It is frightening,” said one woman who is already trying to figure out where to emigrate.

The older generation that I spoke to hopes for a Turkey-type scenario with a moderate Islamic government that respects the rights of those who don’t want to wear veils and likes museums that have sculpture and figurative painting. The internet savvy youth are bubbling with energy and plans for cleaning up the slums, delivering health care and creating jobs. But they need to figure out how to turn their democratic, disparate social networks into organized political parties with strong leaders. It would help if they could be brought into government in a meaningful way and use their formidable technical skills to create a functioning e-government that would help drag the entrenched bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Instead, everyone seems paralyzed by the enormity of the tasks before them and the government is now on its third finance minister in six months.  More important than the destruction of Alexandria’s patrimony is the urgent need to create jobs. There are millions of new entrants into the job market every year and tourism has fallen sharply on fear of political instability. Even before the revolution, unemployment was a massive problem but at least there was work in the sprawling government bureaucracy. New hires are unlikely and with the future so uncertain, investors are afraid to put their money into creating new companies

from The Great Debate:

Does everyone have a price?

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 7, 2011 15:36 UTC


On Monday I went to Bloomingdales, the Gap and Starbucks but passed on a visit to Magnolia Bakery. Instead I  stopped by the St. Moritz bakery where you can order hot chocolate and sit by a video of a cozy winter  fire that overlooks the indoor ski slope and is just around the corner from the largest candy store in the world, which happens to face an aquarium that occupies an entire wall on one side of the world’s largest shopping malls. This by the way is opposite of what claims to be the world’s largest candystore whose mission statement is to make every day “happier’. Earlier, while exploring the watery depths of the bright Pink Atlantis Hotel (one of the white elephants of the property crash of 2007) I knew it was really the last kingdom because the fish swam around two cracked thrones and other kitschy stone artifacts.

Dubai is utterly overwhelming, the kind of  dystopia that blogger Evgeny Morozov sees in Huxley, a consumeristic paradise where mind-numbing shopping replaces real thought. Most of the I had no idea where I was except that my passport had been stamped Dubai  and many of the mall-going women were shrouded in black. After a few hours I sank into a state of ennuie. Given boatloads of oil money in the 1970s and the chance to build a whole new city, who on earth would decide to build a series of shopping malls?

It’s not like the developers didn’t have ambition, what with the architecture that demands superlatives -- the gondolas, medieval stone houses and soaring illuminated sky scrapers and islands built in absurd never-before-seen configurations. But why not build a museum with, say, the most incredible collection in the world or a university with the finest research laboratories? With so much money why build this Disneyland? And what about the workers who make up most of the population?