15 February 2011


When the briefly designated Vice President Omar Suleiman made a hurried statement that the President was stepping down, the Television camera also depicted an unidentified man who stood yards behind listening with confident interest. Similarly, when the Spokesman for the Joint Army Command read the third communiqué on official television, a camera showed someone around the door behind the left side popping his head slightly off and on while holding a cell phone to his ear. Neither of the two mystery men looked like audio technicians. Also there was one sentence in common between the two broadcasted statements by the two officials made around the same evening. Both ended with the words in Arabic: "Wallah Al Muwaffiqu WalMustaan" (Almighty God is our Guide and Help). Was that a code word? Where the two statements prepared under the same authority? Only shadows can tell.


Old habits die hard. Just before the first Egyptian Cabinet meeting after Mubarak, a huge portrait of the outgoing President had to be pulled down. A husky mustached security fellow, walkie talkie in hand, obviously familiar with the location, looked on in an intrigued manner as he oversaw the move. There was a moment of uncertainty as the frame was being moved, a look of resigned amusement as it was taken out the door. It was replaced by a portrait of a sign with one word: "Allah". The only Majesty.


After the success of the Tunisians, a famous poetry line that inspired the crowds was "If the people decided to cherish life, destiny will respond" -- by Tunisian immortal poet Abul Qasim El-Chebbi. Destiny in Arabic is "Qadar." In a play of words, Qadar was changed to Twitter. In the Egyptian uprising, a quip was reported by qifanabki.com blog that when Mubarak eventually had to leave not only his palace but also its earthly surroundings, he was received in the "huge waiting room" by his two predecessors Nasser and Sadat, who anxiously asked, "What was it? Poison or a bullet?" He sighs, shakes his head, and explains: "Facebook."


We have received several queries about the poem mentioned in the last issue of unforum on Tunis. The opening lines were from the "Will to Live" (Iradatul Hayat) by Abul Qasim El-Chebbi, who was born in February 1909 and died, while only 25 years old, in 1934. Although the first few lines have been translated by varied sources, a search did not produce a full translation. Below is the original version, in case anyone is interested in accomplishing that task:


On Friday 11 February as all television stations were highlighting the fall of Egypt's President Mubarak and all attention was on the day's event, the mostly watched CNN announced at 1:40pm a forthcoming statement by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. That would have led the news and placed our U.N. Secretary General in the forefront of world leaders responding to a historic event. Unfortunately, the statement somehow was not readily available. It was delayed to join so many others later, perhaps too late for due attention. Pity, again.


The race for the Presidency of the General Assembly next session, on Asia's turn, is between the Representatives of Qatar and Nepal. Nassir al-Nasser has the money, Kul Chandra Gautam has the experience. Admittedly, that's an over-simplification. Al-Nasser had served at the Security Council and was a member of his country's mission before returning as the Permanent Rep. Gautam was a U.N. Assistant Secretary General and a UNICEF Executive valuably appreciated for his effective work in the field. However, in effect, the competition boils down to a country's influence and capacity to persuade. In that, Qatar's expanding role goes way beyond its average Ambassador in New York. Old-timers would recall an almost similar race among Asians in 1981 when Ismat Kittani of Iraq, Khwaja Mohammed Kaiser of Bangladesh and Tommy Koh of Singapore contested the rotational ceremonial yet prestigious post. As the final vote was 71 each for Iraq and Bangladesh, the outgoing President, from (West) Germany resorted to an unusual lottery draw. Kaiser won applause by heading right away to congratulate his more lucky competitor and Kittani received an affectionate response when he quipped in his acceptance speech that he thanked the Assembly for his "overwhelming" victory.


Outgoing Foreign Minister of France is at it again: a job at the U.N. The very talented Doctor had tried leading WHO, Peacekeeping, Special Adviser, but only managed to run the Kosovo mission for a brief stint. Now there is talk about Haiti. Having accommodated so many French diplomats -- Ripert, Douste-Blazy, Guehenno -- more than any other Security Council veto holding member, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be placed again with one more dilemma on how to deal with so many aspiring former officials.


"When a Spokesman needs a Spokesman, it's time to move out."
-- Andy Coulsen, Spokesman for British Prime Minister, resigning after a controversy about his role as editor of a weekly paper


While George Clooney appeared everywhere in U.N. corridors about Darfur, he and other Hollywood glitterati totally disappeared on Cote d'Ivoire. Both African countries have abundant mineral resources of interest to international business firms using public relations to influence their publics. The big difference is that Cote is the main world supplier of cocoa. Cocoa is one of the main ingredients for Nestle's chocolate. Nestle, the Swiss multinational corporation, has George Clooney as its public promotional figure. No posturing there is required - for the moment.


It's up to you!


The first days of the Egyptian revolution when tens of thousands of protesters clashed with the police in Egypt and over 800 people arrested, tens injured as reported on television worldwide, the front page of Cairo's main daily Al-Ahram was: "Widespread Protests in Lebanon!" Meanwhile, a black joke in the streets of Cairo claimed that President Mubarak was threatening to set himself on fire: "He wants a different people."


U.S. media highlighted a red evening dress worn by First Lady Michelle Obama mainly stressing its elegance, designed by Alexander McQueen, and her glowing appearance during a dinner for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. None of them pointed out the most symbolic point. The fact is that Red is the colour of Chinese royalty.


The new three D-2 Directors took over their assignments at the Department of Public Information at the beginning of February. As reported in November unforum, they are: Stephane Dujarric, Maher Nasser, both from inside the Secretariat, and...from the Associated Press news agency in Paris, Deborah Seward. It could be a refreshing team to jumpstart a creative new vision or a further under-ordinary reshuffle amongst a seriously demoralized staff. It depends on how that team works together under a unifying leadership and in close collaboration with the Spokesman's office supporting a regained role for the U.N., credible dealing with media and civic society groups, and a focus on strengthening the position of the Organization's Secretary General.


Perhaps the best way to comment on a claim by former U.N. Deputy Envoy in Afghanistan Peter Galbraith that making millions on an Iraqi oil concession while drafting the Iraq constitution was an accidental outcome of his devoted work for a cause in which he believed, is to quote his own father, the outstanding John Kenneth Galbraith. In "Annals of an Abiding Liberal," he wrote: "The salary of a chief executive of a large corporation is not a market reward for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself."


"Why don't you buy yourself a new halo? The one you're wearing is too thin."
-- Ronda Fleming to Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral


Apparently the extended family of fleeing Tunis former President Ben Ali had an obsession with cars. Besides owning so many, including a Rolls Royce parked regularly outside an infinity pool in a villa, car distribution agencies were shared only by family members. For example, Ford belonged to brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi (infamous for hijacking a luxury yacht at St. Tropez). A son-in-law, Marwan Mabrouk, held the Daimler agency. Opportunistically, the car maker announced after the young man fled, that it is recovering its dealership -- in line with its "zero corruption policy." The most notorious son-in-law Mohammad Sakher Al-Materi -- who posed as a religious fanatic -- controlled all imports of German cars like Audi, Volkswagon, and Porsche, in addition to Korean car Kia. After the popular revolution, which smashed many of these cars, Audi issued a straight-faced statement, German-style, that it will have to review "whether we can continue to do business with that partner" -- who had already fled to Canada!


After 17 years of impunity, Callixte Mbarushimana, accused of rape, murder, torture, and other atrocities in Rwanda, was handed over to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. He was given jobs at varied U.N. peacekeeping missions (by whom?!), even though he had been identified by U.N. staff in Kigali of leading atrocities in 1994. When his case became embarrassing, as unforum first exposed him, he was let go by his benefactors and found "political refuge" in France. After President Sarkozy visited Rwanda to open a new page with its new government, Callixte and the "Devil Wearing Prada," were placed on notice in Paris to stop their political activity. Callixte was arrested last October -- as unforum reported at the time -- and handed over to the Tribunal. Still awaiting the Prada woman.


We were informed that the new Permanent Representative of Oman to the U.N. in New York is someone who had spent a career at U.N. Headquarters. Ms. Lyutha El-Mughairy, had worked in varied capacity up the Secretariat ladder, from P-4 to D-1 between the Political Affairs Department and the Department of Public Information. She often served on the Appointment and Promotion bodies, so she had a close view of the internal process - which has obviously changed but remains generally within a similar general framework. Her sister, Hunaina Al-Mughairy is Oman's Ambassador in Washington, D.C. The new Ambassador is married to Miles Stoby, a retired U.N. Secretariat staffer.


As the outgoing Tunis dictator Ben Ali found refuge in Saudi Arabia, some demonstrators in Egypt carried placards suggesting that President Mubarak would join him there. In Beirut a young protester held a sign with photos of the Saudi King surrounded by the two, with a play on words. A favourite title for the King is "Custodian of the Two Holy Sites," referring to Mecca and Jerusalem. The Arabic term for the two sites is "Haramain." The twist added one letter "Haramyain," which changed the meaning to "Two Thieves."


The crumbled autocratic regime in Tunis, like elsewhere, was able to control its patient, decent people through a number of enforcers and informers. And while the majority of Tunisians at the U.N. made their country and their culture proud with their achievements and decency, there is one individual who for a long while, that is, since 23 years, cajoled and threatened his own compatriots, drawing support from his close links to the security services of the outgoing regime. We will not expose that thuggish ungrateful character who is apparently still counting on some external connection that he had also served at U.N. expense.


During the early days of Tunisian popular uprising, we received by email a purported letter of resignation by Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane, a former Deputy U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. We almost placed it as a headline story until our posting executive noted a claim that Morjane's website had been hacked and that the letter may be a forgery. Morjane, who is married to a family member of fleeing dictator Ben Ali is a highly regarded diplomat who realized that any link with the former regime will be a handicap in any newly formed government. Although he had a role in persuading Ben Ali that the game was over, he presented his resignation, for real this time, in order to allow for a totally new slate. A responsible and honorable act.


It may be the first time that professional diplomats at a Ministry of Foreign Affairs joined together at their offices to expel their immediate boss, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It happened in Tunis the first week of February when the interior minister Ahmad Wanis appeared on a television program to lecture the media about its role and somehow seeming to defend the outgoing regime. The following day, the staff of the Ministry carried placards asking him to leave. He got in his car and left, then resigned.


Although we welcomed the appointment of Michele Alliot-Marie as the first female Minister of Foreign Affairs in France, she has been vulnerable to embarrassing criticism for visiting Tunis twice during the popular uprising, flying on a private plane owned by a businessman close to Ben Ali's family. She also had to explain her remarks during the popular uprising that French police "which are renown worldwide" for dealing with riots could be sent to help the beleaguered ruler. President Sarkozy, who was visiting Poland early February refused to respond to a question on whether he would drop his new Foreign Minister. It is a puzzle how a very successful Defense and Interior Minister would make so many unforced errors in foreign affairs when she has so many influential connections. Some say that her media savvy predecessor, Dr. Kouchner, may not be unhappy about her current predicament.


"Le Canard Enchaine" did it again. After exposing a holiday in Tunis by France's new Minister of Foreign Affairs Michele Alliot-Marie, it just reported that France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his family had spent his New Year holiday in Egypt. An Egyptian government airplane was available to transport them from Aswan to the famous antiquity sites of Abu Simbel near Luxor. Obviously, President Sarkozy will now find it difficult to fire the Foreign Minister without reprimanding his closest and most senior official, her immediate boss. By the way, it seems that various Prime Ministers have enjoyed Egypt's hospitality in going to Luxor. Not only did Sir Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie take that trip down the Nile -- when Tony Blair was about to leave as Prime Minister, he took his son on a special trip there, obviously upon the generous hospitality of the Egyptian government.


The use by senior French officials of special airplanes offered by governments of Tunis and Egypt led French media to start referring to Air Ben Ali, on Tunis and Air Mubarak on Egypt. Air in Arabic has an intriguing connotation as it refers to a sexual part of a male's body. While the social preferences of the Prime Minister of France and the capability of the beleaguered Egyptian President would have to be ascertained, having Foreign Minister Ms. Michele Alliot-Marie on Air Ben Ali would raise a problem with her escorting husband.


Following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that he will not be running for re-election in 2013 (give me two more years!) and any thought that he was grooming his son to inherit him was an "insult" to Yemeni people. To confirm that he really meant it this time, he used a local Yemeni expression: "no zero to the car." He was referring to a known gimmick by mechanics when trying to resell an old car by erasing its mileage and preparing it for a new start.


The evening after President Mubarak left, Egypt's official television station was clearly caught off-guard. After 18 days of describing the young demonstrators as troublemakers and admonishing them to maintain law and order "to preserve Egypt," it had to give way to a statement on behalf of the Council of Armed Forces taking charge of a transitional situation to fulfill "the demands of the great Egyptian people." After that, the station resorted to broadcasting national songs. Its problem was that it did not have any. All the nationalistic charged songs had been banned since the death of President Nasser. It was pathetic to watch male and female announcers dressed in up-to-date elegant outfits put on old and rehashed video songs from the 60s. Great songs like "Watani Habibi" (My Beloved Country), "Bil Ahdan" (Embrace Together), depicting long deceased singers like Mohammed Abdel Wehab and Abdel Halim Hafez. It transpired that modern day singers limit their art to songs like "Kiss the WaWa." Incidentally, pop star Tamer Husni had tried a few days earlier on behalf of the government, to persuade some youth groups at Liberation Square to leave "in order to restore orderly life." He was thrown out. No wonder none of his songs would fit the new set-up. Let's wait for the new wave.


Ko-Ko-Hana's Coco has by now cut his cute ponytail. In a new image shift, the keyholder to the diplomatic residence now built a new muscle figure and a determined walk with a fierce gaze -- but maintained the usual Coco Cokey attitude to neighbours. No one seems to care except Ho Ho Hana who seems undetermined on his social preference -- chikititas from Asia or Co-Co from home.


Bernard-Henry Levy is an intellectual nuisance from France who is more a social networker than the "philosopher" he officially claims himself to be. He issues books no one reads but he is able to list as intellectual reference. During a recent New York visit to promote a book of exchanged letters between himself and another obscure European "philosopher," he appeared on Stephen Colbert's brilliantly satiric television show where the smiling sharp host tore him to pieces within minutes. BHL unsuccessfully attempted to display his rhetorical prowess by throwing in sentences like "You know God has resigned," or that the dog of the other writer was an impressive author. He also put on that French-American accent along with a proclamation about how much he loved America "land of Democracy." He said that with a fake smile as if he's doing the audience a favour. He then hurriedly disappeared. No impact at all.


Just because Sudanese/British citizen Mohammed Ibrahim ("Mo") made a fortune in the cell phone business he seems to believe he is qualified to start classifying countries on the extent of good governance. He even started issuing his own dubious "index." It just happened that some of the priority countries listed are those where he spends his holidays. Among the 10 best governance regimes recently listed was the regime in Tunis whose chief's corruption, together with his Mafioso style family, provoked a popular revolution. Apparently as long as Bono is happy with Mo, so is the Financial Times.


On the invitation of Ambassador Feodor Starcevic, the experienced former senior U.N. official and a solid pillar of former Yugoslav Foreign Ministry, the national day of Serbia was attended in full capacity at its Fifth Avenue official residence. Diplomats, academicians, media representatives mingled with New York personalities and prominent Serbia expatriates. There was a band playing a blend of folklore and classical music and a wide variety of Adriatic food. It was obvious that since his arrival a year ago, Ambassador Starcevic has succeeded in gaining many new friends while maintaining basic relations with a wide spectrum of the diplomatic community making a refreshing and welcome impact.


Snow storms in New York are traffic hazards and social handicaps. They are also an opportunity for creative artists. Just around the corner from the U.N. compound, in the Plaza on 47th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, an inspired artist made a snow statue of Venus de Milo next door to Catherine Hepburn Garden. The only drawback was its inevitable melting as the sun shone again. But it was a welcome cheering sight for the neighbours. Thanks, whoever you are.


TV anchorwoman Katie Couric for CBS News, who hurriedly left the scene of widespread demonstrations in Cairo, entering a main shopping store on Madison Avenue; as they say in New York: "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping"...The entourage of Saudi King Abdullah checking out of the Plaza Hotel from the residence exit on 59th Street; lots of black limos, four white drivers, and many men talking to their sleeves...Texas-born actress Sandra Bullock "Miss Congeniality," braving the snowstorm in New York to walk her dog; who is certainly more loyal than her divorced husband.


"How can a President not be an actor?"
-- U.S. President Ronald Reagan in response to a question: How can an actor become President?