Walking Like an Egyptian: Food, Farming and Foreign Policy

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then “#occupy” protesters around the world this weekend just gave the Arab Spring an Academy Award. Of course, the chain of inspiration of freedom and justice seekers is unending in history, but there's no question that the Arab Spring opened a new chapter which is inspiring people to protest for justice worldwide.

No doubt, at this historical moment many people in the US will be preoccupied, as they should be, more with how Occupy Wall Street is going than with how the Arab Spring is going. But we still have reason to pay some attention to the Arab Spring.

Drawing inspiration from outside our immediate environment sometimes allows us to leapfrog over the crusty preconceptions of our historical surroundings. One thing Occupy Wall Street, like the Wisconsin uprising, has had in common with Cairo has been an explicit appeal for solidarity to the “security forces.” In Cairo, they chanted: “The army and the people are one hand!” In Madison, the conduct of the mobilization for public employee rights defeated efforts of the Walker administration to split the police politically from other public employees. Today, #occupy protesters are telling police, “You are the 99 percent!” You could look at the police as armed employees of the state who have to follow orders to “maintain public order,” or you could look at them as public employees who are largely unionized members of the working class and who often have a lot of discretion in how they interpret their mandate to “maintain public order.” Not arresting protesters is a perfectly legitimate tool for keeping the peace and most police officers and officials know that well. As mom told us when we were little, honey usually beats vinegar.

In addition, while we all want to “walk like an Egyptian,” there is a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship between us and the Arab Spring, which we have some responsibility to bear in mind. The protesters of the Arab Spring have focused on overthrowing the corrupt regimes that rule them, but Western governments – particularly the US government – are deeply implicated in these regimes. And if our government is implicated, then we are implicated.

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We saw in the case of Egypt how, at the end, the Obama administration pulled support from the Mubarak regime, a shift which reportedly made the Saudis furious. This shift in US policy probably saved the lives of many Egyptians by stopping the Mubarak regime from fighting to the end.

It may well be the case that the broad parameters of US foreign policy are unlikely to change in the near future. But particularly in times of upheaval, “small” shifts in US foreign policy can have big consequences for the fate of people in other countries. Human rights groups and some members of Congress are now campaigning to block a planned US arms sale to Bahrain as a means of pressing the Obama administration to speak up more for human rights. If this small shift takes place, the empire will not collapse. But it could make a huge difference to people in Bahrain who are being suppressed for demanding their freedom.

In the case of Egypt, the shift that took place was partly due to the intense US media coverage of the uprising in Egypt. People in Peoria saw Egyptians demanding their freedom on American TV. That was a context in which “Mubarak is our friend because he suppresses the Muslim Brotherhood, supports Israel and opposes Iran” was a dog that wouldn't hunt.

This experience at least raises the possibility that broad, public opinion in the US could play a greater role going forward in constraining the US government from supporting repression in the Arab world. The benefits for humanity of such a shift would be so great that even a small increase in its probability deserves serious attention.

With these concerns in mind, I recently read Rami Zurayk's book, Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring, about issues of rural development.

Just World Books arranged for me to interview Rami Zurayk. What follows is an edited transcript of our interview. For the most part, I just abridged my questions and edited both of us so that our conversation would flow a little more like text and a little less like speech.

Robert Naiman: Although you were mostly writing about Lebanon, throughout the book you raised issues concerning Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan. Before the Arab Spring exploded on American TV screens, it seemed in US media that there really wasn't such a thing as the Arab world politically. There were countries where people speak Arabic, but they didn't really have common concerns or care about each other very much. Then, all of a sudden, an uprising in Tunisia triggered an uprising in Egypt, and it turned out that people in Tunisia and Egypt were deeply invested in each other.

Rami Zurayk: One of the outcomes of the Arab Spring is that it has dispelled the concept that the Arab world does not exist, that the idea of Arabism is dead. The idea of belonging to the Arab world exists and it does not exist just because of the Arab League. It's cultural. Whatever happens in Morocco affects me directly. For the youth, the Arab Spring has replaced the Arab League. People feel deeply Arab everywhere in the Arab world.

And you have seen this last week with the events in Egypt [referring to the takeover of the Israeli embassy in Cairo]. You can see how the people feel about relations with Israel. And the youth didn't know the wars – they grew up during the “peace.” And they don't want this relationship.

The Arab regimes, until today, are totally unrelated to and unrepresentative of the Arab people; let's agree on that, first; that's really important. And most of these [regimes] are surrogates to the empire. Syria was a little different, but also in many ways dependent and surrogate to the will of the US – playing with different players, but not flying very far [from the US] – and has been very pragmatic. But neither Syria, nor any of the other security regimes represent their people. Nor does anybody believe that these security regimes had any other goal than reproducing the regime itself. To do that, they needed the support and the acquiescence of the superpowers, which was provided on condition that oil kept flowing and Palestine was left …

It's a simplification of a real situation, it is the skeleton. The Arab people, like any other people, have the right to be diverse in its political opinions. Yes, there are people in every single one of those countries that have internalized the division into nation-states that was imposed; there are people who are chauvinistic; there are people who are sectarian, many of them. But that does not mean that the vast majority of the Arab people do not believe that they belong to something together. Look at how the press could not term it but the “Arab Spring,” even the Western media. And this is an endorsement of the Arab cause, of Arabism, that even the Western media that's opposed to this idea and is brainwashed by this rejection of the existence of Arabism cannot but admit that there is a phenomenon that is called the “Arab Spring.” Now within this, of course there are a variety and a diversity of opinions.

You remember in 2006, when the Lebanese Resistance fought against the Israeli Army and humiliated it by not letting it set foot into Lebanon and by destroying tens of its tanks. The Lebanese Resistance became the hero of all the Arabs. In 2009, I traveled to rural Morocco. I stopped in a town where most people are of Amazighi stock, people who consider themselves Berber [i.e., not “ethnically” Arab]. And people asked me where do you come from? And I said I come from Lebanon. And they asked me which part of Lebanon? And I said south Lebanon. And the man there said, “innasr li Hizbullah,” meaning the victory is for Hizbullah.

The Arab security states in exchange for protection by the US and the superpowers, smothered the whole feeling of resistance within the people. The Arab Spring came, is slowly removing the security regimes and is freeing the people for looking again toward Palestine. That's very important. Never mind what the Western media wants you to see or believe.

RN: You write in the book about all the negative effects of foreign aid. Do you think Lebanon would be better off without foreign aid?

RZ: These black-and-white questions are often not difficult to answer, but impossible to answer. Because I don't think that all forms of aid should be removed. But I think that most of the aid that I have seen has been really detrimental. It does some good things and a lot of bad things and on balance you're better off without it.

In Lebanon in particular, it's absolutely horrendous. The biggest donors are state departments or ministries of foreign affairs of different rich countries. And all of this money is politically tied to political agendas and there is no attempt to try to hide that; it is extremely clear. The money from USAID goes to certain people and not to others. Money from USAID is an aberration, because some of the money goes to foundations that are owned and founded by people who would be among the Forbes billionaires. For example, the Hariri Foundation, multibillionaires. Or to other billionaires who have foundations in their names and then USAID money goes to these? To implement projects to help farmers or rural areas.

So basically, the money of the American taxpayer goes to strengthen the positions of billionaires, sectarian politicians, in Lebanon. Am I the only one who thinks this is an aberration? These same people, Hariri etc., make big money donations to universities in the US, [getting] their name on a building. So, you get into these really odd situations in which your foreign aid is channeled through the foundations belonging to billionaires in order to strengthen their political clout in Lebanon, while these same billionaires give your educational institutions money because the state is not funding them enough. I find this really very odd.

And that is the reality of foreign aid. It is used as a tool and as a means to achieve foreign policy goals. And as long as it is like that, its detriments outweigh by far its benefits. When you use foreign aid in order to push political agendas and certain politicians, then how can you call this aid? It just becomes a foreign policy tool.

RN: And is the story with European aid different from US aid? Or is it basically the same?

RZ: It's the same thing. I am personally very involved in civil society and I'm trying to pass an honor code among civil society organizations to reject foreign aid from governmental sources. I have stopped taking – I have taken money from USAID to implement projects through my work at University, I have taken money from various sources and since 2006 I have completely stopped that. Today, I rely on aid from individuals, from organizations that are grassroots-based that raise their own funds, or sometimes from organizations and political parties in Europe, such as the German Green Party, with which I agree on the general foreign policy and local policy goals. I think that as NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] we have too much money.

I wanted to tell you another example. Today, I was trying to organize – today, today, just before coming here! – I was in a meeting trying to organize farmers. You know I work in farmer organizations – voice of the farmers, networking, getting together hundreds of farmers in order to pass a certain message. And then somebody, one of the farmers asked me – “Who's going to pay us for that?” I said, “What?” He said, “There are going to be expenses. We're going to have to come to Beirut, go, etcetera. Who's going to pay us for that? Can't you get some money from some NGO to pay for us for that?”

You want to change your world and you want money? And that's to tell you how much the NGOs and foreign aid has corrupted people. They can't even now – they automatically think, in terms of what are going to get, in terms of aid and help and support. If they want to protest – can you imagine? If the people in Tahrir Square went and asked for money to go down and protest? How can foreign aid not be bad? I just had that conversation now, just before coming to you! I flipped, I blew a fuse! I said to the guy: you want me to pay you, to get your rights?

RN: In your book you raised the problem of lack of coordination – you have NGOs that can do whatever they want; they're not really accountable; one project isn't coordinated with another project. And you also talked about the importance of the role of the state and how the NGOs are not and can never be a substitute for the state, and the coordination problem is an example; the problem of lack of coordination is a problem of not having somebody in charge, to say, this is the overall plan and this is how the individual things that you are doing fit into the plan. What's the way forward on this? You talk about a code of conduct for where you take money, but what about trying to be organized and accountable to a plan?

RZ: I've written a lot about issues of civil society in the book and I don't want to repeat what I've already said. But I want to tell you that recently I have come to the following conclusion with respect to this issue. We have a lot of those discussions with people around us. I think that the whole concept of civil society organizations and of NGOs – however much it is used to reproduce the power structure – it's here to stay. It's not going to go away, if we wish it to go.

The fact that we have 20,000 NGOs in a country like Lebanon – and several hundred that deal only with the environment, for example, is in itself an indication that there is a great part of ego that goes into building up NGOs. People want to have their own thing, it's not dissimilar to blogging as an individual.

But nevertheless, NGOs are here to stay and they can be used as tools and as pawns. And I think that people like me who are militant and activist and who want to change the world – because that's what I want to do – and who want to work for class justice will have to learn to live with NGOs. Yes, coordination with NGOs is extremely important.

The big problem with NGOs is that, because they became a kind of a business – kind of a money and fame grossing business – which is funded by foreign aid, of course – because they are like that, they are being used as tools and as pawns, sometimes as Trojan horses, in order to penetrate society, to be able to impact it, sometimes in order to listen. I wrote a story in one of my posts when I was the head of a British NGO and the ambassador in 1991 called me and asked me to report on what's happening in the villages. These things happen with NGOs. They are also used to gather intelligence.

But this does not mean that we cannot create an opposite, a counter, a resistance-based NGO. Instead of saying let's get rid of all NGOs, this is something that's very bad, let's admit that they exist and that they are still going to be there. And let's try to use these new structures, these civil society structures, in order to construct a resistant civil society, not just leave them to be used and manipulated by donors who have dubious agendas. And I think the point at which we are today – and this is something that we are really discussing today as I speak to you – is that NGOs should not be the end in itself. Because, then, the state divests itself and leaves the NGOs to take over and this is precisely what neoliberal approaches to state policy would want us to do. Gut the state, leave small civil society organizations to replace it and then the state does not have responsibility toward its citizens.

The NGOs are not an end in themselves. To my mind, they should be a tool in order to capture state power. And that's a very important leap in our understanding of what they are. It means we are using civil society movements, not in order to offer services that the state does not want to offer, but in order to mobilize and educate and revolt against the state and capture state power. Capture it democratically, capture it by any other means, but capture state power. And establish a welfare state, the state for all the citizens.

RN: And isn't there also a role that NGOs could play that is not just capturing state power, but preparing for exercising state power effectively –

RZ: Indeed, absolutely.

RN: – there's so many cases we saw in history where progressives captured state power and weren't really ready to implement –

RZ: Absolutely. Thank you for pointing that out. It's very important. This is where we are in Egypt today. That's precisely what I am writing about these days. We have captured – not “captured,” we have not captured, we have paralyzed to a certain extent – state power, but we don't have a plan. I'm going to give you a link to an article I just wrote that talks about that. I'm in the middle of thinking about these things these days and they are very important to us. The article is called “Protests are not enough to change the rules of the game.” [The link to the article is here. -RN]

RN: In writing about trying to support small-scale producers and traditional cuisine, you mentioned a paradox: if you make traditional cuisine too popular in a certain way, popular among rich people, then the price goes up and poor people can no longer afford their own food. Could consumer co-ops play a role here? If urban people in Beirut were organized in this way, could that help support projects in Lebanon, and address the politics of aid money? What if the aid, instead of coming from USAID, were coming from people in Beirut, who are going to eat the food that's produced in southern Lebanon?

RZ: Seven years ago, I started the first organic CSA [“community-supported agriculture”] in the Arab world and it's still operating as a standalone business. It's called “Healthy Basket” and it's doing really well. I also started a couple of street markets and farmers' markets and they are still operating and they're doing pretty well. But they're limited in size.

We know that local food systems cannot provide a durable solution for all of the farm sector. There are a number of reasons for that. Logistics is one of them. Not everybody has the time to go out and shop and cook. And also price is an issue; because a lot of this involves some kind of sacrifice for people who have some kind of disposable income.

Last summer I spent in New Hampshire and you know that this region is very keen on what I call local food systems, producers' markets, farmers markets, CSAs. We work a lot on that. But we have scale problems. The food problems in the US are not dissolved by that. These provide good models, models that allow us to feel good about doing something. And I'm not saying that feeling good is a bad thing. I'm saying that the impact is extremely limited.

Whether we have a CSA or not, Monsanto and Cargill are still hugely powerful and they control most of the food regimes in the world and with them ADM and Dreyfus are extremely powerful and control most of the trade in commodities in the world.

There are in the US – as in Lebanon – areas that are food deserts, places where you cannot buy except certain kinds of food and so people have to live on poor, non-nutritious and non-healthy food. And one also has to admit that these organic CSAs etc. exist for most – not all of them – for most within gentrified neighborhoods. And I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it limits its impact. This is not a value judgment about it that it's bad. I work in it; I create them. Because I make them, I know their limitations.

That provides something, but the big solutions will have to come from big changes. Not from small-scale grassroots changes. That's why I said – to go back to the issue of NGOs and state power and managing state power – you really need a state for that. This cannot be left to the private sector. Because corporations are like states. When you have four corporations in the world that control 90 percent of the trade in food commodities, that's power that is extremely concentrated.

So we need to have some kind of centralized decision-making on all of these issues, in order to reach – I reach with my CSA 20 farmers. I have 200,000 farmers in Lebanon. What do I do with the rest? The number of people who subscribe to my CSA after eight years of work – it always reaches a plateau – we never have more than a 100, 120 people who subscribe. And they turn over; they drop out; they come back. And it's a lot, 120 families. And that's about the number. Everywhere I go, I read about these things. So we can have many CSAs. But there is an issue of scale.

RN: But is it also the case that instead of only thinking about this as, well, we don't have state power yet, here's something a little bit useful we can do in the meantime, is there also a way that this builds toward taking state power and having a plan for what we do? In Venezuela, for example, the Chavez government is very pro-co-op, it has an official government policy of supporting co-ops. But the co-op movement in Venezuela existed before progressives took state power. So, there was something already there; there was an infrastructure already there for the government to support.

RZ: You've really given a good example; they can flourish if there is – the state doesn't have to financially support them. But this has to be policy. Bolivia, for example, now has gone into food sovereignty as a central policy. This means that small farmers need to be supported; this means that there is going to be a transfer from sector to sector. Evo Morales is doing that and that's really great. It means there is a decision. And then this can spread and it can spread as small grassroots movements, but they have to be nursed; they have to be supported and helped by central policy. Whereas you have sometimes states that do not care about it.

The US has a very strong farm policy, I'm sure you realize. There's a lot of money. You know that your farm bill is a third of a billion dollars per day. It's $300 billion for three years. That's huge. That's what I'm talking about. This is what makes the US such a large food producer and allows this country to overflow its food with only four percent of its population involved in agriculture. It's that you have a farm bill that is enormous.

RN: Right. No substitute for the state.

RZ: Absolutely.

RN: In your book you talked about organic farming and organic certification and how sometimes you need to use chemical fertilizer. Obviously, organic certification has its logic and its reasons; there's people who would like to call things organic which are not things that we would support, so it's easier to say we're going to have a clean standard. But I wondered if in Lebanon, if you're operating at a smaller scale, would it be feasible and correct to try to have a different kind of standard? If you have political organizations that are operating in particular areas, whether that might make it feasible to have more flexible standards, where you could say, well, we are using fertilizer here, but we're not using too much. We're using an environmentally responsible amount. Is that feasible?

RZ: Yes, that's called integrated farming, sustainable farming. My background is in soil science and then I started dealing with politics and ecology and the environment. And I know very well how things work in the soil, especially in extremely poor soil that doesn't contain enough organic matter. You can never recycle organic matter fully; you have losses all the time. Eventually, you are going to make your land poorer and poorer. Or you're going to have to grow green manures; you're going to have to put more land into use, but maybe you don't have more land.

A little bit of urea and a lit bit of phosphorus are important sometimes in places that are tremendously deficient in phosphorus and when you have only very small pieces of land in order to produce. Farmers don't have a lot of land in many countries in the world. They can't plant extensively. They sometimes have to intensify in order to survive. And if they mine the soil from its fertilizer, that's a problem.

Now, the issue is with fertilizer production and fertilizer trade and fertilizer abuse. And all of these are controlled upstream. I'm a farmer, too, and the prices of fertilizers are just unbearable. No farmers in Lebanon make any money anymore because the prices of the inputs are so high. And that in itself is an incentive to go into organic farming. But it's like a bank account; you need to replenish it from time to time and sometimes that's the only thing you have available in order to replenish.

Imagine, say in Malawi for example, the land is poor because it's been used and used and there is no organic matter. Can I really seriously go to a village farmer and tell them don't use any fertilizer? Just go organic and I'll certify you, even if you don't get anything? You can do it in some places, but in some other places it's impossible.

By the way, the Malawi experience has been tremendous; they moved in one year from food deficiency to food surplus, did you know that?

RN: Yeah, the government started supporting agriculture. (Here's Celia Dugger's article in The New York Times about what happened in Malawi; here's Zurayk's commentary on The New York Times article.)

RZ: They just gave fertilizer to people and seed. That should tell us something. Sometimes as environmentalists and as people who are concerned we become fundamentalists about it. A bit like religious people become fundamentalists. The purity, the purity, we seek purity. But the more purity you seek, the less you are able to do. You become some kind of al-Qaeda of the environment. Really. We call them the environmental Salafis. We really need to avoid that. I don't mean to sound like a liberal. But in reality, that's how it should be. There has to be some pragmatism in the way we do things.