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9 Feb, 2011

Egypt and The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius

The first quarter of the second decade of the 21st century is witnessing the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. By unfolding right in the midst of the Aquarius period, the 11th star of the Zodiac, in the year 2011, these tumultuous and unprecedented events assume an even greater surreal significance.

In 2008, the U.S. elected its first African-American president who campaigned largely on the basis of a revolutionary slogan “change you can believe in”. Three years later, it is the Arab street that is demanding change it can believe in, an evolution-cum-revolution which will have sweeping and far-reaching ramifications for Egypt, Israel, the Middle East, the United States and relations between Islam and the West. With a new world order emerging, geopolitics is set to become indisputably the dominant determinant of the future of travel & tourism, outstripping economic crisis, natural disasters and environmental issues.

Not a single commentator has noted the fact that the stand-off in Tahrir square in effect is a proxy war between the people of Egypt on the one hand and the U.S.-Israeli axis on the other. If the Egyptian people lose, the defeat will be more humiliating than their military defeat by Israel  in the June 1967 six-day war. If the U.S.-Israeli axis loses, it’s entire game-plan for reshaping the Middle East on its terms could come undone.

While the two sides go eyeball-to-eyeball in this high-stakes battle, one noteworthy side-effect is that the image of all the protagonists is set to suffer. This outcome is fraught with danger but also creates opportunities for positive change within the travel & tourism industry. The following analysis is designed to set the ball rolling for the discussion that lies ahead.


Egypt’s tourism image and global standing has clearly been affected. The global media, bloggers, social network sites and airwaves are humming with stories of intimidation and heavy-handedness, including harassment of journalists. Millions of dollars of tourism advertising and marketing efforts have gone down the drain. As tourism will have to be a factor in Egypt’s post-crisis recovery plans, it faces a two-pronged test. While the cost of rebuilding the image will certainly be steep, an even more important challenge will be identifying the focus of the message to be delivered.

In the West and the U.S., attempts are being made to blacken Egypt’s image further by making it look like a return of the Muslim Brotherhood will usher in a fundamentalist regime. Although that is speculative conjecture, it is becoming entrenched in the minds of Western consumers, and will need to be addressed.

At the same time, Islam is the dominant religion of Egypt. With its 1.2 billion followers across the world, mainly in Asia, the Islamic world will remain a major future source of tourism, trade and cultural contacts. When this is all over, Egypt could well see an outpouring of support from Muslims wanting to show solidarity with their fellow Muslims.

Hence, Egypt will face the dilemma of trying to downplay its Islamic heritage on one side while embracing and espousing the world’s Muslims on the other.

However, Egypt cannot rebuild travel & tourism without rebuilding its entire political and economic systems. This is where the slogan “Where It All Begins” can take on new meaning, provided those who have benefitted from the old order choose to make way gracefully for the new.

The need and demand for this change was exemplified in an interview panel on the Al Jazeera TV channel on 8 February. Asked about Egypt’s future economic prospects, an Egyptian banker based in Saudi Arabia said Cairo would have no choice except to mobilize investments, issue bonds and if necessary turn for help to the IMF and World Bank. In response, an Egyptian economics professor scoffed at that view, saying it would effectively be a return to “business as usual” and the very “crony capitalism” that has spawned the rampant corruption in the country.

Indirectly calling for change the Egyptians can believe in, the professor said an entirely new system would be needed to make better use of domestic financial resources and more equitably spread economic gain nationwide. He noted that wherever the IMF had come in to “help”, it had only made things worse. Getting rid of a repressive and coercive political system would be the first step towards making that change, the professor said.

All that is going to be a tall-order, with no quick fixes.

The Arab World

Leaders in the Arab world now know for sure that their self-perceived image amongst their peoples could well be a mirage. Creating personality cults, dispensing large development budgets, having huge internal security apparatus and being surrounded by a coterie of cronies is no guarantee of their continued stay in power. The Arab street is tired of having its intelligence insulted. While the people want bread on the table, they also need basic human rights, justice, peace, opportunities for growth and an end to cronyism, corruption and nepotism, as clearly cited by the Egyptian professor in the comments above.

While some Arab leaders such as the King of Jordan and the President of Yemen appear to have recognized the growing backlash and publicly moved to deflect it, many of them now no doubt realise that being seen as a “crony” of the U.S. government is not good for their public image either. They will also be judged by their so far complete failure to earn a just and peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue, which is seared into the Arab psyche. In the last year alone, eight South American countries have announced their recognition of Palestine as a state. Why the Palestinians themselves do not declare statehood, and push for global recognition, defies explanation. Do Arab leaders think the “street” will not hold them accountable?

The United States

Trying to improve America’s image in the Islamic world has been a major policy plank of the Obama Administration. Indeed, Mr Obama chose Cairo to make his grandiose June 4, 2009 speech to the Islamic world, in which he promised a “new beginning” in bilateral relations. In a widely-applauded gesture to the Islamic world, he declared additional construction of Israeli settlements as being unacceptable. He said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Since then, however, not only has Israel built more settlements but the U.S. has been totally impotent in stopping it. Does Mr Obama think the Arab street fails to notice?

As the world’s pre-eminent but entirely unelected global power, America’s image has been subjected to much scrutiny. In the Egyptian scenario, American policy flip-flops and double–talk are attracting even more derision. Social media and mass-audience TV networks like Al Jazeera and Russian TV are having a field day trashing the claims about the U.S. wanting to promote “freedom and democracy” even as it desperately tries to engineer an “orderly transition” that yields a successor acceptable to Israel.

Perhaps the most important game-changer will be the fact that the “American street” is realising the price it is paying for its government’s global blunders. A raft of commentary has emerged questioning the wisdom of U.S. policy in the Middle East. A more open and public debate has begun. In a commentary in the Christian Science Monitor, Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul, chides the U.S. government thus: “America cannot go on riding the tiger forever in the Middle East. We cannot expect to have “pro-American” forces in power in the Middle East when the publics don’t like our policies. We cannot continue our endless interventions – out of fear that some states might emerge as anti-American. The world is sick of such meddling. We have to deal with the causes of why populations have become anti-American.” See full text of his commentary here.

The process of change will also have significant implications for private U.S. corporations whose activities are closely linked to the interests of the U.S. government. Many U.S. companies are owned by people known to be ardent Zionists, supporters of Israel and financiers of the American political establishment. As many of these companies are expanding their presence in the Arab and Islamic worlds, their activities are bound to come under scrutiny, especially in the wake of the WikiLeaks fiasco when prominent U.S. brands such as Visa and MasterCard came under fire for serving U.S. foreign policy interests by cutting finances to WikiLeaks. Neither of those companies ever responded to requests for comment.

The U.S. will also need to address concerns that its political establishment is working to demonise Islam. This month, the Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, Congressman Peter King is scheduled to hold hearings on ‘Radicalization’ in the American Muslim Community. The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) which works to defend Muslim interests in the U.S., is tracking this. A joint letter by a group of 51 U.S. community, interfaith and civil rights groups has expressed “strong objections” over the context, tone and approach of the hearings.

The joint letter said: “These hearings will almost certainly increase widespread suspicion and mistrust of the American Muslim community and stoke anti-Muslim sentiment. During 2010, we saw an increase in anti-Muslim hatred in public discourse, as well as hate crimes and violence targeting American Muslims, and those perceived to be Muslim, including vandalism and arson of mosques, physical attacks, bullying of children in schools, and attempted murder. No American should live in fear for his or her safety, and Congress should not help create a climate where it is acceptable to target a particular faith community for discrimination, harassment, and violence …

If the American political, business and public leadership thinks these hearings will help improve the image of the U.S. in the Arab and Islamic worlds, it had better think again.


The winds of change eventually will have a ripple effect on Israel, which has sought to brand itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. The Egyptians, too, want democracy. However, the Israeli government is now publicly declaring its preference for the kind of democratically-elected government it would like to see in Egypt. That is only further underscoring the view that Hosni Mubarak’s preferred “heir apparent” is also an American-Israeli protege.

Indeed, Israel will be the country most likely to be held accountable – in ways it may not have bargained for. Many Israeli companies are known to be profiting handsomely from selling security equipment worldwide. These security companies gain unprecedented access to data about global travellers, but operate totally devoid of any check-and-balance mechanisms and accountability in relation to what they do with the data. Furthermore, dozens of dual-passport holding Israelis are working in many Islamic countries, gathering intelligence and attempting to influence policies designed to serve Israeli interests. All these facts will emerge into the public domain.

Most important, Israel will come under pressure to do what it has avoided doing all along – ending its occupation of Palestine. When the American street begins to calculate its return on investment for the dollars expended on maintaining the status quo, it may finally demand change it can believe in. Israeli leaders have also been at the vanguard of some very public calls for military action against Iran. If and when another conflict breaks out in the Gulf, the Israelis will not be able to avoid accountability for the results. At that point, the “image” of Israel will matter little to anyone.

Relations Between Islam and the West

Already one of the pressing issues of the 21st century, it is affecting both the image and perceptions the two peoples have of each other. Contributory factors include the demonisation of Islam in many sections of the western media as well as recent statements by European leaders. A case in point is the speech at the Munich Security Conference by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron which focused almost entirely on the need to address “Islamic extremism”, echoing similar comments by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech in Potsdam last October.

The extensive social, economic, cultural, financial and, perhaps most important, demographic linkages between Western societies and the Muslim world means that frayed relations are not an option. However, bilateral relations will have to recalibrated on the basis of both mutual respect as well as mutual recognition of the mistakes and shortcomings on both sides.

The West will have to acknowledge the root-causes of its poor image across much of the Islamic street. It will have to recount the history of its colonial era – by the French, Dutch and British across large swathes of Africa and Asia, including many Islamic countries – and learn from its mistakes. Most important it will need to introspect on why the colonial era ended, and the implications of repeating those mistakes in the new era of a rising Arab and Islamic worlds.

In turn, the Arab and Muslim worlds have much to learn from the West in terms of respect for basic freedoms, justice, and human rights. There is no denying that many Muslims get far better treated as immigrants in the West than they get treated at home by their own peoples and governments. It is because many Islamic governments have tried to suppress both human rights and human freedoms that the present backlash against them is under way. Living in denial about this is also no longer an option.


In November 2010, the World Travel Market in London, ended with yet another prescient comment of surreal importance – “Mistakes Were Made.” As the Age of Aquarius dawns, with its endless cycle of twist-in-the-tale events, the travel & tourism industry will need to get a better grip on how it stands to be affected by the many mistakes made by both external and internal actors, and the consequences of those mistakes on industry jobs and livelihoods.

This global power shift from West to East has gained a huge impetus in these first two months of the second decade of the 21st century. With political and economic risk assessments set to become even more critical factors in the development process, the travel & tourism sector has a golden opportunity to position itself as a crucial part of the solution. People worldwide want change they can believe in, the same change that Mr Obama offered to the American people. For the travel & tourism industry, this crisis is just waiting to be turned into an opportunity. With the UNWTO’s Andorra’s summit and the ITB Berlin 2011 just a few weeks away, the travel & tourism industry should be the first to grasp it.

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