In his account of Egypt’s decline under Hosni Mubarak, Adam Shatz understandably concentrates on the country’s relationship with the US and Israel (LRB, 27 May). But there is another international player with growing influence in Egypt: China.
Seventeen thousand Chinese are now officially resident in Egypt and the volume of trade between the two countries has gone from $635 million in 1999 to more than $5.86 billion in 2009. Besides granite and marble, China imports Egyptian cotton, oil, carpets and kitchen sinks. English is the main language of business, but around the Free Trade Zones, cheap manufacturing bases close to European markets with very few export restrictions, most of the road signs are in Chinese. According to Egypt’s General Authority for Investment, there are 1038 Chinese companies operating in Egypt, representing a total investment of $311 million.
‘Before the Chinese arrived everyone was leaving this neighbourhood,’ I was told recently by an estate agent in the Cairo suburb of New Maadi. ‘Nowadays you see more Chinese round here than Egyptians. They’re here for this.’ He tapped the granite counter. ‘After the first wave came all kinds of small businesses to service the community, like gyms, restaurants and shops. Then a second wave came to work for Huawei when it replaced Siemens and Alcatel as Etisalat’s main contractor in Egypt.’ Huawei Technologies is the second largest telecoms company in the world. Last November Wen Jiabao opened its $20 million new training centre in Cairo’s Smart Village. ‘We have a business relationship,’ the estate agent said. ‘They don’t care for football or religion. All they think about is business, except when they are drinking tea and playing cards. But there are no problems and we say hello to one another when we pass each other in the street.’
The Chinese Embassy has gone on a charm offensive of film festivals, photo exhibitions and, last February in Rihab City on Cairo’s eastern outskirts, a cultural week showcasing martial arts, Chinese music and tea art. Two Confucius institutes have been established and last year China Central Television launched a new Arabic-language satellite TV channel.
The love-in appears to be reciprocal. From 1999 to 2009 Egypt’s exports to China grew from $15 million to $989 million, creating thousands of new jobs. In the last six years, five Egyptian universities have opened Chinese departments and Chinese goods are a familiar part of everyday life. A new character has made an appearance in Egyptian soap operas: the Arabic-speaking Chinese saleswoman going from door to door, offering cheap consumer goods, bootleg DVDs and snappy haircuts. Egyptians joke about the quality of the imports and grumble that the Chinese never spend any money. Their fathers used to grumble about the Soviets for the same reason.
China’s relationship with the Arabs dates back to the Silk Road, but modern relations can be traced to 30 May 1956 when Nasser defied the US policy of containment to become the first Arab or African country to establish diplomatic ties with the Communist state. (Later that year Chinese newspapers celebrated the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.) Mubarak himself has been to China at least seven times. In 1999 he signed a key strategic agreement in Beijing and since then co-operation has deepened to include infrastructure building, training, energy and defence. There are goodwill politburo visits every few months and at the start of May Egypt’s Oil Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with China National Petroleum Corp to build Egypt’s biggest ever oil refinery in a contract worth $2 billion. ‘Things are going perfectly,’ according to Zhijie Zeng, the director of the China Development Bank. ‘We are eager to deepen the co-operation. Africa and China have a win-win relationship.’
But the press has spoken of China’s ‘commercial attack’ on Egypt, and there have been accusations of Chinese products being dumped in Egypt at below cost price. In January a Chinese ship accidentally destroyed coral reefs in South Sinai. And in the second half of last year China abruptly halted trade shipments to Egypt. The official reason was to combat smuggling but the move sent the price of some commodities shooting up 40 per cent.
Jacqueline Rose seriously underestimates the deep roots of Zola’s intervention in the Dreyfus affair in his own earlier career (LRB, 10 June). Zola had experienced something akin to racism as a child; his family moved between Paris and Aix-en-Provence and he was mocked by his schoolmates as an outsider in both cities. His Pour les Juifs (1896) predated his involvement with Dreyfus, and was indeed the reason he was first approached to intervene in the case. This important article anticipated in some ways the arguments of Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive. Well before this, in L’Argent (1891), Zola had put a powerful attack on anti-semitism into the mouth of the character of Mme Caroline. He had also long held strongly anti-militarist views, as shown in the remarkable short story ‘Le Capitaine Burle’ (1882).
These attitudes sharply distinguished Zola from most of his literary contemporaries, among whom anti-semitism was rife. Virtually every member of the Académie française was anti-Dreyfus.
David Runciman is wide of the mark when he suggests that the decline in the SNP’s vote in the Westminster election was due to al-Megrahi’s release (LRB, 27 May). There is a far more prosaic reason: namely, Scottish voters’ visceral dislike of the Conservative Party and in particular of Margaret Thatcher, who continues to be reviled. Labour’s campaign in Scotland – ‘we are the only ones who can keep the Tories out’ – thus resonated more than the ‘Scottish Champions’ message of the SNP, which the Scottish electorate understands has a minimal part to play at Westminster. Whether Labour will carry this momentum into next year’s Scottish elections is open to question though, for several reasons.
First, there is no reason to ‘keep the Tories out’ of Holyrood: they will not form the next Scottish government. (It is ironic that the reason the Conservatives have any significant presence in Scotland is due to devolution and a PR voting system, both of which they were against.) Second, there is a lack of big hitters in the current bloc of Scottish Labour MSPs. Iain Gray consistently fails to land any significant blows on Alex Salmond, and Labour’s raison d’être seems to be to despise and oppose the Nationalists.
Third, Scottish voters have shown themselves to be adept at distinguishing between different political systems, and adapting their vote accordingly. Westminster has always been a bunfight between Labour and Conservatives, but at Holyrood, PR has proved successful in reflecting the prevailing wind, with the result that the Parliament has had a different composition in each of its three terms (I’d argue this is a strength of the system). In the last election, in 2007, voters were apparently comfortable trying out an SNP administration, reasoning that a vote for the SNP was not a vote for independence per se, as the separation question would always have to be put to a referendum. (Most polls suggest support for independence is running at under 30 per cent, but this doesn’t seem to have dented the likelihood of the SNP gaining a second term, and there is speculation that they might pick up disgruntled Lib Dem voters.)
More broadly, it is clear that further devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is inevitable. The question for England is how it can cater for its own requirements in this set-up; I find the English reluctance to consider alternatives to the Westminster system baffling. Devolution continues to be condescended to, not least because, as David Runciman says, ‘the gulf between news coverage north and south of the border means that we barely speak the same political language anymore.’ Yet devolution has delivered a modern and responsive Parliament in Scotland which makes Westminster look antiquated, self-important and aloof.
Peter Connolly makes the case for Ralph Nader’s responsibility for the Democrats’ loss in the 2000 US presidential election (Letters, 13 May). He neglects to mention that more Florida Democrats defected to the Republicans that year than to Ralph Nader. Or that Al Gore failed to win his home state (no president has ever won office without taking his home state). Or that he failed to win New Hampshire, which voted Democrat in 1992, 1996, 2004 and 2008. Either state would have won Gore the election without Florida. Furthermore, Connolly claims that the Republicans’ slim 500-odd vote majority in Florida is proof that they weren’t engaged in ‘“wholesale" fraud’, or they would have done a better job, a claim with no basis in fact or logic. The fraud is well documented. The recount having been killed by the Republican-dominated federal Supreme Court, we will never know its true extent, but the slimness of the majority is not proof it didn’t happen, only that the Republicans didn’t know how much fraud would be needed and carried out as much as they thought they could get away with. Finally, we should recall that George W. Bush’s brother Jeb, the Republican governor of Florida, called out the state police to set up roadblocks in black and other heavily Democratic neighbourhoods in Florida cities to delay and turn away as many Gore supporters as possible on their way to the polls. And yet Ralph Nader is responsible!
Jackson Lears wants to ‘complicate the explanation for Gore’s loss, beyond a simple demonisation of Nader’, but the complications he cites – fraud by Republicans preventing 8000 people from voting and the Supreme Court decision halting the recount – would, in the first case, not have mattered, and in the second not have taken place, if Nader hadn’t run (Letters, 27 May). Nader received 97, 488 votes in Florida. Simple demonisation of Nader is indeed in order.
So that’s who Francis Newton, the author of The Jazz Scene (1959), is: the famous Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (LRB, 27 May). Two things he gets wrong in his Diary: the original Ronnie Scott club was in a basement not in Lisle Street but in Gerrard Street. I heard Ben Webster there in, I think, 1959. Second, I, too, was a habitué of the Downbeat, dropping in generally at lunchtime but on the occasional evening when I didn’t have a gig, or wasn’t in the Establishment Club enjoying the Dudley Moore Trio. It was in the Downbeat that I persuaded the drummer Allan Ganley – to his immense amusement – to dep for me in a gig for the Billy Cotton Band Show in 1961. There was certainly music in the Downbeat in the evenings – was it Brian Lemon at the piano? I also heard Annie Ross sing there.
For those who are old enough to remember but whose memory is failing, Brian Innes was the leader of the Temperance Seven from 1955 to 1965.
Editor, ‘London Review’
In my Short Cuts about the BP oil disaster, I said the drilling went ‘a mile under the earth’s crust beneath six miles of water’ (LRB, 27 May). A more nearly correct figure would have been ‘three and a half miles under the earth’s crust, beneath a mile of water’.
New Haven, Connecticut
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