citizens seize boycott banner
By Nicholas Blanford
The Christian Science Monitor,
7 May 2002,
Delegates from 19 Arab nations met in Syria last week to discuss
economic action against Israel.
BEIRUT, LEBANON Infuriated by Washington's support for Israel
and the reluctance of Arab regimes to take action, Arabs throughout
the Middle East and North Africa have launched individual and group
boycotts of American products. High-visibility American food chains
are being hit hardest. Branch managers of McDonald's and Kentucky
Fried Chicken in Egypt have conceded sales falling by 20 to 50 percent
since the outbreak of the intifada, or uprising, 19 months ago.
In Beirut, Nisrine Mansour used to buy American goods without a
second thought. But that changed when she realized her cash could
end up helping Israel.
"When I realized that many American companies openly support
Israel, I began looking very hard at what I buy in shops,"
Ms. Mansour, along with other Lebanese activists, has formed a
group called Act Now, which advocates a boycott of American goods
and of companies that have dealings with Israel. Act Now is not
acting alone, either across the Arab world, citizens are
taking action. Smokers of the popular Marlboro cigarettes are switching
to French or local brands. The boycott has even had the backing
of religious leaders.
Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Lebanese Shia cleric,
has called on Arabs to replace American products with European and
Asian goods in appreciation of the political support of those countries.
Delegates from 19 Arab countries gathered in Damascus this past
week for a meeting of the Arab Boycott Bureau. The group, which
was established by the Arab League in 1951, oversees the boycott
of companies dealing with Israel. The meeting was only the second
held since 1993.
"The popular Arab rally around the boycott of Israel and its
supporters is yet another form of struggle. If the boycott were
activated properly, it would affect Israel at all levels: technical,
military, and practical. It would in fact paralyze its economy,"
says Ahmad Khazaa, the bureau's general commissioner.
Syria, Israel's most implacable foe, has been the driving force
behind reviving the Arab boycott, and it organized the previous
meeting last October. It attempted to raise the subject during the
Arab summit in March, but the Saudi peace initiative dominated the
"The Syrians believe that the Arab world has grown too conciliatory
toward Israel," says Yahya Sadowski, a professor of political
science at the American University of Beirut. "They would like
to shift it back."
Enthusiasm for the boycott diminished after Egypt and Jordan made
peace with Israel and the 1991 Madrid summit launched a new round
of Middle East peace talks. Despite the inflamed passions aroused
by the intifada, many Arab governments are struggling with hefty
debt burdens, and for them a return to the days of sweeping boycotts
on companies dealing with Israel is not a realistic option.
Saudi Arabia, for example, despite its vast oil wealth, has a public
debt of $170 billion.
"Saudi Arabia is not about to embargo a US oil company that
wants to bring investment to the country, so reducing the debt and
keeping the people happy," says Professor Sadowski.
Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania, which have diplomatic relations
with Israel, stayed away from the Damascus meeting. Egypt's government,
while permitting boycotts of US and Israeli goods, has still refused
to officially take part. However, the Egyptian people remain among
the most ardent supporters of a boycott.
McDonald's tried last year to neutralize the impact of the Egyptian
boycott by hiring a well-known country crooner whose famous song,
"I hate Israel" topped the charts for weeks.
Kentucky Fried Chicken was the target of protesters at Cairo University
last month. They torched one of the outlets.
"Our boycott is another way to put pressure on the US government
for its reactions towards the Israeli acts in Palestine," says
Talat Mossalam, a member of a labor party and the Egyptian organization
leading the boycott of Israeli and US products. "Until now,
there has only been a partial boycott here in Egypt. It is the responsibility
of each individual and so there are those who don't pay attention."
Encouraging Lebanese to participate in the boycott has been harder.
Lebanon is one of the most Western-oriented societies in the Middle
East, where English and French is widely spoken and Western trends
avidly followed. Act Now has held sit-ins outside McDonald's and
the popular Starbucks coffee shop in Beirut's Hamra shopping district.
But it's not only American foods that are being targeted in Beirut.
Hundreds of goods found on the shelves of Beirut supermarkets and
corner shops come stamped with a "U" or "K"
symbol, denoting that the product has been formally approved by
Jewish organizations as Kosher, or fit to eat under Jewish dietary
laws. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which
says it's the largest and oldest Kosher supervising agency in the
world, approves more than 2,300 companies around the globe with
over 300,000 labels. In exchange for the Kosher approval, manufacturers
pay a fee, which helps fund pro-Israel activities, such as lobbying
Congress to support sanctions legislation against Syria and to express
solidarity with Israel. "I don't have a problem with Jewish
religious customs, but I was shocked to discover that by purchasing
these goods, I was indirectly helping Israel," says consumer
Act Now is seeking to refine its boycott to focus on a handful
of select companies, such as the tobacco giant Philip Morris. "Philip
Morris is the ideal boycott target," Mansour says. "Cigarettes
are nonessential, it's a widespread product, and it's a tobacco
company for which no one feels much sympathy."
Philip Smucker contributed to this report from Cairo.