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Arab Boycott of US Goods Runs Out of Steam in Egypt - 2002-07-24


Last September, Arab activists called for a boycott of American goods to protest U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly America's close ties with Israel. The activists renewed the call last March, after Israel's military incursions into the West Bank. But although most Egyptians remain opposed to U.S. Mideast policies, they are beginning to realize a boycott is not the most effective way for them to be heard.

Like most big cities in almost every part of the world, Cairo has several McDonald's restaurants. Despite the calls by activists to boycott American goods, they seem to be doing a thriving business.

A customer at the McDonald's near the Egyptian museum in downtown Cairo said she refused to buy American products for a few months, including McDonald's hamburgers, but she changed her mind when she realized who would be hurt the most by the boycott. "I think all the people employed here are Egyptians. So when we're boycotting they have to fire employees and we get a higher rate of unemployment here," the customer said.

She is not the only Egyptian who feels this way. Many of them applaud the idea of a boycott, but they say that in reality Egyptians are the only ones being hurt by it.

That idea is supported by Hisham Fahmy, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, an organization that promotes U.S. business. He said it is Egyptians who have felt the real brunt of the boycott. "A lot of our brand name products have been affected by the boycott. But the fact is that most of the American products that are being boycotted, their investment and employment everything else, is Egyptian. What is happening is they are harming the Egyptian economy and their own people so it is a bad move on all accounts," Mr. Fahmy said.

To prevent the boycott from hurting Egyptians, some activists are encouraging people not just to ignore American goods but to buy Egyptian alternatives.

Instead of shopping at McDonald's, for example, they should eat at an Egyptian fast-food restaurant.

Mohamed Mo'men said in the first months after the boycott was called sales at his family-owned fast food franchise jumped 30 percent. But he said he has noticed little benefit in recent months.

And Mr. Mo'men said, despite the boycott, his sales of Coca Cola have soared in the past year. Also, he told VOA, he relies on America in ways his customers do not even see. He points out that his restaurant's broilers and production equipment are American-made. He and many other Egyptian businessmen say they would prefer to buy Egyptian, but he says in many cases there is no high-quality alternative to American products.

Businessman Khalil Nasrallah runs Wadi Food Processing, which sells a wide range of gourmet food products. He said even if there is an Egyptian alternative to an American product, it is not always purchased because it may be too expensive.

"When we go to the better quality to the real top end quality we are always faced with 'why are you so expensive?' People are very price sensitive and to produce something of a much higher quality you know, disease free or virus free, or whatever, no contamination, you have to spend money. Then you want to sell it on the Egyptian market, which is in general very price sensitive," Mr. Nasrallah said.

Loula Zaklama is president of a public relations firm, Rada Research, in Cairo that has several U.S. companies as clients. She said the boycott is ineffective and believes the time has come for Arabs to find another way to convey their opposition to U.S. policies, by, for example, sending a message to Americans who export goods to Egypt.

"I mean we as a business community, we try to give a message to the Americans. If I give the example of Louisiana, Louisiana is a very high exporter of wheat to Egypt, of cereal to Egypt. Now the congressman of Louisiana does not see to what extent his Louisiana state is going to be harmed. Our job is to tell them what is happening," Mr. Zaklama said.

Chamber of Commerce Director Fahmy also advocates using technology to make Americans aware of Arab concerns. "America is a very open society and you can get you message across in many different ways. Technology is great. People are now using e-mails, faxes or writing letters to the media or congressmen or senators," Mr. Fahmy said.

Mr. Fahmy said, as people do in the States, Egyptians should take advantage of all the means that are available to them to get their message across.

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