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Cairo Consular Officer and Behavior

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Found this article tonight and thought it was interesting:

In the three months I have lived in Cairo, I have made a few observations. Not all of them have been about the “natives”, however. Much of what I’ve learned while living in Egypt has been about us – the Americans. And some of it isn’t pretty.

The arrogance. The chauvinism. The bigotry. Nearly all my life I assumed those working in the Foreign Service and other diplomatic services represented the best of our country. On balance, it seems diplomatic status brings out the uglier aspects of our society. My observations may seem harsh to some. I am speaking strictly about Foreign Service Officers stationed here in Cairo, but I imagine there are many others who are as bad or worse…”oil wives”, for example.

Although my indictment of the collective character of the Foreign Service will seem exaggerated and anti-American, I should state for the record that I am passionate about what the mythical America stands for — minus the slavery, the racism, the sexism, the elitism, the organized crime and corruption, the exploitation, and the odd foreign adventure for profiteering corporates and their politician friends. I love my country. I would give my life to defend it. In fact, I have sworn an oath to do so. So to all the Ann Coulter types who are thinking about questioning my patriotism, or any of that psuedo-fascist drivel: Don’t go there. Unlike most of you, I actually serve my country…although I’m less sure about what that means these days. I digress. I wanted to say that my observations and attributions are harsh, but they are accurate.

Unravelling the reasons for my disillusionment is a bit complicated. I am at times guilty of what I find offensive in others. In some cases, I’m not even aware of my behavior. In other cases, I am not trying hard enough to do what I demand of others. This is my disclaimer — no I am not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I should not cry foul when I see one. In addition to being imperfect, I am also on the receiving end of the sniffishness commonly observed of Foreign Service Officers by outsiders. I admit that this may affect the color of my observations. Despite my faults and biases, the points made below are important.

There is definitely a disconnect between what the Foreign Service as an institution represents and the attitudes of the individuals who work for it. Like most issues that are more social than institutional, the disconnect is found within the informal interstices of workaday life, during which unbecoming behaviors are revealed, if only fleetingly. However, these moments are what create the lasting impressions, shaping the interpersonal relationships that are the backbone of our diplomatic relations.

Which leads me back to the arrogance, chauvinism and bigotry. It doesn’t take a lot of looking to see how our career diplomats regard themselves in comparison to others. Their inflated sense of self-importance would never pass for acceptable behavior in their native land. To the more affluent and worldly of my acquaintances in Cairo, the act is very transparent. They seem bemused when conversation turns to members of the US diplomatic mission. Mid-level economic and social status, combined with a mediocre education (which is all an Ivy League pedigree seems to get you these days), combined with a sense of entitlement befitting political royalty, and you have all the makings of a parody. For many among those of the Egyptian elite I have talked to, the comportment of many in the US Foreign Service inspires a subtle derision I would only expect from the British, the French, or the Swiss.

To poor Egyptians and other foreigners working in Cairo, it is not a laughing matter. The authority diplomats wield with impunity in Cairo is, in fact, much like that of the Egyptian elite. The exclusionary practices of American diplomatic expats is notorious. If you’re not a Foreign Service Officer, you’re not as smart as they are — unless you’re richer than they are, or more educated, in which case you’re a commodity. If you’re Filipino, or Malaysian, or Sri Lankan, or of any other ethnicity, you must be the hired help — another kind of commodity, to be sure. Forget any sort of acknowledgement on the street from a Foreign Service Officer, much less any invitation to join them for lunch in their sequestered but shabby clubs. Even if you are an American citizen, enjoying the same diplomatic status, and happen to have an “ethnic” background, you should just assume second-class treatment. (You can talk to my wife about that.) And if you’re a poor Egyptian, you’re dirty, stupid, untrustworthy, and worse.

But these people aren’t just bigoted toward the poor and toward people from the Asian subcontinent. They take aim at anyone who isn’t in the Foreign Service. And within their ranks, there are very fine distinctions between who is worthy of respect and who is not. For example, a political officer will not consider a consular officer of the same rank as his or her equal. In a similar way, Foreign Service Officers consider their military counterparts as lacking depth and intelligence. It is pretty clear, from my observations and from those of other people I have talked to, that Foreign Service Officers have little regard for others they consider to be cut from lesser cloth.

Their sense of civic responsibility and respect for the larger society they live in is lacking, as well. They take on pets when they are here in Cairo and leave them to languish on the streets when they move to other posts. (There is a huge problem with stray animals in Cairo, not all due to American expats, to be sure. But they are part of the problem.) They allow their servants to dump rotting garbage on street corners in their posh neighborhoods. They hire nannies to take care of their children and to work long hours besides, and then pay them a pittance.

To be fair, all the other expat communities do this as well, and the worst of the whole lot are the Egyptian elites. In the defense of Americans, all the domestic workers I have talked to prefer to work for them. Americans, it should be noted, pay more on average for domestic help in the home. American women do not keep their maids and nannies in a virtual prison. They don’t withhold food and passports when they are unhappy with something. American men, as far as I know, don’t sexually assault these vulnerable people. If we’re keeping score, the Americans are certainly not the worst offenders. But we are not keeping score.

There are notable examples of Americans who really do make a difference in their communities in Cairo. There are some who represent what it truly means to be an American — I do not refer to individual pursuit of the American dream, but to the more down-to-earth values we find in small towns across the United States that are best summed up in France’s motto: Liberté, égalité, and fraternité. They volunteer at local churches and other non-governmental organizations. They spay, neuter, feed and shelter stray animals. They teach english and vocational skills to Sudanese refugees, and give them financial and material assistance. They organize cooperatives for the working poor and help get their products to fair-price markets. And some of them are doing much more. But these typically aren’t Foreign Service Officers, or their spouses. They are usually teachers, charity workers, and the like and they are accompanied by many other expats not of diplomatic status. While Foreign Service workers do important work in advocating for human rights, democracy, and economic development, they are paid to do this as professionals. This does not entitle them to behave so badly.

Frankly, my opinion of them would change if they could be a little more civil to others. I don’t think they will ever shed their bigotted attitudes toward those who are “different”, but they can at least keep those attitudes to themselves and uphold what the embassy touts as its high standards of personal comportment. They would earn my admiration and respect by putting a little more effort into cleaning up their streets and alleviating some of the public ills of their neighborhoods. They certainly have the means and the time to do so…much more than the Egyptian government seems to have, in any case. If a few more of these “important people” could demonstrate more civility, I could look past their petty intra- and interoffice politics. I might even look past the silly comments and subtle brushoffs my own kind experience in their company.

In a way, this is very emblematic of how the United States is perceived — we come to a foreign country, we boss everyone around and act as if we’re better than they, and we leave them to clean up the mess after we get what we want. There are few exceptions to this rule from the perspective of our hosts. We have got to change this perception. And even if the current administration has no desire to do so at the policy level, Americans in the Foreign Service can make a tremendous impact on the ground, just by being a little more involved and a little kinder. We Americans are so much better than the world believes. And we have so much more to offer. We need to give the rest of the world a reason to believe in us now more than ever.

If you love me, then I have everything I need

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