‘Dear Starbucks Customer, First and foremost I want to thank you for making Starbucks the $6.4 billion global company it is today, with more than 90,000 employees, 9,700 stores and 33 million weekly customers. Every latte and macchiato you drink at Starbucks is a contribution to the close alliance between the United States and Israel; in fact it is – as I was assured when being honored with the Israel 50th Anniversary Friend of Zion Tribute Award – key to Israel’s longterm PR success. Your daily chocolate chip frappucino helps pay for student projects in North America and Israel, presenting them with the badly needed Israeli perspective on the intifada.”
A few days after the dramatic takeover of the Turkish flotilla, this four-year-old chain letter, dated July 11, 2006, ostensibly from Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, came back to life and went out to another cycle of sends and resends through e-mail and social networks. Numerous young Egyptians received the message.
Some of them took it rather seriously and decided to act on it.
Boycotts. Old motives, new tactics
Within a few days, on June 6, a brand-new protest action took place in
front of one of Cairo’s Starbucks branches. The hot and humid Cairo
weather didn’t prevent dozens of foreign and Egyptian activists from
spending all afternoon in front of the popular café protesting against
Starbucks’ alleged support of Israel. Many had seen or heard of the
chain letter prior to their coming to the place. The protesters raised
Turkish and Palestinian flags and held “Israeli terrorism” signs. They
chanted anti-Israeli slogans and admonished Starbucks customers.
The incident was reported by the boycott and divestment Web site, as
well as by Egyptian blogger Zenobia, who called it “a bold and
It’s important to keep in mind that Starbucks is an American company
which is not even represented in Israel after its only branch was shut
down in 2003, while Egypt is considered to be a moderate Arab country,
an important American ally in the Middle East, which is also tied by the
peace treaty with Israel.
The Cairo demonstrations came after similar demonstrations in Beirut in February.
After those demonstrations, Starbucks issued a press statement saying,
“We believe that last week’s protest in Beirut was based on falsehoods
and put individuals in our store at risk. We encourage people in the
region to verify the facts about Starbucks from reputable and respected
sources and to share those facts about us. Starbucks Coffee Company is a
non-political organization. We do not support any political or
Further, allegations that Starbucks provides financial support to the
Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army in any way are completely
false. We are a company with stores in over 50 countries, including more
than 300 stores in nine Middle Eastern countries.”
A QUICK SEARCH for the origins of “Schultz letter” discloses that the
real author is Australian- based Andrew Winkler, a writer and an
outspoken critic of Israel, and author of the “ZioPedia – All there is
to know about Zionism” – Web site, who admitted a few days after the
letter was first published that he was behind it. “The Howard Schultz
spoof letter above has caused quite a bit of a stir. We had over 10,000
visitors reading this article in the past 24 hours. Some of them were
not quite sure whether the article was ‘kosher’ or not. Well, it was and
Howard Schultz never wrote that letter, I did. If you didn’t find it
funny, blame it on my German humor. However, all the statements I made
in that letter about donations, sponsorships, political views, etc. –
are based on factual Howard Schultz actions and quotes, as 1⁄2 hour of
Googling will easily confirm to anyone interested,” Winkler writes.
As a matter of fact, although the Schultz- Winkler letter gave a
significant push to anti-Starbucks activities in Egypt and other Arab
countries, the coffee fury began a few years earlier. In June 2002
students at Cairo, Dubai and Beirut universities, infuriated by
Schultz’s criticism of Yasser Arafat, proclaimed a boycott of Starbucks
and held a protest action in four of its branches in Beirut. Since then,
each cycle of violence in Arab-Israeli arena causes a spike in
anti-Starbucks, anti-McDonalds and anti-Coca-Cola activities.
THERE ARE 16 Starbucks branches in Egypt today. They are situated in
Cairo, Alexandria and Sharm e-Sheikh. There are also hundreds of
branches in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Jordan.
While many young and hip city dwellers who can afford spending a few
hundred Egyptian pounds a month on coffee associate Starbucks with a
trendy lifestyle, a sizable number of young Egyptians believe the chain
should be pressured by boycott to stop its support of Israel or leave
the Middle East altogether.
Do these two groups come from the same social strata? Dr. Gil Feiler, an
expert on Middle East economy and the founder of Infoprod Research,
believes that the boycott will not affect the chain since “the elites
and the diplomats will keep on shopping at Starbucks, while the
supporters of Islamic groups aren’t Starbucks’ target audience anyway.”
Yet the activity on social network groups such as Facebook shows that
the boycott is a crossover trend that finds support not only from Muslim
Brotherhood activists and the poor, but also in high society and among
foreigners who reside in Egypt. And if only a decade ago, before 9/11,
the second intifada, war in Iraq, the Muhammad caricature scandal and
other fateful events, Cairo tour guides would point out McDonald’s,
Wimpy, TGI Friday and others, naming the international food chains as
sign of modernity and progress. Now when Egypt is practically swimming
in Western labels, technology and lifestyle, it seems that some elements
in society have a different perspective on these issues. What was once
the symbol of progress and modernity has turned for some into a banner
of Western arrogance and alienation.
COURTESY OF THE WEB the news about the new round of boycott activism
spread quickly among young Egyptians at home and abroad. Apparently,
some Egyptians were already irritated with Starbucks and other fast food
chains for other reasons than the Jewish origins of the owner or his
ties with Israel.
“It’s not the first time that something like this is taking place. I
personally don’t go to Starbucks because I protest about the
Westernization and Americanization of our culture.
Anyway, we have more effective tools now to use, like street
demonstrations and protests,” said Ahmed, a young political activist
from Alexandria. Abdullah is another Egyptian who keeps away from
Starbucks. He was born and raised in Alexandria and for the last few
years has resided in Europe. Abdullah says he had heard of the boycott
from different directions, but explains that personally he wouldn’t go
to Starbucks because it’s too crowded and also expensive. “I prefer
regular coffee to expensive brands, plus you always need to wait in line
since the place is always crowded. I understand where this rage is
coming from; after all I personally know people who participated in this
[Turkish] flotilla. However, it also seems to me that the Jewish
origins of the owner of Starbucks had something to do with the boycott.
It’s too bad that people in Egypt do not differentiate between Israelis,
Jews and Zionists, and very few can tell the difference,” he says.
Hisham Nasser, 26, of Cairo, says that he used to visit a Starbucks
branch quite often until he received the chain letter through Twitter in
early June. “I figured out that the money I pay Starbucks is used later
to arm and equip the Israeli military which shoots at the Palestinians
and the internationals who come to help the besieged Gaza.”
Nasser believes that it’s about time that Egyptians make their choices
wisely and use their consumer power so that it will contribute to Egypt
and the Arab world. He doesn’t consider himself anti-American, though.
“I like America, I think it’s a great country. But apparently its
leadership is under the negative influence of the Jewish lobby and this
we resist totally,” he explains.
Few if any Egyptians were caught by surprise by the renewed
anti-Starbucks protests. “The people in Egypt are pretty un-American,
therefore I would not be surprised by these protests” says Maria, an
American who spent a few years studying and working in Egypt.
The first and extremely turbulent decade of the 21st century saw the
rise of a new wave of boycotts advanced by individuals and NGOs, local
and international. Different initiatives promoted by Palestinian and
pro-Palestinian activists in Arab countries, Europe and the US attempted
to raise boycott awareness among computer savvy youth through e-mails,
social networks, etc. “New media contributed hugely to this cause, as
earlier, people weren’t aware so much of the names and the companies and
the issues. Now they are and they can have their say,” says
Arab states decided they should boycott Coca Cola for trading with
Israel. The big boycott wave hit Cairo and other Arab capitals since
2000, when the second intifada broke out. It was rumored in the
beginning of 2000 that the Coca-Cola label in Arabic actually spells
“death to Muhammad,” while a later spin explained that the word Pepsi
actually stands for “pay every penny to save Israel.”
And just a year ago, influential Islamic preacher Sawfat Hijazi
explained during an interview on An-Nas TV that Starbucks should be shut
down in the Arab world because its logo includes the image of Jewish
Queen Esther wearing the crown of Persia.
Though Hijazi called on his followers to withdraw from violence against
Starbucks, he stressed that “no faithful Muslim should ever set foot in
the door of Starbucks.”
The company’s explanation that its emblem is in fact taken from a
16th-century Norse woodcut didn’t convince Hijazi not to further promote
his own version of Starbucks’ history.
SINCE 2006 when the Danish caricature scandal first broke, a huge wave
of mobile phone text messages, e-mails, speeches and newspaper coverage
encouraged an economic boycott against Danish products.
The products of Denmark and other Scandinavian countries were boycotted.
Arla Foods, a Danish firm, estimated it took a 10% hit on its revenues
because of the boycott.
The Danske Bank estimated that Danish goods worth $1.6 billion annually were threatened in 20 Muslim countries.
These numbers sound very high; however, it’s important to remember that
Denmark’s GDP in 2005 was estimated to be $254.1 billion, and Danish
exports to the Middle East made up only 1.1% of total exports during
2005. So although the Danish boycott can be considered the most
effective action taken by Arabs and Muslims, it can hardly be considered
as a death blow to the global economy.
Unlike the Danish boycott many boycott initiatives fade out quietly and
rarely achieve their goals, says Dr. Gil Feiler, an expert on business
development in the Middle East and a founder of Infoprod Research, a
company that provides market surveys and consultancy services regarding
Arab markets and Israel. “These petitions are never effective, they
cannot really do anything. Also, the target audience of Starbucks are
not the same people who take interest in these actions. Diplomats,
Westerners, rich Egyptians associate Starbucks with lifestyle rather
then with the Arab- Israeli conflict,” he says.
Egyptians Abdullah and Hisham think that the reason behind the failure
of such initiatives is the general apathy of the Arab public.
“The Starbucks in Cairo and Alexandria are still packed, although many
people have heard about the Israel support rumor. If you’ll ask them,
they will answer that they are of course against the brutal use of force
and the persecutions of Palestinians, but obviously not enough to stop
drinking coffee at Starbucks,” Hisham says.
During the first round of the boycott, Starbucks issued a statement
aimed at placating the protesters – Schultz’s actions were not
representative of corporate policy: “Schultz was speaking as a private
citizen and did not give media interviews.”
The current wave of protests wasn’t dignified by any statement or press
release. Maybe the reason behind that is that since the beginning of the
Middle East Starbucks protests, hundreds of new branches were opened in
the region and dozens more are planned to open their doors during the
next five years.
So despite the rising boycott awareness, international support of the
boycott and the new technologies at the service of the protesters, it
seems that the personalized boycott is no more and perhaps even less
efficient than before. The leaders of the boycott movement in Egypt and
abroad swear that they haven’t had their last say yet, but it still
seems unlikely they will be able to shake the existing economic
realities in the Middle East, such as presence of multinational
corporations who might be in some way attached to Israel or whose heads
might be Jewish. However, disregarding the rising anti-American,
anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment in modern Egypt, a country
unsure of its political future, would be both risky and unwise.