Coffee libel in Egypt

A prank chain letter set off a wave of protests.

Starbucks Egypt 311 (photo credit: Boycott Starbucks Facebook group)
Starbucks Egypt 311
(photo credit: Boycott Starbucks Facebook group)
‘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 successful action.”
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 religious cause.
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 it wasn’t.
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 Alexandria-born Abdullah.
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.