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Shunning a Scarlet Label: 'Made in U.S.A.'

October 25, 2002|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO -- At first glance, it seems absurd to ask Ahmad Mohammed Afifi whether he is participating in an Arab boycott of American goods. A 17-year-old freshman at the prestigious American University of Cairo, he is sitting in a banquette in a sleek new coffee bar in one of Cairo's most Westernized neighborhoods, sipping a Sprite and smoking a Marlboro.

Yes, he says, he is boycotting.

Like nearly everyone here, he is angry about American support for Israel and apprehensive about any U.S.-led attack on Iraq. He wants to show his displeasure and has joined the boycott that sprang up two years ago, shortly after the start of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It's just that Afifi, like many people, has his own rules, full of nuance, about what's off-limits. Marlboro and Sprite, he has decided, are OK, because they are made in Egypt by Egyptian workers. Any product stamped "Made in U.S.A." is taboo.

However, American books, movies and music are exceptions, he says, because they are cultural items, not purely commercial products.

Afifi's rules hint at some of the complexities behind the anti-Americanism that has swept through the Arab world in the last two years and has found expression in demonstrations, some violent, and in the boycott, which has attracted adherents throughout the Middle East. Scholars and diplomats here say the Palestinian uprising has fired up the Arab world as have few events in recent memory. A poll released this month by Washington-based Zogby International found overwhelming disapproval in Arab countries of U.S. foreign policy, even as it noted continuing admiration for American values and technological prowess.

Rana Ballout, a 28-year-old Lebanese journalist, has lived in Boston, New York and Washington, and has happy memories of her time in the U.S., including a glorious road trip down California's Highway 1.

"I love the States," she said, "but I wouldn't go back." She is furious that the U.S. continues to support Israel and doesn't like the way the Bush administration has responded to the Sept. 11 attacks. So, she said, "I do what I can, and it's very personal."

She still eats at McDonald's, drinks Coke and wears Nike sneakers. But U.S. vacations are out, and she has quit smoking because, she said, she doesn't want an American company, Philip Morris, "to own my cravings."

Particularly given such idiosyncratic behavior, it is difficult to measure the boycott's impact. Targeted companies have declined to say how much they have been hurt; moreover, the boycott has coincided with a general economic downturn, so declines in sales can be partially attributable to that.

Still, the consensus among American government and business officials in the region seems to be that some sectors, particularly fast food, have been hurt significantly but the bulk of American investment has remained untouched.

"Boycotts have no effect whatsoever on the American economy, or a negligible effect," said Neil MacDonald, editor of Business Monthly, a magazine published by the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.

Many American consumer goods in the Mideast are produced locally -- and, in many cases, the companies are owned locally, as franchises -- with only a small slice of income returning to the parent company. And consumer products account for a fairly small portion of American business in the region.

In Egypt, for instance, the single largest import from America is wheat, most of which is baked by Egyptian companies and marketed as a domestic product.

Still, MacDonald said it "might not be too far off" to estimate that McDonald's restaurants and Procter & Gamble--the two most prominent targets of the boycott--have lost as much as half of their business in Egypt this year. And there have been reports that the boycott has had greater success in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.

There also is apprehension about what the future might bring for American businesses here, particularly if the United States leads an attack on Iraq.

"We don't know what could happen in the next few months," said a jittery executive with one Fortune 500 company in Cairo, who would speak only on the condition that neither he nor his corporation be named. "We don't want anybody to think about us," he said. "We want to play it low-key."

Abdulaziz Husseini, the coordinator of the boycott in Egypt, said the movement began spontaneously but eventually was organized under the umbrella of the Syrian-based Arab Boycott Bureau, created by the Arab League in 1951 to boycott Israeli products.

"We are calling on people to hold on to the idea of not cooperating, not aiding, and not normalizing with Israel," Husseini said. "And we're also sending a message to the American administration and to corporate America that their policy goes against Arab security and Arab hopes for the future."

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