Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Egyptians' uprising's other victims: OFWs

For 10 days now, Egypt--the country of Moses, the land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids, the motherland of the mummies, home of one of my favorite writers, Naguib Mahfouz, birthland of the statesman-hero Anwar Sadat, and the first nation-state in the Arab world to make peace with another ancient country, Israel--has been in turmoil.

Scorched by street protests from Cairo to Alexandria to Suez, Egypt is convulsing because its political leadership, entrenched in power for over three decades, refused to read and recognize the writings on the tea leaves calling for political reform and failed to acknowledge that the lack of bread and dignity--euphemistically subtitled 'unemployment and poverty, abuse of human rights, and graft and corruption' in the glossary of today's globalization and liberalization era--are as modern concerns as in the ancient days when the Israelis, escaping from the horrors of slavery, complained to God and rebelled against Moses for leading them out of Cairo to the wilderness only to suffer hunger.

One has only to read the account in the Old Testament to understand that this history seems to be repeating itself in Cairo today, the difference being that it's the Egyptians who are suffering from unemployment and feeling the sorrow inflicted by corruption, thus they want to kick Hosni Mubarak's teeth and get him out, not them escaping Egypt like the Israelis did millennium years ago.

Mubarak has only to read the account in the Old Testament to know that Moses, to satiate the hunger of the Israelis in the diaspora, begged the Lord to rain them down with manna, a miracle that might not be possible today because the protagonists are raining down stones, instead of biscuits, on the streets of Cairo. Mubarak needs to give the Egyptians more fita bread.

Moses had to decentralize his divine dictatorship by dividing the Israelis into 12 tribes, nominating leaders, and making them autonomous to quell their rebelliousness. Mubarak today needs to hold free and honest elections, not rump assemblies where his military deputies apportion the levers of power to the exclusion of the greater majority.

In the global arena, Egypt is an important geopolitical player. This is why the Egypt uprising commands attention and interest. Many pundits have opined that however the uprising plays out in the end, it will re-shape the political and economic map of the Middle East and recast the international security equation in the US, Asia, and Europe, as it had already in northern Africa with Tunisia as exemplar.

To many Filipinos, Egypt may not generate so much interest as it does, say, in the Americans, or in the Israelis, or in the Iranians. The only reason why the turmoil in Egypt is getting prominence in the six o'clock news in Manila is the presence in Cairo of some 6,000 souls, also called overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Caught in the crossfire of the uprising, OFWs in Egypt have become yet again the headline fodder, with the question, "What is the government doing to protect them from harm?" becoming standard fare in the news leads.

Indeed, what should the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III do ensure that the OFWs in Egypt are out of harm's way?

The hot-headed among us, including Migrante, not being familiar with the ways of bureaucracy, are quick to fix blame on the government for its seeming inaction. Critics say that the government should have sent in planes to Cairo and hauled off home those 6,000 OFWs at the first sign of trouble.

Wrong. Terribly wrong, and I'll explain why.

There is a listening post in Cairo called the Philippine Embassy which feeds the government in Manila with information on what's happening in Egypt. If we have faith in our diplomatic representatives, we can say that PE Cairo would have been giving Malacanang regular and correct updates on the Egyptian situation.

Every post in countries where we have OFWs has a contingency plan covering all sort of crisis, including emergencies involving OFWs. This plan is regularly updated and finetuned. This plan outlines the measures the Philippine government would take in the event there is a need to, say, evacuate our nationals from an area of conflict.

The government's policy today is to expand the provision of welfare and protection to all OFWs regardless of their status in a foreign counrty. This policy governs the conduct of all officials of government in foreign soils. It is this policy that underlines the contingency plan for OFWs in Egypt.

As a guest in a foreign country, one cannot just leave your host's premises without the niceties and courtesies due the hosts. The 6,000 OFWs are guests. One can only imagine how the government of Egypt would be offended if the Philippine government ordered all Filipino nationals to leave on Day One of the protests. Diplomatic courtesy as an element in international relations is the standard norm. A government can violate it only on its own peril, for the risks are incalculable. Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo knows this fully well.

But going back to the question, "What are we to do?", I think what the government lacked in the current situation is transparency.

It failed to communicate to the public, through the media, its plan, its action, and its activities in Egypt. The Department of Foreign Affairs, for example, should have come out with an all-out public communication campaign with the message that the 6,000 OFWs are safe where they are now; that most of them don't want to go home; that they have a place to go to when the conflict worsens; and that there is transportation, shelter, food, water, and medicines available in the safehouse (if it's a sfaehouse) where they are going to be temporarily. It should have assured the public that, yes, the DFA is in constant communication with the 6,000; that it knows their whereabouts and how to reach them when needed.

This is not to single out the DFA or to farm out blame. It just so happened that the DFA is there in Cairo. There is no Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Egypt, so at the moment the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) could only rely on the DFA for official information about what's happening in Egypt. In any case, following the one-country approach policy, the DOLE is fully cooperating with the foreign affairs department and, as Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz said, it will do what it can to the fullest of its ability to ensure that our OFWs in Egypt emerge from this crisis safe and secure.

On a personal note, I have yet to see PE Cairo's contingency plan for this crisis. But based on experience, I think our OFWs in Egypt are better informed than all government officials and critics combined about their situation there. For all we know, they could have plans of their own better than any contingency plan crafted by the post. What they do need at this time is guidance, assurance of a firm leadership, and quick foresight and action.

The guidance will take a lot of combined persuasive personal and modern day-methods of communication--meetings, the Internet, flyers, text, etc. The leadership part is non-prescriptive; it has to be supplied, while quick foresight and action can only be had through honest and sincere work--diligent work--which, alas, is very hard to find nowadays in many government functionaries. We might need a lot of Moses to fulfill this role.

In the meantime, hold the edge of your seats and watch "Egypt: The Movie".

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