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Cairo ContestedGovernance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity$

Diane Singerman

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9789774162886

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774162886.001.0001

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Political Consumerism and the Boycott of American Goods in Egypt1

Political Consumerism and the Boycott of American Goods in Egypt1

(p.393) 15 Political Consumerism and the Boycott of American Goods in Egypt1
Cairo Contested

Diane Singerman

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the boycott within its local context as a form of political consumerism that developed in Egypt, and contextualizes it within the transnational anti-globalization and anti-war movements at the turn of the millennium. It also provides the views and practices of many of the individuals and families, who took an active part in the boycott, as well as those who were keen on showing their opposition to the campaign. The boycott can be seen as a genuine effort related to other attempts by Egyptians to mobilize in support of the Palestinian cause. It shows how authenticity; identity; and local politics affect globalization and consumerism. In general, the boycott is an excellent example of how Egyptian nationalism as well as Arab and Muslim solidarity are being revised and revived in a world where it is often assumed that globalization is leading to a homogenization of cultures, an erosion of local identities, and a lack of influence of the general public in the developing world.

Keywords:   political consumerism, boycott, American goods, Egypt, globalization, Egyptian nationalism, Muslim solidarity

I was on the Cairo metro with Khaled and Amal trying to decide where to go for lunch when suddenly the conversation shifted toward al-muqata'a (the boycott). Khaled, a thirty-year-old engineer, and his fiancée, Amal, a twenty-two-year-old university student, seemed very enthusiastic about the subject and started to brief me about the latest developments in the campaign. They then suggested we go to Shabrawy-a popular local fast food chain-forfuul and ta'miyalfalafil sandwiches because they no longer dined out at American fast food restaurants. Once we were at the restaurant, the boycott dominated our conversation and revolved around opinions I had repeatedly heard from other informants:

We have had enough of Israeli aggression toward the Palestinians and U.S. support of such policies. The American government wants to police the whole world, but it does nothing to stop Israeli violence in the Occupied Territories. Such hypocrisy is hard to tolerate. Our Arab governments have their hands tied behind their backs and take no action because they fear U.S. retaliation. The boycott is at least a tool to express our dissatisfaction with the whole situation. It is a very easy way for us to take things into our own hands and be politically active.

(p.394) This was Khaled's description of the grass-roots boycott of Israeli and American products and companies that took shape in Egypt after the start of the aecond Palestinian Intifada in the Occupied Territories at the end of 2000.

In this paper, I examine the boycott within its local context as a form of political consumerism that developed in Egypt, and I contextualize it within the transnational anti-globalization and anti-war movements at the turn of the millennium. I base my findings on interviews and daily contact with Egyptians, most of whom were middle-class, educated youth in their mid-twenties and thirties, and their families. I present the views and practices of many of these individuals and families, who took an active part in the boycott, as well as those who were keen on showing their opposition to the campaign. My conclusions follow the argument that “what may appear to be a myriad of apparently unrelated consumer choices are in fact connected because they represent a consistent campaign in which cultural allegiances are announced and antipathies expressed” (Falk and Campbell 1997,10). In this case, the boycott can be seen as a genuine effort related to other attempts by Egyptians to mobilize in support of the Palestinian cause. It shows how authenticity, identity, and local politics affect globalization and consumerism.

As an Arab nation, Egypt has long been involved in the Palestinian question, and this latest manifestation was just another feature of the support and solidarity commonly felt toward Palestinians. In this instance, the impact that political decisions and American foreign policy came to have on local consumption patterns became a highly public, moral, and political matter. The boycott demonstrates that consumption is “shaped, driven and constrained at every point by cultural considerations” (McCracken 1988, xi). Accordingly, boycott organizers and participants held a strong conviction about the importance of collective social and political participation to fight injustice and make the world a better place. Such concerns were translated into practice at the level of everyday life and influenced the choices people made about what to buy and what to bring into their homes. The case at hand shows that consumption goes beyond commerce and simple economics and is not just a private matter or reaction to global fashion trends. Consumption is an important manifestation of culture. For this reason, the boycott campaign, which lasted from about 2001 to 2005, must be contextualized and understood as a historical development within a particular period of political and economic change.

Even though the boycott did not become a huge, permanent movement, it as nonetheless crucial in fulfilling its ideological purpose, which was to keep protest and dissent alive. It served as a learning curve, setting the groundwork (p.395) for later grass-roots mobilization movements in Egypt, such as the Kefaya (Enough!) movement and the boycott of Danish products in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East following the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that many Muslims considered insulting to Islam.

Targets, Objectives, and Reasons

The boycott targeted goods and commodities produced by Israel and by any company, regardless of origin, that invested heavily into the growth of Israel's infrastructure and economy, as well as by companies that established businesses on illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. Because the number of Israeli goods in the local Egyptian market was minimal and because a certain equation often is made between Israel and the United States, the campaign came to encompass a large array of mainly American goods, particularly those that symbolize American power and hegemony, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Nike, Lay's potato chips, Ariel laundry detergent, Marlboro cigarettes, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Heinz, and Walt Disney. The large number of foreign companies operating in Egypt, plus the actual presence of a vast array of American goods and products in local markets, facilitated the appropriation of such an environment to the boycotters' advantage. Given the availability of local substitutes of equal quality and often at similar or lower prices, consumers had even more incentive and ability to turn to these local products.

Initially, the campaign was a spontaneous one based largely on individual efforts rather than on any official or formal organizational structure or direct state policy. In fact, the Egyptian government remained silent about the whole affair and decided not to interfere with the assumption that individual consumers are free to make their own choices in a free market economy. Thus, the campaign spread through word of mouth and interpersonal networks of friends, family, students, and co-workers. On city streets, activists distributed flyers with a list of boycotted products and their alternatives. Boycott posters and drawings were put up on buildings and in store windows. Some stores displayed signs with the logo “We do not carry American products.” Organizers used the latest technologies, such as e-mail and mobile telephone messages, and set up several websites. The most popular was Katej.com, which included updated information about the campaign and the boycotted companies.

One of the earliest factors that contributed to the popularity and awareness of the campaign was its effect on Sainsbury's, a British supermarket chain that entered the Egyptian market in 1999 and opened several outlets. The chain's arrival coincided with the second Palestinian Intifada, when there (p.396) was much public anger in Egypt over Israeli incursions into the Occupied Territories. A strong outpouring of public support was manifested in student demonstrations and rallies in solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians. When a rumor spread about the: ‘Jewish’ ownership of Sainsbury's, the company's sales in Egypt dropped instantly and one of its stores was vandalized (el-Sherif 2001).2 Soon after, Sainsbury's pulled out of the Egyptian market permanently. This 2001 incident was a concrete example of the power of public mobilization, and it shifted public opinion in favor of the campaign, giving it a huge boost.

Thus, the main objective of the campaign was to mobilize the public through informal channels and to get consumers politically involved in order to send a message to the American government that its foreign policies were unacceptable. Even though many participants doubted that the campaign would have actual economic consequences, they nevertheless believed that as a long-term economic tool, the boycott could hurt the targeted multinational corporations and could prevent them from establishing or expanding their operations in Israel and its illegal settlements. According to Mahmoud Abdel Fadil, a professor of economics at Cairo University, the campaign also held the prospect of these companies pressuring and lobbying their own governments to change their policies toward the Middle East, especially the pro-Israeli stance of the American government (2002, 30).

According to Mohamed Farid Khamis, the head of the Industry Committee at the People's Assembly:

The United States is Israel's main partner and it should be treated as such. … The local Egyptian economy must be strengthened so that dependence on the U.S. is decreased. It is not possible for Egyptians to be importing tons of wheat and corn worth billions from the U.S. while at the same time calling for a boycott of its products. It is therefore crucial that simultaneously local production of such strategically needed goods is increased (Mahmoud 2002, 29).

Thus, the economic development of local industries and services was integral to the boycott's long-term objectives of filling any gaps left by boycotted companies, providing work opportunities to those affected by the campaign, and, finally, boosting the local economy and the consumption of alternative goods. Indeed, several examples of local companies that seized the opportunity to offer their products as alternatives are discussed later on in the chapter.

As indicated earlier, the main reasons behind the boycott were, first, that a large number of Egyptians resented the actions of the Israeli government (p.397) toward the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories, and, second, that they had an increasing sense of helplessness regarding what they considered American double standards and unjust policies in the region. Many believed that Israel was able to continue the occupation of Palestinian lands because of unconditional American aid and support. This kind of helplessness led to a sense of humiliation, compounded by the fact that Arab governments failed to stand up for their people's rights. Ahmed, a twenty-eight-year-old economist, explained this sense of frustration:

Our own government is silent toward American and/or Israeli policies, and we could not find a means to express our grievance and anger other than the boycott. It is a straightforward and simple instrument with which we can safely react to what is happening around us. Once people learn about the campaign they participate in it because most of us feel the same way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The third reason behind the boycott was the widespread belief that the American government had become increasingly hostile toward Arabs and Muslims after the September 2001 World Trade Center tragedy in New York. Finally, a significant number of Egyptian interests noticed US. interference in local Egyptian affairs and the US. government's constant attempts to impose its own views on the Egyptian government. A perfect example of such US. interference was the Qualified Industrial Zone Agreement that Egypt, the US., and Israel signed at the end of 2004. The agreement gave Egyptian textile exports to the US. tax-free status and thus the ability to compete with other exporters, such as China and India, whose exports would still be subject to a 35 percent tariff The controversy erupted because Egyptian producers had to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts and include at least II percent in Israeli components in their exports to get the exemption (Howell 2004; Egypt-US. Business Council 2004).

During my fieldwork, the Qualified Industrial Zone Agreement was still at the negotiation stage, yet it kept appearing in many conversations I had with informants. The main objective of the agreement-to promote cooperation and economic development in the region-was not seen as such by many Egyptians. For example, Maged, a thirty-three-year-old bank employee, saw things very differently, saying, “This is a perfect example of how the US. government imposes its will on the Egyptian government and Egyptian businessmen and forces them to cooperate with Israel regardless of the opinions of the Egyptian people.”

(p.398) Local media reported widely on the terms of the agreement. The opposition al-Wafd newspaper published an article on its front page with the headline, “American Enticements to Push Egyptian Businessmen towards Normalizing Relations with Israel” (Ebeid 2002, I). Egyptians were persistently exposed to such occurrences through daily news on television, in newspapers, and increasingly through the satellite channels that provided a range of perspectives on events taking place throughout the region and the world.

Market Results and Company Reactions

A constant debate went on about the actual consequences or results of the boycott. “Is it working or not?” was a common question that people grappled with on a daily basis. More critical was the question, “Are we going to hurt ourselves more than we hurt anyone else with this campaign?” There was no consensus on the answers.

Within the context of local industry, critics argued that the campaign would only hurt local businesses because most of the targeted goods were produced in Egypt by Egyptian workers. Another problem was the lack of reliable evidence and information, which meant that some companies were falsely accused of ties to Israel. Last but not least, critics claimed that these multinationals were so powerful that nothing could be done to harm them. Hanan, a thirty-two-year-old secretary, summed up this argument:

We are only hurting our own economy because if targeted businesses shut down, the result will be lost jobs, lost revenues, and a slowing economy. We are at a stage where Egypt is trying to attract foreign direct investment to develop its industry and promote cooperation with the outside world. This kind of boycott does the exact opposite. It sends the wrong message to investors worldwide. If these companies get fed up they will simply pack and take their business elsewhere. … In the end we will be the losers.

Proponents of the boycott disagreed and argued that with the targeted companies gone, local ones would step up, provide jobs, and create new opportunities. They accepted the fact that though they might lose in the short run, they should be far-sighted and consider the long-term consequences, which they believed would surely be to their advantage. With a stronger economy, Egypt would not be as dependent on the U.S. for aid and assistance. This could translate into a stronger position at the negotiating table.

Let us examine some of the more tangible results of the campaign. In terms of sales, American fast food franchises in Egypt reported losses of up (p.399) to 35 percent (McGrath 2002). After conducting interviews with managers of ten fast food stores in Egypt, Al-Ahram Hebdo newspaper reported that their complaints were similar:

“The last few weeks have been really hard for us, attendance has decreased by almost half of what we are used to,” complained one Hardee's employee, an American fast food store. Another visit to one of the city's McDonald's does nothing to negate the above statements. So, the specials are on the increase; for example, two Big Macs for the price of one. One of the strongest of these is the sign at the entrance of Chili's in Ma'adi [a Cairo suburb] declaring that 10 percent of profits will be donated to the Palestinian people. Radio Shack does not hesitate to display the Egyptian and Palestinian flags in its window. Briefly, whatever is politically correct will sell. Supporting the Palestinian people through boycotting the products of its colonizer and their allies is a good cause (Hussein and Soliman 2000).

We might question the validity of the statement made here that “whatever is politically correct will sell,” but the attitudes and consumption patterns I encountered during fieldwork do support this claim, and examples of such products are presented further on in the chapter. After Sainsbury's withdrawal from the Egyptian market in 2001, many companies feared a similar fate. Some were concerned about the long-term damage the campaign would do to their image and brand name, while others feared the boycott would slow down the spread of franchises. Many companies were forced to put up a fight for the hearts and pockets of local consumers. Numerous reactions ensued, and advertisement campaigns reached frenzied levels.

The most common strategy was to offer prizes and even cash to consumers. Ariel laundry detergent had one of the biggest campaigns, offering prizes of gold coins to lucky consumers. McDonald's introduced a ‘McFalafel burger’ to offset a drop in sales of about 25 percent (Salmawy 2002). The burger, marketed with the slogan, “The original Egyptian falafel,” was a failure, not only because of the boycott but also because most consumers preferred to have their national dish at local restaurants for a fraction of the cost, just as Khaled and Amal did when they decided to go to Shabrawy for lunch.

Donations to Palestinian charities became common practice, even by such companies as Avon, with its Avonian Palestinian Campaign. The cover of the May-June 2002 Avon Catalogue, used by Avon ladies to make their sales, included a Palestinian flag at the top and announced that proceeds from their sales would be donated to the Palestinian people. This was one of many boycott lists/flyers distributed on the streets in 2002 (see figure on page 400).


Political Consumerism and the Boycott of American Goods in Egypt1

Cover of the Spring 2002 Avon Catalogue announcing support for the boycott.

This ‘ads fever’ caught up with local companies, too. Some started to change their names from previously prestigious English names to Arabic ones in an attempt to disassociate themselves from the U.S. For example, al-Reedy Group for Investment and Industry took out ads announcing a name change from the Egyptian American Company for Trade to the Egyptian-Arab Company for Trade. Some, like Seniorita Food Industries, took out ads in local magazines declaring or confirming their ‘Egyptianness,’ solidifying their claims with donations to Palestinian children. A postcard campaign and donations to Palestinian charities were advertised by Vodafone Egypt, the country's second largest mobile telephone service provider. Others, such as Coca-Cola, added a mosana'bi aydi masriya (produced by Egyptian hands) logo to their products.

Many of the people I spoke to indicated that such a tremendous increase in ads was a sign that the boycott campaign was actually working. This explosion in advertisements seemed to have an adverse effect on consumers and acted as an incentive to continue the boycott instead of a deterrent. Samia, a twenty-one-year-old university student, pointed out that “the ridiculous increase in the number of ads and prizes and all the luring tactics that the companies have started to use is proof that the campaign is affecting their sales, and they are weary of the consequences. This kind of reaction motivates us to persist in our efforts and to not give up.”

Organization and Support

As individual efforts intensified, support also came from various organizations or formal groups. Professional syndicates such as the Journalists' Syndicate, the Lawyers' Union, the Writers' Union, and the Doctors' Syndicate supported the campaign. The Pharmacists' Syndicate took early action and banned the import of Israeli pharmaceuticals (Fekry 2003). Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, the secretary general of the syndicate, claimed that most Israeli medicines went unnoticed in Egypt because of disguised packaging: “If you scratch out the fake label, you'll recognize the original Israeli mark on the boxes. … Labels are changed because a majority of the public will not buy a product clearly marked (p.401) made in Israel” (Hussein and Soliman 2000). Similarly, the General Federation of the Chambers of Commerce, which represents all traders in Egypt, called on its members to boycott Israeli products (Mahmoud 2002). This kind of support increased the credibility of the boycott and gave it a lot of media coverage and publicity at its height during 2002–03.

Through discussions and articles about the pros and cons of the boycott campaign, the mass media provided information and raised awareness in the public. A few Islamic newspapers, such as Άqidati, supported the campaign openly, and even some pro-government newspapers like al-Akhbar and al-Mussawar published articles that promoted the campaign. Other mainstream media, such as television, magazines, and newspapers like al-Ahram, al-Wafd, al-Usbu‘, and Roseal-Yusuf, reported the latest about the campaign just as they would with any other news item, but often with a pro-Palestinian bias. With the increasing freedom of the Egyptian press, the mass media were no longer simply representatives of government ideology but also were able to express popular feelings and opinions, within some constraints.

Even some foreign-language newspapers and periodicals that cater mostly to the expatriate community and to multilingual Egyptians, such as Middle East Times, Business Today, Cairo Times, AI-Ahram Weekly, and AI-Ahram Hebda, provided steady information about the campaign. This means that the local media seemed to endorse the campaign indirectly by keeping it in the news and before the eyes and ears of consumers. It is also an indication that the campaign encompassed the more affluent socioeconomic classes and thus reached various strata of society.

As the boycott gained in popularity in 2001, it needed a more organized body to direct and organize it efficiently. As a result, a group of academics, businessmen, and other influential members of society established the Egyptian Popular Boycott Committee to conduct research on specific companies and narrow down the list of companies or products to render the boycott as efficient as possible. The strength of the committee lay in the fact that it was a grass-roots organization that brought together concerned individuals from all walks of life, including professors, doctors, engineers, and writers. They came together to make the campaign a success rather than because of any political affiliations.

Other organizations, such as the Popular Movement Against Zionism and the Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada, also were active in the coordination and promotion of the campaign at the time. Ahmed Bahaa al-Din Shaaban, a member of the Popular Movement Against Zionism, and Amin Eskandar, the coordinator of the Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity, discussed their objectives and their work (p.402) on a popular television talk show hosted by journalist Hamdy Qandil, who proclaimed his support for the campaign and repeatedly promoted the boycott on his show (Ra'is al-tahrir 2002).

During the roundtable discussion, Shaaban described the boycott as a symbolic weapon newly discovered by the public and emphasized the importance of gearing the campaign in such a way as not to hurt the Egyptian economy. He argued this would be achieved through the careful selection of a number of American products whose boycott would have the most impact on these companies. He added that some companies had approached his organization requesting the removal of their names from the list of boycotted companies. In such cases, the organization asked the company to take out an ad to declare its support for the Intifada and opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements. In most cases, companies refused to comply, and their names were kept on the list.

Eskandar refuted the notion of hurting the United States economy as a ridiculous one and explained that the boycott's objective was to pressure American companies operating in Egypt and send a political message to the U.S. government that its policies in the region were unacceptable. Qandil reiterated that the boycott needed clear, well-informed long-term objectives that would only be realized through persistence, research, the continuous updating of information, and, last but not least, the development of local industries and the contribution of Egyptian producers, who would provide substitutes at competitive prices.

Entangled in this issue was the debate on globalization. Whereas globalization of trade, cultural experiences, movements of people, knowledge, and technology were seen as necessary for development and even inevitable features that Egyptian society had to accept and cope with, most Egyptians found unacceptable and offensive the American government's use of force and /or military intimidation as part of its global exercise of power. Locally, the argument was put forward that globalization could not be totally rejected nor totally embraced; instead, one had to adapt to it and learn to appropriate the opportunities it created (Yassin 2000). In fact, globalization is not a new phenomenon in Egypt. Throughout its long history Egypt has been exposed to and influenced by cultures from around the world, which it influenced in turn, and these influences have had a large role in shaping Egyptian society and the characteristics of its people.

For instance, Mervat Tallawy explains that Egypt's “many different roots in African, Arab and Mediterranean traditions and its geographical position at the crossroads of East and West have enabled it to borrow widely and to be (p.403) open to new and universal trends” (1997, 133). As the capital of Egypt, Cairo is a cosmopolitan as well as a very old city that is able to adapt to all that is new while maintaining its unique Islamic and Arab characteristics. Along with adopting new highways, suburban housing, amusement parks, luxury hotels, and western-style shopping malls, it also maintains its heritage and reproduces all that is old in its narrow streets and alleys, bazaars, and traditional neighborhoods, as well as in its contribution to the region's cultural, religious, economic, and political development. Saad Eddin Ibrahim best sums up the distinctiveness of the city:

To the Egyptians and their fellow Arabs, Cairo is at once a seat of political power, of artistic creativity and cultural pacesetting, of religious shrines and religious learning, of scholarships and higher education, of industry as well as entertainment. For Egyptians and fellow Arabs, Cairo, therefore, represents singularly what so many cities may pluralistically represent to their respective nations. In terms of regional influence, Cairo is the equivalent of the likes of Paris, the Vatican, Oxford, Hollywood, and Detroit combined (1996, 93)

Thus, the scope and significance of the boycott make it clear that along with the Palestinian-Arab dimension, there was an Islamic as well as an international or cosmopolitan appeal to this public mobilization. The Islamic dimension was evident in the support of religious leaders such as Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand imam of al-Azhar, as well as Grand Mufti Sheikh Nasr Farid Wassel, who legitimized the boycotting of Israeli and American goods in 2000. Many of the boycott slogans incorporated religion to appeal to the public. Some posters, for instance, urged consumers to “Boycott Ariel and Coca-Cola to save a Muslim” or proclaimed, “Your money contributes to the death of our Muslim brothers.” Several Islamic web sites provided updated information about the boycott, including muslimedia.com and islamonline.net, which provided posters for the campaign.

The International Dimension of the Boycott

These various facets of the boycott created common causes that allowed for the development of similar campaigns in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In 2002, many businesses appeared to be incurring considerable sales losses. Overall sales at some American fast food outlets were down by up to 40 percent in the Arab world when the campaign reached its peak in 2002–2003. Activists in Lebanon, for example, promoted the (p.404) boycott of American companies that dealt with Israel, and the campaign against Starbucks in Beirut attracted attention worldwide (Pallister 2003).

Simultaneous boycotts of American goods also took shape in Europe during this period. These were led by Arabs and Muslims living in European countries or by groups and nongovernmental organizations that supported the Palestinian cause and sought a change in U.S. foreign policy to end the Israeli occupation. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign of Britain, for example, provided information on its website, bigcampaign.org.

Activists and boycott promoters tried to link the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other problems around the world. In 2003, Ashraf Bayoumi, the head of the Popular Boycott Committee, emphasized such links: “Our criterion is that [the products] should be symbols of U.S. globalization, not just be related to the war on Iraq or the Palestinian Intifada. … We want people to boycott U.S. products because of Iraq or Palestine, but also for the same reasons as people who boycott products made through child labor” (El Amrani 2003).3 In places such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, India, and even Europe, anti-war demonstrations have been accompanied by calls to boycott American products that stand for corporate power and U.S. domination. International peace groups and anti-globalization advocates have made similar calls. Thus, one of the unforeseen results of this mobilization was that it brought together leaders of protest networks from around the world and created new links and shared objectives at the international level.

This international dimension of the boycott is very much in line with Donatella della Porta and Hanspeter Kriesi's argument that “in the contemporary world, social action in a given time and place is increasingly conditioned by social action in very distant places” (Della Porta and Kriesi 1999, 3)· According to Anthony Giddens, “Globalization implies the creation and intensification of world wide social relations which link distinct localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring miles away and vice versa” (1990, 64). The case at hand indicates that political consumerism, which is on the rise in many parts of the world, develops not in a vacuum but in reaction to a wide range of global, regional, and local socioeconomic and political factors.

According to Arjun Appadurai, globalization has been going on for centuries, and it would be naive to allege that it is a new phenomenon (1986). Opponents argue that contemporary globalization is a sweeping, totalizing force that promotes modernization, Άmericanization,’ ‘westernization,’ and the loss of cultural diversity, along with the spread of western commodities around the world and the ensuing proliferation of western consumption (p.405) patterns that are detrimental to local cultures. This process also creates, however, a forum in which local people are able to form their own reactions to global influences in accordance with their specific cultures, their histories, and their region's political and economic environment. All of these factors intersect and produce specific consumption patterns and meanings unique to each locality. It is therefore this same environment that made the boycott possible in the first place. The complex composition of Cairo's specific localities reinforced the notion that, through political consumerism, globalization becomes a dialectical process that gives power to the ‘powerless’ and allows for new channels of political participation. The boycott campaign was not just about political pressure and about the extent of its success or failure at the economic level; it served as an example of how grass-roots movements arise, change, and, along the way, transform civil society.

Today, consumer society “incorporates political and economic significance along with social and cultural ones” (Edwards 2000, 30). In such an environment, a boycott represents a form of social movement and collective consumerist action that is accessible to all, a flexible tool that can be used in a wide variety of contexts to achieve diverse objectives. The campaign could be a perfect example of the extent to which multinational companies depend on local people for their success or failure. It shows that “transnational corporations cannot simply ignore local sensibilities and customs” (Classen and Howes 1996, 183).

In Morality and the Market, N. Craig Smith argues for the relevance of boycotts as indicative of “the relationships between business and society and specifically the social control of business” (1990, 14). He defines boycotts as “the organized exercising of consumer sovereignty by abstaining from purchase of an offering in order to exert influence on a matter of concern to the customer and over the institutions making the offering” (Smith 1990, 140). Smith goes on to advocate boycotts as socially empowering:

As a non-violent consumer action and a social and political technique … direct action may be symbolic, designed to gain public attention, … and demonstrate strength of feeling or breadth of support. In so doing, the group has the sense of being active and morale is raised and maintained. Alternatively, or additionally, direct action may be designed to achieve concrete results (Smith 1990, 135–36).

Consumers often are regarded as powerless victims of contemporary consumer society, but “consumer activism and consumer rebellion,” such as we have seen in this boycott, challenges the above notion (Edwards 2000, II). (p.406) This case reveals how consumers can be active in taking matters into their own hands and voicing their concerns through a campaign that no one can take away from them. For example, even though many participants realized that the boycott would not have any quick or short-term effect on either the U.S. or the Israeli economy, they had a great sense of personal accomplishment, gratification, and empowerment, as evidenced in statements such as Samia's when she criticized the increase in advertisements as “useless strategies.”

Such boycotts have been used for a variety of objectives and will continue to serve as a tool for social change no matter who the participants might be. The campaigns against the Swiss Nestle Corporation (Dobbing 1988), against the infant food industry as a whole in the 1970Sand early 1980s, and against the apartheid government of South Africa are successful examples of boycotts in which activist groups from around the world joined forces (Barovick 1982). In the case of infant formula, the campaign led to the World Health Assembly adopting an international code of conduct for the marketing of infant formula in 1981. The anti-apartheid movement led to the adoption of a resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations that condemned the South African government's policy of apartheid and urged all states “to terminate all military, economic, technical, and other cooperation with South Africa” (Muir 1976, 25).

Even this Egyptian or Arab boycott is not a new one. In fact, the first Arab boycott of Israel was an ‘official’ one that took place after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.The Council of the Arab League established the Central Boycott Office in Damascus, Syria, in 1954and issued its first formal Boycott Declaration (Teslik 1982). According to Dan Chill, “Resolution 16 stated that Israeli products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable in the Arab countries and called upon all Arab institutions, organizations, merchants, community agencies, and individuals … to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods” (1976, I). The boycott later was expanded to include foreign companies doing business in Israel (Smith 1990).

This earlier campaign was poorly organized by Arab governments and its implementation remained at the official level, with no grass-roots participation. It was also difficult to enforce because the United States government passed a law against U.S. firms complying with the boycott in any way (Simon 1976). This meant that the campaign's success was limited to the prohibition of direct cooperation with Israel, as third-party boycotts were not possible. The campaign faded even further after the Middle East peace process of 1991. When the Arab League met in October 2002 to discuss reactivating this (p.407) boycott, Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania, which have diplomatic ties with Israel, did not attend the conference. So, while an agreement was reached to reactivate the campaign, Arab governments achieved very little in concrete terms.


An important result of the ‘unofficial’ boycott campaign was the boost it gave to the consumption of local goods. A variety of substitutes started to replace long-cherished foreign goods, or at least competed with them with great success. One of the most interesting cases was a product launched in 2002 that was named Abu Άmar after former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (see below). The small bags of corn chips carried a picture of Arafat with the Palestinian flag and a caption that read, “Hand in hand, we are building our future; the more you buy, the more you build.” The product was mainly targeted at children and sold for 25 piasters, or about 5 U.S. cents. The Egyptian company that made the product promised to donate part of its profits to Palestinian children.

Locally produced soft drinks, especially the Fayrouz line of fruit-flavored malt beverages, and a large variety of fruit juices produced by companies such as Juhayna and Enjoy seemed to be available at the right time and place. Many consumers turned to these beverages not only for their taste and quality but also as a conscious choice to avoid American soft drinks that had prevailed in

Political Consumerism and the Boycott of American Goods in Egypt1

A bag of Abu Άmmar (a.k.a Yasser Arafat) corn snacks produced by a local Egyptian company during the boycott.

(p.408) the past. Many local fast food chains, such as the Mo-men fast food sandwich chain, jumped at the opportunity, increasing the number of their advertisements to attract consumers and to compete with boycotted companies such as Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and KFC. European products such as Persil and Omo also increased their market share when consumers turned away from the American Ariel laundry detergent, which previously dominated the market. These few cases are good examples of how many local companies in fact benefited from the boycott campaign.

This phenomenon also took place at a transnational level, as similar campaigns developed in other locales. In a report in the Middle East Times, PepsiCo executives blamed the campaign for a great decrease in their sales outside the United States. Between 2000 and 2005, fast food outlets in Saudi Arabia, such as KFC and Burger King, reported an up to 50 percent drop in sales. McDonald's and Burger King outlets were attacked in Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Cairo, and Qatar, and losses led McDonald's to close two of its six restaurants in Jordan in 2002. During that same period, supermarkets in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt were pulling American brands from their shelves, and Coca-Cola faced a 10 percent drop in its sales in the region (“Brand Wars” 2002).

In another example, Iran, which produces Zam Zam Cola, was hardly able to keep up with demand in Gulf States in 2002 and launched the soft drink in Europe as well.4 Products such as Arab Cola and Muslim Up were being produced in France by Arab and Muslim expatriates attempting to provide an alternative to similar American brands (Majidi and Passariello 2003). Another popular product in Europe and the Middle East was Mecca-Cola. This was a cola-type soft drink produced in France in 2002 by Tawfiq Mathlouthi, who ran a radio station for France's Muslim minority. According to Mathlouthi, his product is as political as it is commercial:

Mecca Cola is not just a drink; it is an act of protest against Bush and Rumsfeld and their policies. … I got faxes from China and Australia and we have got many deals in North Africa. … People are thirsty for a way to stand up to U.S. hypocrisy. … It is a rejection of American politics, imperialism and hegemony and a protest against the Zionist crime financed and supported by America (“Mecca Cola” 2003, AI).

Ten percent of Mecca-Cola's profits would be donated to Palestinian charities and another 10 percent to European nongovernmental organizations promoting peace around the world (Murphy 2003). Mathlouthi explained, “You can't fight violence with violence, so we're pressuring America in the (p.409) economic way” (Kovach 2002, 9). The company's online advertisements used images of the Intifada, which seemed to be a successful strategy. As demand for the drink skyrocketed, the company was struggling to keep up with orders (Tagliabue 2002). The company's logo—“Don't drink foolishly, drink with commitment!”– brought in orders from Saudi Arabia and from throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, China, Russia, and even the United States (Kovach 2002). Many such products are thriving to this day in parts of the Middle East and Europe.

These types of developments show that consumer goods have a significance that goes far beyond the commercial value or utility that manufacturers and producers intend. Both locally and internationally, consumers' avoidance of certain products and selective consumption of others elucidates human agency and is a reflection of how goods symbolically communicate cultural meanings that the wider community has assigned to them (Douglas and Isherwood 1978). This designation of local values to ‘foreign’ commodities says much about the lived experiences of ordinary citizens and could be seen as a manifestation and reiteration of their shared purpose and vision for a better future. When this type of political consumerism is manifested in the form of boycott campaigns-as we saw in the cases of Nestle and South Africa-and when consumers worldwide share a vision and link up with politicized fellow consumers elsewhere, the results can be noteworthy.


In the Egyptian context, when consumers purchase a product or refuse to do so they are spontaneously expressing what is important to their own identity while affirming, reproducing, and shaping this identity vis-à-vis local and global factors. It is true that consumption patterns of Egyptians are influenced by their “desire to be part of their rapidly modernizing culture and modes of life and to secure long-term material well being” (Hoodfar 1997, 190). We have seen how historical, cultural, socioeconomic, and political factors also influence these choices and must be taken into consideration when examining local consumption patterns in general and the boycott in particular.

Shopping plays a central role as a cultural phenomenon in

contemporary postmodern society, where it is identified as a realm of social action, interaction and experience which increasingly structure the everyday practices of urban people. … An analysis of this apparently prosaic and mundane activity can yield major insights into the lives of contemporary men and women (Falk and Campbell 1997, 1–2).

(p.410) For this reason, Aihwa Ong suggests a need in anthropology to “analyze people's everyday actions as a form of cultural politics embedded in specific power contexts” (1999, 5).Ong argues that specific cultures respond in culturally specific ways to such things as “colonial rule, cultural authorities, market institutions, political agencies, and translocal entities,” and thus that we need to pay close attention to emergent forms of power that “variously ally with and contest Western forces” (1999, 22–23).

The boycott is an excellent example of how Egyptian nationalism as well as Arab and Muslim solidarity are being revised and revived in a world where it is often assumed that globalization is leading to a homogenization of cultures, an erosion of local identities, and a lack of influence of the general public in the developing world. What I found remarkable among all of those I interacted with on a daily basis was the openness they felt toward all that was foreign while making conscious choices to engage in these issues and to navigate their way through a global system that more often than not fails to take them or their interests into serious consideration.

Even though many individual efforts still persist, the campaign has declined to a great extent in face of powerful multinational corporations whose marketing campaigns continue to grow, with logos, symbols, prizes, and brand names that cover the landscape of much of Cairo, enticing consumers at every step. Their mere presence symbolizes their power and suggests that they are here to stay. While their prevalence reveals the attraction that Egyptians continue to feel toward foreign commodities and Egyptians' eagerness to be part of the growing global economy and consumer society, many foreign companies have come to realize that local sensibilities have to be taken into consideration for their long-term success and acceptance. The boycott therefore should be considered as an attempt to give these developments a more humane and just face rather than to change their pace or course.

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(p.413) Notes


(1) Part of the research for this essay was made possible through my participation in the Cross Cultural Consumption Project at Concordia University, headed by Dr. David Howes and funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It was based on fieldwork in Cairo and Alexandria in 2001 and 2002. Please note that all translations of sources and interviews from Arabic and French are by the author.

(2) The word ‘Jewish’ in Arabic, yahudi, is used generally to refer to Israel is. I am using it in the same way my informants were using the term, confirming by their use of the word yahudi that they were not referring to religion specifically and that they had nothing against Jewish people in general, but rather that they disapproved of the politics of the State of Israel.

(3) Bayoumi quoted in Business Monthly (El Amrani 2003).

(4) See the company's website, http://zamzamgroup.com. (p.414)