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Increased Calls for Boycotting U.S. Goods Get Mixed Reactions in Angry Arab World

The Associated Press,
April 19 2002

CAIRO, Egypt April 19 — Amr Sayed says he supports calls in the Arab world to boycott U.S. companies because of Washington's perceived pro-Israel bias. But the 17-year-old goes to McDonald's anyway for burger and fries he says there's just no Egyptian equivalent.

Throughout the Middle East, boycott calls have been widely circulated via mobile phone messages, newspaper articles, e-mails with pictures of dead Palestinians, banners at street demonstrations and, sometimes, in sermons at mosques.

The calls, which began after the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, found new momentum as the violence escalated, especially after Israeli troops moved into Palestinian towns and cities on March 29 in a bid to quell Palestinian suicide attacks on Israelis.

The boycott calls are shrugged off by some as useless or damaging to local economies, while others insist they send a powerful message of defiance to the United States.

In Bahrain, one of the largest supermarket chains, Al Muntazah Market, has begun clearing its shelves of U.S. products. Beverages made in Canada or elsewhere in the Persian Gulf are replacing the supermarket's stock of Pepsi and Coca-Cola, said Abdulmonem al-Meer, the general manager.

"Money will come and go but nothing can match the price in blood our Palestinian brothers and sisters are paying," he said.

Bahrain, a moderate ally of the United States and home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, has seen some of the most violent anti-Israel and anti- U.S. protests.

Najeeb Humaid, a 39-year-old from the United Arab Emirates, says he has stopped buying U.S. cigarettes, fast food, perfume and sodas, among other products.

"The boycott is a way of applying pressure, even if just a little, since in the long run, U.S. companies will feel it when their products are not bought in the Middle East," he said.

U.S. products are widespread in many Arab markets and some consumers argue they cannot do without them or that local products are not as good.

Writing in the Saudi daily Al Riyadh, Haya Abdul-Aziz al-Munei described the contradiction.

"At first, I agreed to the boycott, especially the boycott of foodstuffs that have made us fat and sick," she wrote. "But what about the other products? What about the appliances in our kitchens and offices? What about the cars and air conditioners? What about the hospital equipment?

The current boycott is separate from the formal one established in 1951 by the Arab League. The half-century-old boycott office still exists in Damascus but has been largely inactive for the past decade.

In its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, most Arab states vigorously enforced the boycott board's bans on companies like Coca-Cola and Ford that sold their products in Israel. Peace treaties with Israel brought an official end to the boycott in Egypt and Jordan. Elsewhere, consumers have succumbed to the lure of Cokes and other "banned" products and they are sold openly sometimes even manufactured under local franchises.

A senior executive at Kuwait-based food company Americana, which operates several U.S. franchises, including Pizza Hut and Baskin Robbins, said that during the last month profits and sales were down by 45 percent in Jordan, 40 percent in Egypt and 20 percent across the Gulf.

In the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan rumors have circulated that McDonald's was donating a portion of its profits to Israel.

A McDonald's statement, published Wednesday in Egypt's biggest daily Al-Ahram, denounced the accusations as "ridiculous" and said they threatened "the future and source of income of over 3,000 Egyptian workers." Similar statements appeared in other Arab countries.

Ali el-Hajj general manager of the Bahrain Restaurant Co. which owns the local McDonald's franchise, said some customers have been shunning the restaurants out of concerns about safety, not politics. At least two McDonald's branches in Bahrain were damaged when demonstrators attacked them during a violent pro-Palestinian protest outside the U.S. Embassy.

Egypt's economy is faltering and unemployment high. But Abdel Aziz el- Husseini of the Egyptian Committee for Boycott argued the damage to Arabs was a price worth paying. He also said any U.S.-linked businesses hurt by the boycott would be replaced by Egyptian firms.

"According to the logic of the market, if one place was hurt, another would flourish, creating work opportunities," said el-Husseini, whose group distributes boycott lists that include brands of jeans, sportswear and laundry detergents.