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Egyptian activist arrested in Cairo after meeting with officials in Washington

Egyptian activist Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was arrested at the Cairo International Airport on Friday, according to Egyptian press reports. He was returning to Egypt from a 13-day trip to the United States hosted by the Milken Institute and the Project on Middle East Democracy, during which he met with officials from the State Department, the Obama administration, and Congress, and spoke at universities and the Milken Institute Global Conference. "The goal of Maher's trip," according to a press release from POMED, "was to highlight the many challenges to democratic progress in Egypt, including a widespread crackdown on freedom of speech, assembly, and association."

Egypt's Ahram Online reports that Maher's arrest is in connection with a March 28 protest outside the residence of the Egyptian minister of the interior in which activists waved women's clothing and banners claiming the ministry had "prostituted" itself to the government of President Mohamed Morsy. Maher tweeted a picture from the protest, "Now in front of the house of the minister of the interior."

Four members of the April 6 Youth Movement were arrested and then released last month for their involvement in the protest. At the time, a spokesman for April 6 told Ahram Online that no arrest warrant had been issued for Maher. But today, an Egyptian official told AFP that "the prosecution has decided to jail Ahmed Maher for four days as part of the investigation."

Maher and April 6 supported the candidacy of Mohamed Morsy. But since the country's constitutional crisis in November, he has felt disillusioned by the new government. "This regime is the same old regime, but has a religious atmosphere or shape," he said at an event at the New America Foundation on Monday. It has "the same rules, the same constitution ... the same behavior, the same strategy, the same politics -- so we need to keep the struggle until step down all of that regime."

Maher also knows the potential consequences of his protests. "Our members are arrested now and in the jail, and sometimes are tortured. So our role now is to keep the struggle," he said Monday. It's not his first arrest, either -- in fact, Maher was arrested for organizing protests as early as 2008, years before the January 2011 revolution.

"Opposition figures and protestors being arrested isn't new, unfortunately," Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University's Middle East Studies Program and an FP blogger and columnist, told Passport by email. Lynch met with Maher during his visit to Washington. "What is striking is that Ahmed would be arrested after returning from the US where he spoke (I understand) to a variety of US officials as well as academics and think tankers. It just points to the ongoing urgency of real reform of the security sector in Egypt," he wrote.

Maher's arrest also demonstrates the government's unwillingness to work with even receptive members of the opposition, according to Nancy Okail, Egypt director for Freedom House, who also met with Maher during his visit to Washington. "The arrest of any activist is worrisome, but Maher's arrest is particularly significant as he was one of the strongest supporters of President Morsy before and after his elections," Okail told FP by email. "He repeatedly expressed his willingness to extend a helping hand to the government to solve Egypt's problems -- especially with regard to reforming the police. The current repressive approach of the Egyptian government is stifling constructive discussions at the very time it should be expanding dialogue with different segments of Egyptian society."

At the State Department's daily press briefing this afternoon, Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell told reporters that the State Department was still trying to confirm reports of Maher's arrest, saying "of course, if it were true, we'll express our concerns, but at this time we're still seeking more information." Representatives from the Egyptian embassy did not respond to requests from FP for comment.

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When it comes to ethics, why do consumers care more about coffee than clothes?

The death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh has now surpassed 1,000, intensifying international scrutiny on the labor and safety conditions of garment workers in the country. And while some have called for boycotts of major retailers like Primark or Gap, the tragedy -- the worst in the garment industry's history -- has also generated debate about why people have a harder time exerting their power as "ethical" consumers when it comes to clothing than when it comes to, say, fair trade coffee. 

On Thursday, an article in the New York Times suggested this dynamic might be changing. "The revolution that has swept the food industry is expanding to retail: origins matter," the report began optimistically. Citing the catastrophic events in Bangladesh as a catalyst, the article went on to provide several examples of new labeling and transparency in the clothing industry. A coalition of retailers that includes giants like Nike and Walmart, for instance, is developing an index to measure the labor, social, and environmental impact of their supply chains. The paper adds:

New research indicates a growing consumer demand for information about how and where goods are produced. A study last year by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard showed that some consumers - even those who were focused on discount prices - were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices.

But there's good reason to keep your optimism in check. The study cited by the Times, which only tested whether an "ethical" label made people more inclined to buy goods priced equally, found that "[a]mong customers shopping for lower priced women's and men's items, labels with information about labor standards (or information about other product attributes besides price) had no statistically significant impact on sales." The labels only had a positive effect on sales for one group: female shoppers looking for more expensive items.

And the findings appear bleaker when you compare them to what we know about the way consumers approach fair trade coffee. When it comes to coffee, this and other studies note that not only are people far more likely to opt for fair trade products, but they are also sometimes willing to pay more for fair trade, making the label attractive for companies. As with clothing, shoppers looking for savings are unlikely to pay a high premium for fair trade coffee. But they still opt for fair trade when price differences are minor.

In a blog post earlier this month, Stephan Manning, an assistant professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Boston, addressed the question of why people may care more about the origins of the coffee they're drinking than the clothing they're wearing. After all, he notes, labor and environmental concerns about the coffee industry in the 1970s and 80s led to profound shifts in consumer and retailer practices. By 2015, Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee company, will be 100-percent fair trade. It's hard to imagine the same being true of Walmart in 10 years. Manning continues:

So why is it that certification seems to work in coffee, but not in clothing? Why is it that sustainability standards in coffee look way beyond health and safety issues, whereas the Clean Clothes Campaign and their partner organizations struggle to get major fashion brands to sign very basic agreements, such as the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement which would promote independent inspections of supplier factories, public reporting, training and mandatory repairs and renovations?

Manning puts forward a couple of theories. First, coffee is a good where quality inherently matters to most consumers (because we literally consume it), which may go a long way in explaining why we are willing to shell out more for the stuff. It's a theory echoed by the MIT/Harvard study, which suggests that one of the reasons people are attracted to fair trade is because they associate higher quality with the product. We tend to value clothes for a host of attributes that go beyond quality, including style, cut, and color.

Manning also points out that "unlike the café latte which consumers might enjoy while looking at a poster of happy coffee farmers, the aesthetic value of a piece of clothing is quite unrelated to the purchasing experience." We wear clothes outside of the store, where it's all too easy to forget their origins.

Another study mentioned by the Times -- entitled, "Sweatshop labor is wrong unless the shoes are cute: Cognition can both help and hurt moral motivated reasoning" -- seems to support Manning's hypotheses. The study "found that the complex supply chain in retailing made it easier for consumers to justify poor labor practices," the Times explains. While people may theoretically oppose poor labor practices (and even find themselves outraged and horrified at the images coming out of Bangladesh), they manage to put their morals aside when they come across a pair of cute shoes.

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