31 December, 2008

Police crackdown on Cairo protests

There was a heavy police crackdown on protests held in solidarity with Gaza around Cairo today: in Tahrir Square, outside Cairo university, and outside the lawyers syndicate. Many were arrested including socialists, Muslim Brotherhood activists and journalists from local newspaper el-badeel. In all three cases I and other journalists was harrased by police and plain clothes officers who also tried to prevent photographing. I'll be posting a longer report on the blog as soon as I have time - probably not untill tomorrow. Meanwhile here is some photos.

I also recieved (non-confirmed) news that journalists from al-badeel and al-doustour is calling for a demonstration protesting the systematic assaults on journalists outside the press syndicate tonight, at 19.00.
Below: demonstrators beeing arrested by plainclothes police in Ramses Street.

30 December, 2008

In praise of Al Jazeera English

I was told in a response to a previous post that Al Jazeera English is not a reliable source on what's going on in Gaza. This is a stunning statement considering that Al Jazeera is probably the only channel that has reporters on the ground inside Gaza as well as in the Israeli cities that are being targeted by Palestinian rockets, risking their lives to show both sides of the conflict.
It's hardly Al Jazeera's fault that the basic facts and numbers make Israel look like the more violent part - with 20 times more palestinians being killed in one day than the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets in the past years.
Also read this "Gaza strip: In praise of Al Jazeera" on the LA Times middle east blog, and don't miss "part 2."
A short excerpt:

"Now here's the really weird part. Jazeera International, the English-language channel that launched in November 2006, isn't available on the vast majority of America's cable systems. Nearly all cable operators in the U.S. refused to offer the channel to its viewers. As of July of this year, the channel was offered by just a handful of cable companies, including a small cable provider in Burlington, Vt.
I'll leave it up to our readers to debate just why, in a capitalist system based on the idea of free speech, most American viewers aren't even offered the option of paying extra to watch Al Jazeera in English."

29 December, 2008

Massive protest against assault on Gaza

Another massive protest against the assault on Gaza was held today outside the Press syndicate in downtown Cairo. Thousands filled both sides of the street, tightly squeezed together and surrounded by riot police. Among the chants were "We are all Hamas," "Where is the Egyptian army," and "With our blood and souls we give ourselves to you Palestine." However, just like yesterday Muslim Brootherhood activists intervened whenever someone started chanting "down with Mubarak..."

The Socialist Alliance has called for a demonstration outside the Arab League Building in Tahrir Square on Wednesday 12.00 (the same day the Arab League is supposed to meet and discuss the situation in Gaza). And tomorrow (Tuesday) at 17.30 there is a meeting at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center to organize an emergency aid caravan to Gaza.

A slaughter that deserves to be called so

Watching al-Jazeera English. Apparently a mosque, a university, and the interior ministry was among the latest targets of Israeli bombings in Gaza. It was refreshing to hear Chris Davies, a british member of the European Parlament (for the Liberal Democrats i believe, but I'm not sure) condemning the Israeli slaughtering of people in Gaza. Unfortunately, by official European standards this makes Davies look like an extremist. His outspoken criticism is in sharp contrast to the patethic offical response from the European Union and its member states, not to mention the disgusting US description of the targets (among them a large number of young policemen that were hit during an outdoor graduation ceremony in a police compound) as "nothing but thugs"!

What's Next?

Is this going to be a repeat of the Libanon war of 2006? The Israeli rhetoric of continuing the operation "as long as necessary" to stop the firing of rockets sounds horrifyingly similiar. But with around 300 dead in just two days, in terms of human casualties this war already looks worse. And the massive demonstrations around Egypt today, with between 50.000 and several hundreds of thousands of participants according to various accounts, is a sign of the reaction that might result if this onslaught - described even by the French president Sarkozy as "a disproportionate response" - continues.

Around the Arab world, the anger is directed not only towards Israel but often also against Egypt for it's participation in the blockade of Gaza. In Beirut, police fired tear gas to prevent demonstrators reaching the Egyptian embassy. The MB website reports that Hizbollah-leader Hassan Nasrallah called in a speech today for all Arabs - and Egyptians and Lebanese in particular - to take to the streets tomorrow in solidarity with Gaza. He called for Egyptians to demonstrate "in millions" to demand the opening of the Rafah border crossing.

Judging from their behaviour today it's not clear that the main opposition force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, is prepared to actually put real pressure on the Egyptian regime in order to change it's policies towards Israel. The supreme guide vague call for the people of Egypt to continue to "express their anger in all peaceful ways available" only adds to these doubts. Still, tomorrow has been declared a day of solidarity and a demonstration is planned outside the Press Syndicate at 12.00, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, cutting economic and political ties with Israel, and opening the Rafah border crossing.

Meanwhile, something has to be said about the Israeli left-wing activists that protested the Gaza attacs in Tel Aviv today. If only they were not such a tiny minority of their society.

28 December, 2008

Gaza protest: A massive display of genuine anger - and a show of MB-State coordination

As expected there was large demonstrations against the Israeli bombings of Gaza today. Hundreds or thousands, many of them MB-supporters, first gathered outside the parlament after the noon prayer. Later they moved to the doctors syndicate, where the protest grew bigger as more people joined and bystanders joined the chanting.

(Click the picture for a collection of photos from the protest, and see Hossam al-Hamalawys blog for more updates)

The most interesting thing about this demo (at least for someone who has never been at a MB-demo before) was the high degree of coordination between the organizers and the security forces. Despite being in the thousands, the demonstrators basically stood and behaved as the police told them. When one of the demonstrators started chanting "Down with Mubarak!" several others immediatly silenced him, and turned the crowd to less politically dangerous pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas chants (although later there was also chants against Mubarak, like "hey Mubarak answer now, are you with us or against?" and "hey Mubarak why the silence, are you with them or what?") When the protest moved to the doctors syndicate, the crowds walked there from the parlament under silence, because they were "under orders not to chant" in the streets!

The police ignored or even acted friendly towards journalists and photographers instead of harrassing them like they usually do - probably because for once they wanted us to be there. This might be because the regime is using the "islamist threat" to put pressure on their allies in Washington and Tel Aviv, but more likely it's simply because they wanted to pretend in front of their own people that they allow expressions of anger towards Israel.

Of course this protest was a genuine expression of anger by the participants towards the outrageous agression in Gaza, which continued today and have left towards 300 people dead. But I also got the feeling that more than anything else, it was an attempt to "went some steam" by the state as well as the MB leadership. More people were still joining the protest outside the doctors syndicate, and some of the younger participants was showing signs of restlessness (they wanted to march in the streets of course), when the demo was suddenly dissolved peacefully. This might of course have been because there was a fixed time to start with - but it definitely made it look like the leadership simply didn't want to risk loosing control of the situation.

Returning from the demo, I ran into a group of leftist, nasserist and labour party activists having their own protest on the sidewalk of Qasr el-aini outside the shoura council. Compared to the MB protest there was a huge difference in police behaviour. Even though the number of protestors were not more than 50 by the time I arrived, the central security recruits were in full riot gear, with helmets and sticks, and plain-clothes officers tried to prevent me from taking pictures as usual.

27 December, 2008

From Cairo to Gaza

A protest was held at the stairs of the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo today, against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza that killed at least 200. I arrived late, when most participants had already left, but around a 100 socialist, nasserist, and islamist (Hizb al-3amal) activists were still present, shouting chants directed mainly against the Egyptian president for his support to the siege of Gaza. Some of the protestors also pointed to the symbolic fact that it was during her visit to Cairo on Thursday that Tzipi Livni vowed to "strike back" at Hamas.
"Ending the situation in Gaza and Palestine starts here in Cairo," said one of the activists. "We didn't come here today just to demand an end of the siege of Gaza, but to the demand the end of the regime of the zionist Mohamed Hosni Mubarak!"
After a short debate, the demonstrators agreed to call for a new demonstration outside the maglis as-sha3b [the parliament] at 12.00 tomorrow, Sunday.
In other news: While the people of Gaza was taking care of their wounded and counting the dead the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas sent his security forces to disperse protestors hurling stones at Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank. No wonder this guy is so admired by the West!

26 December, 2008

Ooops..! (Warning: disrespectful humor)

A joke I was recently told by an Egyptian friend adds to the catalogue of jokes about Hosni Mubarak and puts a new twist to the Suzanne Tamim murder case:

Hisham Talaat Mustapha calls the president from his prison cell, asking "why did you let them arrest me and put me on trial, didn't you tell me you wouldn't mind if I got rid of Suzanne?" To which the president responds: "ya 7umaar [you donkey], that was not the Suzanne I was talking about!!"

Also, don't miss the jokes inspired by shoe-throwing Iraq journalist Muntazer al-Saidi.

25 December, 2008

Injured worker on hungerstrike

From todays issue of el-badeel:

A worker at the Kom Ombo Sugar Refinery was on hungerstrike yesterday in protest against the refusal of the company's doctor to approve sick leave after a serious work injury. As a result, the worker has not received his salary for three months. In a petition to the governor of Aswan 150 workers at the company accused the doctor of charging a special fee from every sick worker visiting the company's clinic.

The same day, 600 workers at Industrial and Engineering Projects in Shubra el-Kheima was on strike, protesting corruption in the management, and attempts to liquidate the company and sell its equipment.

23 December, 2008

Steel workers statement

Workers at Helwan Steel Mills released a statement criticizing the decision to allocate 1 billion of the company's profits to establish a new factory for reinforced steel. They claim this has created a financial crisis in the company, to which the management responded by cutting wages and bonuses. One of the workers also claim that the management plans to pressure a number of workers to accept early retirement in April next year.

12000 workers at the factory was reported to have entered a pay strike in March which was however suspended after one day. Hossam al-Hamalawy wrote back then:

Let’s remember that the last major industrial action in the Helwan mills was the 1989 sit-in… Mubarak back then sent in his police troops, which broke the protests by live ammunition, killing one worker, Abdel Hai Sayyed Hassan, and arresting hundreds… There has been however increased activities on the factory floor, located south of Cairo, since the outbreak of the Winter of the Labor Discontent… Underground leftist organizers have been agitating for improving the work conditions, and drawing parallels with the textile workers in Mahalla, in previous statements that were distributed in the factory

More action was expected in April but it seems it never materialized - maybe as a result of the crackdown in Mahalla on 6 April?

21 December, 2008

Industrial Action Report - December 1-14

The Egyptian Workers and Trade Union Watch has issued a report for the first two weeks of December. Click the pic below to download the report (in arabic) from Hossam al-Hamalawy's blog, or read a short summary in English below.

The number of observed protests (reported in media) during this period was 26, in 22 different workplaces. 6 took place in the industrial sector, and 22 in the services sector. At total of least 8000 workers took part in demonstrations, sit-ins, or strikes during this period. The relative decline in the number of industrial actions (there was 34 protests including 33.000 workers in the two first weeks of November) is attributed to the 'eid al adha holidays, which in many government institutions and companies lasted for a whole week - or half the period covered by the report.

One of the protests took place at Telemasr (producer of televisions, radios, and other electrical appliances) in Giza, where 250 workers refused work on 4 december to protest the arbitrary dismissal of Karima Farg, a member of the union committe at the company. 520 workers protested again on 14 december at the dismissal of Karima and 14 other workers that took place in the demonstration the week before.

Another protest involved 400-700 workers at Masr-Monufeiya Spinning and Weaving in the Mubarak Industrial Zone in Monufeiya, who entered a strike on the morning of 13 december, because they did not received their full salaries at the beginning of the month. The company blamed the delay on lack of liquidity.

Also, postal workers on temporary contracts demonstrated on 1 december outside the head office of the postal authorities in midan 'ataba, against the refusal to give them permanent contracts. They refused to form a delegation to meet the head of the postal authorities because the head of the postal workers union asked to see their personal ID-cards, a demand which made them fear possible persecution.

Coffeeshop democracy

Condoleeza Rice defends her efforts to support democracy in Egypt in an interview in Washington Post:

"I do believe that the [September 2005] presidential election was a
different kind of election than Egypt had ever had. There was criticism of the
president's policies right on the front page of Egyptian newspapers. The café talk in Egypt was extraordinary."

Café talk? I bet that is a huge comfort to presidential candidate Ayman Nour in his prison cell... And by the way, which 'ahwa did Condi visit to catch the mood of the streets in Cairo?

20 December, 2008

Tax collectors celebrate free union

There will probably never be a more suitable day to launch the blog, so after months of procrastination - here it goes...

In a chaotic but festive meeting at the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo today, the real estate tax collectors celebrated the launch of their new union - Egypt's first independent trade union since the 50's.

When I arrived the central security trucks were lined up outside as usual. As soon as I entered the lobby I could hear the cheering from the conference hall on the 4th flour. I've been to a few conferences and meetings at the press syndicate before, but never seen it so full of people. The fourth floor was completely jammed and the heat was almost unbearable. The AC wasn't turned on untill after an hour or so, and participants claimed that security had in fact turned on extra heating in an attempt to sabotage the meeting.

I talked to several tax collectors who travelled from Beni Suef or the delta provinces to attend this celebration. In fact, most of the people I talked to came from outside Cairo. They expressed happiness and confidence in the union, praising Kamal abu Eita (the "Godfather" of their movement as one of them said) while at the same time taking pride in the democratic manner in which the union has been built, with the organizors seeking the consent of the rank and file before every new step they've taken.

Last week, the organizers put out a call for international solidarity in their struggle to gain official recognition of their union.

Click on the pics to watch sets of photos from todays event (above) and and the 11-day sit-in in december 2007 (below).