28 December, 2009

Egyptian police arrest local journalists during Gaza protest

Hossam el-Hamalawy reports that three journalists working for Al-Masry Al-Youm was arrested today while covering a pro-Palestine protest in front of the french embassy in Cairo. Follow Hossam on twitter for updates. 

21 December, 2009

Free union celebrate anniversary, State unions withdraws from international federation

Two days ago, members of the independent URETA-union for real estate tax collectors gathered to celebrate the opening of their headquarter and the one year anniversary of the founding of the first free union in Egypt since 1957. The celebration was attended by the regional secretary of the Public Services International, which accepted URETA as a member last spring and has criticized interference in the work of URETA by state-controlled union officials. 

Apparently, this visit has now provoked three state-controlled unions in Egypt to withdraw from PSI in protest against recognition of the "illegal" URETA union. State union officials explain that they are not against the right of free association (of course) but only against "interference in the internal affairs of Egypt," something every "honorable Egyptian would reject." 

Also, on December 26 the new general union for employees of tax- and customs authorities will be officially included in the Egyptian Trade Union Federation as the 24th general union in Egypt; a move that should be understood as part of the ongoing attempts by the ETUF to marginalize the free URETA union. 

18 December, 2009

Egypt drowning? Yawn...

A UN analysis shows that emission cuts on the table in Copenhagen could raise the global average temperature by 3 degrees. Meanwhile, new studies show that even a more moderate warming could lead to a much bigger increase in sea levels than previously thought, drowning the Nile delta. Even so, the voice of Egypt can hardly be heard on this issue - tiny island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives are making a lot more noise. Is it because they are not busy building walls protecting against the dreaded palestinians in Gaza and cracking down on opposition movements ahead of coming elections? Or is it because Egypt's ruling elite believe they will be safe behind the walls of their luxury compounds with the consolation aid offered by Hillary Clinton when the flood hits? I just wonder.

16 December, 2009

Copenhagen Mass Climate Protest in Pictures

Click the photo above for a set on flickr from the massive "planet first, people first" demonstration in Copenhagen this Saturday. Around 100.000 people took part in the march, demanding "climate justice" and "system change, not climate change." The march was peaceful, but Danish police intervened and detained almost 1000 people on the pretext of arresting a few masked "black block" activists who threw one or two stones against a bank and the Danish foreign ministry. Stupid, but hardly "a riot", as Naomi Klein points out.

Tomorrow, protesters plans to 'reclaim power.' (Note that Tadzio Müller, one of the organizers of Wednesdays march, which have been authorized by Danish police, was arrested shortly after the press conference.)

14 December, 2009

Mahalla labour activist fired

Tadamon reports that Mahalla Spinning and Weaving labour activist Mustapha Fouda has been fired following attempts by workers at the factory to organize a strike last Monday (January 6). Workers had presented five demands, including raising the minimum wage and improved housing and transports.

Pic above: Mustapha Fouda on someone's shoulders during an anti-privatization protest in Mahalla on October 30, 2008.

04 December, 2009

Latvian students and unions protest budget cuts

I haven't been blogging much lately, mostly because I've been traveling and didn't have time to follow events in Egypt as closely as I would have liked to. A couple of days ago I came back from Latvia, the one country in the European Union that have been hardest hit by the global economic crisis. In one year Latvia has lost a around 18 percent of it's GDP and unemployment has more than tripled to 20 percent. 

This week, hundreds of trade unionists (unions are very weak in Latvia and organize only around 15 percent of the workforce, mostly in the public sector) and thousands of students gathered outside Saeima, the Latvian parliament, to protest the new state budget which contains huge cuts on higher education and other public spending and a raise of the personal income tax from 23% to 26%. (Needless to say, these actions will reinforce the economic downturn, and are motivated largely by the decision of the Latvian government, strongly backed by the European Union and the Swedish government, to avoid a devaluation the local currency - a huge mistake according to many economists)

Latvians students shouted slogans like "put parliament in school and students in parliament" and "no education means no future" and jeered the education minister as she appeared on the stairs of the parliament briefly. I have to say that after three years in Egypt this was quite a refreshing experience; in the beginning I half expected police officers to try and confiscate my camera or start beating up protesters, which never happened of course... (Actually I can't imagine a crowd of demonstrators getting this close to a government building even in Sweden...) 

24 November, 2009

Blog break

The blog isn't dead, but I'm doing a lot of travelling these days so don't expect any updates for a few more weeks...

13 November, 2009

Kamal abu Eita defends RETA union against campaign in state-controlled meida

According to a statement form the Center for Social and Economic Rights (via the Center for Socialist Studies and Hossam al-Hamalawy) the independent Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees has been subject to a "smear campaign" by the state-owned papers al-Ahram and al-Gomhoriyya, claiming that there has been "mass resignations" from the free union. The head of the RETA union, Kamal abu Eita, has demanded the right to reply to these statements in a letter to the editors of both papers. In the letter, he states that in fact, the number of members of the free union continues to rise and has now reached 40.000, and that a new local union committee has just been formed in South Sinai. According to Kamal abu Eita, the free union now has a local presence in 29 governorates, whereas the state-controlled union only exists in 9.

10 November, 2009

Work Camps in The Negev?

From Haaretz: "The government is considering establishing work camps in the south of the country, where illegal migrant workers will receive shelter, food and medical care, Army Radio reported Wednesday. In exchange, illegal migrants would perform manual labor outside the camps, but would not earn a salary. They would stay at the camp until their asylum claims are decided, which could take months or years. The proposal, part of the effort to address the problems posed by illegal migrants, would place asylum seekers at jobs in communities in the Negev and Arava. Their salaries would go to the state, in order to fund the camps."

Work camps where the state takes the salary? Am I the only one thinking "slave labour" here?

06 November, 2009

The Populist

Here's a few videos of protestors getting beaten up in Teheran on November 4, nicely followed up by this interesting quote from a story where Ahmadinejad offers his view on social justice (via Ali Esbati):

The three economists listened attentively to Ahmadinejad as he lectured on the waste caused by current subsidization policies and the fact that because of artificial prices any investment was hardly justifiable. He told his audience that a free market was the "best distribution system to guarantee social justice."

It does add some perspective to the argument that the current political confrontation in Iran somehow pits political liberties against economic justice because Ahmadinejad promised to bring the oil wealth to the dinner tables in his election campaign. I'm not an expert on Iran in anyway, but perhaps this is a sign that Ahmadinejad, having failed to mobilize the poorer segments in support of his rule and realizing that the opposition has its strongest base among the urban middle class, decided to try and placate his opponents by posing as a neo-liberal?

05 November, 2009

Tanta Workers Continue Sit-In, Threaten Hunger Strike

Tadamon reports: 9 workers at Tanta Flax & Oils, who were fired after a strike last year, moved their sit-in from the headquarters of the General Union of Textile Workers to the factory grounds in Tanta, where around 1000 workers has been on strike since May. Earlier this week, an agreement was reached between the union and the company management, giving the workers a raise in meal allowances and retroactive payment of a yearly raise since 2007 on condition that they resume work on November 10. 

Workers fired during the strike has been offered early retirement with financial compensation of around 35,000 egyptian pounds. According to Tadamon, many workers are still refusing the terms of the agreement - the main reason being that it does not include re-hiring the 9 workers who were fired last year, despite previous court verdicts ordering the company to re-hire them.

The union initially supported the strike, but a majority of the workers refused to accept a previous agreement between the union and the management, and instead voted to continue their strike even as they were denied access to strike funds. The 9 workers are now threatening to start a hunger strike until their demands are met.

Update: As pointed out in the comments below, 50 workers who were fired during the strike had initially been promised 45,000 pounds each as compensation, but was suddenly told they would only get 35,000. Today, the two groups of workers (those fired during the previous strike and those during the last one) decided to join forces and occupied the factory, forcing security men and members of the management out while doing so, according to the center for socialist studies.   

04 November, 2009

Swedes against Islamophobia

As many Egyptians are becoming more cynical about facebook-activism, more than 200.000 Swedes (in a country of 9 million) has joined a facebook group protesting the right-wing party Sverigedemokraterna ("Swedish Democrats"), whose leader recently published an article describing islam and muslims as the gravest foreign threat against democracy in Sweden since the second world war. I don't think this is going to end islamophobia and racism in Sweden or prevent SD from reaching the parliament in the elections next year (polls show them hovering around the necessary 4 percent of the votes), but at least it's a way of giving inspiration and courage to all those who are prepared to take the fight.

28 October, 2009

Victory for Aisha

The center for socialist studies reports that labour organizer Aisha abu Samada or "Hagga Aisha" has been returned to her work at Hennawy Tobaco in Damanhour today, after more than a year of struggle against the employer. Aisha was subject to a hostile campaign from the state-backed union and eventually fired after she led her mostly female colleagues in a campaign for better work conditions and salaries. I met Aisha in Damanhour last December - on the same day Israel launched the war on Gaza - and was deeply impressed with her strong personality and her courage to challenge the all-male union committee who refused to back the workers in their struggle.

27 October, 2009

Blog news - Egypt commentary in Swedish

For all Swedish readers out there: Since I've been involuntarily reassigned to Sweden by Egyptian state security I've decided to start a new blog for news and commentary on Egypt in Swedish. I'll still keep updating this blog with mostly labour-related news in English as often as I can, and keep the new blog for occasional commentary, links to published articles, and so on - hopefully making a small contribution to the ongoing discussion of Middle East-related issues in Sweden and not least the growing (I hope) interest in the social movements of Egypt.

26 October, 2009

Egypt Labour Updates - October 26, 2009

More links from the Egyptian Workers diigo group:

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e reports that security forces laid siege to the HQ of the General Union of Textil Workers as workers from a self-managed factory in 10th of Ramadan City gathered there on Saturday morning to demand a meeting with the labour minister and the head of the union. Workers at the factory have been campaigning for the ministry of labour to pay their wages and help finance a restructuring of the company whose owner fled the country to escape a prison sentecne. (See earlier update.)

* Tadamon reports that security forces surrounded Tanta Flax and Oils on Sunday, to prevent the workers - who are on strike since the end of May - from leaving to stage a demonstration in front of the Cabinet in Cairo.

22 October, 2009

Egypt Labour Updates - October 22, 2009

More links from Diigo and Hossam al-Hamalawy

* Al-Masry Al-Youm reports (in English) that South Cairo Electrical Company workers threaten to strike over incentives and equal pay with workers that were recently transfered from the Rural Electricity company.

* Mohammed Maree posted pics and a report (in Arabic) as well as a short video from the fourth day of the sit-in of the Ghazl al-Mahalla cooperatives (see previous post). The Center for Socialist Studies reports that the sit-in was suspended as workers met with the head of general union of commercial workers on Tuesday. According to one local unionist, the general manager of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla first offered them a compromise deal of a 10 day bonus (instead of the one month bonus given to all workers within state-owned enterprises), then retracted this offer and accused the local union committee of slandering him in interviews with the press.

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e reports that security forces intervened to abort a demonstration by workers at Nasr Glass and Crystal Company in Shubra on Wednesday morning. The workers protested mass layoffs before an expected privatization of the company.  

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e also reports that 300 teachers in Shuhadaa in Monofeyya went on strike today, protesting a decision to transfer them to other schools far from where they live.

* The Center for Socialist Studies reports that the General Union for Textile Workers is refusing to use strike funds to pay the salaries of workers at Tanta Flax and Oils, who have been on strike for close to five months. The union stopped supporting the strike two months ago, changed its mind only after workers demonstrated outside the Cabinet in downtown Cairo, and now abandoned the workers completely again. Negotiations between the Saudi owner of the factory and the workers are stuck in part because the owner refuses to re-employ strike leaders who were fired after a previous strike - despite a court verdict ordering him to do so.

19 October, 2009

Egypt Labour Updates - October 19, 2009

More links from Diigo

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e reports that 1200 workers at the cooperatives at Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla staged a sit-in when the morning shift ended on Sunday after the management refused to pay a bonus granted by the minister of investments to all workers in the public business sector, on the grounds that the workers belong not to this sector but to the federation of cooperatives.

* Last Thursday, workers at the carpet factory in Mahalla staged a sit-in for the same reason, and ended it only after their demands were met. Labour leaders in Mahalla described the bonus - which amounts to one months salary - as a "new victory for Egypt's workers" since it is an attempt by the government to contain ongoing tensions and protests in the industrial sector.

* The Center for Socialist Studies also reports: Workers at the self-managed factory in 10th of Ramadan ended their strike (se previous update) after a promise by the ministry of labour to pay two months wages from the emergency fund. According to a local unionist, the real battle will be to get the required funding for revitalizing the factory according to a plan drawn up by the workers, and making it financially independent.

* Workers at the General Authority for Financial Markets threatened to strike against a decrease in their monthly salaries with up to 25 percent, which occurred after the ministry of finance merged three authorities (the Capital Market Authority, the Egyptian Insurance Supervisory Authority and the Mortgage Finance Authority) to create the General Authority of Financial Regulation. 

* Tadamon reports that Ghazl Al-Mahalla unionist Mohamed al-Attar started an open-ended sit-in at the company warehouse in Alexandria after managers fined him for alleged "absence."  Al-Attar played a leading role during the strikes of December 2006 and September 2007, but were later criticized by socialist activists and labour leaders at the factory for his willingness to compromise with the management and the state-controlled union - especially in connection with the declared strike of April 6 in 2008. After an anti-privatization in October last year he was transfered to Alexandria and is now accusing the management of creating an excuse to fire him.

16 October, 2009

Blogger arrested, beaten up by police in Tanta

Yesterday, Egyptian blogger Demaghmak was arrested on the streets of Tanta along with his brother, and beaten by a police commander together with two plain-clothes men and six regular troopers.  The commanding officer told them "I will make sure you motherfuckers kiss the feet of any policeman you see" (roughly translated...). They were thrown into a police jeep and released after a while, Demaghmak reports on his twitter page.

15 October, 2009

Egypt Labour updates - October 15, 2009

A few updates from the Egyptian Workers diigo group:

* Tadamon reports that workers at the Abu Sebae textile factory in Mahalla returned to work on October 10 after two weeks of forced (unpaid) holiday ordered by the factory owner, blaming a drop in demand because of the global financial crisis. Workers at the factory still hadn't received their salaries for september 1-15, but was promised they would be paid this week. Workers at the factory, which is located in a QIZ-zone (where producers receive exemptions from US import-tariffs on condition they use a certain amount of Israeli raw materials) demonstrated in the streets of Mahalla last month, demanding their delayed salaries.

* On October 12, doctors from "Doctors without rights" and "Young Doctors of Egypt" staged a protest on the stairs of the Doctor's syndicate, protesting stagnating salaries.

 * 1500 workers at Misr-Iran Spinning and Weaving resumed work this morning, following a meeting two days ago between the management and the local union committee. After a series of protests and sit-ins a number of their demands were met, including the resignation of the previous general manager and a promise by his successor to pay monthly bonuses and incentives.

* Workers at a self-managed textile factory in 10th of Ramadan industrial free zone has been on strike for three days, protesting the refusal of the Ministry of Labour to fulfill an earlier promise to pay their salaries from the emergency funds. 

14 October, 2009

Egyptian frustrations

Daily News Egypt reports: "The bulk of Egypt’s population is “frustrated, demoralized, desperate and indignant,” revealed a recent study by Ministry of State for Administrative Development. /---/ The negative attitude Egyptians have is due to the fact that they believe the state is biased towards “businessmen” and those in power. According to the study, the state protects them, allowing them to make profit and benefit at the expense of the lower segments of society. In addition, 50 percent of Egyptian citizens have no trust in the government."

13 October, 2009

Labour Photo of the Year

Click this link to vote in Labourstart's competition "Labour Photo of the Year," featuring the above pic by Hossam al-Hamalawy of a Tanta Flax & Oils worker and other great shots... Despite being a fan of Hossam's work, I'm totally impartial, of course :)

"Boss-napping" ends peacefully

Hisham Omar Abdel-Halim reports for al-Masry al-Youm: "Workers at the privatized Telephones Equipment Company, in Helwan, south of Cairo wrapped up a 12-day sit-in during which they held company board and syndicate members captive for ten hours. Security forces, which had quickly surrounded the area, failed to convince the company's roughly 1200 employees to release the captives. Frustrated workers only agreed to free the men after prominent MP Mustafa Bakri assured them they would receive unpaid salaries and bonuses by 18 October. Over the course of the negotiations, Bakri made a telephone call to Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hadi, putting the conversation on speakerphone for workers to hear. Abdel Hadi assured them over the phone that they would continue to receive their salaries for the next three months."

12 October, 2009

Trouble at the Airport

The security agencies continues their policy of harassing Egyptian activists passing through Cairo Airport. Last week, CTUWS (Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services) Program Coordinator Rahma Refaat was stopped and her passport held for two hours when she was leaving to attend a meeting of the International Federation of Workers Education Associations, IFWEA. The previous month, CTUWS General Manager Kamal Abbas was subject to the same harassment while leaving for the AFL-CIO 26th Constitutional Convention, and released only just in time to barely reach his flight.

Blame the Left

Almost 30 years after the assasination of Sadat islamist theorist Nageh Ibrahim engage in left-bashing disguised as self-criticism: In one of a series of articles published on the website of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya on the occasion of the anniversary of the October war, he expresses nostalgia about the freedom enjoyed by "the whole spectrum" of Islamist movements in Egypt during the seventies. Unless the islamists had "blindly followed the left" in their hatred against Sadat, they would have remembered that he gave Egypt and Islam the great victory over Israel in the October war and forgiven his later "mistakes." (These include, one can only assume, arresting hundreds of socialists and trade union activists - Sadat encouraged the islamist movements in part to counter the growing strength of the left and opposition to his neoliberal economic policies.) 

08 October, 2009


“Welcome to my exile.” With those words trade union activist Mohammed al-Attar greeted me when I went to see him in Alexandria a few months ago. He had been transfered there by the management of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla after an anti-privatization protest last October, and with almost no real work to do at the warehouse in the old cotton market he had a lot of time to think. He was remorseful, not for taking part in the protest - but for accepting a compromise deal and backing out of the declared strike on the 6th of April 2008.

I'm reminded of Mohammed al-Attar's fate now, when it seems like I'm the one being sent into “exile”, with a lot of time to think about my experiences in Egypt and my present situation. 

It could definitely be worse, and a lot worse too. Despite the darkness and cold, the prospect of spending a winter in Sweden isn't all that bad. But over the past years I've come to regard Egypt as a second home - and trust me when I say that I've seen this as a huge privilege, especially in this region where millions of people would do anything to have just one proper country to call home.

As soon as the immigration officers at the airport pulled me aside and told me to wait “for a few minutes” I guessed what was about to happen, but I still didn't really believe it. I spent the next few hours in a limbo, with my immediate future in the hands of some anonymous, unknown power – the higher being that we call State Security. Gradually realizing what all this meant was like watching a curtain slowly being pulled down in front of my life.

After one hour – or maybe two, I soon lost track of time – I was taken to an office where two State Security officers interrogated me half-heartedly. They seemed annoyed by this disturbance in the middle of the night and clearly had no idea why my name was in the computer. They asked me only general questions like “is this your first visit to Egypt” and “why do you come here.” When I told them I was a journalist, one of them narrowed his eyes slightly and asked: “What do you write about - politics?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted, and he slowly nodded as if this confirmed some profound theory about the universe he had been contemplating. Then the other man asked me if I ever got into any trouble in Egypt. 

“What kind of trouble?” I asked – since mashaakil of various sorts is a more or less unavoidable part of daily life in Egypt.

“Did you get into any fights? Did you make enemies here?” he said.

I paused to think. Should I mention being pulled, pushed and shoved around by plainclothes thugs or having the flash card of my camera confiscated while covering demonstrations? Being shot at by central security forces during food riots in Mahalla? Being ordered to “go to hell” after taking photos of police breaking up a tiny pro-palestinian demonstration in Tahrir Square? No, I concluded. Those people were not trying to pick a fight. It wasn't personal, they were just doing their job: upholding law and order and combating extremists and foreign elements fomenting dissent against the Egyptian government, which is - of course - democratically elected.

After this brief “interrogation,” I was told to wait for another five minutes, which quickly turned into an hour. Then I was finally told by a low-ranking airport guard that I was going to be deported. Why? Because State Security said so. “Illi amn al-dawla 'al yasaafir, yasaafir.”

At this point they had already taken my phone. I spent the next 48 hours isolated from the outside world, waiting for the next flight to Prague in a temporary-turned-permanent detention center. It consisted of a corridor, three small rooms with beds, and a barely functioning bathroom – all tucked in just behind the tax free shop of terminal one.

Technically, I wasn't a prisoner. At some point an officer asked if I wanted to buy a ticked on an earlier plane to Amsterdam. But could I have a phone call to transfer money to my VISA-account? No, was the firm reply - and I suddenly felt like being a character in a novel by Joseph Heller, trapped on a small island in the Mediterranean by an inextricable web of bureaucratic red tape. 

At least I wasn't alone. To start with, my company consisted of fifteen Palestinians and one Nigerian student at al-Azhar. The former wanted to return to their homes in Gaza via Cairo after visiting other Arab countries to work or meet relatives, but had been detained at the airport for unknown “security reasons.” Some of them had been told they should pick another country to apply for a visa to -  forget about the universal human right of leaving and returning to your own country and forget about homes and families again - but they were not allowed to leave the detention center. Another Catch 22.

The Nigerian student just made the terrible mistake of going to the airport to meet a friend, without bringing proper documentation of his right to reside in the country - and wearing a suspiciously long beard on top of that. He was promptly rounded up by security. 

After a few hours a large group of thin and weary Africans where led in by soldiers in green uniforms. They turned out to be Ethiopians, about to be deported from Egypt after first being deported from Israel and imprisoned for four months in a Sinai jail. There, they were subject to all kinds of racist abuse and forced to survive on a 40 gram bar of halawa (some company in the 6h of October free zone must be making a fortune delivering those to the Egyptian prison system) and a couple of slices of bread every morning and night. But at least they weren't shot dead by Egyptian border guards.

Other people kept coming and going, and by nightfall we were around 50 people. With only 24 beds to share we were forced to sleep in shifts. I started out on the floor, and when the Palestinians got up for prayer at dawn I moved to one of the empty beds. Later I learned that the detention center in the other terminal doesn't have any beds at all, so I'm grateful for the few hours of proper sleep I got.

Despite all the time I had to think I didn't have any ready answers for all the journalists who later wanted to know why this happened. And I still don't. Given the number of foreign journalists in Egypt writing freely about the state of affairs in this country – something that cannot be said about our Egyptian colleagues - it's very unlikely that my deportation has anything to do with what I wrote on my little-read blog or for Swedish papers as such. To believe anything else would be tantamount to serious delusion of grandeur. 

 Considering the level of paranoia the egyptian security apparatus has shown recently when it comes to Gaza-related activism, the other theory floating around out there is a lot more compelling: that I was declared persona non grata because of my presence at a small and peaceful pro-Gaza march outside Cairo in February, when activist and filmmaker Philip Rizk was snatched and held incommunicado by state security for four days. Judging from the various statements by anonymous security sources, this is the explanation they want us to believe in – not least because it will effectively discourage other foreigners from getting involved in any kind of activism in Egypt - and for all I know it might be true.

Having said this, I also suspect that there are more than a few local security officers, company managers and officials of the state-controlled unions that are only too happy to have me out of the country. During my travels around Egypt, these people have often display outright hostility – in sharp contrast to the incessant hospitality of ordinary Egyptians in the poorest slums or remotest villages. I don't think they are bothered by what I write (or even aware about it) as much as by the presence of foreign media on the ground, reporting on labour conflicts and independent union activism and hence “giving encouragement” to the people involved - and in certain rare circumstances maybe offering some (temporary) protection from repression.

 This is the case with all journalism of course – just consider the way Western media have encouraged the 6th of April movement or dissident blogging in Egypt – and doesn't make me an activist. I'm merely a journalist who believes that the fate of people of Mohammed al-Attar is as important as that of Ayman Nour. But don't get me wrong: I'm not on a crusade to establish my credibility as an “objective” journalist – I rarely give “equal time” to corporate bosses or government officials when writing features on social movements – and I don't really mind being called an activist. I just think it is unfair to real activists when that label get stuck on parasites like me who make a living in part by writing about them, without risking or sacrificing anything - except, perhaps, a future career in respectable mainstream media.

Then again, I never studied journalism properly and probably got it all wrong. Workers' strikes and other protests around economic demands rarely make the headlines. Unless they turn into riots and people get killed, they are simply not newsworthy. But traveling around Egypt to meet ordinary people involved in day-to-day struggles for decent conditions, reacting against a perceived injustice or fighting oppression, I always felt like I was watching real history

During the last few years, the labour movement in Egypt has reached a level of struggle that probably hasn't been seen in the country since the 40's, and less than a year ago state employees founded the first independent union since 1957. This had led to increased persecution of union activists in the form of arbitrary transfers and dismissals as well as persistent threats from security agents – while the head of the free union has been under investigation for “damaging the reputation” of the official trade unions abroad.

If this isn't news, it's bigger than news. And no matter what the reasons are, not being allowed to be in Egypt and report on this developing social movement feels like a big personal loss.

01 October, 2009

Unwelcome People

So I've been officially declared persona non grata and thrown out of Egypt. I'm too tired to write in detail about this bitter experience or speculate about the reasons behind it right now. But something has to be said about the other, less fortunate victims of the Egyptian security state that I encountered at the airport. 

For 48 hours I shared a small space - tucked in somewhere behind the tax free shop in terminal 1 - with around 15 Palestinians from Gaza. They had all been stopped on their way back to Gaza after visiting other Arab countries, and are being held without explanation - a few of them for as long as three months - with no or little contact with their families. Several has not been allowed back to Gaza since the summer of 2007. One had not seen his wife and 4 year-old son in two years. 

For me, as a westerner, being subject to arbitrary exercise of power in this way is an exception. For them, as a people under occupation, it is an ever-present aspect of life. Despite the sharp contrast between our expectations for the future - I knew I would be sent back to the freedom of my own country in a matter of days - they were the ones who kept cheering me up, making the complete isolation from the outer world bearable with their good spirits and generosity. This is something I will never forget.

18 September, 2009

"Historic verdict" in favour of Tanta labour leaders

The Center for Socialist Studies reports that an appeals court in Tanta ruled yesterday that 7 labour leaders that were fired after a strike in 2007 must be returned to their work. Lawyers describe the verdict - which is final - as a big victory for the workers and the labour movement since it establishes that employers must take their case to an adjudication tribunal or labour court before firing any worker. There is no compulsory mechanism to force the owner to implement the verdict, but the workers believe it will strengthen their negotiating position. Previously, the Saudi investor that bought Tanta Flax and Oils Company from the state in 2005 has promised to return the workers to their jobs if the court ruled in their favor.  Around 1000 workers at the company is currently on strike since the start of the summer.

17 September, 2009

QIZ workers take to the street in Mahalla

Via Mohammed Maree and Hossam el-Hamalawy: A video showing textile workers from the Abou Sebae factory in the QIZ (Qualified Industrial Zone) in Mahalla demonstrating in front of factory owner Ismail Abul Sebae’s house demanding their delayed salaries. The clip shows workers chanting "left, right, we're coming to you Ismail" and "There is no God but God, Ismail is the enemy of God."

According to Mahalla blogger Mohammed Maree 3500 workers took part in the protest. They tried to take to the streets yesterday but were stoped by central security forces and state security officers who promised they would get their salaries in the afternoon. Instead, they entered the factory again only to find a notice that they were obliged to take 15 days unpaid vacation. Today they organized a demonstration that stopped for half an hour outside the factory owners house before continuing to the City Council, paralyzing traffic on the main street al-Bahr until security forces intervened to stop the protest.

Mohammed Maree also reports that a police officer tried to take his camera while he was covering the protest, and threatened to issue another arrest order against him (Mohammed was arrested after the demonstrations in Mahalla on 6 and 7 April 2008, and detained for three months).  

09 September, 2009

Free union leader threatened with up to six months in prison

Jano Charbel reports: "Labor activist Kamal Abu Eita, head of Egypt's only independent labor union, faces charges of disseminating false information and defaming the reputation of the country's state-controlled union leaders." Kamal Abu Eita told al-Masry al-Youm: "I do not wish to tarnish Egypt's image abroad, in fact we are attempting to improve its image abroad. Through our efforts we are proving to the world that Egypt is capable of genuine trade unionism. In this sense I am proud of improving Egypt's image."

08 September, 2009

"Blood Libel" vs Murder in Cold Blood

After the apparently intentional tear-gassing of Al Jazeera correspondent Jackie Rowland by Israeli soldiers, a friend sent me this video as a reminder of the often lethal violence directed by the occupation troops against civilian Palestinians - a routine violence which, in contrast to one speculative article about possible organ theft by Israeli soldiers and the alleged anti-semitism of its author, has not been debated and condemned by Swedish pro-Israeli liberals recently:

"The man in the video, 29 year old Basem Abu Rahme, was evacuated to Ramallah hospital in critical condition, where he died of his injury. When he was shot, Basem was standing east of the Wall, facing the army who was positioned to the west. There was not more than 30 meters between them. The type of gas bomb that killed Basem has a range of 800 meters. It is not visible when it is fired or when it is in the air. At 300 – 400 meters, it explodes internally in order to add velocity. With a plastic or fiberglass head, the canisters resemble shells, not tear gas bombs, and are deadly when not fired into the air."

07 September, 2009

The crisis that never came...

Take a moment and consider these words by American diplomat George Ball, writing in 1979:

"It is unrealistic to believe that Israel, which has maintained a military occupation over 1,200,000 Palestinians for the past 12 years, can continue that role indefinitely. With violence increasing and Arab strength expanding, the attempt to maintain the status quo offers only a sad an bloody future. Nor is it reasonable to believe that the American people will be prepared indefinitely to subsidize this Israeli brand of colonialism so far out of tune with present-day opinion."

So right, yet so wrong... The article, titled "The Coming Crisis Israeli-American Relations," deals with US-Israeli relations from 1948 to 1979 and also touches upon the growth of the pro-Israel lobby, and is still an interesting read 30 years later. Ball describes US-Israeli relations as characterized by "dependence without responsibility." Some excerpts: 

"Over the last 30 years these relations have evolved to the point where Israel is more dependent on the United States than ever, and yet feels itself free to take hard-line positions at variance with American views without fear of anything worse than verbal admonition from Washington."

"/---/ Today Israel is able to continue on its present course only because of continued vast subsidies from the United States. Distasteful as it must be to Israelis, the nation has become a ward— a kind of welfare dependent—of America. The United States is providing annual subsidies out of the public sector that amount to the equivalent of $7,500 a year for every Jewish family..."

"/---/ Why should Israel not pursue its own course, when Israelis have been so long conditioned to expect that America will support their country, no matter how often it disregards American advice and protests and America's own interests, that both sides now accept this extraordinary ritual dancing as quite normal?"

30 years later, in the Obama era, the White House "regrets" the construction of new settlements on the West Bank. The dance continues...

06 September, 2009

Afghanistan Confusion

When NATO and the Taliban are not busy fighting each other, they attack hospitals and tie up employees and family membes. Who were the good guys again?

05 September, 2009

Imposing unions from above to counter those built from below

Al Shourouq reports: Hussein Megawer, head of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, has announced that a new general union - the 24th in Egypt - is being established for employees of tax and customs authorities who previously belonged to the union for bank and insurance employees. The new imposed-from-above-union will supposedly represent the employees of the real estate tax collectors, who founded their own independent union in december 2008. This decision comes as the leader of the free union had been summoned for interrogation by the North Giza prosecutor today after being accused by Megawer of the ETUF of "spreading information that has damaged the reputation of Egypt."

04 September, 2009

Head of Free Union under Attack

Via the Center for Socialist Studies: The head of the independent RETA-union, Kamal abu Eita, will be questioned tomorrow Saturday on charges by Hussein Megawer, head of the official trade union federation, that he has been spreading "false information" that has hurt the reputation of Egypt and its official trade union system. Kamal abu Eita in turn accuses Megawer of acting as a "union police" after failing to control the labour movement, and says that the attacks on him is a sign of weakness.

More links on the free union here and here.

Pic above: Kamal abu Eita during a demonstration outside the trade union federation HQ, november 2007.

03 September, 2009

Importing Efficiency While Neglecting Education

I find this headline, "Egypt keen for Indian expertise to increase labour efficiency,"  slightly ironic considering the recent labour unrest in some QIZ areas and the Indian-owned Shebeen el-Kom spinning mill. It is also very revealing of the economic thinking that prevails within the Egyptian government. 

In recent years there has been significant Indian investments in the Egyptian ready-made garments industry, especially in the QIZ areas. There, as in Shebeen al-Kom, workers from South Asia are often employed as supervisors and technicians, for several reasons. One is that although these foreign sub-managers and technicians earn way more than the unskilled workers in the production line, they often make less than Egyptian workers with equivalent skills. Another is that their loyalty is easier to guarantee, especially when they enter the country on a work-visa tied to a specific company. To some extent it might also be because creating ethnic divisions in the labour force is a good way to prevent unionizing (but in some cases it may also trigger labour unrest by creating a sense of being discriminated among the lower paid Egyptian workers - this happened in Shebeen el-Kom).

As this article points out, Egypt is wasting a lot of value and potential for industrial development by exporting high-quality cotton as a raw material while its textile industry is mostly focused on low-end products made from lower quality cotton. And this report argues that one of the major obstacles to shifting to higher-value production and increasing labour productivity in general is the lack of an educated workforce. 

So what to do about this? Bring in more foreign experts and supervisors - hoping their skills will somehow "trickle down" to illiterate Egyptian workers that work for a pittance - or dealing with the root of the problem and investing in the education of your own people?

The same report identifies another important obstacle to low labour efficiency in the textile sector: poor working conditions, which can lead to "a number of productivity problems, such as worker injuries, production errors, poor quality products, absenteeism, lack of machine maintenance, haphazard inventory systems, and lack of respect and loyalty to the enterprise..."

This is a major factor in the Egyptian ready-made garments sector, where the turnover of the workforce is 8-15 percent per month, which is not surprising considering that wages often range from 150 to 200 pounds a month. Absenteeism amounts to 10-12 percent on a daily basis, equivalent to 100-120 out of 1000 workers in a given factory not showing up to work on any given day. This could be for several legitimate reasons: they may be sick or injured, or they may find occasional employment on the side that offers better pay (as we all know, it's very common for Egyptians to have two jobs).

Conclusion: if you want to improve labour efficiency, you should improve basic education and work conditions. But of course, unless you are a neoliberal or market fundamentalist, those seem like pretty desirable aims in their own right...

Pic above: "inefficient" non-unionized and expendable workers in a QIZ-zone ready garments factory.

Norwegian pension fund drops Israeli company

Norway's finance minister announced today that the Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd has been dropped from the national oil fund due to ethical concerns - namely the company's involvement the construction of the Wall on the West Bank. The minister told the press: "We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law."

Selling shares in a company isn't exactly a strong economic sanction, but this is still a pretty powerful statement coming from a European government official. I eagerly await the response from Avigdor Lieberman and all those pundits who has been making claims like this recently: "behind the humanitarian mask that has been has been assiduously nurtured by the Nordic and Scandinavian countries, are a group of society elites, leftist journalists, clergy, employees of non-governmental agencies (NGOs), and politicans, particularly in Sweden and Norway, who have been regularly demonizing Israel and Jews, using classic themes of antisemitism, which have morphed into anti-Israel motifs." 

Those who make those claims rarely (correction: never) bother to provide any proof, of course, and I strongly suspect most of them could hardly even point out Sweden or Norway on a world map.

Update: (via Ali Esbati): The decision to disinvest in Elbit was apparently taken already on June 30 this year, but made public only today, which should kill all speculation that this is somehow a revenge for Israel's criticism last month of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of novelist Knut Hamsun - a celebrated novelist who won the Nobel prize in the 20's but later became infamous and widely condemned for his Nazi sympathies. 

02 September, 2009

Ben-Gurion and Sinai

I'm currently working (or should be working) on a piece on the Suez Crisis/Tripartite Aggression, which - as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim points out - is not only one of the most famous but also the "best-documented war plot in modern history." The deceit and lies and bizarre worldview that led up to the war is a truly fascinating (and horrifying) piece of history that makes present-day neocon warmongers like Dick Cheney look like amateurs.

The highlights are provided by David Ben-Gurion - prime minister and defense minister of Israel. At the secret conference that produced the Protocol of Sèvres, Ben-Gurion was at his expansionist best. First he floated a proposal to re-organize the entire Middle East, giving the east bank of the Jordan river (Jordan, that is) to Iraq, annexing southern Lebanon to Israel in order to help establish a Maronite Christian state in the rest of the country, and toppling Nasser and replacing him with a pro-western leader that would also be prepared to sign a peace treaty with Israel. 

Later, in a private conversation with his french counterpart, he suggested "tearing" Sinai from Egypt. On 25 October 1956, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: "I told him (the french minister) about the discovery of oil in southern and western Sinai, and that it would be good to tear this peninsula from Egypt, because it did not belong to her, rather it was the English who stole it from the Turks when they believed that Egypt was in their pocket. I suggested laying down a pipeline from Sinai to Haifa to refine the oil..."

Much can be said about Ben-Gurion, but at least he was a man of vision...

31 August, 2009

Shebeen el-Kom workers on hunger strike after being fired

Tadamon reports that five workers at Indorama Shebeen el-Kom went on hungerstrike yesterday morning, after being fired by the company. After an 11-day strike in the factory in March, four strike leaders were transferred to the company's warehouse in Alexandria - two of whom are now among the workers who were fired.

24 August, 2009

The "blood-libel" row from a Swedish horizon

I've been following the Sweden-Israel organ theft / blood-libel row in disbelief for the past week. I resisted commenting on it so far because I just found the whole affair too ridiculous and blown out of proportion by media - in Israel, Sweden and elsewhere. I mean, who even cares what Avigdor Lieberman says? And who, except hardcore zionists, is not an anti-semite according to his world view?

Still, as a Swedish journalist I've been receiving a lot of questions about this from foreign friends, so I might as well share a few thoughts on the matter.

As for the controversial article itself, I found it unconvincing at best, sensationalist and irresponsible at worst - but definitely not anti-semitic. First of all it's important to remember that it is not strictly a news report, but more like an opinion piece. The author doesn't explicitly claim he actually knows organ theft took place, but recounts things he saw and stories he heard on the occupied Palestinian territories in the early 90's, makes a link to a recent organ trade scandal involving the US and Israel, and calls for an investigation. 

Nevertheless, I partially agree with Matthew Cassel at The Electronic Intifada who objects to the article because it gives Israel an opportunity to undermine well-founded reports about serious human rights violations. Here's an excerpt of his article (read it all here):

"Unlike Bostrom's reporting, when most Palestinian human rights organizations or other journalists have uncovered Israeli violations, they are sure to provide well-documented evidence to prove beyond a doubt that such violations were in fact committed. Even though Israel has made it very difficult for both Palestinian and international journalists and human rights workers to practice inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many have risked their lives to see that evidence of Israel's crimes is uncovered and reported.

/---/ The fact that Bostrom did not offer evidence for his organ theft claims has given Israel an enormous propaganda gift. Because he offered nothing more than conjecture and hearsay, Israel has launched a major campaign casting itself as an aggrieved victim of "blood libel." This allows Israel to distract attention from the mountains of evidence of well-documented war crimes, and even to discredit real evidence."

I'm not sure, though, that this will actually turn out as a propaganda victory for Israel in the end. The campaign against the Swedish government and Aftonbladet, the Swedish daily that published the article, looks too much like a farce to be taken seriously. It is obviously part of a desperate campaign by the right wing, ultra-nationalistic Israeli government to use any possible opportunity to distract from its own conduct on the occupied territories (especially the continuing criticism against the recent war on Gaza and expansion of settlements) and to appear strong in front of its own constituencies. 

It is extremely unlikely that the Swedish government would apologize for or condemn the article - to give in for such Israeli demands after refusing to do the same after the publication of the controversial caricatures of the prophet Mohammed would be suicide, PR-wise. The Israeli government is fully aware of this, of course, but Avigdor Lieberman doesn't want an apology - being regarded as pariah more or less everywhere, he simply wants to flex his muscles.

The Swedish government, in turn, probably isn't very concerned that this affair might hurt diplomatic relations between the two countries. Israel won't suddenly expel the Swedish military attaché from Tel Aviv, for example (if they ever did it would be extremely ironic, since withdrawal of the military attaché and an end to all military cooperation between the two countries has long been a major demand of leftist and pro-Palestinian groups in Sweden) or cancel trade deals with the European Union. 

In fact, the Swedish right-wing government may come out as a winner of this affair since it is currently seen as "standing up" against unreasonable Israeli demands, playing along with the public opinion which grew more critical of Israel during the war on Gaza, while presenting no real criticism of the continuing Israeli politics of apartheid and occupation.

In the end, I believe this affair will only hurt the image of Israel in Sweden further. I strongly suspect that a vast majority of Swedes (regardless of what they think of the Aftonbladet-article, if they even read it) view the Israeli demands as unreasonable and unworthy of a supposedly democratic state, are sick and tired of having to put up with Avigdor Liebermans Swede-bashing on TV night after night, and of Israel-supporters branding all their opponents as anti-semites (a strategy that has always carried a risk of causing a serious backlash - ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?)

In an ironic twist, some Israelis are now calling for a boycott of Swedish products. I'm tempted to say: Go ahead, and why don't you start with the Volvo-bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes in the occupied territories... And if even Israelis themselves accept boycott as a legitimate way of putting political pressure on countries whose policies we dislike, this should give a boost to the international BDS-movement and the international boycott of Israeli products.

International unions criticize Egypt's government

Via the CTUWS website: The Public Services International, PSI, sent a protest letter directed to the Prime Minister of Egypt against the pressures on the Real Estate Tax Collectors union. An excerpt: "PSI urges your government to take swift measures to ensure that RETA can freely exercise its role as an independent trade union organisation; to condemn all acts of intimidation and harassment against the leadership and members of RETA and to condemn all external interference in RETA’s activities."

PSI is a global trade union federation representing more than 20 million men and women working with public services around the world. URETA was accepted as a member in April, as the first Egyptian union outside the state-controlled trade union federation. While this kind of criticism may not affect the government of Egypt very much, it is certainly embarrassing for the state-affiliated unions - two of which are also members of PSI - who are increasingly seen outside of Egypt as the pro-regime tools of social control they have long been.

11 August, 2009

Tax Collectors Repeat Historical Sit-in

Egypt's real estate tax collectors have begun a strike in defense of their independent unionHossam el-Hamalawy is twittering from their sit-in in Hussein Hegazy street outside the cabinet, where hundreds are chanting against the state-controlled unions - just like they did for 11 days some 20 months ago.

This reminds me of a remark made by Kamal Abu Eita, the head of the free union, during a conference organized by Tadamon just before I left Egypt in June: "Everyone is saying that we created the first independent union in Egypt since 1957. But every union is independent, and controlled by it's members - if it isn't, it's not a union. So we have in fact established the first union in Egypt since the 50'

Given the extent of state manipulation and control of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation I believe this statement was correct. When security intervenes to purge "radical" workers from even the lowest levels of the union hierarchy, which often happened in the last union elections in 2006, unions cease to be unions and turn into branches of the state.

This is why this is probably going to be an intense confrontation, where more is at stake than the fight over who is going to control the social fund - the final outcome this struggle may determine the viability of the future existence of the only real union in Egypt.

UPDATE: Hossam uploaded some pics here, and will post continuous updates and links (English and Arabic) here.

10 August, 2009

Egypt's State-Controlled Unions Under Pressure

The state-controlled trade union federation has been coming under increasing pressure lately, as the wave of wildcat strikes continues - especially in the textile sector - and different groups of workers and state employees attempt to organize independently. The isolation of the state-controlled unions is underlined by two important developments, unfolding as I'm writing this (check out Hossam Al-Hamalawy's blogg for updates): First, the threat by the tax collectors' independent union to go on national strike on Tuesday to defend their union, secondly the refusal of the workers at Tanta Flax and Oils to suspend their strike (which just entered its third month) despite orders to do so from the state-controlled union

Since I'm not in Egypt I can't report on these events directly, but perhaps some (very brief) history would be in place - for those not familiar with the background of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and its relation to the state. 

As Egypt emerged from the post-WWII economic crisis, strike wave and struggle for national liberation, a vibrant trade union movement had developed. In the early 50's experienced unionists and political activists on the left sought to establish a national federation of trade unions - but their founding conference was banned by the Free Officers after the coup of July 1952. Instead, the federation was founded only in 1957 under the tutelage of the new regime.

During the Nasser era, workers were granted a number of benefits, with one of the most important probably being the strenghtening of employment security, but faced new restrictions on the right to strike and organize independently. This "social contract," as some social scientists would call it, was broken - or made irrelavant - in the 70's. As the neo-liberal wave hit Egypt and Sadat introduced his "intifah" policies, the rapidly increasing gulf between working people and more affluent classes led to an upsurge of the left and a new wave of wildcat strikes around the years 1974 and 1975. 

One of the results of this upsurge of the left and the workers movement was that more than 4000 "leftists" - including both socialists or communists and Nasserists - were elected to positions within the unions in 1976. Many of them were dedicated to strenghtening the independence of the trade union federation, but more importantly they - and many non-ideological unionists - were hard opponents of the politics of liberalization and privatization, which was then only starting to take shape. (I recommend Marsha Pripstein Posusney's Labour and the State in Egypt for a detailed analysis of this period).

The regime responded to this upsurge of workers' militancy and leftist politics in two ways. First, Sadat encouraged islamic movements on the universities (some of which would later turn into militant jihadist groups) to counter the left. Second, the regime cracked down on the radical elements of the trade union movement. The bread riots in January 1977, a spontaneous revolt led by workers and the urban poor against an IMF-sponsored decision to cut bread subsidies, was used as a pretext to arrest hundreds of leftists and radical workers. 

New laws passsed during this period introduced  hard labour as punishment for striking workers and imposed hard restrictions on who could enter trade union elections - anyone considered a member of a group that opposed the "divine laws" of the state was banned. As a consequence, only a little more than a hundred "leftists" won positions in the unions in the 1979 elections - and many of them were jailed in the continued crackdown on the left and labour movement in the following years. In this way, the unions were purged from virtually anyone considered a radical - from communists to non-ideological but comitted unionists - paving the way for the continued push towards economic restructuring along neo-liberal free market-principles.

It should be noted that during the repression of the left during the 70's, some "leftists" decided to break with their past to avoid arrest and save their careers. While some did this out of fear, the more opportunistic ones even joined the NDP. Among the latter we find Aisha abdel Hady, a former member of the socialist Tagammu party that "switched sides" in order to climb through the trade union structure and eventually become minister of manpower - a position she has recently used to denounce strikes as being "incited by the Muslim Brootherhood" and attack the independent press for giving them coverage...

This is something to bear in mind whenever anyone says that Egyptian workers are only raising economic demands and don't care about politics. With the authoritarian state excerting such efforts to manipulate and control the unions - by suspending all resemblance of internal democracy - the line between economic and political demands grows very thin. Any worker raising his or her voice against bad working conditions of low salaries is also engaging in a political act. And when workers feel betrayed by their unions, their anger is quickly directed against the state - since the difference between them is almost non-existent anyway. And when they eventually try and form their own unions that truly represent them, they do so fully aware that the regime will perceive this a serious political challenge that has to be crushed.