31 January, 2009

Swedish activist shot in West Bank

An activist from my home town Gothenburg was shot in the leg with live ammuntion during a peaceful protest against the Wall in the West Bank village of Nil'in yesterday, the Swedish press and the ISM reports. One Palestinian man was also injured.

I've been to a couple of these demonstrations, who take place every week, and they always follow more or less the same script: A peaceful march, followed by light scuffles with Israeli troops and border police. It usually ends with a highly unequal stand-off between the young boys of the village, who throw rocks against the soldiers, who in turn respond with (potentially lethal) rubber-coated bullets and tear gas - and occasionally live ammunition. Sometimes the soldiers start firing at the demonstrators as soon as they reach the outskirts of the village.

In December, two Palestinian children was killed during a demonstration in the same village. I don't know the exact circumstances of this last incident, but one thing is certain: Everyone killed or injured while voicing his or her opposition to the Wall, the illegal settlements, and the occupation, is another victim of the apartheid system being constructed in the West Bank.

Pic above: Medics attend a young Palestinian injured in his hand after being hit by a tear-gas canister fired straight at him from close range, march 2006.

"The people in the service of the police"

On 25 January, Egypt celebrated "Police Day," commemorating the massacre of over 50 policemen in Ismailiyya by British forces on that day in 1952, which triggered widespread demonstrations and riots in Cairo. Today however, as Zeinobia writes, the police have turned from a symbol of resistance against foreign occupation to a symbol of repression. Not only because its main role is to protect the regime and quell all forms of political dissent, but also because of the daily abuse many Egyptians suffer from the hands of the police.

It's an interesting coincidence (or maybe they were actually inspired or provoked by the media coverage surrounding this day?) that microbus drivers in Giza chose this week to go on strike, protesting abuse and harassment by the police.

When I read about this strike, I was reminded about a small episode I witnessed a few weeks ago on the microbus from Lebanon Square to 6h of October City. After one of the passengers got of the bus at the beginning of 6th of October without paying the fare of 2,50 pounds, the driver immediately started to complain loudly to the rest of us: "He's a police officer, that guy. Of course he doesn't pay the fare. Now he's going to take a tuk-tuk to his house, for free of course!"

To this one of the passengers replied: "Yeah, they're all like that. This is the only principle they teach at police academy these days: The people in the service of the police!"

Pic above: The police protecting the people from dangerous political dissent during a Kifaya demonstration on 12 December 2006.

30 January, 2009

Updates on Railway struggle

El-Badeel reported yesterday that the management of Egyptian National Railways is preparing a "new plan" for reforming the wage structure of the company, in response to recent industrial actions taken by drivers, technicians, and signal operators. (Previos posts: Here, here and here.) The head of the company sais he has asked workers in all the sections of the company to present their demands in "order of priority" so that they can be taken into consideration "within the limits of the budget and resources provided by the ministry of transport."

After two strikes in less than a week and growing militancy in several sections of the workforce, the management is clearly under intense pressure to make some sort of concessions to avoid further disruptions of train traffic - but at the same time they want to avoid encouraging further action by appearing to give in to the workers demands. As a result they are resorting to the same sort of vague promises that the workers have been hearing for two years now. I doubt it will satisfy many of them.

29 January, 2009

Families of jailed Mahalla demonstrators hold protest

Families of the 22 convicted in the Mahalla-trial held a protest in front of the prosecutor's office yesterday, el-Badeel reports, demanding a decision on the pleas for pardon of their family members, who were sentenced between 3-5 years in prison by a state security court over the demonstrations and riots on Mahalla on 6 and 7 April last year.

Pic above: Relatives protest in the lobby of the Tanta court during the trial, 11 October 2008.

Articles on free union, Mahalla, and train drivers strike

My latest articles in Swedish about the tax collectors' free union, the train drivers strike and the struggle in Mahalla are now available online at Flamman and ETC.

Solidarity campaigns to break the siege of Gaza

As media attention is drifting away from the situation in Gaza, several initiatives is being launched to draw attention to the ongoing siege. Activists in Egypt are launching a "March on Gaza" as the starting point of an ongoing international campaign. And Brittish MP George Galloway is organizing a "Valentine to Palestine" aid convoy, leaving from London on 14 February and passing through countries in Western Europe and North Africa before reaching Rafah.

Meanwhile, I stumbled upon this old blog post (in English) from 2006 by the current Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, condemning Israel's and the Europeans Union's decision to boycott and isolate the recently elected Hamas government as a "policy meltdown of dangerous proportions." Back then, while still in opposition, he wrote: "In Europe, I have yet to meet anyone who genuinely believes in the policy that is pursued." It's too bad then, that Mr Bildt didn't demand a change in this policy when his party was elected to power four months later...

28 January, 2009

More on railway struggles

Sarah Carr reports for The Daily News on yesterday's railway strike. El-Badeel also has a report, emphasizing the expressions of solidarity from train drivers with the striking signal operators and crossing watchmen. According to El-Badeel, railway workshop workers are also threatening to go on strike in the coming week, putting the Egypt National Railways under intense pressure from a large part of its workforce.

27 January, 2009

Another train strike

For the second time in less than a week, trains stopped moving at Cairo Station in Ramses just before noon today. This time it was the signal operators who went on national strike, bringing train traffic to a halt all over Egypt. Their main demand was to receive wages equal to those of the drivers. The strike was suspended after about three hours, apparently after the workers received a (informal) promise that at least some of their demands would be realized within 48 hours. Meanwhile, the train drivers are already waiting impatiently for a decision to be made on their promised bonuses before the end of the month.

As a delegation of signal operators and union officials were negotiating with the deputy manager of the Egyptian Railways Association, a group of drivers, conductors and others were having an intense discussion in the drivers rest-house next to the tracks. It was quite hard for me to follow, but it was revolving around the problem of how to achieve unity among the various groups of railway workers.

While drivers, conductors, maintenance workers, and now signal operators have all taken separate industrial action during the last two years, they have not been able to present a united front towards the management. This is in part because their financial situation is very different - many drivers earn between 700-1700 pounds a month, while maintenance workers can earn less than 200 - but also because the different nature of their demands: drivers for example have asked for an increase in the kilometre allowance, which does not apply to signal operators or maintenance workers. Differences like these are constantly exploited by the management and exacerbated by the general ineffectiveness of the state-controlled union.

One thing that do unite the workers is their mistrust of the state union. One driver I spoke to was very critical of the union, saying it is "only talking, nothing else. We have heard the same promises for months now, but nothing ever happens."

At one point during the discussion, one of the drivers identified a man present as a plain-clothes police agent and abruptly (but non-violently) deported him outside the rest-house, shouting: "Get out! And I never want to see a policeman here again!"

Wadi Natrun farmers protest rising land prices

El-Badeel and el-Doustour reports: Between 400 and 600 small farmers in Wadi Natrun demonstrated in front of the ministry of agriculture on Sunday, accusing the government of "selling their land to them twice" and protesting a dramatic raise in the yearly installments which threatens to force them away from their plots, after they had worked hard to cultivate the previously unproductive area. According to el-Badeel the total number of famers affected is about 10.000.

Since the mid-90s when regulations on land rents (introduced as a central element of land reforms during the Nasser era) was abolished by the government, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian small farmers have been forced of land often cultivated by them and their families for decades.

26 January, 2009

"Doctors withouh rights" challenge illegality of strikes in hospitals

An administrative court has postoned the hearing of a case raised by "Doctors without rights," challenging a decision from 2003 banning strikes in hospitals, until the 1st of February - el-Badeel reports. The group argues that the ban on strikes in hospitals is illegal, since the right to strike is granted in the constitution as well in international agreements signed by Egypt. They also insist strikes by doctors is not against the interests of patients, but a legitimate means to improve their wages and their ability to offer good services.

25 January, 2009

Lawyer: 7555 MB members detained in 2008

According to a lawyer from the Muslim Brotherhood, 7555 members of the organization was arrested during 2008, el-Badeel reports. Around 1200 is also claimed to have been arrested during the first weeks of 2009, mostly in connection with Gaza solidarity protests.

Now, regardless of any political differences one might have with the Ikhwan (as for me personally, I have quite a few), imagine what the response from the "international community" would have been to the arrest of thousands (or even hundreds) of members of the main opposition group, had it happened in any other country - any country not ruled by a clique of pro-western neo-liberal gangsters, that is.

Photographers protest police violence

Click the pic for a set on flickr of today's protest against police violence against photographers. This protest was originally planned for October, but was postponed by the leadership of the Photographers Association after the interior ministry offered to hold "dialogue" on the issue of police brutality. Apparently, the heads of the association decided to endorse today's protest only when they realized it was going to take place anyway.
Update: Here is a report from Sarah Carr.

A Palestinian invasion of Egypt?

I just found this article in The Daily News, headlined "Egyptian handling of Gaza proves popular domestically," in which the author argues that the Egyptian regime's handling of the Gaza crisis "proved a points winner, at least domestically."

Now, while it's certainly true that "many Egyptians got on the defensive and backed the regime’s position" as Egypt came under pressure from demonstrators around the Arab world, I don't think quoting one "24-year-old Mohamed Yassin Ahmed" and a couple of newspaper columns provides a good basis for drawing general conclusions about the popularity of the regime's foreign policy.

The article also refers to the "widely prevalent" fear that an unconditional opening of the Rafah border crossing "would result in a mass exodus and a Palestinian occupation of Egyptian territory." Or, as the "man on the street" Ahmed says: “We don’t want to be another Jordan, where Palestinians outnumber the Jordanians themselves and then we would have lost the Palestinian cause. One of Israel’s plans is to remove the Palestinians from Gaza and relocate them in Sinai."

I definitely think that media should present both sides of this debate. But since this argument is very much in line with the propaganda of the Egyptian regime, I think journalists have a special obligation to examine it critically. So here's a couple of points to consider:

First of all, if the population of Gaza really wanted to invade Egypt and occupy Sinai they would have done so a long time ago. The border itself is a joke: It consists of a fence and a few hundred Egyptian soldiers guarding a 13 kilometer wide area. If the Palestinians decided to cross en masse, they could do so at any time. But it is a mystery to me why they would suddenly abandon Gaza after fighting for their homeland for 60 years, especially considering the hostility and discrimination they would likely face as illegal residents of Egypt.

Secondly, calling for an opening of the border is not the same as calling for its removal. What the Palestinians want is a normal border, open to travel and trade like any other international border. The events following the border breach in January 2008 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed into Egypt and prices soared, making life difficult for the local population, has been used again and again as an example of what might happen if the border was opened. But the reality is that this "invasion" of Palestinians would never have happened if there wasn't a siege in place to start with. If goods were allowed into Gaza, the Palestinians wouldn't need to cross the border to get them.

Interestingly, the idea of a Palestinian invasion of Sinai seem to be particularly popular among the middle class in Cairo (based only on my own very unscientific observations of course). In contrast, virtually everyone I spoke to during my recent trip to northern Sinai is opposed to the current blockade. While the smuggling industry is making some rich, many Egyptians living in northern Sinai also suffers from the isolation of Gaza because they are denied an important market for goods and services. Thus, most of them want the border opened - but in an organized way. Presenting the choice as one between total anarchy and total closure only plays into the hands of the propaganda apparatus of the Egyptian regime.

Pic above: Palestinians in desperate need of basic necessities as fuel and food "invade" Egypt after the temporary border breach on 23 January, 2008.

24 January, 2009

Telemisr and Ericsson: Profit before people

El-Badeel reports on the interrupted Telemisr sit-in: Apparently the governor of Giza intervened and asked the workers for a 10 day respite to hold new negotiations between the management and the local union, while the workers promise to take new action if those negotiations fail. The Daily News also has a report in English, giving some of the background to this conflict. One of the employees is quoted as saying about the owner: “This man doesn’t want to produce anything. He’s a merchant, he wants to buy and sell but doesn’t care about the factory or the employees who spent their lifetime building this place.”

This is the story of the "economic reforms" pushed in Egypt for 30 years now by international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. But putting profit before people is not unique to Egypt, as this article demonstrates: Swedish telecom giant Ericsson is cutting back its work force with 5000 this year despite huge profits (about 2,4 billion euro) during 2008...

Arming Occupiers and Dictators - a Swedish Success Story

With the global depression threatening to spell the end for the Swedish car industry, at least one other branch of industry is doing well: The arms industry.

Despite having a population of only 9 million, Sweden rank among the 10 largest exporters of arms in the world. Since the US invasion of Iraq, arms exports has tripled, and recently Saab Bofors Dynamics signed another contract to supply anti-tank guns for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In open violation of the ban on arms exports to countries in war, of course, but who cares? Not the Swedish government anyway.

This graph shows the value of the Swedish arms exports between 1998 and 2007:

In other words, the "War on Terror" is good business. And besides arming the US occupation army, Sweden is also a proud supplier of weapons to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt - yes, good old Hosni Mubarak is a dear customer!

And while the current policy is to not allow arms exports to Israel (although there is no way to make sure arms exported to the US end up being used by the IDF), there is no such ban on imports. During the last 10 years, Sweden imported weapons and ammo for 40 million euro from Israel, giving a considerable boost to that country's own arms industry.

Not all Swedes agree with this policy though, and some are prepared to break the law in order to show their opposition. In November, two activists were sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of more than 10.000 euro each for breaking in to the Bofors factory in Karlskoga and destroying equipment.

Pic below: Police arresting an anti-war activist dressed as a clown during a demonstration at Aimpoint in Malmö in September 2008. Click it to watch the whole set.

23 January, 2009

Telemisr sit-in ended after another security intervention

Workers at Telemasr ended their sit-in at the factory in al-Haram yesterday after 5 days. I went there in the afternoon, but just as I arrived a worker told me over phone that the sit-in had ended a few hours earlier. That was partly because that morning, state security showed up and threatened to arrest everyone on the spot. The worker I spoke to also mentioned (with big reservations here for my lousy arabic that's even worse over phone) that the workers would give the company one week to fullfill their demands (to cancel the transfer of almost 200 workers to the Ismailiyya branch and the partial closure of the factory in Cairo) or they would announce a strike.

I talked to a driver working for the company, who said that "The government solved the problem and the people left, alhamdulilah [thank god]!" He seemed really nervous and was probably afraid of getting in trouble since, according to el-Badeel, several workers have been forced to accept early retirement after talking to media before.

Telemisr is one of many state-owned companies that has been sold at prices allegedly far below their true value in order to enrich friends of the regime and satisfy the demands of the International Monetary Fund. In this case there was a big controversy involving a member of the management circumventing the correct procedures for purchasing shares to acquire a majority ownership of the company. Soon after privatization, the owner cancelled payments of bonuses and allowances and started preparations to close the plant in Cairo and sell or exploit the land for other purposes.

War criminals and criminal wars

Ehud Olmert has put his justice minister in charge of defending Israel against charges of war crimes during the recent war in Gaza. At the same time "Israel's military censor has already banned the publication of the identity of the unit leaders who fought against Hamas Islamists on the Gaza Strip for fear they may face war crimes charges," AFP reports.

So, Israel claims its soldiers did not commit war crimes, but in order to protect them in case they did, their identity has to be hidden. That's brilliant.

I sometimes think the whole war crimes-debate is a distraction, just like the debate on Israels use of illegal weapons. As Amira Hass pointed out in Haaretz a few days ago, 'legal' weapons also kill. And even if you only target military installations and enemy fighters, you become a war criminal the very moment you decide to launch a criminal war. While it's undeniable that both sides has committed plenty of war crimes in this conflict (although one side on a far bigger scale), calling for the prosecution of those responsible is without meaning if at the same time the greater crimes of occupation, illegal settlements, conquest of land by force, ethnic cleansing, and so on, are ignored.

Pic above: Israeli soldiers shoot potentially lethal rubber-coated bullets at stone-throwing Palestinian children during a demonstration in the occupied West Bank.

22 January, 2009

Mahalla and the struggle for free unions

As Sarah Carr reported, Mahalla independent union activists ended their sit-in on Saturday, after eight days, without reaching any agreement with the management. They also said they would go on with their plans to establish a free union of the textile workers in Mahalla, in respons to the refusal of the official state-controled union to act on their behalf.

While the Mahalla activists first started to talk openly about forming their own union in December, after the real estate tax collectors formed the first independent union in Egypt since the 50's, the need for a union that genuinly represents the workers and defends their interests has always been at the heart of their struggle.

The strike in Mahalla in December 2006, which help spark a wave of social protests in Egypt, came right after state security services had intervened to exclude thousands of independent and opposition candidates from union elections held in November. And some of those who ended up representing the workers in negotiations during the strike had been thrown out from the local union committee just weeks before. This pattern has been repeated in other places since then, so one might say that the state's attempt to strenghten its control of the official unions backfired by convincing workers all over Egypt of the need for independent organization.

Now, my understanding is that the 22 workers who staged the 8-day sit-in in response do disciplinary measures taken by the management, including wage-cuts and transfers of workers to other branches of the company, are more or less the same as those who negotiated for the workers during the second strike in September 2007. They have constituted the de-facto union leadership in the factory since then, in the eyes of the workers. This means that the disciplinary measures taken by the management should not be seen just as a response to the anti-privatization protest that took place in the factory last October. Instead, that event was probably used as a pretext for eliminating or silencing all the independent union activists (including those who agreed to cancel the strike that was planned for 6 April last year - so giving in to pressure from security and the state union at one point is no guarantee that you won't be a victim of repression later...).

Given the symbolic importance of the Mahalla factory (being the largest factory in the Middle East and also, as Joel Beinin pointed out to me in a recent interview, one of the first to be nationalized by Nasser) and the impact a free union there might have on the rest of the textile industry, the state will do all it can to break all such attempts. The 6 April events also showed that the state is prepared to use violence against industrial workers to a far greater extent than it would against state functionaries, like the tax collectors. This means that if the workers in Mahalla are to succeed, they are going to need need a big portion of support and solidarity from social and political forces within Egypt as well as internationally.

Pic above: Women workers demonstate outside the factory gates on 30 October 2008, protesting alleged plans to privatize the factory and accusing the management of corruption.

21 January, 2009

In the spirit of Goebbels

To celebrate the killing of 1300 Palestinians in Gaza, including hundreds of children, the youth association of the Swedish ruling rightwing party, made this video which would have made Joseph Goebbels proud.

The text shown translates as:

"Security. Freedom. Democracy. Only one country in the Middle East takes a stand for these values. There you can love whoever you want without, as in Iran, being hanged for it. Join us in supporting freedom in the Middle East. Help us support Israel! Become a member!"

Actually, this recruitment video tells us something important about the significance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the political culture of Europe. Back in the 60's and early 70's, when the left was strong and massive opposition to the war in Vietnam was discrediting the US as the protector of democratic values, the liberal and conservative establishment turned to Israel as their own "cause" to helpt recruit young members to their parties. By propagating Israel as "the only democracy in the Middle East," surrounded by hostile dictatorships, they tried to counter the radicalizing impact of the Vietnam war and anti-colonial freedom struggles around the world.

Decades later they still cling to this concept, long after the "temporary" and "security-motivated" occupation of the West Bank has turned to permanent colonialism and apartheid. I cannot help but wonder if this is because today, as the neoliberal policies they have been advocating for the past 30 years have led to increasing poverty and inequality around the world - and now a global depression - campaigning for Israel provides a welcome distraction and a way to boost the morale of their members. After all, it always feels good to be cheering for the winning team, and the IDF not only has all the fancy high-tech weaponry, but also proved its ability by killing 100 Palestinians for every Israeli killed in the recent conflict...

20 January, 2009

Train drivers strike - labour negotiations in a police state...

All train traffic in and out of Cairo was stopped for 5 hours today as drivers went on strike, demanding the pay raise that was promised to them in November, after they threatened to strike. Negotiations took place between the head of the Railway Drivers League and the management, who offered to pay half of the promised increase starting from July this year, and the rest only from January 2010. Most of the drivers took this offer as an insult, and refused to end the strike despite attempts from the state-controlled union to persuade them to accept the offer.

"I'm not going home, I'm sleeping here on the ground," one of the drivers said.
"What are we going to eat until July?" another asked.
"How many million pounds does one train engine cost, and how much do a driver cost?" a third wanted to know (the lowest paid drivers have a base salary of less than 200 Egyptian pounds after years of service.)

At this point, after 4 hours, various security officials started to intervene in the negotiations, trying to persuade the workers to end their action. Plainclothes security agents were also harassing journalists, and one violently confiscated the camera of a journalist from al-badeel (it was returned later). Under increased pressure from security, the drivers cleared the tracks which they had been blocking for 5 hours, while negotiations continued for another 20 minutes inside the driver's rest house. The end result was that there will be a new meeting between the workers and the management in ten days.

This is the usual story in Egypt: it doesn't matter how legitimate your demands are, either way you'll sooner or later end up negotiating with some branch of the police state. And previous experiences of the railway workers show they have good reason to fear the consequences of challenging the regime. A strike in July 1986 was met with violent repression, over 200 workers was arrested and sent to state security courts which are supposed to deal only with charges of terrorism. After a long solidarity campaign involving leftist groups and the Lawyers' Syndicate, the workers were declared innocent on the grounds that the right to strike is granted to them in international agreements ratified by Egypt (a verdict that I believe is quite unique in Egypt). Needless to say this did not lead to any permanent change in the regime's hostility towards strikes or independent unionism.

Pics below: 1) Driver trying to follow the chaotic negotiations in the packed rest-house through the window. 2) Striking drivers gave a tour of a debilitated train engine which they described as one of "the better ones," to give an idea of their working conditions.

Telemasr workers demonstrate

El-badeel reports that 140 workers at the Telemasr branch in Ismailiyya and 200 at the main branch in Cairo demonstrated on Sunday against the decision to partially close the factory and leave 300 workers without work and only half the pay. Workers have protested previously against the transferal of workers from the Cairo branch to Ismailiyya and attempts to sell parts of the equipment and land in Cairo. One of the workers where also forced to chose between being fired and accepting early retirement, after his name was mentioned in a previous article in el-Badeel.

The privatization of Telemasr in the late 90's was marred by corruption charges and led to loss of jobb security and decreased wages for its employees, as in many other similar cases in Egypt. I was working on a story about this when the war on Gaza started, and hopefully will get back to it soon...

Mubaraks "realism" and propaganda

I'd like to recommend a couple of good articles on Egypt's position towards Israel and the Palestinians. Nael Shama does a good job of countering the arguments put forward by the state's "propaganda machine" in this article in The Daily News. The position of Mubarak is explored further by Baheyya, who writes in an interesting post:

"If Mubarak today has no compunction about openly aligning his interests with Israel’s, this isn’t a sharp break from the 1980s so much as a shift in impression management. Before, Mubarak was just as cooperative with Israel as he is today, he simply invested more energy in rhetoric to hide this fact. Today, he’s lost interest in keeping up appearances, and seems perfectly comfortable being a tinpot autocrat with nothing more on his mind than keeping his patrons happy and his population cowed."

Read the rest of the post, which examines the reasons for this change and points the central role played by the idea of inheritance of power:

"On the foreign policy front, the story of Gamal Mubarak is the story of how the Egyptian government ceased to promote a broadly defined Egyptian national interest and worked to promote a narrowly defined ruling class interest organically bound up with Israeli interests."

This, one might add, is the story of the neoliberal wave that has swept the world since the seventies, equating the national interest of third world countries with the interests of big business, multinational companies, and a tiny ruling elite. It's not unique to Egypt, except for the particular form this transition is taking here: a transformation from a populist-authoritarian regime into a pseudo-monarchy.

19 January, 2009

"This is Sharon's country"

Just returned from Egyptian Rafah after spending a little more than a day and a night there. We met some fantastic people, and I hope I'll have time some day to write a longer post about this wretched town, scarred by colonialism, occupation and wars. Right now I just want to point to the absurdity of the whole situation: Yesterday was the first day of ceasefire after three weeks of intense fighting and bombing, which left over 1300 Palestinians dead, thousands wounded, and over 50.000 homeless. Normally you would expect caravans of humanitarian aid going into the area. But not this time.

Why? UN aid agencies and NGO:s working in conflict zones often have to cope with security threats and violence, making it hard to reach the victims of wars and internal conflicts. But in this case the only thing separating the aid from the victims is a fence, a few soldiers, and political decisions taken by a government that claims to be the best friend of the Palestinians. While Israel said it would allow 143 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza - still far from the 500 that the UN previously said it need every day for its operations - almost nothing was entering from the Egyptian side. On Sunday and Monday only a few trucks carrying medical supplies were allowed to enter through the Rafah crossing, and several trucks carrying food and blankets was turned back during the short time we where there.

Perhaps the best comment on the whole situation was uttered by a fellow passenger of the car that took us to el-Arish. As we were approaching our destination, a man dressed in a grey gallabeyya turned to us (three foreigners) and said: "Are you here to help the Palestinians? We are very grateful for what you are doing. People like you [referring of course to volunteer doctors and aid workers rather than journalists...] are doing more than our own worthless rulers!"

After this he looked around him and asked the other passengers: "We can speak freely here, right?" To which the driver responded seriously: "No, be careful. This is Sharon's country!"

(While I wait for someone to give me a good explanation of exactly what the driver meant by this, I have a side-note here that is probably old news for Egyptian readers but others may find interesting: While Israels former prime-minister Ariel Sharon is best known for his invasion of Lebanon and the following Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, he also has a history in Sinai. He led an Israeli armored division there during the six-day way of 1967, and was later appointed head of the IDF:s southern command. He returned to fight in the '73 October War, achieving a war hero status that helped pave the way for his political career. As defense minister in the early 80's, he was in charge of dismantling Israeli settlements in the Sinai before it was returned to Egypt after the Camp David agreement. Totally against the understandings of the agreement, he decided to destroy most of the evacuated settlements completely, including the town of Yamit on the Mediterranean coast for which Egypt had agreed to pay $80 million.)

17 January, 2009

Gaza protests and crackdowns continue

Protests against the war in Gaza continue. A demo called for by the Muslim Brotherhood in Ramsees Square at 4 pm was prevented by security, but "thousands" who couldn't reach the square are protesting now in Abbasiyya and Ghamra, surrounded by riot police, according to the MB website. According to the report a journalist from al-Masry al-Youm is among many arrested, and the metro station in Ramsees was temporarily closed and trains forced to pass without stoping.

Mahalla sit-in continues - workers threatened with dismissal

The sit-in of independent union leaders in Mahalla continues, now entering the eight day. I just spoke to one of them, who accused the state-controlled union to conspire with the management to fire those who have taken part in the sit-in. Previously during the week, negotiations have taken place between the workers and local union officials, but the latter have consistently demanded that the workers end their sit-in before the union can take any measures on their behalf...

Here is a report from el-badeel, that also mentions that 800 workers at "al-swidi lil-kabalaat" (Swedish Cables?) ended a strike after being promised a raise in wages within two months. Does anyone know anything about this company? I mean, is it really Swedish...?

Pic above: Some of the workers during the third day of the sit-in.

16 January, 2009

Women demonstrate outside "top secret" Israeli embassy in Cairo

Around 20 women demonstrated against the war in Gaza outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo today, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli embassador.

Click the pic for a set of photos I took before the police intervened.

Not surprisingly, there was a huge presence of plainclothes police and state security agents. One man demanded to see my camera, but when I innocently asked to see some identification he instead pulled back his coat and flashed his gun, yelling "police, police." When asked why photography was not allowed, he said the area was "top secret," but refused to acknowledge the presence of the Israeli embassy. Kind of funny, considering that the roadblocks and the discrete but clearly visible Israeli flag on a nearby building gives away the location of the embassy to anyone who wants to know, and considering that many ordinary Egyptians around the square were snapping away happily with their mobile cameras without any intervention from the police. And while I understand that photography outside foreign embassies can be a sensitive issue in any country, it's more difficult to understand the security risks involved in taking pictures in the direction of the Zoo...

"Israel as a metaphor for oppression"

Sarah Carr has some good comments on Egypt's complicated relationship to the Palestinians over here. Partly in response to my previous post where I argued that many Egyptians identify with Palestinians based on their shared experience of oppression, rather than just on basis of a shared identity, she writes:

My own feeling is that this tells us more about Egyptians' relationship with Israel and their own government, than it does about their relationship with Palestinians and Palestine - rather in the way that Germany remained a bogeyman for several generations of British people after the 2nd World War. The attitude lingers on in expressions such as “so and so is a right Nazi”.
That Israel has become a metaphor for oppression explains both the extreme governmental sensitivity surrounding anti-war protests in Egypt (the ever-present threat of protestors who have not received the MB memo vocally making the association between Israeli aggression and domestic repression) and the moral bankruptcy of the current regime in the eyes of many Egyptians.

At the very least, this provides a better understanding of the situation than the argument that "Israel is the Opium of the People."

Meanwhile, Hossam el-Hamalawy posted a note yesterday from steel workers in Helwan, who donated a day of their salary in support to the Palestinian people and called upon other workers to do the same. Initiatives like these should be seen not only as acts of solidarity, but as carrying an implicit criticism of the passivity or complicity of the ruling elite. More importantly, it's a conscious attempt to show that workers and the labour movement can provide a kind of moral leadership for the nation, in sharp contrast to the "moral bankruptcy of the current regime."

Pic above: Israeli soldiers arresting a Palestinian during the weekly demonstration against the Wall in the village of Bil'in, West Bank, march 2006.

15 January, 2009

Nile Cotton workers in Miniya resume strike, temporarily block highway

According to a report in el-Badeel yesterday, 950 workers at Nile Cotton Co. in Miniya resumed their strike on Tuesday, after discovering that the company was backtracking from promises that ended the previous industrial action. Workers temporarily blocked the Miniya road before being forced back into the factory by security forces.

According to previous reports (one here) workers in four governorates staged sit-ins and strikes after discovering that they did not receive their full salaries for December. The management blamed a lack of liquidity, while some workers suspect the company is trying to force workers to resign in head of closing operations and selling the company's land and equipment.

14 January, 2009

Stop this madness

Was just watching 3ashara masa'an on Dream TV. The hostess was at the Gaza border, talking to school kids in Rafah. It was heartbreaking to watch the kids talk about their fear, hunkering down anxiously and covering their ears as bombs kept falling in the distance. It's not difficult to imagine the traumatizing effect this war is having on them as the sound of Israeli aircrafts passing by can be heard day and night.

And here's the best part: I'm talking now about the Egyptian children, those lucky enough to live on the "right" side of the border!

Inside Gaza itself over 300 palestinian children is believed to have been killed so far, while on the Israeli side, the bombing and shelling is being watched for entertainment. But killing hundreds of children is ok, as long as we remember to repeat the magic words: "Hamas is hiding among civilians".

Meanwhile, Fredrik Malm, a Swedish parliamentarian for the liberal Folkpartiet ("Peoples party") says he "doubts" that Israel is bombing anything other than military installations - in response to demands from a member of the leftist opposition that Israel should be forced to pay compensation for a clinic sponsored by the Swedish church that was bombed on Sunday. I doubt this man will ever have the courage to admit that he was wrong in blindly supporting Israel, even as 0,7 million children was being traumatized for life in another senseless war.

While some may ask why Gaza should be the center of the world when there is plenty of other violent conflicts to care about, the answer is simple: none of those conflicts involve a "democratic" state, armed with nuclear weapons and backed up by the worlds greatest superpower as well as the peace-loving European Union, pounding away at a population of 1,4 million trapped in a densely populated area with absolutely nowhere to run, and with almost no humanitarian supplies or even volunteer doctors being allowed to enter.

The 18 month siege imposed on Gaza, also supported by the West, was uniquely cruel in itself, even before the war. Now it amounts to nothing less than genocidal: In 2005, an average of 631 trucks entered Gaza on a daily basis. Since the war started the daily average is less than 100, or one fifth of what the UN would need to support the 3 quarters or so of the population that are dependent on outside aid to survive.

In scale the Gaza war may look "insignificant" compared to other conflicts going on in the world, especially the one in Iraq. But it's not the numbers of killed that will make this war go down in history as a crime against humanity - it's the method.

Mahalla sit-in about to enter sixth day

According to activists in Mahalla, a large number of workers gathered at the local union HQ today to show their support as another round of negotiations was taking place. No agreement was reached however, and the sit-in started on Saturday continues...

Blaming the victims - propaganda approaching the surreal

The argument that Hamas is "hiding behind civilians" has been become like the pro-Israeli Declaration of Faith recently. By invoking this religious mantra, targeting any part of the Gaza prison can be justified. But the Secretary-General of "Swedish Israel Information" approaches the surreal in this article where she puts all blame on Hamas for the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza:

"What chocks me even more than Israels warfare is Hamas's total lack of concern for its own civilian population. /.../ Hamas deploys landmines, anti-tank guns, and bombs in regular neighbourhoods in Gaza City, hurting their own more than Israel."

Huh? I'm at a total loss here. Perhaps it would be better if those bombs and anti-tank guns were deployed in regular neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv? Unfortunately for the people of Gaza though, that's not where the Israeli tanks are...

United under oppression

During recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people around the Middle East have demonstrated against the war on Gaza. In Egypt, at least 50.000 took to the streets in Alexandria last Friday in the biggest protest in the country for many years. In Jordan the anger has reached levels causing some to speculate that the stability of the government might actually be endangered.

To some, however, this tidal wave of anger sweeping across the region is just another sign of the hypocrisy that is somehow enshrined in Arab culture. "In a culture where human life isn't worth much [sic!] it's strange that the masses suddenly takes to the streets to show their rage against violence against civilians," states the blogg of "Peace in The Middle East" a Swedish pro-Israeli group. "Arab dictators and despots must be pleased that their people have something else to think about than their own daily misery."

This argument has been heard again and again in the West, and was recently repeated by Mona Eltahawy when she suggested that "Israel is the opium of the people." But while it's certainly true that totalitarian Arab governments - even staunch US allies like Egypt - often use anti-Israeli and anti-American posturing in their futile attempts to bolster their own legitimacy, the suggestion that anger against the devastation inflicted on the Palestinians serves as a diversion from daily misery - is simply wrong.

In fact, it's more likely that it works the other way around: It is the daily struggle for survival in the face of extreme economic hardship and brutal repression that is preventing even more Egyptians, Jordanians or Syrians from taking to the streets and voicing their support for the Palestinian people. And those who do show up at demonstrations hardly go home and forget about their grievances against their own government - instead, after being confronted by and sometimes beaten by riot police those grievances will most likely be reinforced.

Covering social protests in Egypt since autumn 2006, whether by slum inhabitants forcibly evicted by security forces, or the workers and urban poor battling riot police in Mahalla al-Kubra, there is one phrase that I've kept hearing again and again: "The government is treating us in the same way as Israel is treating the Palestinians!"

The idea here is that people around the region identify and sympathize with the Palestinians not simply because they share a common culture or language (or for that matter an irrational hatred of Jews, unrelated to the Zionist colonisation of Arab land, as some would have it), but also because they share a common experience of oppression and dispossession. First under colonialism, then under authoritarian post-colonial or neo-colonial regimes, often supported by the West (today this can be said about almost every Arab state except Syria and Sudan).

There's another side to this argument: While I've sometimes heard the phrase "fuck the Palestinians" from relatively well-off Egyptians, I've never heard it from a poor industrial worker or slum dweller. Being subject to systematic state violence and constant deprivation of basic necessities, the latter is more likely, not less, to feel sympathy with the people of Gaza. To suggest that this sympathy serves as an "opium" to forget their own miserable situation is just arrogant - especially when it comes from privileged intellectuals who are as isolated from the daily misery of Cairo's slums as the corrupt elite in Ramallah is from the suffering in Gaza.

Pic above: Kafr el-Elou residents forced to live in tents after being forcibly evicted by riot police in October 2007.

13 January, 2009

For one side Death and Destruction, for the other - Entertainment

This article in the Wall Street Journal, which was published last week but came to my attention only now, could be the ultimate proof of the monstrosity of this war.

Headline: "Israelis Watch the Fighting in Gaza From a Hilly Vantage Point."

Excerpt: "Moti Danino sat Monday in a canvas lawn chair on a sandy hilltop on Gaza's border, peering through a pair of binoculars at distant plumes of smoke rising from the besieged territory. An unemployed factory worker, he comes here each morning to watch Israel's assault on Hamas from what has become the war's peanut gallery -- a string of dusty hilltops close to the border that offer panoramic views across northern Gaza."

"/---/ Over the weekend, four teenagers sat on a hill near Mr. Danino's, oohing and aahing at the airstrikes."

"/---/ "Look at that," she shouts, clapping her hands as four artillery rounds pound the territory in quick succession. "Bravo! Bravo!"

Note that it is the territory that is being pounded by artillery, in case anyone thought Gaza was populated by humans!

Read it all. It's truly disturbing.

Mahalla sit-in enters fourth day

The Mahalla sit-in continues. I just talked to an activist in Mahalla who said the talks is still going on, but the union activists are also ready to escalate the protest...

For readers not familiar with the ongoing struggle in Mahalla and its significance, a good background is provided in this article in Middle East Report by Joel Beinin: "The Militancy of Mahalla al-Kubra".

For Swedish readers I wrote a series of articles, with some available online here:

"Kampen hårdnar i Egypten"
"Intifadan i Mahalla"
"Åtalade i Mahalla riskerar långa fängelsestraff"
"Egyptisk protest mot privatisering"

And click the pic below for a collection of photos from the Mahalla protests in April:

12 January, 2009

"Volvo was the best car in the world, and you let the Americans have it?"

Being a fan of Khaled al-Khamissiyy (the author of Taxi) and no stranger to journalistic clichés, I just have to share with all readers of this blog parts of a conversation I had with a taxi driver today, on my way to the 'aboud bus station.

A high-spirited man in his forties, he started out by the usual questions to establish my nationality (Swedish) and profession (journalist). He asked me where I was going and I told him Mahalla el-Kubra.

"Aaa.. so you are writing about the workers?" he concluded (Mahalla is a city in the Nile Delta and an important historical centre for the Egyptian textile industry and labour movement.) "They always have problems in Mahalla. But today the whole world is having problems, even Sweden, right?"

I admitted that this was the case, and told him Volvo have been laying of thousands of workers in my hometown Gothenburg since last summer. While this came as no surprise to the driver, he was absolutely chocked to learn that both Volvo and Saab belong to US companies since a few years (Ford and General Motors, respectively).

"yikhrib beit amreeka!" [God damn America!] he shouted. "Volvo was the best car in the world, and you let the Americans have it? I don't believe it!"

"And Saab too," I reminded him.

"Yeah," he replied. "Saab... that was never a good car you know... let them have it. But Volvo!"

He then went on to reprimand me sharply for using a Motorola cellphone instead of supporting Ericsson, "or at least Nokia" (manufactured by our Finnish neighbours). "You Swedes are just like us Egyptians, you sell out your country to the Americans and don't even support your own industry... what's wrong with people?"

At this point the conversation inevitably turned to Israel and Gaza.

"Do you know what I saw today?" the driver said. "I saw a picture of a child cut into two pieces. A small baby, hit by an Israeli rocket or bomb or whatever... It was split in two, just like Palestine! What they are doing is a crime, the biggest crime in the world..."

Here he paused for a while, before suddenly turning towards me and asking in a sharp tone, eyes blazing with rage: "Do you support Israel?! Do you agree with what they are doing?"

I assured him this was not the case, and that in fact thousands of people have been demonstrating against the war in Gaza in Sweden. He shook his head and said: "Yes but they are wrong. They are demonstrating against Israel, but they should demonstrate against the Americans. They are the ones who want this war."

"You have to write about what's happening," he went on. "Write to make people cry. And tell the people in Sweden that they should go to the US embassy and demonstrate, not only to stop the Israeli agression in Gaza, but to give you Volvo back!"

(Pic above from a protest in Cairo during a visit by George W. Bush to Egypt in January 2008).

Mahalla sit-in continues

I was in Mahalla today to meet labour activists who are continuing their sit-in. Besides the cancellation of arbitrary transfers they are raising a number of demands, including provision of free transportation for workers and the holding of free union elections (it's the same list of demands that the workers had before the aborted 6 april strike). They are threatening escalating action during the week, but there is an atmosphere of fear as workers at the factory face pressures from security and threats of dismissal. While I was there, security men tried to prevent workers who gathered to show their support from entering the building.

UPDATE: Here's a report in el-badeel, Monday, where one of the independent unionists talks about the efforts to create an independent union for the workers in Mahalla, as the only way to defend the workers' rights after the official union failed to intervene on their behalf.

Mahalla textile workers stage sit-in, threatening to strike

El-badeel reports that 1000 workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla el-Kubra staged at sit in yesterday at the local trade union office. They demanded an end to the arbitrary punishment of workers who took part in a anti-privatization protest at the factory on 30 October last year (click pic below for at set on flickr of that protest). Within days after that action, five leading activists were transfered to other branches of the company. According to the report, the workers pledged to remain at the trade union office for three days, and are threatening escalating action including a full strike if their demands are not met.

In Praise of Ayman Mohyeldin

Gideon Levy comes out as a fan of Al-Jazeera International's Gaza correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin in Haaretz today:

"Whoever recoils from our heroic tales, bias, whitewashed words, Rorschach images of bombing, IDF Spokesman-distributed photographs, propagandists' excuses, self-satisfied generals and half-truths is invited to tune in. Whoever wants to know what is really happening, not only of a postponed wedding in Sderot and a cat forgotten in Ashkelon. Watching is sometimes hard, bloodcurdlingly hard, but reality is no less hard right now."

Well said. Let's just hope this recognition from an Israeli journalist will help convince US cable operators, who so far mostly have refused to carry Al Jazeera International.

11 January, 2009

Daily News Egypt: Security Forces Turn Back Gaza Solidarity Convoy

Click the pic of Mohamed Gaber for my report in Daily News Egypt about the solidarity convoy on Friday. Also, Hossam al-Hamalawy posted a translation of the full statement from the organizers.

10 January, 2009

Alexandria mass protest - another MB show?

This CCTV-report contains short clips from the massive protest in Alexandria yesterday, which gathered between 50.000 (according to AFP) and 100.000 (according to an al-jazeera broadcast yesterday). Judging from the pics and movies I've seen, anything between those two numbers could be correct.

The protest was led by parliamentarians from the Muslim Brotherhood, and it's very typical that protestors reportedly chanted "Down with Israel, and with it every collaborator," which is a clear reference to Hosni Mubarak but still short from explicitly saying "Down with Mubarak." Even more ingenious is the chant "Gaza excuse us: opening Rafah is not in our hands." Now that's as close as you can get to an open admission that the MB is not going to seriously challenge the politics of the Egyptian regime, as I suggested in a previous post.

Even in a democratic country, a one-time protest of 50.000 or 100.000 will not necessarily have much of an impact, as the huge protests against the war in Iraq in both the US and the UK have shown. To achieve change in an authoritarian state like Egypt it would take strikes, blockades and other acts of civil disobedience on a huge scale - not necessarily a revolution, but something close to it. I don't want to sound like a fatalist, and I'm definitely not saying that this will never happen in Egypt - just that it won't be initiated by the MB leadership.

When I read the AFP report, I was reminded of an interview I made last spring with two young girls from the "muslim brotherhood sisters," who took great pride in the historic role of the MB in supporting the Palestinian struggle. Today, it seems, their role has been reduced to taking to the streets in thousands, apologizing for not coming to the aid of the people of Gaza!

Civil disobedience in the police state

Around 100 Egyptian and foreign activists, accompanied by journalists and camera crews from several TV-channels, took part in a solidarity convoy to Rafah yesterday. It was organized by the Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People, in order to demand the complete opening of the Egyptian-Gaza border. Few expected that the convoy would actually reach the border, myself included. But through a clever use of civil disobedience the caravan of 2 buses almost reached el-Arish before being turned back. According to the organizers this is closer to Rafah than any solidarity convoy of this scale has reached since 2004.

The group of activists managed to force three checkpoints by staging sit-ins in the street, effectively blocking traffic and causing panic among the police as trailer trucks and minibuses lined up from both directions. At the fourth checkpoint however, about halfway between the Suez canal and el-Arish, state security officers was present. After forcing the reporters of two TV-channels to turn back to Cairo - for reasons that soon became obvious - they allowed the convoy the continue with a police escort. While many of the activists at this point felt they had won the battle and were about to enter el-Arish, this soon turned out to be a trap.

10-20 kilometers before el-Arish, in the middle of the desert, the road was blocked by 4 central security trucks and a small army of police in full riot gear, including some with rifles probably loaded with rubber bullets or tear gas. With no TV cameras or witnesses present, the activists feared (and rightly so) that they would be assaulted as soon as they stepped down from the bus. Some wanted to get out anyway, but the bus driver refused to stop or open the door. Shouting "I can't, I can't" he turned the bus around, clearly horrified by the scene and knowing he was risking as much as the activists - or more - despite having nothing do to with the convoy.

While most of the participants had expected to be turned back by the police and several have plenty of experience of being arrested at demonstrations, many were chocked by this show of force, and terrified by the prospect of being surrounded by riot police and plainclothes officers in the middle of the desert. And even those who would have preferred to try and at least make a symbolic stand in front of the bus feared this would only lead to the loss of all photo and movie material taken on the trip so far.

On the way back to Cairo the mood on the bus consisted of mixed feelings of achievement - for reaching further than previous convoys - and anger and frustration. "The thing that makes me most angry," leftist blogger and digital design artist Mohamed Gaber explained, "is the fact that we celebrate the return of Sinai [after the 1973 October war] as a great victory, but still it doesn't belong to the people."

Above: The troops stand ready to confront the dangerous peace activists.
Below: a truck driver coming from el-Arish pass the demonstration on a side road, showing his support by honking his horn and giving double thumbs up (presumably steering the truck with his feet!?)

08 January, 2009

Muslim Brotherhood calls for "Friday of wrath"

Maybe fighting Sufi philosophy isn't the only thing on the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda right now after all. Mohamed Mehdi Akef, supreme guide of the movement, has called for Friday to be a day of mass anger against the Israeli aggression, demanding concrete action from of Arab regimes - especially Egypt - to support the Palestinian people. I don't know what will come out of this though. An attempt to organize protests outside mosques in downtown Cairo last week was met by violent repression, and three days later very few MB supporters showed up at a demonstration called for in Tahrir Square.

The reality is that in order to actually change Egypt's policies against Hamas and Israel, it would take protests on a scale that threatened the stability of the regime. And this is clearly something the MB leadership does not desire, even if they were capable of doing it. After all, we are talking about a reformist movement whose leaders fear the explosive potential of popular protests on a massive scale, and didn't mobilize their supporters even when several of its leaders were sentenced to long prison terms in a military court last May.

The inner tensions of a movement like the MB will always make its behaviour contradictory and unpredictable. Leading members have a lot to loose: they can have their financial assets frozen or even be sent to military courts and jailed. On the other hand, many MB supporters is clearly willing to risk being beaten up in the streets or arrested in order to express their anger against what's happening in Gaza. And despite the constant attempts of MB functionaries to stop them, many were happy to join the "Down with Mubarak" chants initiated by socialist and other activists at last week's demonstrations.

07 January, 2009

While Gaza is burning, MB parlamentarian voices concern about re-printing of work by sufi mystic

According to a report in al-badeel today, Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian Ali Laban is raising objections to the printing of a new edition of "The Meccan Illuminations" (Al-Futuhat Al-Makkiyya), a work by 13th century Sufi mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi. The MP also criticized the fact that a conference about the author was organized in cooperation with the Spanish embassy (Ibn Arabi was born in Andalusia), saying it had received "dubious" foreign financing, "an attempt to further Zionist-American goals" by spreading the thinking of a "Sufi extremist."

Is this the explanation behind the absence of a major MB mobilization against the invasion of Gaza - they are too busy fighting the more serious threat of Sufi philosophy?

It's all in the name

Yes I've changed the name of the blog from "A Scandinavian in Egypt", since it's not really about me but about politics in Egypt and the Middle East. I will not be posting reviews of the latest Amr Diab album or holiday photos, unless it's somehow related to the struggle for democracy, social justice and human dignity...

06 January, 2009

Families of jailed Mahalla demonstrators plead for pardon

El-badeel reports that the families of 22 persons convicted to between 3 and 5 years in prison by an emergency court in Tanta on the 15 of december, has sent a letter to Hosni Mubarak, pleading for their release. The 22 were arrested after the demonstrations in Mahalla on 6 and 7 april 2008, and convicted of assaulting police officers, theft, and illegal possession of weapons and other "dangerous objects." The defense team described the trial of civilians in a security court as unconstitutional, and Amnesty International has called for their retrial in an ordinary court.

In my humble non-expert opinion, the court proceedings in Tanta was nothing but a farce. The defense team managed to show that important physical evidence used was fake - for example, three teachers testified that they had never before seen the computers that were supposedly stolen from their school during the riots in Mahalla. One of the defendants were accused of storing stolen goods in a flat in which he didn't live for 7 years - the police merely took the adress from his out-of-date ID card and put it in their report. (For Swedish readers: click here and here for my reports about the trial).

The 22 people sentenced to jail are merely random poor people being used as scapegoats for the uprising in Mahalla. Their families now fear homelessness and ruin as they have been deprived of any source of income. But I don't think it would be fair to have them retried in an ordinary court as Amnesty has called for - they should be set free immediately and compensated for the 9 months they alread spent in jail.

Egypt government feels its people's ire

Click on the pic to read my report on last weeks pro-Gaza demonstrations and crackdowns at Electronic Intifada. I originally wrote it last Wednesday but they've been quite busy over there for understandable reasons... Also, judging from the turnout at the demonstrations yesterday, the repression have had its intentended effect. Seeing the EU- and US-sponsored police state in full action without any reaction from the "international community" is depressing but hardly surprising. If Israel can bomb Gaza with impunity why would anyone care about Mubaraks gestapo beating up some demonstrators and journalists - aren't they all islamic fanatics anyway?

05 January, 2009

Socialists demonstrate - and another security crackdown

Socialists and other opposition activists demonstrated in front of the Press Syndicate today in solidarity with Gaza, denouncing the complicity of the Egyptian regime in the Israeli blockade and assault. (Click the pic for a small set on flickr.)

There was also massive security presence in and around Tahrir Square today as the Muslim Brotherhood had called for a demo. A group of demonstrators actually succeeded to assemble briefly in front of the Mogamma but I didn't hear any chanting and they left peacefully when ordered to by plainclothes security agents. Also, the same officer who confiscated the memory card of my camera on friday was there and stole another card before letting me go. You now officially owe me approx. 200 Egyptian pounds, mr I'm-really-tough-when-backed-up-by-an-army-of-riot-police-and-thugs.

The MB website reports that checkpoints was set up at entrances to Cairo since early morning to prevent people from other governorates to participate in the demo. I was at the 'aboud bus station, connecting Cairo to the Delta, around 4 and can confirm that the place was swarming with plainclothes officers and uniformed police. Also, in the nearby street leading towards Shubra I counted to 32(!) central security trucks - I haven't seen that many in one place since on 6 and 7 April in Mahalla el-Kubra.

03 January, 2009

Journalist to hospital after assault

Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Ali Zalat was assaulted and beaten unconscious during yesterdays violent crackdown on pro-Gaza demonstrations in Cairo. Despite his bad condition, the police at first put him in a central security transport truck together with detained demonstrators. This only underlines the urgent need for international human rights organizations as well as reporters without borders and similar groups to bring attention to the systematic and sometimes violent attacks on journalists covering protests in Egypt during the last few days. Egyptian journalists need solidarity not only because they are frequently put on trial or sentenced to prison, but also because of the dangers they face in their daily work.

02 January, 2009

Bombing the victims of ethnic cleansing

This picture, taken in april 2007, show a demolished palestinian home in the village of An-Nu'man in occupied Eastern Jerusalem. In the background is the Har Homa settlement, the construction of which was begun in 1997, also on occupied territory. While Har Homa and other jewish neigbourhoods in Eastern Jerusalem continues to expand, arab neighbourhoods and villages like An-Nu'man are not allowed to grow. In fact this particular village is not even recognized and its inhabitants are considered illegal squatters. When I visited it was being cut off from Jerusalem by a settler highway on one side, and from the West Bank by the Wall on the other.
This is the reality of the apartheid system that is being built by Israel today around Jerusalem and on the West Bank. This is what has been going on during all those years of peace talks between Israel and the PLO, and this is what is going on right now. As the bombs are falling on Gaza the silent war against the population of the West Bank is also continuing. This reality tends to be forgotten during periods of "peace" and optimism (it was not long ago Bush hoped for a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-palestinian conflict before the end of his term) as well as in times of war, when headlines are dominated by the latest war communiques and casualty figures.
If Truth is the first casualty of war, then maybe History is the second. Whenever media reports another Israeli air raid against the refugee camps in Gaza, how many among the western public have a clue of why those camps are there in the first place? How many realize that it is the victims of the ethnic cleansing of 1948, their children, and their grandchildren that are being bombed - when in fact they should be compensated for the crime that was committed against them.
The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has argued that untill the ethnic cleansing that took place is not recognized as such, and some kind of restitutive justice - involving compensation rather than punishment - is achieved, this conflict will never end. The current war on Gaza, one of the worst military assaults in 60 years of conflict, seem to vindicate his argument.

Violent crackdown on Gaza protestors in Cairo

Police violently broke up several pro-Gaza demonstrations in Downtown Cairo today, right after the Friday prayer. Around 12 I arrived at Ramses Square which had turned into a virtual military zone, with hundreds of riot police and security agents occupying the square and cutting of some of the side streets. Around the square, Central security troops and large groups of men in civilian clothes surrounded people praying in the street outside small neighbourhoods mosques. When the prayer and sermon finished and the men started chanting "there is no God but God" plainclothes agents immediatly began draging some of them away to the Central Security transport trucks, while riot police violently pushed the remaining demonstrators back into a small side alley, beating them with sticks. Many bystanders were caugh up in the clashes that followed when large groups of riot police and plainclothes charged protestors that attempted to assemble in the surrounding streets .

In addition to attacking peaceful demonstrations there has been reports of police harrasment of journalists and photographers around the city. As was taking pictures of the arrests three plainclothes agents grabbed my arms and dragged me away, almost smashing my camera while doing so. Before letting me go they forced me to hand over the memory card (since I always carry an extra memory card I could save some of my pictures).

There is no excuse for preventing journalists doing their job during peaceful demonstrations. While there is nothing new to this kind of behaviour, on the contrary it is all too common in Egypt, I still think there is an urgent need for international human rights organizations as well as reporters without borders and similar groups to bring attention to the systematic and sometimes violent attacks on local and foreign journalists covering protests during the last few days. As a foreigner I enjoy a certain degree of protection and usually don't fear for my safety - but the same cannot be said about my Egyptian colleagues who are always at risk of being arrested or beaten while trying to do their job. They need and deserve international solidarity.

01 January, 2009

Mahalla activists announce attempt to build free union

According to a report in el-badeel today, workers at Misr Spinning and Weawing in Mahalla has started a campaign for building their own free union. An anonymous worker says that the decision was taken by all leading labour activists at a meeting convened last Sunday. It's described as a result both of the inspiring success of the tax collectors in launching their own union, and as a response to recent attempts by the management to quell activism in the factory by arbitrary transfers of radical employees.

Last Januari 15,000 signatures was collected for a petition where workers declared they had lost confidence in the official union, and in march 3000 workers signed letters of resignation from the general union of textile workers. Recently, a statement was released by "the free union (under construction)" where three demands was put forward: the holding to account of the managers who are responsible for the company's losses, realization of investments in the factory which were promised by the state after the 6 April events, and the return of all the transfered workers to their previous positions.

While the desire to build a independent union is not new and propagating for it inside the factory is just a first step in a long and difficult process, one thing that could be really significant is the fact that the leading labour activists in Mahalla seem to have put aside their differences after the split that occurred in the run-up to the 6 April strike. It shows, I guess, that their common interests in the face of cut-backs, anti-union actions by the management, and alleged plans to privatize the plant in Mahalla is stronger than past grudges and political differences.