28 February, 2009

Ayman Nour and his secrets

Since his release last week, Ayman Nour has talked on more than one occassion about "changes" about to happen in Egypt. According to el-Badeel today, he said during a conference in Alexandria on Wednesday that he has information about "many influential events" that will happen in Egypt during the coming three months. He refused to reveal any details, except that he expects many political prisoners to be released soon. I don't know what to think about this, except, of course, that it's a clever way to create headlines and maintain the attention of the media in the absence of real news.

Activists continue Gaza solidarity march despite crackdown

The ToGaza group staged another march yesterday - click the pic for my report in Daily News Egypt - and pledged that the campaign will continue. I'm the first to admit that this event only made the news because the crackdown on the previous march. It's worth noting that many of the participants this time were newcomers who decided to join after hearing about the last march - a clear sign that since the recent war on Gaza, many foreign students and others in Egypt really feel an urge to do something about Palestine, despite the obvious security constraints imposed on all forms of activism here.

27 February, 2009

Hossam Shahata released after 15 days with state security

Ghad party activist Hossam Shatata was released three days ago, el-Badeel reports, after spending 15 days in the state security headquarters in Nasr City. He told el-Badeel that he was blindfolded most of the time and fearing for his life. He was accused by interrogators of being a member of a terrorist organization, and hit by one of his guards once after starting a hunger strike. Shahata was detained by state security on 11 February outside the public prosecutors office.

26 February, 2009

Railway workers and the state

These are some notes I made during the seminar "Workers and the state, the experience of the railway workers" organized by Tadamon on Tuesday:

* Leftist writer Elhami El-Marghani talked about the history of the railway workers in Egypt and the central role they played during the struggle against British colonialism, not least during the 1919 uprising when a strike stopped train traffic for more than a month, delivering a hard blow to the British by hindering their troop movements.

* Since the beginning of the 1980's there has been a push for privatization of the railway sector, opening it to participation of private companies. During this period wage differences within the state railways have also increased, with wages ranging from 200 pounds for the lowest paid workers, while engineers within the same company make at least 5000-7000 pounds, and top managers towards 25.000.

* Train drivers spoke about worsening working conditions, including shorter periods of rest and more overtime.

* Management always try to blame workers for accidents, while corruption, mismanagement and neglect of basic maintenance are the true reasons.

* Labour protests and strike within the state railways are always perceived by state as a political threat, even when they are about purely economic demands, because of the huge effects on society and economy when train traffic is stopped. This has positive and negative implications: While it makes it more likely that the government will give in to demands, it also increases the risk of violent repression.

* The government is dealing with railways and all public transport in a militaristic way. When train drivers go on strike, they always find themselves negotiating with state security, not the management. There was even a famous banner hung up after one strike, where the state-controled union express it's gratitute for "the presence of state security" during the strike.

* There is a state of fear among workers: "At any point, state security can come and ask for someone, and this person will not be seen again," one driver said.

* Railway workers are dispersed throughout the country, which makes any organizing around common demands more difficult. There is also a need to think about how to unit the different groups of workers: drivers, conductors, signal operators, technicians, and so on.

* One driver suggested that the best strategy for achieving unity is to demand a raise in the minimum base salary for all workers, instead of fighting for bonuses and allowances that are often specific for different categories of workers.

* There is also a need to unite the different groups of workers and civil servants that is currently struggling only for their own specifik demands. The demands for a national minimum wage of 1200 pounds that was put forward by workers in Mahalla before the aborted 6 April strike last year was a major step in this direction - and a major reason that the state decided to intervene forcefully to stop the strike.

* There is currently a campaign by civil society organizations and oppositions groups to pressure for a new trade union law that would establish the basic principles for independent unions: any group of workers should have the right to form a union without having to gain recognition from authorities, the ultimate power within the union rests with the general assembly, union elections should take place every year (not once every 5 years as is the case today) and outside the working place.

* In order to enable organized and sustainable stikes, it's important to establish some kind of strike funds.

* Train drivers described all the strikes that has taken place within the railway sector since the 80's and until now as very disorganized, spontaneous eruptions of anger.

* There is an acute need to find ways to transfer experiences and lessons learned from one generation of workers and activists to another, in order to avoid having to start from zero again and again.

* Building unions and a strong labour movement is a long-term process. It's does no good rushing out to the streets and shouting "down with Mubarak."

* An activist from the center for socialist studies emphasized the value of spontaneous protests, as they are what gives consciousness and experience. "The spontaneous protests that have taken place recently is the reason we are here today," he pointed out.

* "There's nothing wrong with experimenting," Elhami el-Marghani pointed out. "But the problem is when there is no evaluation afterwards. After the 6 April events, activists immediately decided to call for a new strike in May, without any serious evaluation of what had happened."

* It's very important for political forces and activists to support workers struggles, even if only by visiting striking workers and show support, to strenghten their morale.

* Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat made a call for supporting the workers in Mahalla that are currently being targeted by a campaign of intimidation.

Mahalla libel case court session set to 25 March

The libel case filed by the general manager of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla against a group of union activists and reporters was postponed yesterday, and a new date for the court hearing has been set to 25 March, Tadamon reports. For more information in english, read Sarah Carr's report for the Daily News.

25 February, 2009

Israel-Sweden Davis Cup game to be played without audience

An upcoming tennis game between Sweden and Israel will be played without audience, a decision that was hailed as a partial victory by the organizers of a campaign for a total boycott of the game. Thousands are expected to participate in a demonstration on 7 March, the first day of the game, and Israel is reportedly bringing its own security forces to protect the team.

Imbaba Airport: "Once the area is developed, it's going to be for the rich"

Click the pic for my report in Daily News Egypt about the development project for northern Giza. The first stages of this project is centering on the old Imbaba Airport, seen in the picture above - with the affluent Mohandiseen area in the backgrund. The airport was used primarily for pilot training, but was closed down some 8 years ago. One of the reasons it was closed down was that the surrounding informal residential areas and slums had grown to close, with buildings making the navigation harder and apparently causing some accidents. Today, the area is used mainly as a football field by local kids.

The development plans include connecting the end of Ahmed Orabi street with the Ring Road, construction of new residential areas and a "public park." To complete these plans, some of the current residents will ondoubtedly have to be removed, but it is unclear exactly how many.

As I walked around the narrow alleys of Ezbet el-Matar and other areas, most people I spoke to had heard about the development project, but said they knew nothing about how they would be affected. Many simply refused to talk about it. "People here are afraid," one man told me. "They think they will get in trouble if they talk to the media. And most of them don't like journalists anyway. Last week a TV-crew came here and started filming. The filmed people and the garbage in the streets. When we asked what they wanted, they told us to mind our own business!"

When I asked him what he knew about the project, he pointed towards the distant high-rises in Mohandiseen and said: "The only thing I know is that these are the people who will benefit from this. Once the area is developed, it's going to be for the rich. Not a single one of us who live here now could afford to stay."

Asked if he would agree to leave his house if he received compensation, he replied firmly: "I don't want compensation. I'm not moving anywhere."

24 February, 2009

Shooting the messenger

Last week el-Badeel reported some quotes from an opening speech of the minister of Manpower, Aisha abd el-Hadi, at a conference entitled "Media and its role in spreading awareness about economic change." Adressing the private and opposition media, she pleaded: "Take it easy with us, let's not set everything on fire." Apparently she made a distinction between news that "set the world on fire" and news that "calms the souls," adding: "The government would like to wake up without hearing about strikes and demonstrations."

It seems the management of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla must have been listening, because it has filed a court case against Ibrahim Eissa, the editor al-Doustour, as well as labour journalist Mustapha Bassiouny and the papers Mahalla correspondent Mohamed abu el-Dahab, accusing them of inciting the workers at the factory in an article published ahead of an anti-privatization protest that took place in October.

It's likely we'll see more attacks on the opposition media, and especially on papers like el-Badeel and al-Dostour that cover a lot of the strikes and protests that is happening in Egypt, in the coming year. With the global economy going into a recession that already hurt Egypt badly, it must be tempting for the government to deal with the crisis in the way any healthy authoritarian government would do: Eliminating the problems by shooting the messenger.

23 February, 2009

Blogger Mohamed Adel on hungerstrike

Detained blogger Mohamed Adel is starting a hungerstrike, protesting his continued detention and maltreatment in the prison, el-Badeel reports today. Adel was detained on 20 November in a café in Downtown Cairo, and is being accused of membership in an illegal organization. He visited Gaza during the temporary border breach in January last year.

21 February, 2009

"The students' first demand: Kick state security out!"

Students from a broad range of political currents - from Muslim Brotherhood to socialists, nasserists and the "6 April movement" - demonstrated for several hours at Cairo University today, protesting security interventions on universities and rising tuition fees. Needless to say, the security presence outside the main gates was massive. The students were allowed to protest just outside the campus - surrounded by hundreds of riot police - only after they attempted to force open the locked gates.

Click the pic above for a set of photos on flickr, or here for Hossam al-Hamalawy's links to updates and reports about the protest.

There has been some confusion as to why this was announced in some places as an "International Student Day" event, as this day is in November. Zeinobia has a post here with some of the historical background to the National Student Day, an Egyptian event that, just like the Police Day celebrated a month ago, has it's origins in the struggle against British colonialim after World War Two.

Additional note: It's worth mentioning that on this day four years ago the third demonstration by the Kifaya-movement took place in the exact same spot, outside the main gate of Cairo University. It was described by Al-Ahram Weekly as "the largest anti-Mubarak demonstration that had ever taken place." The scenario described in the article was similar to that of today, with students allowed to join the demonstration outside the gates only after climbing on and rattling the chained iron gates.

19 February, 2009

Ayman Nour and his party

The surreal scenes of yesterday captured the savage reality of politics in Egypt perfectly: Ayman Nour speaking to a massive crowd of journalists and supporters crammed into the burnt-out party office in Downtown Cairo, while riot police and plain-clothes security officers waited for a rumoured demonstration for "disappeared" party activist Hossam Shatata - from Nours party - that never took place. While party activists at the meeting expressed hopes that Nour's release would mark a turning point for Egypt and an opportunity to rebuild their party, real political parties are built by grassroots activists like Shahata, not single-handedly by leaders and public figures like Nour. As long as thugs can attack an opposition party headquarters and security agents kidnap its activists with impunity, it's impossible to speak of any real change in Egypt.

Disappeared Ghad-activist Hossam Shahata went to Rafah?

While searching for news about the kidnapped Ghad-party member Hossam Shahata, i found a piece of interesting but yet unconfirmed information on the web: According to this blog, Shahata drove some activists to Rafah in his personal car during the war on Gaza, some of whom were later detained - like Ahmed Duma (who was subsequently sentenced to a year in prison by a military court for illegaly entering Gaza) and Diaa Gad. If this is true it sheds some important light on the reasons behind the detention not only of Shatata, but of Diaa Gad as well...

Update: A lawyer from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and a member of al-Ghad both confirm that Hossam Shahata did visit Rafah - but without crossing the border to Gaza. Hossam Shahata and Diaa Gad also held a protest outside the public prosecutors office demanding the release of Magdy Hussein, almost three weeks ago - according to a jaiku sent by Gad at that time. So the disappearance of Gad and Shahata is very likely to be connected.

According to information floating around in cyberspace members of Al-Ghad and the 6 April movement were supposed to gather outside the Public Prosecutors office today at noon. The only ones who showed up, however, was the usual assorted security men, with or without uniform. An officer told me, with a gleeful smile and obvious satisfaction: "Yeah, we came because there was supposed to be a demonstration for Hossam Shahata, but no one came."

18 February, 2009

Ayman Nour's unexpected release

A few months ago the party headquarters of Hizb Al-Ghad in downtown Cairo was attacked and burnt by thugs led by the "pro-government" faction of Mustafa Moussa, while security forces stood back and watched. Then, just a week ago, the administrative court reversed a decision that had placed Moussa in control of the party. And today, Nour was unexpectedly released.

Not surprinsingly these sudden developments has led to speculations in media and blogs that Nour's release was "a gesture of goodwill to the Obama administration." Zeinobia writes: "The Washington Post was speaking from two days ago that Mubarak wanted to meet with Obama in the first 100 days and the White House put some conditions : The Release of Ayman Nour and the Return of Saad El-Din Ibrahim."

It's possible. Adding my own wild conspiracy theories to the speculations, I can't help but wonder if there is any relation between the release of Nour and the probable detention by state security of a party activist last week. Was the "disappearance" of Hossam Shahata some kind of revenge for the administrative court decision? Or a signal that even as Nour is released in order to appease Obama and easen the pressures for "reform", the security apparatus will persist in it's harassment of party activists in order to prevent al-Ghad from capitalizing on Nours release to broaden it's support base? Or (most likely) was the kidnapping just "business as usual," part of the daily routine repression that Obama is now going to ignore because one of thousands of political prisoners was released?

Update: More on Hossam Shahata.

The "disappearance" of Hossam Shahata

El-Badeel reported yesterday and the day before about the "disappearance" of Hossam Shahata, chairman of the local committé of Ayman Nour's al-Ghad party in Helwan. According to the reports, Shahata went to the public prosecutors office last Wednesday to file a complaint and ask for protection after state security raided his house in Helwan. He told friends that he was going to stage an open-ended sit-in and hungerstrike, but has not been heard from since. His car is reportedly still parked in the area.

The most disturbing part of this story is perhaps the fact that it took so long before it was even reported. Maybe because there is so much of this kind going on now that another disappearance is hardly noticed... Of course I don't read all Egyptian newspapers and blogs, so maybe I'm the only one that didn't notice. But al-Ghad is after all a party with a lot of media contacts, they should have been able to make a big fuss about this.

17 February, 2009

Israeli athletes face boycott calls and pitch invasions

I heard about this game but didn't see the clip until today.

I note that the Left Party in Sweden, as well as the youth and womens sections of the Social Democrats is demanding a boycott of the upcoming tennis game between Sweden and Israel, to be played between 6 and 8 March. Similar calls were heard before the olympic games in China, and of course didn't have any effect. In this case, however, the game is played in Sweden, not in a distant police state, so it's very likely that there will at least be large demonstrations in connection to the game. Media has been speculating that Israel might want to send it's own security agents to Sweden in order protect the team and the ambassadors to Sweden and Denmark in case they attend the game. The boycott campaign caught the attention of Jerusalem Post after an activist threw a shoe at the Israeli ambassador during a public lecture at Stockholm University.

One of the groups that support a boycott has set up the blog "Stop the Game" in Swedish as well as Arabic (although the arabic version only have one post so far).

"The Last Bastion of Freedom and Justice in Egypt has Fallen"

The elections for the Judges Club, held on Friday, was surrounded by controversy and accusations of government intervention. Daily News reports that proponents of the "independence" faction fear that the result "will effectively hinder its role as a bulwark for judicial independence and citizen rights." And in a report in today's el-Badeel, Ahmed Mekky, Deputy Chief Justice of the Egyptian Court of Cassation, accuse the government of trying to eliminate the independence faction ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections (2010 and 2011, respectively), to avoid a repetition of the revelations of irregularities and forgery that was made by judges in 2005.

But the most damning verdict was passed by a reader commenting on the el-Badeel article on-line, who caught my attention with these words (roughly translated): "The last bastion of freedom and justice in Egypt has fallen. The nation is now the property of the military, and Egypt turned into a police state of the first degree. We will soon hear about military trials for civilian politicians opposing the government [wait - isn't this already happening?] ... Bye bye freedoms, bye bye Egypt."

Notes on the pharmacists strike

The pharmacists strike seem to be the talk of the town today, as well as the main story in many newspapers. I took a walk in my area earlier today and found 6 out of 6 pharmacies closed, so the claim by Al-Akhbar that the strike failed in Cairo and Giza is clearly not true. As Zeinobia points out, this claim was not even supported by other state-controlled newspapers as Al-Ahram and al-Goumhouria.

As Zeinobia writes, this strike is not like most others in Egypt: "First of all the Syndication is insisting on its demands and the minister of health is backing them, describing the strike as a civilized one. This is a very rare statement from an official regarding a strike in Egypt."

It's true that this is rare - but at the same time, it's not surprising that the health minister would try and score political points by backing demands that has to do with decisions taken by the finance ministry. (The issue here is a new law that would impose higher taxes on the farmacists)

What really makes this strike different is this simple fact: strikes are usually about workers putting pressure on employers. In this case, however, big chains like Seif Pharmacies and Misr Pharmacies have decided to close their shops - "in solidarity with the union" according to notes posted on the doors of local branches. So it's clearly about employers and small shop-owners taking on the finance ministry. And while workers on strike hope to win their demands by causing economic losses for the employer, the pharmacists can never hope to do the same.

One of the pharmacists interviewed by Daily News estimated that the strike will reduce revenues from medicine sales by 12 million per day. This affects primarily the drug companies and the pharmacists themselves, and the state only indirectly, by reduced tax revenues. So the pharmacists only chance to win is by raising the political costs for the government, trying to create public support for their demands (or at least anger at the government as frustrated customers demand badly needed medicines and even more badly needed cosmetics), until some compromise is reached - or they are forced to open their stores in order to avoid bancruptcy.

The striking pharmacists are clearly not part of the Egyptian labour movement or trade union movement then. But this doesn't mean, of course, that their demands cannot be legitimate or that their campaign shouldn't be seen as a part of the general wave of political and social protests in Egypt during the last few years. It's another sign that more and more people from different segments of society are willing to openly challenge the policies of the government and fight for what they perceive as just demands.

Update: This confirms what I wrote above: "Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly said he ordered all state-owned pharmacies — which are mostly part of state hospitals and clinics — to stay open 24 hours, to counter any effects of the private-sector strike." Doesn't this mean that if the strike continues, customers will turn to state owned pharmacies, increasing the revenues of the state while ruining the striking businesses? In the end, the lack of economic logic in this strike only strenghtes the impression that this is a desperate campaign, a result of the absence of any other means to influence the policies of the utterly authoritarian government.

16 February, 2009

Magdy Hussein refused visit by wife and lawyer

The prison administration in Port Said refused a visit to Magdy Hussen, secretary-general of the "suspended" Labour Party, by his wife and laywer, al-Badeel reports. The administration says regulations don't allow visits in the first 11 days, and refused to make an exception. Hussein was sentenced to two years in jail last week by a military court for visiting Gaza without a permission.

According to a report in al-Youm al-Sabi3, Hussein sent a letter to his wife stating that we doesn't want to present a plea for pardon to the president, as his party was planning.

15 February, 2009

Suicide, economics and journalism

Partly in response to my earlier post about a report in el-Badeel linking an increasing suicide rate with unemployment, Mustafa Hussein, a physician working in the El Nadeem Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, wrote an interesting post about the stigmatization of mental illness in arab media, among other things.

I agree with most of his points, and maybe I should point out that when I post summaries of articles like these it doesn't necessarily mean that I guarantee their accuracy. In this case, the original article refered (without any critical scrutiny) to an alarming report used by an independent MP to criticize the government's economic policies, and the numbers mentioned should definitely not be taken for granted. There are problems not only with scientific method but with journalistic standards here. Ideally the reporter should at least have asked some independent psychiatrist to comment on the claims made in the report.

I still found the report interesting, however, because the fact that a politician could deem it useful to present this kind of argument (and journalists find it worth reporting) says something about the general outlook of the Egyptian public towards the state of the economy. Anyway, by blogging this item at least I provoked an interesting discussion...

CTUWS activist targeted by disciplinary measures

According to a press release from the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services, an activist working for the center has been targeted by disciplinary measures ordered by security to be implemented "immediately and without discussion." Atef Mahmoud Mohamed Ismail, a teacher in Qena, was transfered to another school at three hours distance from his home. This follows a campaign of harassment from state security, in which the various branches of the organization was closed for more than a year, starting from March 2007. The center writes: "Taking these kinds of actions against a member of a non-governmental organization demonstrates the persisting reliance on administrative and security measures as the only method in dealing with all segments of civil society, making any serious democratic development or reform impossible."

Famers and Officers - el Horreya villagers protest

Farmers from el-Horreya village in Dekernes, Daqahleya, demonstrated outside the ministry of agriculture today at noon. More than a 100 families in the village and adjacent villages was driven from land they had been cultivating for decades when a new land law was introduced in the 90's. More than ten years later, some of them are still staging regular protests in front of the ministry, demanding the replacement land that was promised but never given to them.

"We've been coming here again and again for ten years, but never received a reply," one of the farmers said. "There has been no results, and it's feels pointless. But we'll keep coming, until we receive our rights. For us there is no alternative but land to feed our families."

As I was taking photos of the protest a plainclothes officer approached me, clearly astonished to see a foreign journalist talking to the fellaheen. "Who told you about this?" he wanted to know. When I replied that I received the news through the internet, his jaw fell to the ground. "Al nas dol tala3u al-internet?!" [those people are on the internet?!] he blurted out. Then he stared at me and them in disbelief for a few seconds, before walking away in silence.

Pic above: The sign reads "Farmers of Daqahleya, no alternative but land, we won't leave without a reply."

14 February, 2009

Tabula Gaza v2.0

Philip Rizk relaunched his blog Tabula Gaza, after it was closed down by State Security. His first post is about the horrible experience of his kidnapping and detention, and ends with this message:

"The Gaza Strip is a different form of concentration camp. No Palestinian- whether students, the sick, businessmen and women- can travel beyond its borders and Israel permits only a very very few internationals to enter. These- mainly journalists and NGO workers like I used to be- remind me of zoo visitors that take pictures and talk about the terrible conditions of the animals in their cages but then leave, in the meantime Gaza remains the same. According to the UN 85% of Gazans are reliant on food aid, again like animals in a zoo they are fed and kept alive, but barely. Leaked reports from the Red Cross recently reported high percentages of malnutrition of children especially in the refugee camps- 70% of Gazans are refugees from 1948. The purpose of our protest march was and continues to be to raise awareness of the ongoing siege on Gaza building on the momentum of protest during the Israeli military onslaught on Gaza at the start of this year.

Your outrage about my unjustified imprisonment mirrors my outrage about this ongoing injustice done to the Palestinian people. If our governments and representatives the world over will not change the status quo we- the multitude-must mobilize, on the streets, on the web, in government, in schools, anywhere to call for change. Such an outrage changed South Africa not that long ago and it can change the injustice carried out against Palestinians today.

Email us your ideas and actions here: info@togaza.net
Follow up with us here: togaza.net"

Report: Unemployment caused 12000 suicides in 4 years

El Badeel reports: According to a report presented to the people's assembly by independent MP Gamal Zahraan, 12.000 young men in Egypt committed suicide in the last 4 years. The main cause, according to Zahraan, is high levels of unemployment. Zahraan also accuse the government of denying the true extent of the unemployment problem. While the government talk about unemployment levels of 9 percent, the IMF and the World Bank put the numbers at 18 and 22 percent.

While there is no way for me to judge the scientific credibility of this report, the numbers - if they are correct - point to a horrifying trend: In 2005 there was around 1100 suicides, in 2006 the number had risen to 2300 and in 2007 to 3700. In 2008 the number had almost doubled again, making the total 12.000 for the last 4 years. It's not unlikely that this trend is related to the dramatic rise in food prices and increasing economic hardships for Egypt's poor during the last years. With the global depression about to hit the tourism industry and other sectors of the Egyptian economy, the future looks dark.

Diaa Eddin Gad - abducted by state security

23-year old blogger Diaa Eddin Gad was detained by Egyptian state security in front of his family's house in a village outside Tanta on 6 February 2009. Michael Slackman reports for IHT: "Gad was seated at his computer working on his blog. His mother had just laid out lunch and his older sister was behind him studying for medical school. His phone rang, he walked outside, so as not to disturb his sister, and was jumped by four officers."

One week later, the authorities still refused to say where he was beeing held, or why he was detained. A spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior told the IHT that "related bodies are examining his case," describing the kidnapping and incommunicado detention as "regular procedure." (Which is true of course, if you are working for a mafia).

According to the IHT, Gad was arrested after taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Cairo, organized by the liberal Wafd party, and he has also been described as a member of the Kifaya movement. He is the author of a blog called Sawt Ghadib, or "angry voice", where he has expressed support for the Palestinian struggle and criticism of the Egyptian regime for it's participation in the siege of Gaza.

According to The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information "bloggers have become a major target of the police authorities in Egypt and all these assaults are committed outside the law or under the cloak of the emergency state. ANHRI demands that all defenders of freedom of expression join hands to bring an end to this abominable state of emergency."

Pic above taken from the Sawt Ghadib blog.

13 February, 2009

Censoring solidarity

By closing down Philip Rizk's blog Tabulagaza, which deals mostly with the humanitarian situation in Gaza and not least the effect's of Israels war and ongoing blockade of the strip, the Egyptian state security has effectively proved that their kidnapping of Philip Rizk was not about suspicions of "spying for Israel" or smuggling arms for Hamas - it was about silencing a vocal supporter of the Palestinians and critic of the regime's Gaza policies. If anyone had any doubts.

12 February, 2009

30.000 join free union

30.000 real estate tax collectors have signed the founding statement of the Free Union, el-Badeel reports. More than 300 collective resignation letters have been sent to the state-backed union. Representatives of the union also extended their support to the workers in Mahalla, firmly rejecting accusations of the state-controled union that attempts to establish a free union there is illegal and funded by organizations with a "foreign agenda". Leading unionist Kamal abu Eita says that such accusations can only come from "someone who doesn't know anything about the international agreements that Egypt signed", adding that it is in fact the state-controlled union that is operating outside the law.

Costs and Benefits of Repression

After the release of Philip Rizk, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information is rightly calling for Egyptian security to be held to account, describing the mental abuse Philip was subjected to while being held captive:

Interviewed by ANHRI, Philip said, “I was repeatedly questioned about everything and I was terrified. Although I was not abused physically, I was blind-folded all the time. Officers kept saying to me: "Do you know what we can do to you?", and I was threatened with long term imprisonment. They asked me if I supported Hamas, was working for Israel, and, being Christian, if I was an evangelist. I was never informed of any charges against me.”

Besides these threats directed towards Philip, there was also the disturbing refusal to give any information to lawyers, friends and family members about his location, health condition, or why he was being detained. This was a deliberate tactic, of course. The act of "disappearing" someone, whether it's for a short period of a few days, or permanently, is in itself a calculated and cruel method of torture and intimidation, targeting family, friends, and other activists. It leaves them in a painful state of uncertainty, which also amplifies the effect of further threats. As Sarah Carr writes in a powerful post on her blog:

It is remarkable how little effort the footmen of a police state have to put into intimidation. The mere suggestion of a threat, of danger, is enough. The invisible scarecrow.

The strategy works because of the not knowing, the waiting, which entirely consumes novices. Every act, every decision, every word is suddenly imbued with a new significance. Immediately after the threat is received, things seem to speed up somehow, and the outside world retreats – or is blocked out - a little. External sounds become distant as the deafening fear courses through the bloodstream from the stomach and the heart until it reaches the head, where it sits like spilt oil on seawater, choking hope and happiness and normal thought. And in that moment they've won.

The Egyptian regime is clearly displaying an amount of irrational paranoia regarding anything related to Gaza. But it also seems to me that the tactics of State Security during the last few days has been carefully calculated in order to have maximal intimidation effect, especially on the foreigners who took part in the Gaza solidarity March on Friday, while causing the least possible amount of international criticism. As many others have suggested, this may have been why they singled out a dual national from the participants in the March.

This balancing act, weighting the costs and benefits of repression, is something the Mubarak regime has spent almost 30 years mastering. This time they may have miscalculated, since they could not imagine the amount of solidarity and media attention directed to the case. But in the long run, the discouraging effect this episode may have on foreigners otherwise inclined to join protests or political media-stunts in Egypt under the cover of the protection granted to them as holders of European or US passports, might still be regarded as a benefit that outweights the short-term political cost.

And needless to say, the fact that the regime can arrest thousands of opposition activists or try people in military courts merely for visiting Gaza in solidarity (leaving and returning to your own country beeing a basic Human Right) withouth causing any international uproar, shows that the cost-benefit analysis still works to the advantage of the regime. If change is to happen in Egypt, this equation need to be altered.

11 February, 2009

Report on March to Gaza and police crackdown

Click the pic for my report on the March to Gaza and the arrest of Philip Rizk, published last night just before he was released... (Sign reads: "We are fed up, open the Rafah crossing.") Then go on to read some of Philip's reports from Gaza.

Philip Rizk is free, many others remain

So it's official, Philip Rizk was released tonight, and immediately expressed his wish that all upcoming planned protests and marches still take place to end siege on Gaza.

Meanwhile, a military court in Ismailiyya is expected to announce the verdict today against Magdy Hussein who was arrested after visiting Gaza in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Other also remain detained, including pro-Palestine bloggers Mohammad Adel and Diaa El Dein Gad. Let's not forget about them.

Update: Magdy Hussein was sentenced to 2 years in prison.

Protestors demand release of pro-Gaza detainees

Activists and family members gathered at the Press Syndicate tonight to demand the release of Philip Rizk, Magdi Hussein, and other pro-Gaza detainees. Members of the "To Gaza"-group also announced that a new solidarity march is being planned for next week, and called for activists around the world to join the initiative.

10 February, 2009

Philip Rizk: Diary from Gaza

While still hoping that Philip will be safely released soon, I believe that a good way of resisting this attempt by the Egyptian state to silence a critical voice and a passionate defender of Palestinian rights, is to make sure as many people as possible read his articles from Gaza. So here is a small list of some of his reports for the Electronic Intifada:

Gaza: Non-Entity
Volleyball and Civil War
Gaza: Calm before the storm
Sderot created the Gaza Strip
Visiting The Dead in Gaza
Awaking to a different Gaza
The desecration of democracy
The failing of Gaza
A family under siege
My birthday in Jabalya refugee camp

Articles on Philip Rizk - another pro-Gaza blogger arrested

The New York Times has a good report today on the detention of Philip Rizk: "Van Spirits Away Protester in Egypt, Signaling Crackdown on Criticism Over Gaza." It includes this quote by an angry general working within the Interior ministry:

“This happened within the framework of the Egyptian law. You can go to the office of the general prosecutor. I have no information about Philip. Who said they don’t know where he is? What is the secret behind the interest of The New York Times in Philip? Are you working for human rights organizations?”

It's funny he should say that, considering we did go to the general prosecutor, who claimed he doesn't know anything about the whole thing.

The Chicago Sun-Times also reports that around 40 people gathered outside the Egyptian consulate on Northern Michigan yesterday to demand Philip's release.

Meanwhile, AFP reports that 22 year old pro-Palestinian blogger Diaeddin Gad was also detained in Gharbiyya on Friday.

Workers strike in solidarity with Palestine

Tadamon reports that workers at Al-Masriya Fertilizer in Suez went on a sudden strike on Saturday, protesting the export of fertilizers to Israel. Hossam al-Hamalawy posted a short summary in English on Jaiku:

"Al Masriyya Fertilizer is a company owned by Unsi and Naseef Sawiris, under the umbrella of Orascom for Construction. The company signed a deal to export 1000 tons of phosphate fertilizers to Israel, (100 tons a week). The company has a labor force of roughly 800. Two days ago the packaging workers were shocked to see the management asking them to package the products in unmarked bags to be transported "somewhere" by Jordanian truck drivers. The workers (around 100) went on strike suspecting rightly this shipment was for Israel. The management cracked down, deducting 15-days of everyone's salary!"

09 February, 2009

Microblogging: Learn it!

Being almost an illiterate myself when it comes to the myriad of new internet and social networking tools, I would like to draw people's attention to a fascinating post by socialist journalist and activist Hossam al-Hamalawy, about Microblogging and the spread of information. Using these tools, Hossam did a great job spreading the word about the kidnapping of Philip Rizk during Friday evening, as well as in the last few days - despite the fact that the popular blog he is running has been disabled since last week. Thanks to him and other bloggers, Al-Jazeera was reporting that a group of activists marching on Gaza had been detained within hours after it happened, even before Philip was kidnapped. I'm even more convinced now that these and other techniques will become an ever more important tool for all sorts of human rights campaigners, political activists, and journalists in the future - so go ahead and learn everybody.

Media in bed with Mubarak

Jeffrey Fleishman notes the detention of Philip Rizk at the LA Times Middle East blog. Judging from the comments on the blog, I'm not the only one to ask myself why someone would decide to illustrate this article with a picture of a militant Palestinian (presumably) carrying a gun?

Words cannot even begin to describe how inappropiate this is, considering that the article is about a peace activist and writer - and arguably one of the most friendly and peaceful personalities I've ever met - who was just kidnappad mafia-style and taken to a secret location where he risk torture, instead of being where he should be: finishing his documentary film about non-violent resistance against the occupation in Palestinian villages!

It all makes sense, however, when you read this sentence in the article itself: "The Egyptian government fears opening the border would ease pressure on the militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza and supports exporting radical Islam across the region." Now, you can say a lot about Hamas, but "exporting radical Islam across the region"? When? How? Where? The Egyptian government could save a lot of the money it spends on propaganda if LA Times reporters are going to do it for them.

Mahalla families protest prison terms - threatened with arrest

Families of the "Mahalla 22" that were sentenced to 3-5 years in prison by a security court in December following protests in Mahalla el-Kubra on 6 and 7 April last year, demonstrated outside the High Court yesterday, el-Badeel reports. They were joined by activists from the "6 April youth" movement.

According to the report, police pushed one of the women to the ground in their attempts to prevent the protest. Several 6 April activists where detained for more than an hour in a microbus, while officers threatened to arrest the family members.

The families pleaded for a re-trial of their sons and husbands, who they say are suffering from maltreatment in the prison. The women also complain about humiliating searches during the short visits, that never last longer then 10 minutes.

While in general I've been sceptical about the 6 April movement, for various reasons, I think they deserve respect for being among the few that didn't forget about the victims of the unjust Mahalla trial - all poor families who were made scapegoats by the state after one of the largest popular protests against the regime in decades.

Pib above: Some of the accused during the trial in Tanta in October.

Midnight Raid

Philip Rizk's mother and sister wrote this about last night's raid:

"At 1:30am when we had just gone to bed the doorbell rang. 5 plain clothed men and two in full riot gear and machine guns stood outside our door. They wanted to enter to search the house. We found out that they were looking for evidence against Philip. Two men entered and began searching through the papers of our home office..."

The police came back a second time, and didn't leave until 5 am.

This kind of behaviour can have absolutely no purpose whatsover other than terrorizing the family. It's disgusting. But at the same time, of course, for the agents involved it's routine, since rule by fear is the only method known to this US- and EU-funded government of gangsters.

Paranoia and Blind Oppression

About one hour after midnight, state security agents went to Philip Rizk's family home and searched it. However, they are not reported to have found any secret stash of arms for Hamas or bomb-making material...

Clearly, this nightly visit was a calculated attempt to terrorize the whole family as a punishment for Philip's activism. If state security actually did believe that Philip constitutes some kind of security threat, why the heck did they wait more than 48 hours before doing this search?

But this whole affair is also a symptom of the serious paranoia that has infected the Egyptian state. After three decades with Hosni Mubarak in power, the regime is starting to show signs of senility. It has bought its own propaganda about Hamas and the Palestinians being a threat to Egyptian national security, to the extent that they fear anyone who dare raise his voice about Gaza. The absurdity of the situation is beyond all imagination: it is actually less dangerous today to go to stairs of the press syndicate and shout "down with Mubarak" than doing a peaceful march in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Updates on Philip Rizk

Some updates on Philip Rizk:

State security has inofficially confirmed that he is being held for "further questioning."

Protests will be held every Monday and Wednesday at 10 am on the AUC campus, demanding his release.

Another protest is planned on Tuesday, 6 pm, outside the Press Syndicate in Downtown Cairo to demand the release of a number of pro-Gaza detainees, including: Philip Rizk, Magdy Hussein, Ahmed Doma, Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Kordy.

Meanwhile, if you are not in Egypt and cannot join these protests, another way to honor Philip and other political detainees in Egypt is to join any pro-Palestine protest or campaign in your area. Phillip Rizk did not commit any other crime than being a passionate supporter of the human rights of the Palestinian people. Wherever he is, I'm sure that what he would want more than anything right now is for more people around the world to speak up against the occupation and the complicity of governments around the world in the systematic ethnic cleansing- and apartheid policies being pursued by Israel...

08 February, 2009

"A mafia with a license"

Sarah Carr has an excellent post detailing the kidnapping of Philip Rizk on friday. Also read her report from the march itself, written before Philip was taken away. On the blog, she writes about the powerlessness of ordinary Egyptians confronted with what is basically a state-run maffia:

"This kidnapping occurred with the complicity of the police – the laughing general – so the police are out of the picture. The judicial system meanwhile has been entirely emasculated by what is a mafia given a legal licence to operate freely. They are above the law in the sense that they have trampled, spat and shat all over it, reducing it to the crumpled up betting forms which litter racetracks after bets gone wrong: yes in theory there is a remote chance that the law might protect you, but your odds depend on who you are, and where you're from, and who you know, and the mood of the state security officer holding you.

Like me, Philip is half-Egyptian, half-another nationality which carries some weight, and I truly hope that this both protects him while he's in the custody of this gang and ensures his release.But think for a moment of the Egyptians without another nationality and the protection is affords, without foreign friends. What a truly sorry state of affairs, Egyptians in state security custody who are turned into ghosts, the odds of their escaping this mafia intact - physically, mentally and in terms of their dignity – virtually impossible. Unreachable and lost."

I can only agree with this. It was really amazing to see so many of Philips teachers, friends, and even some AUC students who didn't know him personally to show up with short notice yesterday outside the prosecutors office to demand his release - facing, of course, a ridiculuosly massive security presence and the usual attempts of intimidation while doing so. But it also made me sad because I knew that this protest was tolerated only because it involved a large number of foreigners and AUC professors and students. Even as we do all we can to ensure Philip's safe release, we should at least give a moment of thought to the Egyptians that has been detained and imprisoned by the Egyptian state-mafia for political reasons, like the Mahalla scapegoats or the hundreds that were detained for protesting the Israeli assault on Gaza, sometimes being beaten unconscious in the process.

07 February, 2009

Protestors demand release of Philip Rizk

Activists, teachers, and students gathered outside the public prosecutor's office in downtown Cairo today to demand the release of Philip Rizk, who was detained by state security yesterday after a police crackdown on a solidarity March for Gaza.

At the same time, a delegation of lawyers and activists entered the prosecutors office to file charges on the kidnapping of Philip by three state security officers. This was mainly a symbolic act of course, since the legal system in Egypt doesn't bring much to bear on the workings of the police state - as one of the officers present at the demo admitted when he asked one of the of activists: "But why are you going to a judge, what can he do?"

The prosecutor refused to confirm where Philip is being held, but said it is "90 percent certain" that he is at the state security HQ in Cairo.

Students and teachers are planning another protest tomorrow, Sunday, at the AUC new campus at 12.30.

For more updates, check Hossam al-Hamalawy's links.

Police crackdown on Gaza solidarity march

Documentary film-maker and writer Philip Rizk was kidnapped by state security today, after 15 people including Egyptian and foreign activists and journalists were detained during a solidarity march to Gaza. Everyone except Rizk was released after 4 hours by the roadside. He was taken to the police station in Abu Sa3bel, where he was held two hours until state security officers from Cairo arrived and smuggled him out through a back door, taking him to an unknown location. Two activists were almost run over as they tried to prevent the car from leaving.

A demonstration will be held tomorrow (Saturday) at 12.00 noon at the public prosecutors office, Cairo High Court, to protest the illegal detention.
Update: Photos from protest here. Philip still detained, prosecutor say it's "90% certain" that he is being held at state security HQ in Cairo. More later.

05 February, 2009

Railway workshop strike

Railway workers at the workshop in Kom Abu Radi in al-Wasta went on strike on Monday, demanding the implementation of earlier promises of increased monthly incentives, al-Youm al-Sabi3 reports. According to the report, clashes took place between the workers and central security forces as they gathered in the station in al-Wasta, preventing some trains from moving. One officer and more than ten workers were wounded. Despite this, the strike continued on Wednesday. A meeting was held with the manager of the company for railway services on Wednesday, where he agreed to implement some of the demands of the workers. No union officials took part in the meeting, according to the workers.

Swedish activist throws shoe at Israeli ambassador

It seems some kind of low-intensive warfare is developing between Sweden and Israel. A few days ago, a Swedish solidarity activist was shot in the leg with live ammunition by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. And today, as a symbolic act of resistance against the Israeli occupation and military assault on Gaza, someone threw a shoe at the Israeli ambassador during a public lecture at Stockholm University. A red sneaker, to be more exact... (As always when Israel is involved, the war is highly asymmetrical.)

Here's the funny thing: While the first event didn't cause much concern in Sweden, I predict that tomorrow's newspapers will be filled with condemnations of today's terrorist act against the ambassador, which clearly constitutes an assault on Democracy itself. But shooting unarmed civilians protesting Apartheid doesn't, of course.

04 February, 2009

Corruption in Mahalla

El-Badeel today published details of a report on corruption and mismanagement at Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla, accusing the company's former chairmin Mahmoud Gabaly of directly causing losses of 10 million pounds. Al Gabaly was sacked in november 2007 following an investigation by the Central Auditing Agency, prompted by repeated allegations of workers in the factory against him.

Politician face military court for "sneaking" into Gaza

The head of the islamist Labour Party, Magdy Hussein, is being transferred to a military court in Ismailiyya tomorrow, el-Badeel reports. He was arrested after a visit to Gaza, to express his solidarity with the Palestinian people, and is being accused of "sneaking" into the area without permission.

03 February, 2009

Colonial nostalgia and prerevolutionary Egypt

I just started reading John R. Bradley's Inside Egypt - The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (how can you stay away from a book with a catchy title like that?), and I must say I'm slightly put off by the first chapter. It's not that I am a hardcore fan of Nasser or don't agree with much of the criticism of the Free Officers disdain for democracy and so on, but I do think it's a bit unfair to judge the revolution as if the history of oppression and corruption in Egypt only started in 1952.

The essence of Bradley's take on history is captured in this amazing sentence: "Nasser's coup got rid of everything that was good in Egypt, and slowly replaced everything that was bad with something much worse."

Thus, everything that is bad in Egypt today ultimately derive from the wrongdoings of Nasser and his cronies, described as having "none of the positive attributes of the former decadent, but culturally sophisticated, aristocracy they had replaced and humiliated." (Note that cultural sophistication is the only "positive attribute" of the ruling aristocracy that the author bothers to mention here, perhaps because there were no others)

In his scarce references to the situation before the Free Officer's coup, Bradley gives the impression that it was a wonderland of democracy. Thus, he writes that "Nasser banned the opposition political parties that had similarly thrived in prerevolutionary Egypt." While the first part of this sentence is certainly true, it doesn't exactly hit the spot to say that opposition parties "thrived" in prerevolutionary Egypt, as communists and muslim brothers alike were persecuted and British colonial officials repeatedly intervened in national politics, while striking workers and demonstrating students were often shot and killed by the police.

In one paragraph, Bradley describes the prerevolutionary era as "a time when Egyptian society's undoubted inequalities and exploitative political manipulation by outside powers were somehow tempered by the refined high culture of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, intellectualism and architectural extravagance." It's a beautiful sentence, but I fail to see exactly what role "architectural extravagance" or "high culture" played in tempering "inequalities," since the latter were constantly on the rise in Farouq's Egypt.

The intellectual weakness of Bradley's reasoning is displayed most clearly in the following paragraph:

"By the interwar years of the early twentieth century, after Egypt had been granted nominal sovereignty by the British and was ruled by a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy [sic] in all matters except national security and control of the Suez Canal, Cairo became the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But six months before the 1952 revolution, on a day remembered as Black Saturday, anti-British mobs torched Cairo's Western landmarks including the Turf Club, major hotels, banks, cinemas, and residences.... Nasser's Free Officers would hijack the popular unrest to seize power."

The problem here is that since the Cairo fires or "Black Saturday" occurred before the revolution, the Free Officers and Nasser clearly cannot be blamed for it. So if Cairo somehow changed from "the most cosmopolitan city in the world" to one where raging "mobs" would attack and set fire to British targets, then surely this must be the responsibility of the prerevolutionary regime.

Bradley's take on prerevolutionary Egypt is completely in line with official British imperial history - perhaps not surprising for someone who has been reporting regularly for The Economist and The Financial Times. It's very revealing, for example, that Bradley doesn't care to mention the incident that preceded and triggered the Cairo fires: the attack by British forces on a police station in Ismailiyya - during which tens of police and gendarmes were killed - an event that was perceived by the public opinion in Cairo as an outrageous massacre.

Most importantly, the all too common idea of early 20th century Cairo as a cosmopolitan heaven must itself be critically examined, since this would certainly not apply to Egyptian workers and government clerks who were being systematically discriminated against in favor of Europeans, or to the rural migrants who were deported back to the countryside to preserve the social order in "cosmopolitan" Cairo. But as often seem to be the case with writers in the tradition of colonial nostalgia, "cosmopolitan" here should perhaps be interpreted simply as "dominated by foreigners."

Renditions and "extraordinary renditions"

Supporters of Obama are coming to his defense on the issue of renditions. Scott Horton at Harper's points out that media reports fail to distinguish between renditions and "extraordinary renditions" which was introduced by George W Bush:

"A central feature of this program was rendition to torture, namely that the prisoner was turned over to cooperating foreign governments with the full understanding that those governments would apply techniques that even the Bush Administration considers to be torture. /---/ The earlier renditions program regularly involved snatching and removing targets for purposes of bringing them to justice by delivering them to a criminal justice system. It did not involve the operation of long-term detention facilities and it did not involve torture."

However, as pointed out by Arabist, in the case of renditions to Egypt, even the earlier program did lead to trial in exceptional courts and torture.

Update: Sarah Carr sent me a link to an interesting post by Allan Nairn on this subject. An excerpt:

"If you're lying on the slab still breathing, with your torturer hanging over you, you don't much care if he is an American or a mere United States - sponsored trainee. /---/ The catch lies in the fact that since Vietnam, when US forces often tortured directly, the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy -- paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed. That is, the US tended to do it that way until Bush and Cheney changed protocol, and had many Americans laying on hands, and sometimes taking digital photos. The result was a public relations fiasco that enraged the US establishment since by exposing US techniques to the world it diminished US power. But despite the outrage, the fact of the matter was that the Bush/Cheney tortures being done by Americans were a negligible percentage of all of the tortures being done by US clients.For every torment inflicted directly by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the secret prisons, there were many times more being meted out by US-sponsored foreign forces."

Read the rest.

Crisis hits tourism sector

The local labour office has received around 400 complaints about unpaid salaries and bonuses from workers at Red Sea tourist destinations, as the effect of the global crisis is setting in and many hotels start laying of workers. We'll see more of this, I'm sure. As food prices may slowly be starting to drop from a peak reached in march last year, unemployment and job security is likely to become the main issue for working Egyptians in the coming year.

Erdogans "outburst"- a distraction for the global elite

It's a sign of the impotence of the global elite that news from the World Economic Forum this year was dominated by the ridiculous quarrel between the Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli president Shimon Peres.

It was just a show, of course, as Stratfor writes: "Turkey is effectively an ally of Israel. Given this alliance, the recent events in Gaza put Erdogan in a difficult position. The Turkish prime minister needed to show his opposition to Israel’s policies to his followers in Turkey’s moderate Islamist community without alarming Turkey’s military that he was moving to rupture relations with Israel." (By the way, I believe the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would face the same problem if they ever came to power).

For the participants of the WEF this event probably came as a welcome distraction, as they are unable to come up with any credible answers to the global economic crisis, which according to the ILO is threatening the jobs of 50 million people, and may push 200 million workers into poverty. After all, those folks gathering at the WEF are the ones who created the conditions for this crisis in the first place, aren't they?

It's not surprising then that a number of Latin American presidents decided to abandon the WEF and instead go to the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil. Generating some pathetic coverage in the international media of course; This meeting of more than 100.000 activists from around the world was reviewed by the AFP correspondent in this way: "Through it all, references to the global economic crisis were rife. But few realistic solutions were advanced."

Never mind that this journalist hardly did any serious attempt to examine the multitude of proposals and solutions that does exist at the WSF, chosing instead to refer dismissively to the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the leftist groups that participated. But of course it's very "realistic" to maintain a system that is threatening to throw 50 million people out of their jobs and push 200 million into poverty?

02 February, 2009

Court to review arbitrary transfers of Mahalla workers

A court in Mahalla is going to review legal cases raised by Tareq Amin and Tamer Faiz, two workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving, against the management's arbitrary transfers and other disciplinary measures against labour activists in the factory, on 14 and 16 february, al-Badeel reports.

In Obama era, human rights watchdogs go soft?

So while Obama wants to close down Guantanamo and ban "harsh interrogation techniques" he issued executive orders authorizing the CIA to continue carry out "renditions" - "secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States" (in other words: kidnapping suspected "terrorists" and sending them to be tortured in countries like Egypt).

This is not a big surprise, at least if you keep in mind that the illegal renditions was introduced already by democrat president Bill Clinton, before the Bush-era and the "war on terror." What really makes me concerned is this part of the LA Times article:

The decision to preserve the program did not draw major protests, even among human rights groups. Leaders of such organizations attribute that to a sense that nations need certain tools to combat terrorism. "Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place" for renditions, said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch."What I heard loud and clear from the president's order was that they want to design a system that doesn't result in people being sent to foreign dungeons to be tortured -- but that designing that system is going to take some time."

Is this the new strategy of human rights watchdogs in the Obama-era? Are they suddenly going to trust the good intentions of governments, softening their criticism in gratitude for any small positive measures being taken? I hope not, but also fear this is a consequence of the general liberal attitude which says that the problem is not so much with the "war on terror" itself, but the particular way it was being conducted by the Bush administration.

Victory for Hamas?

Browsing through the website of el-Shorouq el-Jadid, the latest addition to the non-state press in Egypt, I found a poll with the question: "Do you agree with Hamas' statement that it won over Israel?" With 651 votes so far, the standing is: 76 percent in favour of "Of course, a clear victory!"

Totally unrepresentative and unscientific, of course, but kind of interesting nevertheless...

For those interested in a discussion of this topic (in arabic) from a leftist perspective, I see that the center for socialist studies in Cairo is holding a public lecture tonight at 6 pm, entitled "Victory for the Resistance?"

01 February, 2009

State union and security collaborate to prevent strike

An interesting detail slipped my mind when I wrote my previous post. As we were talking to the union representatives and a group of workers outside the drivers rest-house, one of the drivers started talking about the signal operators and other workers that were supposed to go on strike today. He had barely finished a sentence when he was silenced by the others, aggressively telling him to shut up. It seemed to me that they were over-reacting, as the man was only telling us what we already knew. But after reading this report in el-Badeel, their reaction makes more sense: According to the report, several labour activists were arrested by state security yesterday and pressure was excerted on many others in an attempt to prevent today's strike. This security intervention, then, was probably the subject they [the union officials] wanted to avoid.

This sums up the state of the official union structure in Egypt pretty well: Union representatives celebrate victory and express gratitude towards management, taking credit for tiny gains that would never have been achieved without strike action that they themselves opposed from the beginning, while militant workers are detained by state security...

Pic above: A representative of the railway workers union and General Saad Zaghloul, chief of the train station police force, try to convince drivers to end their strike on 20 January.

Railway union "grateful" - workers vow continued struggle

The announced train strike did not take place today. Instead, officials from the state-controlled union had hung banners in the train station, expressing their gratitude towards the management and the ministry of transport for "agreeing to the demands of the union" (pic above).

At the drivers rest-house, two representatives of the union said there was no need for another strike since there is now "open channels of communication" between the union and the ministry of transport. They also argued that strikes should be avoided since they hurt the country and the passengers, and that the workers have to consider the financial cirumstances of the company and the state. (A valid point, of course, but given the fact that the Egyptian economy has been growing by around 7 percent annually for a few years now, resulting in a explosion of luxury consumption and an unbelievable boom of luxury villas and gated communities around Cairo, I think it's also fair for the workers to ask why they should put up with becoming poorer every day, while risking their lives driving poorly maintained trains.)

According to the decree that was issued on Thursday, the lowest paid workers will receive an additional allowance of 50 pounds, or 75 in the case of drivers. However, it will not be paid until July this year, and then only half of it. This means that for many of the workers the pay raise amounts to less than 1 pound per day - if the decree is ever implemented, that is. Taking inflation into account, their real wages will probably continue to decrease this year, even with the promised raise.

The drivers are not satisfied, of course. Their minimum demand had been that any raise should be paid immediately, for the simple reason that they have no guarantees whatsover that any decision taken now will actually be implemented six months later (there is already a number of similiar decrees dating years back that has never been implemented). One driver told Sarah Carr from Daily News over phone that workers are going to meet in the coming days to discuss further action.

Drivers and railway workers threaten to strike

Workers at Egyptian National Railways, incuding signal operators, crossing watchmen, and drivers, have threatened to go on strike today, Sunday, el-Badeel reports. According to the report, security presence in train stations has increased in anticipation of the strike, after fruitless attempts of security officials to convince the workers to accept offers made by the ministry of transport and the management of ENR. A union representative told el-Badeel that the offers does not satisfy the minimum demands of the workers, and added: "We are not responsible for what will happen." (Referring, I assume, to the union - a clear admission that it has become more or less irrelevant as the workers are becoming more militant and organizing themselves around their demands).

Note that this report was published yesterday, so the situation might have changed since then. For more background: Here's my last post about the railway struggle, and here is Hossam el-Hamalawys links. Also read Zeinobia's posting about the railway and bus strikes. And here is a report in the Daily News with details about the new incentives presented by the ministry of transport.