31 August, 2009

Shebeen el-Kom workers on hunger strike after being fired

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

24 August, 2009

The "blood-libel" row from a Swedish horizon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International unions criticize Egypt's government

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

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

11 August, 2009

Tax Collectors Repeat Historical Sit-in

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

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

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

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

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

10 August, 2009

Egypt's State-Controlled Unions Under Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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