31 January, 2009
30 January, 2009
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
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
27 January, 2009
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
25 January, 2009
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.
24 January, 2009
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...
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
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.
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
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
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
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...
"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
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!"
17 January, 2009
Pic above: Some of the workers during the third day of the sit-in.
16 January, 2009
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...
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
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
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.
"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...
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
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.
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
"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?"
"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!"
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.
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.
"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."
11 January, 2009
10 January, 2009
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!
Above: The troops stand ready to confront the dangerous peace activists.
08 January, 2009
07 January, 2009
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?
06 January, 2009
05 January, 2009
03 January, 2009
02 January, 2009
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
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.