31 March, 2009

The strike wave in Egypt

Click the pick or here for a short report, in Swedish, about the Shebeen el-Kom strike and the strike wave in Egypt.

29 March, 2009

Clueless managers

Sarah Carr reports on the Salemco workers, who hasn't been paid for a month and half. The best part of the article is the confidence-inspiring end quote by the factory manager, Saied Hamed:
Daily News Egypt then attempted to ask Hamed about the workers’ unpaid wages. The factory manager interrupted saying, “I don’t know” before hanging up.

28 March, 2009

Mahalla prisoners on hungerstrike

Mahalla residents who were sentenced to jail by a security court after the demonstrations on 6 and 7 april last year has entered a hungerstrike, el-Badeel reports, protesting against maltreatment and abuse in the prison. According to a letter sent by them to el-Badeel, they have been targeted by daily beatings since their families announced their participation in the "6 april strike." A solidarity protest is being planned for Tuesday in front of the public prosecutors office, downtown Cairo.

26 March, 2009

"This country is on the brink of a revolution"

I visited the 10th of Ramadan industrial zone today and met some of the workers at Salemco Spinning, who have being staging a series of protests and threatened to block the Ismailiya road (as they did previously, in 2005) to get their salaries for February. Several production lines in the factory has been closed since January, but the workers also say their problems with the owners started long before the global economic crisis started, with hundreds being dismissed and others receiving arbitrary wage-cuts.

We had some problem locating the factory, since Salemco apparently has four factories in different locations in 10th of Ramadan city. As we stopped and asked for the way, a technician employed at another factory in the area gave us a long speech about the disastrous situation in the textile sector, with mass lay-offs and factories being closed down. He said he didn't use to care about politics but recently started reading the independent daily al-Doustor. "Where is the wage increased that Mubarak promised us last year?" he wanted to know. Then he went on to proclaim that "this country is on a brink of a revolution!"

That may still be an exaggeration. But I do believe that the situation in the textile industry and especially the industrial zones of Egypt is a severely under-reported story, even in the opposition media. Their isolated location and the almost complete lack of labour unions means that news about what's going on in places like 10th of Ramadan rarely reach Cairo - except when there is an actual strike that last more than a day. But tens of thousands of workers have been laid off in a few months - where do they all go?

25 March, 2009

Security bans Ayman Nour conferences

A month after his release, state security prevented several conferences that was supposed to be held by Ayman Nour and the Ghad-party this week, in four governorates outside Cairo, el-Badeel reports. In other words, despite Nours release, it's business as usual when it comes to dealing with the opposition. Big surprise (not).

10 Ramadan texile workers threaten to block Ismailiya road

300 workers at Salamco Spinning & Weaving in 10th of Ramadan city has been on strike for 12 days, al-Youm al-Sab3a reports. They are threatening to go on hungerstrike and cutting the road to Ismailiya if their demands are not realized, saying that they have not been paid since January. According to a representative of the local union, the owner of the factory has "disappeared" and negotiations are conducted over phone only. The owner is apparently intending to close down the factory. Workers say they previously tried to go to his home in Masr el-Gadida to demonstrate outside but were prevented by security.

24 March, 2009

The minister in Shebeen el-Kom

In an attempt to promote "reconciliation" between the management of Indorama Shebeen el-Kom and the workers, after their recent 11-day strike, the minister of Manpower and Migration visited Shebeen a few days ago. Aisha abd el-Hady reportedly vowed that no privatized companies would return to the state (as many of the workers demanded during the strike), and said that the government is commited to the sucess of the indian investor.

If nothing else, this is sign of how seriously the government is taking the current wave of labour unrest. Strikes and labour protests are worrying to the government not only because they could grow to a political threat, but also because the growing tendency of workers to take independent action is undermining one of the comparative advantages of Egypt in the competition for foreign investment: the fact that investors could rely on the security forces and the state-controlled union to contain any protests.

Meanwhile, Hussein Megawer, the head of the EFTU who accompanied the minister, suggested an education program to teach the workers about their "rights and obligations" to prevent future problems. He also promised that the government will present a program to support the failing textile industry during next week...

19 March, 2009

Anti-union crackdowns

There's been a spate of crackdowns on union and worker activists this week. At Efco Egypt in Suez, 6 workers who played leading roles in a recent strike at the company has been fired. And at the south Cairo grain mills 8 members of the local union committé are being sent to disciplinary hearings at the general union, who refused to support the recent series of protests there. And finally, City Cab - one of the companies operating the yellow "tourist taxis" in Cairo - has threatened 8 drivers with dismissal after they participated in a protest last week and their pictures appeared in al-Badeel. Meanwhile, next week a court in Mahalla will examine the libel case filed by the manager of Misr Spinning and Weaving against 2 workers and 3 journalists.

17 March, 2009

Free union refuse to join state-controlled federation

el-Badeel reports: The head of the state-controlled trade union federation (EFTU), Hussein Megawer, has announced that he would agree to let the free union of the real estate tax collectors join the federation. Union leaders refused this offer, saying they will not enter the official union structure since it is controlled by the ruling party NDP, stressing that they have the right to organize independently according to the Egyptian constitution and international treaties signed by Egypt.

16 March, 2009

Shebeen al-Kom strike ends in victory for workers

Was just told by Sarah Carr: The workers of Shebeen el-Kom has ended their 11-day strike after the manager of the company signed a pledge to pay their annual bonus by Thursday.

The Shebeen el-Kom drama continues

Al-Badeel and al-Dostour both reported yesterday that Indorama Group asked during negotiations on Saturday to return the Shebeen al-Kom spinning factory to the government in return for a refund, claiming that the numerous work stoppages and strikes in the factory since the take-over has contributed to the losses. Upon hearing the news, striking workers apparently rejoiced and prepared signs calling on president Mubarak to re-nationalize the factory.

If the reports are accurate the owner and the workers both want the state to take over. How likely is it that this would happen? Taking back one failing privatized factory would create a powerful precedent and might unleash a wave of similar demands from other companies with similar problems. On the other hand if the government doesn't do anything the strikes and protests in the textile sector might continue to spread. From the point of view of the government, a convenient short-term "solution" would be some kind of bailout where the state temporarily steps in to help the company to pay the demanded bonuses. According to previous media reports the ministry of manpower has already been discussing plans to use emergency funds to help failing companies pay wages - which is of course very controversial since it would entail bailing out private investors without giving the state a share in those companies.

More speculation then: From the point of view of Indorama, asking to have the factory returned to state ownership would be an excellent negotiation strategy to achieve some kind of bailout, since they know that re-nationalization is something the regime wants to avoid...

In any case, it is clear that the strike at Shebeen el-Kom will have huge implications, since it raises doubts around the economic polices of the state, threatening further privatization schemes in the textile industry in particular. Whatever the outcome, the experience of Shebeen el-Kom is likely to further strenghten resistance to privatization among workers in other state owned factories.

15 March, 2009

Bonus Bonanza

I'm usually not easily chocked by stories about greed or corruption - after all this is two of the fundaments of the world economy - but I almost spilled my coffee when I read this article in New York Times: "The American International Group, which has received more than $170 billion in taxpayer bailout money from the Treasury and Federal Reserve, plans to pay about $165 million in bonuses by Sunday to executives in the same business unit that brought the company to the brink of collapse last year." The bonus plan covers 400 employees - giving an average of about $400.000 each. Meanwhile, somewhat closer to the base of the social pyramid that is global society, Egyptian textile workers have to go on strike and occupy their factory to receive their full pay. But I'm sure it all makes sense, somehow.

14 March, 2009

Bring out the opportunists

In a blatantly opportunistic attempt to score political points from the strike in Shebeen el-Kom, three members of parliament visited the factory yesterday during the Friday prayer, el-Badeel reports. Ahmed Seif and and Atef abu Hussein from the ruling National Democratic Party denounced the Indian owner of the factory and called for him to "solve the problems or scram." They also called for the workers to continue to struggle for their rights. This sudden support for workers' rights is pretty hypocritical coming from two members of a party that has been busy cracking down on union activists since it was founded.

Also among the opportunists visiting Shebeen el-Kom was MP Talaat Sadat, who threatened to lead a march of workers and unionists to the parliament in Cairo to demand an intervention by prime minister Ahmed Nazif. Ironically, Sadat himself was reportedly one of the investors who showed interest in buying the factory before it was privatized. One wonders if the workers would have fared any better under his management, and what his stance towards the strike would have been as the owner of the factory?

13 March, 2009

Shebeen al-Kom revisited

Adding to my previous posting about the Shebeen al-Kom strike, there is another important dimension to this conflict which hasn't been brought up in any of the news reports so far, related to the international nature of the world economy. While the Shebeen al-Kom factory is making losses, and Indorama is using this as an excuse to cut back on salaries and incentives, how about the mother company? While the Sheeben factory has reportedly made losses of 69 million Egyptian pounds over the past two years, in August 2008 Indorama commissioned "a brand new state-of-the-art compact yarn spinning plant of 26,000 spindles" in Indonesia, and announced an investment of 4 billion rupees (roughly 400 million Egyptian pounds) in a new manufacturing plant in India. Just a few days ago, it was reported that Indorama is establishing "the world's biggest fertiliser complex within its premises at Eleme, River State [Nigeria] at a cost of $2.5 billion."

So, even if Indorama is making losses in Shebeen al-Kom, we are clearly not talking about a company on the verge of bancruptcy. And the refusal to pay the workers their full bonuses is not a necessary temporary measure, but part of a long term strategy - employed by most post-privatization companies in Egypt - to turn losses into profits by cutting back salaries.

Another important element of this strategy is the attempts to push older workers into early retirement, while employing new workers at lower salaries and on temporary contracts. Two of the workers I spoke to at the factory said their monthly salary was 500 and 200 pounds after 20 and 2 years at the factory respectively. Paying older workers relatively large one-time sums to accept retirement and replacing them with younger workers can thus be very profitable, especially if the latter are employed on temporary contracts or as day-labourers. This introduces "flexibility" and also excempts them from a number of bonuses and benefits that only applies to workers with fixed employment contracts. Besides those advantages, the use of temporary contracts also makes it harder for the workers to organize. Building an independent union is very hard when the company can get rid of any activist simply by refusing to renew his employment contract.

This brings us to the "conspiracy theories." The allegations of workers that the management is deliberately creating losses may sound absurd. But first of all, it's very unlikely that Indorama expected they would make profits in Shebeen immediately after taking over the factory. They wouldn't have bought the factory if they weren't prepared to sustain some losses during a period of "restructuring," and the 69 million EGP they reportedly lost in two years looks like a relatively small sum compared to the huge investments the mother company made recently. And if the owners are convinced that they cannot make satisfying profits in Shebeen el-Kom in the long run unless they can reduce wages dramatically, it makes perfect sense for them to overstate the losses (for example by buying used machinery from other branches of the company at inflated prices which means the money stays "within the family") in order to have an excuse to fire workers and cut back wages. As anyone remotely familiar with the inner workings of international capitalism would probably acknowledge, this is not a conspiracy but common practice. Then again, this just confirms that being rational is not necessarily the same as being moral...

12 March, 2009

609 labour protests in 2008

El-Badeel today published some statistics from the Land Center from Human Rights: During 2008 a total of 609 industrial actions occurred in Egypt, including 122 strikes. This is slightly less than 2007 but still far more than previous years. The true number of protests might be higher, since these numbers are based mainly on protests actually reported by media.

The blame game: class struggle in Shebeen el-Kom

There are so many sides to the Shebeen al-Kom strike that it is hard to know where to begin an analysis of it. But the basic conflict is simple enough: The company is making losses and workers and management is involved in a struggle about who is to bear the brunt of the cost. This conflict is made more explosive by the complicated wage system employed in Egypt, where various bonuses and allowances make up more then half of the salary for many workers. This creates a lot of room for arbitrary decisions and generates constant struggles (I dare say that at least 90% of all strikes in Egypt in recent years have been about various bonuses and incentives).

In order to back up their respective claims, the workers and managers in Shebeen el-Kom is involved in a blame game where each side is trying to portray the other as responsible for the losses. Workers accuse the owner of completely mismanaging the company, either as a result of incompetence, or deliberately in order to transfer resources abroad and destroy a competitor to his factories in other countries. Managers, in turn, accuse the workers of sabotaging the production - against their own interests - because they are lazy and lack "culture."

The idea that the workers have been sabotaging the production is very hard to believe. As one of the striking workers told me on Tuesday: "This factory is what keeps our families alive. It puts food on our table. They say the strike is illegal and that we want to destroy the factory, but the factory is like our home. Who would destroy his own home?" On the other hand, the worst accusations and suspicions put forward by some of the workers doesn't necessarily have to be true. A company can make losses without any conspiracies being involved, of course. In the end, it's just about who is going to pay - the capitalists or the workers.

But this conflict also involves other elements, like ethnic tensions between Egyptian workers and Indian technicians and administrative employees, with the former accusing the bosses of discriminating against them and the latter accusing the Egyptian workers of racism. This might be one of the reasons that the opportunists in the state-controlled union has chosen this particular struggle to score political points, supporting the strike in a way they would never have done if the factory was owned by an Egyptian investor or the state.

It should also be pointed out that some people, especially the representatives of the state-controlled union, is probably exaggerating the contrast between the state of the factory before and after privatization. In fact, much of the responsibility for the decline of the factory rests with the government, that has refused to do necessary investments since the 70's or early 80's at least (several fires in the textile factory in Mahalla last year was blamed on neglect of basic maintenance, for example). Contrary to what many liberal economists would argue, this does not prove that states are incapable of running profitable companies - it only proves that a government that is in principle opposed to state involvement in industry is bound to destroy it. For a government obsessed with privatization, the losses and inefficiencies haunting state-owned industries is not regarded as a failure or a problem to fix, but as vindication of it's own neo-liberal ideology.

Another small but significant detail: When Sarah Carr and I went to the Indorama headquarters in Maadi yesterday, we were received by Administrative Manager General Emad Abdel Khaliq, in an office tastefully decorated with model fighter-jets. I suspect this man was not recruited to Indorama for any previous experience of the textile industry, but for his contacts within the security apparatus - which also tells us something important about how the Egyptian economy works.

To round up, here is a couple of pics that might symbolize the basic nature of this conflict and the priorities of the current management:

1) The air-conditioned office building:

2) One of the run-down buses formerly used to transport workers:

10 March, 2009

Shebeen el-Kom strikers denounce privatization

Click the pic for a set of photos of the striking workers in Ghazl Shebeen el-Kom, renamed Indorama after it was privatized in 2006. I've been to quite a few strikes and workers' protests in Egypt during the last few years, but this time was quite different. It was the first time the central security troops parked outside did nothing to prevent me from entering the factory or talking to the workers, and the first time officials from the state-controled union expressed their full support of the strike - and it may well be the last.

For the workers, the transfer of the factory to a private investor has been a catastrophe. The stories they told sounded very similar to that of other recently privatized companies like Telemisr or Tanta Linen Co. Since 2007, the new management has refused to pay bonuses worth a total of 10 million pounds, while allegedly paying 6 million pounds cash to about 200 workers that agreed to early retirement. Since it was privatized, the losses of the company has more than tripled - even before the global financial crisis started. Workers accuse the new owner of deliberately sabotaging the factory to eliminate competition, and of buying dysfunctional old machines from his other factories in Pakistan and Indonesia at trumped-up prices as a way to transfer resources abroad.

As a result of the current state of affairs, many of the workers called for the government to re-nationalize the company to protect their jobs. "This is happening now in Europe and the US, so why couldn't it happen here?" one of them asked.

Just inside the main gates striking workers had hung an effigy of company lawyer Ali al-Dossuqi, who apparently had described them as baltagiyya, or a bunch of thugs, in an interview on private TV-channel el-Mehwar last night.

08 March, 2009

Egypt's struggling women

As a simple tribute on International Women's Day, here's a few pics from some of the social and political struggles that took part in Egypt during the last couple of years, where women often played central roles and sometimes proved to be more militant than the men.

In the Mahalla demonstrations on 6-7 April 2008:

And in the struggle of the Mahalla textile workers:
In the more than 9-month struggle of the Kafr al-Elou families for just compensation from the state after they were forcibly evicted from their homes:

In the strike of the real estate tax collectors in December 2007, leading to the founding of Egypt's first free union in more than 50 years:

During the 11-day sit-in outside the cabinet in downtown Cairo, many of the female tax collectors set up their own tents in order to be able to camp out in the street together with their male colleagues:

In the Student Day protest against education fees and security interventions on campuses:

And, of course, during the massive protests against the war on Gaza:

06 March, 2009

Call for solidarity with Tanta Linen Co. workers

A quick summary and translation of a message just sent to me by a leftist lawyer: "On Sunday 8 March the south Cairo court will examine the case raised against the Saudi investor Abdallah al-Ka'ki, after he fired nine workers, including two union representatives, after a strike in last July. Please spread the call and participate in a show of solidarity with the workers of Tanta Linen Co. during the court session at the south Cairo court at Bab al-Khalaq on Sunday, 8 March."

The whole message in arabic can be found at Tadamon.

04 March, 2009

Business and Democracy - Liberal Think Thank Ramblings

I just stumbled upon a fascinating piece of liberal thinkthanking in last week's issue of Al-Ahram Weekly. Amr Hamzawy, senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece, put forward the often repeated argument that the emerging business elite can be a liberalising force. Some excerpts:

"On the otherwise stagnant Arab political scene, something has stirred. Slowly but surely, business elites have found their voice, formed their own associations, and begun to have an input into the region's political and social life. /---/

"The business associations of Morocco and Tunisia and the chambers of commerce of Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are all playing a major role in determining public policy on labour and investment. Before any laws affecting wages, social security, pensions, unemployment benefits, privatisation, trade, and anti-trust regulations are passed, the business community is consulted."

Hamzawy believes that this increased role of the business elite in politics "may eventually relax the customary grip of the state." Others would say that business elites are naturally opposed to democracy precisely because they want to make sure they, but not the majority of the people, are consulted when it comes to "laws affecting wages, social security, pensions, unemployment benefits, privatisation, trade, and anti-trust regulations."

Liberals often depict various business associations as a vital component of "civil society," without acknowledging that these organizations also have a strong common interest with the authoritarian state in stiffling the free operation of other segments civil society. As Marsha Pripstein Posusney argues in her book Labour and the State in Egypt, "genuine political liberalization would necessarily entail an end to the screening of union leaders and their co-optation into the ruling party, as well as the lifting of the ban on strikes and other legal constraint on union activities. Because these measures have their corollaries in similar restrictions on the activities of professional associations, opposition parties, and mass organizations, liberalizing union laws threatens to unravel the entire repressive apparatus of the regime."

In the last paragraph of his article, Hamzawy admits that most Arab businessmen "would defend their governments to the hilt in the face of opposition movements, whether religious or non- religious," and that "few if any Arab businessmen are willing to speak up for democracy." Despite this he maintains that "their presence gives us a shot at democracy that we wouldn't have had otherwise." That's liberal logic for you.

The article makes sense, however, if "democracy" is defined as something like this: More laws that benefit the business elite, more privatization, lower wages, less social security and unemployment benefits, weaker anti-trust regulations, more flexibility on the labour market, more security crackdowns on union activists, more harassment and lawsuits against independent media that cover labour protests, and so on...

By the way, the wikipedia has this interesting piece of information about Amr's employer: "Jessica T. Mathews, the current president of the institute, has become a source of controversy for the institute due to the claims by the International Labor Rights Forum that garment workers at the TOS factory owned by HanesBrands Inc. in the Dominican Republic are subject to serious workers' rights violations.[5] Mathews is a Board Member of HanesBrands. On March 14, 2008, students and labor activists demonstrated outside the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Carnegie Endowment, in order to "pressure" Mathews to "use her power as a Hanes board member to end sweatshop conditions" at the factory.[6] One worker from the Hanes factory, Julio Castillo, carried a poster with the slogan "Human Rights Hypocrite of the year". According to the protestors, Mathews refused to meet the workers.[6][7]"

03 March, 2009

More labour unrest as economic crisis worsen

Some of the labour actions that have taken place during the last few days, from today's issue of el-Badeel: Workers at two branches of Nile Cotton went on strike, protesting delays in payment of the salaries for februari. At Daytex in Alexandria, workers striked in protest against the continuing refusal of the company to pay last years "labour day bonus." They had been promised to receive it on 1 Mars, but instead discovered that they wouldn't even receive their usual bonuses and allowances on the grounds that the company is making losses. Service taxi drivers in Alexandria also announced a strike in protest against arbitrary fines and abuse by the traffic police. And employees at Atlas Contracting refused to receive their salaries after they discovered the management had deducted 5% from their wages without reason.

Although we can't know for sure, at least three of these protests could be tied to the global economic crisis, that is hitting the Egyptian economy and the textile industry in particular very hard. This point was also made by trade unionist Fatma Ramadan during the discussion organized at the Center for Socialist Studies yesterday. Lay-offs, wage cuts, delayed payments is getting more common, and there is reports about mass dismissals of thousands of workers in the industrial zones - where many are working on temporary contracts or without contracts at all.

Long live Palestine - and the Arab regimes

I just read this report by Hossam al-Hamalawy about George Galloway's "ass-kissing carneval": "The “red carpet” welcome, planned by Egyptian activists and opposition parliamentarians, to receive George Galloway’s “Viva Palestine” caravan, has been canceled. The activists learned tonight that Mr. Galloway has made arrangements with Mubarak’s NDP, and will be received by Ahmad Ezz, steel industry monopolist, senior NDP henchman, and the target of several anti-corruption campaigns."

A quick online search reveals that the Egyptian regime isn't the only one courted by Galloway. He recently met with the prime minister of Tunisia and hailed the government's support for the people of Gaza. Meanwhile, The Tripoli Post reports that "Libyans at the public and official levels are preparing to welcome the convoy with cheers and support for their noble undertaking.. Leading the welcome preparations of the convoy is the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation (GICDF) which said it is to join the Gaza Aid Convey with its own convey of medical aid. ... According to GICDF, the pro-Palestinian British PM George Galloway, the force behind the aid initiative, has been in contact with the foundation and coordinating with it."

Arguably, coordinating with the regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt is probably the only way to have such a caravan pass through the North African countries, and to ensure its entry into Gaza from Egypt. But if Galloway hadn't designed this campaign in order to ensure the maximum possible media attention for himself, he could have considered other ways to support Palestine - without becoming a propaganda tool for authoritarian regimes. This is particularly offending in the case of the Egyptian regime, since it was widely criticized in the region for its stance during the war, its participation in the blockade, and the heavy crackdowns on pro-Gaza demonstrations.

I'd like to draw attention to another initiative recently launched in Sweden: "Ship to Gaza." The idea is "to send a ship from Scandinavia to Gaza via ports in Europe and the Mediterranean with humanitarian assistance, from human to human. The voyage draws attention to an issue that must have a just solution, and sends a clear message to the people in Gaza: you are not alone." Behind this campaign stands solidarity movements, trade unions, religious groups, and European Jews for a Just Peace. Thus, it's a real grassroots initiative, and I would be surprised if the organizers allowed it to be used as internal propaganda by Arab dictators.

UPDATE: Sarah Carr spoke today with Sabah El-Mokhtar, a British lawyer and one of the organisers of the Viva Palestina convoy, who told her: "With the greatest respect to him, none of us know who this Ahmed Ezz is. We are not involved in the domestic politics of Egypt and categorically deny that we have coordinated with political parties. We have to deal with the state's authorities in order to get through Egypt and our coordination has been with these bodies only. If a state wants to send representatives to greet the convoy that is entirely a matter for that state. In the states we have passed through already like Algeria we were greeted by many people and sometimes we didn't know who they were – whether they were official figures or not."

In other words, if any autocratic regime wants to use the convoy as a tool for domestic propaganda, they are most welcome to do so, because the campaign is not involved in "internal politics," and the organizers are too naive or careless to find out who they are dealing with.

Note that I'm not condeming the participants in the convoy or suggesting that their initiative is not a "noble undertaking," as the Libyan state-controlled media put it. I'm just saying that activists in Europe should work harder to find ways to support Palestine without alienating the oppresed opposition in Arab countries, as the struggle for a just solution in Palestine must be linked to the struggle for democratic reform and justice in the Middle East.

02 March, 2009

MB on Gaza, internal reform, and the social protest movement

Islam Online recently published an interview with Mohamed Habib, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, conducted by blogger and journalist Abdel Moneim Mahmoud. It focuses on the question - asked by many - of why the MB mobilized on a large scale during the recent war on Gaza, while being comparatively passive on internal issues, whether economic or political.

Habib's response is that solidarity with Gaza is among the first priorities of the movement, and that this is not separate from but "parallell" or "equivalent" to demands of internal reform, because of the strong link between fighting Israeli occupation and the autocratic regimes in the region. He also says that the issue of Palestine is the central and most important issue for all muslims and arabs, but also something that concerns the whole world. And for the MB, he says, it enters "the heart of our strategy and planing."

He then goes on to say: "The issue of Palestine, with its regional and international dimensions, has both negative and positive effects on the internal situation, whether economical or political, in the Islamic and the Arab world. We shouldn't distinguish between what's happening on the regional level and internally in Egypt. In our view, solving the question of Palestine will be an entrance to solving the internal problems of the arab nation and muslim nation, including the issue of political reform."

Interestingly, this is almost opposite the slogan that is commonly heard among leftists: that the road the the liberation of Palestine runs through Cairo, Damascus and Amman. One possible way to interpret this statement is as an implicit acknowledment that the MB won't dare to seriously challenge the regime as long as the regional situation means that a MB-led government in Egypt risk being treated as a pariah by the US and the "international community," in the same way as the elected Palestinian government led by Hamas.

Habib also says that support for the Palestinian resistance can "liberate us from fear" and inspire the peaceful struggle for change in Egypt and Arab countries. Comparing the issue of Gaza and internal reform, he says: "There are priorities, and when there is a humanitarian catastrophe as in Gaza, it is a human and legal and national duty to pressure our regimes and governments to move, and to express our angers towards the aggressor."

Still, he acknowledges that "the brotherhood did not respond as strongly to social issues like the bread crisis or soaring prices as we should have at the time." His explanation for this is that "involvement in the social protest movement in a political way could make the regime deal with it more harshly and violently." Despite this, he claims, the MB has been giving support to the social protest movement, and "were present" in many of the protests, including the strikes in Mahalla, "but without giving them a political character to ensure the continued existence [of the movement]."

This sounds rather vague. Also, all the union activists and workers I've met in Mahalla and during other strikes and protests in the industrial sector during the last year strongly denied any involvement of the MB (or any other political group for that matter) in organizing or supporting their struggle. In the rare cases where militant workers have admitted association with - or even talked favorably of - any political trend, it has been the socialists or communists.

Railway technicians in Assiut stage sit-in

More protests among the railway workers: El-Badeel reports that 70 technicians at the station in Assiut held a sit-in on Saturday, demanding equality with their colleagues working within the administration after the latter had received a bonus that was twice as high. The sit-in ended quickly after the management had promised to realize the demands.

01 March, 2009

Egyptian National Railways: "The workers' demands took us by surprise"

Al-Masry al-Youm published an interview with top officials of the Egyptian National Railways yesterday, including the general manager Mahmoud Samy. Responding to the question why the company didn't look into the workers demands and attempted to settle the conflict before the recent strikes, in order to protect the interests of the passengers, he says: "First of all, we don't have the financial resources for any new demands from the workers, and when we decided the budget for 2008/2009 no demands existed, either from drivers or others. We were taken by surprise by the demands in late November, and explained to the union that there was no additional resources."

This is a blatant lie, since protests occured on several occasions before November, for example in Februari 2008 and December 2007. But more importantly it's also a sign of the ineffectiveness of the state-controlled union in giving a voice to the workers. If Samy can claim he didn't know of any demands, it's because the union officials refused to transmit the demands and grievances of the workers.

The interview also revolves around the issue of privatization. The restructuring of the ENR has led to speculation that parts of the company will be privatized. Mahmoud Samy denies this is the case, and says the restructuring merely represents an introduction of "private sector thinking" in the administration of the railways. But he does say that if any investor wanted to establish a new line or run a train outside the existing schedule, he would be "welcome" to do so.