26 May, 2009

The effects of throwing someone from a fourth floor balcony

"Fracture of the right leg, hip and shoulder, three pelvic fractures, fracture nose, facial injuries, fracture of three vertebrae, blood accumulation in the stomach and around the liver, post concussion syndrome and difficulty breathing to upward pressure of abdominal blood collections."

According to El-Nadeem Center for Treatment of Victims of Torture this is the injuries suffered by Muslim Brotherhood member Fares Barak when he was thrown from a balcony on the fourth floor by state security investigators, who broke into his flat as the family was celebrating the 7th birthday of their daughter, on May 17.

25 May, 2009

EDC owners accused of "oppressing" Chinese workers

Despite the reputation of Scandinavian countries as progressive, just and socially advanced, our capitalists are just like any others, it seems... especially when operating in "third world" countries like Egypt or China. I was just sent this link to an article about A.P. Moller-Maersk, the Danish company that owns 45% of the Egyptian Drilling Company (EDC), which was recently accused of laying off employees on fixed contracts while hiring new workers on temporary contracts. The report in Danish daily Politiken recounts accusations concerning a container factory in Dongguan in southern China, owned by Maersk, where workers are said to suffer from health hazards, corruption within the management, and humiliating work rules - including a ban on strikes (with no basis in Chinese law according to an expert interviewed in the article) imposed in June 2008 after a series of strikes and protests for better work conditions. A number of reports and statements in Danish and English are available at the Hong Kong-based Globalization Monitor.

Statement: "Egyptian Postal Workers Struggling Alone"

The Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services issued a statement on the struggling postal workers, denouncing the detention of Mamdouh Faza'e - a postal worker from Ismailiya who was arrested by state security on charges of inciting a strike threatening the national economy - and calling for international solidarity:

"Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) emphasizes on the equity of the workers’ demands, and denounces Mamdouh Faza'e’s detention and his trial. CTUWS considers this action as a dangerous curve in the relation between workers and Government, especially the right to strike is guaranteed by international treaties that Egyptian government signed on. CTUWS calls upon international federations and trade unions to support Egyptian postal workers for their just demands. - CTUWS, 24 May 2009."

24 May, 2009

Workers' protest broken up by riot police

The protest by striking textile workers outside the People's Assembly has been broken up by force by the police, Hossam al-Hamalawy reports on Twitter: "Police waited till we left and staged their assault. Workers were assaulted by batons and sticks."

A couple of pics I took at the demo earlier today:

"We want to live"

A couple of hundred workers from the Nile Cotton Ginning Co. gathered outside the People's Assembly in downtown Cairo today, protesting cut's in their salaries that started in November last year and was followed by new cuts last month. The workers have been on strike since April 29. Some of the company's factories in Miniya has been closed, and workers are accusing the Egyptian owner (the company was privatized by the state in the late 90's) of trying to make a quick profit by selling off equipment and land, despite the fact that the company is making profits (workers base this claim on a financial report they say was published on March 31).

"We are victims of privatization," one worker called Mustapha told me. "We are not demanding any raise or anything, just our salaries. We are creating a profit, so where is our rights? We are not going to give up. We want to live!"

Update: More background is provided in a report by Sarah Carr from August last year.

More updates from Twitter: Sarah Carr says: "Nile Cotton worker says that security are trying to break up the protest on the pretext that they are not allowed to stay there overnight," while 3arabawy reports that "police is harassing photographers.i fear they might confiscate my camera."

Latest update from Sarah Carr: Workers forced to break up protest outside PA. Worker told me that Fatma Ramadan was manhandled by the police.

23 May, 2009

State union v.s. foreign capital

Workers at the Tanta Flax and Oil Company (sometimes confusingly referred to as Tanta Linen Co.) are coming under pressure from the management in an attempt to abort a strike that has been announced for May 31, Tadamon reports. The head of the local union has been forced to take a month's "vacation" without salary and is being accused of assaulting another worker.

According to workers at the company, the management also sent a letter to the General Union of Textile Workers asking it to dismiss the local union representatives (who are supposedly elected by the workers) and withdraw its backing for the strike. Two workers I spoke to yesterday welcomed the support of the union, while remaining cynical about the motives behind it: "They are afraid of independent unions, that's why they are acting now," one of them said.

Just like in Sheeben el-Kom, this company was sold to a foreign investor a few years ago (in this case a Saudi sheikh), which may be one of the reasons why the state-controlled union has chosen to intervene in this particular case. Feeling the pressure from intensifying attempts to organize workers independently, the union is trying to regain som legitimacy by backing workers against foreign capital, in a way they are still not prepared to do when it comes to companies owned by the state or Egyptian investors.

More background can be found in this report by Sarah Carr: State-run union backs textile workers’ strike.

22 May, 2009

Humanitarian workers continue hunger strike at Rafah border crossing

I just spoke to a British doctor from a group of medics and aid workers who went on hunger stike at the Rafah border crossing 4 days ago, protesting the refusal of the Egyptian authorities to let them cross into Gaza after almost three weeks of waiting. Some of the hungerstrikers are from another group of medics that has been waiting at the border for 50 days. According to Dr. Omar Mangoush, police has prevented any foreigners from crossing the last checkpoints between el-Arish and Rafah since the hungerstrike started, and detained at least one Egyptian journalist for talking to the doctors "without permission."

18 May, 2009

Postal worker detained for "inciting to strike"

More repression: As Hossam al-Hamalawy reported, a postal worker from Ismailiya has been detained on charges of "inciting a strike threatening the national economy". According to a statement published by the Center for Socialist Studies, Mamdouh Faza'e was arrested by state security after sending a fax to his bosses in Cairo in which he threatened with a strike unless temporary workers was employed on permanent contracts. The prosecutor has ordered his detention for 15 days for during the investigation, while labour lawyers maintain that Faza'e didn't break any law, that going on strike is a constitutional right, and that threatening to strike cannot be considered "incitement."

More on the postal workers:

* On Sunday, postal workers in Kafr el-Sheikh called for a national strike - starting Monday. This call came after the manager of the Egyptian Post Authority refused to meet a delegation of postal workers from several governorates despite the fact that "he himself had fixed the time for the meeting."

* Apparently, one of the grievances of the postal workers is that employees of the telecommunications authority earns 3 times as much, even though they belong to the same ministry. Another long-running dispute concerns the refusal of the management to give fixed contracts to workers employed after 2001.

* Today, "hundreds" of postal workers started an "open-ended" sit in in Kafr el-Sheikh. According to Al-Youm Al-Sabi'a the General Union of Postal Workers tried to convince the workers to cancel the protest.

17 May, 2009

The global crisis - an opportunity for reform?

With unemployment rapidly on the rise and millions worrying about their livelihoods, some are agonizing over the fact that the global economic crisis is threatening the pace of economic reform in Egypt. The minister of trade and industry, Rachid Mohamed Rachid, complains that the global financial crisis - triggered partly by financial de-regulation - has strenghtened opponents of further financial de-regulation and privatization of state-owned banks (big surprise?). Supporters of free-market reform need not worry though, because Rachid also says that the current crisis could be used by the government to take "extraordinary measures" to speed up reform. Some shock therapy ahead..?

Statement on persecution of Mahalla unionists

The "coordinating commitee for the defense of the rights and freedoms of unions and workers" released a statement (published on the Center for Socialist Studies website) denouncing measures taken by the Ghazl al-Mahalla management against union activists.

Last week, the management fired blogger Kareem el-Beheiry. As the statement points out "this is not the first time al-Beheiry and his fellow workers has been subject to arbitrary measures, as el-Beheiry and Kamal Fayoumi and Tarek Al-Sinousy was arrested after the events of 6th April 2008" - and jailed without trial for almost two months.

In November Kareem and four other workers were transfered to other branches of the company, while several others was refused the yearly "social raise", after workers at the factory staged a demonstration against alleged corruption within the management and plans to privatize the factory. The CEO also filed a court case against union activists and several journalists for publishing "lies" about the company.

The statement criticizes the Ministry of Manpower and the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU) for ignoring the plight of the workers, who repeatedly sent complaints and staged sit-ins at the union headquarters asking for an intervention on their behalf. The ministry and the state-controlled union did not intervene even when the management refused to implement a court verdict to revoke the arbitrary transfers and return the workers to their previous positions, thereby "showing clearly that the union is representing the interests of the employers against the workers."

Censorship strikes again

Once again Egyptian censors are steping in to protect the people from dangerous influences. Al-Jazeera reports that they are refusing the director Khaled Youssef permission to screen his latest movie Dukkan Shahata ("Shahata's shop") unless he removes a scene in the end that is apparently "warning Egyptians of total chaos and clashes between the people and the police" in the coming few years, unless something is done about the country's social ills. Dangerous thoughts indeed.

14 May, 2009

Report: Impact of global crisis on Egyptian workers

The Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services released its second monthly report about the impact of the global economic crisis on Egyptian workers. It's downloadable in English on their website. Some excerpts from the introduction:

* The monitoring team affirms that tens of labor sites in many of Egypt's governorates were affected, particularly in new industrial areas which lack any protection for workers"

* The global financial crisis uncovers the black labor market, for private sector workers in general and new industrial city workers in particular. It also uncovers the absence of any official union organization role in these industrial cities as the number of union committees in a city like Sadat city does not exceed 10 despite the presence of over 2,000 industrial establishments."

* The government still lacks a clear work plan to face this crisis. It continues to be silent in the face of the employers who laid off workers and reduced their salaries and incentives. The government discourse continues to ignore workers and their rights while focusing only on measures to support businessmen.

For March and April CTUWS observers recorded layoffs affecting a total of almost 12.000 workers in the textile sector, but it should be noted that most layoffs in this sector probably occured in the previous period, between november and february.

Pic above: Oil workers protesting layoffs outside the Ministry of Manpower, Monday 11 May.

12 May, 2009

Torture and "personal disputes"

A member of the royal family in UAE has been "detained" after a chocking video revealed his active involvement in brutal torture, HRW reports:
UAE officials told American diplomats that the sheikh was put under "house arrest" this week and prevented from leaving the country as the ministry of Justice conducts a criminal investigation of the incidents on the videotape, ABC News reported today. /---/ The United Arab Emirates announced on April 29 that the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department would conduct an expeditious and
"comprehensive review" of the torture incident. /---/ Previously, the Ministry of Interior had characterized the abuse as an assault that the parties subsequently settled "privately".
The torture victim is reported to have owed the sheikh some money for a missing shipment of grain. This reminds me of another recent example, where an Egyptian police major was sentenced to one year in jail for forging police and medical reports to cover up the fact that he and his friend - a member of the NDP - poured gasoline over a carpenter and set him on fire, causing death (as I understand it the trial for the actual murder has not yet started). As in the UAE royal torture case, the poor man apparently owed one of the perpetrators some money.

In fact, this seem to be the standard cause of much of the torture and abuse going around nowadays - it's mostly not about "suspected terrorists" or even political opponents, but just ordinary people unfortunate enough to enter business deals with or borrowing money from the wrong crowd (in some countries it's the mafia you should avoid, in this region this piece of advice seem to apply also to members of the ruling party or the royal family.)

It's probably not a coincidence, by the way, that the few exceptional cases that becomes public like this tend to involve "personal disputes" or ordinary police torturing ordinary citizens. State security officers tormenting political prisoners remain beyond the reach of the law, of course.

Want to fight pirates? Go to London!

Educational humor from the Hong Kong Standard:

"Q: Daddy, what's a pirate?
A: Pirates are strong people who attack weaker people and steal their things.
Q: You mean like the way big international trawlers have been stealing fish from Somali waters, putting local fisherman out of business?
A: Exactly.
Q: Like the European companies that commandeered the Somalia coastal shelf and dumped toxic nuclear waste there?
A: Yes, all these people can be defined as pirates.
Q: So, the people on the international ships entering Somali waters are actually the bad guys?
A: Exactly. Somalis have been complaining for years about the way the international community has cheated and poisoned them, but no one paid attention except charities and church groups.
Q: Why do the TV news channels describe the Somalis as pirates, when they're the victims?
A: Somalis are small brown people who don't wear the right labels."

Of course, reality is slightly more nuanced. For example, some of the illegal fishing in Somalia is apparently done by poor Egyptian fishermen, not rich and powerful international companies, and far from all foreign ships hi-jacked outside Somalia was involved in plundering the country's resources. But I think particularly the last lines of the dialouge above captures one of the main issues involved here: The double standards of the Western Great Powers that seem to reach new heights every day.

I recently wrote an article in Swedish about the background to the pirate phenomenon outside Somalia: How the uncontrolled and illegal plundering of valuable fish species in Somalian waters by Asian and European fishing fleets forced local communities to form a form of self-organized "coast guard" to scare the pirate fishers away or collect "taxes" from them. With time some of these turned to piracy, and today it seems most of the attacks that draw international attention are carried out by well-organized and well-armed gangs, often controlled and financed from cities in the West - including London as The Guardian reported yesterday. If sending NATO warships to battling pirates was questionable to start with, it looks even more like an excuse to gain a military foothold in the Indian Ocean if the real base of many of those piracy operations - just like the illegal fishing industry - is London and other western cities.

11 May, 2009

Oil workers protest layoffs

Workers from the Egyptian Drilling Company, EDC (despite the name apparently 45% owned by a Danish company - the A.P Moller-Maersk Group) gathered outside to ministry of manpower in Nasr city today to protest being fired. The said the EDC stopped the operation of several wells and laid off hundreds of workers since January. While this might seem like a natural response to the declining oil price (but not exactly fair since these companies hardly shared their huge profits during last year's record peak in the oil price but are now asking the workers to pay the price of the recession), the workers also claimed that the EDC has been hiring new workers at lower wages and on temporary contracts during the same period. They demanded to be returned to work or receive just compensation.

As the workers were still gathering outside the gates, the minister - Aisha abdel Hadi - suddenly left the building in a car, which made some of them furious. "We came to talk to the minister and you smuggle her out in front of our eyes?" one man yelled to the security guards. Later, a ministry official (possible security) came out to talk to the workers, refusing to say his name. He told them that the situation was beyond the control of the government since this is a global crisis and "even in America 5 million workers has been laid off".

It's ironic how government officials will deny the impact of the global crisis on Egypt one day, while at the same time using it as an excuse to escape all responsibility to help workers who are losing their jobs because of it...

These workers feel betrayed by the employer, the union, and the government after spending 10-25 years working for this company "12 hours a day 6 days a week" and then suddenly being left with no income whatsoever. One of the workers, a 50 year old man named Hafez, showed a wound on his leg and an older scar on his shoulder that he said was from work injuries. He complained bitterly: "The company stole 18 years of my life, and now they are throwing me into the street."

UPDATE: Sarah Carr reports: "EDC petrol comp. management makes u-turn and agrees to pay compensation and renew contracts of dismissed workers." And a more detailed report by Sarah Carr can be found here).

In the court of Mubarak

Good news for Egypt's ruling elite this week: China wants further military cooperation, the European Union desperately wants help to cut its dependence on Russian gas, and Obama picks Cairo for his speech to the "muslim word," while promising continued unconditional aid. The line of great powers seeking an audience in the court of Mubarak never seems to end...

MB: "Confrontation with the regime a red line we won't cross"

Shourouq ran a long article on Saturday where prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures Mohamed Habib and Essam El-Erian among others discussed the future of the movement - should it become a political party, or retreat from politics and focus on propaganda and social work, and so on. The usual questions, and the headline sums it up pretty well: "Al-Ikhwan: Confrontation with the regime is a red line we won't cross."

Habib and El-Erian both mentions threats from government officials that it would respond like a "bulldozer" or put "tanks in the street" if the banned opposition group tried to form a political party or grabbed too many seats in parliament - which is actually not impossible to believe, especially after the new Obama administration made clear that there will be no more conditions on aid to Egypt.

The efforts put into defending the current careful strategy of the movement clearly shows that the MB leaders feel the pressure from within its ranks and from other opposition groups to push harder for internal reform in Egypt. And the article ends with El-Erian dismissing some of this pressure as intended to push the MB and the NDP into a deadly confrontation which would annihilate them both: "Some opposition figures said: 'I wish I could close my eyes and open them again and there would be no Brotherhood and no NDP.'"

10 May, 2009

Labour minister denies impact of crisis on Egypt

This is reassuring for the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers that have lost their jobs in the textile industry and other sectors since November (i personally visited factories that laid off more than half of their workforce): Aisha abd el-Hady, minister of manpower, assures us that Egypt has not been affected by the international economic crisis, thanks to the "wise policies" of Hosni Mubarak! She also said (during a speech at the Workers' University in Nasr City this morning) that strikes are a legitimate response of workers after negotiations failed - but urged workers not to be impatient, since "collective bargaining" is the way to social peace in Egypt. Makes me wonder what she means by collective bargaining: Does she refer to workers talking to state security about their economic demands - or perhaps they should rather negotiate with state-appointed union officials? Or should they actually be allowed to form their own unions to act as their true representatives in talks with employers?

05 May, 2009

Tadamon: New strike in Shebeen el-Kom after management punish workers

The Indo Drama in Shebeen el-Kom continues... I received a report that workers at the Indorama textile factory are on strike since 11 am today after four of their colleagues was transfered to the company branch in Alexandria, probably as a punishment after the previous 11-day strike that ended with a victory for the workers on March 16.

Update: Here's a report in arabic from Tadamon, saying that the strike begun after negotiations between of the local union and the management failed. The company has refused to cancel the transfer decision so far.

03 May, 2009

Mahalla blogger threatened by dismissal

Kareem el-Beheiry, who runs the blog "Workers of Egypt," reports that he is being threatened by dismissal (once again...) by the general manager of Misr Spinnng and Weaving in Mahalla for repeated absence from work. Kareem writes that he was in fact repeatedly prevented to enter the company offices in Cairo (to which he was transfered in November after taking part in a anti-privatization protest at the factory - a decision that has been challenged in court by labour lawyers) on the grounds that he came a few minutes late. The first time Beheiry was fired was back in 2007, after he started reporting about labour activism and corruption within the management on his blog - that time he was returned to his work only after some workers threatened to organize protests and strikes in solidarity with him.

Pic above: Kareem in sunglasses talking to striking real estate tax collectors during their 11-day sit in in december 2007.

Swine Flu Origins and Slum Scare

I promise, I won't do any more posts about the pig/swine/H1N1-flu after this one. But I just can't help noting the irony in this: The origin of the new virus strain that has nearly caused a global panic might be (although this is not confirmed) an large-scale industrial pig farm close to the village of La Gloria in Mexico. This puts some perspective on all the fuss about the unsanitary pig farms in Cairo's garbage collector communities, doesn't it?

I'm not an expert, but I can't help but wonder if there is actually any kind of solid scientific base for assuming that the zabaleen settlements would be more likely to breed new strains of mortal viruses than those large scale industrial monstrosities? Just pointing out that they smell bad won't do, I'm afraid.

Remember the "mad cow" disease? That one is believed to have originated in large scale industrial farms in Europe where cattle was being fed the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal, causing the epidemic to spread. Besides, those large scale pig farms apparently have their own disturbing ecological implications: "a single Smithfield plant in Utah, housing a half million animals, generates more fecal waste per year than the 1.5 million people in Manhattan." (Now that single fact should be enough to make anyone go vegetarian).

Half a million pigs together - and remember the total number of pigs in Egypt is between 300.000-500.000 - to me that sounds like the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of new viruses and other unknown life forms. Perhaps this is a larger potential threat than the pig farms on the outskirts of Cairo? After all, people have lived in close contact with animals for ages, and they will continue to do so even after the last pig in Egypt has been slaughtered.

I think some of the most virulent attacks on Cairo's pigs must be placed in the context of the great "slum scare." In this emerging discourse, the informal communities housing an ever larger section of the world's poor is portrayed as a ticking time bomb, likely to breed not only uncontrollable crime and terrorism but new forms of plague and other disastrous pandemics...

Don't get me wrong: It's not that it's not a serious problem that in some parts of Cairo hundreds of thousands of people are packed together on a few square kilometers, often without functioning sewage systems or clean drinking water. But this constant focus on the health risks stemming from the poorest of the poor tend to obscure the health hazards associated with the life-style of the upper segments of the population. Kind of like someone sitting in his SUV in a traffic jam on the mehwar from 6th of October City, complaining about the smell from those filthy pigs, while happily contributing to the pollution that is slowly killing every living creature in Greater Cairo...

02 May, 2009

"An Interview With the Bird Flu Virus"

The swine flu hysteria reminded me about this satirical text that my arabic tutor gave me about a year ago. It's a fake (of course) interview with the H5-N1 or "bird flu" virus. Unfortunately I don't know who wrote it or where it was originally published, so I'm translating part of it here without permission:

Q: Welcome Mr. Virus!
A: Thank you.
Q: Please, would you like to introduce yourself to the readers?
A: My name on the ID is H5, but my artistic name is Bird Flu Virus.
Q: Where do you live?
A: Here and there... I love travelling.
Q: Where were you born?
A: I was born in South-east Asia. Let's say China.
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: I'm just a virus like any other virus. It's just that I'm a new face, and you know how the media love everything new.
Q: What is new about you?
A: Maybe that I like birds, like chickens, ducks, or swans, and I have a broad appetite.
Q: So what brought you to Egypt, mr H5?
A: I realized that everything here comes from China, and you just love it. So I told myself I'll go there and they will welcome me as well!
Q: Welcome you? Why whould we welcome you when you come to destroy us?
A: Hey, doesn't the Chinese products destroy you, and still you love them? So why couldn't you love me?
Q: I don't understand.
A: Look, isn't the Chinese products destroying your industry and economy?
Q: It happens.
A: And I'm coming here to destroy your chickens and economy, so what's the difference?
Q: Seems like you are an educated virus.. But let's leave the politics so people don't get bored.
A: As you like.
Q: What do you intend to do here in Egypt?
A: I work with the ducks and swans and chickens and those funny birds.
Q: So you don't intend to enter humans?
A: Of course not.
Q: Why?
A: Look, we viruses might be corrupt, but we don't like to take each others work. I tried to enter the body of the Egyptian citizen, but when I entered I found too many of my colleagues: Hepatatis mixed with tuberculosis and cancer. There was too many people, and we had some disputes.
Q: So what happened?
A: We agreed that I'm not from here, and let's all stick to our own. I'll stay in the chickens and birds...

The point is not the downplay the danger of bird flu and other new strains of flu, but to highlight how those new dangers and threats can be (and often are) used to distract people from other just as serious problems. So every new possible victim of the bird flu in Egypt is reported in media, but how about all the people that die every day in diseases that could be easily prevented or cured given the right resources?

Here's a video from Mike Booth on the same theme:

Also read what Sarah Carr writes on her blog:

"Every new crisis, every new tragedy in Egypt is a reprieve, a fresh start, another chance to put things right. It's never taken. Things are always and inevitably ballsed up, and back we are dragged to zero. Kids go on wiping windscreens at traffic lights, pensioners beg for your loose change and everywhere there is the sigh of failure and defeat. This is what is really obscene."

Lazy workers and neo-colonial managers

I've heard this so many times in recent months: foreign managers or factory owners complaing about the (lack of) "culture" or laziness of Egyptian workers, who for some reason just don't want to work. Not to mention that they are ungrateful - after receiving training and skills they often leave to look for better opportunities elsewhere, as the manager of a Turkish company complains in Al-Youm Al-Sabi3 (but isn't that just a natural consequence of the "free labour market?").

To me it sounds a lot like the racist attitudes to the "natives" that were often expressed by foreign managers and colonial officials during the late 19th and early 20th century. For example, Brigadier General Macauley, as head of Egyptian State Railways, complained in 1919 that there was a peculiar "oriental" attitude toward work and wages:

"The native way of looking at such matters differs entirely from the European: the native considers that he is entitled to pay in proportion to his expenses, whatever these latter may happen to be; and the European expects to give and receive pay according to his skill and efficiency." (quoted from Beinin & Lockman's Workers on The Nile)

In other words, the railway workers' demands to receive a living wage was dismissed as an expression of an irrational oriental attitude to work. Personally, I think that if you pay your workers 150-300 Egyptian pounds per month (which won't bring them and their families above the poverty limit) you shouldn't be surprised if they will do anything to escape work or leave as soon as they find another opportunity.