30 June, 2009

"Journalist ya basha? Come write about our troubles!"

Mahalla blogger and former detainee Mohamed Mar'ee reports (with pics) on cleaning workers on the streets of Tanta. He saw them working amidst the garbage without any protective clothing, and stoped to take some pics. But, he writes, "as soon as I took my camera out they stoped working and called at me: Journalist ya basha? Why don't you come and take pictures of us and write about our problems? We make 3 pounds a day!" The workers told him they are 280 workers all working on temporary contracts, with no job security, and a total monthly salary of 156(!) pounds. They also said they have attempted to strike to achieve permanent employment contracts and a raise but were threatened with loosing their jobs.

The narrative of the workers are familiar, but also the story surrounding it. It reminds me of when I first came to Egypt in 2006, believing that it would be hard to get ordinary people to talk openly about politics or criticize the government. Instead, as soon as I learnt a little of the Egyptian dialect I found that wherever I went people would be eager to tell their stories - usually about not being able to make a living anymore - and it would usually end with a tirade against the useless and corrupt "government of thieves" and surprisingly often against Mubarak himself. And that was before either the "global food crisis" or the "global financial crisis" hit.

Hypocrisy Beyond all Imagination

Interesting from the LA Times: "The Egyptian state-managed Al Ahram newspaper has published a number of articles that represented the government's position [on Iran]. Most of those articles asked the international community in general and Western countries in particular not to stand and watch the Iranian regime's oppressive tactics against demonstrators."

This from a government that bans all protests and tortures its own people, while routinely accusing opposition activists, independent journalists or critical bloggers of being "foreign agents"? That's priceless.

29 June, 2009

MB - Turning the other cheek?

There was a new crackdown on high-ranking MB leaders on Saturday morning, including Dr Abdel-Monein Aboul Fotouh - sometimes described as a leader of the "reformist" trend within the movement and respected by many outside its ranks. The Arabist speculates that this has something to do with Gaza: "Considering all of these people were involved in the fundraising drive and aid effort to Gaza, and the Egyptian government has just reopened the border, one wonders whether there’s any connection."

On the other hand, blogger Mahmoud Abdel-Monein sees the crackdown as part of the ongoing attempt to weaken the movement ahead of the coming transfer of the presidential post from Mubarak to his son. He goes on to criticize the weak response of the movement to recent crackdowns, pointing out that even when high leaders received harsh prison sentences in military tribunals last year, the movement left the campaigning on their behalf to their female relatives and younger bloggers. "Why did the movement decide to turn the other cheek to receive another slap?" he asks.

Abdel-Monein doesn't try to answer this question. But one of the commentators on his blog suggest that it is because of weakness: It is clear the Ikwhan doesn't have a million active members as many use to claim. "Most of them are behind bars." Even if this is an exaggeration, it would surprise me if the passivity in the face of the governments repression didn't cause considerable damage to the movement's appeal among the younger generation.

28 June, 2009

Homophobic Unions?

This strange piece of news was published in Al-Shourouq yesterday: The Egyptian Trade Union Federation refused a proposal by the ILO at its 98th session in Geneva to "give the right to homosexuals to enter the organizations" as well as the "migration of workers with HIV/AIDS between member states" which could "threaten the health" of other workers. These practices is against Islam, a representative of the state-controlled federation explained. The article also states that representatives of Arab and Muslim states suspended their participation in the conference because they regarded the calls of ILO to protect human rights "regardless of sexual orientation" as a "call to spread homosexuality in the world and give it official recognition."

Besides being a completely ignorant standpoint to start with, it is not clear exactly what proposals the article referes to. One of the items on the agenda of the conference was "to adopt an international labour standard on HIV/AIDS in order to increase the attention devoted to the subject at the national and international level, to promote united action among the key actors on HIV/AIDS and to increase the impact of the ILO code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work, adopted in 2001." And just before the conference, the ILO released a report on discrimination and stigmatization of workers living with HIV and Aids, calling for the end of such practices.

It seems like the state-controlled unions are desperate to find any way to score cheap points - even by playing on and reinforcing prejudice, ignorance and homophobia - since they are unable and/or unwilling to take the fight for workers rights, even as they are challenged by growing calls for free unions in Egypt. Pathetic.

27 June, 2009

New wave of repression against free union

The state-backed union has launched a new wave of attacks on the independent Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees, according to the Center for socialist studies. These includes a physical assault by a representative of the state union on a free unionist in Gharbeyya. In Qaliubeyya several unionists has been subject to disciplinary measures for collecting membership fees for the free union, while local ministry officials has been threatened with punishment if they cooperate with the independent union. A representative of the union says that these attacks are a sign of weakness, not strenght, since the state union fears becoming irrelevant and loosing all its influence on the labour movement.

Pic above: tax collectors celebrate the founding of the first free union in Egypt at the Press Syndicat, December 20 last year.

Tanta strikers block street after worker was refused treatment

Tadamon reports: Striking workers from Tanta Linen Co. blocked a street on Thursday in protest after one of their collegaues, who had collapsed inside the company, was refused treatment at the American Hospital. The workers were told that the owner of the company had cancelled the contract with the hospital for treatment of its workers. The worker was admitted into the hospital for treatment only after police intervened, in order to calm the workers down and clear the street.

As the strike has now been going on for close to a month, Tadamon also reports that workers are increasingly voicing demands for the company to be re-nationalized.

26 June, 2009

What suddenly changed?

Western media often have a funny way of refusing to speak in a straightforward manner about the most simple things - calling colonies "settlements", or occupied territory "disputed" for example. This applies especially to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, and Swedish media is usually no different from other Western media in this regard. So I was positively surprised by this article about Netanyahus trip to Europe this week, and the resistance he met there against his demand that Israel should be allowed to "continue colonize the West Bank." Further on, the journalist uses the (very correct and straightforward) phrase "extensive jewish colonization" of the West Bank to describe Israel's settlement policy. Surely this would have been almost unthinkable in a mainstream daily newspaper not so long ago?

I haven't been following Swedish media coverage of the conflict closely during my stay in Egypt, so I can't tell for sure, but this might be a small indication that a broader change in attitudes towards Israeli colonialism and apartheid is taking place. I think the public outcry against the war on Gaza might have played a role in this, as well as the new focus of the Obama-administration on the issue of settlements (even if he is wrong to focus narrowly on settlement expansion - the Arabist blog has a good discussion about this issue over here.) But of course, it might also be simply because it is easier for journalists to write critically about a right-wing Israeli government including blatant racists like Lieberman.

Pic above: Jewish colony Har Homa in eastern Jerusalem in the background, a demolished Palestinian home in front.

24 June, 2009

Tanta Linen Co. strike continues despite pressure from government and state security

The Tanta Linen / Flax and Oils Co. strike continues, now on its fourth week, Al-Masry Al-Youm reports. Said Gowhary, head of the general union of textile workers, claims the union will continue to support the workers - "whatever happens" - in spite of pressures from the Ministry of Manpower, the governor of Gharbeya, and state security to end the strike. The Saudi investor who owns the company has so far refused any negotiations. The workers are demanding that their bonuses and incentives are calculated based on the current salary (as stipulated in the law) rather than the salary when the company was privatized, as well as the reinstatement of 9 workers - including 2 unionists - that were fired after a strike in July last year.

23 June, 2009

Israelis fear loosing their favourite enemy

With their usual twisted logic, some Israelis analysts now say they prefer Ahmadinejad as president of Iran as he "will be easier to isolate than reformist leader Mr. Mousavi," the Christian Science Monitor reports. (One might add that the Israeli defense and political establishment invested considerable support in building up Ahmadinejad as a boogeyman to keep their own population in a state of constant fear - with Mousavi they would have to start all over again). Maybe that's why Israeli president Shimon Peres came out as a strong supporter of Mousavi on Sunday, calling for regime change in Iran - because he knows such support will do more harm than good for the Iranian opposition...

18 June, 2009

Political Liberties vs. Economic Justice in Iran?

(Here's a link to a demotix story with a few good shots of today's mass rally in Teheran. And here's a slideshow from The Guardian.)

Continuing on a theme from my previous post, I'm having some doubts about the "class analysis" of the Iranian elections put forward by a few commentators. For example, Ron Jacobs writes: "Ahmadinejad’s support comes from those who need bread while Moussavi’s comes from those with plenty of bread and now want more civil liberties. While it is arguably true that Ahmadinejad’s policies have caused as many economic policies [problems?] as they have solved, the fact remains that his supporters believe in his 2005 campaign call to bring the oil profits to the dinner table."

This is certainly true to some extent, even though I think it's over-simplified - but I don't think Jabobs is right to draw the conclusion that the struggle for "political liberties" and "economic justice" is currently "at odds" in Iran. First of all, to argue this would seem to imply that in at least some instances, only an authoritarian regime can bring economic justice. Secondly, it is not clear that Mousavi would bring political liberties to Iran any more than Ahmadinejad is going to bring any significant economic justice. But if Mousavi (or rather the mass protests currently under way in Teheran since I don't think Mousavi should take credit for this) did in fact bring more political liberties or even the fall of the Islamic regime, wouldn't Iranian workers and poor be the biggest winners in the long run - even if Mousavi and his allies are in favour of slightly more neo-liberal economic polices than Ahmadinejad?

Iran is not Venezuala, and Ahmadinejad is not Hugo Chavez. If he really was this populist - if slightly authoritarian - leader advocating economic justice and staunch anti-imperialism that he is sometimes portrayed as, then why doesn't the urban poor of Teheran, who surely outnumber the upper middle-class by at least 5 to 1, come out in support of him? Maybe if he had in fact brought the "oil profits to the dinner table" during his last period in power, they would have.

Solidarity statement with Tanta workers

An encouraing example of solidarity among Egyptian workers and civil servants: "The committé for solidarity with Tanta Linen Co. Workers" - including Mahalla textile workers, The real estate tax collectors union in addition to political activists and rights groups - released a statement in support of the demands of the Tanta workers who have been on strike for three weeks. The statement also criticizes the government for refusing to protect the worker's rights and demands that the privatization of the company, that was sold to a Saudi investor in 2005, is cancelled.

Iranian frustrations

It's easy to get frustrated with the media coverage of the mass protests following the election in Iran. It is often shallow and fragmented, it doesn't give a voice to the full range of Iranian society (with non farsi-speaking reporters relying mostly on english-speaking upper middle class Iranians or even Iranians in exile) and often overstates the role of internet and social media networks like twitter.

But to be honest, it's also increasingly frustrating to follow some of the commentaries in the left-wing blogosphere (please see clarification below), where many dismiss the mass protests in Iran because Mousavi is a CIA-agent and/or a member of the ruling establishment, while the protests are led by students and affluent Iranians, not the poor masses who are often (dubiously) portrayed as supporting Ahmadinejad.

I think this is unfair, perhaps not to Mousavi but certainly to most of his "supporters." As far as I understand, there is at least two struggles going on in Iran right now. One is taking place between different wings of the power elite, and here it is easy to dismiss Mousavi as just another member of the ruling establishment that temporarily stepped into the role of "democratic opposition leader" to gain power.

But before dismissing the protests and echoing the regime's accusations of "US meddling" in the internal affairs of Iran, it is important to acknowledge that the people in the streets are not simply "Mousavi-supporters." They may have voted for Mousavi in the election - that may or may not have been rigged - but (according to most Iranians I spoke to recently) they don't see him as their "leader" or the ideal president. Instead, they voted for him as the only available symbol of opposition to the current system in Iran today.

It's a mistake to assume that Iranians are taking to the streets and risking their lives simply for Mousavi to gain power - even if this is one possible outcome of their actions. Instead, they frame their protest as a desperate revolt against the political system itself. This is the other struggle currently taking place in Iran. One sign that this is a popular movement that isn't strictly controlled from the top is that many took to the streets even as Mousavi called for his supporters to stay at home to "avoid a bloodshed." So while the revolt in Iran certainly isn't a "revolution" - yet - this is not a reason to dismiss it out of hand.

Most importantly, it should not be assumed that the protests, even if they were started by students, cannot spread to include other segments of the population. Yes the Shah was overthrown by a massive general strike, but islamist students played an important role in triggering the wave of mass protests that culminated in the revolution of 1979. Despite the support for Ahmadinejad in poor rural and urban areas, it would be extremely naive to describe him as some kind of champion of social justice, considering - for example - the routine oppression of union activists in Iran.

Iran is not a democracy, after all, and support for Ahmadinejad in the polls is not easily translated into support in the streets (if it was, and he actually won the election, why didn't his supporters take control of Teheran already?) This is why the media wars and blackouts are so important to the regime: If more Iranians come to regard the protests less as part of a power struggle between the ruling elite, and more as a popular revolt against the oppressive political system, anything can happen.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I really hate generalizations and regret using the term "left-wing blogosphere" (a term that is broad enough to include this blog) without providing links to specific posts or blogs. I have tried to correct this, and might as well add that I'm not accusing anyone of endorsing the crackdown on protests in Iran, just questioning the way some people jump from a legitimate criticism of Mousavi or Western media bias to an outright dismissal of the street protests or even endorsement of the Iranian regime as the "elected government."

15 June, 2009

Labour updates

The activists at Tadamon is continuing their great work in covering the labour movement. Some updates from the last few days:

* 6 labour leaders at Misr-Iran Spinning and Weaving (in Suez) has been fired.

* 250 workers at Fayyoum Sugar Co. staged a sit-in that lasted three days, demanding that the company's budget be revealed so that workers can know their proper bonuses, the payment of overtime, as well as the reinstatement of a labour activist that had been fired. The last demand is accordance with a court verdict on 27 May (companies regularly ignore to implement verdicts like this, with impunity it seems.) The sit-in was suspended on Saturday evening, after the management had agreed to some demands (including a substantial raise of the food allowance from 2 to 10 pounds/day) and promised to discuss others in a meeting on 25 June.

* Meanwhile, the Tanta Flax and Oils Co strike is now on its third week...

11 June, 2009

Pigs gone, virus still around

Temporarily left Egypt, and just in time to avoid the H1N1-"swine flu" outbreak it seems. The appearance of the virus in Cairo in recent days only highlights the wisdom of the Egyptian government's mass-slaughter of pigs, I guess... At least now they won't catch the flu.

08 June, 2009

Egyptian small farmers under siege

Click the pic above for a set on Flickr of farmers in Meet Shehaala, Monofiyya governorate, which I visited yesterday. Large parts of the lands of this village and neighboring Kamshish were once part of the giant estate of the Fiqqi family, but was confiscated and divided during the land reforms of the 60's. Since the early 70's there has been a trend towards reversal of these reforms. New laws have been passed, making it possible in some cases for heirs of old "feudalists" to claim back parts of their land.

Often, farmers have resisted these attempts and violent confrontations have taken place in many parts of the delta since the mid 90's. In 2004, armed thugs attacked farmers in Meet Shehaala to gain control of a warehouse and a water pump station that once belonged to the local land reform cooperative. The villagers managed to capture one of the thugs and delivered him and his unlicensed firearm to the police. In the end, however, it was 6 of the farmers who were sentenced to jail by the local court - a sentence which was appealed by human rights lawyers and anulled by a higher court.

Today, the situation is one of a stalemate, with the farmers in constant fear of the old landlords returning to reclaim their land with force. Meanwhile, they face serious economic pressures, as the reduced subsidies on seeds, fertilizers and other necessary equipments means that small-scale farming is increasingly unprofitable. Famers who used to be able to support their families now fear being forced to leave their lands to join the ever growing pool of unemployed.

06 June, 2009

"Obama should listen to us"

So Obama came, talked, and left - and it's business as usual in Cairo again. I'm not going to analyze the speech here, but will restrict myself to this one comment: While Obama may still believe that he was speeking at Cairo University - this "source of Egypt's advancement" (never mind the routine repression of cultural and political life on campus) - in reality he never did. For what is a university, after all, without students? Once emptied of its true owners, an institution like this is reduced to nothing more than a dead monument. It's no longer an institution of learning and progress but merely a stage - which is exactly what Obama was looking for when he came to Egypt of course. I don't know about Egyptian students, but I would for sure have been deeply insulted if I'd been thrown out of my university for a visit like this. In that respect - and despite all the nice words about friendship and peace and equality - it was a truly colonial moment, indicating that Egypt still doesn't fully belong to the Egyptians but to the ruling clique and its foreign patrons. Was this really the proper way to start a "new beginning" between the United States and the muslim world?

At the end of the day, the ordinary Egyptians I spoke to about the visit and the speech was mostly indifferent. While some where clearly impressed by Obama' charisma and his positive remarks about Islam ("He is a hundred times better than Bush"), almost no one expressed any hope that real change in US policy is actually waiting around the corner. One of the best comments was uttered by a taxi driver last night. As the speech was mentioned on the radio, I asked him for his opionion. His response was: "I didn't hear it and I don't want to hear it. I heard it was a nice speech, but who cares? I'll listen to President Obama when he starts listening to us. Learn how to listen first, then you can talk."

05 June, 2009

Crisis continues

The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services released a third monthly report about the effects of the global financial crisis in Egyptian workers. It documents continued layoffs during May, especially in the tourism and textile sector, and warns that some companies are using the crisis as an excuse to cut back on worker's rights, while criticizing the government for not acting to protect the interests of workers.

Meanwhile, the state-controlled General Union for Textile Workers decided to extend the strike at the Tanta Flax and Oils Company for another week. This company was sold to a Saudi investor in 2005, who immediately cut back on a number of worker's benefits. Between 2006 and 2008 three wildcat strikes occured at the factory. After the last one in july 2008 nine workers were fired, including two unionists. Yet it was not untill recently that the state-controlled union decided to invervene - after coming under pressure from increased labour unrest because of the global recession, intensifying attempts to organize independently, as well as criticism from ILO regarding Egypt's violations of internationell labour conventions.