29 July, 2009

Court overturns transfer decree of Mahalla labour blogger

Kareem el-Beheiry  reports on his blog that a court in Mahalla has overturned the transfer decree issued against him by the manager of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla after a anti-privatization protest at the factory in October 2008 - just like it did months ago with the transfers of several labour activists in the factory (as far as I know these court verdicts has not been implemented, however). Lawyers describe this decision as an important victory as they are also fighting to get Kareem reinstated at work after he was fired in May... (Btw, here are some pics taken by Kareem at the Tanta Flax and Oils strike a few days ago.)

15 July, 2009

Reuters take on the strike wave

Alistair Sharp reports on the strike wave in Egypt for Reuters, drawing this conclusion: "Striking Egyptian workers are unlikely to escalate demands for better conditions into a political challenge to the government, but stoppages will make state assets less attractive to investors." Some comments are in place.

Socialist journalist Hossam al-Hamalawy and Mahalla union activist Gihad Taman are both quoted in support of the idea that workers are not influenced or controlled by any opposition groups. But I'm not sure they would agree with the more far-reaching conclusion that workers won't "escalate demands" into a "political challenge"...

First of all, the fact that workers dismiss the currently existing opposition movements and political parties doesn't mean they will always stay out of the political sphere. Ironically, Gihad Taman who was interviewed in this article, happens to be a strong supporter of the idea of an independent worker's party. (Update: For Hossams view on this issue, see this post from 2007 that takes on the view that Egypt's strikers doesn't care about politics)

Secondly, strikes and sit-ins always constitute a political challenge of some sort in an authoritarian state even when workers don't chant "down with Mubarak." If the tolerance of industrial action has increased slightly in recent years it is only because workers fought and won this right by challenging a ban that was previously upheld with force (and still is in many cases). The state-controlled textile worker's union didn't suddenly call for a strike in Tanta because they have the legal right to do so (they always had) but because they and the government is desperate to control and contain the workers' demands, directing them away from dangerous ideas like re-nationalization of privatized factories. Such demands - while on the surface dealing only with economic policies - would amount to a serious political challenge to a regime with privatization and economic liberalization as primary ideology. 

The article also contains the obligatory analysis by liberal economic analysts, which in this case does contain some truth: Of course the strikes will reduce the appeal of state-owned assets to foreign investors. This is another reason why they constitute a political threat. We are talking about a challenge against the heart of the government's strategy of economic development: attracting foreign investment by selling out state assets (this is why much of the numbers and statistics on FDI in Egypt is dubious - it's not about creating something new but taking over already existing plants, it's not about creating employment but more often about mass layoffs - when it's not simply about buying land in the desert or along the coast to build luxury villa compounds of course).

I think this article would also have benefited from a little more research on the economic circumstances of the workers. The only number that is presented is the claim by a spokesman of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla that the average annual salary of workers there increased to 15,000 pounds in 2007-2008 compared to 8,500 pound five years earlier. Even if the numbers are correct (which can't be taken for granted given the tendency of some officials to lie journalists straight in the face since they know that most of them won't check the numbers) it's the real wages, with inflation taken into account, that matter for the workers. Even more important in this case is the distribution of the salaries. How big was the raise for this company spokesman during this period, compared to shop-floor workers, for example? Does it matter that the average salary is 15,000 if a typical worker makes half that sum a year, while top managers make that sum every month?

"Like a kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them."

The Israeli organization "Breaking the Silence" today published a report with testimonies of soldiers who participated in "Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza six months ago, documenting the total disregard for civilian life during the war: 
Among the 54 testimonies are stories revealing the use of "accepted practices," the destruction of hundreds of houses and mosques for no military purpose, the firing of phosphorous gas in the direction of populated areas, the killing of innocent victims with small arms, the destruction of private property, and most of all, a permissive atmosphere in the command structure that enabled soldiers to act without moral restrictions. The booklet compiles the testimonies of about 30 reserve and regular combat soldiers from various units that participated in the fighting. The testimonies demonstrate that the soldiers were not given directives stating the goal of the operation and, as one soldier testifies, "there was not much said about the issue of innocent civilians." 

Many soldiers said that they fought without seeing "the enemy before their eyes." "You feel like an infantile little kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them," one of the soldiers testified that "a 20-year-old kid should not have to do these kinds of things to other people." 

07 July, 2009

A convenient distraction?

It is very easy to understand the anger that the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini in Germany has provoked in Egypt. As usual, there is a lot to be said about western media bias (imagine, as many bloggers suggest, what a story it would be if some fanatic stabbed a German citizen to death in Cairo). And even if we can never understand or explain every single act of violence completely, I believe the general climate of intolerance and islamophobia that exists in Europe today must be at least part of the explanation.

Nevertheless, I think Mostafa Hussein has a good point when he compares the public reaction to the murder with that against another murder that took place in Egypt last year: "Marwa was also a pregnant Egyptian mother and her son witnessed her death. Mervat, however, was never called a martyr. Mervat's death is not an isolated incident. Every couple of months we know of a death by the hands of our police, with great impunity by the ministry of interior, prosecution and judiciary. Let alone torture which happens daily."

Did Sheikh Tantawy call for the capital punishment against any of those police torturers? And did any government officials attend the funerals of their victims? I don't think so. Islamophobia is a real problem for many muslims in Europe - but for regimes like the one in Egypt it is often a convenient distraction: Point to the crimes of others to hide your own.

01 July, 2009

Police repression of journalists in Tanta

Joseph Mayton reports on police violence and harrasment against journalists who tried to cover the Tanta Flax & Oil Co. strike: "This is when they started pushing me harder and harder back from the gate. I felt a punch land on my side, but thought little of it as I continued to stand my ground. Finally, a uniformed officer interceded and began talking to me. He was cordial, introducing himself as Ibrahim (24-years-old and straight of the academy). There was no going any further he said and promised to go and talk to the state security chief present. With my six or so-man escort, we made it back to the large, obese man sitting and talking to the American writer who had accompanied on the trip. I said that I was going to walk on the 'public street' and look inside the factory to see what was going on and then I would leave. Every step I would take was followed by at least two, often three or four, men jumping front, fists clenched and ready to pounce. I said that I had a job to do and that I must look into the factory. One of the men said that if I tried again that I would be arrested and driven to the Tanta police station. He looked serious." Read it all.

A clear example of how the strict limits on labour activism (as well as freedom of the press) in Egypt is still in place. The union of textile workers apparently got a green light to support the strike in Tanta, as a token evidence that such actions are tolerated in Egypt. But security agencies still wants to restrict media access to the workers and isolate them in order to break their morale as well as preventing industrial action from spreading.