28 October, 2009

Victory for Aisha

The center for socialist studies reports that labour organizer Aisha abu Samada or "Hagga Aisha" has been returned to her work at Hennawy Tobaco in Damanhour today, after more than a year of struggle against the employer. Aisha was subject to a hostile campaign from the state-backed union and eventually fired after she led her mostly female colleagues in a campaign for better work conditions and salaries. I met Aisha in Damanhour last December - on the same day Israel launched the war on Gaza - and was deeply impressed with her strong personality and her courage to challenge the all-male union committee who refused to back the workers in their struggle.

27 October, 2009

Blog news - Egypt commentary in Swedish

For all Swedish readers out there: Since I've been involuntarily reassigned to Sweden by Egyptian state security I've decided to start a new blog for news and commentary on Egypt in Swedish. I'll still keep updating this blog with mostly labour-related news in English as often as I can, and keep the new blog for occasional commentary, links to published articles, and so on - hopefully making a small contribution to the ongoing discussion of Middle East-related issues in Sweden and not least the growing (I hope) interest in the social movements of Egypt.

26 October, 2009

Egypt Labour Updates - October 26, 2009

More links from the Egyptian Workers diigo group:

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e reports that security forces laid siege to the HQ of the General Union of Textil Workers as workers from a self-managed factory in 10th of Ramadan City gathered there on Saturday morning to demand a meeting with the labour minister and the head of the union. Workers at the factory have been campaigning for the ministry of labour to pay their wages and help finance a restructuring of the company whose owner fled the country to escape a prison sentecne. (See earlier update.)

* Tadamon reports that security forces surrounded Tanta Flax and Oils on Sunday, to prevent the workers - who are on strike since the end of May - from leaving to stage a demonstration in front of the Cabinet in Cairo.

22 October, 2009

Egypt Labour Updates - October 22, 2009

More links from Diigo and Hossam al-Hamalawy

* Al-Masry Al-Youm reports (in English) that South Cairo Electrical Company workers threaten to strike over incentives and equal pay with workers that were recently transfered from the Rural Electricity company.

* Mohammed Maree posted pics and a report (in Arabic) as well as a short video from the fourth day of the sit-in of the Ghazl al-Mahalla cooperatives (see previous post). The Center for Socialist Studies reports that the sit-in was suspended as workers met with the head of general union of commercial workers on Tuesday. According to one local unionist, the general manager of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla first offered them a compromise deal of a 10 day bonus (instead of the one month bonus given to all workers within state-owned enterprises), then retracted this offer and accused the local union committee of slandering him in interviews with the press.

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e reports that security forces intervened to abort a demonstration by workers at Nasr Glass and Crystal Company in Shubra on Wednesday morning. The workers protested mass layoffs before an expected privatization of the company.  

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e also reports that 300 teachers in Shuhadaa in Monofeyya went on strike today, protesting a decision to transfer them to other schools far from where they live.

* The Center for Socialist Studies reports that the General Union for Textile Workers is refusing to use strike funds to pay the salaries of workers at Tanta Flax and Oils, who have been on strike for close to five months. The union stopped supporting the strike two months ago, changed its mind only after workers demonstrated outside the Cabinet in downtown Cairo, and now abandoned the workers completely again. Negotiations between the Saudi owner of the factory and the workers are stuck in part because the owner refuses to re-employ strike leaders who were fired after a previous strike - despite a court verdict ordering him to do so.

19 October, 2009

Egypt Labour Updates - October 19, 2009

More links from Diigo

* Al-Youm Al-Sab'e reports that 1200 workers at the cooperatives at Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla staged a sit-in when the morning shift ended on Sunday after the management refused to pay a bonus granted by the minister of investments to all workers in the public business sector, on the grounds that the workers belong not to this sector but to the federation of cooperatives.

* Last Thursday, workers at the carpet factory in Mahalla staged a sit-in for the same reason, and ended it only after their demands were met. Labour leaders in Mahalla described the bonus - which amounts to one months salary - as a "new victory for Egypt's workers" since it is an attempt by the government to contain ongoing tensions and protests in the industrial sector.

* The Center for Socialist Studies also reports: Workers at the self-managed factory in 10th of Ramadan ended their strike (se previous update) after a promise by the ministry of labour to pay two months wages from the emergency fund. According to a local unionist, the real battle will be to get the required funding for revitalizing the factory according to a plan drawn up by the workers, and making it financially independent.

* Workers at the General Authority for Financial Markets threatened to strike against a decrease in their monthly salaries with up to 25 percent, which occurred after the ministry of finance merged three authorities (the Capital Market Authority, the Egyptian Insurance Supervisory Authority and the Mortgage Finance Authority) to create the General Authority of Financial Regulation. 

* Tadamon reports that Ghazl Al-Mahalla unionist Mohamed al-Attar started an open-ended sit-in at the company warehouse in Alexandria after managers fined him for alleged "absence."  Al-Attar played a leading role during the strikes of December 2006 and September 2007, but were later criticized by socialist activists and labour leaders at the factory for his willingness to compromise with the management and the state-controlled union - especially in connection with the declared strike of April 6 in 2008. After an anti-privatization in October last year he was transfered to Alexandria and is now accusing the management of creating an excuse to fire him.

16 October, 2009

Blogger arrested, beaten up by police in Tanta

Yesterday, Egyptian blogger Demaghmak was arrested on the streets of Tanta along with his brother, and beaten by a police commander together with two plain-clothes men and six regular troopers.  The commanding officer told them "I will make sure you motherfuckers kiss the feet of any policeman you see" (roughly translated...). They were thrown into a police jeep and released after a while, Demaghmak reports on his twitter page.

15 October, 2009

Egypt Labour updates - October 15, 2009

A few updates from the Egyptian Workers diigo group:

* Tadamon reports that workers at the Abu Sebae textile factory in Mahalla returned to work on October 10 after two weeks of forced (unpaid) holiday ordered by the factory owner, blaming a drop in demand because of the global financial crisis. Workers at the factory still hadn't received their salaries for september 1-15, but was promised they would be paid this week. Workers at the factory, which is located in a QIZ-zone (where producers receive exemptions from US import-tariffs on condition they use a certain amount of Israeli raw materials) demonstrated in the streets of Mahalla last month, demanding their delayed salaries.

* On October 12, doctors from "Doctors without rights" and "Young Doctors of Egypt" staged a protest on the stairs of the Doctor's syndicate, protesting stagnating salaries.

 * 1500 workers at Misr-Iran Spinning and Weaving resumed work this morning, following a meeting two days ago between the management and the local union committee. After a series of protests and sit-ins a number of their demands were met, including the resignation of the previous general manager and a promise by his successor to pay monthly bonuses and incentives.

* Workers at a self-managed textile factory in 10th of Ramadan industrial free zone has been on strike for three days, protesting the refusal of the Ministry of Labour to fulfill an earlier promise to pay their salaries from the emergency funds. 

14 October, 2009

Egyptian frustrations

Daily News Egypt reports: "The bulk of Egypt’s population is “frustrated, demoralized, desperate and indignant,” revealed a recent study by Ministry of State for Administrative Development. /---/ The negative attitude Egyptians have is due to the fact that they believe the state is biased towards “businessmen” and those in power. According to the study, the state protects them, allowing them to make profit and benefit at the expense of the lower segments of society. In addition, 50 percent of Egyptian citizens have no trust in the government."

13 October, 2009

Labour Photo of the Year

Click this link to vote in Labourstart's competition "Labour Photo of the Year," featuring the above pic by Hossam al-Hamalawy of a Tanta Flax & Oils worker and other great shots... Despite being a fan of Hossam's work, I'm totally impartial, of course :)

"Boss-napping" ends peacefully

Hisham Omar Abdel-Halim reports for al-Masry al-Youm: "Workers at the privatized Telephones Equipment Company, in Helwan, south of Cairo wrapped up a 12-day sit-in during which they held company board and syndicate members captive for ten hours. Security forces, which had quickly surrounded the area, failed to convince the company's roughly 1200 employees to release the captives. Frustrated workers only agreed to free the men after prominent MP Mustafa Bakri assured them they would receive unpaid salaries and bonuses by 18 October. Over the course of the negotiations, Bakri made a telephone call to Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hadi, putting the conversation on speakerphone for workers to hear. Abdel Hadi assured them over the phone that they would continue to receive their salaries for the next three months."

12 October, 2009

Trouble at the Airport

The security agencies continues their policy of harassing Egyptian activists passing through Cairo Airport. Last week, CTUWS (Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services) Program Coordinator Rahma Refaat was stopped and her passport held for two hours when she was leaving to attend a meeting of the International Federation of Workers Education Associations, IFWEA. The previous month, CTUWS General Manager Kamal Abbas was subject to the same harassment while leaving for the AFL-CIO 26th Constitutional Convention, and released only just in time to barely reach his flight.

Blame the Left

Almost 30 years after the assasination of Sadat islamist theorist Nageh Ibrahim engage in left-bashing disguised as self-criticism: In one of a series of articles published on the website of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya on the occasion of the anniversary of the October war, he expresses nostalgia about the freedom enjoyed by "the whole spectrum" of Islamist movements in Egypt during the seventies. Unless the islamists had "blindly followed the left" in their hatred against Sadat, they would have remembered that he gave Egypt and Islam the great victory over Israel in the October war and forgiven his later "mistakes." (These include, one can only assume, arresting hundreds of socialists and trade union activists - Sadat encouraged the islamist movements in part to counter the growing strength of the left and opposition to his neoliberal economic policies.) 

08 October, 2009


“Welcome to my exile.” With those words trade union activist Mohammed al-Attar greeted me when I went to see him in Alexandria a few months ago. He had been transfered there by the management of Misr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla after an anti-privatization protest last October, and with almost no real work to do at the warehouse in the old cotton market he had a lot of time to think. He was remorseful, not for taking part in the protest - but for accepting a compromise deal and backing out of the declared strike on the 6th of April 2008.

I'm reminded of Mohammed al-Attar's fate now, when it seems like I'm the one being sent into “exile”, with a lot of time to think about my experiences in Egypt and my present situation. 

It could definitely be worse, and a lot worse too. Despite the darkness and cold, the prospect of spending a winter in Sweden isn't all that bad. But over the past years I've come to regard Egypt as a second home - and trust me when I say that I've seen this as a huge privilege, especially in this region where millions of people would do anything to have just one proper country to call home.

As soon as the immigration officers at the airport pulled me aside and told me to wait “for a few minutes” I guessed what was about to happen, but I still didn't really believe it. I spent the next few hours in a limbo, with my immediate future in the hands of some anonymous, unknown power – the higher being that we call State Security. Gradually realizing what all this meant was like watching a curtain slowly being pulled down in front of my life.

After one hour – or maybe two, I soon lost track of time – I was taken to an office where two State Security officers interrogated me half-heartedly. They seemed annoyed by this disturbance in the middle of the night and clearly had no idea why my name was in the computer. They asked me only general questions like “is this your first visit to Egypt” and “why do you come here.” When I told them I was a journalist, one of them narrowed his eyes slightly and asked: “What do you write about - politics?”

“Sometimes,” I admitted, and he slowly nodded as if this confirmed some profound theory about the universe he had been contemplating. Then the other man asked me if I ever got into any trouble in Egypt. 

“What kind of trouble?” I asked – since mashaakil of various sorts is a more or less unavoidable part of daily life in Egypt.

“Did you get into any fights? Did you make enemies here?” he said.

I paused to think. Should I mention being pulled, pushed and shoved around by plainclothes thugs or having the flash card of my camera confiscated while covering demonstrations? Being shot at by central security forces during food riots in Mahalla? Being ordered to “go to hell” after taking photos of police breaking up a tiny pro-palestinian demonstration in Tahrir Square? No, I concluded. Those people were not trying to pick a fight. It wasn't personal, they were just doing their job: upholding law and order and combating extremists and foreign elements fomenting dissent against the Egyptian government, which is - of course - democratically elected.

After this brief “interrogation,” I was told to wait for another five minutes, which quickly turned into an hour. Then I was finally told by a low-ranking airport guard that I was going to be deported. Why? Because State Security said so. “Illi amn al-dawla 'al yasaafir, yasaafir.”

At this point they had already taken my phone. I spent the next 48 hours isolated from the outside world, waiting for the next flight to Prague in a temporary-turned-permanent detention center. It consisted of a corridor, three small rooms with beds, and a barely functioning bathroom – all tucked in just behind the tax free shop of terminal one.

Technically, I wasn't a prisoner. At some point an officer asked if I wanted to buy a ticked on an earlier plane to Amsterdam. But could I have a phone call to transfer money to my VISA-account? No, was the firm reply - and I suddenly felt like being a character in a novel by Joseph Heller, trapped on a small island in the Mediterranean by an inextricable web of bureaucratic red tape. 

At least I wasn't alone. To start with, my company consisted of fifteen Palestinians and one Nigerian student at al-Azhar. The former wanted to return to their homes in Gaza via Cairo after visiting other Arab countries to work or meet relatives, but had been detained at the airport for unknown “security reasons.” Some of them had been told they should pick another country to apply for a visa to -  forget about the universal human right of leaving and returning to your own country and forget about homes and families again - but they were not allowed to leave the detention center. Another Catch 22.

The Nigerian student just made the terrible mistake of going to the airport to meet a friend, without bringing proper documentation of his right to reside in the country - and wearing a suspiciously long beard on top of that. He was promptly rounded up by security. 

After a few hours a large group of thin and weary Africans where led in by soldiers in green uniforms. They turned out to be Ethiopians, about to be deported from Egypt after first being deported from Israel and imprisoned for four months in a Sinai jail. There, they were subject to all kinds of racist abuse and forced to survive on a 40 gram bar of halawa (some company in the 6h of October free zone must be making a fortune delivering those to the Egyptian prison system) and a couple of slices of bread every morning and night. But at least they weren't shot dead by Egyptian border guards.

Other people kept coming and going, and by nightfall we were around 50 people. With only 24 beds to share we were forced to sleep in shifts. I started out on the floor, and when the Palestinians got up for prayer at dawn I moved to one of the empty beds. Later I learned that the detention center in the other terminal doesn't have any beds at all, so I'm grateful for the few hours of proper sleep I got.

Despite all the time I had to think I didn't have any ready answers for all the journalists who later wanted to know why this happened. And I still don't. Given the number of foreign journalists in Egypt writing freely about the state of affairs in this country – something that cannot be said about our Egyptian colleagues - it's very unlikely that my deportation has anything to do with what I wrote on my little-read blog or for Swedish papers as such. To believe anything else would be tantamount to serious delusion of grandeur. 

 Considering the level of paranoia the egyptian security apparatus has shown recently when it comes to Gaza-related activism, the other theory floating around out there is a lot more compelling: that I was declared persona non grata because of my presence at a small and peaceful pro-Gaza march outside Cairo in February, when activist and filmmaker Philip Rizk was snatched and held incommunicado by state security for four days. Judging from the various statements by anonymous security sources, this is the explanation they want us to believe in – not least because it will effectively discourage other foreigners from getting involved in any kind of activism in Egypt - and for all I know it might be true.

Having said this, I also suspect that there are more than a few local security officers, company managers and officials of the state-controlled unions that are only too happy to have me out of the country. During my travels around Egypt, these people have often display outright hostility – in sharp contrast to the incessant hospitality of ordinary Egyptians in the poorest slums or remotest villages. I don't think they are bothered by what I write (or even aware about it) as much as by the presence of foreign media on the ground, reporting on labour conflicts and independent union activism and hence “giving encouragement” to the people involved - and in certain rare circumstances maybe offering some (temporary) protection from repression.

 This is the case with all journalism of course – just consider the way Western media have encouraged the 6th of April movement or dissident blogging in Egypt – and doesn't make me an activist. I'm merely a journalist who believes that the fate of people of Mohammed al-Attar is as important as that of Ayman Nour. But don't get me wrong: I'm not on a crusade to establish my credibility as an “objective” journalist – I rarely give “equal time” to corporate bosses or government officials when writing features on social movements – and I don't really mind being called an activist. I just think it is unfair to real activists when that label get stuck on parasites like me who make a living in part by writing about them, without risking or sacrificing anything - except, perhaps, a future career in respectable mainstream media.

Then again, I never studied journalism properly and probably got it all wrong. Workers' strikes and other protests around economic demands rarely make the headlines. Unless they turn into riots and people get killed, they are simply not newsworthy. But traveling around Egypt to meet ordinary people involved in day-to-day struggles for decent conditions, reacting against a perceived injustice or fighting oppression, I always felt like I was watching real history

During the last few years, the labour movement in Egypt has reached a level of struggle that probably hasn't been seen in the country since the 40's, and less than a year ago state employees founded the first independent union since 1957. This had led to increased persecution of union activists in the form of arbitrary transfers and dismissals as well as persistent threats from security agents – while the head of the free union has been under investigation for “damaging the reputation” of the official trade unions abroad.

If this isn't news, it's bigger than news. And no matter what the reasons are, not being allowed to be in Egypt and report on this developing social movement feels like a big personal loss.

01 October, 2009

Unwelcome People

So I've been officially declared persona non grata and thrown out of Egypt. I'm too tired to write in detail about this bitter experience or speculate about the reasons behind it right now. But something has to be said about the other, less fortunate victims of the Egyptian security state that I encountered at the airport. 

For 48 hours I shared a small space - tucked in somewhere behind the tax free shop in terminal 1 - with around 15 Palestinians from Gaza. They had all been stopped on their way back to Gaza after visiting other Arab countries, and are being held without explanation - a few of them for as long as three months - with no or little contact with their families. Several has not been allowed back to Gaza since the summer of 2007. One had not seen his wife and 4 year-old son in two years. 

For me, as a westerner, being subject to arbitrary exercise of power in this way is an exception. For them, as a people under occupation, it is an ever-present aspect of life. Despite the sharp contrast between our expectations for the future - I knew I would be sent back to the freedom of my own country in a matter of days - they were the ones who kept cheering me up, making the complete isolation from the outer world bearable with their good spirits and generosity. This is something I will never forget.