When I went to Mahalla this morning it was dead. We had received reports en route that the long-awaited strike had been aborted after security bodies flooded the factory with plainclothes policemen who stopped the first sign of trouble, and this was clear from the sleepiness of the town when we arrived. Yes there were security trucks, but surprisingly few given police proclivity to rolling out armies at the suggestion that e.g. a government opponent might fart in a public area.
Inside the factory, members of the media were processed before we were escorted inside to watch the happy workers happily doing their jobs. I had a huge fight with the men who escorted us inside, who said they were from the factory industrial safety team, but who were obviously receiving instructions from above. I had arrived already tetchy after waiting 40 minutes for Gazius, a lawyer from Mansoura who we picked up en route and whose idea of a sound meeting point is the end of a bridge nobody has ever heard of. My already fragile nerves were put to the test again in the factory when the industrial safety men rolled out the bollocks about following procedures for our welfare and made us wait, needlessly, for twenty minutes. So agitated was I by this, and disappointed by the non-strike, that I ended up bellowing at them while they stood twenty metres away shushing me.
The majority of journalists left Mahalla at around noon – it seems that none of us had any clue about what was planned and thought the action would be in Cairo. It’s a decision I bitterly regret but it has taught me the importance of both generating reliable contacts and of never trusting a situation which is just too calm to be real. Luckily, some activists stayed behind, and now reports are coming in that over 7,000 people started demonstrating in Mahalla at around four p.m.. They were immediately set upon by security bodies who used teargas, stun guns and, most sickeningly, live ammunition: two people (a 20-year old man and a 9-year old boy) have apparently been killed.
According to a journalist I spoke to Cairo this afternoon some 62 people have been arrested, including Magdy Hussein, the leader of the Labour Party who led the calls for the general strike. In Cairo the close, oppressive weather and murky beige skies were the ceiling of a city which had been transformed into a giant prison cell. Green and blue security trucks were everywhere, as were rows and rows of black uniformed riot police. The city itself was eerily empty, and perhaps for the first time in Egypt’s recorded history the October Bridge was moving freely at 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.
There was a big protest in the Lawyers’ Syndicate, hermetically sealed by the rows of riot police. I went inside and half-heartedly watched it, but was so depressed by Mahalla, and by the government’s victory, that I didn’t even have the heart to take many photographs. It started raining midway through. “Allah akbar! Shayfeen rabbina!” [God is great, look what he can do!] protestors shouted in response to the rare sight of precipitation. It was dirty, greasy water which covered us. The government must have been rubbing their hands together in glee.
Outside the journalists’ syndicate there was a small group of some ten people gathered. One man was wearing a red fez. A journalist told me that the fez-wearer was making the point that things were better in Egypt under the king, pre-independence. This depressed me even further and I buggered off.
This afternoon I went to visit a homeless family. Five of them live in a tent, in a dirty alley, ten minutes away from Tahrir Square. The father is unable to work and could not keep up with rent payments and the family were evicted. They went to live in a public garden for two days until the local council seized their belongings and told them they couldn’t have them back until they produced proof of a permanent address. And now they’re living in a tent. Two of the children are under 16. The father applied for emergency housing in 2005. He has heard nothing since.
In that alley there was no general strike, no protests, no Mahalla, no government, no hope, no nothing. Five people living in a tent erected on top of rubbish, and animal excretions which I slipped around in when I photographed the tent. And what was most upsetting was the man’s calmness, his politeness, his resignation. His defeat.
The government won 2-0 today. Cairo’s streets were empty not because people were striking but because of government fear tactics which stopped people leaving their homes. The general strike failed as we all knew it would and, as predicted, Mahalla was the main focus - it reaped the backlash. They broke Mahalla – the strike and then its people – to teach them a lesson. To punish Mahalla for giving hope.