Sunday, April 06, 2008

Delta blues

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.


zoss said...

so 2-0 is your take on the outcome of today's battles, but what do you say of the war?

Our Man in Morocco said...

I'm so sorry. Sorry for your disappointment, sorry for Egypt.

I'm also sorry you feel bad about leaving Mahalla, but I'm glad you weren't hurt - I know journalists in the past haven't always been able to stay out of the way of security force actions.

May the Mahalla martyrs rest in peace. May we all wake up tomorrow ready to do what we can to honor their memory, to keep fighting the good fight.

Good reporting, as always. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ok the protest may not have gone as planned. Maybe people stayed home because they were frightened but this only pointing to the strength and relentless force of the government control. It doesn’t necessarily point to the lack of will for change. People want to stay alive so the did the safe thing.

But staying home was necessary because of the repression dealt out to deal with a real gathering voice of protest heard by the government on the days leading up to the protest. The people could have rejected the idea of the protest in the first place and listened to the government news broadcast the day before declaring it was not to be a vacation and everyone should go to work, but they didn’t. Much of Egypt was shut down. There was no ignoring the voice of the protest. It affected ever industry in Egypt. School busses did not even arrive to pick up the kids for school in many places. There were no studies in class. Almost the whole country was organized to be shut down and in relatively short period time, which is actually very impressive, quite a massive single day boycott.

Some woke up not knowing how the day was going to go, but throughout the day they came to feel a commonality with the way everyone stayed home and shared one passive act in acknowledgment that things must change. For such a large country to come to a stand still only sharpens the focus and the hope of acting as one to bring forward change. Even if it is a passive act of sharing a little burden and risk such as staying home and not buying, selling or working.

All of this accomplished and it was much more peaceful then it could have been. Of course we would have liked to have seen more. But it was a strong movement in the right direction. Congratulations. And thank you so much for writing the piece.

Also, here are a couple of carefully taken videos showing a relatively empty Cairo for Sunday and the line of green vans demonstrating the mass of police force released onto the city.

Forsoothsayer said...

good post, truly heartbreaking. i am sad. even sadder that i saw nothing of this, did nothing.

Anonymous said...

well, no one was expecting a revolution, and like zoss observes, 2-0 is not the final score. these things need to snowball, someone has to throw the first few flakes before it becomes unstoppable (and it would; if it didn't then that would indicate that things are improving, which is ultimately the desired outcome).

great reporting, but the tone left me blue bardo.

--fully poly

Anonymous said...

the link to the youtube video doesnt work :( i want to watch that video.. pls :)

zoss said...

Anonymous said...

Replying to anonymous about link not working:
try these for videos of Cairo 4/6

soil woman said...

heartbreaking story. great article.

makes you wish you could do something.....

Con said...

I think the 6th was a setback in the momentum of civil action. There was a lot of confusion about the aims of the action. As you said previously, without clearly defined aims there will be a lack of focus. If the aim was, for example, to get a decent wage for teachers, or government doctors, then the action becomes focused, the measures of success tangible, and the aims realistic.
Many people I spoke to believed the aim of the action was to bring food prices down. Which, if true, is slightly illogical, as the price of commodities is dictated by a whole chain of people, from farmers, to importers, to distributors, and retailers. However, the ability to pay for basic commodities is linked to salaries and the welfare system.

Also the types of actions were too many; don't buy anything, don't go out, don't work... how realistic is this for the vast majority of people. Even if I buy nothing today, I will have had to buy extra yesterday to cover for today. If I don't go to work today who will that affect? Probably my employer who really might be a nice person who pays good salaries. If the action was directed at ports or transport workers or truck drivers (like in France) it brings the whole country to a standstill.
And really, the success/failure of 6th April is impossible to measure, so people have no frame of reference for their action, nor any incentive to repeat it.
I fear the good intentions, and the basic ideas have been burned through a lack of clear communication, clear goals and definitions of success or failure (something tangible).
I fear the next call to action will, therefore, be met with greater apathy.

manwithnoname said...

:____________________) maybe this might halt Jimmy the first's assention to the throne. have the no shame!!!! a a yeoman's effort A.

Basil Epicurus said...

If history teaches anything, it's not always the best laid plans that work out, often it's the seemingly random sequence of events that spiral into a meaningful result. While the regime may not have toppled tonight, I definitely hear creaking.

As for missing out on the action, next time you'll be in the heart of it so just stay positive and prepared. That's the way life works.

fully_polynomial said...

I've been watching Al-Qahera Al-yom for the past couple of days and I think I have lost my ability to reproduce. So apparently it was just some thugs behind what was going on in Mahalla. WTF? It takes a whole fucking army to have a 2-day standoff with our brutal police, so were all these thugs outsiders to Mahalla? Are we supposed to believe this? Who are these people then? No one ever says.

Bedan awi el sara7a. And that MP from Mahalla who called crying, what a pretentious bunch of bastards. I have always hated that fucking idiot Amr Adib, despite being a fellow baldie. But this is just too fucking much.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I cant help myself.

So now some polysci professor on the program is saying that the goal of 'these people' was to get a kid or two shot, and preferrably dead, so that it is used for PR purposes. Amr and co. all agreed with him.

Now, where did I hear this "they want their kids dead so that they can use it as PR in front of the rest of the world" before?

How do these people sleep?

--fully poly

ramy said...

i am not, unfortunately, up to speed on my history. but a general strike by egyptians of all classes has not happened as far as i can remember. and i cannot remember such turbulent times and strikes every now and again in egypt in the 90s.

i agree with most of those who posted. the encounter between the people and the government needs time to coalesce into a collective memory, or memories, before it breaks into consciousness with sufficient force. and is held there. what you are doing is just that, midwifery of that emergent spirit. kudos to you and all the bloggers and chroniclers of these times in egypt.

i am not sad at all because i believe, hope and see a future that is already conceivable in our minds.