Tuesday night was spent with the crème de la crème of Egypt’s left-wing community at the mozza Marcel Khalife concert: it was a bit like being at a protest without the riot police, and with everyone in their Sunday best. Excitement was high, but not as high as our seats, which were on the top balcony or row or whatever the nomenclature is, and so far up that I could almost touch the ceiling. Being stuck in the seat for two hours with the ceiling causing static to my hair reminded me of my journey from Abdel Meneim Reyad to City Stars in the rain by microbus, when we got stuck on the October Bridge for forever.
I paid 100 Egyptian pounds for this ticket, which irked me slightly given that 1. I was sitting on the roof and, 2. I spied plenty of empty seats millions of miles below in the balcony and had understood that ticket price was linked to scarcity. The front row was of course occupied primarily by the leadership of the Tagammo3 political party, who were rewarding themselves for the hard work of hording the best tickets distributing the tickets fairly and in an egalitarian fashion.
I was even more irked to see that while I had dusted off one of two dresses I own in order to comply with the Opera’s dress code (and as a result spent the evening wobbling around in painful high heels because even I wont wear brown suede slip-ons with a dress), I saw numerous men dressed in jeans with ties slung round their necks in order to distract attention from their legs. They looked stupid, but not as stupid as me involuntarily doing my Tina Turner dancing walk.
I understood that mozza Marcel had appeared on the stage when the audience started clapping, and when I got out my periscope I did indeed see a distant speck in a green scarf clutching a wooden instrument of some sort. It was like looking at him on Google Earth. He and the bloke next to him on the double bass then proceeded to bang out instrumental jazz fusion music which might charitably be called experimental. Alternatively, if you are a philistine from Croydon, you might term it shite.
Things looked up when mozza Marcel’s sons Ramy and Bachar appeared on stage. In conformity with the tradition in the Arab world of sons joining the same profession as their fathers (see: Gamal Mubarak) Bachar is a superb percussionist and Ramy is a Julliard-trained piano virtuoso. They banged out a lovely song about love before starting the Mahmoud Darwish-penned ‘Jawaz Safar’ which is wowzers blazers.
Alas in the middle of Jawaz Safar there was an attack of the bollocks and it descended into jazz improv. Peter on double bass started knocking out a random order of notes as is customary while Ramy on piano suddenly felt the need to stand up, lean over the piano and earnestly play the keys or the strings or whatever they’re called, inside the piano. The sound was unremarkable and he looked like he was looking for something he had accidentally dropped inside it.
As is inevitable, the cacophony on stage was eventually matched by the buzz of people chatting and sending SMSes and getting up to have a fag as can only be expected when people in front of you on a stage are producing the sound equivalent of releasing one’s bowels.
Mozza Marcel & sons eventually remembered that they were giving a public performance and regrouped, and then did a rousing song involving audience participation which was enjoyed by all.
One member of the audience bellowed out ‘O3’NEYYA LE MA7ALLA YA MARCEL’ [a song for Mahalla, mozza Marcel] which mozza Marcel resolutely ignored. Which pissed me off immensely. Later, he announced that the next song was for ‘kell el sho3oob el Arabeye men el mo7eet lel khaleej’ [all the Arab peoples, from the Med to the Gulf], a classification which I suppose encompasses Mahalla.
There was a superb moment of petulance during which mozza Marcel got out his handbag and told us off. What happened is that he started strumming the opening notes of his classic song about his mum’s bread, which is better than it sounds and extremely moving. Two notes in and somewhere in the auditorium a passing flea expectorated phlegm softly, causing Marcel to cease and desist and announce ‘el og’neyya hai keteer ma7taja samt, samt kebeer’ (or something like that) [this song really requires silence, complete silence]. This being Egypt, the response of the audience was to clap, which only incensed mozza Marcel further and suddenly I had got my money’s worth.
Near the end of the concert he started thanking us for coming and telling us that we had lit up the opera etc, causing one impassioned woman to bellow out NO NOOOO, presumably in protest at his buggering off early. He told her off, too, requesting ‘la7ze wa7de sa3’eera’ [one moment] from the ill-mannered woman, in a prissy manner. He then explained that a huge artist from the world of Egyptian music would join him on stage and we all held our breaths waiting for a big star to appear as we mentally went through the list of still-alive Egyptian musicians on www.mawaly.com to guess who it possibly could be. “HASSAN MOTAZ!” he declared, before an unknown man leaped on stage to the rippled murmur of “who who who who who??” and weak clapping.
Hassan Motez actually turned out to be a gifted cello player who gave a wicked and passionate solo and I’m certain that he left the Opera House with a thousand new fans.
I’ve seen mozza Marcel twice now, once last night, once in London, and while his performances are always technically brilliant, they lack soul, and are slightly dull as a result. He is the Pete Sampras of the music world.
1. While in Mahalla we had to keep an extremely low profile because of the habit of the Mahalla police station to suck journalists into its bowels. Foreign-looking journalists were prevented from entering Mahalla on Friday in any case, at police checkpoints. It didn’t help that 1. I look and sound foreign and 2. Wael Abbas, high profile blogger and jailer of torturers was in our party.
Even Jennifer Rush, the 80s singer we endured on the way to Mahalla on Sharshar’s “Old is Gold” hits tape seemed to know something we didn’t when she bellowed out I’m heading for somethingggggggggg.
Luck was on our side that day. We thought it was game over at the police checkpoint when a policeman asked for our IDs. We were sure that he would notice the foreigner and Mr Abbas in the back. In a moment of pure cinema, just as he was about to look at my ID his superior came bounding over and admonished him for checking IDs without an officer being present. The officer politely told us that we could proceed.
The many activists and journalists who were detained – illegally - at checkpoints outside Mahalla for hours were not so lucky.
Once in Mahalla we consumed beverages in a coffee shop and then walked at high-speed back to the car. Rounding a corner, we went past a police car full of plain-clothes policeman just as two youths walked past, one of whom shouted out at top volume “DAH WAEL ABBAS!” [IT’S WAEL ABBAS!]
2. Being an aficionado of all things Lebanese, Sharshar was particularly excited when it was announced that bearded Beiruty crooner and Oud maestro Marcel Khalife is coming to Cairo. He proceeded immediately to the Tagamoa party headquarters to buy tickets, and found that they had all sold out.
Not to be defeated he searched, assiduously, for tickets, and found that he could get some from a friend of his, Nagy. Nagy told him that he had got the tickets from the black market. The ticket tout had wanted 250 le for them, to which Nagy said “mesh keteer schwaya, 250 geneeh?” [isn’t 250 le a bit much?] to which the tout responded “ya basha deih Marcel Khalifa, deih gamda geddan! Mozza!” [mate, you’re talking about Marcel Khalifa, she’s really fit].
Three days after violent crashes between security forces and demonstrators in Mahalla El-Kobra, a fragile calm had returned to the town on Friday. A day off, shop shutters were drawn and the sun-bleached streets mostly empty. Only broken windows, patterned tent fabric disguising destroyed store fronts and the huge security presence in this tiny town testified to the anger which exploded this week.
It is an anger which the embattled ruling regime knows it has only contained – clumsily, and brutally – rather than placated. The siege-like conditions still imposed in Mahalla make this clear. Daily News Egypt travelled as part of a group of five journalists and human rights activists to the town last Friday. On its outskirts traffic suddenly ground to a halt, creeping forward at a painfully slow speed.
Twenty minutes later it became clear why: tens of plain-clothed state security men swarmed the road checking the personal identification of each and every driver attempting to enter the town.
Nasser Nouri, the Reuters photographer who caught the first day of clashes in a series of explosive, and now iconic, images of protestors trampling on a destroyed poster of Hosny Mubarak, was himself detained on Friday, as he attempted to enter Mahalla in a microbus. He was locked in a room in the Mahalla train station until his release the same evening.
A group of some thirty university academics and doctors who attempted to go to Mahalla to express solidarity with the victims of this week’s events were held at a police checkpoint 20 km outside of Mahalla on Friday at 11 a.m. Refused entry, and prevented from moving, they were held until 3 p.m. before being escorted back to Cairo.
Reports of journalist arrests had been coming out of the town all week. On Wednesday Amina Abdel Rahman was arrested while interviewing relatives of detainees protesting outside a police station in Mahalla. Her release was ordered by the public prosecution office after she was cleared of the charges laid against her but she was kept in police detention, illegally, and started a hunger strike. She was eventually released on Saturday.
They day before our party headed to Mahalla James Buck, an American photographer, was arrested in Mahalla while photographing the protestors outside the Mahalla police station with his translator, Mohamed Marei. Like Abdel Rahman, Buck and Marei were cleared of charges by the public prosecution office but were kept in police detention, illegally. Buck was released Friday evening. His Egyptian translator was not.
This series of transgressions is a blunt attempt to silence reports leaking out about the earlier abuses committed by security bodies, and it has failed. This is despite the best efforts of the state-controlled media to portray the two-day uprising in Mahalla as an orgy of thug-led vandalism and looting – a repeat of events in January 1977 when the possibility that President Anwar Sadat would increase the price of bread led to protests in which tens of people were killed during clashes with security forces. The two-day protests – driven by poverty, hunger and anger - were labelled “the revolution of the thieves” by the state-controlled media.
Inside Mahalla the town’s main square had been transformed into a garrison, with some thirty security trucks parked in it. Backup forces had reportedly been drawn in from surrounding governorates. There was a security presence outside every mosque we drove past (there were rumours that a protest would start after Friday prayers ended) and government buildings were heavily guarded with rows of riot police carrying teargas launchers.
Even the state council, and the public library were surrounded, which would seem to indicate an awareness on the part of the authorities that it is state symbols which risk being the target of protestors’ anger. It is hard to reconcile this distribution of troops with the claims made by state-run media that the events in Mahalla were thug-led, random acts of criminal damage.
The symbolic importance of bread is not lost on the government. Subsidised bread feeds the millions of Egyptians who fall below the poverty line, and when international wheat shortages led to bread shortages last month - and deaths in queues at bakeries as people fought over bread - the government was quick to call in the army to bake in an attempt to make up the shortfall.
But anger at corruption, police abuses, poverty and skyrocketing prices is less easy to patch over, or contain. The situation becomes even more ominous when middle-class, white-collar workers join in demonstrations of discontent; on March 23rd university professors throughout Egypt launched a one-day strike in protest at low pay while doctors threatened to go on strike in February at chronically low wages unable to keep pace with the price of basic commodities.
In March workers at the publicly-owned Ghazl El-Mahalla Textiles Factory – Egypt’s biggest industrial enterprise - announced that they would go on strike on April 6th. Workers at the factory had previously launched two strikes - in December 2006 and September 2007, and won both of them. The announcement of the Ghazl El-Mahalla strike was followed by calls for a general strike across Egypt on the same day by opposition group Kefaya and political parties. Calls for the strike – in protest at corruption, prices of food and police abuses amongst other complaints - quickly spread across the Internet.
The Ghazl El-Mahalla strike was called off on Saturday night amidst intense pressure by security forces and worker divisions between the League, which supported strike action, and workers loyal to the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), which did not. Egyptian daily El-Dostoor reported in the days leading up to the strike that five labour leaders from the factory had been summoned to Cairo by the state-controlled Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions where they allegedly signed a pledge not to strike.
American University in Cairo professor Joel Beinin, an expert on the Egyptian labour movement, told Daily News Egypt that while he doubts that labour leaders with a long history of organising would have signed a pledge not to strike, he does think that the government succeeded in dividing leadership in the factory when it partially acceded to one of the workers’ demands and raised food allowances to LE 90 in the lead-up to April 6th (workers had called for a food allowance of LE 150).
“The majority of the workers in the Ghazl El-Mahalla strike committee supported a delay in strike action,” Beinin says. “The thinking was, ‘OK the government has met some of our demands, let’s wait and see if they meet the rest of their promises in July.”
Whatever the truth about the factory’s internal politics, the strike failed, but by the afternoon of April 6th events had gained a momentum all of their own. Beinin, who was in Mahalla to meet factory workers at the end of the morning shift, witnessed the first clashes between protestors and security forces on Sunday which started at 4 p.m.
“It was immediately obvious that the majority of the demonstrators were not factory workers. At least half of the protestors were children under 14,” Beinin told Daily News Egypt.
Beinin has no doubts that the protest he witnessed in the town’s main square was not organised in advance.
“It was completely spontaneous. There were no placards or posters prepared and I didn’t hear the set political slogans usually heard at protests,” he said.
Beinin says that the response of security bodies was violent from the beginning.
“Security bodies responded with violence to the protestors from the start. I saw plain-clothed thugs [employed by security forces during demonstrations] throwing rocks at people, deliberately throwing them upwards so that they would land on people’s heads.”
Nouri echoes this. He told Daily News Egypt that police responded immediately with violence to the initially peaceful protest, later using teargas and firearms to disperse the crowd.
Some 150 people – including children - were detained on the first day of protests. Swedish journalist Per Bjorklund witnessed a demonstration which gathered outside the Mahalla train station. He showed Daily News Egypt a film he made of thousands of demonstrators converging on Mahalla’s police station, where they joined detainees’ families protesting outside the police station. He says that the procession was completely peaceful, save for a few low-key skirmishes. Violence only erupted outside the police station when demonstrators gathered and started chanting “let them out! Let them out!”
“I didn’t see any looting, all the violence was mainly directed at the police. Even small traffic police posts were being attacked,” Bjorklund told Daily News Egypt.
Rights groups frequently criticise Egyptian security bodies for the misuse of force against both individuals and crowds. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights repeatedly states in its reports that torture inside police stations is systematic and endemic. In December 2005 Egyptian security bodies were heavily criticised for the violent way in which they dispersed a protest by Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers (including children) in central Cairo. Nearly thirty people died, either asphyxiated in the crush caused when the police stormed the camp, or beaten to death.
At least one person died during last week’s events in Mahalla, fifteen year-old Ahmed Mabrouk Hamada, who was shot while standing in the 3rd-floor balcony of his house. We went to Hamada’s home and spoke to his family about the circumstances of his death. “It was about 11 at night, and Ahmed was playing on his computer,” Ahmed’s father, Ali, told us.
“I told him ‘go to bed, Ahmed, you’ve got school in the morning’. He said OK, turned off the computer, and went to bed. We heard noise in the street, and Ahmed got up and stood in the balcony next to me, looking down at what was happening. We saw soldiers and officers dressed in black, and then heard ‘open fire! Open fire!’
“My son screamed in pain, and I looked over at him and found his face covered in blood. He fell to the floor. We called the emergency services, twice, but they told us they would not come, and so me and some neighbours carried Ahmed to a neighbour’s car.
“We took him to the El-Hoda private hospital, they refused to admit him. We then took him to the Al-Aas hospital, where he died.
The family’s house is in a side-street, well removed from the scene of protests. Ali took us to the balcony where his son was shot, where we found a large piece of cloth still covered in his son’s blood. The neighbouring balcony, to the left, is pitted with a vertical line of what appear to be bullet marks.
Mohamed, a friend of the family, told us that the bullet which killed Ahmed entered his head through his jaw and exited from his temple, suggesting that he was shot by a gun fired from below. The fact that the bullet travelled three stories up and went through his head would seem to indicate that it was live ammunition which killed Ahmed: rubber bullets are usually non-lethal unless fired at short range.
In the absence of an official investigation it is impossible to say with complete certainty who fired the gun which killed Ahmed. However, in a statement condemning the use of unnecessary lethal and excessive force by security bodies, Human Rights Watch states that according to the bystanders it interviewed, “no one other than the police fired live ammunition during the demonstrations.”
Ahmed’s uncle Alaa El-Shioumy says that the family are not interested in monetary compensation for his death. All they want is an official acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology.
“We want an official statement saying what happened is haram, wrong, an injustice... It’s enough for an official to say that the Interior Minister will not ignore this, and will investigate it. Do human lives have no value?”
An article published in Egyptian daily Al-Badeel on Friday claimed that an official from the ministry of social solidarity, Adalaat Abdel Hady, had ordered that LE 1,000 be paid to Ahmed’s family. El-Shioumy says that this has not happened.
Also present in the house was Ahmed El-Sayyed, whose son is currently amongst the roughly 215 people detained in Mahalla.
El-Sayyed told us that his son, Mahmoud, was arrested on Monday while working in his shop and was not involved in the protests.
“Some 15 police officers arrested my son while he was in his shop and took him away. I have no idea where he is now. They hit Mahmoud's colleague over the head with a chair – he had to have ten stitches. He told me what happened to Mahmoud,” El-Sayyed said.
El-Sayyed was amongst the hundreds of relatives of detained people who congregated outside the Mahalla police station. He was amongst the people who tried to help Buck and his translator to escape arrest by putting them in a taxi. He had no idea that they were subsequently pulled out of the taxi and detained.
“The families of detained people, about 150 people, stood outside the police station every day until yesterday night [Thursday] when the police sprayed water on the protestors, who were mostly women and children. They told us that if we continued to stand outside the police station we would be arrested, too.”
The Taha Hussein school in Mahalla, vandalised and ransacked by unknown parties has been presented by the state media as evidence that the events of April 6th and 7th were acts of criminally-led rioting, rather than an expression of popular discontent. El-Sayyed questions this, and suggested that the looting of the school, and the subsequent coverage of it, was orchestrated in order to prove the government case.
“The police stood by and watched as youths stole computers from the school and rode off with them. When the Egyptian television crew [state controlled] arrived, they went straight to that school. They didn’t film the protests, the people being beaten in the streets… they only filmed the things they wanted to film.”
In a press conference given on Friday evening in the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, lawyer Khaled Ali said that there have been widespread violations of the rights of those detained in connection with the events of April 6th, both in Mahalla and elsewhere in Egypt.
“Lawyers do not know the exact numbers or whereabouts of detainees because the public prosecution office is denying them the right to visit clients” Ali said.
“In addition, people have been held without charge for more than 24 hours in violation of the law.”
“Arrests of journalists in Mahalla are an attempt to terrorise the media into not covering the crimes taking place there. Journalists like Amina Abdel Rahman have been held for more than 24 hours without charge, their release has been ordered by the public prosecution office but they remain in detention.
“This is what happened to James Buck’s translator, Mohamed Marei. My question is, why was Buck released and Marei kept in detention? Why are Egyptians treated as second-class citizens in their own country?”
This is a (much) longer version of an article published in Daily News Egypt.
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.
I will be in Mahalla tomorrow covering the strike in the Ghazl el-Mahalla textiles factory, the 3rd strike since December 2006. I’m super excited about going, mostly because it will mean meeting workers who not only won two previous strikes, but succeeded in getting rid of the company chairman and board of directors, i.e. heroes. In addition I find the atmosphere at even small scale sit-ins and protests electrifying so 20,000 men and women standing up to their management, the government, the state security army and their own bloody union (!) should be amazing.
About the their own bloody union thing: I’ve been reading bits and pieces about the Egyptian labour movement, including an excellent booklet by Mostafa Bassiouni about the surge of strikes and sit-ins which began after the December 2006 Ghazl el-Mahalla strike. This strike was opposed by the workers’ official union, as was their next strike in September; women workers attacked the union chief with their shoes when he tried to persuade them to call off the strike, which I think is the least he could have expected. Tellingly, during negotiations at the end of the strike, the workers’ union was on the same side of the table as factory management.
This is a legacy of the Union of Workers’ Syndicates of Egypt established in 1957, a three-level organisation which seems to suffer from the same cronyism, corruption, lack of transparency and crippling bureaucracy which afflicts the majority of governmental institutions in Egypt. Bassiouni points out that on more than one occasion the same individual has been both head of the Union and the minister of manpower. Given that at this time the state was the largest employer and most members of the Union were employed in the public sector, this meant that the individual employed in both these roles was supposed to simultaneously represent both workers and their employer. Bonkers.
Being as it is, stuffed full of NDP supporters, this Union has demonstrated that it is inimically opposed to workers’ interests, and in particular their right to strike. The Ghazl el-Mahalla workers have their own organisation now, the Rabta, or League, which will be leading the calls for a number of demands tomorrow in a factory which seems to have been turned into a military barracks in anticipation of the strike.
Mahalla reinvigorated the labour union movement in 2006 and it has inspired calls for a general strike throughout Egypt tomorrow. Here are the details, provided in a charmingly odd English translation of the original Arabic:
Protest against Oppression & Corruption
Tomorrow's peaceful strike, Sunday April 6, 2008
Cairo, April 5 2008,
No University No School
We need Just Judiciary
We need Enough Salaries
We need Work
We need Education for our Children
We need Appropriate Transportations
We need Hospitals
We need Medicines for our Children
We need Freedom and Dignity
No Thug Policemen
No Cases Fabrication
No Price Hikes
No Torture in Police Stations
No Protection Money
Tell your friends and family to also start work strike by tomorrow APRIL 6.
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information backs the Egyptians right to strike. http://www.hrinfo.net/en/reports/2008/pr0405.shtml
Always with his finger on the pulse even from California Hossam has a great roundup of what’s planned for tomorrow here. The Hisham Mubarak Center has set up a ‘Front for the Defence of Egypt’s Protestors’ which is already sending alerts out via the ever useful Facebook. One activist, Mostafa Khalil, has already been arrested in Mansoura, accused of membership of an illegal organisation (opposition group Kefaya) and has been detained for fifteen days.
The group has just sent a message saying that blogger Malek has been arrested.
I have mixed feelings about the sagacity of the call for a general strike tomorrow, mostly because I’m not sure how appeals for a strike sent out via Facebook and the Internet will succeed in mobilising the millions of Egyptians who do not use these media. I showed Samia - who cleans my house and does not use the Internet - a statement about the strike and she had heard nothing about it. She clearly identified with the motivations behind the strike but her main priority is her daughter, who goes to Helwan University. I’ll tell her not to go to university on Sunday, she told me. In protest? I asked. No, in case something happens to her in a demonstration or something, she replied.
At the other end of the class spectrum Egyptians on an English language mailing list I subscribe to have expressed their objection to the strike as being anti everything but not pro anything and generally not being constructive. One computer programmer friend described it as ‘mass vandalism’ and ‘aih kalam’ [nonsense]. He said that nobody in his office would strike tomorrow.
Part of the problem is that a strike on this scale is hugely ambitious, and can never hope to bring together the disparate groups of Egyptian societywith their competing priorities and concerns in a joint action. This necessarily undermines the strike’s momentum, since in order to succeed a strike action necessarily requires clear leadership, a defined set of demands and solid organisation, all of which are lacking in this case. Critically, in relying on the Internet to mobilise people the strike’s organisers have possibly missed a huge swathe of Egypt’s population.
Having said that, I’m all for any kind of civil disobedience, particularly if it succeeds in making only a small dent in the general state of apathy which exists in this society. There is a fear surrounding political activism and protests; over 25 years of the emergency law, and the corrupt, heavy-handed police force which enforce it have transformed social protest into a crime for many Egyptians. If tomorrow’s protests succeed in breaking this taboo then this is no bad thing.
It’s self-evident, but in the absence of a viable alternative to the current regime, change will never happen through political protests such as this. Tomorrow will be a busy day for security bodies - who will no doubt respond with their usual blunt tactics - but it will only create the briefest of ripples in the stagnant pool of the regime. Those outside the circle of patronage and privilege i.e. the majority of the population, who have plenty of grievances but no one to back, have not been mobilised. Critically, fatigue, poverty and the all pervasive apathy are neutralising the anger necessary to fuel any successful mass protest.
The government has clumsily succeeded in very temporarily containing the bread crisis and averted a repetition of 1977 when the people spontaneously rose up in January against the possibility of bread prices rising. Nor is it 2003 when thousands gathered in Tahrir Square against the war in Iraq. Like a strike, to generate enough motivation to participate in a protest on any significant scale people must feel real anger against/passion for something or someone. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the nebulous mix of grievances – corruption, police abuse, poverty, a crippling malaise generally – which are daily life in Egypt are not enough to bring about political change at the moment.
Which brings us back to Mahalla, and the power wielded by workers. The 25,000 workers who went on strike in Ghazl El-Mahalla were twice successful in making the factory’s administration (the government) comply with their demands; they possess the economic clout which the regime quite literally cannot afford to ignore. And theirs is not an isolated case, as is illustrated by the victorious sit-in held by the Real Estate Tax Collectors at the end of 2007/early 2008. Notably, as Bassiouni points out, sit-ins and strikes held in 2007 in nearly all cases resulted in the workers winning. Even more notably, Ghazl El-Mahalla held a protest for a national minimum wage in February indicating a widening of their cause beyond their own demands.
Workers possess an irresistible combination of motivation, organisation and influence and have demonstrated their preparedness to ‘illegally’ exercise their legitimate right to strike in violation of draconian legislation which demands amongst other stipulations that 2/3rds of a Syndicate’s board agree to the strike (unlikely given their makeup, see above). I’ve bored you all about this before, but I’ll say it again: the bravery of these men and women, who have so much to lose, is incredible.