Sunday, May 25, 2008

Harrying the marrying

Amnesiac is in a taxi with associates on the October Bridge on a balmy, breezy night.

The moustachioed, bawdy taxi driver slows down as he passes a wedding in order to inspect the couple who are standing against the bridge’s railing encircled by three girls on a moped, a video camera and pounding music.

Driver [on his horn, congratulationary, looking intently through passenger window]: Teeet teeet tet tet teeet


Driver: Aih dah! El 3aroosa wa7shah gedddddddan. [Blimey! The bride is reallyyyy ugly!]

Ya saaater! [Bloody hell!]

Laih yabny keda?!? [Why'd you do it son?]

Asta3’for Allah el 3azeem. [May God forgive me]

Pause. Driver exits bridge onto Corniche.

Driver: La2 bass kaanet wa7sha fe3lan. [She really was ugly]

El masal y2olak aih: ‘Ya wa7’ed el 2erd 3ala maalo, yero7 el maal we yefdal el 2erd 3ala 7aalo.’ [As the saying goes: choose the monkey cos of his wealth and the wealth will go and you'll be left with the monkey]

Ya3ni law heya keda ba3d el coiffeer ommal 2ablaha sheklaha kaan 3amel ezzay? [If she looks like this after the hairdressers what did she look like before?]

3andina el 7areem wa7shah bass mesh keda ya rabby. [Where I'm from women are ugly but by God not like that]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Labour unrest has minimal effect on economy, say experts

Originally published in Daily News Egypt

During a question and answer session broadcast recently, Gamal Mubarak was asked why people continue to queue for hours for government-subsidized bread despite government promises that its free-market policies will transform the economy.

Mubarak, general secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party’s Policy Committee, pointed to the Chinese experience where, he said, the transition from a state-directed economy to free market policies has not been without teething pains: results cannot be expected immediately.

However, he failed to mention that China’s privatization process has been accompanied by a surge of industrial action instigated by migrant workers whose economic circumstances force them to accept nightmarish employment conditions in sweatshops.

There are clear parallels between the Chinese scenario and the situation in Egypt, itself in the throes of the transition to a neo-liberal economy initiated after its 1991 structural adjustment program agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The privatization process has necessarily meant reduced government investment in, and the sell-off of, Egypt’s previously dominant public sector. This has translated into job losses and reduced job security for Egypt’s industrial workers, some of whom have been forced to seek precarious employment in the newly-expanded private sector.

Workers at a labor rights workshop attended last month by Daily News Egypt made reference to a resignation form workers in some privately-owned companies are routinely made to sign at the start of their employment.

The date is left blank and filled in by management as necessary, allowing companies to ‘legitimately’ dismiss employees at will, with minimal or zero compensation.

Joel Beinin, a professor of history at Stanford University and director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, says that the free market policies introduced over the past two decades has not translated into enhanced standards of living for the majority of Egyptians.

“The main cause [of industrial unrest] is the neo-liberal agenda which is creating a new Egypt for 10 percent of the population while disenfranchising industrial workers and white collar employees, especially those in the diminishing public sector,” Beinin says in an article published in Le Monde Diplomatique this month.

This is particularly apparent at the moment as Egypt grapples with the fallout from the international wheat crisis.

Diminishing bread supplies (millions of Egyptians living below the poverty line depend on government-subsidized bread) and skyrocketing inflation led to an uprising in the industrial Delta town of Mahalla on April 6 and 7, during which thousands of Mahalla residents protested against rising food prices. A 15-year-old boy was killed while standing on the balcony of his home, allegedly by security forces using live ammunition.

It is unsurprising that this took place in Mahalla, home to the Ghazl El-Mahalla textile factory whose six-day December 2006 strike (over 20,000 workers went on strike) is credited with instigating the nearly 600 incidents of industrial action the country witnessed in 2007.
Journalists Mostafa Bassiouny and Omar Said suggest in a study of industrial action during the course of 2007 that workers strikes between December and September alone translate into the loss of nearly 648 million work hours.

Beinin suggests that Mahalla is significant because of its legacy of spearheading industrial action.
“There is no doubt that Mahalla has a huge significance,” Beinin told Daily News Egypt. It is the biggest industrial enterprise in Egypt and the first nationalized enterprise.”

“When workers in Mahalla went on strike in 1947, their gains were eventually shared by other textile workers,” Beinin continued.

The strike planned for April 6 at the city’s Misr Factory collapsed through a combination of divisions among worker and security body interference.

Keen to placate workers — and by extension angry Mahalla residents — a delegation led by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif went to Mahalla on April 8 and announced that workers in the Misr Factory would receive a month’s bonus. Textile workers in other companies would receive a 15-day bonus.

But how much economic influence do Egypt’s workers now yield?

Tagammu Party economic expert Gouda Abdel Khaleq suggests that economic restructuring has weakened their influence.

“The power of trade unions has been on the decline for the past 20 to 30 years,” Abdel Khaleq told Daily News Egypt.

“Two factors are important here. Firstly, there is the fact that trade unions have been under state control since 1952, and secondly, the impact of neo-liberal policies — the new industrial sectors are not unionized.”

The government seeks to encourage foreign direct investment through the establishment of industrial zones.

The Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ) in areas such as Cairo’s 10th Ramadan City, Suez and the coastal governorate of Damietta attract foreign investors because of the favorable trade terms and their proximity to the European market.

EFG-Hermes economist Mohamed Abu Basha says that foreign investment is primarily in these as yet, non-unionised areas. “As a developing country in its early stages of attracting foreign investment the priority is to attract as much as you can — particularly given that we are trying to diversify out of petroleum-directed FDI because it’s capital intensive and doesn’t provide employment opportunities. … There are no direct benefits for the people,” Abu Basha told Daily News Egypt.

Abu Basha suggests that the wave of industrial action Egypt saw in 2007 had little effect on investor activity in Egypt.

“Strikes are of minimal concern to investors. It doesn’t affect them directly because it doesn’t affect the budget deficit — their main concern. This is evident by the fact that money kept coming into the country during 2007.”

“The events of Mahalla were of little concern to investors because they occurred in the context of an international crisis,” Abu Basha continued.Beinin confirms the limited effect that strikes have had on the economy.

“Labor unrest clearly hasn’t had any effect on macroeconomic indicators, which have continued to grow over the past three years.”

However, he qualifies this by pointing out that “a good part of what is sustaining GDP is both not self-sustaining, and outside the purview of the labor movement.”

Beinin points to the sale of the public sector and the construction boom caused by the upper classes’ demand for luxury housing and gated communities as examples of non-sustainable GDP income.

He suggests that this “raises question marks about the success of Egypt’s neo-liberal economic policy.”

This month the government announced a 30 percent increase in the wages of public sector employees, just days before a general strike planned for May 4. On May 6, a bill was approved which eliminated or reduced energy subsidies and increased the price of fuel, a move which critics warned would exacerbate already steep inflation and eliminate the arguably notional benefits of the 30 percent rise.

Is this series of seemingly contradictory, perhaps even knee-jerk, decisions — taken in the context of increasing economic hardship for the majority of the population — an indication that government policy is unable to shelter the country from the vicissitudes of the global economy?

Abu Basha thinks not.“The economy has been continuously growing at seven percent with some setbacks in the form of a wave of inflation in 2004, food subsidy cuts in 2006 and food price increases this year.”

“People will not feel the benefits of economic programs in three years: it takes eight years of continuous growth before this happens,” Abu Basha continued.
Beinin says that the number of Egyptians living below the poverty line has increased since the introduction of neo-liberal policies.

What does he envisage the future holds for the workers’ movement during the course of Egypt’s privatization?

“There are two possibilities: laborers will either be crushed for a period of time until capital has become established — as happened in China — or, depending on how long the current workers’ upsurge lasts, workers might be able to reach non-unionized people,” he suggests.

Even if this does not happen, and the negative impact of FDI (as experienced by workers in other developing countries) does not mobilize workers in the ever-expanding private sector to rally together, Beinin points to strikes in white-collar sectors, by teachers, doctors and civil servants, as evidence that even if industrial unrest does not influence the economy directly, it has the capability to inspire other movements.

“The tax collectors' strike, by white-collar workers, was twice the size of the Mahalla workers strike. It’s scary. They went on strike and the government responded quickly.

“Clearly, there are things which are indirectly or directly inspired by the workers’ movement.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Maye3gibhoosh el 3agab

Here is a photo for Fully P of a menu in a Zamalek restaurant which induced a feeling which was half vomit half laughing. I bet there's a word for it in the German language, which seems to categorise every feeling known to man. Something like sickhahaschlafen, to laugh while containing vomit.
Anyway this might put an end to his moaning about this blog becoming too miserable. Chances are slim, however, for he is a moany old woman.


Today was Ibrahim Eissa’s appeal of his conviction on the farcical charge of undermining national stability by publishing articles suggesting that Hosny is not in the best of health.

The Abbaseyya court building is fairly typical of most of the court houses I have frequented in Cairo. The grey, monolithic prosaicness of its external architecture somehow embodies the unremitting, uninspired, functionality of the cases I seem to end up attending, many of which are brought by '7esba' (political score settling) lawyers: an unthinking, almost automaton, trigger response to perceived attacks on select interests which cares nothing about the nuances in the law, about justice and detail, and instead turns what should be a scalpel into a sledgehammer.

The building’s interior is testimony to the neglect, the relentless repetition of the everyday corvee and the death of inspiration which have given birth to cases such as that against Eissa. It is dark, suffocating, filthy, desperate. Half-torn Lawyers’ Syndicate election posters leer out from grubby corners while locked cupboards line corridor walls, stickers affixed on them reminding passers-by of the oneness of God. Snatched shots of offices reveal rooms bordered not with walls, but with case documents, floor to ceiling, hundreds upon hundreds of complaints and losses and gains towering over the clerk sitting in front of them.

The exception to this is the lawyers’ room, a corner of high animation, almost a boys’ club of tea drinking and joke making and strategy planning. A girl passes between them offering for sale a collection of law books. Nobody buys them.

Outside a toilet sits a middle-aged woman, on an upturned bucket. Next to her, above her on a chair, sits a girl of about 12 with short ingénue hair and earrings, eating a biscuit. She clutches the biscuit with both hands, her thin fingers are flayed oddly, her eyes follow movement slowly. The woman has tied her to the chair, a thin piece of beige string tied round her waist and affixed to the armrest. She admits you to the filthy toilet before returning to her bucket seat.

Later on someone – a foreigner who attended the trial - also needed to use the toilet. I took her to it and found the woman sitting next to the absent girl. She told me that the toilet was not for women’s use. But I’ve just used it I told her, growing increasingly agitated by the madness of her argument. I know, she said, but now it’s not for women. Go upstairs. We complied, went upstairs, and I looked back to see the women untie the girl and lead her by the rope into the toilet.

There were children in the courtroom, too, The two sons of a litigious lawyer who has already raised one unsuccessful criminal case against Eissa and so has decided to try his luck with a civil claim. There is something positively Dickensian about this man, his odd features, his obsequiousness to the court and disparagement of defence lawyers, the hunch of his shoulders as he addressed the judge, the black prayer beads wrapped around his left hand shining ostentiously as he gesticulated. His sons, he said, had been deeply disturbed by the reports published in El-Dostoor about the president’s health and had come crying to him in his office, traumatised. He requested that they be able to present their testimonies to the court.

Behind me his youngest son – who appeared to be six years old – slept. The older boy was perhaps ten and enjoying watching Dad at work like any child his age would.

There was an interesting moment shortly before the verdict (an adjournment) was pronounced when by chance and in the chaos the two boys and Eissa ended up sharing the same bench in the courtroom. Eissa looked over, caught the older boy’s eye. Ezzayak, he laughed. There was the briefest of hesitation, a charged confusion, but Eissa’s irresistible affability and – perhaps – the boy’s as yet unspoiled decency prevailed, and he responded: I’m fine.

There is undoubtedly something despicable about an apparatchik father prepared to use his own children as tools in his boot-licking campaign. But there is not a lot separating him from the beggars I saw outside the court house, one with a cleanly amputated foot. The bright red end of his leg burned fiercely in the sunshine. Further on was another beggar, with two symmetrical limbs missing. Exigent, impossible, circumstances call for the maiming of what is closest, seems to be the moral of the story.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Letter from Kamal El-Fayyoumy, Tareq Amin and Karim El-Beheiry to the Judges' Club

Below is my translation of a letter handed out today at a Journalists' Syndicate protest about the individuals still being detained in connection with the April 6th roundup.

The letter is to the Judges' Club which is their version of a syndicate.

The media's virtual silence about the continued detention of these men - compared with the media circus surrounding Israa Abdel Fattah's detention - is pretty marked, and pretty sad.

Letter to the Judges' Club

We, three political detainees, address the letter below to the Judges' Club and its head Zakareya Abdel Aziz from the Borg el-Arab Prison in Alexandria...

Dear Sir,

A week has passed on our hunger strike and we are extremely weak. We are appealing to you as the last and only resort for all who have suffered injustice in Egypt.

We would like in the beginning to correct certain information which has reached the press about our (the three of us) having been transferred to the prison hospital as a result of our hunger strike.

The truth is that we are still in prison after the administration refused to call an ambulance to take us to hospital, and as a result of the inability of Karim el-Beheiry and Tareq Amin to stand on their feet - as a result of their extreme weakness. Instead, a "nurse" was summoned to examine Karim, whose condition has seriously deteriorated.

We would like to know the reason why we remain in detention. We will continue the hunger strike until we either die or receive this information.

We were tortured in the state security headquarters in Mahalla on the 6th, 7th and 8th April. Officers tortured Karim using electricity while Tareq Amin and Kamal el-Fayyoumy were insulted verbally and physically assaulted. We then spent eleven days in Borg el-Arab prison in a cell with individuals with criminal convictions. When the Tanta court ordered that we be released we were held for four days in the El-Salam police station [noqtat shorta] situated between Mahalla and Tanta before we were taken to Borg el-Arab prison were we began our hunger strike.

From our detention cell, we call on you and all political currents to take action and apply pressure in order to secure the release of all those detained in connection with the events of Mahalla.
Kamal El-Fayyoumy, Tareq Amin, Karim El-Beheiry
Detained workers from Mahalla
Borg el-Arab Prison
Wing 22, Cell 5

Friday, May 16, 2008


This unknown individual attempted to add me on Fartbook, no doubt as part of a sweep of females in the Egypt network. I liked his arresting combination of candour and misanthropy.

Mohamed H____
is fuck off.
Updated on Monday

Networks: Egypt
Sex: Male
Interested In: Women
Relationship Status: Single
Looking For: Friendship
Birthday: October 1
Political Views:Other

Mohamed has no recent activity.

Personal Info
Activities: nothing ( madness ) there 's nothing Impossiable
Favorite Music:Hip-Hop, Rock, Electronic, Jazz, Pop
Favorite TV Shows: mesh 3aref
Favorite Movies: tokyo dirft & kazblnka
Favorite Books:mesh ba7ab el books aslan
Favorite Quotes: mafesh aslan 7ad 3edel
About Me: ma7desh fahem 7aga

Glitter text: "Fucken love"

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Panacea update

Here someone called Angus tells me off.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Panacea Day

Here's an article about Pangea Day which I endured last Saturday at the Pyramids, escaping death through exposure to both extreme cold and an Oprah to the power of 99 level of mawkish sentimentality. I witnessed Khaled Abol Naga say 'if I had a minute to send a message to the world, I'd send love. I am a man in love. And now here's Wust El Balad. They're in love, too!"

Also, he pronounced 'infamous' in-famous which was one of the few laughs of the evening. He seems a lovely bloke though does our Khaled.

Not being a woman of society, can someone please tell me whether such elitist, extreme differences in treatment of the VIPs and the rest is the norm?? i.e. sofas, free bar, waiter service for the VIPs and crap chairs and overpriced Hardees for the plebs.

For one day it’ll be like the world is sitting round a giant camp fire!” declared actress Lucy Liu at the start of Pangea Day on Saturday night.

How her words and the Pangea Day motto (“Pangea Day plans to use the power of film to bring the world a little closer together”) grated on the great unwashed masses without VIP passes who attended Pangea Day in Cairo.

People were brought together at the Pyramids, but rather in the way members of the nobility were forced to involuntarily come into contact with their vassals while surveying their lands. The organizers of Pangea Day were careful to ensure that not even this degree of fraternization occurred between the precious VIPs and the rest of us, the common ones who, alas, they had to invite because otherwise it would just be 150 people sitting on sofas in the desert. And that’s not very Pangea, is it!

Pangea is the name given to the world before the continental drift happened and all the countries of the world were still bonded together in one big blob.

American Egyptian documentary filmmaker (“Control Room”) and Pangea Day creator Jehane Noujaim won the TED Prize in 2006, a $100,000 prize given by the annual Technology Entertainment Design conference, which grants winners “a wish to change the world.”

She used the prize to create a day on which locations in Cairo, Kigali, Rio de Janeiro, London, Los Angeles and Mumbai would be linked through four hours of films, music and "visionary speakers," broadcasted simultaneously across this war-torn feuding planet so that “people can see themselves through others, through the power of film” and focus on what they have in common, rather than what separates them.

Unfortunately, at the Pyramids the plebs were separated from their VIP pass-holding brethren by a barrier which herded them into a raised elevated platform behind the opulent VIP area immediately in front of the stage.

Such was the segregation that there were two separate entrances and two separate parking lots and, to rub in it even further, the organizers had for some reason known only to themselves placed the plebs’ chairs approximately 30 meters back from the barrier making it even more difficult to see the stage.

As is logical, the non-VIPs dragged their chairs over to the barrier and watched as below the VIPs sat in Shangri-la on their luxury sofas being fed sushi and alcoholic beverages by white-gloved waiters while we (ineluctably, because there was nothing else on offer and we were in the desert) ate curly fries and meat-based products from a fast-food chain which had erected a tent behind us.

Egyptian actor/TV host Khaled Aboul Naga cheered things up when he bounced on stage to briefly talk about the Pangea Day concept, which included a "world music" segment when bands from across the globe would perform. Egypt offered Wust El-Balad (scheduled performer Mohamed Mounir had cancelled at last minute) who sang a song about there being no black or white and no divisions between people.

It is difficult to overstate just how much the event’s organization lent a painful irony to the whole proceedings. This was possibly the single event where Cairo’s penchant for exclusivity — and exclusion — conflicted, violently, with the night’s ethos. It was like holding a Greenpeace annual conference in a nuclear power station.

Exhibit A: Shots of the audience were shown in all six cities. In Egypt these shots were restricted to the VIPs, ignoring the riff raff at the back almost entirely. Egypt was the sole location out of the six to feature such blatant severance.

Exhibit B: A short film in which we see men playing volleyball over a giant wall constructed on the US–Mexico border. The non-VIPs watch the VIPs eating sushi from the barrier like a load of Oliver Twists.

Some of the films — despite a few embarrassing technical glitches — were original and thought-provoking. The most outstanding offering was “Inja” (Dog), a film from South Africa directed by Steve Paslovsky.

Dog is an unusual exploration of the evils of apartheid. A young boy employed on a white Afrikaans farmer’s farm adopts a puppy for whom he makes a collar out of the rope used to hoist up a flag on the farm.

In the next scene the farmer instructs the boy to put the puppy in a sack before proceeding to kick him savagely while he tells the boy, “He must learn.”

He then instructs the boy to open the sack, despite the latter’s protests that the crying puppy would think it was him that beat him — which is in fact what happens, and the puppy grows into a dog which attacks black people.

The farmer eventually pays the price, however, when he has a heart attack in a field while erecting a fence with the boy who has now grown into an adult farmhand. When the farmhand attempts to approach the farmer in order to give him the pills which will save the dying man, he is prevented from doing so by the dog, which attacks him.

A poignant film from France showed a man who gets on an underground train and announces to the passengers that he is a single man looking for love and marriage and invites interested woman to get off at the next stop.

One woman follows the man’s speech avidly and rushes off at the next stop only to be told by the man through the window of the train, “Madame, it was a sketch…”

Pangea night was an occasion for finding and celebrating commonalities within the divisions which separate people while ignoring the reasons behind these divisions.

This was illustrated by a film called “Road Work” in which a US soldier in Iraq who photographed the aftermath of a fatal accident between a US army vehicle and a civilian car carrying a father and son.

The soldier reflects on the causes of the accident (“what if we had turned our headlights on?”) and compares the father’s grief with his own at the loss of his infant daughter. This is a very personal testimony, and, like all the films shown on Pangea Day, does not concern itself with bothersome details about political responsibility or finger-pointing. Rather, world evils such as war and hunger are painted over with the veneer of individual inspirational stories in a Live Aid fashion; only without the fundraising.

I suppose that there is a place for all this, but this type of hope-and-love peddling is not everyone’s cup of tea.

This writer and her companions were also not touched by the feelings of world unity described in personal testimonies on the Pangea Day website, but this may have had more to do with the event’s organization, or our stony hearts, rather than Pangea Day itself.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fueling us

Around four months ago I was on a bus going from Dokki to the Mohandiseen end of Sudan Street. The bus was one of the privately-owned, medium-sized (i.e. not a microbus and not a big bus) vehicles which shuttle people around Cairo. That it was privately-owned is relevant here because of the fracas which developed when a woman got on insisted that she would only pay 25 piastres for her trip.

As far as I can tell, there is a degree of negotiation involved in the setting of fares on this buses which is absent from state-run bus services (the green buses of an identical size to the vehicle involved in this scenario charged a fixed fare of 1.25 LE for a ticket two weeks ago. This has no doubt changed after the fuel price increases. In contrast, privately-run buses and microbuses stagger fares according to the length of the passenger’s journey.) Flustered, and laden with bags, the woman got on and sent a 25 piastre note to the taabi3, the fare-collector, who in this case also happened to be the driver’s 12 or 13 year-old son.

The taabi3 - who was possibly the only endearing, non-surly, pubescent teenager in the world – politely told the woman that the fare was 50 piastres, prompting the woman to set him straight, in no uncertain terms. Baba, he said to his father, the woman says it’s only 25 piastres to Boula2. At this point the driver got involved via the medium of the inclined mirror above the windscreen which runs the width of the bus and which allows drivers to simultaneously drive, admonish passengers, talk to their taabi3 and ogle girls’ bottoms .

A noisy, tense discussion ensued between the driver and the woman, conducted through the mirror. The driver’s son, who clearly idolised his father, followed attentively, his eyes darting back and forth between the woman and his father as he chewed his fingernails. The woman - who found support in other passengers - would not be moved, and the driver eventually conceded defeat. I remembered the times as a child I had witnessed my own father involved in tests of will and thought how terrible it must have been for the kid to watch his father suffer such a public humiliation.

Interestingly, a woman got on a few minutes later with two kids in tow, one of whom had a birth defect in his hand and was unable to form words, communicating in sounds intelligible only to his mother. The family seemed to be friends with the driver, who resolutely refused to accept the woman’s attempts to pay their fares. The boy stood at the front of the bus behind the driver, smiling and fascinated by the view out of the windscreen, periodically calling out a sound to which his mother responded from the back of the bus aywa ya 7abiby, ana hena [yes darling, I’m here]. He made sounds at the other passengers, too, and at the driver, who smiled and laughed with him before helping him into the seat next to him where he pointed at things excitedly.

This is a long-winded illustration of what 25 piastres means, and why recent increases in the price of solaar (the fuel used to fill up buses) which have translated into a 25 piastre increase in the price of fares are such bad news. A seminar I went to yesterday said that the increase will add up to an extra 15 LE per month (0.25 x 2 x 7 x 4) on the transport costs of regular microbus users. Probably a conservative estimate, given that many commuters use more than two microbuses a day.

While my ability to comment on the sagacity of the price increases is to some extent compromised by an incomplete understanding of economics, I think even a moron could tell you that:

1. To increase the price of a transport fuel will cause the price of everything to increase. This is disastrous in the context of already high inflation.

2. To raise public sector wages by 30% one day and then two days later wipe out the notional benefits of this wage increase with a package of price-increase measures is at best contradictory, at worst insulting. The government claims that it has had to raise revenue in this way to cover the 30% wage increase. This is either duplicitous or stupid or both. An economist in the seminar yesterday suggested that it was intended to send the message, ‘look what happens if we raise wages.’

3. The notional 7 percent growth of the economy brought about by neo-liberal economic policies has not translated into better standards of living for all. The World Bank estimates that 23% of Egyptians live below the poverty line.

4. The government individuals who made this decision don’t know the meaning of 25 piastres. Other than when they hand a 25 piastre note to the child cleaning their windscreen at a traffic light, possibly.

I spoke to an investment economist the other day and he was telling me about how Egypt’s economic policy is primarily focused on attracting foreign direct investment into the country. Now proponents of FDI champion it because, they say, it’s a cheap way of bringing industrial expertise and infrastructure into the country and raising revenue i.e. the foreign company builds a factory using local material and then employs, trains and passes on skills to the local workforce. Furthermore, they argue, unlike other forms of investment it’s less easy for the foreign investors to pack up and bugger off at the first signs of economic or other forms of instability in the host country.

Here comes the however.

However, sharing skills with the developing world is never the motivation of a multinational which sets up shop abroad, as is self-evident. It is seeking low production costs, cheap labour and weak or non-existent labour regulations which allow it to suck its workers dry without having to worry about troublesome health insurance payments or toilet breaks or severance remuneration or workers’ need to rest or earn enough to send their children to hospital. Unsurprisingly, it is usually countries with repressive political regimes which attract multinational investors.

Industrial zones in Egypt such as the QIZ areas are highly non-unionised: I’ve heard that there is not a single workers’ union in the 6th October industrial zone – can anyone confirm this? A compliant workforce is all part of the game plan of course, and it is unlikely that strong labour regulations will be put in force to protect the ever growing numbers who will join the private sector as Egypt continues to sell off its public sector.

It will be interesting to see how the Egyptian labour movement responds to this new threat and how it changes the dynamics of employer – syndicate negotiations. (Syndicates are all members of the state-controlled Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions).

I asked the economist why the allegedly growing economy had not translated into a better standard of living for Egyptians whose economic suffering is increasing. He was phlegmatic, and pointed to the depreciation of the pound, the international wheat crisis and the wave of inflation and said that Egyptians wouldn’t feel the benefit of Egypt’s new economic policies immediately.

It’s become trendy in recent years to talk about ‘responsible, ethical capitalism’, Adherents of this theory suggest that capitalism is capable of being a force for good, capable of changing people’s lives. The problem is that even before we get to the economic, mathematic calculation reasons why this is mostly stuff and nonsense, we have to acknowledge that human beings and their troublesome profit-reducing needs don’t even enter into the capitalism equation. The evidence of this is currently being felt in microbuses across Egypt.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The day Egypt was stillborn

I spent yesterday afternoon roaming around downtown Cairo looking for the general strike that never was.

Facebook warriors had announced that yesterday – Hosny’s 80th birthday – a(nother) general strike would be held and that everyone would wear black, the sequel to April 6th, when opposition groups attempted to mobilise the masses in protest at rising food prices, corruption…etc. The streets were empty on the 6th but - as yesterday proved - many people stayed home not in protest, but because televised Interior Ministry threats against ‘troublemakers’ had led them to conclude that it was best just to stay indoors and keep out of the way.

There is also of course the Mahalla element: workers at the Ghazl Mahalla factory were going to strike on the 6th and this would seem to account for the momentum which the 6th had and yesterday lacked. And then there is the impact made by the Mahalla uprising, brutally-contained street protests which eyewitnesses agree occurred spontaneously and independently of the clarion calls made by the cyber leaders of the virtual revolution.

Yesterday was business as normal, apart from the green central security trucks parked conspicuously in roads leading to the public spaces which host political protests. Soldiers - seemingly the only people wearing black today - sweltered both inside and outside the trucks. I have always found it interesting that the only difference between these vehicles and those used to transport prisoners, is 1. their colour and 2. the fact that the door at the back is locked when prisoners are inside and left open for soldiers. All in the same wheeled boat.

A line of thin soldiers stood in front of the green vans outside the Lawyers’ Syndicate in their too-big black spacemen helmets, clutching their thick-barrelled teargas guns. Opposite, on the Syndicate’s steps, a handful of people chanted, guided by the apparition of a Moses-lookalike in white who raised his arms above his head and asked Mobarak ‘e7na weladak wala kelabak?’ [are we your children or your dogs?]

Alas nothing at all was parted when revolutionary Moses raised his arms, not the ocean of traffic which surged through Galaa Street nor the plain-clothed thugs stationed outside the Syndicate and paid LE 20 a time to knock people about at protests as necessary.

Much has been made of the role of new technology in political activism: Facebook in particular has suddenly turned into a revolutionary freedom fighter after for so long being a fatuous, image-obsessed piece of nonsense: a bit like Angelina Jolie, perhaps. It is terribly a la mode at the moment to theorise about what this means for the Egyptian political resistance and modes of dissent, and I think today’s non-events will have exploded a few nascent theories.

Which is not to say that Facebook isn’t useful, practically speaking. The crusade currently being led against it in the state-controlled press, and rumours that the government will block it demonstrate that it has the potential to be a useful tool, but in the same way that radio transmitters were of use to the French Resistance: there has to be something to transmit in the first place, someone to transmit to, and an unwavering commitment to transmitting it.

There is much to be said for a forum which allows people to gather in a way they are from forbidden from in the real world but it’s a serious error to mistake this for mobilisation, or even commitment. Israa Abdel Fattah, the unfortunate and unwitting moderator of an April 6th Facebook group who was arrested and placed in political detention for 15 days demonstrates this.

She was lionized while incarcerated, made into a symbol of Egypt the oppressed woman, only to emerge from detention to announce that she had ‘repented,’ and thanked the authorities for treating her so well in prison. She has a sad little piece in El Dostoor today under the headline ‘me? In political detention?! Who am I to be in political detention?!’ Aung San Syu Kyi this is not, and her experience illustrates the crucial difference between bandwagon and conviction politics.

A middle-aged man I was speaking to the other day expressed his admiration of this new generation of technical pioneers. He singled out Wael Abbas for particular praise, saying that Abbas had accomplished in one year what he couldn’t do in twenty, and accused members of his generation who attack Facebook crusaders, of ‘jealousy’. I pointed out that members of my own generation were equally critical of them (Facebookers, not Abbas); of their lack of a clear agenda and disconnection from reality and real people (how many of Egypt’s 80 million people own a computer, never mind are members of Facebook?) He responded by saying that at least they were doing something, making the regime take notice, and predicted that eventually a movement with clear objectives would emerge and more importantly, credible leaders to guide it.

Perhaps, but it will take more than this to shake people out of the catatonic state nearly 30 years of oppression and corruption have produced. How yesterday’s Al Ahram headline (a full-page picture of Hosny with the headline ‘the day Egypt was reborn’) did not single-handedly provoke a revolution is beyond me, but then it should be given a prize for combining historical revisionism with such nauseating levels of sycophancy. In this it is only rivalled by an article published the day before yesterday entitled ‘why we love you Mobarak’.

This charade, combined with Mahalla and the ongoing associated administrative detentions, combined with the prosecution of journalists in cases brought by government lackeys, combined with never-ending police brutality, combined with fear which sits on your chest like a stone is what it means to live in a police state. I have only just began to realise what this actually means (and only very remotely) because of my job, and now have incredible respect for the people who not only risk everything through political dissent, but have the motivation and the strength to keep fighting day after day after day in the face of such ugliness and more than anything, such stupidity.

It is perhaps its stupidity which is the worst thing about this regime - stupidity which manifests itself in its lack of vision, inability to formulate policies to feed its people and its short-sightedness - but which are also evident in the pointless petty harassment, the nonsensical rules which dictate the minutiae of everyday life while buildings collapse and small children fix cars twelve hours a day.

I was reminded of this the other day when Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Mahmoud was detained at Cairo Airport and banned from travelling to a conference on press freedom in Morocco (state security have a list of the names of individuals banned from leaving the country). Completely pointless, and if its image they’re worried about, the incident generated more bad press for Egypt than anything he could have possibly said in Morocco.