Sunday, April 13, 2008

Delta Blues Two

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.


fully_polynomial said...

I choked up reading this.

I wish I would never know or experience what the father must be feeling. I really don't know what to say.

Anonymous said...

So the price of a life is 1,000 LE? That's probably what the vampires running Egypt spend during an evening out. Disgusting.