Thursday, February 11, 2010

Flaxing muscles

I went to a sit-in today in downtown Cairo by workers from the Tanta Flax and Oils Company. About 350 men have been sleeping on the pavement there since Monday, in the cold, because they’d like to be able to feed their families, and sometimes wages don’t come without a fight. It’s the usual story: public sector company is privatized and sold off. Investor buys it (at a huge discount) and then proceeds to slowly and systematically dismantle it with a view to selling the land on which the factory stands and making a tidy profit.

The only problem is that new investors are contractually under an obligation to “protect” the workers who come as part of the package, which means that they can’t just sack them, shut up shop and walk happily into the sunset, pockets bulging. One common strategy is to force workers out on early retirement, another to make life as intolerable as possible (especially for those active in defending workers’ rights) in the hope that they will quit of their own accord. The results are invariably a reduced, and demoralized workforce.

While Egypt’s steady privatization has made it a star pupil with the World Bank, these policies are far from popular amongst the people they most directly affect, as it well known. I spoke to one worker today who told me that he had the option of joining a private firm but opted for Tanta (when it was still government-owned) “because the state protects me in a way private companies won’t”. Tanta workers are not the first formerly public sector workers I have spoken to who reject the idea that the government doesn’t owe them anything after the integration of their company into the private sector. In fact, several such workers I spoke to continued to refer to themselves as public sector employees.

I’m poorly equipped to discuss with authority the economic merits or otherwise of Egypt’s privatization process, but its effects as I have witnessed them have largely been extremely negative. And certainly the trickle-down benefits lauded by the architects of this process has yet to be felt amongst the majority of Egyptians. But I really understood as I spoke to workers today that the privatization process is an affront to some workers not merely because it (usually) impoverishes them and threatens their working futures. On an ideological level, men in their 40s, 50s and 60s are bearing witness to the tearing down of the last remaining vestiges of a legacy which has informed their whole lives; the idea that the state will protect them. Privatisation of these men’s factories is a multi-pronged attack. On their security, their livelihoods, sometimes their pride and always the belief system which has underpinned their whole existence.

Times and economies change and that’s life, some argue. There are always victims on the road to progress. Alas these victims are often steamrollered multiples times by this progress. Tanta workers have been battling for almost a year for basic entitlements. What they want now is either for their factory to work properly (raw supplies aren’t being renewed and machinery is being removed, they say preventing them from working) or for them to be made redundant with the severance pay they are legally entitled to. The company is doing neither.

It has offered them half of the sum workers believe they are entitled to as redundancy pay. Workers have recently been informed that they won’t be being paid January’s salaries because they haven’t been working (they were on strike). Yesterday, as workers were thinking about putting up a tent to shelter them from the cold security officers stormed their gathering attacking four workers in an attempt to get to activists from the Tadamon [Solidarity] group who have been supporting the workers. You can see a video of the arrest of the activists here. They were subsequently released shortly afterwards.

I went back the same evening and workers told me that they're not intimidated. But they also said that this is because this protest is their resort: there's nothing else they can do after this, and how can they go back to their families and the factory and Tanta having failed?

I had left the sit-in shortly before the attack happened, and encountered another of Egypt’s odd moments of irony. As I walked away, wondering whether Egypt’s government is in professional training for the Screwing Over Your Own People Olympics or just doing it for fun, I walked onto Qasr El-Eini and found it empty. Big men in suits and shades carrying machine guns in 4x4s were parked on the side of the road, waiting to escort out parliamentarians. Behind them a sea of cars, ordinary Egyptians, were being held up. Without wishing to labour the image – you get the idea – walking along, the workers’ chants still audible behind me, it felt like yet another huge Up Yours from the men in charge.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Guide to writing about Egypt

Authentic modern Egyptians. Bonus point for donkey. Source here

In Egypt, writing an article follows a formula as old as the pyramids themselves*

By: I be earnin big Gs, baby

CAIRO: Your first paragraph, and you will use it to paint a stunningly authentic picture of Egypt for your inferior, under-traveled readers: a pastoral scene of the Nile Delta perhaps, or a portrait of poverty in Cairo’s gritty, urban chaos as described to you by your stringer. There will probably be a headscarf in there somewhere, being gently caressed by the wind of Egypt’s uncertain and precarious future.

Whatever you choose, your first paragraph must mention at least one of four things: the Nile, the Pyramids, overcrowding or Egyptian fatalism.

“At this point, a quote is long overdue,” chuckled Mohamed Father of Eight, who will usually be employed in something sufficiently blue collar-y as to give what he says that all-important authenticity. Make sure however that he is mellow and an exponent of the famous Egyptian sense of humour - despite the fact that he is being fucked over sideways by life.

You will describe Mohamed either cheerfully smoking a sheesha in a sidewalk café while resigning himself to God’s will, or masterfully cutting his way through Cairo’s notorious traffic in his taxi, throwing out colourful expletives at other drivers to the symphony of the capital’s car horns.
“Insha’allah what I say will include a word in transliterated Arabic. The reader will recall hearing this word during the pharaonic dress-up party on the Nile cruise he did in 1994 and realise that he has a deep and unshakable understanding of Arab culture and Islam in particular,” Father of Eight said, inevitably and suddenly looking older than his 40 years.

But you have lived in Egypt for eight months and were once told by a man in Dahab that you speak Arabic better than Egyptian themselves: useful because you attempted to use this expert Arabic at the police station later, after you realized that the disaffected youth had pinched your wallet because he can’t afford to get married in Mubarak’s Egypt.

In short, unlike your cosseted reader, you realise that the seemingly mundane minutiae of Egyptian society are portents of something more sinister, and also a useful way of filing copy when news is slow.

80 million Egyptians disagree. You know however that the double shock of Sadat’s 1980s economic opening – or Infitah [your readers wont know this one. You are superior] – and the Dina video scandal has deeply scarred this nation and rendered the opinions of the general public irrelevant vis-à-vis your theories.

“Another quote at this point, this time by an expert who will gladly come out with any old bullshit in order to see his name plastered all over your international publication,” commented Dr. Bo2ayn Aihkalam, author of El Forsa Betdo2 and a part-time dental hygienist.

“I will hold forth on the downtrodden Egyptian people and gladly back you up on your assertion that a phenomenon which is more or less common to all mankind is unique to this country,” Aihkalam said, speaking in his clinic on a busy Wednesday afternoon.

Now draw tenuous links between all the above. If your story is a political piece suggest that the creation of a Facebook group called “Elboradei lovers” with 312 members one of whom is wearing a green t-shirt means that Egypt is on the cusp of an Iran-style revolution.

Try to squeeze in a reference to Copts, bloggers, the Muslim Brotherhood and bread queues if at all possible. Mention sexual harassment, the African Cup of Nations, succession and Amr Diab and you will have a royal flush, sir.

If however your story begins with either “letter from Cairo” or “Cairo journal” you are relieved of journalistic duties such as fact checking or conveyance of useful information.

Structure your story in ever shorter, staccato sentences.


Make sure to talk a load of bollocks.

After a long and uninteresting journey mostly round your own prejudices the reader will be conveyed to his final destination.

Which is that, in the eternal city, when Egyptians have colds, they sneeze.

* This post is a blatant rip off of this brilliant idea, and was written in rage after reading this.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A few 'yo mamas' would have been quicker

I just want to record here because I forget these things, and because I have nowhere to record them, that this man:

Cracked me up at a protest I covered today.

He had something against People’s Assembly chief Fathy Sorour. I mean more than the usual dislike of Fathy Sorour. It was personal, I felt. Like Fathy Sorour had introduced this man's sister to crack cocaine or something. He stood outside the metal barriers for about 40 minutes, and every time someone chanted something, he tailored it to assuage his Sorour vitriol.

الحزب الوطني هو المسئول
The National Democratic Party is responsible


الحزب الوطني و سرور هم المسئولين
The National Democratic Party AND Sorour are responsible


يا مبارك ساكت لية انت موافق ولا اية
Mubarak why are you silent, do you approve or what?


يا مبارك و يا سرور ساكتين بية ..الخ
Mubarak and Sorour, why are you silent...etc

but my favourite was this:

مصر لكل المصريين!
Egypt is for all Egyptians!

which our friend rendered

مصر لكل المصريين ما عدا سرور
Egypt is for all Egyptians except Sorour.