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LiveBlogging: Workers Revolt in Egypt!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

[Update May 4th: I have posted pictures on my blog from this event at this post

Update May 5th: Hossam made it known to me that I wrote down the dirty war in the 1990s was fought against the radical left; in actuality it was fought against the Islamic groups and the radical left happened to also catch the flake and was targeted as well, but the Islamic groups where the main targets.]

All times are in PM.

In a muggy, sweaty, cramped and crowded room (a big long room, but a room none-the-less) in an apartment complex on Capp and 16th Streets I’m LiveBlogging an event called “Workers Revolt in Egypt!” The speakers are Hossam El-Hamalawy (HH), an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo and an activist and a blogger who is in the U.S. as a visiting scholar of journalism at UC Berekely and Ahmed Shawki (AS), an editor at the International Socialist Review and a partipant in the Cairo International Conference in March 2008, just before the explosion in Mahalla, Egypt.

5:11: An International Socialist Organization (ISO) representative introduces Hossam El-Hamalawy (HH) and Ahmed Shawki (AS).

5:20: Crowed getting riled up and doing a unity clap in solidarity to UAW union members and ILWU union members fighting against yellow unionism and imperialism.

5:23: Hossam El-Hamalawy (HH) introduced. His blog is mentioned, “it is one of the reasons why people in the West know what is going on in Egypt…They just recently attempted to go on strike for basic things…decent standard of living…this has been apart of this movement for independent trade unionism in Egypt.”

5:25: Hossam El-Hamalawy (HH): “I’m really honored to be here among you today and I would really like to thank the comrades at ISO for putting this together…I will be sharing some photos with you from Mahalla from the two day bloody uprising we had in the Nile Delta.” The photographer for most of the photos he’s showing was shot with a rubber bullet on the first day on April 6th but continued to limp around and take photos.

5:27: Showing this photo.

In the 1990s Egyptians couldn’t chant against the president and used Suharto as their name to criticize Mubarak as Suharto was in Egypt right before he was toppled in Indonesia.

HH: “A lot of these photos could be mistaken as being the occupied territories in Palestine…The parallels are not ignored by the public, it’s not something that hte political activists are theorizing about.”

5:30: “In the 1990s when student activists started to organize it was almost impossible to organize outside of the campus…as Egypt was fighting a dirty war [mainly against the Islamic groups which in turn affected  the socialists and under ground communists and other dissenters]” but it was because of this atmosphere though dissent started to become more and more profound up until the strikes that were started in Mahalla three two years ago. The dirty war ended around 1999/2000.

“What the dirty war did was to brutalize our security forces even more” because of the widespread torture which caused Mubarak and the security forces to become even more unpopular than he usually had. If you got picked up by the police “and your family did not rush to your case right away to bribe the police” you would be put in jail for crimes you never committed, unsolved murders, drug dealing, etc.

5:34: HH: “However with all of this repression there was also resistance.”

HH: “The journalist community in Egypt is one of the most highly politicized journalists in the region…Journalists go on strikes and you find them in the front lines fighting with the police.” Laughter. “A different kind of journalist

HH: “It wasn’t until 2000 that you started hearing anti-Mubarak chants…People would say the road to” liberate Palestine “is through Egypt” because if you overthrew the dictator Mubarak (U.S. ally) you could cause real change in Palestine.

5:38: In the early 1990s, when Mubarak started his “anti-terror” campaign and dirty war against descent and the socialists in Egypt he also started his neo-liberal policies in liberalizing the economy which was helped by and overseen by the IMF. You had a two front attack on the working class and dissenters. The economy was liberalized which caused a rise in prices and a loss in jobs and political repression through arrests, intimidation, detentions, and killings of activists and socialists.

5:41: Slowly but surely industrial action and protests began increasing in the country starting around 2001/2002 which eventually lead to 222 actions, all across the country, in the year 2006.

HH: “The national minimum wage set by the government has not changed since 1984…3,000 female garment workers started a three day strike and an entire textile plant went on strike…The government panicked…the government surrounded the factory and laid siege” and the workers won. They also went on strike 9 months latter. And in between those 9 months there were over 600 industrial actions because of the strike and victory by the textile workers in Mahalla.

5:44: HH showing a photo of workers celebrating their victory in one of the strikes.

For more information please visit this link as the content is similar from HH’s last speech I lived blogged on. So combining both blog posts you have HH’s entire speech on the situation in Egypt.

5:48: Egypt is a very backward country when it comes to women rights yet “it is contradictory…the organizing is centered around women…and some of the most militant strikers [and organizers] are women.”

5:56: One of the pictures he’s showing.

5:57: HH stops speaking. Ahmed Shawki (AS) is introduced.

AS: “I’m going to be quite brief.”

AS: “I’m Egyptian…I walk like an Egyptian…I’m quite proud of it…I’m an Egyptian who managed to get out of Egypt in the 1960s” to get educated abroad. “I know little about my country from the point of view from living in it…I speak on Egypt as an Arab…abroad…and in the United States.”

6:00: AS: “Egypt has been transformed” since he was there in 1969. “It’s still secular” in the 1970s the secular movement dominated Egypt. “At the time you had the idea that Egypt was” a leader in the Middle East but with the important fact that it was secular.

AS:”These strikes break the image of the Middle East as a clash of civilizations between East and West…the class struggle expresses itself in many different ways and is making a return across the world, not just including Egypt…The process of the class struggle has changed Egypt today.”

6:03: AS was given the task to brining a computer into Egypt as in 1991 it was illegal to bring a computer in Egypt. “Today the situation to attempt [to clamp down on the spread of information] is impossible.”

AS: “In the Cairo Conference there were open calls for the removal of the government…We are talking about the transformation of the most important country in the Middle East…I believe it is our responsibility and our contribution to change the picture of Arabs and Arab workers in the Middle East” from being “Islamo-Fascists” (quite a contradiction in terms) to workers in an international class struggle and allies in the global struggle against neo-liberal policies.

6:09: AS: “The regime is not only scared of acting [against the striking workers], and workers having a more say [in the situation]…Not only do the poor can continue that the regime can continue” in a way of having a “strong economy” with utter poverty, “but the elite are also saying the regime can not continue this way.”

For creating power the Muslim Brotherhood is not an option for a true genuine government, the military is not a true democratic alternative, but instead the alternative is through solidarity work with Egyptian workers and being worker lead.

6:12: AS mentions that there can now be unity, if there is action on both sides, between Arab workers and U.S. and Western workers which in turn will break down the harmful and racist stereotypes that is being perpetrated by the Bush administration through the “War on Terror.”

6:13: AS ends his speech and short applause ensues.

6:15: Questions are being open on the floor. Not only do the speakers answer them but the audience can too.

Question: Egypt being similar to Spain in the 1970s with a strong worker movement and revolutionary movement being strong against Franco. What will be the outcome in Egypt as in Spain the revolution did not happen and the elite manipulated the workers and the citizens by creating a bourgeois parliamentarian government with neo-liberalism now taking over Spain today.

Question: Did the challenging of Israel by Hezbollah create confidence in Egypt?

Question: What is the U.S. response to the crisis that Mubarak is undergoing but a lot of talk in a response to helping Karzai of Afghanistan and Musharraf in Pakistan.

Answers:

HH: “Organizing around Palestine and Iraq is seen as being Islamist influence…However these protests normally benefit the left…The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the students recently in strikes so the left benefited in the Brotherhood making this mistake…”In 2002 the Brotherhood sent a letter to the then groups chairman questioning the Brotherhood’s stance on Palestine, which is a moderate stance in order to get Brotherhood members elected to Egyptian parliament. This crisis pushed the Brotherhood to take to the streets in order to match the radical left in Egypt and this caused a united front with the socialists and the left. “The Muslim Brotherhood made these gains in 2005 followed by Hamas in 2006…Everyone in the radical left was happy that the Muslim Brotherhood made these gains” and the gains of Hamas. With the war in Lebanon it hurt the Stalinist Communist Party who didn’t support Hezbollah (because there are a religious organization) but the radical left and socialists organizing against the government benefited because they supported Hezbollah in their fight against Israel.

HH: “Egypts GDP is more than $100 billion a year” but it is coming from the oil sector and is not trickling to the poor in Egypt. Egypt gets $2 billion a year from the U.S. “while this is nothing compared to $100 billion what it gives you is political capital” because when an Egyptian diplomat goes to Palestine and to Kuwait that diplomat represents the country that receives the second most aid in the world from the U.S. government.

AS: “There was a demonstration…in the main square in downtown” in Egypt, “the square was rung by thousands of police and protesters were coming in up from the subway…There was a group of protesters blocked from the square and they created their own demonstration…and they started walking away from the police” so the police let them in to the protest because they did not want a protest that wasn’t contained by the police. “I don’t think that [the U.S.] sees Mubarak as a failure yet…The idea that they are going to have a father and son show. With the father being the longest running twit [in the Middle East]…I think they think Egypt is the perfect showcase for neo-liberalism” because back in the 1970s Egypt you couldn’t get anything, “now you can get anything you want,” iPods, TV’s, etc. “From that point Egypt is a success!” But it doesn’t help the poor and working class.

6:37

Question: Al Jazeera had coverage of the events and the regime representative on a show blamed the Muslim Brotherhood had to do with the instability and that the police were protecting the protesters. Has these protests changed the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood and how are people talking about the Muslim Brotherhood right now and how radical Islamic views in Egypt are being compared to radical leftists and socialists.

Question: Can you talk more on the “strike committees” that set up the strikes in Mahalla and is there new organizations being built up by the working class.

Question: Could you fill in on the history of women in the labor movement in Egypt in the past.

Question: Suharto fell due to the economy but Indonesia is a capitalist state, South Africa which overthrew apartheid but it is still a capitalist state with poor Blacks still worse off; if you don’t have the social power of the working class what are the other political forces that will create a new government in Egypt?

6:39:

Answers:

AS: “We’ve learned a lot…We used to have a view [socialists] that the move from a dictatorship to an open democracy could not take place without such a convulsion in society that would cause a permanent revolution…and the working class would not stop with just a” liberal bourgeois democracy. “It turned out it did not work that way!”

AS: “The movement is now much smaller now…The secular left is not dominant now in many countries, the religious left is!”

HH: “A workers whom I interviewed…in 2007…the regime tried to blame the Brotherhood for the strikes which was ludicrous…The [religious right] took a reactionary role in breaking the strikes in 1946…The Brotherhood have taken a peculiar position on the strikes…They did not speak out against the strikes as they did in the ’70s, but with statements….Did they do anything on the ground, the haven’t,” as the Brotherhood has 100,000 to 1 million members at any time, “they have many divisions,” especially with the young activists in the Brotherhood. “The only thing that is uniting them are the security crackdowns…and that they are illegal and that they are under court marshal…Does that mean that leftists would not coordinate with the Brotherhood…That is not the case” even when the Brotherhood assaulted socialist students in the 1990s, “I myself was assaulted by the brotherhood.”

HH: Because the socialists were in solidarity with the Brotherhood when the government cracked down on them numerous from the 1990s to now and because the socialists criticized the government and were pushing for a militant agenda “this has caused confusion among their ranks,” which has caused some in the Brotherhood to ally with the socialists and radical left. It has gotten to the point where the Brotherhood, on campus and in other places, can’t plan an action without speaking to and planning with the socialists because of their strong militant stances (despite them being smaller than the Brotherhood). “Those who are leading the strikes are now implementing political demands” in their strike actions and speeches.

HH: “In some places there are underground local unions being organized right now but I can’t get into detail with that right now…In the history of Egypt we never had a feminist movement” but there was an attempt to launch a style of a Western style feminist movement in the 1920s by the Egyptian elite but nothing ever came of it. “Currently we have a middle class feminism centered around the NGO’s” but they are demanding middle class bourgeois reforms, but they never took part in the strikes. “Women took central role int the strikes in places where women were heavily involved” in the work place. There are no organizations being created off of the strike committees yet. “You had 20,000 workers chanting against the president, chanting against his son, chanting against the conditions…But you still don’t have unions” that are apart of the workers movement that are independent from the state controlled unions. “From this we are hoping, from the ground..we will be able to build an independent labor movement…What we are trying to do in Egypt, at least with the radical left, are to win them over from factory to factory.”

6:59:

Question: It seems as though the neo-liberal forces are putting up a veneer that they are creating reforms for democracy to create a breathing space to continue their oppression against the working class and the Third World. Will this bight them in the ass in the future and back fire.

Question: How does the socialist movement relate to the Pan-African movement.

Question: What is Nasser’s legacy in Egypt today due to his anti-imperialism but also on his defeat against Israel and his crackdown on the Communist Party in Egypt.

7:03:

Answers:

AS: You have a component in Egyptian society that is newly rich that doesn’t trust the government, the U.S., and the poor. The government believes that if it does create a big enough middle class it will create stability. On Pan-Africanism “some of the attitudes of Egyptians…is pure racism towards people of Nubian origin and darker skinned people” and it’s the old divide and rule.

HH: “Unfortunately…the attitudes have changed in Egypt from the 1950s and ’60s” on Pan-Arabism and Pan-Africanism, “in daily life if you talk identity, if you ask an Egyptian if they are African they would not digest it well” they consider themselves Muslims, Arabs, Egyptians, even Mediterranean, but not Africa. African Blacks are looked down upon as unwelcomed refugees and are servants and do menial jobs in the society and there has been some attacks, some brutal, against African Black immigrants. “But this has always been different with the radical left” and many Black Nubians have joined the radical left and socialists because of this. “Again, you always find contradictions in people’s heads…the country is going through its worst sectarian strikes in years…but at the same time, in places where there is heavily Christian presence, you find Christians leading the strikes” such as the railway strikes. “You have the two processes happening together.”

HH: “Before becoming a socialist I was a Naserist. I grew up as a Naserist…I knew the torture and the loss of the Israeli war…there always was an explanation…Why would people hold Nasser’s photos in protests…Because of his anti-imperialist rhetoric…and because of the Palestinian cause…It’s more or less like a symbol…Nasser by the public is regarded as a mixed legacy…some of the striking workers to fantasize about the days of Nasser…also among the peasantry…because of agrarian reform…However the memory has become” so detached now due to the gap in history and they don’t remember the oppression under him. Workers back 20 years ago would not want to strike because they viewed the public sector as “Egypt” and it would harm Egypt and Arab unity and nationalism. But now because the public sector has been destroyed this is not the case now. Which is why there have been some many strikes recently.

7:20: Presentation ends.

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