Mahalla updates

Keep clicking on that refresh button at Hossam's for updates on Mahalla, where tensions are extremely high as we might head into a third day of riots. In the meantime, a repeat of the general strike is being called for May 4, the date of Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday. I'm heading there this afternoon. In the meantime here is an account from activist Jano Charbel on yesterday's riots:
Intifada in Al Mahalla A popular uprising has been taking place in Al Mahalla Al Kobra since April 6. Local residents, in the tens of thousands, took to the streets of this Nile Delta city in protest against price hikes, and in protest against the detention of more than 300 locals. With stone-throwing youth and Central Security Forces engaged in running street battles Al Mahalla has come to resemble the occupied Palestinian territories; and the protests in this city have come to resemble an intifada. Over 100 civilians and members of the security forces have been injured in clashes, and at least one civilian (a 15 year old boy) has been killed.
Hundreds of CSF trucks have been deployed around the city and hundreds more within it. Upon approaching the outskirts of Al Mahalla on the night of April 7 one could clearly notice that the security forces were facing stiff resistance on the streets – because tens of these CSF trucks, which were stationed around the city, had their windshields smashed-in (despite the protective metal grids covering them.) Tear gas stings the eyes and irritates the respiratory system upon entering the city itself. In the neighbourhood of Sekket Tanta black clad riot police were firing tear gas canisters at just about anybody on the streets – including women, children, and the elderly; other troops opened fire on protestors using shotgun shells filled with rubber-coated pellets. Yet CSF troops could not disperse the youth protestors on the streets of this neighborhood. Male teenagers, along with (a significant number of unemployed) youths in their early twenties were at the forefront of these clashes with the CSF. Youth rained stones down upon the security forces and hurled Molotov cocktails at them. Clashes in this neighborhood had subsided only after 11pm. These youths chanted very expressive slogans against Hosni Mubarak, the government, and the interior ministry. Other protestors had destroyed photos and portraits of the Egyptian president that were found on the streets. Every single resident of Al Mahalla, with whom I spoke, confirmed that the non-violent demonstrations against price increases on April 6 had turned violent only after security forces moved to forcefully disperse demonstrators. Thus a peaceful demonstration quickly turned into a violent expression of popular discontent. Public properties and private enterprises have been the targets of attacks – a microbus was set ablaze, while three schools were torched, and two branches of the local ful & falafel franchise Al-Baghl were partially destroyed. It could've been local youth protestors who were behind these acts, or it could very well be the doing of destructive elements deployed by the interior ministry - in order to serve as a pretext for further crackdowns, and/or to tarnish the image of the protestors. One youth protestor said "I don't know who set fire to the three schools, or why they did so? But I think I understand the motives behind the burning of the microbus and the attack on the Al-Baghl Restaurants. The microbus was a state-owned vehicle, and thus a natural target for attack. As for Al-Baghl, I believe the restaurants were attacked due to popular discontent with rising food prices – only five years ago a ful or falafel sandwich at Al-Baghl cost 35 piasters, it now costs 65 piasters per sandwich." Another youth protestor on the street asked a member of the riot police "when's the last time you had a bite to eat? The officers aren't feeding you poor folks are they?" Looking exhausted and being unable to leave his spot, he quietly replied "we haven't had anything to eat in nearly 24 hours.
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What to make of the "general strike"

As the khamseen winds blew into town today, a strange thing happened. A general strike that has been called for weeks went missing. People went out on the streets, asking, "have you seen the general strike?" "Are people striking over there?" "Do you know where the general strike went?"

It was all rather odd, because opposition and independent newspapers had been promising a "day of rage" and an "uprising," and the stodgy old state newspapers had ignored the subject altogether, preferring to concentrate on news that the price of rice and cooking oil had gone down and, er, that anyone striking or not showing up to work could face prison. The previous evening, a communiqué from the Ministry of Interior was aired on state television, telling people that they could get into a lot of trouble for participating in a general strike which wasn't going to take place anyway. The very, very pro-NDP Rose al-Youssef had also tried to reassure its readers: "Don't worry, there won't be a general strike, you can peacefully go to work."

On the opposition side, while most legal parties decided not to back the call for a general strike, there was the usual ambiguity from the Muslim Brothers, with one day General Guide Mahdi Akef calling for it and the next the group's Secretary General Mahmoud Ezzat (frequently thought to have more organizational weight) was saying that the MB were giving moral backing to the strike but would refrain from participating. Only Kifaya, Karama and a handful of the usual groups (radical leftists etc.) lent their full support for the idea of a general strike by going out on the streets. A much bigger group of people, mostly on Facebook, were calling for staying at home rather than going out on the streets to mark the general strike.

So, to recap, there were at least three strikes taking place yesterday: the Mahalla workers' strike and solidarity strikes by workers elsewhere, such as Kafr al-Dawar; the solidarity strikes and protests by the political movements in universities and major cities like Cairo by Kifaya and related movements; and an unknown number of solidarity stay-at-home "strikes" by individuals. These were of course all connected, but not necessarily all coordinated. I also wonder whether some of the workers striking for specific gains -- a new minimum wage, better benefits -- might have felt apprehensive about their cause being made into a symbol for the call for abstract gains -- democracy, reform, down-with-Mubarakism. The connection between the strikes carried out by the organized labor movement, which has specific bread-and-butter goals and whose political aims have for now focused on better representation in the local and national unions, and the broader political opposition is thus still hazy. There is certainly a great deal of public sympathy and admiration for the workers, a consciousness among the political class that they represent a movement that could be harnessed more effectively than Kifaya's disparate coalition, and the source of symbolic leadership for dissent that, unlike specific individuals like Ayman Nour or whoever else, can't be put in jail, be slandered or decapitated.

If we look at these three strikes separately, we can learn different lessons.

The workers' strike

There had been some uncertainty about the strike beforehand. Its main instigators, or at least the people who inspired it -- the brave workers of Mahalla al-Kubra -- apparently were divided about whether what was supposed to be their strike should take place. Although Hossam says this is because of the co-option of some labour leaders in Mahalla:

The factory itself has turned into a battleground of open propaganda warfare between the state-backed Factory Union Committee and the CTUWS faction on one side (and what a bloody irony when the CTUWS activists were the ones who had initially led the fight against the govt backed unions!), and the Textile Workers’ League activists who continue to agitate for the strike on the other. Statements and counterstatements are circulating the factory floor. A number of CTUWS activists were threatened with physical assaults by the workers when spotted distributing anti-strike statements from Hussein Megawer the head of the corrupt, state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions. The activists fled the scene, and left the statements hung on the wall, only to be torn down by the workers. Mohamed el-Attar, one of the CTUWS activists, phoned Ad-Dustour labor correspondent Mostafa Bassiouni. Attar was fuming, after Mostafa ran a report exposing the anti-strike pledge signed by Attar and four other labor leaders, and threatened Mostafa with a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Textile Workers’ League called on the media outlets to boycott Attar and Co accusing the latter of losing credibility… Management officials in the different departments and production sectors are showering the factory floor around the day with calls against the strike, and the Gharbeia Province governor showed up in Mahalla and met with a group of the management as well as police informers in the factory to discuss how to sabotage the industrial action…

Since the CTUWS have been the leaders behind the Mahalla workers' movement -- the same ones who previously organized the largest strike in decades -- it seems to me that if labour leaders are in the middle of negotiations as they claim to be, they have a right to not go on strike. I would reserve judgement about the workers in favor of the negotiations, since they never asked to become national symbols of dissent and are after getting what they want from management. Besides, whatever the dispute between the CTUWS and the Textile Workers' League about whether or not to hold the strike, the atmosphere at the factory was very different than on previous occasions they held the strike.

It seems security forces took over the factory starting at 3am, were out in force in the city and made clear that they were ready to use violence. It seems that those who decided to join the spontaneous protests that began after the 3:30pm shift change ran into some serious resistance, including the use of cattle prods to electrocute strikers, tear gas, and other measures. Unlike previous strikes, probably because the security forces were so aggressive, this got quite violent as troops battled workers throwing stones and on occasion molotov cocktails. I hope that this does not set the new pattern for future strike actions, as it would probably mean the end of the powerful non-violent resistance shown by workers across Egypt over the last two years. Most seriously, at least two people appear to have been killed and hundreds were injured as live ammunition was used -- as it had been to control the last major strike movement in the mid-1990s. The consequences of this clash for the factory that had indisputably grabbed the leadership of the labor movement is still uncertain, and one hopes it does not put permanent shackles on labor activists there.


Hossam has more details on what happened in Mahalla, and links to pictures.

The activists' strike

It was already pretty clear from the ministry of interior's warning on Saturday that a no-tolerance policy would be applied to activists involved in the general strike. By early Sunday over 95 activists, bloggers and politicians had already been arrested, and a stroll through Downtown Cairo showed that security was serious about coming out in force. Midan Tahrir's occupation by Central Security forces (and various sundry other units, including baltaguiya), with the backdrop of the khamseen's apocalyptic skies, certainly made a strange impression. As usual the activists were herded and pushed onto Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street, and from the terrace of the Lawyers' Syndicate over a thousand activists staged their demos. I see nothing very interesting here -- the show of solidarity was nice, but we haven't moved beyond the dynamics of the Kifaya protests of 2005. The presence of baltaguiya, especially, suggested that security forces were quite ready to resort to the tactics of using these hired street thugs, who are paid 20-30 pounds and a sandwich by police to beat up protesters, to avoid direct police-activist clashes. One wonders why they do that, except if only perhaps that the police and Central Security troops, which form the cordons that contain the demos, do not want to get their own hands dirty. Or perhaps security does not trust them to engage against ordinary citizens in this manner and prefers to have them remain on the sidelines.

The stay-at-home strike

This is the potentially most important part of yesterday's events, although it is difficult to interpret. Why was Cairo so empty yesterday?Was it because people decided to stay at home in a show of solidarity, or because people were afraid to go out and face potential riots and the security crackdown? Was it both, a form of safe civil disobedience for people who don't want to take the risk of open political participation? It's hard to know the answer, but the fact that many classrooms at schools and universities were nearly empty yesterday suggests that, one way or another, the call for a general strike had a real, widespread public resonance. Some, like Baheyya, see in this a budding campaign of civil disobedience of the kind many have advocated for several years. She had written in July 2007:

The notion of organising a national civil disobedience campaign has been percolating for some years now, pre-dating the current spectacular wave of protests. In fall 2004, it gained the valuable intellectual and moral imprimatur of retired judge and historian Tariq al-Bishri, who wrote a lucid defence of non-violent resistance as the only feasible and effective method of engaging the increasingly violent and personalised rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reading it again, I’m struck by how much has changed since al-Bishri penned his words. The fragmentation and dearth of collective action that he lamented three years ago are unrecognisable today, replaced by incessant societal movement, to wit: the electoral mobilisation of 2005, the pro-judges’ protests of 2006, the innovative campus organising of 2005 and 2006, the workers’ uprising of 2006-07, and the more recent spate of ordinary people’s street action.

By civil disobedience, al-Bishri meant precisely the kind of street-based collective demand-making and reclaiming of rights that is now sweeping the country, spearheaded by labour unions, craft guilds, professional associations, student unions, and ordinary people. Kifaya et al’s recent initiative goes well beyond this mode. It ventures into the most challenging, the most difficult terrain: seeking to activate societal sectors unused to expressing opposition of any kind, whether street protest or dissent in salons and political parties or writing letters to newspapers or joining a block association or any of the myriad other ways that politically aware citizens air their views.

The stay at home initiative targets those who cringe from making any sort of visible statement about public affairs but are by no means indifferent about current events. It seeks to tap into the intense and ambient sense of anger at the authorities that has settled over the entire country like a thick, low-hanging cloud, the subject of every household conversation and office chatter. It attempts to normalise dissent by weaving into the rhythm of everyday life, whittling it down to a simple, doable, and above-all risk-free act of staying at home (what we all love to do anyway) and hanging the flag from a window or balcony, an eminently respectable and patriotic gesture tweaked just enough to make a bold but non-threatening statement.

Is this what happened yesterday? I really don't know, but it's plausible that this kind of attitude is slowly developing. What's certainly encouraging is that the strike was supported by a myriad of different organizations. The MB's hesitant take on the strike -- understandable since putting thousands of their members on the street would have led to certain mass violence -- was nonetheless important, since it gave it the moral backing of Egypt's most important organized political force. Others too joined in who are not among the usual suspects, such as university professors fighting for greater independence and better salaries or the latest middle-class, professional movement to hit the scenes, Doctors Without Rights.

The workers' cause, the bread crisis, the outrage over last year's constitutional amendments, multiple corruption scandals, high prices, a bankrupt Egyptian foreign policy, the abandonment of even pretending to hold fair elections, routinized arrests of political dissidents -- all of these things have affected virtually all strata of Egyptian society, and the feeling of uncertainty over the future caused by the absent of a clear presidential succession process have all contributed to growing disenchantment with this regime. I think this has been pretty well established. For over two decades now, any political force that tried to rally citizens around this disenchantment has been met with repression and decapitation of leadership. We are left with a leaderless movement, one that some fear could turn into a mob, as it did during the 1977 bread riots, whose memory hung heavily over yesterday. Or, maybe, it just turned into a day of limited solidarity, an alpha version of what a real general strike might look like in the future. It remained a real condemnation of the current state of affairs. One socialist activist wrote in an email:

On April 6, 2008 Egypt did not in fact witness a general strike. Yet there is always potential for a general strike and there is clearly a great deal of discontent which may fuel such a general strike in the future. Since the massive strike at the Mahalla Textile Company in December 2006 Egypt's workers and labor unions have become increasingly vocal and active. An increasing number of workers have also been demanding the establishment of freely organized, independent, and representative labor organizations; an increasing number of workers have also been developing their contacts with other groups of workers and coordinating their efforts – these are the elements that are needed for a general strike.

Speaking of 1977, I was talking recently with a friend who was at university that year about his impressions of what was happening. He told me about one friend who had told him that he had been stopped by rioters who had set up a checkpoint. They politely asked him to step out of his car so they could burn it, as they had been doing all day. He pleaded: "but my car is a small, look at the one behind me, it's a Mercedes." So they let him go, and proceeded to torch the Mercedes. A prominent Marxist professor who had been very supportive of any anti-Sadat initiative then arrived, pale-faced: "the riff-raff have taken over the streets!" The lesson here is that even people who sympathize with workers or would like to see a massive uprising are afraid about the consequences of mass public . 1977 was bloody, and did not resolve anything beyond getting the price of bread to be reduced again -- a poor substitute for the better economic management, job creation and accountability so sorely needed in Egypt. Perhaps yesterday's invisible strikers are still looking for means for meaningful political expression without potential chaos, an option the regime has denied them for decades.

See also:

6 April blog - Dedicated to general strike

Underbelly of Egypt’s Neoliberal Agenda - Joel Beinin looks at another factory case, also covered here.

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Fouad Mourtada is free

The Moroccan who was jailed for putting up a fake profile of Prince Moulay Rashid has been freed. This is great news, and while it should have never gotten to this, better late than never. I suppose the king wanted to make sure the message got across that the royal family is a no-go area for satirists and critics.

CASABLANCA, March 18 - Fouad Mourtada was released from Oukacha Prison at approximately 8:00pm local time today, having received a royal pardon.Mr. Mourtada, a 26-year old IT engineer, was taken into custody on February 5th, 2008, and was questioned regarding a fake Facebook profile of King Mohammed VI’s younger brother, Prince Moulay Rachid, which he had created on January 15. During his interrogation, Mr. Mourtada reports that he was beaten, spat on and insulted.On February 22, Mr. Mourtada was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of $1350 for creating the fake profile. The official charge was identity fraud of an electronic document.Following Mr. Mourtada’s detention, an international online movement arose calling for his release and, following sentencing, for a full pardon. On Saturday, March 1, young activists used a Facebook group to organize worldwide protests opposing Mr. Mourtada’s imprisonment, which occurred in Rabat, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Washington DC, Montreal, Madrid, and London. A video of the protests was later posted on YouTube.Mentions by international news organizations, such as the BBC, encouraged Moroccan domestic media to take up the story, which increase pressure on the government to act.Tonight Mr. Mourtada is staying at the house of friend in Casablanca. He will retain to his family tomorrow.

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Khaled Hamza

Khaled Hamza is the editor of , the Muslim Brothers' impressive English website. I met Khaled several months ago and he's a very affable, intelligent man. Last week he was arrested after meeting a human rights activist in the Nasr City neighborhood of Cairo and thus become the latest Egyptian web activist to be imprisoned. Even for those who don't agree with the MB's religious, political or social views, Khaled is the type of person you wish you saw more often in Egyptian journalistic life. The way Ikhwanweb has been run, notably the inclusion of many points of views that are critical of the Ikhwan, is a testimony to his own open-mindedness (note to current MB leaders: you could learn something here about not being thin-skinned, as you were when your political program was criticized).

There is an online petition calling for Hamza's release here.

Update: What he says.
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Bidoun Winter 2008: Souffles and Maghrebi counter-culture

The Winter 2008 issue of Bidoun, the Middle Eastern arts and culture magazine, has been out for a few weeks now. For some weird reason I can never access it directly from Egypt, it only works through a proxy like or, but it's worth the trouble to check out the striking cover (below) and some of the articles they put online, such as the essay on Moroccan counter-culture in the 1960s/1970s by Issandr El Amrani. Get the print issue (in Cairo from the Townhouse gallery, elsewhere at good magazine stores) to read about Ismail Yassin and much more.


(No, I don't think that building really exists.)

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Chairman of Ghazl Mahalla sacked

Al-Ahram announced this morning that Mahmoud Gabali, the chairman of Mahalla for Spinning and Weaving, has been sacked and that workers would be given 135 days of pay. The decision, taken by the company's board, was based on accounting inconsistencies detected by the Central Auditing Agency, a government watchdog. Apparently the audit uncovered irregularities in inventory stock, large discounts given to local traders, and other possible signs of mismanagement or corruption.

The decision appears to meet most of the pay-related demands of the workers and has been greeted with joy by those who organized the biggest strikes in decades at the factory this year. It appears the government has finally shown sense and investigated the allegations made by the workers regarding the chairman of the company. This will no doubt encourage workers elsewhere to persevere with their own demands. I am certain that Hossam, who is traveling at the moment, will follow up with more details once he gets news from his labor activist contacts.

Update: Here is an English report.

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Some thoughts on the YouTube ban

The Guardian's Brian Whitaker has highlighted YouTube's decision to block the Egypt torture videos page, which we recently covered. In his post Brian says points how this removes a crucial tool at the hands of bloggers to distribute and publicize cases of human rights abuses and build a campaign against Egypt's systematic use of torture. Reading the comments on the post, there is legitimate discussion that footage of gratuitous violence violates YouTube's terms of use and that it may not be the most appropriate place for these videos for other reasons (since most of its content is essentially funny home videos). Fair enough. Some people suggested that rights groups should be hosting the videos, which seems like a good idea (although it might limit their reach, since way more people visit than That's a good idea too, except that rights groups, even the big ones, don't really have the kind of technology necessary to handle traffic spikes and maintain video databases (which I assume means buying license rights to various software, codecs, etc.) So here's an idea: why not encourage YouTube, Google Video and others to provide their expertise to maintain servers for activists, separately from their commercial products if necessary? This would be a great vote of confidence in web companies, especially after the fiasco of Yahoo and Google selling out to China in recent years. Don't want their names on it? Fine. But they have technology and resources that have radically transformed the away activists can break news and mobilize international interest. So rather than sticking to just "don't be evil," how about some "be good"?
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Israeli activists call on Mubarak to break Gaza siege

Just got wind of this:
Fifty Israeli peace and human rights activists have approached Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, via the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, calling upon him to immediately open the Rafah Border Crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip to free movement of persons and goods, and thus break the siege imposed at the order of Defence Minister Barak, and which is pushing the population of the strip over the edge of humanitarian disaster. "We saw no choice but to take this step and approach the Egyptians directly. This after the Defence Minister, to whom the option of cutting Gaza's electricity supplies was for the time being denied, found the horrible substitute of drastically cutting the supply of vital foodstuffs. Those who don't raise their voices are accomplices. The government of Israel is completely uncaring about the terrible suffering it is causing to a million and half inhabitants of the Strip for whom it is responsible. It also does want to understand what is said by its own military experts: that causing this suffering does not in any way help the people of Sderot – on the contrary, it increases and exacerbates the shooting of Quassam missiles. We do not accept that the only choices left are to starve the inhabitants of Gaza or to conquer the Strip at the cost of terrible bloodshed. There is another way, the way of mutual ceasefire and negotiations which should include all parts of the Palestinian people" say the initiators of the letter of the fifty.
The full letter is after the jump, I think the activists are involved with Gush Shalom / Peace Now, although this does not appear to be an official move on the organization's part . I would say this is one occasion for Egyptian and other pro-Palestinian activists to back the Israeli activists' calls, no matter what their stance on normalization might be. I may be wrong about this having been out of the country most of the summer, but I have heard of little Egyptian activism to get the border open (legitimate security concerns of Egypt notwithstanding). Below is the full text of the letter sent to Mubarak: To His Excellency Muhammad Hosni Mubarak President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Via The Egyptian Embassy, Tel Aviv Your Excellency We the undersigned, citizens of the state of Israel - after numerous unsuccessful efforts to address our own government - have decided to take the step of approaching you on the subject of the severe and fast deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip, and in which you can effect a substantial change. As you know, the Government of Israel rejects out of hand any possibility of a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and continually tightens the cruel siege imposed on the Strip's million and a half inhabitants. This siege completely paralyses economic activity in the Strip and drives its population under the poverty line and to the edge of starvation. The cutting of fuel supplies to the Strip, the closing of the Sufa Crossing, the cutting of foodstuff deliveries and the intention to cut electricity supplies are but the latest in a long series of severe acts of collective punishment. The Israeli public is told that these acts are needed in order to stop the shooting of missiles on the town of Sderot. It is not told that, in the opinion of the Army's own experts, the punitive acts would only exacerbate the shooting. This siege could not have been maintained without the consent of Egypt. While arms and ammunition continue to be smuggled from Egyptian territory into the Strip, despite the presence of Egyptian security forces, already for many months the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip is completely sealed and locked to the passage of peaceful civilians and of vital goods needed by the civilian population. As citizens of the State of Israel, concerned for collective guilt and our future in face of the irresponsible policy undertaken by our government, we call upon you, Mr. President, to do all in your power to help break the siege imposed on the inhabitants on the Gaza Strip: to open the Rafah Border Crossing to a free movement of persons and goods, supply to the inhabitants of Gaza fuel and any other vital need denied them by the Government of Israel, and supply the Gaza Strip with the electricity it needs from the Egypian electrical grid so as to end its dependence on Israel. If you take this brave and positive act, Your Excellency, all inhabitants of the region will have a reason to thank you - your own Egyptian people, the Palestinians and at last also the Israelis. Sincerely Yours Aviv Adashi, Nitzan Aviv, Adv. Amir Badran, Efri Bar, Talma Bar-Din, Yossi Bartal, Naomi Benbassat-Lifshitz, Mor Ben Israel , Judy Blanc, Edna Canetti, Hava Cohen-Keller, Ran Cohen, , Moshe Eliraz, Yitzchak Frankenthal, Eli Kalir, Eva Katz, Uri Katz, Dr. Bareket Shiff Keren, Adam Keller, Nimrod Kerrett, Hanna Knaz, Daniel Lang, Joyce Livingstone, Tamir Magel, Susanne Moses, Rayna Moss, Dorothy Naor, Ofer Neiman, David Nir , Noa Roei, Eddie Saar, Ayelet Senyor, Emily W. Schaeffer, Galia Shapira, Ehud Shem Tov, Gideon Spiro, Dr. Yosefa Sartiel, Michal Sapir, Su Schachter, Yaniv Shahar, Galia Shapira, Sonia Stainfeld, Benny Tavor, Osnat Tavor, Eran Torbiner, Tamar Yaron, Arkadi Yaroslavtsev, Dr. Yael Waldman, Bekah Wolf, Merav Yerushalmy, Amnon Yuval, Uri Zackhem, Beate Zilversmidt, Emanuel Zytner.
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Rural Egypt's Return to the Ancien Regime

Middle East Online has a translation of a Monde Diplomatique article I'd previously linked to on the reversal of agrarian reform in Egypt. This excerpt deals with the new law passed in the 1990s that has led to many farmers losing land and helped former landlords regain land they had been forced to sell under Nasser:
The 1992 law changed farmers’ lives profoundly. Average rent values have risen 10-fold, and now represent between a third and a half of gross annual income. Perhaps three-quarters of the farmers renting in 1996 have given up because of debts. Farmers have had to indebt themselves to pay rent, and households sell jewels and livestock, reducing expenditure (less meat in the diet, fewer children at school). As the number of very small holdings has declined, those over 10 feddans (4.2 hectares) have improved in number and surface area. It is clear that inequalities in the distribution of agricultural land are again rising, despite the advances between 1952 and 1980 and the relative immobility thereafter. Over the past 10 years there have been social explosions over land in the governorate of al-Minufiyya, where Kamshish lies. They are the result of manoeuvres by former landowners and have been ignored by the media. Dispossessed families used the new legislation to recover their previous holdings, or obtain more attractive parcels. There have been violent clashes between farmers and the police or hired agents working for these families. Villagers have been intimidated, illegally imprisoned (and tortured), or summarily tried and heavily sentenced. The Land Centre for Human Rights considers that between 2001 and 2004 there were 171 deaths, 945 injuries and 1,642 arrests.
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Recent funny YouTube videos

Below are some anti-Mubarak activist videos, some quite funny. The very last one is the best, to the tune of the theme song from a movie (I forget its name) about a young man who saves to be able to marry only to have his money taken and the girl he wanted married off to someone else. He sings this song as he arrives at her wedding, describing what was done to him by her family and asking for his money back. Altogether, it packs quite an emotional punch and has hilarious adaptations of cinema posters lampooning regime figures. Of course this site in no way endorses their content!
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On the importance of leadership, warts and all

Two posts I put up recently featuring opposition figures -- Iran's Akbar Ganji and Syria's Maamoun al-Homsi -- generated an interesting response: attacks on these activists as being cowardly, formerly close to the regime, or having some other negative side. It could be that these criticisms are fair -- I really don't know that much about Ganji, although his credentials seem impeccable, and even less about al-Homsi (but am fully aware the journalist who interviewed him, an acquaintance, is a Lebanese with clear political biases who works for the pro-Hariri newspaper al-Mustaqal, although he is mostly a cultural journalist and a poet). The tendency to nitpick at the credentials of opposition figures -- which is fair enough considering there are plenty of self-serving opportunists out there and the world is still reeling from Ahmed Chalabi's manipulations -- is something that increasingly bothers me about political discourse in this region. I was guilty of it myself in 2005 regarding Ayman Nour, a politician whose career I was familiar with long before he became the poster boy for the "Cairo Spring." I'd always recognized that Nour was a talented populist but saw him as ultimately second-rate and unlikely to appeal to Egypt's elite. Looking back, I regret not giving him more credit and that especially the Arabic media (not just the state-controlled part) did not give him more of a chance. He may have been far from perfect, but he had the courage of his convictions (or maybe ambitions, but does it matter?) and I look back and believe he achieved something quite unique: he campaigned against a practically all-powerful president and tried to challenge him as an equal. In essence, he called the bluff of Mubarak's pretense to open up the political scene and presidential race, and put all his effort in it. The 7% score he got in the elections, while perhaps apparently small, was actually quite an achievement. I think the regime knows this, hence the five-year sentence and horrible treatment he is receiving in prison. The Middle East will not be able to have credible alternatives to the existing regimes unless we start putting some faith -- some suspension of disbelief -- in the leaders who try to emerge against them. If we go along with the press attacks on these figures, the campaigns of disinformation, and wait for a knight on a shining armor -- well, we might be waiting for a long time.
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Blogging Egypt's Factory Strikes

Blogging Egypt's Factory Strikes:
Whether or not this is picked up in the American press shouldn't matter. It's a story to pay attention to, however you can. The textile factory at Ghazl el-Mahalla in the Nile Delta is Egypt's largest, with over 27,000 workers. Nearly all of the factory's workers went on strike last December to demand their yearly bonuses, which had been withheld and which provide most of their annual salary. On Sunday, some 10,000 of those factory workers went on strike again, demanding 150-day shares of annual profits, improved industrial safety, and a raise in their monthly bonuses. Within a few hours the number swelled to 15,000 as Egyptian police surrounded the factory. The Egyptian government quickly declared the strike "illegal." "The numbers of strikers are expected to rise in the coming few hours...the factory is under police siege," according to posts today by Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy. His blog, 3arabawy, is one of Egypt's most widely read in English. Along with Wael Abbas, an Egyptian blogger who gained international attention last year by posting (and continuing to post) videos of police brutality, el-Hamalawy is a go-to source on the rumblings of a wide scale labor movement in Egypt.
Keep track of Hossam's frequent updates to follow news of the strike. And come on, American journalists in Cairo, make the effort to do a different kind of story and head over to Mahalla al-Kubra. They make the best taamiya in Egypt. Update: AP has a report on the arrest of labor leaders.
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Major strike at Nile Delta factory

Hossam is writing a lot today about a massive strike taking place at Ghazl el-Mahalla, apparently the biggest such strike at a major textile factory since the beginning of the year. He has videos and complains the issue is not getting international press coverage. From an activist's account:
After the first day of the strike and sit-in, the picture inside the factory is really amazing. 10,000 people breaking the fast together in Tala’at Harb Sq, located inside the company compound. It’s a scene, which I find no words to describe it with…. The government has started to present some compromises via the head of the Factory Union Committee Seddiq Siyam, in exchange for disbanding the strike. But the stupid forgot he was asking this (strike suspension) while the workers’ emotions and zeal are running at the highest peak you can imagine.. The inevitable happened.. the dude was screwed. The workers almost killed him, seriously I’m not joking. But he was saved at the last moment by the strike leaders.
Al-Masri al-Youm has coverage of the strike, saying there are 27,000 workers partaking (which might make it the biggest strike ever) who are protesting the non-payment of performance-related bonuses. They have made eight demands, including one of political significance such as the removal of the company's chairman and the withdrawing confidence from their representatives in the official (state-controlled) union -- a step that would encourage the formation of independent, parallel union structures. No wonder considering the official union said the strike was illegal and blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition political movements was behind the strike. One might ask whether this is going to be different than any previous strike, where generally the government made major concessions fairly quickly. Perhaps not, but it strikes me [no pun intended] that every time you have this kind of situation you have the potential for things to get out of hand and escalate unpredictably... Update: Hossam has some more thoughts on making the link between economic demands and political change.
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Wael Abbas wins award

Not having internet at home, being very busy and feeling a little bit under the weather means blogging is light, but I could not pass up the great news that the pride of the Egyptian blogosphere, Wael Abbas, won a Knight International Journalism Award for his website MisrDigital. I am especially happy as I wrote a letter to the Knight Foundation recommending him for the award! Elf mabrouk ya Wael!
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USS Liberty demo

The Arab American News:
Washington — Americans will gather in Washington on June 8th at 4:00 p.m. at the Navy Memorial Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue to honor U.S.S. Liberty veterans on the 40th anniversary of Israel's unprovoked attack on their ship. The American intelligence ship sustained 70 percent casualties but remained afloat due to the heroic actions of its crew after Israel's two-hour attack. Thirty-four sailors and marines were killed and 172 wounded in the heaviest attack on an American ship since World War II. According to the Department of the Navy, the only official American government investigation of the event was a 1967 Navy Court of Inquiry that found the attack to be a case of "mistaken identity." That hastily conducted investigation has since been discredited by its chief attorney, Captain Ward Boston, as a cover-up ordered by the Johnson White House. "It was a political thing. We were ordered to 'put a lid on it.' The facts were clear. Israel knew it was an American ship and tried to sink it and murder the entire crew. The outrageous claims by Israel's apologists who continue to claim the attack was a mistake pushed me to speak out. The official record is not the one I certified," said Boston, a former FBI agent. "My initials are not on it." According to senior naval officers, Johnson personally ordered the Navy to recall its aircraft and cancel its rescue mission while the Liberty was still under attack by Israeli forces before ordering the cover-up (
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هـي آه... بـلدنا لا

Egyptian bloggers will hold a "wedding party" in Talaat Harb Sq., Friday 4 May, 6pm, to celebrate the marriage of our future president Gamal Mubarak to the lovely Khadiga, which will be held simultaneously in Sharm el-Sheikh. The bloggers' protest party will be held under the slogan: "Heyya ah! Baladna La!" (basically: Go and marry her, but don't marry our country!" Click on the banner below to read more details in Arabic. وتكون آخر الأ�را� Mabrouk lil 3aroussein.
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