For over 15 years, the population in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has suffered the consequences of a neverending conflict. The area is a scenario of gross human rights violations such as massacres, mass rapes, large-scale population displacement or the recruitment of children by rebel groups and the national army among others. The figures are controversial but most of the studies estimate hundreds of thousands have been displaced and several million dead as a result of the violence and the connected hunger and diseases.
Mineral resources play an important role in the conflict dynamics and the violence in the east of the country. The different parties fight for the control of mines and trade routes, which are a significant source of income to continue their operations. However, it is important to highlight that minerals are not the root cause of the conflict.
Conflict minerals and blood phones
Since the last decade, the role of the mining and trade of mineral resources has gradually gathered the public’s attention.
Campaigns to raise awareness and lobbying have focused on the atrocities committed by armed groups, highlighting mineral trade as the source of funding. The ones targeting wider sectors of the population, especially in the United States (US), have been used to highlight the direct links between our smartphones, the minerals necessary for their production and the serious human rights abuses against the civil population in DRC. Terms such as “conflict minerals” or “blood phones” have been used to bring public attention to a conflict often labelled as forgotten.
In July 2010, the US Congress decided to legislate on the conflict minerals issue by enacting Section 1502 within the Dodd-Frank Act. As recognised in the text itself, the underlying objective was to deal with the fact that “exploitation and trade of conflict minerals originating in the DRC is helping to finance conflict characterized by extreme levels of violence in the eastern DRC, particularly sexual- and gender-based violence” committed by both rebel groups and the national army. The minerals affected are the so-called 3Ts, columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite and wolframite as well as gold.
This legislation imposes certain reporting and disclosure obligations on SEC-listed companies (Securities and Exchange Commission) regarding the origin of the minerals used in manufacturing their products and the due diligence measures taken to make sure that the purchase of those minerals has not contributed to the armed conflict in the DRC.
It was not until late 2012 when the rules regarding the specific obligations for companies affected by Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank were approved. The reason behind this delay was the difficulty to regulate such a technical issue and, especially, the lobbying and pressure exercised by some groups representing the interests of the industry and clearly against regulation, who tried to stop it from materialising.
The effects on the ground
Meanwhile, the mining sector in eastern DRC suffered. Companies stopped importing minerals from Congo due to the attached reputational risk. Even prior to disclosure of the final rules of Dodd-Frank, in September 2010 the Congolese government decided to suspend all artisanal mining exploitation and trade in the east of the country. It was a fruitless but also counterproductive attempt in interrupting the funding of armed groups (including the national army) and the violence. Artisanal mining is, unlike industrial mining, based primarily on manpower with little or no technology or machinery involved.
Apart from not contributing to solving the conflict, the artisanal mining suspension, together with the decrease in the international demand for Congolese minerals, had additional adverse effects on the socio-economic conditions in the east of the country.
Artisanal mining is an important source of income for families. It is estimated that between 500,000 and two million people work in the sector, where the number of miners active in gold mining is estimated to be four times higher that of those active in all 3Ts combined. This is relevant for the issue of financing of armed groups, given that the DRC’s gold production is exported almost entirely unrecorded. Therefore, armed groups who want to mine, trade or tax gold to finance their activities have plenty of opportunities.
Artisanal mining is an opaque and mostly informal sector where the notion of healthy and safe working conditions is inexistent. A description of the human rights abuses connected to the artisanal mining sector in the Congo would require an additional analysis detailing the collapses in the mines, child labour, forced labour, etc. Without diminishing the abuses related to artisanal mining, this article focuses only on the conflict minerals situation.
The decline in trade and the artisanal mining suspension have been considered the “de facto embargo” of minerals from eastern DRC. As a result, the income of many families decreased. Consequently, families’ capability to adequately feed themselves and send all children to school was affected, food habits worsened and their ability to buy medicines, make small investments in livestock or save part of their income were affected. The rudimentary economy of communities dependent on the mining sector was negatively impacted as consumption decreased.
Almost four years have passed since the enactment of Dodd-Frank. The violence continues in eastern DRC but many interesting things happened on the ground. For example, several domestic, regional and international initiatives have been implemented to try to break the financial link between mineral exploitation, trade and the conflict.
Observations from the present
At this moment, the European Union is drafting its own conflict minerals regulation. This month, very relevant details about the draft legislation will be disclosed, such as, the geographical scope (DRC or also other countries in conflict?), the resources affected by the regulation (minerals or also other natural resources?), the nature of the obligations for companies (voluntary or mandatory?) and the type of companies regulated.
In this context, it is important to analyse what happened in the DRC since the enactment of Dodd-Frank and use the lessons learnt to achieve an effective regulation at the EU level and to avoid further adverse impacts.
With this in mind, IPIS (International Peace Information Service) embarked on a research mission in which I took part. During 5 weeks we travelled across eastern DRC (a country almost five times the size of Spain) where we interviewed mining authorities, cooperatives, academics, NGOs and other stakeholders in the main cities. We also visited eight mining areas where we interviewed miners, wives of miners and local authorities.
The outcome of this study is documented in a report (http://ipisresearch.be/publications_detail.php?id=426) from which several general findings can be highlighted to understand the current situation and contribute to the effectiveness of the future EU legislation.
The evolution of the socio-economic situation
In all areas researched as part of the study, it was observed that the mining suspension and the de facto embargo had very negative socio-economic consequences on the local population.
However, during the last year, the situation has improved in certain areas, where mineral trade progressively increased. Often this occurred in concrete areas where some of the above mentioned initiatives to separate trade from conflict were implemented.
Some of those initiatives are, for example, the creation of Centres de Négoce where miners and other intermediaries trade under the supervision of local authorities and without the intervention of armed actors. Another initiative involves the implementation of a traceability system through the tagging of the bags in which minerals are transported. In this way, the origin and the different intermediaries in the supply chain can be identified.
The conflict is not only about minerals
As highlighted above, mineral resources are not the cause of the conflict although they contribute to prolonging it. It is evident that any strategy to put an end to the conflict will necessarily have to deal with the mineral resources issue. However, other problems are equally important: conflicts over land, the refugee situation, the lack of State authority in the east, the security sector reform, the demobilisation and integration of rebel groups into the national army etc.
In addition, it should be taken into account that conflict minerals are not the only source of income for armed groups. Illicit taxation, trade in charcoal, poaching, and foreign support networks are already alternative sources of income in use.
Participation of local stakeholders
One of the key elements to successfully address the complex issue of conflict minerals is the consultation and effective participation of local stakeholders in the design and implementation of the different initiatives trying to break the links between mineral trade and conflict.
On the ground, it is not uncommon to hear complaints on the manner in which some of these initiatives are implemented: without the sufficient participation of local stakeholders. For a permanent and sustainable solution to be achieved, the participation of local civil society, State agencies and local authorities among others is essential. However, it has be questioned whether there is sufficient political will and capacity to deliver solutions; given the institutionalised corruption that besets everyday activities.
Lack of political will
The conflict in the DRC in general and the issue of conflict minerals in particular, contain an interregional element. Thus, the solution will be the result of the collaboration between the countries in the region. However, it is not clear whether a true political will is present, especially if we consider the lack of success of the multilateral mechanisms and the support given to armed groups by neighbouring countries.
In addition, the government of the DRC seems to lack the political will to control its artisanal mining sector. This could be due to the absence of a strong financial incentive. Even though it is a source of income for hundreds of thousands of people, it would require a lot of effort to control the sector, for a limited financial return, especially when compared with the taxes that can be taken from the industrial mining sector. Besides economic reasons, the limitations of the State to achieve such a complex task should not be overlooked.
Is the state able to control the artisanal mining sector?
Experts call it “formalisation” – the capacity to regulate and implement policies to control the artisanal mining sector. However, there are several structural problems that do not allow formalisation to take place in today’s circumstances.
The State does not even control all the territory in the east of the country. Besides, many mining areas are under control of armed groups, almost half of those examined by IPIS so far (see map for more details http://ipisresearch.be/mapping/webmapping/)
Corruption among State officials is systemic. Public agents extort both miners and traders to complement a salary that is insufficient and often unpaid. Additionally, mining agencies lack the technical capacities and resources to control the sector: they lack personnel, the necessary training and vehicles to cover vast areas of territory.
The implementation of the conflict minerals initiatives
All initiatives designed or implemented on the ground to address the issue of conflict minerals and the linkages with the conflict require the participation of state agencies. The problem lies in the difficulty to imagine those public agencies being able to implement or supervise the functioning of the initiatives across the sector and not only in concrete pilot project areas.
A look on the bright side
It is difficult to be optimistic. However, there are reasons for hope. For example, important manufacturers in the electronics industry are trying to achieve a “conflict-free” supply chain for the minerals used their products without necessarily abandoning the DRC. In January, Intel publicly announced that all its microprocessors were becoming conflict-free, not without controversy. (http://www.obamaslaw.com/2014/01/09/intel/)
However, maybe the most important thing is the growing visibility and relevance of the debate regarding the origin of the minerals used in our consumer electronics. The demands of society make politicians consider legislating about this issue. Those from consumers make companies seek new sustainable solutions. We remain expectant before the next policy decisions at the EU this month and in the industry, hoping that they will contribute to the end of the conflict and the improvement of living conditions of the population.
By Boštjan Videmšek, Athens
- Wasim Abu Nahi, 36, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent, recently underwent an almost indescribable personal tragedy.
- It came to pass on July 21, as Turkish traffickers dropped him off on the cliffs in front of the Greek island Samos, accompanied by his thirty-year-old wife Lamise, his four-year-old son Oday and his tiny daughter Layan, who was nine months old.
Since the Greek coast guard refused to provide assistance, and since his wife was injured and both his children were exhausted and dehydrated, Wasim left them behind to search for water, food and any help he could get. He was soon arrested and imprisoned by the local police, who refused to even listen to his pleas. As he sat helplessly in his cell, a forest fire broke out on the island, eventually claiming the lives of Lamise, Oday and Layan. The police’s reaction to this unspeakable tragedy was to arrest Wasim’s two Syrian companions who had sailed with him to Greece and charge them with causing the fire, even though there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support the charges.
After keeping Wasim imprisoned for five more weeks, they eventually let him go. With the help of friends and local activists, he immediately travelled to Athens, where he met with his nephew from Sweden. Together, they then returned to Samos and, after a few gut-wrenching hours, found the remains of Wasim’s family. Utterly broken, Wasim travelled back to Athens, where he is now stranded. Since he hasn’t been awarded refugee status, he cannot even file for an asylum. He is living with one of his Syrian acquaintances in the anarchist quarter called Excarhia, which was where I met him. What follows is his story. A story about Europe. A story about the human race.
“My family and I, we used to live in Dubai, but in the spring I lost my job. I come from Latakia by the Mediterranean sea. In 1948, my parents fled from Haifa to Syria to escape the Jewish terror. A large part of my family remains there still. So my first impulse after losing my job was to return to Syria, I wanted to help – I could no longer just stand by and watch the destruction of the land and the suffering of my relatives. But my wife convinced me my first duty was to the future of our children. Layan, my little girl, was only a few months old. Returning to Syria was simply not an option. We decided we would head to Turkey and try to worm our way into the European Union. Our ultimate goal was to reach Sweden, because I have some relatives there.”
Wasim Abu Nehi was telling his story in a quiet, monotone voice, and his gaze was focused on some undefinable, unfathomable point in the distance.
In Turkey, some friends got him in touch with the local human traffickers. Because of its proximity to several Greek islands, the Turkish coastline is one of the key points of entry for the ragged, starving immigrants from all over the world who had set out for the promised land called European Union. Yet the vast majority of these refugees from war and unimaginable poverty are quick to learn that, for them, the EU is no promised land, but merely a xenophobic, racist and bureaucrat-dominated new circle of hell.
Wasim, too, was quick to admit he’d allowed his expectations to run high.
“I wanted to go to Sweden, where my nephew could help me find some work. Everything had already been arranged, you know. My wife and children would have probably been awarded refugee status, since they had Syrian citizenship. It would have been a bit harder for me, since I only have Palestinian papers, but I know I would have gotten by somehow.” With an audible lump in his throat, Wasim was telling me this in a murky street in Athens, where the ever-present smell of marijuana mixed with the smell of grilled meat. As he was telling me how his entire life was burnt to cinders in a single day, he kept weeping and shuddering and hugging himself for what pitiful semblance of comfort he could get. He told me that some psychiatrist gave him a prescription for tranquilizers, but these only made him feel worse. He reached into his pocket and produced a grimy grey cellphone.
“This was my daugher,” he clicked through the pictures: “This was my son. This was my wife. My family…” Tears were flowing down his cheeks. He looked up into the darkening sky. In a small quiet voice, he started to pray. Then he pressed the button that brought up one final image.
“This is what we found after the fire.” The picture, like a heavy blow to the ribs, showed me a heap of charred bones and some family jewelry.
“I came to Europe and immediately lost everything. I had come here to live, not to die. My wife and children didn’t pass away. They were killed. They were murdered by the Greek police. By Europe.”
Clenched fists. Firmly shut eyes. This was Wasim Abu Nahi, screaming his silent, impotent pain inside an abyss; in total darkness.
“On the boat, one trafficker and two male refugees from Syria, Jihad and Mohaned, were also present. We sailed from the Turkish town of Cukhuhazi at half past seven in the morning. It took us around four hours to get to Samos. We met no one on our journey. The trafficker unloaded us beneath a huge cliff and told us we were in Greece. In Europe. He told us to climb to the top of the cliff. We shouldn’t have any problem with that, he smiled. Up there, we were supposed to find a trail with someone waiting for us, a person who would arrange our further passage to Athens. There were six of us, and we only had a liter and a half of water between us. We were also running very short on food. We believed the trafficker that everything was in order. So we reached dry land and started to climb. It was awfully, awfully hot. Both my children were exhausted. My wife felt very ill. But after five hours of torture, we somehow made it to the top. Up there, we found nothing, only thorns and rocks. There was no trail, no path, no nothing. We were very high up, and all we could see was the ocean. But I still felt quite optimistic. It felt like we were so wonderfully close to our salvation!”
But salvation, for this fate-whipped band of migrants, was very far away.
The Turkish trafficker had chosen to dump Wasim’s family on one of the most remote parts of the otherwise beautiful island of Samos. Once Wasim grasped what had been done to him, he fell into a rage. Night was descending upon the travellers, and the family had already run out of food and water. Jihad, the 44-year-old fellow refugee from Syria, somehow managed to get the Turkish coast guard on his cellphone. They informed him that they were powerless to act, since the band of migrants was officially on Greek territory. They sent him an SMS with the number of their Greek counterparts, which Jihad immediately dialled. A woman answered and promptly told him they would all get arrested for illegally entering the country. After being informed about the exhausted and dehydrated children, the woman promised she would immediately send help. It was agreed that, once the coast guard ship was near, the migrants would send it light signals to indicate their location.
After two hours of miserable huddling on the rocks, the band of travellers indeed glimpsed a ship headed in their general direction. They immediately started a small fire. Wasim told me that the ship eventually stopped close to the coastline and flooded them with heavy, powerful light beams. “We thought we were saved. But the ship simply turned and sailed away. We didn’t know what to do! We waited, and after twenty minutes the ship returned. But this time, we were unable to start a fire. Our only lighter had gone bust, you see. So we tried to signal it with our cellphones, but the ship turned around and disappeared again. Jihad called the number we’d been given, and the same woman answered and told him they hadn’t even sent the ship out yet, so it couldn’t possibly have been one of theirs. We all felt that was horribly weird, but what could we do save to keep begging to be rescued? And then the cellphone’s battery ran out. We decided to wait until morning. We lay down on the ground, hungry and thirsty as we were. Around five in the morning, we set off in a pretty much random direction. Mohaned, the younger of the two Syrians, went off ahead while Jihad kept pace with us. My wife could barely walk. I was carrying both children and most of our luggage. At a certain point, my wife fell down on the ground and couldn’t get up. She told me to press on and get help, while she would stay there and keep watch over the children… Those are the last memories I have of them.”
Once more, the man telling the story was overcome with tears. His eyes were puffy, his face deeply traumatized. His body was prone to sudden spasms, as if he were being tortured with electro-shocks from afar. Suddenly, he took my hand, looking even more lost and confused than before. “My daughter was nine months old,” he said: “On October 19, my son would have turned four.”
On that fateful night, Jihad, too, had been too exhausted to keep walking. He gave Wasim a sacred promise he would remain with his wife and children and keep watch. Faced with an extremely difficult decision, Wasim chose to go on and seek help.
“So I forged ahead. It had to be done, there was no getting around it. I kept walking for a while, then, on the other side of the island, I descended down toward the sea again. My aim was to reach the first available village or beach and alert the people to our plight. The only way I could get to the beach on the other side of the bay was by swimming. There were many sharp rocks in the water. I swam up to one of them, and then a small fishing boat came floating by. I called out for help, but the man in the boat looked away, he was probably afraid of me. People on dry land could not hear my cries. I had drunk a lot of seawater, and I felt very sick. Then I saw the first helicopter, swooping down to collect some water from the sea. After that, many more helicopters came to put out what I later learned was a huge forest fire, and planes as well. Smoke was rising up into the air in the distance. I got so scared I almost lost control of my sanity. I started to scream and jump up and down on that rock jutting from the sea… I would have done anything to draw attention to myself. And then I glimpsed a house.” Wasim threw himself into the water and started swimming for his life. When he reached the shore, he was still screaming at the top of his voice. A Greek man stepped out of the house and informed him about the forest fire. He gave him water and some clothes, then he called the police. It was in the early morning of July 23.
The policemen arrived very quickly.
“They immediately arrested and handcuffed me. They wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. They took me to the local police station and threw me in a cell. Only later they called for an interpreter. Crying uncontrollably, I told him my family was dying. I begged for his help. He went away, and after some more time passed, a policeman came to collect me. He took me by boat to the vicinity of the place where I parted from my wife and children. That particular patch was still unconsumed by the fire, but the fire was raging all around. I asked the policeman to take me up there to dry land. But he refused. I was hand-cuffed, there was nothing I could do. He immediately turned the boat and took us back toward the harbour. Why did we even set off in the first place?!, I kept wondering hysterically. But this time, the policeman took me to another police station.”
As they arrived there, Wasim saw his family’s luggage lying on the ground. For a blessed instant, he was convinced that his loved ones were safe. It was all he cared about, but in the station’s prison he pnly found Jihad and Mohaned. Jihad informed him that his wife had been unable to walk, so he had chosen to proceed by himself.
“Jihad was arrested 44 hours after I left my wife and children. He and Mohaned were charged with starting the forest fire. Without so much as a shred of evidence! Today, they are still imprisoned on Samos, waiting for the trail which is some five or six months away. They threw me in jail again as well. During the first nine days, they only took my handcuffs away when I needed to urinate. One evening, one of the policemen dragged me to his office and forced me to watch pornographic movies to break my will as a devout Muslim.”
When, after a good long while, they started interrogating him in earnest, Wasim told his story in its entirety to the prosecutor. “I cried all the time. I was absolutely desperate. Even then I somehow knew the worst had already happened. None of the policemen went to search for my family. Finally, a representative of the United Nations came to visit my cell and promised to take care of everything. Four more days passed, maybe five. The policemen assured me they had searched the area and found nothing. I spent fourteen more days in that prison. And then – without so much as a word – they transfered me to a local detention centre for the immigrants.
From there, Wasim was able to call his nephew in Sweden, who immediately made the trip to Greece. But since he was an immigrant himself, he should have obtained a special permit from the authorities, and immediately upon his return to Sweden his passport was confiscated. In the detention centre, Wasim was also helped by a lawyer named Marianna and a Syrian activist named Aziz who invited him to come live with him for a while in Athens. Almost a month after that horrible, fateful night, Marianne officially filed three missing persons claims for Lamise, Oday and Layan. Only then the policemen on Samos set themselves in motion. Yet they still claimed there was nothing to be found. Wasim himself was forbidden from moving around the island. The detention centre was really just a prison with a politically correct name. The crime committed by the poor souls locked within its walls was to have been born in the wrong part of the world. In the promised land called EU, such a crime often merits the death penalty.
After his long wait in prison, Wasim’s lawyer and activist friends helped him to finally obtain a set of papers which entitled him to a six-month stay in Greece. In official bureaucratspeak: since he came from Syria, a country consumed by war, his deportation had been ‘delayed for six months’. After he got the papers, he went to Athens and then quickly returned to Samos. Accompanied by his nephew and by Aziz, he started searching the area where he had last seen his loved ones. It didn’t take long before he found their remains. “Their bones and jewelry…” he said and showed me the nauseating picture on his cellphone again. “This is all that was left of them. They murdered them by refusing to help them. They had more than enough time. They knew all they needed to know. We could have easily been saved by the coast guard. We found the bones a mere two hundred meters away from where that policemen took me with his boat. We are now having a DNA analysis made. Once the results are in, I am going to file a suit against those who are responsible. Against the murderers of my wife and children. Apart from legally leaving Greece, this is now the only goal I have left. I am a dead man. I don’t have any reason to go on living. They took everything from me, and there was nothing I could do. I still feel like I am drowning.”
For the last time during our meeting, Wasim Abu Nehi dissolved in a spasm of uncontrollable sobs. Then he repeated: “My wife and children did not pass away. They were murdered by Europe.”
* Check www.bostjanvidemsek.com and his new book “Revolt: Arab Spring and European Fall”
by Jaime Alekos
In the early hours of September 25th, 2013, over a hundred riot police forced their way into a Madrid apartment under orders to evict Isabel Rodríguez, her husband, eight-year-old daughter, and parents. The apartment belongs to the Municipal Housing and Land Agency (EMVS) of Madrid.
EMVS, a public limited company fully funded by the Madrid City Council, is responsible for developing the city’s housing policy with a focus on affordable housing for those in financial difficulties. According to EMVS, it provides a public service.
Isabel’s parents were rehoused in the apartment after their own home was expropriated 24 years ago. Isabel moved into her parent’s home to look after her mother who suffers from a bipolar disorder and her father who has a degenerative illness.
Madrid city council claims that Isabel’s parents owe €1,000 and own two properties, which disqualify them from public housing. Isabel denies the debt and claims she has tried several times to pay but the payments have been returned. As to the two properties, she maintains that in the case of one she has bare ownership (she can only live there when the current occupant dies) and the other has been foreclosed. She and her husband are unemployed and have no home of their own.
Manuel Sanpastor, a lawyer with the Platform for Social and Public Housing Victims (PAVPS), a sister organization of the Platform for Mortgage Victims (PAH), has no doubt that the housing block where Isabel has lived in Villaverde, a working-class area in the south-east of Madrid, will be sold to a private investment fund in order to pay debt owed by the Madrid housing agency. In June 2013 the mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella, sold 1,800 publicly owned flats to the venture capital company Blackstone.
According to Sanpastor, the sale of protected-rent flats to investment funds has led to a significant increase in evictions from public housing in Madrid, to the point where the cases notified to PAH and neighbourhood assemblies in the past 12 months have exceeded the number of evictions owing to mortgage defaults.
Local housing groups have created platforms which focus specifically on evictions from public housing. They blame EMVS and IVIMA (the equivalent organization of the Madrid autonomous region, also hugely in debt) for failing to negotiate solutions in cases of non-payment, not agreeing to talk to those affected, and for refusing to accept payment of sums owed, which enables the evictions to go ahead and the subsequent sale of public housing to private investment funds.
Rodríguez and her family are now living in the courtyard of the block from which she was evicted. Relatives and neighbours provide them with meals and have helped the family set up an awning to protect them from the rain.
With unemployment at over 25%, wage cuts and increasingly precarious work conditions, an estimated 350,000 families have been evicted from their homes since Spain’s property market crashed in 2008. There are 500 evictions a day, according to government figures. Even after repossession, homeowners in Spain remain liable to repay whatever value is left on the mortgage.
Juliane Kokott, the European Court of Justice’s advocate general, has criticised the current rules on evictions, saying they violate European consumer protection rules.
Por Bostjan Videmsek
In the last weeks, the Egyptian Army – a state within the state – pulled off a carefully planned and meticulously organised coup d’état. Fear and rage have once again swept through the streets of Cairo.
All over Egypt, the final, unbearably sad act of the so-called Arab spring is taking place. The same people who, two years ago, stood firm at the Tahrir square and risked their lives to defy Mubarak’s tanks are now openly collaborating with the people who stole their revolution. In fact, they did more than steal it. Egypt’s military gerontocrats, almost all of them close friends or associates of the fallen despot Hosni Mubarak, needed a mere eighteen months to dismantle the revolution and completely strip it of its innocence. Now they have done it for the second time, and they have been rewarded with a resounding applause. Even worse: the protesters in the streets, who have never been more numerous, have recently been joined by the much hated Egyptian police, traditionally one of Mubarak’s deadliest weapon of mass destruction. It is hard to envision a more ironic development. Fearing the mounting islamisation of their society as well as the country’s headlong plunge into economic ruin, the protesters let themselves be used by the very same people they used to struggle against… Meaning the very same monsters who murdered 846 of their comrades during the revolution’s first surge – the very same people who pushed the country into the Islamists’ hands in the first place.
One year ago, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) temporarily transferred its power to the Muslim Brotherhood and its presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, a man with all the charisma of a Soviet council building. By putting a lot of effort into its ‘shadow welfare state’ project, the Muslim Brotherhood has been preparing for this transfer for the past eighty years. Together with the Salafist movement (Al Nour party), the Islamists first secured a decisive victory in the ensuing parliamentary election. Then Morsi defeated the army’s candidate Ahmad Shafik in the presidential race. But the Islamists only seized the actual reins of power once the military elite greenlighted the whole deal. On every level, the country the generals finally handed over was in a disastrous condition. In the months following the revolution, the generals dealt harshly with the revolution’s ringleaders. Mubarak-style, they threw thousands of them to jail. They also struck a succession of heavy blows to the major NGOs. Local and international. By the very swiftness of the post-revolutionary election, they denied the young protesters the time to organise politically. They pulled the police from the streets and made sure Egypt became a truly dangerous land. Crime rates were quickly going through the roof. In effect, the democratic election only strengthened the system’s all-pervasive corruption, and the revolution was soon officially a fiasco. In the initial stages, the Islamists, helped by their powerful backers from Riad, Dubai and Doha, made good use of the general vacuum and the socio-economic ruination. But when the army finally relinquished the throne, the Islamists failed to translate their rather solid local communal record onto the national level. Large parts of their own structure became corrupted by the neo-liberal influences whose main aim was to carve up and devour what still remained of the Egyptian economy. The end result was that the proverbially community-minded Islamists started working against some of their own key social and ideological dogmas. In this sordid equation, they were the dupes – unwittingly doing the army’s dirty work, ushering in the IMF’s riders of the apocalypse. Because of this, the subventions for flour, gas and electricity are about to be cut – subventions that are essential for the survival of tens of millions of Egyptians. If Egypt didn’t blow up now, it would have done so in a few months at the latest. By then, the cost of living will be two or even three times greater than it is now. In a country with extremely rapid population growth, poorly organised agricultural production and limited water resources, this is tantamount to a declaration of war.
The recent coup, which the Egyptian diplomats were quick to describe to me as “an intervention to protect national security”, is certain to further shake up the country’s already precarious situation. The Muslim Brotherhood may be on the defensive, but it remains Egypt’s by and large strongest socio-political movement. It is hard to envision the army quashing it in any decisive fashion. If anything, the recent developments are bound to have the opposite effect. Contrary to the expectations of the protesters who orgiastically celebrated Morsi’s dethronement, the coup is certain to only worsen the already dangerous division of the Egyptian society.
When one also takes into account the civil war in Syria, where as many as 100 000 people have been killed, the blatant carving up of Libya, and the total eradication of Palestine from both the future and the past of the Middle East, one realises that the Arab Spring has just been dealt a lethal blow. In Cairo, those who fought so bravely for their freedom are now flocking to embrace their tormentors.
The Crackdown Against the Islamists
Tuesday, July 9, afternoon. During the memorial service in front of Rabba al Adawia mosque in the Heliopolis quarter, the North-African summer sun is at its cruellest. Several tens of thousands of supporters of the toppled president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have gathered here to say goodbye to the 51 comrades who had been murdered by Egyptian soldiers and armed civilians the previous day at dawn.
Mothers, sisters and wives of the protesters who had been shot for demanding the release of the dethroned president Morsi are letting out their grief. Their wails are piercing the afternoon’s swelter. A few of the women have already collapsed. An old woman fainted, and volunteers in fluorescent vests promptly carried her off towards the numerous ambulance vehicles parked nearby. The walls are covered with Islamist slogans. The protesters – just like the ones at Tahrir square – are waving Egyptian flags and showing written English sentences to the very few foreign correspondents who have showed up. »25th of January was a revolution. 30th of June was a coup!« says one of these missives to the world. Or: »General Sisi, we’re not afraid of death!« And: »The power of people against the mighty army!«
Men of all ages are kneeling and praying. In front of the mosque, there isn’t enough room for everyone who came to pay their last respects to their shahids, the martyrs.
“We refuse to call for vengeance! We refuse to call for even more violence! We must not respond to the army’s provocation! It is hard to control our rage, but we have no other choice. We have been humiliated, we have been robbed of the rights we have won through democratic election. Now they are waiting for us to make a mistake so they can wipe us out for good. What happened yesterday is the best possible proof of that. I was standing in front of the entrance to the republican guard officers club. The demonstration was entirely peaceful. There weren’t that many of us. At the time of the first morning prayer I heard the shots. Then all hell broke loose. I don’t remember it all too well. I ran and fell, I took cover, I saw at least ten corpses. Not all shots have been fired by the same side, but I am positive that most of the deaths have been caused by the soldiers. We were unarmed. There was nothing we could do to resist. Yet we were also prepared for such an atrocity. The army and the old Mubarak regime, which have now seized power again through this coup, have always treated us like garbage. Like we were unfit to live,” said Ahmad, 34, a teacher at the high school of the Nasr City district in Cairo. I talked to him under a tent made from truck tarpaulin, where some of the mourners occasionally retreated to recover from the sun. Ahmad politely declined to share his last name, since the authorities would quite likely throw him in jail. He certainly wouldn’t be the first to meet such a fate. The army, along with squads of sub-contractors in civilian clothes (policemen, intelligence officers, loyalists), has been performing a severe crackdown.
“I am officially not a member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) or the Muslim Brotherhood. I’ve never been into politics, but I have always been against the Mubarak regime. I know a lot of people who have been imprisoned simply for being outspoken Muslims. And this in a country which is one of the most religious in the world! In the last election, I voted for Morsi. Ahmad Shafik, who ran against him, was clearly devoted to Mubarak. The army’s candidate. To avoid him being president, I would have voted for anybody! Today, the people who then didn’t dare to run for office are the loudest. Especially Mohamed ElBaradei. Now there’s a man I really don’t trust! Look what they’ve done to us! I’ve spent a good deal of the winter of 2011 at the Tahrir square. I believed in this revolution. I fought for it. Now what? They have decided to divide us and pit us against each other. They clearly want war. Why? What good is that to anyone?” The words kept pouring from the high-school teacher. One of his friends, a teacher as well, lay there before us wrapped in a sheet of blood-soaked cloth. The day before, after the shooting had stopped, it was Ahmed himself who had lifted him up from a bloody puddle.
* * *
In front of the mosque, the imam, using a megaphone, is reading out the names of the people slain in the Monday massacre. Many of the deceased hadn’t been buried within twenty-four hours of their last breath as their faith demands. In the name of ‘security’, the army stripped them not only of their lives, but also of their rights for a decent funeral. All of the above reminded me of the tragic scenes from some other Arab countries – all of them countries at war.
The Sky Above Tahrir
On Sunday night, July 7, the entire Cairo came to the streets. Morsi’s supporters were protesting in the Nasr City and Heliopolis districts. The ‘revolutionaries’, who are doubtlessly in the majority, have claimed the centre of the Egyptian capital, where, in the last two years and a half, two despots have been toppled – two men who got infected with the God syndrome. The only difference between them seems to be that, in the case of Mohammed Morsi, the incubation period was much much shorter. His delusions came to flower in record-breakingly short time.
Above the Tahrir square, the emotional nexus of both the first and the second revolution, the military planes actually drew out a giant heart. What a tangle of cynicism, saccharine irony and the theatre of the absurd! In their wake, low-flying fighter planes left exhaust-formed images of the Egyptian flag. Helicopters were also hovering above the square, and the crowd of several hundred thousand people was all too eager to cheer at the military pilots’ acrobatics. A tourist might have been forgiven for supposing he had found himself at a top-level aviation rally. The only thing that might have confused him would be the images of Barack Obama with a long Islamist beard and the all-pervasive slogan of “America supports the terrorists“. Pretty ironic, seeing how Washington allocates 1.3 billion dollars per year to support the Egyptian army.
The crowd at the Tahrir square, the theme park of the Egyptian revolution, looked dazed in this preposterous celebration. It has been going on for four days in a row. So many of them had come to gather here: the middle class, the students, the pensioners, the women. So many women. Two nights earlier, the crowd has been attacked by armed Islamists. The entire incident was shockingly ferocious. The Islamists, using automatic rifles, were firing at the unarmed protesters from a bridge. Filled with mortal dread, the people were running in all directions. But the army, the self-proclaimed guardian of the revolution, merely watched impassively, and the police again disappeared who knew where.
The Dismantling of the State
The people I talked to at Tahrir kept repeating to me that they had no choice. They had to protect themselves against the rising tide of Islamism, they said. The president they removed from office had set out to dismantle the secular state. His aim was to rewrite history and banish all women from it. He tried to replace the rough physics of statehood with the cheapest of religious metaphysics. The economy simply fell apart. The Egyptian pound sunk to the bottom. Gas, electricity, flour and water were beginning to run out. The food prices skyrocketed. The modus operandi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could be summed with a single word, inshallah, only deepened the poverty and brought the country to the brink of a horrendous armed conflict.
* * *
»This is a military intervention on behalf of the people after collecting 22 million signatures asking for early presidential elections the incompetent president rejected. It also comes after the president supported terrorist groups threatening opponents with extermination. The people needed protection against terrorism and fears of a civil war or national disintegration. So it is not a military coup in the traditional way. This is not what western media understand and think only by the western political dictionary and don’t know the intricacy and background of the situation. The Egyptian military intervention is temporary. It’s here to face terrorist threats and re- steer the transition through a civilian council until Egypt crosses the transitional period successfully,« I was told by dr. Said Sadek, professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.
Sadek is one of the most vocal supporters of the revolution that started two years and a half ago. He was profoundly gladdened by the fall of Mohammed Morsi. He says he knew that the reign of the Islamists could not last long. According to the professor, it was but a phase in a long revolutionary period of a state with very little democratic experience or tradition. In other words, it was just a part of a much longer historical process.
»This is the second wave of the Egyptian revolution. The people during the last two years got more empowered. They want the objectives of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity realized. The first revolution started in urban areas. The second wave witnessed participation and eruption in rural and urban areas . The objectives are the same. The first revolution targeted Mubarak regime and his police state. The second wave is targeting the Muslim brotherhood and their supporters.Political Islam became a big business within the institutions, academia, media and politics. It had been dealt a severe blow that would make it weak for some time unless it changes and modernizes its ideas. The guidance bureau of the Muslim brotherhood was no different in archaic ideas than the political bureau of the Soviet communist party. Ikhwan will not win presidential elections but may get a lower percentage in parliamentary elections due to their voting machine in the countryside where their social base is located. The Muslim brothers are now out of balance and feel lost so they act in a suicidal way. They are clashing with the people not the army. Their fictitious ideas about grand caliphate and Islamic state are being shaken. That’s why they act like angry infants running, screaming and hitting everywhere. They had no solution to any chronic problems. Just empty slogans. Islam is the solution is no solution at all. Islam is the solution was an electoral slogan used to mobilize the illiterate and poor. Almost 40% of the population. Islamism would remain but now in a less influential form. People now have less illusions about them and their ideas,« professor Sadek believes.
According to him, the events of the past few weeks – together with a year’s worth of the Islamists’ incompetent and fundamentalist rule – have greatly weakened the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. So much so, that the Sadek doesn’t see them recovering in the near future – regardless of their rich gulf-based friends.
»What is expected now is street politics. And, for a brief period, political violence. The Muslim brotherhood has an economic empire and links with the CIA. So this gives them incentive to fight for a while and protection / insulation from total destruction. Their future will be in opposition, not in the government. What is important is creating a new orderly inclusive political process to start right now. Transitions are never orderly. People learn by direct experience. Egyptians are now more politicized than under Mubarak and also under Morsi. The next president of Egypt should take that into account,« dr. Sadek went on. He assured me that he was well aware of the threats and perils Egypt is currently facing.
»Civil war or widescale political violence is of course possible – taking into consideration the vast interests of the Muslim brotherhood and their economic empire. To calm things down, unfortunately, requires restarting the political transition process in a more inclusive and transparent way. Morsi failed to unite the country and divided the people in a way never seen before in Egypt. The country was on the verge of a civil war and the people demanded a saviour against terrorist groups,« Sadek believes optimistically. He is convinced that now – unlike 2011 – the army does not covet more political power: according to him, it does not really need it, since the situation is such that the protesters had no other recourse but to ask the army for help. »The alliance is tactical. The revolutionaries will not oppose that.The country needs technocrats not army generals for managing the economy.«
»Any kind of violence is unacceptable!«
But there are also those who are less enthusiastic and more concerned about the country’s both short- and long-term future. One of them is the Belgium-based Egyptian activist, blogger and commentator Khaled Diab, who feels that any kind of violence is unacceptable. According to him, the army has dealt far too harshly with Morsi’s supporters. This approach, he believes, should be condemned by all the relevant political and revolutionary groups.
»Some have seen in the army’s disproportionate actions and excessive use of force confirmation of the gross miscalculation and hypocrisy of Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary forces by backing the forcible removal of Egypt’s ‘legitimate’ and ‘democratically elected’ leader. But I see the army’s actions and the clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators not as the product of political legitimacy undermined but as a symptom of illegitimacy compounded until the entire house of cards came tumbling down. Morsi lost any claims to legitimacy that he may once had. But the problem run much, much deeper than that. Egypt’s botched political transition towards democracy excluded or sidelined most of the revolutionary youth movements due to restrictive and prohibitive conditions for party formation, which favoured the established and highly organised, sucha as the Brotherhood,« claims Diab.
Brother and the Salafists created Orwellian constitution. Diab says, that it officially “declares all Egyptian “equal”, but some Egyptians, middle-aged, conservative Muslim men, to be precise, were far, far more equal than others. More chillingly, it empowered the state to ‘safeguard and protect morality and public decency’ and to ‘maintain a refined level of upbringing’,« adds Khaled, who (in his blog) wrote that Mohammed Morsi confused himself for Superman in November 2012, when he changed the Egyptian constitution and gave himself unlimited power.
»And then, there is the murky, anti-democratic rule of the military. SCAF had never withdrawn from the political arena; it just retreated tactically behind the façade of a subservient political system largely of its own making,« Khaled Diab critises the general, who run the country since 1952. With some really brief pit-stops … The rule of old men in uniforms is guilty for not bringing up the new political elite.»Six decades of dictatorship left Egypt without a clear pool of competent leadership material. But with their boundless reserves of creativity, Egypt’s young revolutionaries, who sometimes seem to be rebelling also against the very concept of leadership – turned a weakness into a powerful political weapon which decapitated the Egyptian regime three times in two and a half years. The current situation provides the golden opportunity to reinvent Egypt’s political system and to create a unique model of Egyptian democracy that is tailored to this reality in which there is no leadership, institutions are weak and there is an overriding public desire for direct democratic participation,« thinks Khaled.
Still shocked by the ferocity of the violence in these past few days, he added that what looks like a dog and barks like a dog still remains a wolf. A wolf in uniform who has the rather unique opportunity to feast on sheep who are flocking into his jaws by themselves.
By Boštjan Videmšek, Istanbul
What looked like a beautiful dream really was only a dream. After twelve days of festival of freedom in central Istanbul, Turkish government cracked-down the protest(ers), arrested many activists, journalists and lawyers and destroyed the idea that something like a democracy is possible in Turkey. It’s not. And it will never be. The era of human rights is dying down fast. There’s no place for this “dead-weight” concept in neoliberal economy with etatistic fundamentals. Turkey. China. India. Brasil. And, yes, European Union.
But still … Taksim square was for days a place of freedom and forgotten ideals. It will, forever, stays in the memory; in the historical memory. And one could feel it while the festival of freedom was going on. It was nostalgia in live. And a story fortold.
Utopia Called Freedom
On Wednesday, June 5th, in the evening, hundreds of freedom-loving residents of Istanbul were dancing a dance of victory at the teeming Taksim square. During the previous weekend, this patch of ground was the scene of horrendous fighting between the protesters and the police; now it was a liberated zone, where at least 50 000 people congregated every night. After the police finally retreated (both from Taksim and from the Gezi park, the last major green patch of land in the new part of the metropolis that was about to be replaced by a shopping mall), the protesters occupied the zone. They founded what some call ‘The People’s Republic of Taksim’, a liberated patch of ground where people now come to dream of a free Turkey.
Members of various movements, lawyers, anarchists, pensioners, gay-rights activists, communists, liberals, Atatürk fetishizers, united supporters of the Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas football clubs, women’s-rights activists, socialists, raving nationalists, Kurds (!), businessmen and union-members… People of every imaginable profession and affiliation arrive nightly to create an atmosphere redolent of the first days of the Egyptian uprising at Tahrir and of the Occupy movement that swept the West in the fall of 2011.
On every step, one can see the remnants of clashes with the police. Charred buses. Overturned automobiles. Wrecked kiosks and small shops. Almost every wall is covered with graffiti demanding the resignation of the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan and his clique of oligarchs from the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Many of these slogans are openly calling Erdogan a fascist. On every step, one can see Turkish flags flapping in the wind. The humongous speakers are blasting either rock music or traditional Turkish war chants. In certain strategic places, improvised first-aid stations have been set up in case of another police raid. Teargas protection is paramount, since the police used to fire the gas straight into the crowd.
“I’m here since the beginning. We were very much frightened for our lives. Now we are no longer afraid. We have shown them that we’re strong. We know what we want. Our demands are simple: democracy, freedom, separation of church and state,” said Mrs. Zeniyet, a schoolteacher I talked to during a protest march of public servants on the Taksim square. Her colleagues told me about their bout with the brutal Turkish police and the rising tide of totalitarianism in the country. Yet in spite of Erdogan’s ever more authoritarian style of rule, in the past ten years Turkey marked the emergence of a number of exceptionally variegated, active and above all modern civil-rights movements, whose aims are exactly the same as the aims of similar movements anywhere in the wider Mediterranean region. Freedom. Justice. Welfare state. The end of corruption. It is not that Turkey has only now woken up – Turkey has been awake for quite some time.
“Erdogan started interfering with our lives. He started dictating how to live, what to drink, how to dress. Like some imam, I guess! And because some of us here are used to thinking with our own heads, he declared we’re drunks, bandits and extremists! Frankly, I think he’s lost his mind. I never liked him, but I always thought him a rather shrewd man. I don’t know what’s got into him. I’m afraid all that power and money have warped his brain,” Zeniyet went on. Her colleague Hurriyet, who stood by waving the union flag, was even harsher: “Our government is using economic growth as an excuse to lead us into radical Islamism. Which is only another form of fascism and goes against every healthy principle of our society. We are not going to take that, and we are here to show it. If they want to drive us away from this park, they’re going to have to carry us off feet first!”
The entire square was aflush with positive vibrations. On every step, you could see banners proclaiming “Everything is Taksim! Everything is resistance!” Elderly ladies were dancing traditional square dances. The grins were so wide they nearly fell from the faces. The police treat was omnipresent, the brutal violence against the protesters was going on in other Turkish cities.
Despite the grim price they paid, the protesters achieved something that, even a week before, they didn’t dare dream about. The wall of fear had collapsed. And once that happens, authorities everywhere usually have a hard time putting it back up. Turkey’s young and educated generations started speaking out about the dictatorship and their own political ambitions. The entire Taksim and all its neighbouring avenues have turned into a place for celebrating freedom and fresh political ideas. On this tiny patch of ground, but still the biggest occupied public space I’ve seen while covering all major protests around the world in last 15 years, the dictatorship of neo-liberal Islamism was replaced by the dictatorship of civic responsibility. People – perfect strangers – are constantly hugging and kissing each other on the cheek. The streets are pulsating with astonishment over this temporary feast of freedom. Thousands and thousands of freethinkers come here to meet each other halfway. These are certainly images of historic significance.
At the Taksim square last Wednesday’s night saw everyone singing songs of revolt. Both the young and the old were dancing in the street. Raving nationalists were fraternising with the Kurds. The vibe of unity had taken over the square – a vibe, it needs to be said, that always has a very limited shelf life. Activists were handing out food, drink and clothes to thousands of protesters. Several workshops were taking place at once. Both political and merely amusing speeches were being delivered. Some women were practicing yoga as teenagers fiddled with their cellphones and listened to Nirvana. I saw one man reading War And Peace by candlelight. On seeing all this, prime minister Erdogan would probably just repeat his statement that these people were mostly alcoholics, bandits and extremists.
The more enterprising among the local vendors have set up stalls to sell gas masks and swimming goggles. Despite the general merriment, the crowd could still feel the teethmarks of police brutality. I talked to numerous protesters who’d been dealt a savage beating. The policemen, they informed me, fired off rounds of teargas straight into their bodies. Some of the beatings were so brutal one normally only sees such thing in the movies. The police were hitting and kicking women, children and the elderly. According to the local NGOs, around 5000 people were injured during the first 12 days of the protest. Three of them were killed.
“We were simply fed up. The authorities’ scheme to replace the Gezi park with a shopping mall was just something that lit the fuse. Everyone knows that. Our government has been growing ever more authoritarian. All it cares about is the economy and the further islamisation of our country. There is less and less freedom all around. This park is merely a symbol of what Turkey has been doing to its citizens. For the first three days, it was truly awful here. We knew what our police was capable of, but no one expected anything of this magnitude. Protesters were being beaten like the most disgraceful among the criminals. But – and I think they’ve become aware of that – this was a big mistake! Their violence and their arrogance only added fuel to the fire. Pandora’s box has been opened: the riots have spread all over the country. We are no longer afraid. We are united. One week ago, Istanbul was an urban jungle, where it was each man for himself. Now we have turned into a community. That’s a big thing, you know – no matter what comes next! Okay, so if Erdogan comes to us with a sincere apology, if he listens to our requests and pays some respect, then we’ll desist. That would be a good thing for our entire country.”
I was told this late on Wednesday night at the Taksim square by an activist named Ekim, who works at the French culture centre in Istanbul. “Everybody would like to go home in one piece,” he told me: “We’re hoping the authorities will not force us to get violent. Our aim is to remain peaceful until the end.” After saying this, Ekim bid me a hurried goodbye, since he didn’t want to miss out on the celebratory dance that, by then, was being simultaneously danced by over a thousand freedom-loving citizen.
The Mounting Arrogance
“This is only the beginning. The authorities obviously don’t have a clear strategy how to handle the protests. Our prime minister seems to have severely underestimated the power of the streets. By uniting us here – and let me tell you, a week ago many of us were virtually enemies! – he has managed to achieve something truly astonishing. If I may allow myself a bit of irony, those gentlemen in Sweden should seriously consider Erdogan’s name when the time for the next peace prize comes along! I mean, look at all these people here – together, united, with little regard to their different ethnic or religious backgrounds… This, at least around here, is really something new – something remarkable that bodes well for our society!” Such were the sentiments of Ece Temelkuran, one of Turkey’s most influential writers and activists. So far, she has been comparatively lucky. In a country where freethinking is all to often rewarded with a prolonged stint in jail, her open opposition to Erdogan and his cronies has thus far only cost her her job.
When I talked to her on 4th of June, she was outraged. »First the authorities apologise to us and assure us the park will stay… And then the next moment we’re subjected to a full-on police assault. In Izmir, in Ankara, here in Istanbul as well – though here we’ve had it a bit easier since so many of you foreign journalists have come. But what’s happening is insane! A great political masquerade is taking place! The authorities are trying to calm things down. The prime ministers remains arrogant as hell, but his closest associates have all adopted a soothing tone. It is nothing but an especially tasteless example of a good cop/bad cop routine. Oh, and the Western media need to assume a great deal of responsibility for this entire mess. Just like the Turkish media, their Western counterparts pretty much ignored the protests for the first three days. Also, for the past ten years they have done nothing but repeat the demented mantra about Turkey being the perfect fusion of Islam and democracy. I mean, come on! Democracy?! With its hundreds of political prisoners – imprisoned activists, union leaders, students, lawyers and writers – Turkey is one giant open prison! The people in charge are growing more authoritarian every day! And they are accountable to no one! On the other hand, the popularity of social networks here has started going through the roof, especially Twitter! And with these thousands and thousands bliplets of information floating around it is very hard to know what is real and what is not! And no one benefits more than the authorities!”
The Turkish writer went on to assure me she wasn’t about to give in to the euphoria that usually accompanies such revolutionary developments. No way: she had learned much from what happened in Egypt, from the way the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately appropriated the entire revolt. In her view, something very similar could happen in Turkey – at least if the protesters fail to organise politically. Erdogan’s party, after all, has taken the country down the road of political islamisation, which put them on excellent terms with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Hundreds of young Turks have been injured just because the protests injured our prime minister’s ego! The authorities deliberately provoked us – in the first days of the protests, that was their only strategy. We, on the other hand, didn’t have too much time to reflect or analyze, since we’ve been so busy running from the tear gas. But what we can say with utter certainty is that yesterday no longer exists. There is only tomorrow. Erdogan set out to transform the Turkish society into an object. Now we have turned ourselves into a great subject. The wall of fear has been knocked down. That is what matters most,” Ece Temelkuran said to me.
Such is precisely the view of Elik Shafak, a writer and blogger of both Turkish and French origin. Among other things, she wrote: ” Calling the recent events a “Turkish spring” or a “Turkish summer”, as some commentators were quick to do, is not the right approach. It is true that Turkey has lots of things in common with many countries in the Middle East, but it is also very different. With its long tradition of modernity, pluralism, secularism and democracy – however flawed and immature it might be – Turkey has the inner mechanisms to balance its own excesses of power. If this cannot be achieved, however, there is concern that the demonstrations could be hijacked by extremist groups and turn violent. The same concern has been voiced by the country’s president, Abdullah Gül, who gave a constructive statement saying the people had given the politicians a clear message, and the politicians should take these well-intentioned messages into account. Now, after days of upheaval, it is raining gently on the burning tyres and graffiti, and the voice of the young father who wrote the open letter to the prime minister represents the feelings of many people on the streets and in their houses: “You called us ‘unlawful’, my dear Prime Minister. If you only got to know us, you would see that we are anything but.”
So far, violence was the only response the Turkish authorities proved capable of. »I stand and watch, and a lot of the time I feel like weeping,” a painter and webpage designer named Emre told me: “I never imagined such things were possible. I’ve been standing here since day one. There were times when I thought the police would kill us all. But we slowly shook off our fear. As soon as the police attacked us, thousands and thousands of people started pouring in towards the Taksim square – people of all generations, both rich and poor. It was amazing! The supporters of Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas came together, united – it was a miracle! We knew that we’ve grown strong! That we must remain at the square. That this is our one historical opportunity! And then the police retreated. Now, the square belongs to us, and the Gezi park will not be replaced with a shopping mall. That is a great victory!”
I talked to Emre next to one of the countless police barricades blocking off the nearby streets. The young man told me that, for the large part, these protests are the confrontation between the old and the new, the progressive and the conservative, the urban and the rural. He also told me he had never been a political activist, but he had always marvelled how Turkey could still be perceived by many in the West as a democratic society. “We’re everything but a democracy! That is one big lie! Over here, everything has become indentured to the concept of economic growth! And the economy is being controlled by the people who are very close to the state – actually, it is being controlled by the state itself!”
. . .
The Utopia lasted for 12 days. The brutal crack-down was predictable, but something has irreversibly changed in Turkey. For good.
Gloria Martínez (Valencia)
(Translation by: A.L.C. Teen Translators-Asturias, Spain)
- The shortage of petroleum has culminated in the search for non-conventional gas using fracking
- This technique used in The US for decades has been strongly criticized for its supposed effects from pollutants and the risks for health
- In Spain, opposition among citizens is growing while the Popular Party, CIU and UPD voted against a motion by Izquierda Plural to ban this controversial practice in Spain
What is fracking?
It is the technique used to extract gas from the earth by drilling down through a land well. It involves pumping water and toxic products more than 2500 meters below the surface. The water pressure used breaks the rock and the gas freezes. “The fluid used contains a mixture of 596 chemical products. It is possible to hydro-fracture a well up to 18 times. The well is drilled vertically, through aquifers, until reaching the rock layer where the gas is trapped. There, they continue drilling horizontally, reaching as far as 3 kilometers down from the earth´s surface. Then high-pressure water is injected along with additives (biocides with low concentrations that can easily kill fish, carcinogenic products…) to enlarge the cracks and allow the gas to gravitate towards the well,” explains Aitor Urresti, a professor at Universidad del País Vasco, spokeman for EQUO in this area and member of the Anti-Fracking Advocacy Group from Bizkaia.
Until now we have been using a resource which could be extracted in a more or less easy way. The gas or oil is never in a big grotto but rather in the rock´s pores, normally in sandstone or limestone. Rocks that have a lot of porosity don´t allow the hydrocarbons to pass very well: slate gas, schist, shale gas, slate oil, schist oil…we need to think about clay, a material that absorbs water very well but is very impermeable in the other direction. The fractures are created for this reason, to increase permeability, the connection between the pores, violently forcing water inside them, breaks them,” Urresti explains.
The U.S. is the only country that has been using this technique on a large scale: they have already drilled more than 50,000 wells. Samuel Martín-Sosa, the manager of the international area of Ecologists in Action, explains to Human Journalism that “American and Canadian companies are trying to get their foot in but for now, as far as we know, there isn´t any exploitation as such. In Poland, Germany and The UK there are wells being tested but not on a large scale.” He continues saying that “some weeks ago there was a conference in Vienna with representatives from the industry who saw that in The U.S. the technique came with simplified norms which has allowed them to spread very fast. Americans were exempted from the regulations concerning the quality of drinking water and clean air and they made fiscal incentives easier. They also don´t have to declare the substances which are used and thought they were going to find the same here. However, reality has been a very strong popular pressure which has obliged The European Commission to rethink if it has the right to legislate regulation frameworks for the development of this activity.”
The European Parliament was one of the first that produced quite a critical report in 2011 and The European Commission is ordering new studies which show that there are a lot of holes in the law. “The industry has it clear that Europe must agree that there is a special law to try to win the media battle. What everyone seemed to assume was that once the first 100 wells were built, it would be unstoppable since a lot of governments wouldn´t be able to turn down this tasty treat in terms of employment, and that if the industry invests in research there wouldn´t be any way back. That´s why the media battle is so important”, says Martín-Sosa. “ In Spain there have been drilling tests but they haven´t drilled yet because of the citizen and town council pressure. There are countries where they have passed some prohibitions to moratoriums that have been used politically to contain popular protest and that are trying to be broken up by the industry” he adds.
“We have reached the maximum limit of coal production. The forecast is that the use of non-conventional gas will grow very fast. Due to shortage, we will use the last thing we have: pressurized water and chemical products, “ affirms Aitor Urresti.
Why in Spain?
“This comes from The U.S., who is the largest gas exporter only after Russia. Europe tries to copy but fortunately here the environmental laws are stricter, the owner of the natural resources isn´t the land-owner like in The U.S.-the environmental sensitivity of Europeans is a bit greater…Countries like France or Bulgaria have legislated against it”, Julio Barea, the manager of a residuals and energy campaign in Greenpeace, explains to Human Journalism.
The Ecologists in Action report “Fracking in Spain-Situation, Threats and Resistance”[pdf] shows how Aragón, Castilla-León and Andalucía are the most affected areas by the number of licenses. “The Basque Country is the one who most openly bets on fracking, with a public administration ready to change the law.”
In its study, Ecologists in Action protest that “there are especially problematic cases registered, like one of the licenses asked for in the Andalusian valley of Guadalquivir very near an aquifer. Also, there are notable threats to aquifers in the north of the peninsula (like that of Subijana), those from which hundreds of thousands of citizens depend on for their water supply. Other permits like those of Castilla-La Mancha could affect protected spaces like the Lagunas de Ruidera.”
Julio Barea says that in Spain there are requests for hundreds of authorizations to test-drill, in different provinces and autonomous communities, but only half are given and they still haven´t done any tests.“We are in the initial stages but there are four important business concerns that have formed a type of coalition and created Shell Gas Spain, which is coordinating the promotion of fracking since they have seen problems.”
In Congress this past February they voted on a motion presented by Izquierda Plural (IU-ICV-CHA) to ask for a fracking ban in Spain. The PP, CiU and UPyD voted in opposition to the ban, while the Izquierda Plural, PSOE and the rest of the Grupo Mixto were in favor of the ban…simultaneously, PNV, FAC, and UPN abstained.
What are the risks of fracking?
NGOs like Ecologists in Action or Greenpeace, among others, for months have run a campaign warning about the risks of fracking: underground water table pollution and atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions (methane), earthquakes (seismic induction), noise pollution as well as landscape impacts. Moreover, we must contemplate truck traffic routes for transporting extracted gas, along with water and land use.
Martín-Sosa claims that “the industry is tired of saying that there aren´t any cases of pollution or that the gas is harmless…until the end of last year The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) stated that in Wyoming chemical substances had appeared in aquifers that provide drinking water to the nearby population coming from one of the fracked wells. Drilling crosses the aquifer, and 80% of the fracture flow fluid stays there…nobody can guarantee what will happen. It is a risk so unassumable that there´s no way to create a good regulation because it would still be dangerous.”
Ecologists in Action protest that 80% of research permits applied for and given are found on aquifers. “In addition, more than half are bituminous and carbonate rock aquifers, that turn out to be especially sensitive to pollution from chemical products ussed in the fracking fluids,” the NGO points out. They explain that “currently more than 30% of the Spanish population (14 million people) get their drinking water from aquifers. Given that there exist numerous municipalities in areas where they intend to carry out gas extraction by fracking and who are supplied directly from these very aquifers, they can see irreversible pollution using this technique and would assume serious risks to people´s health. Also, some research permits directly affect natural spaces of great interest like the Lagunas de Ruidera, in Cuidad Real, or the Merindades in Burgos, with the subsequent environmental damage to aquatic ecosystems.”
“If what we do is pump in high-pressured water that causes large fractures, we haven´t got any control over how these cracks will proceed, we don´t know if they are going to hit a weak point and instead of extending 10 meters they may go for a 100, which in turn could arrive through a fault to an aquifer. What this implies is direct pollution, but in The States there are cases of it occuring with toxins from abandoned wells reaching through to drinking water aquifers. In Álava, which is the area of most interest now, we have a hundred abandoned wells. The risk more than likely”, says Aitor Urresti.
Beyond polluting aquifers, the risk to the atmosphere stands out as a real possibility. Greenpeace shows in a report that “benzene, a highly-carcinogenic agent, has been registered in the vapors coming out of the “evaporation wells” where they usually store the fracking residual water. Leaks from the gas-wells and piping may also contribute to air pollution by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The enormous number of vehicles needed (each well requires between 4,300 to 6,600 truck trips for transporting machinery, cleaning services, etc.) and the operations of the production plants may also cause significant atmospheric pollution if we consider the acidic gases, hydrocarbons and fine particles.”
Urresti corroborates that “the gas we extract is methane, and is several times more detrimental than CO2. In the gas wells there are always leaks because to operate machines we take advantage of those small stress leaks. When the wells are drilled, and the gas area is reached, its flume is burnt for months causing significant damage to the atmosphere. Also, in each well we are injecting between 9 and 30 thousand cubic meters of water containing toxic elements. There are many accidents as well on U.S. roads due to fracking.”
Urresti explains that we mustn´t forget risks like earthquakes. “If what we do is pump in pressurized water subterraneously, inevitably that is going to generate movements that may activate faults that were more or less latent, or reactivate seismic areas and set off earthquakes.”
What can we do?
However, without doubt the most impressive action taken was the documentary film, “Gasland” directed by Josh Fox and nominated for The Oscars in 2011. The film brought this issue out into the public opinion by denouncing slickwater fracking in 34 states, 450,000 wells, multiplied by 18 (the number of times a well can be fracked), times each occurrence by 28 million liters of water and getting a total of 40 billion liters of water with 596 chemical products. It showed not only the direct environmental harm, but also testimonies from people who had suffered problems with their drinking water and neurological health complications from the gas emissions following the drilling. There were even homes whose tap water was flammable. The film said that in Garfield (Colorado, USA) the first preliminary study was done on the effects of gas-wells on human health: seven researchers from The University of Colorado found alarming indices of pollutants in both air and water. They documented studies that confirm the repercussions from subsequent carcinogens and neurotoxins.
In Spain, there isn´t any protest yet but there are many citizens who have shown their opposition through advocacy groups like “Fracking Free Municipalities” formed by inhabitants from Araba, Guipúzkoa, Bizkaia, Burgos, Soria and Cantabria.
Some particular cases of struggle: Euskadi and Comunitat Valenciana.
The first group that was created, in December of 2011, was in Álava. The reality that the polls would be imminent caused people to gather from different areas. Their work was targeted at the municipal level: they wanted to create a stance of townships free of fracking. For that, they gave speeches and presented motions in their Town Halls.
“We want to present a Popular Legislative Initiative to ban not only fracking but also exploration and the exploitation of non-conventional hydro-carbon, in other words, not leave any door open” said Urresti. “In Euskadi, the expected research permits to drill 16 wells(one or two is the norm)aren´t for research but rather for production. They are a public company that uses tricks to evade taxes because the assessment is very different for research rather than production. They ask for a report from the water agency. Given that this specific report is near the well in Armendia and for some strange reason they decide that this area doesn´t need an environmental study. Then, they change it, in an area 100 meters away, in an area that is in the process of becoming a protected space. As this is not feasible, the same government changes the law to permit the hydro-carbon exploitation and mining activities. They´re looking for the support of the PNV party who are quite interested in mining in Euskadi. We want a total environmental impact study done but that hasn´t occurred. Rather, incomplete tests have been done in each of the wells, but as if they were all isolated cases. They have been able to stop the soundings that they were going to do in Álava and are giving work permits.”
Urresti explains that it isn´t known how many resources can be extracted but regardless “you damage all the territory. The funniest thing is that the company that wants to develop it is a public company, Hydro-Carbon Society of Euskadi. The same enterprise goes against the interests of their own citizens.”
In contrast to what the Basque group has done, there is the example of the Valencian Community where Comarques de Castelló is taking their first steps. They claim that 41 municipalities within an area of 1,950 square kilometres could be adversely affected-for the moment 16 municipalities have opposed the fracking. Sergi Alejos, one of the advocacy group members, says that “the Council hasn´t taken a stand yet and for the moment seem to respect us. We have been formed without any links to political parties. One of the problems is that the townships are really dispersed and is very difficult to organize. We are above the Maestrat aquifer, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean area, and it is completely exposed to three fracking projects. We say that there is a high risk and there are geologists that tell us the risk is inevitable. Half of the wells directly feed the Maestrat aquifer and therefore the drinking water of Castellón is in danger. The magnitude of this problem goes further than the 41 townships.”
Alejos asks for more information from the administration and says that on the 4th of February the Official Bulletin of the Generalitat published that the Proposition Bill to regulate fracking wasn’t admitted. “That means that it hasn´t even been debated. We believe this topic is serious enough to at least talk about. That´s what they´re trying to do, so that the citizenry knows the problem. We are focusing on putting pressure at all levels of government and giving information to the people because they have got no idea,” argues Sergi.
Are there alternatives?
Everybody agrees that the solution is a change in the energy plan. “The only justification that the hydraulic fracturing has is that we need a resource, and because we don´t want to change, we are capable of doing anything, even destroying our own environment and putting people´s health at risk”, says Aitor Urresti who mentions a report about the effects that the Barnett Shale working deposits in Texas have had on health and the environment.
Samuel Martín-Sosa explains that the percentage of land occupation has increased. “The wells have a very short life and extract from a very small area whose profitability is rather marginal. As technology has evolved we go for fossil fuels that before were unreachable, that are more costly to get and of lesser quality. It is an escape forward because industry sells it as a transitional fuel since gas combustion emits less CO2 than coal, but what must be done is an absolute turnaround in the energy model and the wager on fossil fuels only delays that change. Many things appear to suggest that gas will be shared with renewable. This is going to condition our future”.
“A year ago the Polish government had to deny that its gas reserves were as high as had been estimated. I think that there is hope. There may be speculative components that makes this collapse on its own, or strong regulations that force companies to retreat…and popular protest also does a lot. Shell Gas Spain has begun a media campaign and that is a sign. The advantage here is that the warning has arrived early. This can be stopped,” concludes Samuel.
Julio Barea opines that: “They sell it to you like `we are going to emit less CO2, this is an self-reliant form of energy, it´ll create jobs…´ As usual, they know they need to talk about employment although they aren´t certain. The scientists warn that we have to clean the atmosphere of CO2 now. How can they then propose we go for more? It would be a catastrophe on a planetary scale – climatic chaos. We are able to supply ourselves all the necessary energy with renewable ones. Let´s spend money directing policies towards them instead of planning for only a few to get very rich”.
- On Sunday night (24th of March) as the Cyprus authorities were choosing their doom from the troika’s menu, some two thousand protesters were shouting anti-European slogans in front of the European house in downtown Nicosia
- “What the troika is trying to impose has little to do with help. It is blackmail, plain and simple – they are trying to subjugate a nation by sheer force”, says professor Sypros Syprou
- “Any member of the eurozone should find the Eurogroup’s stance towards Cyprus offensive”, said Christopher Pissarides, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and Chair of Council of National Economy
On Sunday night (24th of March) as the Cyprus authorities were choosing their doom from the troika’s menu, some two thousand protesters were shouting anti-European slogans in front of the European house in downtown Nicosia. Not so long ago, this edifice epitomised every positive civic and social value in the region; now its gate looked more than slightly dilapidated and was being guarded by the members of special police forces. On its front hung a plaque commemorating the European Union as the recipient of the last year’s Nobel peace prize. “Your prize, your peace,” it smugly stated.
“Europe, leave us be!”, “Keep your hands off Cyprus!” and “Angela Merkel, The Fourth Reich!” were some of the sentiments expressed by the protesters. Many of them went out of their way to inform me that Brussels and Berlin, in conjunction with the international financial institutions, have decided to start a financial war between Europe’s north and south. In their view, the ultimate aim of this conflict is to transform the south of the continent into a stagnant pool of cheap labour with no rights, as well as to form a number of so-called free economic zones that, perversely, would help the north fare better in its competition with China. And that, of course, would only be possible if a part of Europe, namely the south, became Little China – a part of Asia inside the European Union. Little wonder that the rhetoric from the Greek and Spanish streets had quickly spread over Nicosia, a city with very little experience with such open protest. Seemingly overnight, things had gotten unimaginably bad here. The crisis looked all too ready to become a permanent state, and the latest ‘deal’ offered by Brussels was about to plunge an entire country into modern day slavery.
“What we’re seeing is something absolutely new! Ever since the Turkish invasion of 1974 when my generation realised it could lose everything, our quality of life has been improving. The younger people here have no real concept of loss: the very idea of a crisis leaves them shook up and bewildered. That is part of why our shock has been so great. It happened overnight, although there have been a number of signs of impending doom. But nothing could prepare us for a disaster of this magnitude. Fourteen days ago, when the president Nicos Anastasiades announced that all deposit-holders in Cyprian banks would lose a part of their savings, people went crazy. Quite rightly, they saw it as an announcement of blatant theft! In the end, the powers that be decided the small-time savers will be spared. But the rich will lose a great part of their wealth. Okay, so that could quite rightly be seen as a short-term co rrective measure, but it is also sure to wreck our banking sector and thus our entire economy! The major consequences are yet to be felt. Most people still have very little idea of what’s in store for them. Perhaps… Perhaps that is for the best,” claims dr. Sypros Syprou, a professor of anthropology at the European University in Nicosia.
The country may have been paralysed and its business life may have ground to a halt, but the sense of heavy despair hadn’t yet reached its streets and tavernas. Judging by the debates I overheard, it looked as if the residents of this tiny island state were still quietly hoping they would wake up from their nightmare, and that the slasher movie directed by Berlin and Brussels could somehow still have a happy ending.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“For twenty years, we have been living a materialistic illusion. There was shamefully little self-reflection. Hardly anyone was asking the right questions! We all knew that our economy was based around low taxes and an overly inflated financial sector which only grew and grew. It was only a matter of time when the bubble would burst. Now, when it did, people are set to lose their jobs, money, real estate and future. We will be forced to begin from scratch. Which would have been hard yet not impossible, but the problem is that all faith in our politicians and the EU itself is gone, irretrievably and justifiably, I might add. The European idea, which has been built around the notion of solidarity, met a grisly end here in Cyprus. What the troika is trying to impose has little to do with help. It is blackmail, plain and simple: they are trying to subjugate a nation by sheer force. The Germans are acting like a teacher who believes he can whack any pupil with a cane just because he is the teacher and he has that privilege. This is not the Europe we wished for, it is a club of politicians with a carefully planned political and economic agenda.
The damage already done is immeasurable. Brussels and Berlin are sure to continue pursuing their politics of dominance through arrogance, and I’m afraid that the European idea will take a long time to recover, if it ever will!” said professor Syprou, who was deeply concerned with the future of his students. Those who had already graduated had found it increasingly hard to get jobs; now, the anthropologist believed, getting work would be almost impossible. “After many years, we will once again experience a brain drain scenario. This is bound to prove a huge loss for our society, which will have to return to a traditional way of life. I am also afraid that the crisis will soon create the conditions for the spread of extreme political movements, even fascist ones styled after the Golden Dawn in Greece. If that happens, the European Union will be very much responsible.” Or, as The Economist recently put it: “The economy in the Eurozone is stagnant. The parties, which support the protests, are growing. Euro was established as a manifestation of a grand political project. Now, it seems, it’s more a loveless marriage in which the price of getting divorced is higher than staying together.”
A Lack of Self-reflection
“We have been asking ourselves far too few questions. All the time, we are seeking guilt abroad. But we must first admit a great part of the blame for this calamity can be placed with us!” dr. Sypros Syprou told me in his office at the European University. Despite the gravity of the situation, the entire university still seemed to be burbling with joy. In our conversation, professor Syprou was quick to note that the Cypriot society gladly looked the other way as the authorities made deals with Slobodan Milosević or the Russian mafia. The people of Cyprus also didn’t particularly mind when their country became an important part of the process of selling arms to the regime of the Syrian president Bashar al Assad (mind that Cyprus is the only EU country which borders Syria). Yet all this is far from being even close to the reason why Brussels and Berlin decided to ransack the Mediterranean island state.
“I’m badly afraid I’ll never wake up from this nightmare. The whole thing reminds me of 1974 and the Turkish occupation. Back then, my family was stripped of everything. Now, when our occupiers are the international financial institutions, much the same is bound to happen. Our savings are in danger, that is something people all over Europe should take note of! Apparently, there are no more rules. This is war! It is a horrible thing. I can’t seem to wrap my head around what’s happening. What a shock for each and every one of us! I don’t think any of us expected such disaster would strike overnight and rob us of our future! Look, the people of Cyprus, we’re all ready to contribute to save our country… But not like this, not under such a vicious dictate by the international financial elites! Not so long ago, the EU was an absolutely positive reference in our society. Now it is a horrible threat, an occupier, an aggressor! And exactly the same goes for Germany!” said Mrs. Despo Ioanou between tears. I spoke to her during the recent demonstrations. For the past 35 years, she has been working for the Laiki bank. She doesn’t have long before retirement, but – along with thousands of co-workers – she is now sure to lose her job.
The Russian Bride
At a recent conference in Nicosia, the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences and Chair of Council of National Economy Christopher Pissarides remarked that he saw no good reason for Cyprus to follow the troika’s dictate. “I’m unable to comprehend why the Eurogroup blocked funding to Cyprus when the economy’s main weakness was its banking system, as opposed to the situation in Greece, a country which received a large amount of EU funding,” said professor Pissarides. “Luxembourg is even more dependent on financial services than us and I did not hear anybody talking about that. We are not seeking a loan from Germany but from the euro system, which should help our banks.Could Cyprus’ treatment by the Eurogroup really be explained by the fact that many Russians, who are not wanted by eurozone ministers, use Cypriot banks? Any member of the eurozone should find the Eurogroup’s stance towards Cyprus offensive. The source of the problem in Cyprus and Europe in general is the issue of banking supervision which was never solved, but simply left to each state, causing a crisis of confidence,” is an opinion of a Nobel laureate from Cyprus.
Pissarides also believes that Cyprus will be able to use the large stores of natural gas near its southern coast to bounce back. But under the best of scenarios, the gas will hit the international markets no sooner than 2019. By then, Cyprus is sure to turn into a third-world country seeking its new allies outside the EU. One prime candidate will be Russia, who has already turned the island into its financial and touristic colony. Russian citizens have an estimated 30 billion euros parked in the currently frozen Cypriot bank accounts. But so far, the Russian government has failed to offer much assistance. The Kremlin potentates are well aware that, even at the cost of heavy financial losses, it makes more sense to remain on good terms with Germany than to start solving the probably unsolvable mess in Cyprus. This, the matter’s basic insolvability, was roughly the view of Hermes Solomon, a commentator with the Cyprus Mail daily newspaper, which is being published in the English language. According to him, the Cypriot parliament voting such a resounding NO! to the trimming of the bank accounts was merely a tactical ruse to buy the local political elites more time and to let Russia know that, if properly motivated, Cyprus stands ready to protect its assets.
“Voting no was just a show put on to quiet the little guy in the street and to retain as much of Russian money here as possible,” Solomon believes. He was quick to add that, days before the eruption of this latest episode of the financial blitzkrieg, a great deal of Russian money had already left the island and was now parked in Latvia, Malta, Zürich and London. Salomon also believed that the current austerity package was sure to fail, since it had been put together in such haste as to verge on panic. “Solidarity fund will prove an utter failure. No one will be crazy enough to entrust their money to our government. Robbing Petros in order to help Pavlos will not help. It will all end in tears. Now the shit has really hit the fan, and our trust in our banks and our authorities is gone for good.”
Salomon went on to explain that he was in no way supportive of the official EU policy, yet he also expressed the belief that his countrymen would do well to wake up and realise who the beggar was and who the master. “Here in Cyprus, no one is prepared to pay the price of our banking and political mistakes. I sense a great tragedy is brewing. ..”
“They’re trying to turn us into their slaves!”
For a number of years, Manolis Mihalis has been working for the Bank of Cyprus. His position had afforded him a front-row seat for observing the rise and fall of the most overblown financial sector in Europe. Sure, he nodded at me cautiously, the global financial meltdown did make itself known here, but not even in his most frightening dreams did he expect the state would simply go bankrupt overnight. “It came completely out of left field. It was a total, utter shock. We were all surprised to say the least. Over the years, I’ve climbed to a quite high position in the bank, I ought to have heard something, or at least got an inkling. But I didn’t. True, we weren’t doing so good for a while now, but after these last ten days of international pressure, all that’s in store for us is a mass funeral!”
I talked to Mihalis at a café in downtown Nicosia. He seemed visibly shook up and angry, though he wasn’t all that worried for his personal future, since his father in law owns a huge hog farm. But he was very much concerned about the future of his friends, co-workers and the entire country. “We’ve been utterly stripped of our sovereignty. We have no other choice – we must bow to the troika’s dictate. If our politicians were better negotiators, we would have got a better deal than this unconditional surrender, but as it is… There’s a financial war going on in Europe. There’ll be plenty casualties, just like in a real war. But right now, we are defenceless. Our adversary is too strong. The situation is truly tragic.”
Manolis cut our conversation short, since he was in a hurry to get to a protest. In parting, he said: “I believe that some 10 000 people are about to lose their jobs in the next few days. The Laiki bank is sure to go bust, my bank probably as well. And after that, the rest of them will gradually fall too. The domino effect will ruin our entire economy. Once trust is gone, it is impossible to recover. The offshore companies will leave our country. Social unrest is sure to break out, and that will lay waste to the third important branch of our economy – tourism. Before long, this entire island will be a wasteland. They have decided to destroy us. In my view, they didn’t so much do it because of the Russian money, they did it because of our natural gas. If we were allowed to tap it and sell it abroad, we would have become a strong country in our own right. They couldn’t let that happen, right? It is hard to imagine what Cyprus will look like in a year. But today is the first day of the rest of our lives. From today, for all of us, every euro counts!”
According to Mihalis, Berlin and Brussels are using Cyprus as a laboratory to test the limits of endurance of an entire society. “It is a grand-scale experiment, and our hands are tied. There is literally nothing we can do. We are about to become a so-called free enterprise zone, a tiny slice of Asia or Africa inside the European Union.” In stark contrast to the majority of his compatriots, Mihalis refused to place a shred of hope in Russia. “The Russians, too, are playing their own geo-strategic game. They’ll never take on the EU or Germany on our behalf. Why would they? It wasn’t the Russians who got us into this mess – it was our own politicians, both left and right, all of them lying through their teeth. We’ll pull through easily, they told us. There will be no cuts. Your savings are inviolable. The troika is really here to help. We are far too important to be left high and dry. Oh yeah? Well, look at us now – look at the situation a mere few weeks after the election!”
“Disaster! I can hardly believe what’s happening! They want to destroy us and turn us into their slaves. All this time, they knew perfectly well what was going on in our banks! Both Europe and Germany gave their explicit assent! They let our politicians bleed us dry and then betray us horribly. All they can do now is bury us!” I was told this by a woman named Maria at a mass protest organised by the workers of the Cypriot banking sector. She had been employed with the Laiki bank; at the time I talked to her, it was a well-known fact that particular bank would never open its gates again. On account of Laiki’s fall, sure to be followed by the destruction of several other banks, some 8000 people were about to lose their jobs. “What happens to my family?” Maria implored: “I have no savings! Even if I had, I couldn’t get to them! I have a substantial loan, and the instant I’m sacked I’ll no longer be able to make the payments. My sister works for the Bank of Cyprus, her husband does as well. Both of them will lose their jobs sooner or later. The entire banking system is about to topple. We, the normal people, will be left with nothing. They have ruined our lives. What are we to do? There is no way for us to fight our financial occupiers!”
The Death of the European Idea
In Cyprus, the dictatorship of the international financial markets in conjunction with the political elites of certain core countries is shaping history. The idea of the European Union, which, even a few years ago, meant a beacon of hope for the so-called New Europe, has been dealt a blow that it may never recover from.
“This is the German Union, not the EU!” an angry man roared in Nicosia square on the Thursday the banks were ready to reopen. All of my Cypriot interlocutors had been quick to raise the question of where the much-vaunted European solidarity had gone. In the streets of Cyprus, just as previously in Spain and in Greece, the word Europe is now just a tad milder curseword than Germany or troika.
Here in the beleaguered south, one conviction is daily gaining credence. It is that the rich of the Europe’s north have decided to yank the reins of debtocracy and turn a number of previously sovereign countries into their colonies so as to be able to better compete with China. It certainly seems as if the leading men and women of the European core have decided to get rid of a lot of what they perceive as dead weight. In this endavour, they are helped by the manipulative international financial institutions and a thoroughly corrupt press forever harping about ‘the lazy, hedonistic south‘, even though the official statistics tell a very different tale. The first step of this massive process has been taken on January 1, 2007, when both Romania and Bulgaria were admitted into the EU – two gigantic pools of dirt-cheap labour with a certain Asian looseness to their legislatures, especially concerning workers’ rights.
Ten years ago, the optimists were presuming the surge of economic growth would make China more like the EU politically. Now it is clear that exactly the opposite is taking place. In Greece, six years into its irreversible plunge into slavery, the process is nearing completion. The price of work, what little work is left, has plummeted. The young generations, in no way responsible for the sins of their corrupt political elites, have been robbed of their future. Everything they have been taught about Europe has proved a tawdry farce. The European south is being governed by a completely different set of rules than the north. But at least the north has now finally shown its true face, which is not at all democratic or compassionate. Rather, it is a cankerous maw which, among other things, is mainly responsible for the unstoppable rise of neo-nazism in Greece.
By Boštjan Videmšek I Photos: Jure Erzen (El Cairo, Egypt)
- Two years after the egyptian revolution, women have been forced to organize themselves in order to be able to demonstrate protected by bodyguardsand avoid sexual abuses.
- “The number of sexual agressions has increased hugely, and so the number of colective rapings”, says Heba Merayef, Humans Rights Watchs director in Egypt.
“At that moment, I didn’t understand anything… I had no idea what was happening… All I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. Who were those men? There was no way out. Everyone was saying that they were protecting me, saving me even, but all I felt was the finger-rape of my body, both from the front and back. Someone was even trying to kiss me. I was completely naked, the mass surrounding me was pushing me toward an alley close to Hardee’s restaurant… So I’m in the middle of this tightly knit circle, and every time I try to scream, to defend myself, to call for help, the violence is only increased.«
This is but one of the testimonials of many Egyptian women brutally sexually assaulted during the recent mass protests against the president Mohammed Mursi. Nineteen of the victims decided to contact the newly founded non-governmental organization OpAntiSH (Operation against sexual harassment). None of them wish to speak up in public. They know all too well that in Egypt’s patriarchal society, that would mean the gravest possible humiliation for them and for their families.
Another one of the assaulted women says that all happened frightfully fast. Suddenly, she was surrounded: six men were coming at her from one side, six from another. With glazed eyes, they started groping her, scratching at her, tearing her clothes off. In no time, she was stripped naked. It went beyond mere sexual assault. “It was an intentional attempt to hurt me on every possible level,” says the victim.
“Friday, January 25, was one of the worst days on record. All of the cases were really, really bad. The worst case we dealt with involved a bladed weapon being used on the private parts of an assaulted woman,” claims Leil-Zahra Mortada, a spokesperson for OpAntiSH. In November, this organization was founded by a group of men and women to help turn back the tide of sexual aggression all over Egypt.
From 2008 until the present date, a mind-boggling 83 percent of all Egyptian women had suffered some form of a sexual assault, verbal or physical. Inside or outside their homes. The violence against women here has become nothing less than a political agenda. The new Egyptian constitution, extorted by the Muslim brotherhood through the president Mohammed Mursi, contains many elements of the Sharia law and completely disregards the question of women’s rights. The national parliament, two thirds of which are controlled by the Islamists, consists of 500 male and 8 female MPs. True, all parties running in the last election were required to include at least one female candidate on their list. But it was exceedingly rare that the female candidates found their way anywhere near the top of those lists.
The new electoral legislature recently passed by the Shura Council (the lower house of the Egyptian parliament) failed to address the issue in any relevant form whatsoever. “The new legislature is merely an outgrowth of our new constitution,” I was told by the activists of The National Front for Egypt’s Women, who bitterly protested the passing of the new laws for weeks. “The constitution had been drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood,” they assured me: “And the passing of this new law means the end of female participation in Egyptian politics.”
Those same activists had also been enraged by the ministry of education, which recently ordered the removal of the renowned feminist Doria Shafik from the official schoolbooks. During the British occupation, this fearless lady has been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights as well as women’s active participation in politics. The Islamists freshly in charge of the ministry decided to remove her picture from the schoolbooks because, in those pictures, she does not wear a veil. “Removing Doria’s picture under the pretext of not wearing the Hijab is an unacceptable approach to dealing with Egyptians. Egypt’s women uphold their right to maintain their status and will not accept any deliberate attempts to falsify history and reduce women’s rights,” reads the joint statement by the Egyptian non-governmental organisations fighting for women’s rights.
We refuse to stay at home!
Engy Gozlan is a member of the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment organisation and a veteran fighter for women’s rights. She claims the recent assaults will fail to stop the women here from fighting for their rights and a free Egypt. On the contrary: “No, we refuse to stay at home! Nothing can stop us from joining the protests! Those streets, they belong to us just as much as they belong to the men. This is our country, and we refuse to keep quiet! We are going to speak out about sexual harassment! There is no Egyptian revolution without female participation and safety!” According to Gozlan, every sordid assault had been pure politics. “The goal is to banish us women from public life and remove us from public space. The assaults have all been very similar in nature. We are talking about organised violence against women!”
Hers is far from the only voice speaking out against the oppression. “The number of sexual assaults has seen a sharp increase, the number of mass rapes too! But the authorities fail to respond. Their only response is silence.” says Heba Morayef, director of the Egyptian office of the Human Rights Watch. At HRW, they feel that most of the sexual violence is the responsibility of the Egyptian security forces – meaning both the army and the police. The scope of such violence is not limited to women: many male journalists and activists have also been assaulted. Without question, these crimes have been perpetrated in the interests of a ruthless political agenda.
“We refuse to let our freedom be taken away from us! We refuse to become a caliphate or a fascist-run country like Saudi Arabia. We will not stand for our women being humiliated! We will not stand for our youth’s future being dictated by demented old men! We, the women of Egypt, have a past we can be proud of! Now we are fighting so that the same can be said of our future! We have been marching in the streets for the past two years! Yes, we may be tired, but we will never back down!” During the recent march of the Egyptian liberals toward the Tahrir Square, I was told this by Mrs. Noor, which is Arabic for light.
On a normal day, Mrs. Noor teaches English at a local high school, but on that Friday she was marching at the head of the column and shouting for president Mursi to get lost. She spoke to me about the increase in the violence against women, the staggering level of unemployment, the hopelessness taking root among the younger generations, the twice-stolen revolution. “But worst of all,” she said: “is what we now see happening to the women! Two years ago, we flooded the Tahrir square. Now, many women won’t even show their face in public without a male escort. Every day, you see more veils in the streets. This is not the Cairo I grew up in. This is fast becoming something like certain Gulf countries or even Iran!”
Arrogance and Silence
Farah Shash, a psychologist in charge of helping the victims of sexual violence, agrees that the authorities are the first to blame. By not sanctioning and sometimes openly encouraging violence against women, they are conveying the message that such instances are normal behaviour. Mrs. Shash, who works in the Nadim centre in Cairo, is also concerned about the organisations that have sprung up with the aim of protecting the women from being assaulted in the streets. However pure and selfless their motives, her view is that such organisations are promoting the wrong message. “It is unrealistic to expect our women to have bodyguards available whenever they need them. We should be protected by the state, not local militias! What we are seeing here are some of the most alarming symptoms of a failed state. We need to know that our men see us as something more than mere sexual objects and targets.”
Shash’s employers keep alerting the relevant ministries. Yet so far, the new Islamic masters of Egypt have replied only with arrogance or silence. “Whenever we try to debate them in parliament, they tell us that women’s rights and women’s safety aren’t a priority. They also tell us they don’t believe such issues evershould be a priority!” Shash is deeply disturbed by the new Egyptian constitution, which has officially turned the women here into third-class citizens.
“You must not fall into the trap of assuming violence against women is a new phenomenon around here,” this brave psychologist told me: “In the last years of the Mubarak regime, the police started harassing women in a very organised fashion. Rapes, too, were a regular occurrence – rapes in public! Also, we had the so-called virginity tests being performed at police stations. The difference is that such bestialities used to be the domain of policemen, and now the army has joined in. Another difference is that such violence has now severely escalated in scope. The numbers are dramatic. And the worst part is that most of the assaults go unreported. If you get raped, are you going to report it to the perpetrator – the police?! In Arabic culture, a raped woman is automatically stripped of all pride and social status. She is quite literally bereft of her future. Her family casts her out. According to the dominant school of thought, she herself is to blame for the rape. I’m also sad to note many Egyptian men are now much more tolerant toward violence against women than they used to be. We can blame this on the Muslim Brotherhood and their sharia constitution. Make no mistake: they know exactly what they’re doing. It is all very very frightening.”
According to Mrs. Shash, most of basic human decency is slowly vanishing from the streets of Cairo. The comradeship and the solidarity so typical of the revolutionary days are but a bitter memory. In her view, the violence is a powerful tool of the current regime. “The women, we’re actually the revolution’s victims. We are it’s collateral damage”, says Farah Shash, but she adds that she hasn’t yet lost all hope. She is well aware that the revolutions are known to devour their own children, and that serious political and economic change always takes time. “Sexually, we have long become a highly repressed society, and the illusion of freedom provided many men with the license for abuse. This is its own warped interpretation of freedom and also a symbolic portrayal of the real state of our society. The islamists, using the army and the police, are constantly assaulting our way of life. They are forcing upon us their values and their morality. Their minds would feel most at home in the middle ages. The entire Egypt is hurtling into the darkness. The pressures are also mounting in our schools. Soon, every little girl will be forced to wear a veil. In Luxor, many girls’ hair had been cut off. And the community is sort of accepting it, drowning in apathy. But this is something we will fight to the last. No matter what the consequences, we are prepared to bleed for our freedom!”
The Need for a Sexual Revolution
Both in the time of Mubarak and during the last two years, the Egyptian women have mostly been left to fend for themselves. Few international organisations reached out to help them, and most of what help they got had been of a symbolical nature. Yet in the last few days, the international community finally began responding to the ever more desperate pleas for help. Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women,released a statement expressing her profound concern about the escalating violence: “As a vibrant force in civil society, women continue to press for their rights, equal participation in decision making, and the upholding of the principles of the revolution by the highest levels of leadership in Egypt. UN Women is deeply disturbed by the gravity of recent attacks against women, including the reports of sexual assault, many of which occurred in the same Tahrir Square in which women rallied to contribute to a better future for their country.”
Mrs. Bachelet called upon both the government and the people of Egypt to immediately stop all forms of violence against women and to start promoting human rights for all, including the rights of women to live free of violence and to participate fully in social, economic and political life. In particular, the UN official underlined that, in order to safeguard the fundamental rights of women, »the Egyptian government has to adopt new laws and take additional measures as to ensure their protection and ability to exercise their rights.«
Yet words remain words, and decisive action is far away. Especially if one relies on the UN to provide it.
Amira Mikhail, an activist, claims the Egyptian society needs to be changed in its entirety: »The very mentality of our men and women has to change,” she told journalists in Cairo: “Policies need to be revolutionized, assault need to be criminalized, women have to be respected and protected and not made into scapegoats. The police and the military need to start protecting them rather than harassing or violating them, and all instances of violence need to be dealt with harshly and swiftly. This can be done through laws and the media and the re-education of our police and military forces. However, such a project requires an educated, active, and motivated citizenry. And this we simply do not have.” In Mikhail’s opinion, Egypt is in acute need of another revolution. Above all, it would have to be a sexual revolution. Mikhail draws much optimism from the fact that, in the last few weeks, the Egyptian media finally started noticing the tide of violence against women. Egypt Independent, a Cairo-based daily newspaper, was the first to tear down the wall of silence and publish some very graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse at Tahrir Square. “A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals,’ the local reporters wrote: ‘in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. Several women were stripped, and raped, publicly, as men pushed their fingers inside them. There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.«
For the past two weeks, the women planning to take part in the protests can rely on the help of an organisation called Body Guard Tahrir. On the streets, its members are doing what should be the army and the police’s job. One spokeswoman for the organisation claims that the sexual violence has become an integral part of the Egyptian culture. “Such incidents are by no means confined only to the Tahrir Square. Abuses are taking place all over Cairo and all over Egypt. It is something we need to deal with, and we need to do it now! The perpetrators know very well that, as things stand, no one is going to prosecute them for their crimes. And that in itself is a powerful incentive for further assaults.”
During the Friday’s mass demonstrations against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the members of the Tahrir Body Guard were a welcome sight among the crowd, protecting the attending women from any sort of abuse. The group had been founded by an activist named Soraya Baghat. Making clever use of social networks, she distributed video footage of organised assaults on women and followed it up with a heartfelt call for help. The response to her plea was extraordinary.
Jehane Noujaim, the director of a documentary called The Square, is convinced that no force in this world will be able to stop the women of Egypt from picking up their struggle. According to her, the ever more prevalent sexual violence is a sort of social epidemic. “The women will continue to march to the Tahrir Square to protest as loudly as they can,” she believes: “That is something that will not change. The violence against women is counter-productive since it will only fuel our righteousness and motivate us to protest even harder!”
There are several recorded instances where, when on-lookers tried to intervene on the assaulted women’s behalf, the perpetrators fended them off with knives. A number of mass brawls have also been recorded. »Testimonies from victims and those attempting to save them paint a frightening picture. Tens if not hundreds of men surrounding the victims with countless hands tearing-off clothes and veils, unzipping trousers and groping breasts, nipples and backsides,« writes the local researcher for the Amnesty International Diana Eltahawy on her blog. Like most other activists, Elthaway blames the brunt of the violence on the police who mostly do nothing. Egypt has become the land of absolute impunity as far as violence against women is concerned.
In front of the Helvan art academy on the Zamalek island in the middle of the Nile, a group of co-eds are using their day off to debate the next stages of the revolution. They are angry and disappointed because first the generals and then the islamists tried to run them into the ground. Violence against women is something of a taboo topic, so it is hard to get anything out of them at first. The mood here in this bastion of art and urbanity is chillingly different than in those heady first weeks of the revolution. It is hard to escape the feeling one of the main causes of the downbeat atmosphere is the escalation of the sexual violence against women.
Omar, who calls himself ‘a real revolutionary’ and believes that Mohammed Mursi is sooner or later bound to get assassinated, is one of the founders of the OpAntiSH. During the last three Friday protests he was there to shield his female comrades and was injured in the process. “I am horrified,” he said to me: “Every day, it gets worse. The pressure from the Islamists is mounting. This is nowhere near the Egypt we were fighting for. The Muslim Brotherhood is doing everything it can to consolidate its power. The assaults on our women are carefully organised. The aim is to intimidate them and thus drive them from the streets. They say they’re doing it for religious reasons. But it has nothing, nothing to do with religion. It is pure violence.”
Omar assured me that he and his friends were determined to keep providing assistance to his city’s women. His female colleagues were quick to jump in the conversation. A girl named Farida told me she still went to the protests and would continue to do so for as long as it took. This didn’t mean she was not afraid, for every female protester was running a very real risk of getting assaulted. “Personally, I haven’t been assaulted yet – ‘yet’ being the key word here. Unfortunately, I believe things will get a lot worse. The Islamists are trying to make us cover our faces and get out of the streets. But no way. In spite of the pressure, we must go on. In the streets, I have already had a number of episodes where men were yelling at me, making threats about what they would do to me if I don’t cover myself up. Things are turning really nasty around here.”
María Verza (Chiapas, Mexico)
( Translation by: A.L.C. Teen Translators – Asturias, Spain)
- Mexico is the country that consumes more soft drinks per person in the world and Chiapas one of the places where not only the most is drunk but also where malnutrition and obesity prevail.
- Experts warn, with 70% of Mexicans overweight, 30% of them obese, and diabetes the primary cause of death, that the health system will collapse by 2020.
- Any hopes? That Congress passes the initiative supported by The UN and 47 other organizations to increase beverage company taxes and that The PRI´s current “Crusade Against Hunger” is taken into account.
Next, some little kids go to center court where they dance around the Coca-Cola brand symbol drawn on the floor. If an extra-terrestrial arrived at this moment, surely they would think that Coke was something very important to the earthlings. Everyone is pleased that a woman is offering some cookies to accompany their soft drinks between performances. All the children are doing very well and today they will save their lunches, something important in a region where poverty affects eight out of ten people and malnutrition and hunger three out of ten.
The school in San Pedro Chenalhó is on the road that joins San Cristóbal de Las Casas with Pantelho, a bit further than 60 kilometers from the colonial city. During the trip, the red and white colors stand out against the green mountain landscape. Almost all the shops, but not the normal houses, are painted in these colors because this way the paint is free. Coca-Cola Femsa (the Mexican subsidiary that is Coca-Cola´s largest bottling plant in the world, with 2.6 billion cases produced in 2011 and which supplies all Latin America) knows that these indigenous and impoverished areas are an important market. Femsa opts for advertisements in native languages and have changed over the traditional welcoming billboards to villages into large publicity posters.
The strategy comes from afar. As the social anthropologist Jaime Page Pliego explains, in research about to be published in the magazine, Liminar, soft drink companies looked for local party leaders who had been supported by the PRI and who were in charge of pox production (a type of clear brandy made from sugar cane and used in Mayan ceremonies) and gave them exclusivity for Coke and Pepsi. Soon they became rich. Page Pliego cites the example of the Lopez Tuxum family from San Juan Chamula – a village today known for a large Syncretist Church where Mayan ceremonies take place in front of its altars of various virgins and saints. This family was offered the exclusive selling rights in 1962 to both brands and later both companies wanted the sole rights which Coca-Cola ended up winning. The Lopez Tuxums established themselves as money-lenders, controlled all transportation, and handed down the businesses from one generation to another. “The social prestige that Coke and Pepsi acquired in Chamula, primarily for Coke, at the family festivities and patron events, spread all over the Altos de Chiapas”, writes Page.
Little by little these refreshments have become an important focus for the communities of los Altos. Nowadays, it´s not only a beverage but rather almost a currency to pay debts or dowries and in fact even part of Prehispanic ceremonies and religious rituals. Since Evangelical churches have proliferated in the area they have also encouraged the local natives to replace their alcoholic drink pox with Coke or other sodas.
2-5 LITERS PER PERSON PER DAY
Mexico is the country where the most soft drinks are consumed worldwide and Coca-Cola Femsa are the leaders. When the heat bears down in some villages of northern Mexico´s Sonora Desert, a person can drink up to five liters of Coke, according to Page Pliego´s data. The average in the country, his research found, stands at 0.4 liters daily per Mexican, a figure that multiplies in Chiapas. In los Altos, each inhabitant drinks 2.25 liters daily and is the reason why the bottles there are extra-large and not sold anywhere else.
The Coca-Cola Femsa bottling plant in San Cristóbal de las Casas is, furthermore, one of the two largest in Mexico (the other is in Tlaxcala, near the capital) with guaranteed water access since it´s situated on the slopes of the Huitepec, known as the “volcano of water”. Page Pliego says that besides the actual well, which is used to supply all Chiapas and part of Oaxaca and Tabasco, another is being built. Various organizations have denounced agreementsbetween the company and officials for being able to access the water at a very low cost in a state where having rights to this resource causes major legal problems among communities.
That´s why Chiapas is the best example of what has become known as “Coca-Colization”,or the invasion of the soft drinks. While maybe not the only cause of what experts term as “the new war of the twenty-first century” or the obesity epidemic, it is clearly one of the main reasons why in Mexico, according to expert studies, 70% of the population is overweight and 30% of them are obese.
Yet for UN Food Program spokesperson Oliver de Schutter, the point where a marked change in the Mexicans´ food habits and also an increase in sugar and processed fats intake occurred, is when on the first of January 1994 The North American Free Trade Act was signed. Food imports soared and, in just a decade, Coke consumption doubled among children, according to Schutter.
SOFT DRINKS + MALNOURISHMENT= ALARM
In Chiapas this makes for an explosive combination: high soft drink consumption and high levels of malnourishment. “Most Mexican adults were malnourished as children, so their bodies are programmed for less and when suddenly there is an excess of sugar the metabolic damage is terrible” explains Dr. Abelardo Avila, researcher for The National Institute for Health and Nutrition. The consequences range from diabetes to heart-disease, blindness, amputations and lower work output.
According to the 2012 Health and Nutrition Survey, diabetes is the primary cause of death in the country, with an estimated 13 million affected and only half diagnosed and treated. This survey found that 70% of households demonstrated some level of food imbalance.
Nutritionist Marisol Vega knows what the combination of these factors mean. She has spent more than ten years working in several communities in los Altos de Chiapas with university or NGO projects and has seen “how traditional diets have been replaced by soft drinks and junk-food that is cheaper and easier to prepare”.
“For ten pesos (half a Euro) they can buy a large bottle of soda for the whole family to drink for breakfast, later another for lunch and perhaps even one more for dinner, because it´s cheap(less than bottled water)and thirst-quenching, especially when served with tortillas. In addition, it is also socially respected”, adds Vega. The researcher warns of the danger that this implies in some communities where there exists historically-inherited malnutrition. Breastfeeding is being given up early and soft drinks are even being served to infants. The result is that in the same family there are under-nourished children and obese adults. Not only has the rate of diabetes shot up, but Vega warns that the problem will multiply in the future.
CHEAPER AND MORE ACCESSIBLE THAN WATER
“Many schools, not only in Chiapas or Yucatan where the problem is more apparent, but also in the metropolitan area of the Mexican capital, haven´t got drinkable water and the children hydrate with soft drinks. This is a horrible problem”, points out Dr. Abelardo Avila. “I have even seen mothers who fill their baby bottles with Coca-Cola”, he adds. Also, schools have been converted into “junk-food paradises” even though their sale has already been prohibited. You only need to go to the schools´ entrances to see that what used to be sold inside, now has moved outside. “Right, during a few months we couldn´t sell” – says Señora Juana while she loads her small carriage with sweets at a centrally located school near the capital –“ but now there´s no problem”.
All experts agree, that although in some places like the capital anti-obesity and some nutritional programs have been launched, in general the state has not done enough to control the overweight epidemic and the diseases related to these problems. With diabetes at the top, the problems have grown so much that “if continued at the current rate, in 2020 the financial and public health damage for México will be unsustainable, a catastrophe” predicts Dr. Ávila.
“Coca Cola and the rest of the soft drink companies has done everything that the government has let them do”, protests Alejandro Calvillo, Director of the NGO “The Power of the Consumer”.
On several occasions their group has denounced the excessive permissiveness of the authorities regarding the expansion of beverage industries who have operated with very low costs and taxes and even with unfair practices. “We can demonstrate that agreements between Coca-Cola and school directors from Chiapas permitted their exclusive beverage sales on school property and that they paid them with bottles of Coke that were later resold for their own personal gain”. Calvillo also remembers that the relationship that this company has with the powers to be is very strong. “You just have to recall that not long ago, from 2000 to 2006, Mexico had a president that was the director of Coca-Cola (Vicente Fox)”.
Demands of the civil organizations and the UN itself to alleviate the problem have been the same for some years and they follow two directives: prohibiting soft drink and junk-food publicity aimed at children and raising taxes on the industry. But companies in the sector, very powerful and with double moral standards (some, for example, support nutritional programs developed by NGOs), have managed to skirt the measures by committing to self-regulation, stating that the problem isn’t soft drinks or some foods but rather nutritional habits, as Jaime Zabludovsky, President of ConMéxico and sector employer, explains.
Up for debate, the next Mexican Congressional Sessions will answer to the demands of 47 organizations to raise the taxes on the soft drink companies and to try to counteract the consumption of sweetened beverages. These groups also know that it will be necessary to invest in nutritional education as much in rural areas as in the urban ones and also to recover traditional diets with produce grown in their own community when possible.
UN Secretary Schutter agrees with this diagnosis. México must ”study the possibility of levying taxes to discourage energy-rich diets, especially soft drink consumption” he said this past March.
Mexico should also “grant subsidies so poorer communities are able to have water, fruit and vegetables” and work towards “agricultural and trade policies” which have a good effect on population diet, namely, policies supporting individual production in agricultural communities instead of imports.
As the experts agree, this should be one of the basic objectives of the “Crusade against Hunger“, which has just been set up by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government with 30,000 million pesos (about 1,800 million euros) focused on 400 highly marginalized towns in the country.
By Mónica Hernández / Translated by A.L.C.Teen Translators, Asturias-Spain
- Gloria, early-retired from Iberia Airlines, keeps nine homeless men in her home with her pension and has created a business where they work.
- She has already taken in 160 people in thirteen years.
“Gloria, the journalist is already here!” shouts Fede, looking up as he raises his voice. He leads me to the top floor of the thrift shop where Gloria appears to be waiting for me. I see her coming round sofas, lamps, picture frames, shelves and second-hand books.
We exchange glances and she smiles at me. “Hi, Monica” Gloria is a dark-haired cheerful woman around 60 years old with tiny bright eyes. From her early retirement pension from Iberia Airlines where she was an air-hostess, now live ten people – nine men without any family ties and herself. They are her only family and she loves them as if they were true family.
She has created two second-hand thrift shops with her pension and the earnings from people’s donations of their old furniture. “Her boys” as she likes to call them, go house to house with the van gathering items that later will be restored and sold. They also do odd-jobs at a good price, like painting if necessary, moving or whatever brings money home to where they all live – the home that Gloria rents for everyone. The place where they live, eat, sleep and are treated for both their physical and emotional illnesses – the latter ones being the ones that hurt the most. They dream about the crisis ending and that someday the world will be better. At the moment, since Gloria took them into her home, it already is.
Everything began 13 years ago when Gloria, who had been a volunteer helping children of prostitutes who had cancer or Down’s Syndrome, decided to set up her own NGO – Proyecto Gloria – taking in to her home drug-dependent homeless men from the street. Leer más