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 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.”
By Olga Rodríguez / Translation: Blanca García
- Butros-Ghali, sentenced to 30 years in prison and subject of an Interpol arrest notice.
- Until February he headed the IMF’s Monetary and Financial Committee
One of the main causes for the outbreak of the protests in Egypt was without a doubt the constant repression enforced by the regime against dissidents, critics, bloggers and political opponents. But there were also other factors that were the final straw and they are those related to the Arabic country’s economic situation and the corruption practiced by many members of the Government, including Mubarak himself.
Some of those abuses, that have widened the gap between the rich and the poor even more, were committed within the context of the so-called Egyptian economic reform that began in the nineties and through which a privatization of public enterprises process was promoted, with counseling from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Some of the regime’s former ministers and strong men face trial in court, accused of having sold state properties to foreign capital or to Egyptian businessmen close to the government for a price below its real market value, and of having profited from such transactions.
In fact several actions have been filed that ask for the State’s recovery of some privatized companies. It is the case of department store chain Omar Effendi, state-owned until it was sold to a Saudi company in 2006. An Egyptian court has ordered to restore its public ownership because it had been sold at a lower price than its real value.
One of the men who instigated the privatizations policy was former finance minister Youssef Butros-Ghali, member of an influential family of politicians (he is the nephew of former UN Secretary General Butros Butros Ghali). During the eighties he was one of the ones who negotiated the country’s foreign debt, a process that led to the privatizations and to the wide opening to foreign investment.
In 2004, already as minister, he kept the same line of economic policy. In 2008 he held the post of president of the International Monetary Fund’s Monetary and Financial Committee (IMCF), main advisor to the IMF’s Board. It was common to see him in pictures next to Strauss-Khan and John Lipsky, president and vice-president of the IMF. The outbreak of the revolts prompted his resignation as minister and president of IMCF, and thus one of the members of the international organism’s leadership fell.
It is strange to see how what undoubtedly would have to be called the other great IMF scandal has barely gotten any attention. Butros-Ghali fled Egypt a day after the overthrow of Mubarak. The Egyptian government issued an extradition order to Interpol. There are several corruption charges against him, for which he has been sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison.
THE FORMER EGYPTIAN MINISTER OF INVESTMENT, IS THE THIRD MOST IMPORTANT MAN IN THE WORLD BANK
One of those close to Butros Ghali is former Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin, who currently –since October 2010- holds one of the three managing directors of the World Bank and therefore one of the key posts in the international organism. Egyptian lawyers and activists accuse him of favoritism and of being involved in the privatization of a hotel chain that was sold under its real value.
A report recently published by the Egyptian government itself admits that in the last few years poverty and inequality have grown in the country. They are even more visible due to the price increase for basic foodstuffs such as bread in the year 2008, produced, among other reasons, by the speculation of the international financial markets.
That is the reason why, in spite of the ban on protests, there have been for some years constant workers’ strikes and demonstrations on the streets and factories, demanding decent wages and greater distribution of wealth. But none of that seemed to matter to the international community.
In fact the World Bank praised Egyptian economic policy in several reports, such as 2008 and 2009 “Doing business report”, responsible for rating in different countries the capacity of doing business with foreign capitals. Mahmoud Mohieldin himself obtained the Doing Business 2010 Award.
In October of that same year Mohieldin was named World Bank Managing Director and director of said organism’s Poverty Reduction program, posts he still holds to this day.
“The fact that one of the ones responsible of the Egyptian economic policy in the last years, that has fomented the breach between the rich and the poor, is director of the World Bank poverty reduction program, is worrying”, several of the groups that encouraged the January 25th movement have denounced.
When the revolts broke out in Egypt, the until recently IMF director, Strauss-Khan, admitted the existence of the economic factor as one of the causes of the uprising, asserting that “what is happening in the north of Africa shows that it is not enough to take into account the good macroeconomic data; we have to look much further than that”.
Seeing this affirmation it is inevitable to ask if up to this date Mr. Strauss-Khan and the rest of the team of the financial organism he headed had not realized that the first marker to look at to congratulate themselves or not is the one that refers to the citizens living conditions; that, using his expression, people also exist and are “far beyond” economy.
Ironies aside, what is true is that poverty, rise of inequality and corruption spread a wave of indignation across the Egyptian population, tired of seeing how a minority, the country’s political and economical elite, became richer every time, with the blessing of international financial organisms.
The existence of economic and social causes in the outbreak of the Egyptian revolts cannot be denied. Egyptians, like Tunisians, have demanded freedom, bread, housing and decent wages and a true democracy headed by autonomous governments –“we do not want an imported democracy”, has been one of the most chanted slogans-.
Their demands are in turn within a global context marked by the crisis of an unsustainable economic model that only benefits a few and that does not reject the dictatorships that take in the voracity of their codes.
“My mother –explains young activist Kareem El Beherey- got hepatitis C while she was working. Now she cannot pay for the treatment she needs”.
Hers is not an isolated case. That is why Egyptian doctors are calling strikes and protests to demand decent wages and investment in healthcare. They do it in spite of the government having approved a law that bans protests.
One of the groups who are organizing the strikes is the “Doctors without Rights” movement, headed by Doctor Mona Mina.
“Egyptians’ health is still at the tail of the State’s list of preferences, in spite of being in a pressing situation”, states Mina.
“Hepatitis is very common in this country and still most people with kidney disease have to pay for their medicine. There are people who cannot do it, who die for not being able to pay for a kidney transplant”, complains Doctor Mohamed Shafik.
An estimated 15% of the population is infected with hepatitis C. Each year 500,000 new cases are registered, more than any other country.
Shakif and Doctors Ahmed Fayed and Mohamed Tawfik meet in Cairo to talk to Periodismo Humano.
Shakif defines himself as a man with socialist ideas, Fayed considers himself liberal and Tawkif is part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth branch, in dissent with the leaders of the movement in some aspects, for example, regarding demonstrations and strikes.
While the brotherhood leadership is against the protests, the young people in the Muslim Brotherhood support them and participate in them.
In spite of their ideological differences, the three doctors share the same objective: a workers’ movement that demands decent wages and investment in public healthcare.
With Mubarak people died in hospitals because of the lack of public services. Without Mubarak, this is still happening. The only difference, for now, is that now I can criticize the government, but my message will not be spread in most newspapers”, protests Doctor Shafik.
Manshiet el Bakry hospital, in Heliopolis, in the outskirts of Cairo, has become an icon of a new model of workers’ union, creating the first union in Egypt formed by all the employees, from doctors and nurses to transport and cleaning staff.
They voted, they decided to kick out the director –who they accused of being a servant of the regime- and they chose a new manager, a Coptic Christian among a Muslim majority.
“I was in Tahrir square during the 18 days of the revolution. And that was unique, for me the most exciting and moving thing that I have ever seen has been how the nurses, cleaners, workers decided in an assembly how to manage the hospital’s money, after so many years of corruption”, explains Mohamed Shafik, who is now advising other medical centers to set up similar unions.
The three doctors, who work in different hospitals, have a basic wage of 50 dollars a month. Sometimes they work one hundred hours a week to be able to earn bonuses and have a decent life.
“If I get sick I won’t be able to support my family. I could try to go to a private center, but I believe in public healthcare, in the need to commit to it”, indicates Doctor Shafik. And he adds:
As a doctor, if you have morals, you will always be poor. Meanwhile, there is an elite that controls master’s degrees in universities, medical schools, who open up hospitals, clinics, who make money. But that does not help the majority of Egyptians, who cannot pay for their medical attention.
Less than a third of Egypt’s medical school graduates work as doctors. This is because a lot of physicians emigrate to the Gulf countries looking for decent wages. Others end up working in other professions to pay their bills. Women emigrate less than men. That is why in hospitals like Manshiet el Bakry women hold 60% of the medical posts, in spite of the fact that more graduates are men.
(Video: doctors’ strike last May 29th. Doctor Shafik, among others, gives declarations)
“I do not want to emigrate – indicates Doctor Fayed-. It would be like abandoning my country, in the worst sense of the word. Some media outlets accuse us of being selfish for calling strikes. They present doctors as if we were all rich. They do not realize that this fight is not only about our wages, but for a more just society in which people do not die of not too serious diseases”.
“40% of the population lives with a dollar a day and hospitals demand that they pay for their medicine. It is cruel and immoral”, adds Doctor Tawfik.
Some days ago doctors of diverse political tendencies demonstrated again in downtown Cairo and in their workplaces, wearing their white robes. They have already announced new protests.
They demand a commitment with investment in public healthcare, a minimum wage of 200 dollars and a maximum wage that does not exceed 25 times the minimum wage.
“The dignity of the Egyptians is our red line”, is one of their slogans.
“In the revolts more than 800 people died, some died in our arms. That is not easily forgotten. They did not die for nothing. That is why we cannot let the new rulers kidnap the possibility of real change”, points out Shakif with a moved gesture.
By Rosa Salgado / Women weaving peace
“Nothing can defeat death like writing…Is that why writing was forbidden to women and slaves?”
She graduated with a Doctorate in Medicine in 1954. In 1957 she was appointed Director General of Public Health, though she later was dismissed in 1972 due to the publication of her first book Women and Sex, which dealt with the humiliating manner in which women in the Arab world are treated. She has worked for the United Nations and she has received the XV International Cataluña Award in 2003 for her struggle for the liberty of women in the Arab world and for democratization and social justice in Muslim society. She was exiled to the United States in 1993, where she lectured at the Duke University in Seattle. Currently, she lives in Egypt.
We can imagine Nawal el Saadawi when she was seven years old walking along the banks of the Nile which, in her village, Kafr Tahla, is called Al-Bahr, which means “the sea”. While walking she thinks of her family: of the lives of her aunts, her cousins, her grandmother, her mother, all of whom were married when they were still just girls, and all of whom prayed to Allah to one day give birth to boys and not girls, as tradition decrees. Girls can’t change destiny. They are only good for working and they must aspire to be married without rebelling against God, accepting everything that comes from family convenience and imposing silence upon themselves in the presence of a man.
She becomes infuriated because one boy is worth the same as fifteen girls. The father is the one who names his children and when the mother dies the only thing she takes to her grave is her solitude, the same solitude in which she lived. In her imagination she cherishes the idea that marriage might not be an inevitable end in itself. Her suitors and successive possible boyfriends to whom she was introduced realized that she “ loved the touch of a pen in her hand much more than the feel of a ladle or the handle of a broom, and so one by one they disappeared like the gust of a gentle breeze at night”. Yet at the same time, she asks herself why the women in her house have been accomplices and victims of a failure to break away from a life of servitude to men. Throughout her existence, writing has been her life, has been the answer to and the search for reason, has been the true and the false and has offered a view of reality without deception. For Nawal El Saadawi, “Writing has been the antithesis of death and yet, paradoxically, the reason why in 1992 I was put on a death-list”.
There is no other imaginable way to face the silence, the marginalization and the deep wound left in the body and in the depths of humanity, the wounds left by the experience of women who are close to the family looking for the six-year-old girl, Nawal, and cutting off her clitoris with a razor blade. It’s a wound which never heals and that remains open for ever. The only thing that soothes her pain is saving other women from this appalling sacrifice. Her mother couldn’t save her from excision, but Nawal protected her daughter and many other girls by means of her denouncement of the horrible act. It is an unforgettable memory for those girls and women who have been circumcised throughout the world. However, despite the horror and the measures that have been taken against female genital mutilation, in the world today there are more than three million girls in 28 countries in Africa and in some regions of Asia who still suffer this brutal act of violence.
Nawal el Saadawi identifies herself in the land of the pharaohs but, after those majestic queens, women in Egypt don’t exist in its history because they haven’t been allowed to write it. One generation after another, the oral narration of their existence has been passed down from grandmothers to mothers, then mothers to their daughters, and so the cycle continues.
Nawal assisted the university, obtaining excellent grades but with great personal and familiar sacrifice. Her father’s income was scant and she was always in danger of facing a future working in the kitchen with her mother, but luckily, her mother was her main ally. Her mother never needed her help in the kitchen. And so Nawal was saved.
After graduating in 1954 as a doctorate in Medicine, she worked in different hospitals, she held positions of great responsibility, she became the director general of Public Health from 1958 to 1972, (from which she was dismissed for the publication of Women and Sex). But she never stopped thinking that what she most desired in this world was to change it, and that the best tool she had was her pen, and not the scalpel. Writing had been a launching platform, to avoid possible marriages, to fight against discrimination of women, to breathe amidst the suffocation of political persecution, to take comfort during exile, in the United States, and to rebuild what they had destroyed and to resist the fundamentalists who condemned her to death.
Liberty and equality are the main principles which have accompanied Nawal throughout her life as a doctor and a writer. Due to her public opposition to any kind of discrimination based on class, gender, nationality, race or religious beliefs, she was condemned during Sadat’s presidency to the Women’s Prison at Al-Kanatir in 1981. “The visitors of the dawn”, those silent men, well-dressed and wearing gloves and dark glasses, who turned up just before dawn, kept watch on her for more than a year while she was a prisoner in her own house until, in 1993, she was forced to go into exile.
On the black list where she appeared together with other Egyptian intellectuals, the accusation of Nawal was always the same: “inciting women to rebel against the divine laws of Islam”, a sentence which was repeated even though there were changes in Government. These “divine laws” were an invisible enemy, but also the most dangerous and paralyzing. The Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak ordered in 1991 the closure of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, which had been founded by Nawal in 1982. This great woman has confronted ignorance, poverty and disease, and for these reasons she has been successively persecuted by the Egyptian governments.
The same woman who has brought to light the humiliation and violence which millions of women in Arab countries suffer, dreamt of pianos when she was a little girl. She never liked secrets or whispering, as she always found them “disgusting and suspicious”. Her books and her articles have been acts of rebellion made in a clear and strong voice against those who practice injustice in the name of morality, religion and social values.
- An 18 year old girl, new victim of police brutality after taking part in a protest in memory of Khaled Said
- Human Rights Watch reports repression, random arrests and 5,600 civilian subject to military trials since February
The cry of “We are all Khaled Said” has been heard again this week in Cairo and Alexandria, during the protests held for the first anniversary of the murder of the young man at the hands of the Egyptian security forces, an event that increased outrage among the population and speeded up the process that led to the revolts.
The protest in the capital took place in front of the Ministry of the Interior building, where thousands of people gathered, among them known activists of what has been called the Egyptian revolution.
“The dignity of the people of Egypt is our red line”, they chanted
Graffiti artist Hossam Shukralleh brought a paper stencil cut out with Khaled Said’s features that left the victim’s face stamped on the walls of the Ministry, to the moved applause of those gathered there. (See video)
A NEW CASE OF REPRESSION
One of those who took part in the protest was young Salma Al-Sawy, member of the April 6th Movement, key in last January’s popular uprising, and ex member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Salma Al-Sawy left the concentration at dusk and headed for her home.
According what she has reported, on the way she was intercepted by a police officer, who blindfolded her and took her to a place where she was interrogated
The officer asked her about several April 6th movement activists, among them Asmaa Mahfouz, a young woman who in January uploaded a video on Youtube in which she called to participate in the protest organized for January 25th, date in which the revolts started.
“The officer asked me if Asmaa was abroad gathering economic help to finance movements and parties, to overthrow the military Council that is in power”, Al-Sawy has explained.
“When I denied the accusation, he hit me with a stick on my hands, legs and then on my head. I lost consciousness”
Salma remained under arrest for 6 hours. Eventually, an officer told her that he was going to set her free because he could not stand to hear her whimpers.
When she got out on the street, she saw that indeed she was in one of the National Security Forces headquarters.
Two days later, the young woman met with Prime Minister Esaam Sharaf to report what had happened. Sharaf promised to take her complaint to the Ministry of the Interior, but that organism has already hurried to deny the accusations.
“The new security forces serve the country without interfering in the citizens’ lives and without violating their right to political participation”, it has stated.
“These statements [the Minister’s] are not true; the State’s security machinery has come back strong”, replied Salma Al-Sawy, who has received the support of numerous activists.
Salma’s case is not an isolated event.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH ACCUSATION
Even though Egyptian personalities such as prestigious writer Alaa Aswany have publicly placed their trust in the intern military Council, the fact is that since Mubarak’s fall many cases of abuse and repression on the part of the Army have been reported.
A new accusation came this week from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
According to HRW data, at least 5,600 civilians have been convicted in military courts since the fall of ex-president Hosni Mubarak in February 11th.
Kenneth Roth, HRW executive director, has pointed out that the Egyptian executive’s level of compromise to investigate and arrest every member of the security forces involved in tortures and abuse is not clear.
“To really change an institution it is necessary to go after the supervisors who ordered the torture, not only after the torturers; if not, torture will show its ugly head again and infect the new agency”, he has pointed out.
Roth interviewed an official of the Egyptian military council about the “virginity tests” to women who were protesting in Tahrir last March 9th. Said officer defended before Roth the use of those tests (done against the women’s will, which is why it would be more accurate to call them sexual abuse).
HRW has denounced those procedures, which it describes as degrading and humiliating.
It has also asked the Egyptian provisional government to set free the arrested protesters and to repeal the emergency law, in effect since 1981.
BAN ON STRIKES AND PROTESTS
Several groups who propelled the Egyptian revolts have denounced a ¿?stop in the advance towards democracy since April 9th, date in which the Armed Forces violently vacated about 3,000 people camped in Tahrir, among which were about twenty military men who had joined the protests.
As this journalist was able to witness that morning of April 9th in Cairo, the Army fired shots nonstop for two and a half hours.
The official reports admitted the death of two protesters. 71 more were wounded and dozens more were arrested, among them the soldiers who had joined the protests.
“They feared that the presence of members of the Army could be seen as a division in the Armed Forces and they did not hesitate in attacking them brutally. That date marks a turning point Now things are at a standstill”, denounced this week a spokesperson for the Committee of Young People for the Revolution.
In spite of the HRW recommendations, the emergency law is still in effect. And not just that.
This week the intern government has confirmed the entry into force of another law that bans strikes and protests “that hinder productivity”
In the last few days, protests by students, automotive industry workers, farmers or Petrojet employees have been broken up.
Several protesters have been arrested, as various human rights defense groups have denounced.
Another law has also been approved, which raises the number of people necessary to form a political party to 5,000. This hinders the work of left-wing groups, which had been clandestine until now.
That is the reason why there are many public voices who report the existence of a counterrevolution, with intermittent repression on the street and a complicated political scenario for the new groups, who played a leading role in organizing the revolts.
By Olga Rodríguez /Translation: Blanca García
Dozens of thousands of Egyptian workers gathered this Sunday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate May 1st, for the first time in freedom and with independent unions.
Some of the most heard chants were directed against the policies of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank and in favor of Social Justice and workers’ rights.
There was also criticism for the only union federation that existed during the regime, whose leader, Hussein Megawer, is being investigated for corruption.
“The time of the Egyptian workers has come. It is our moment, we have to make the most of it to achieve a country with social justice”, as socialist leader Kamel Kahlil pointed out, who officially announced the launching of the Workers’ Party.
During the act a statement signed by 29 organizations was presented, among them, the Young Revolutionaries Commission, several left-wing groups, independent unions and Human Rights organizations.
Petitions to the courts to nationalize companies
The workers’ fight in Egypt has been key to the revolution and still has an undeniable leading role.
Every week there are strikes to demand labor rights and decent salaries in a country in which 40% of the population lives under the poverty threshold, in which there is no public health attention and in which workers get paid around $70 a month for working at least eight hours a day, six days a week.
“One of the most interesting processes in this second stage of the revolution is the attempt to take back private companies”
There are already dozens of petitions that workers have brought to the courts demanding the nationalization of factories and companies who used to be public, sold years ago to foreign corporations during what became known as the Egyptian economic reform, promoted by the IMF and the World Bank.
With said reform hundreds of companies were sold often at prices lower than their real cost. Their new owners, instead of investing in them, have often used them to speculate with the sale of their terrains.
The case of a historical clothing chain
One of the cases that is creating a lot of buzz in the Egyptian press is the one of the historic chain of clothing Omar Effendi, in its day an icon of the Egyptian service sector.
“Effendi was sold in 2006 to a Saudi company and since then the chain has only registered losses and accumulated debts”
Last February the coordinator of the “Don’t sell Egypt” movement, Yahia Hussein Abdel-Hadi, brought charges against the former Investment minister and the director of the General Holdings company for having made the State lose money on purpose with the sale of Effendi to the Saudi company Anwal “for a sale 700 million Egyptian pounds lower than its estimated value”.
Shortly after Hamid El Fakharani, the lawyer who represents the workers, filed a lawsuit in which he maintains that Effendi was sold for a quarter of its real value and that is why he defends that said transaction was not valid. A courthouse is due to rule on May 7th whether Effendi goes back to being public property.
The textile factory of Shebeen El Kom
Another one of the cases that are being talked about the most is the Shebeen El Kom textile factory, located about 80 km from Cairo.
In 2007 the State sold it for below its real price to an Indonesian corporation that works for well-known brands such as Nike and Adidas.
The staff went from having 5,800 workers to being reduced -gradually- to 1,200 in staff and 600 more without a yearly contract.
Last February 5th, three days before the fall of Mubarak, many of the countries factories stopped. Those strikes were decisive for the dictator’s exit.
The Shebeen El Kom workers joined the strike for days. On March 5th they resumed it and since then they keep it up. They’ve been on strike for a month and a half.
“We ask that the company be nationalized, we have already filed a complaint to the courthouse. We also demand a minimum wage of 1,200 pounds”, explains to Human Journalism Mohamed El Nagar, one of the oldest workers, who in spite of 38 years as an employee, only earns 1,100 pounds a month, including expenses.
(In the video: Shebeen El Kom workers chant “united workers will never be defeated” during the visit of the Workers’ Party leader, Kamal Khalil, April 2011)
“As soon as the factory was sold they started to fire us. They were supposed to be buying it to reorganize, invest in it, to fix it, but instead they started to take it apart. They bought it to eliminate the competition”, complains Mohamed Awad, a 33 year old worker.
Taking a look at the facilities one notices a great degree of neglect. Several premises are already empty, in others there’s no more activity than that of the spiders weaving their webs over abandoned machines.
In one of the compounds pieces of scrap pile up. A sign at the entrance of a waste ground, former cotton warehouse, announces that it has been rented out to another company. Several employees insisted on showing this journalist the state of the bathrooms, broken down and without the least health or hygiene conditions.
“Since the company was sold security measures are not kept either. We don’t have headphones to soothe the noise from the machines, nor glasses to protect us from the dust from the fabrics, nor face masks, despite working with materials that harm the respiratory tract”, explains the veteran El Nagar.
The workers at Shebeen El Kom have joined forces in a new independent union and have gotten the support of other factories in the country, like the already historical textile factory in Mahalla, where in 2006 3,000 female workers kicked off a series of strikes that have multiplied themselves since then and that marked the prologue of the Egyptian revolution.
“If us workers stand together, we will win”, Kamal El-Fayoumi, union lider of Mahalla, tells Human Journalism.
Some counterrevolutionaries are accusing us of stopping the country, of ruining it. No, they’re wrong. Workers never stop a country; the build it.
Several of the movements that encouraged the revolution are in contact with the workers. It’s the case of the April 6th Movement and the Young People for Justice and Freedom.
“The workers supported the young people in the first stage of the revolution and now the young people of the revolution support the workers”, indicates Naguib Kamel, a member of the latter.
Sheima Hamdi, only 23 years old, is another one of the members of this young people’s movement. Several uploads on Youtube of her public interventions have made her known throughout the country.
The strength of her speech has been enough to earn her the nickname on the Net of “the strongest woman in Egypt”. “The Shebeen El Kom case represents the cause of all of Egypt’s workers. That’s why we are following it and supporting it so closely”, she points out.
Last April 5th hundreds of Shebeen El Kom workers protested at the government headquarters to demand negotiating directly with the owners.
Seeing the presence of several local and foreign media outlets, regional authorities were forced to act as spontaneous spokespersons for the workers, with the help of the already experienced Mahalla union leaders.
The managers ended up offering more expenses, longer contracts and the readmission of half of the workers who were laid off without a severance pay. The workers were pleased, but they felt that the offer is not enough.
Keeping that stance is not easy. They haven’t gotten their wages in the last two months and it is starting to take a toll. The resistance strongbox doesn’t go too far. But apart from some exceptions, the whole staff of the factory has made up its mind: To hold on together.
Now they wait for the court’s verdict, that this month of May, if the date is not postponed, will have to decide on the petition to nationalize Shebeen El Kom.
The levels of inequality and poverty in Egypt have reached unbearable levels because of the neoliberal and corrupt policies of the regime.
The discredit on the chronic capitalism practiced in the last few years is not only present in the minds of the Socialists, but also in moderate Democratic sectors fed up with the unstoppable enrichment of a corrupt and repressing elite opposite to the impoverishment to the majority of the population.
The left-wing knows this, which is why it is hurrying to set up solid networks and to promote initiatives with a clear objective: to achieve a new economic and political system more fair, more equal and more balanced.
by Mónica G. Prieto / translation: Blanca García
- The economic agreements with the Arab dictatorships of the Middle East and the North of Africa explain the silence of the international community.
- The revolts don’t only defy the regimes’ repression: also the implicit Western support of the tyrants through the economy
“It’s the economy, stupid!”. The famous phrase by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist during the 1992 election that led him to power, can be used to answer the questions that many people are asking themselves. Why the unbearable international silence towards the legitimate uprisings of people demanding freedom, economic and personal dignity, and democracy? Why have the Human Rights abuses of the dictatorships that are Western allies and that have generated the current revolution that runs through the Arab world, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, been tolerated for decades? What explains the official visits to dictatorial regimes and cleptocracies, the hugs and kisses with the Arab autocrats, the blessings to government systems diametrically opposed to legality? The answer is thousands of millions of dollars and a regional stability which has benefited Europe and the US and their main regional ally, Israel, in exchange for the insecurity of the Arab population.
The credit that goes to the Arab protesters that are causing serious trouble to, when not overthrowing, their regimes, is huge. They face not only an oppressing security system- which sentences them, if they fail, to be persecuted and probably massacred- but also the whole world from the moment in which the dictators they rise against are tied to the other countries with bonds that are hard to erase: commercial contracts that know nothing of ideology or morality.
That’s the reason why the documents from NGO’s denouncing tortures, repression, lack of liberties and rigged elections never cast the least shadow of doubt upon friendly regimes: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, the actual Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco… In fact, looking at the reports written by the Spanish commercial offices in said countries no one would doubt the legitimacy of these regimes, and especially no one would question the juicy profits they bring to the US and Europe. At the expense, that is, of the abuses committed against their populations. This is a summary of what our governments wanted to see in the Middle East and North Africa and of what their citizens where seeing, what they are rising massively against their dictators for.
Saudi Arabia: With an economy dependent on oil exports, Saudi Arabia depends on foreign exports given their scarce productivity in any other sector. A circumstance well taken advantage of by their international partners. Among its main providers are the US (with businesses valued in over $13600 million in 2009) or China ($10800 million that same year) and more modestly, France ($3800 million), Italy ($3500 million), and the UK ($3400 million). Spain is among the top 10 costumer countries with businesses valued in over $3400 million in 2009.
Also, last November it was negotiating the sale of 200 tanks which would have brought in €3000 million, the largest contract of the Spanish arms industry. What would these tanks have been for? The last known interventions of the Saudi Arabian army, a Wahhabi regime [the most radical faction of Sunni Islam, which implicates absolute sexual segregation, pushes women back to the condition of second-class citizens] whose source of jurisprudence is the Sharia, have taken place in Bahrain and Yemen. In the first one, kingdom activists denounced the entrance of Saudi soldiers to support the monarchy in the repression of the protests; in the second one it took place a few months ago, when the Saudi army attacked the Huthis’ positions, the Zaidi rebels [branch of Shia Islam] located on the border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in a sectarian attack.
In the country of the Saud dynasty, not only is the death penalty in force (it is done by decapitation and it is rising, according to local authorities because crime tolls are also rising) but corporal punishment is also applied: amputation of hands and feet for theft and whipping for minor felonies such as “sexual deviation” – in reference to homosexuality and sodomy- and drunkenness. Discrimination against women, who lack any kind of rights – their situation is much worse than in Afghanistan – reaches them even at their own homes. They don’t have the right to vote or to drive, they can’t even walk alone without a male accompanying them. There’s no religious freedom, nor sexual liberties or freedom of reunion, press or speech. Unions are prohibited, the same as political parties. Like their European partners, Spain doesn’t seem to care much about such minor details. Between 1993 and 2008, according to Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce data, Saudi Arabia invested in Spain more than €70 million. The people of Saudi Arabia are called to protest on march 11th and 20th.
Algeria: Like in Morocco and Mauritania, in Algeria- great producer of gas- Spain has big cooperation agreements that influence positively its businesses. The Madrid government is the fourth provider behind France ($6114 million), China ($4700 million), and Italy ($3700 million) with imports for the value of almost $3000 million a year. In exchange, Spain imports Algerian gas for almost €3900 million a year, being the third costumer country of the Algerian regime. Among the exports are airplanes for the value of half a million euros.
While rulers shake hands, the state of emergency that has been in place in the country for 19 years has justified irregular arrests, doubtful trials, forced disappearances, tortures, police abuse and restrictions of freedom of speech, press and civil rights. Since 1993 the number of disappearances is estimated between 30.000 and 40.000 people. The Algerians have been protesting against their government since December, and they demand measures against unemployment, lack of housing, inflation, corruption, lack of liberties… Their first victory: the repeal of the state of emergency that justified the illegal arrests of thousands of people for decades.
Bahrain: This tiny oil kingdom whose population is almost 70% Shia and who is ruled by a Sunni since two centuries ago is a privileged commercial partner of Saudi Arabia – hence its huge support of the Bahraini monarchy, based on economic and strategical interests because Riad is not interested in a popular uprising that gives any ideas inside the Wahabi kingdom- but also of Japan, the US and Germany in that order. In exchange, Bahrain exports oil. Its Shia population, meanwhile, withstands a discrimination that reaches every circle: they cannot access public offices or join the army, they denounce that they can only access the worst housing and that every time they have publicly protested they have been repressed. Torture is common in prisons, the same as in other Persian Gulf countries, as well as the arbitrary arrest of political dissidents. According to activists, there are about 400 political prisoners in prisons across the country. The country’s population doesn’t reach 1 million. The protests, repressed with blood and fire, have achieved for now the liberation of political prisoners and promises of democratic reforms.
Egypt: During the 18 days that the popular revolution which resulted in the fall of Hosni Mubarak lasted, barely any European critics were heard, and the few that came from the United Stated sounded mild. Let’s examine why: Egypt’s first commercial partner is the European Union, who exported goods for the value of €18 million in 2009. Among the European countries Italy, Germany, France and the UK held the first places. Spain was the sixth exporter of the country of pharaohs. The US, however, is the third exporting power with businesses for over €5300 million that year. The reports from NGO’s couldn’t compete with such volume of money, no matter how much they spoke of reoccurring tortures, arbitrary arrests, prison violations to obtain confessions and complete police immunity. However, millions of Egyptians overcame their fear and took the streets taking down the dictatorship and making History. One of the activists that launched the protests, Wael Ghonim, threw and unequivocal message to the West after their success: “You haven’t gotten involved in 30 years. Please, don’t get involved now.”
United Arab Emirates: President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has come back from his tour around the Gulf ecstatic about the economic agreements promised by the Emirates sheiks but without mentioning the Human Rights violations. In the UAE -rich in gas and oil- Spain has closed deals for over $1900 million, joining countries such as China, the US, Germany or India, its main commercial partners. The fact that in the seven emirates most of the population (an estimated 80%) are Asian workers with no rights, many of whom are exploited and live in subhuman conditions, doesn’t bother any of them. Human Rights organizations report on the lack of protection and the discrimination they suffer. Also in the Emirates institutions are not chosen democratically, and freedom of speech and of the press encounters many difficulties.
Kuwait: While Zapatero walked around the Emirates and Qatar, king Juan Carlos of Spain shook hands with sheik Sabah al Ahmad al Jaber, emir of Kuwait, a supposedly constitutional monarchy where the prime minister is Al Jaber’s nephew and where he chooses the members of the Government. His relatives hold the main power positions. Political parties don’t exist, although ideological organizations are allowed in the elected Parliament, which can be dissolved -as has already happened five times- at the emir’s will. The US, Japan, Germany and China are its main commercial partners; and hydrocarbons its greatest asset. It maintains its principal relationship with Washington, which explains the existence of American military bases on Kuwaiti territory. Enough for nobody to raise their voice against Human Rights violations such as those cited by Amnesty International in its 2009 report. “Migrant workers are still suffering from exploitation and abuse and they still demand protection of their rights. In some cases they were expelled from the country for having taken part in massive demonstrations. The government promised to improve their conditions. Journalists were prosecuted. One case of torture was reported. At least 12 people were sentenced to death, but no executions were heard of”. The protests in Kuwait, very minoritary, have settled with dozens wounded. The next one has been called for March 8th.
Libya: Oil and gas. Since Muammar al Gaddafi was declassified as a terrorist leader in 2002 and added to the category of Western partner, business with the Libyan dictatorship -40 years of tyranny- has rocketed ignoring the internal repression and the complete lack of democracy. Gaddafi was too generous to be questioned when he invested $2000 million in Canada or $30000 million in the US. Now, the use of military aviation against protesters who demand the end of the tyranny has forced international leaders to react. Italy and Germany are its biggest commercial partners, Spain is the third client country: it imports mainly oil and gas. Between 1993 and march 2008, it invested €189.36 million in Libya. Spanish exports of defense material grew 7700% in 2008.
Morocco: Human Rights violations, mainly related to Western Sahara, never come to the surface -not even the most violent episodes- with the Moroccan partner, good friend of Spain and ally of the European Union and the US. Among its main commercial partners are France, the US, Sweden, Germany and Spain. As with Algeria and Mauritania, Madrid holds large cooperation agreements with Rabat which include the sale of weapons and defensive material. Spain is estimated to be the main provider of the Alaouite kingdom after France, and its market represents the main source of Spanish exports in all of Africa. In 2009, Morocco received €30 million in Spanish military vehicles. The Rabat regime was initially understanding towards the protesters, who last February 20th took the streets to demand democratic and economic reforms, to later on act violently upon any glimpse of protest.
Oman: In this absolute monarchy with no political parties and whose sultan, Qabus al Said, overthrew his father in a coup in 1970, hydrocarbons are the key to its excellent international relations. The
Emirates, India, the US and China are its main commercial partners, among which is to a much lesser extent Spain, who between 1993 and 2008 has invested about €38 million in the sultanate’s economy. According to the NGO Frontline, Human Rights activists in Oman “endure harassment, random arrests and torture at interrogations. Hundreds of academics, journalists and commentators were held in massive arrests, and isolated with no kind of legal assistance. Oman is signatory of three of the seven fundamental United Nations treaties about human rights. Independent human rights organizations cannot operate inside the country”. The protests in Oman have cost two lives, and they demand respect for Human Rights, economic and political reforms that fight against inflation and raise salaries,and freedom of information.
Qatar: Another one of president Zapatero’s destinations that bore important economic results, with verbal agreements for €3000 million -more than 2700 go to inversions in an energy company and a telecommunications corporation, and 300 to a savings bank- and one of the few countries safe, for now, from the protests. Anticipating any kind of internal opposition, the Qatar regime -a traditional monarchy where every decision falls upon the reigning dynasty- has just moved forward the municipal elections, one more step in the slow reform process started by sheik Hamad ben Jalifa al Thani. He maintains excellent relations with every side, with the West, with the Arab world and with Iran, which has turned him into a mediator par excellence in the region. Japan, the US, Germany and Italy are its main providers, and Spain is its seventh client country. With regards to Human Rights, restrictions of freedom of speech -despite having created Al Jazeera- are common, activists are frequently harassed, the Internet is closely watched and Al Thani’s regime is accused of not guaranteeing foreign workers’ rights. There are no political parties. Qataris are called to protest in mid march.
Yemen: Protests have already been going on for two months and they are daily: dozens of thousands of Yemenis defy every day the security deployment and those faithful to dictator Abdula Ali Saleh, 32 years in power, to demand the end of the dictatorship. The first concessions didn’t take long after facing popular pressure: Saleh gave up the constitutional reform he was preparing to stay in his spot for life, then he gave up on his son succeeding him, after that he announced that he wouldn’t renew his term after 2013, when it officially expires, and now he offers a national unity Government which the opposition and the activists reject. The dictator stands lonelier every day: even his tribe as well as other decisive clans of the Middle East’s poorer country have withdrawn their support. The most important Yemeni cleric, Abdul Majid al Zidani, has joined the protesters, who demand his immediate exit and the establishment of a democracy. Its wealth also resides on oil, and its main commercial partners are China, India, the Emirates and the US, with whom it maintained close military relationships that allowed secret US bombings against alleged Al Qaida objectives that Saleh claimed for himself, as Wikileaks revealed. In the matter of Human Rights torture, repression, lack of liberties, random arrests of dissidents and cooperation with the North American extraordinary surrenders program -the kidnapping of citizens who are questioned in third countries to allow the use of torture in the obtainment of confessions- are usual. About 30 people are estimated to have died already in the protests.
Tunisia: Ben Ali’s 20 years in power gave him control over the Tunisian economy and forged links with France, Italy, Germany and the US among other Western countries in the shape of contracts. The cleptocracy was overthrown by the popular revolutionary movement that broke out after a young man from a province set himself on fire, expanding all over the North of Africa and the Middle East. The economic reasons -high unemployment, rise in prices, housing shortage- combined with a population that is educated and sick of the governmental corruption, but like in the rest of the protests the violations of Human Rights, from police repression to discrimination or lack of liberties, have also played a role.