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.”
Monica G. Prieto / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza
Ali Othman became responsible for the Baba Amr media center, the most active in Syria, and devoted himself to filming the military offensive and to promoting his own and his colleagues’ recordings so the world could see what was happening in Homs. And he was arrested as such on Wednesday the 28th in the city of Aleppo, where he had gone fleeing the capital of the Syrian revolt: according to his colleagues, “he is being put through the worst kinds of torture since his arrest”. “We, the members of the media center, call on all NGOs, as well as the Federation of Arab Journalists and the United Nations to act immediately and save the life of journalist and activist Ali Othman. We hold Assad’s regime fully responsible of any harm caused to him”, reads a press release from the Baba Amr information center.
Ali’s name was changed to Eyyed in the article The eyes of the revolution to protect his true identity- like the other Syrian activists, he did not want to give his true name fearing arrest. This 34 year old fruit salesman, born in Baba Amr, married and with five small children, decided to stay in Homs’ martyr neighborhood even when the troops of the Syrian Army’s 4th Division entered the neighborhood in February, after almost a month of constant bombings. He turned down the escape routes used by his colleagues as well as a significant part of the civilian population and the Free Syrian Army fighters due to his convictions. “How can I go when there are people who cannot leave the neighborhood? If they stay, I stay. Somebody needs to witness what is happening”, he argued during the last conversation we had, via Skype, hours before the fall of the neighborhood. Leer más
- Sixth and last chapter of the “Syrian Chronicles”, written this Christmas in the besieged city of Homs, in Syria.
- It is easy to see why Nur generates an aura of respect around her.
- She is the one behind the protests, its slogans and signs, the distribution of videos and the social organization in Homs that prevents the city, 1.5 million people besieged and attacked by their own Army since months ago, crumbles down due to the lack of supplies.
The most respected woman in Homs goes completely unnoticed. Petite, her shyness becomes evident due to a voice that only emerges as a whisper and is confirmed by a flushed smile each time anyone brings up the role she is having in this revolution. “She is our heroine”, they say, and she looks down blushing. But earning the general and unconditional admiration of Arab men is something very few women can achieve, and Nur al Homsi is one of them. Leer más
By Luna Bolívar / Translation: Blanca García Bertolaza
By Luna Bolívar / Translation: Blanca García Bertolaza
The biggest volcanic island in the world started its mutation towards huge laboratory in the nineties. The 103,000 square kilometers on the edge of the North Pole offered excellent conditions to experiment with wild capitalism. Iceland gradually lost interest on its fish, its sheep and its horses, and set itself onto the conquest of international markets. The “vikings” were taking the world by storm. They bought everything. They grew endlessly. And soon they could boast about owning half of Denmark, a country that had once dominated them and from whom they could not become independent until 1944. Practice seemed to confirm for a while the thesis of a new generation of Icelandic politicians, among which were David Oddson and Geir Haarde. Yes, it was possible to turn this traditional and remote territory, birthplace of the sagas, into the richest State in the world. In the United Nations rankings, Iceland ousted Norway as the best place to live in the world. “Flat-screen TV’s and Range Rovers became the symbols of the pre-crash era”, Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, political scientist from the University of Reykjavik, explains.
In the “post-crash” era, Iceland gets a taste of getting out of the crisis. Activity continues in the biggest volcanic laboratory on Earth. What happens when wild capitalism fails? Can a currency recover after having lost almost 70 percent of its value in just one year? How does a society that didn’t know employment shortage face a 10 percent unemployment rate? And the key question: How long does it take to get into shape a State in debt for 200 percent of its GDP.
“God save Iceland”. Little more is remembered about the speech Geir Haarde, then prime minister, pronounced on October 6th 2008. There’s no need either. The phrase is an accurate sum up¿?. In their frenetic expansion, the country’s three biggest banks had not been too careful. When the international economy entered recession, the house of cards built by the insatiable vikings fell apart. The government had to step in. And the country on the limits of the North Pole ended up doing a balancing act on the verge of bankruptcy.
But a viking doesn’t give up so easily. “It might sound like a nationalist cliché, but we are a people that if we fall, we get back up. Maybe that mentality is a consequence of the climate we live in. Or of the fishing culture: if you haven’t fished today, you go out again tomorrow”, Bára Ómarsdóttir explains.
Fish are interesting again in Iceland. And sheep and horses. Since the collective impact of October 6th, the island is going back to its roots. “Now more local produce is being consumed. Traveling inside the country has gotten back the popularity lost during the boom, when Icelanders vacationed abroad several times a year. Before people remodeled their homes completely like it was nothing, today people recycle and reuse more and second hand clothes are being worn again”, the Icelander describes.
“We are living a time of big changes in Iceland”, Bára Ómarsdóttir comments, and she is not only referring to the fact that people now mend the socks they used to throw away. What has been set in motion in the island is a true revolution: the “cooking pot revolution”, they call it, because armed with them the citizens went out to make noise in front of the Reykjavik parliament until in January 2009 Haarde’s government fell. Protests like these had not been seen in 60 years, when the country became a founding member of NATO against the population’s will.
The prime minister’s resignation –sick of cancer- and the punishment of his Independence Party in the later advanced elections were not enough, however, to appease the anger of the Icelanders. David Oddson, Haarde’s predecessor who went from head of the Executive to head of the World Bank with the correspondent and ignored conflict of interests, had to leave his office. In April 2010, a Parliamentary Investigation arrived to the conclusion that both of them, like other high-ranking officials, had favored with their negligence the financial collapse. Haarde will have to take responsibility in a court of law.
Iceland is trying to start over. Get back the values that got away through the gates opened by money. Rearrange the priorities: in daily life and also in politics. Now the Icelanders don’t only remember their fish, but also that their Althing is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. In this Assembly got together the goði, the chiefs of the clans previous to the introduction of Christianity, since 930. Always in absolute equality.
“The principle that we are of equal is part of our national identity. No one, regardless of their position, has a right to usurp power”, Bára Ómarsdóttir asserts. 1,200 island citizens were chosen at random in 2009 to take part in a “national encounter” along with organizations, pressure groups and politicians and debate -all of them on an equal level- over the options for the country’s future. Now, 25 common citizens -and no politicians- try to include in the Constitution the proposals made in that meeting.
Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir sits in the new constituent assembly. “Of course it is an honor to have been selected”, she admits. The only requirements: being over 18 and having more than 30 support signatures.
“We are still not too sure about that changes we are going to make in the Constitution: if we are going to rewrite all of it or if we are going to modify some parts. We have just started working and we are still familiarizing ourselves with the national encounter ideas”, the political scientist tells. “The truth is, the task of reforming the Constitution was due since our independence in 1944. Now a series of factors have converged and made it possible and I hope that, at the end of the process, we will have been able to give more room to subjects such as the fact that the power emanates from the nation, the humanist values and the environmental subjects”.
With a population of 320,000 people, in Iceland last names are almost unnecessary. But size is not relevant when it comes to set into motion a participatory democracy, Bára Ómarsdóttir thinks: “any country can choose a group of people to draw up a Constitution. Here there were also people against doing things this way, but in the end they could not impose themselves, and I’m glad”.
Size doesn’t seem to be crucial either on another battlefront: the Icelanders refuse in an impertinent way to be the ones to pay for the debt their banks had with British and Dutch clients, and that the broke entities cannot pay back anymore. London and The Hague temporarily assumed their citizens’ compensation, and now they demand from Reykjavik 3,800 million Euros. An agreement between the three countries -approved by the Icelandic government and Parliament- planned the refund of the money in a 15 year period at a 5.55% interest rate. But the President of the Republic imposed his veto, and the Icelanders voted “no” in a referendum twice, the last one on April 10th.
The payment would increase even more the Icelandic debt and it would call back to the ghost of bankruptcy. But it’s not refunding the money what sparks off popular opposition, it’s the terms of the agreement. Meanwhile there are rumors that an improved version of the document could go around, but already from the first rejection at the polls the system fell upon Iceland with all its force: the international loans granted to the country as support for the economic crisis were suspended, the application to join the European Union called into question.
Joining the EU does not worry Icelanders too much. During the past Spanish presidency it became clear that the conflict with Great Britain and the Netherlands goes on away from the access contacts. And, anyway, the idea of belonging to the Community club and having to abide by its fishing norms is hardly attractive in these latitudes.
It could be more dangerous if the combative citizens had to learn that the market’s forces are too powerful for a single volcanic island, even if it is the biggest one in the world. In the end, directly or indirectly, they are going to end up paying for their banks’ extremely expensive broken china, believes Bára Ómarsdóttir. “That is why I would have preferred a negotiated solution from the beginning”, she says. But, what kind of avenging and poised Vikings would those have been?
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 (Beirut) / Translation: Blanca García
- After Bashar Asad’s reactionary speech in which he avoided talking about reforms, the protest campaigns become consolidated through Internet.
- The regime’s promises of not shooting at demonstrators haven’t stopped the repression.
There are countries in which free access to the Internet is not a right. It is rather a tool feared by regimes, which they try to block, restrict or limit, in a vain attempt to keep Internet surfers to see beyond the limitations. It happened in Sadam Husein’s Iraq, in Ben Ali ´s Tunisia and in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, it happens in Iran, in Libya, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in the United Arab Emirates, in almost all of the Arabic world- with the exceptions of Lebanon and Palestine-. And, of course, in Bashar Asad’s Syria.
Last weekend, Syrian web access suffered a blackout for six hours. It wasn’t the first time since the Arab spring began, but it is very meaningful. In the context of revolutions, the mix of hopelessness, education, a fit of dignity and communication skills, every blackout seems to show the desperation of a regime which sees itself against the ropes. So it isn’t a good sign for Damascus that Syrian internet users, who are used to dealing with all kind of difficulties, were disconnected last Sunday.
Useless, on the other hand: in social networks like Twitter or Facebook there are all kinds of open manuals and software made to get around the regime’s obstacles, to prevent IP addresses from being detected and even to stay online when the Internet has been disconnected. Everything is useless. In Syria, where many web sites- media considered hostile, sites seen as revolutionary- are blocked by the regime but there are a lot of Internet Cafes whose owners, well versed in computers, can solve the access difficulties in a couple of clicks. That´s why it was surprising that the first calls to demonstration, which were announced through Facebook, didn’t work.
Dozens of muhabarat agents showed up at the protests, willing to break up marches that nobody attended. It was explained that these first calls came from outside of Syria in an external attempt to mobilize the dissidence. The regime became over-confident and even unblocked access to Facebook for the first time in History- until then, Internet surfers overcame with wit and tunnels the block on the social network, imposed as soon as it became popular- and that’s where it all started, Ahed al Hendi, Syirian dissident responsible for the Arabian section in Cyberdissidents.org, platform dedicated to giving an online voice to dissidents around the world, explains to Human Journalism.
“Without the Internet, we wouldn’t have been able to see videos or pictures of the crimes of Asad’s regime. The Internet activated the first movement when members of anti-Asad groups marched along Damasco on March 15th. When the media showed the videos of the protests that were posted on line, many more Syrians watched it, and it helped to break the wall of fear” Hendi remembers through an email exchange.
Adel left Syria four years ago, after being released from prison: he tells that for 40 days he was incarcerated because of his involvement in pro-democratic activities, being an student. Nowadays, he is an active regime opponent who uses any forum to call for insurrection, as he recently did in a Wall Street Journal article, where he analyzed the role of the Internet in the protests. “The first calls to protest started on Facebook”, he wrote. Organizers have preferred to stay anonymous, but one thing is clear: they aren’t Islamic. In the group Syrian Revolution against Bashar Asad, with 60000 member so far, Fadi Edlbi has written “national unity, everyone for freedom, Christian and Muslim”. Another member, Shadi Deeb, “ we are not Sunnis, we are not Alaouites , all of us sing for freedom”. And while he is saying this, he puts a picture with the cross and half moon as a sign of unity. The page in question has today 104.000 fans.
It seems ironic that it was Bashar Asad who introduced the Internet into Syrian houses when he came to power, 11 years ago. He promised to generalize its use, but the figures speak for themselves: of a 23 million people population, there were just 3.935.000 users in June of 2010, 17’7 % of the population. And until last February, it was officially forbidden to access Facebook. However, this hasn’t prevented that, from outside and inside the country, Syrian have used social networks as an instrument of mobilization. Or rather, that the facts spread on social networks, overcoming state censorship,are mobilizing consciences.
What would have happened if the Internet had existed in 1982, when Hafez Asad, father of the current president of Syria -actually, Bashar inhereted the office- ordered the massacre of between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians in Hama to suffocate an islamist revolt? “The truth is that without social networks, we would have never known about what happened two weeks ago in Daraa: it would have been exaclty the same as with the Hama massacre”, explains #daraanow, an active twitter. The person hiding behind this user calls himself Fash (something like annoyance in slang), was born and raised in the city of Daraa, the same one that originated the protests after the arrests of 15 students by Syrian agents: they were accused of painting a revolutionary slogan on a wall. “Now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the uploaded videos it took me less than five minutes to know the story of those kids. I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if we had had them 30 years ago. A lot of people still have no idea about what happened in Hama”.
Fash has been living outside of Syria for ten years: his last visit was five years ago, when he went to Daraa to visit his family, that still lives in his home city. He keeps in contact with his relatives, friends and neighbors on the phone but also throught the Internet. “The ¿? has been down for weeks in Daraa, but thanks to its geographical location, close to the Jordan border, we can communicate using other countries’ networks”, he explained on a chat conversation.?¿
So understandable has been the eagerness to tell what was happening as the eagerness to know. “I had more than 200 followers (on Twitter) in the first hour, I imagine because people had a lot of curiosity for what was happening in Syria, a country in which no one has been able to stick their nose in in the last 30 years”. And the more followers he has (more than 1,200 right now), the more he wants to carry on with what he has called e-jihad, a cybernetic and secular war with the only goal of taking down the dictatorship and obtaining freedom. “There are many more people promoting initiatives like mine inside the country at a larger scale”.
Because the difficulties imposed by the regime are relative. “There are many ways to avoid censorship, such as proxy servers that work from the outside of Syria”, continues Ahed. “The people of Syria are beginning to understand the crucial role the internet and social networks play. In spite of the fact that the government does everything in its hand to stop being connected to the world, the examples of Tunisia and Egypt prove that this instrument has been underestimated. The Syrian regime still has the idea of the Hama massacres: Kill and no one will know. That is over, the Syrians know it”. For those who don’t have computer knowledge or a computer with which to tell the outside world about what is happening, there are cell phones. Almost half the population owns a cellular phone and recordings and pictures taken with them fly, as prove several Facebook groups such as the Syrian Uprising Information Centre, brother to its arabian site, which live off the civilian contributions to illustrate what is happening in Syria.
Basically Twitter is used more to spread information to the world than to mobilize people”, stresses Hendi. “It’s Facebook what is mobilizing the people. And I fear that if this hadn’t started in Tunisia, it would have in any other place. Tyrannies cannot last forever”, concludes the ciberactivist.