Saturday, April 18, 2009

Egypt's state circus joins growing unrest

  • Performers among 1.5m workers to oppose reform
  • Wave of action since 2004 'almost unprecedented'

-Taken from 'The Guardian'
-Cairo - April 2009
-Photo courtesy of Sara Sanad and El-Youm El-Sabea newspaper

A typical Sunday afternoon for Refat El-Grasy involves oiling a unicycle and unpacking some spinning plates in preparation for an evening's show at the Egyptian National Circus. Yet this weekend El-Grasy, the circus clown, will find himself out on the street, holding a placard and shouting slogans at passing cars.

"We can't live on our current wages and we don't want to see this place privatised," explains the 52-year-old. "We'll keep on walking out here for as long as it takes for our voices to be heard."

El-Grasy is the latest Egyptian to join a wave of strikes that has seen almost 1.5 million workers down tools in the last five years. Since the start of the government's tough economic reforms in 2004 almost every industrial sector has seen walkouts and protests as part of what Joel Beinin, director of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo, calls "the largest social movement the Middle East has seen in half a century".

Industrial action has intensified as the global economic downturn has taken hold. Dissatisfaction with government policies and spiralling prices has resulted in walkouts by everybody from railway drivers to TV producers and pharmacists. Although Egypt is no stranger to strikes - the first recorded sit-in was held by Theban graveyard workers, protesting against a shortage of burying ointments during the reign of Ramses III - the latest dissent has few parallels. "It's almost unprecedented," says Beinin, "it's the most democratic thing happening in Egypt."

Although few of the striking workers are as colourful as El-Grasy, his concerns are shared by many who feel left behind by the regime of Hosni Mubarak, now in his 28th year as president. All the circus performers are employees of the state and have not seen salaries rise in 10 years.

Staff at the circus are only too aware of the fate of workers in other industries who have suddenly found themselves in the private sector. A well-known example is the Indorama Shebeen el-Kom spinning factory, which has witnessed 95 strikes since being privatised in 2006 after the new owners refused to pay up to 10m Egyptian pounds in bonuses to staff. "We're proud to work for the state," said El-Grasy, who has been with the circus since 1969. "We just want enough money to live on."

The government has responded to the strikes by trying to appease workers' calls for higher wages while suppressing any political demands, often brutally. A factory walkout in the textile town of Mahalla al-Kubra last year, which turned into a mass demonstration, was met with a violent response and left three dead.

One of the more successful strikes has been that of the government's property tax collectors. They broke off from the state-run general workers syndicate and formed their own private trade union, the first of its kind since the 1952 revolution - potentially a dramatic development in a country where going on strike without the authorisation of a recognised union is punishable by up to a year in jail.

Back at the faded circus tent by the Nile in Cairo, El-Grasy remains unsure about the future. "This is our circus and our art," he said. "Everyone here cares a lot about what happens to this place, and we'll be out again if our demands aren't met."

Muslim Brotherhood at a crossroads

As the leader of Egypt's opposition steps down, questions of the party's identity and purpose frame the debate over a successor

-Taken from the Guardian's
'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - April 2009

There are several recurring themes one becomes wearily familiar with when following the erratic world of Egyptian politics. Sensational revelations about Zionist/Iranian plots to destabilise the nation are a permanent fixture, as are empty policy statements parroted by government spokesmen and stoic silence from the regime on any issue that actually matters. One thing you don't often hear about, though, is resignation speeches – it takes a lifetime's work acquiring wasta (connections, or influence) to ascend to the top of any of the country's numerous greasy poles, and once politicians are up there they tend to be remarkably unenthusiastic about climbing back down.

Yet a resignation speech is exactly what the papers here have recently been chewing over – and it's all the more remarkable coming from the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, who at 80 years old is about to become the movement's first ever leader not to hang on to his position for life. Akef himself is not blind to the significance of this exotic event: "In Egypt there are no former officials ... there are only dead officials," he observed wryly when asked why the announcement that he would step down in January 2010 had created such a furore.

There are other reasons too why people are interested in Akef's resignation, but on these he is more reticent. That's because his removal, and the consequent succession battle within the party, will reveal much about the present character – and future direction – of Egypt's largest opposition force, one of the most influential Islamist political groupings in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood's 8th supreme guide will be chosen by its 100-strong shura council, which is itself 80% elected by the movement's rank and file membership. Analysts are therefore hoping the next few months will offer a unique insight into how strong the support bases are for each of the various factions jockeying for prominence within the movement.

Such an insight, if it materialises, couldn't be timelier. The Brotherhood has just emerged from a bruising few months, in which it mobilised 200,000 on to the streets of Alexandria in protest at the Egyptian government's closure of the Rafah border crossing during the Gaza war; the following day a Muslim Brotherhood MP threw his shoe at a rival from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) during a heated parliamentary session (to the delight of nearby photographers). Events across the border in Gaza exposed both the Brotherhood's strengths and weaknesses; it has an unparalleled capacity to turn out demonstrators in large numbers, yet regime oppression of the group is increasing – the Brotherhood believes that 1,700 of its members were arrested for Gaza-related activities.

Moreover, the leadership seems out of touch with the relatively decentralised industrial actions sweeping the country, and even more confused over how to align itself in relation to both the US – where President Obama is reportedly considering opening new lines of dialogue with the organisation – and the NDP, which is itself thinking about a replacement for President Hosni Mubarak, a fellow octogenarian. Akef may be popular within the Brotherhood but he leaves behind a movement fundamentally unsure of itself. The succession battle could relieve some of this uncertainty and breathe some much-needed coherence into the organisation.

So what does the succession battle look like? That all depends on your perspective, and how you frame the faultlines running through the organisation. It's been popular to characterise the Brotherhood in recent years as a group balanced between an authoritarian conservative clique at the top and a youthful, tech-savvy cadre below who are agitating for more engagement with non-Islamist forces and undermining the more reactionary impulses of the leadership (such as the 2007 policy platform which denied both women and Coptic Christians the chance to become president and proposed a new religious council that would ensure the compliance of all legislation with sharia law).

Much has been made of these "Brotherhood bloggers", but although they are an important element in the organisation their influence has been exaggerated by a media infatuated by modern buzzwords like Facebook and Twitter. As one young Brother, Abd al-Mun'im Mahmoud, remarked, there are those within the Brotherhood "that use technology and are open-minded about the world. I am with [this] group, but we are a minority. The problem with those analysts attracted to our language is that they fell in love and started running behind us. That is not the Brothers."

What is the Brothers is a far deeper, more potent and cross-generational divide between those who see the primary reason for the group's existence as one of political participation, and those who want to disengage with politics, and concentrate on da'wa (evangelism). Recent events have strengthened the hand of the latter, religiously conservative group, who argue that the organisation's flirtation with the formal electoral process (the Brotherhood won 20% of contested parliamentary seats in 2005, despite being officially outlawed) has brought them nothing but grief. Government-led security crackdowns and legal assaults have left many leading pragmatists and reformers in the other camp languishing in jail, most notably Khayrat al-Shatir, a millionaire businessmen and staunch proponent of engagement with western governments, further reinforcing the credibility of those who want to "retreat back into the bunker" and focus on core values, activism in the social sector and ultimately the survival of the group.

Electing a reformist leader like Essam al-Arian or the imprisoned al-Shatir would be a clear statement of intent for the movement, but such an outcome is highly improbable. The momentum now is with the da'wa-orientated tendency, led by figures such as Mohammed Morsi and the party's general secretary, Mahmoud Ezzat. The sort of tentative engagement with groups and processes beyond the Brotherhood's own sphere that has characterised Akef's tenure at the top would likely wane if either of these two triumph, and the result would be not only a more inward-looking society, but also a blow to those who defend the Muslim Brotherhood using the "firewall" theory – arguing that a strong, legitimate and well-engaged moderate Islamist group integrated into formal politics can only be a good thing in the battle to stop radical Salafist jihadism spreading in countries like Egypt.

There are alternatives – such as the pragmatic conservative Mohammed Habib, the current deputy supreme guide, who can talk the language of secularism and remains committed to political engagement. His chances of success remain to be seen. What we do know is that despite the Brotherhood's supreme guide being, in Joshua Stacher's words, more of a bureaucratic CEO than an eminence grise dominating policy from above, this succession battle will play an important part in shaping the Brotherhood's future, and consequently the fortunes of political Islam in the Middle East.

Alexandria's Jews: Bearers of a dimming torch

-Taken from 'The National'
-Alexandria - April 2009
-Original photography by Jason Larkin

Sweating in the mid-morning heat, Abdul Salaam gently brushes the dirt off a grave to reveal a faded Star of David. Mr Salaam, a committed Muslim, has lived as a resident guard within the high walls of this Alexandrian Jewish cemetery for 41 years, just as his father did for five decades.

The cracked headstones and marble tombs around him bear witness to people who first made this Egyptian city their home more than 2,300 years ago, and in their heyday numbered almost 80,000. Last summer, the final remnants of that vibrant community gathered here to bury their leader. So few of them were left that the Kaddish, a Jewish funeral blessing, could not be recited. The significance of that was obvious to all who attended; this once-cosmopolitan corner of the Arab world will soon entomb its final Jewish resident, and Mr Salaam will be left alone with the graves.

The death of Max Salama, 92, an Egyptian Jew who once served as King Farouk’s personal dentist, leaves 18 surviving Jews in what was once one of the religion’s greatest cultural capitals. The majority of those remaining are in their 70s or 80s and reside in old people’s homes, no longer interacting with the city they have always called home. At the tender age of 53, the new leader, Youssef Gaon, is now the youngest Jew in Alexandria by a considerable margin, and he is childless.

"What can I say?" he shrugs, as he gives a tour of a beautifully decorated but deserted synagogue in the old city centre.

Jews have been an integral part of Alexandria’s history ever since the port city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years but reached a zenith in the early 1900s, when Jews from across Europe and North Africa flocked there to escape persecution.

"It was an immigrant community drawn from all corners of the world, especially the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire," said Yves Fedida, an Egyptian Jew now living in France, whose grandparents emigrated to Egypt from Palestine at the turn of the century in search of work.
These were the rekindled glory days of Alexandria, an urbane melting pot of nationalities where poets, scientists and intellectuals mingled freely on the Corniche.

Egyptian Jews lay at the heart of the city’s revival, with individuals such as the anti-colonial Egyptian nationalist Yaqub Sana and the prominent psychologist Jacques Hassoun becoming household names in the region. But after revolutionary fervour swept Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952, the ancient city’s worldly reputation began to fade and subsequent hostilities with the newly founded state of Israel gradually eroded Alexandria’s Jewish population.

Mr Fedida’s parents were forced out in the first wave of expulsions, prompted by the outbreak of the Suez conflict. As Israeli tanks advanced on the Suez Canal, his father, previously the financial director of the national Egyptian Petroleum Company, was given 10 days to leave the country.

"He had to take us away and start again in England with just 20 Egyptian pounds in his pocket," remembers Mr Fedida, who now works for the Nebi Daniel Association, a French group that brings together Egyptian Jews from around the world.

The exodus of Alexandria’s Jews continued following wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and many of those who clung to their homeland were imprisoned by the Egyptian state, suspected of being Zionist spies. Today, the remaining Jews at the magnificent Italianate synagogue of Eliahou Hanabi are vastly outnumbered by policemen and officials from the Egyptian ministry of the interior, who pay for the site’s security.

"We are in very good hands," said Mr Gaon, anxious not to upset the fragile working relationship the surviving community has established with the Egyptian government. "Even after we have gone I know they will look after this place."

But as the final echoes of Alexandria’s Jewish ancestry die out, a new battle is raging over their heritage. At stake is the set of religious and civil registers maintained by Egyptian Jewry under the Ottoman Empire, which devolved such record-keeping to its non-Muslim communities.

Mr Gaon and his elderly compatriots are the final custodians of these logbooks, which run to 60,000 pages detailing all the births, deaths and weddings of the community stretching back to the 1830s.

These documents are of vital importance to descendants of Alexandrian Jews such as Mr Fedida, as the Jewish faith requires individuals to prove their maternal Jewish bloodline in order to get married. The problem is that issuing such certification from Alexandria is increasingly burdensome for the small number of Jewish pensioners left and the process is often hampered by local bureaucracy. The Nebi Daniel Association is lobbying the Egyptian government to allow copies of the archives to be placed in a European institution where they could be more easily accessed, but so far their efforts have met with failure.

The reluctance of the current Egyptian regime to enable easy access to the documents springs from fears that the offspring of Alexandria’s Jews will use them to make financial compensation claims against the government for Jewish property confiscated under Nasser’s nationalisation programmes.

The issue is a sensitive one; last year an unspecified amount was paid by the state to the Jewish family who originally owned The Cecil, a luxury Alexandrian hotel immortalised in Lawrence Durrell’s novels The Alexandria Quartet and seized by the government in 1957. Earlier this summer, a planned Cairo conference of Jews hailing from Egypt was cancelled after local media questioned the intentions behind the event.

According to Mr Fedida, however, fears of compensation demands are misguided.

"We are absolutely not interested in financial claims," he said. "Our generation are the children of those who really suffered from expulsion and imprisonment. Although our parents tried to reconstruct their lives elsewhere, we saw their grief and we need to do them justice by giving them back the identity that led to them being uprooted in the first place."

Regardless of the outcome of this tussle over the logbooks, the human element of this once grand community will soon be extinguished and there will be no more burials at Abdul Salaam’s overgrown cemetery.

For Mr Fedida though, who was born in Alexandria, optimism prevails that Jews might one day make a return to the city.

"You never know; we lost it once before when the Byzantines kicked us out in 400AD," he said. "I think it’s a wonderful city, and I long for it on a daily basis. But deep down I know I’m longing for a world that no longer exists."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So much for Egypt's 'day of rage'

Facebook-organised protests against a corrupt elite mean little in a country where only 10% of the population are internet users

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Photo by Per Bjorklund
-Cairo - April 2009

It was billed as a "day of rage", 24 hours of co-ordinated protests across the country in which Egypt's 80 million citizens would send a powerful message of defiance to their unloved government. In reality, at best it proved to be a day of mild dissatisfaction; at worst the events of 6 April 2009 may have dealt a serious blow to the country's fragmented opposition movement.

Despite a frenzied build-up – which included exhorting residents to throw subversive leaflets from their rooftops (echoing tactics used in the struggle against British colonialism), a national campaign to wear black on the big day (mourning the death of modern Egypt at the hands of President Hosni Mubarak), and polls suggesting that up to 90% of Cairo was planning to join a general strike – yesterday's events passed with an underwhelming whimper. Shops stayed open, protests were tiny and isolated, and the only people decked out in black were the countless lines of riot police.

None of this is to denigrate the efforts of those who have worked hard over the past year to give public expression to the anger felt by Egyptians towards the corrupt, self-serving elite. And in the context of an overwhelming security presence – and the huge legal and economic risks faced by poor workers who might have wanted to take the day off work – protest organisers are arguing that yesterday was still a success. They are right to point out that if international journalists had bothered to venture beyond downtown Cairo (where the highlight was a demonstration at the Journalists' Syndicate which mustered barely a hundred supporters) they would have seen more action, not least at the
universities where police ignored a recent judicial order barring them from entering campuses, and fought running battles with dissident students.

But positive spin cannot change the fact that yesterday was a sad day for those trying to challenge the hypocrisy of Mubarak and his cronies, who preach the language of democratisation and human rights while plundering the nation's riches and cracking down brutally on any who stand in their way. Yesterday's date was chosen as a focus for popular discontent because it was the anniversary of an uprising last year which saw three people killed by police. In the following 12 months a dramatic strike wave has continued to sweep the country, the Gaza crisis has exposed Mubarak's subservience to Israel and the US, and the global credit crunch has laid bare the crippling inequalities entrenched in Egypt's IMF-sponsored rush into neoliberal economic reform. In other words, the time seemed ripe for a sustained confrontation with the government. Why then did such a confrontation fail?

The answer lies with the approach of Egypt's so-called army of "Facebook activists", a much-hyped broth of technological innovation, media sensation and 21st century buzzwords. "Shabab 6 April" ("6 April Youth") boasted 75,000 online supporters on the eve of the action. The problem was that like most media sensations, there was a lack of substance at the movement's core. Facebook groups might grab the attention of social-networking-hungry global news outlets, but they mean a lot less in a country where only about 10% of the population are internet users. That's not to say the web doesn't have a vital role to play in providing a much-needed space for political expression, but it does mean that those seeking mass mobilisations against the regime must find ways to reach out and co-ordinate with those beyond their own middle-class circles.

And this is where it all went wrong for Shabab 6 April. Last year the real dynamism behind the protests stemmed not from Cairo but from the industrial town of Mahalla – where workers from the main textiles factory walked out of the front gates and whose residents paid a bitter price for their courageous stand. This year the industrial working-class were not involved in the organisation of protests. Some trade union factions lent their support to the "day of rage" but there was no linked-up collective action. Nor did the young activists I spoke to on the day seem to think this was much of a problem. The idea of meaningful grassroots activism is notable by its absence in the Facebook manifestoes, a point which has improbably united critics of Shabab 6 April from both the left and the right. Instead grand calls for a general strike are merely issued from on high, handing an effortless propaganda victory to the government when the mass walkouts inevitably fail to materialise.

The irony of all this is that Egypt's workers are in fact engaged in a wave of political militancy, which in recent months has seen strikes break out across every corner of the country, bringing everyone from doctors to train drivers on to the streets. On top of this, some public sector employees are for the first time escaping the trappings of the state-controlled union syndicates and instead forming their own private trade unions. A recent report suggested that Egypt will be particularly hit by the economic downturn, with half a million more jobs likely to be lost in 2009. Alongside the already fierce bubbling of social discontent, this will weaken the beleaguered Mubarak regime even further. But as yesterday made clear, it will take more than a few social networking groups to effectively capitalise on the government's problems – something which those 75,000 Facebook group members will be soberly pondering today.