2011 § Leave a Comment
The first May day in post-revolutionary Egypt saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in Tahrir Square. The crowd asked for the new government to guarantee reforms that would provide workers with basic rights.
But Magdir, a 45 years-old worker for a Cairo construction company, did not rally in Tahrir. He spent his Mayday working with his colleagues, re-painting the facade of a building only few blocks away from the world-famous Square where demonstrators had gathered.
“There is nothing to do there,” Magdir told Bikya Masr while holding a blue rope in his right hand spattered with yellow paint. Magdir raises his head, peering at the paint basket hanging at the opposite end of the rope. There, his workmates Ahmed and Abdallah sink their rollers and attentively paint the facade of a nineteenth century downtown building.
Ahmed and Abdallah stand on the same wooden beam, leaned on by two motorbike tires, each of them hanging from a rope they previously fixed on the top of the building. The two swing together at roughly 20 meters from the floor, giving a brush to the facade every time their fluctuation takes them close enough to the building.
“Thank God we work six days a week,” continued Magdir, “and on Friday I stay at home, play Playstation or football with friends.”
Magdir used to be a migrant worker. He worked as a cook in Jordan, as a waiter in Syria and as a builder in Saudi Arabia. When he found wife in Egypt and planned to settle down, this job was the best he managed to get.
However, he regards this as a lucky catch somehow, as his and his colleagues’ daily salary range between LE60-80 daily ($10-15), exceeding the monthly LE400 ($68) set by Egypt’s current legislation as minimum wage.
This is another reason why they might not have joined Tahrir’s protesters. There, demonstrators called for the government to immediately raise minimum wages up to LE1,200 ($200).
Until October 2010, minimum wage in Egypt was set at LE35 monthly ($6). It was then raised just over the World Bank’s Moderate Poverty Threshold ($2 daily) following unprecedented protests.
But many look on with nostalgia at the earlier stand, as employees would openly negotiate salaries with their own employer. As the minimum wage was set at a higher rate, many ended up with earnings lower then they would expect before the reform.
Instead, Magdir’s concerns depend on another topic. “His father died two years ago,” says him pointing at his young apprentice Amr, “he fell from the beam. Gone.” Lacking alternatives, Amr took his father’s place in the company and is now learning from his colleagues how to swing on the beam.
“It takes an iron heart to get up there,” intervenes Mohammed, one of the company’s veteran. Mohammed has been going up on the beam for more than thirty years. He now enjoys the petty tasks reserved to an experienced assistant like him.
He does not know how and when, but Magdir considers a trade union the only way out from their unlucky position.
He and his colleagues think many steps forward have been done towards the creation of a safer working environment in the last years. Nonetheless, as a consequence of the complete lack of public subsidies and the dangerous working conditions, their job is often not worth doing.
Independent trade unions outside the management of state-led Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) were formally banned under former President Hosni Mubarak. After the February 11 collapse of the regime, the ETUF’s 54 year-long monopoly was interrupted by the creation of a range of new associations, covering all sorts of categories including those previously discriminated by the ETUF like farmers and fishermen.
Lack of coordination and know-how are not the only obstacles between workers like Magdir and trade unions.
The Cairo Land Center for Human Rights (LCHR) recently warned of an ongoing genocide in the Egyptian village of Musa, as remnants of the former regime deprived inhabitants of current water and food supplies, as they discovered farmers were planning to institute a trade union to cover their interests.
As the battle rages on on Tahrir’s international stage, and newly-formed trade unions endorse interests of industrial workers (see those in Shebeen al-Kom or Mahalla), those like Magdir have a much longer and tougher battle ahead of them.
Abdallah and Ahmed slowly reach the base of the building and finally hop off the beam. Abdallah says he does not fear his job, but hopes he will soon have enough money to give it up. He wants to buy a Toyota and work as a microbus driver.
this was from Bikya Masr, photos by David Chierchini © 2011-2012
2011 § Leave a Comment
There is not much to do in Midan Tahrir for the revolution, now less than ever. This is what most of the Egyptian opposition forces seem to realise in these dramatic days of chaotic protests. The Midan falling back into some kind of surreal ‘normality’ is certainly not the result of the Army’s violent, ruthless comeback, neither of a loss of revolutionary fervour by the forces of the opposition. It is a sign, hopefully of change.
On Thursday morning, soldiers and volunteers in downtown Cairo were planting flowers in the Midan and painting walls and pavements in white and black, as if covering the written signs of a country in uprising would make people forget about how much they have achieved so far.
Last Saturday, two desperate parents wandered crying around Tahrir for hours, showing people a bloodstained piece of carton carrying the dimm el-shaheed, the blood of their martyred son killed in the Midan on Friday, while the Army was reportedly shooting in the air in order to frighten what they still want people to think is only a small group of violent dawdlers. Will I ever forget those crying faces?
Sharif, one of the shebab temporarily opposing protests in Tahrir, says there are three different kinds of people:
There are people who work for the revolution, people who work against the revolution, and people who sit at home, watching television and believing whatever the news says.
One of the Army’s strongest points lies in the power of a dialectic, enforced by media still subjugated by a corrupted political system, aiming to divide those in favour of the revolution, keeping them at home and turning them into sceptical observers from afar. They say the people in Tahrir are baltageya, professional thugs whose job is to throw the country into anarchy and chaos, occasionally selling hashish during breaks.
The baltageya is indeed an actor on stage, but is a double-edged one. Even two inveterate supporters of the baltageya like Hosni Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly committed their last, fatal mistake by ordering the opening of state prisons on 28 January. The sight of “pro-Mubarak” supporters riding camels and storming into the crowd to beat peaceful demonstrators made protesters squeeze up.
Even those who already made up their minds and wanted to allow Mubarak to stay until September elections, suddenly found themselves shouting for his ouster. Almost three months after those events, the baltageya‘s double-edge is still a highly destabilising factor in the country, fully exploited by those reactionary forces willing to thwart the country’s path towards political normalisation.
But this is not enough. As a small number of Army officials joined demonstrators and refused to take off their uniforms last Friday, many protesters smelled a rat. This intrusion disclosed a glaring sign of division within the Army, but at the same time it legitimised the intervention of security forces.
After seeing them shooting in the crowd and clearing out the Midan, many protesters still fool themselves into thinking that the Army is the people’s only guardian, and that those who cleared out Tahrir were mercenaries paid by Mubarak’s personal friend and business Ibrahim Kamel. Even in this case, where was the Army when the people needed protection? Egyptians have to realise that the time – if there was ever one – when the people and the Army were iid wahda (one hand) are now definitely over, and handing over power to a civil presidential council is the only solution for the time being.
Here we come to the point. The recent escalation of violence is a sign that the Army’s divide and rule agenda is being successfully put forward. This urged the opposition to wisely call for a suspension of demonstrations, and for the cancellation of Friday’s milioneya, the march of the million calling for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to step down. This does not mean that revolutionary forces are satisfied with the Mubaraks’ or Kamel’s – fake – prosecution. “Our revolution is not against Mubarak,” one of the activists involved in the movement for the ‘Protection of the Revolution’ reminded me. “Our protests aim at a reversal of the 1952 coup d’état and the institution of a civil Presidential council”. Indeed, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi is a military man, like Mohammed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Naser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak before him.
When I asked an Egyptian friend for a definition of the baltageya, he told me “a baltagy is either someone who pushes you to do something you do not want to do or someone who prevents you from doing what you want to do.” Suspending protests this Friday means avoiding that open (and suicidal) confrontation the Army has been looking for since they mingled with those violent enemies of the people’s rightful demands.
The revolution has been played out in many other fields, but Midan Tahrir still remains the battleground for the protesters’ main political demands. Celebrating a new Friday of protests with an empty Midan Tahrir amounts to an important step towards the realisation of the revolutionary agenda, and shows that the revolution is gaining ground on, and understanding of, an increasingly chaotic panorama, remaining loyal at the same time to its peaceful character and refusing to bow heads in front of the SCAF’s cosmetic adjustments.
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2011 § Leave a Comment
As night approached and the minaret of al-Hussein Mosque flushed with orange and red, hundreds of tiny lights hanging on the building facade suddenly lit up. The final “leyla kabira” (big night) of the Mulid of Hussein, Cairo’s most famous religious festival, was about to begin.
Thousands gathered in the old Cairo neighborhoods of al-Azhar and Hussein to celebrate in defiance of the low expectations following recent political instability and economic crisis. Believers coming from as far as Aswan, near the Sudanese border, pitched their tents in the alleys of the Islamic neighborhood and built stages to host religious chants and sufi trance dances.
People feared that police’s drawback from the street and midnight curfew would impede the realization of the 5-day long utopia, were believers dance and sing together until late in the night, living a lifetime experience through the sharing of food, drinks and messages of peace. The Army’s sudden but timely decision to delay the curfew to 2AM eased the pressure on partakers and the few policemen guarding the celebrations easily dealt with the peaceful crowd of thousands.
Hammam comes from Aswan and works as a builder for a construction company. He dreams about traveling to Europe and find a better-paid job. Nonetheless, he and his family did not hesitate to spend part of their savings to organize a week-long expedition to Cairo every year and take part in the fascinating mulid. They offered tea and sweets to passer-by throughout the night.
As a main event of the final big night, famous sheikh Yassin exhibited in front of a crowd of a few hundred before the Hussein mosque and squeezing into the next square. The celebration went on in the alleys behind the mosque until 4AM, in complete defiance of the curfew. No clashes were recorded.
The mulid of Hussein celebrates the birthday of the Propet Muhammad’s Grandson, killed in 680 AD during the battle of Kerbala. His be-headed body was buried in the same city, while his head was carried in triumph to Damascus and successively transferred to Cairo, where it is now preserved in a silver shrine.
“The martyrs of Islam never die,” says Ramadan, pointing at Hussein’s tomb inside the homonymous mosque.
“There is still blood flowing in their veins when they are buried, and their bodies never age. For ever.” Ramadan comes from Mansura, in the Delta. He wishes to come back to Cairo in three months, in order to celebrate the other big mulid of Sayed Zeynab.
The Mulid of Hussein is only one of more than three thousands similar celebrations held in Egypt every year. There are Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim mulids; the celebrations stand as proof of the plurality and uniqueness of Egypt’s cultural and religious tradition.
Some argue that such celebrations date back to Pharaonic times, and therefore are among the few manifestations of true Egyptian identity. Nowadays, they constitute a fundamental part of Sufi Islam.
For this reason, mulids came under strong criticism from secular and muslim reformist authorities, who see in these celebration a display of backwardness or wrong religious practice.
“Some people try to drive the Brotherhood and Sufis apart to serve their personal interests,” declared Mohamed al-Shahawi, head of the International Sufi Council, responding to a proposal to ban Sufi dhikr dancing.
Opposite views came to a dramatic confrontation in 2009, following a mulid ban issued by the Ministry of Health and supported by the head of the Supreme Sufi Council. According to official communications, the gathering of people would have increased the danger of a swine-flu epidemic.
2011 § Leave a Comment
Saturday’s Italian-Tunisian deal on immigration, worth $210 million, shows how popular unrest in the Middle East is failing to change international politics in the region. As the raging of war in Libya hits a main migratory route that brings hundreds of thousands Sub-Saharan and North African migrants heading to Europe every year, international institutions fail to achieve a concerted agreement to face this ongoing historical crisis.
The Italian island of Lampedusa, only a few hundreds kilometers from African coasts, has received almost 15,000 refugees between January-March 2011, almost four-fold the number of migrants landed throughout 2010. Even though Italy has repeatedly called for international intervention in the matter, the emergency rises as the European Union appears unwilling to discuss a shared solution. The lack of concerted planning allows Italy to find bilateral solutions that suit its government’s own purpose to get rid of migrants, failing on basic human rights procedures, and to pursue national (sometimes even personal) economic interests, enhancing illiberal and repressive policies on the opposite Mediterranean shore.
A part of Italy’s unilateral attempt to revive commercial and political ties with Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was the first statesman to agree upon a historical $5 billion compensation deal with former colony Libya in 2010. This was not calculated out of compassion. In exchange, Gaddafi agreed to spend part of the money to enforce Libya’s coastal police, in a bid to increase the number of ‘respingimenti’ (turning back) against those “illegal immigrants”, actually refugees fleeing from a ruthless dictatorship (now a war zone) and heading towards Italy’s southern coasts.
This highlights a main point of discussion: a fundamental human right like political asylum, sanctioned by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is purposefully confused with the accusation of illegal immigration. The violation of the Article is therefore legitimized as part of a powerful political discourse that strengthens European xenophobic policies and re-enforce global inequalities. As the Italian-Libyan case shows, Gaddafi’s interests coincided almost perfectly with the xenophobic, separatist party Lega Nord. The power of these kinds of odd alliances has turned the Mediterranean Sea into barb-wired frontier to be enforced, in a bid to keep order at home at eyes closed in front of the most evil atrocities committed abroad. No European country seems available to re-discuss the terms of this approach.
But the picture is much wider. The war in Libya risks opening Pandora’s box of global inequalities, because the people fleeing Libya are not only Libyans. Daniele del Grande, author of “Fortress Europe”, the most reliable online source of information on cross-Mediterranean migrations, reports the state of fear ruling the lives of entire families of West African migrants in Benghazi. Locked up in their houses to escape from clashes of a revolution that is not theirs, or hiding from people chasing the mercenaries recruited by Gaddafi because of the similar color of their skin. The cruelest thing is to recognize that Sub-Saharan migrants are both among the causes of regional instability their first, most helpless victims.
Brave reporters like Del Grande show that what was known before as “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea), whose vital function was to connect the many parts of the multicultural Roman Empire long ago, has now become an extended graveyard, a wide water blanket that covers the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies belonging to those people who have failed in their last, hopeless travel. Del Grande writes in his blog, “this is the history our sons will study in their books, the story of thousands dying and being deported, while we pretended that nothing was happening.” Sunk into the deep, their bodies disappear without any news, and few journalistic reports are their anonymous tombstones.
As the EU appears more and more alienated from this reality, pressure towards a concerted solution should come from those European countries directly interested by this phenomenon. Unfortunately enough though, Italian separatist and racist party Lega Nord scored a winner in last Parliamentary Elections, obtaining 86 parliamentary seats and becoming the third most influential political party in the country, thanks to its propaganda against “African” Southern Italy. On the French side, Marin Le Pen, leader of the far-right wing party National Front and most accredited candidate for upcoming presidential elections, visited Lampedusa two weeks ago, expressing her solidarity with the local inhabitants. What is going to happen to the people in Libya during this war? What is going to happen to the thousands migrating form West Africa? We do not know. Italian and NATO General Fabio Mini declared on Sunday that a “balkanization” of Libya is the most probable solution after Gaddafi will be forced out of his thrown. Mini said, this solution will serve the interests of the Energy Companies working in Libya and help improve their share with less political and legal control.
Indeed, it is hard to believe that the two UN resolutions allowing military intervention in Libya are driven by humanitarian purposes. It is also hard to believe that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon first concern is to “listen” to the voices of the people. Where were they aircraft when people were dying crossing the Mediterranean, jailed and killed by Gaddafi’s police in the Kufra Oasis or left to die from thirst in the middle of the desert?
“Egypt does not want a revenge but wants to take part to the world,” said Wael Ghonim, one of the young voices of the Egyptian Revolution. This demand is not only Egyptian, and rises from all over Africa. But who is listening?