Oxford students occupy Bodleian Library in solidarity with Palestinians

A group of around 80 Oxford students occupied the historic Bodleian Library at Oxford University today in support of Palestinians and to protest the university’s policies towards Israel, notably calling for divestment from Oxford’s stake in the British arms manufacturer BAE Systems, a statement of support from the university in reaction to Israel’s bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza, and the cancellation of a series of lectures inaugurated by Israeli President Shimon Peres (which the students had earlier staged a protest against). They are also asking for scholarships to be created for Palestinian students and support for Palestinian academia.

Their full statement is after the jump. The students have a blog, Occupied Oxford, a Twitter feed and a YouTube page with videos of the occupation of the library.

The question of an academic boycott of Israel and universities’ divestment from companies that sell weapons to Israel has a long history in Britain, and this kind of smart initiative is good news. Eight other universities are staging similar protests and occupations: Birmingham, Essex, King’s College London, London School of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, Sussex and Warwick. Continue reading Oxford students occupy Bodleian Library in solidarity with Palestinians

Developments in Mahalla

Hossam has been following the latest repressive measures being taken against labor activists in Mahalla, one of the center of labor protests in Egypt. He says:

There is a ongoing crackdown on labor activists in Mahalla, since they staged a demonstration last October against the management’s corruption:




Following the demo, the management decreed the transfer of four activists from their positions:

1- Blogger Kareem el-Beheiri was moved to the Cairo office

2-Mohamed el-Attar was moved to the Alexandria office

3-Amal Said was moved to the company’s nursery

4-Wedad el-Demerdash was also transferred to the nursery


More alarmingly, the two women (Amal and Wedad) were sexually assaulted by thugs at the behest of the management, when they tried to enter the company compound.


The victimized workers’ colleagues are planning a demo on Saturday in solidarity. However yesterday another activist was victimized (named Wael Habib) as he was distributing leaflets in the company calling for the demo:


Wael has been one of the central figures in the December 2006 and September 2007 strikes…

It appears security is trying to block some of the labor activists who’ve done the most to get information out in the last few years from having access to the main factory.

Mahalla detainees appeal to civil society

Letter to head of the Judges’ Club Zakariya Abdel Aziz from the three Mahalla detainees, Kamal El-Fayyoumy, Tareq Amin, and Karim El-Beheiry:

We would like in the beginning to correct certain information which has reached the press about our (the three of us) having been transferred to the prison hospital as a result of our hunger strike.

The truth is that we are still in prison after the administration refused to call an ambulance to take us to hospital, and as a result of the inability of Karim el-Beheiry and Tareq Amin to stand on their feet – as a result of their extreme weakness. Instead, a “nurse” was summoned to examine Karim, whose condition has seriously deteriorated.

We would like to know the reason why we remain in detention. We will continue the hunger strike until we either die or receive this information.

We were tortured in the state security headquarters in Mahalla on the 6th, 7th and 8th April. Officers tortured Karim using electricity while Tareq Amin and Kamal el-Fayyoumy were insulted verbally and physically assaulted. We then spent eleven days in Borg el-Arab prison in a cell with individuals with criminal convictions. When the Tanta court ordered that we be released we were held for four days in the El-Salam police station [noqtat shorta] situated between Mahalla and Tanta before we were taken to Borg el-Arab prison were we began our hunger strike.

[From Fustat: Letter from Burg al Arab prison]

Ammar Abdulhamid on Syria: “It’s the economy, stupid”

Syrian Blogger and opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid has a very different take on prospects for change in Syria, which he says will be driven by economic factors. I would not be so optimistic (I see the same kind of thinking over Egypt’s current economic crisis) because just like you can’t control a country entirely through security measures, you can’t make change happen entirely through economic disgruntlement, for which temporary fixes can always be found. Here’s the text of his address to the US Congress:

Change in Syria is not a matter of “if� anymore, but of when, how and who. Facts and factors influencing and dictating change are already in progress and are, for the most part, the product of internal dynamics rather than external influences. Although this assertion seems to fly in the face of traditional wisdom regarding the stability of the ruling regime in Syria, the facts are clear and plainly visible for all willing to see.


The problem has been that most experts and policymakers have always been more concerned with high-end politics to pay any real attention to what is actually taking place on the ground. Issues such as the International Tribunal established to look into the assassination of former PM Rafic al-Hariri, Iran’s growing regional influence, the Assads’ sponsorship of Hamas, Hizbullah and certain elements in the Iraqi insurgency, escalating international pressures against the regime, and the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the regime and opposition forces continue to dominate the ongoing international debate over Syria’s present and future.


The dynamics of daily life, however, shaped more by inflation, unemployment, poverty, imploding infrastructure, and official corruption and mismanagement might actually be rewriting the usual scenarios in this regard. For as that old adage goes: “it’s the economy stupid!�

Continue reading Ammar Abdulhamid on Syria: “It’s the economy, stupid”

Talking back

Yesterday several of the opposition-minded papers in Egypt ran with front-page stories about Bilal Diab, a Cairo University student who heckled Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif as the latter was delivering a speech to students about how great things were going in Egypt. I love this story, as does the Egyptian media, because it is reminiscent of other similar incidents well-known in political and activist circles, such as Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi’s famous harangue to Sadat in the 1970s (they were student union politicians then) or more recently (a few years ago) leftist political commentator Muhammad Said Sayyed’s osé questions about democracy to President Mubarak at the Cairo Book Fair.

Here’s more about Bilal Diab:

CAIRO: “Mr. President, Mr. President, Egypt’s youth are behind bars.�

With those words Belal Diab, a 20-year-old literature student at Cairo University, interrupted Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif as he addressed the student body on campus Monday, kicking up a media storm.

“We want you to release those detained on April 6. Mr. President those are the people you were talking about who use the internet, those are the people who stood up and defended you when you were criticized at the World Economic Forum for saying Egypt is globalizing. Mr. President I want to tell you one thing, Education is zay el fol [perfect] the university is zay el fol, there is bread, there is democracy and freedom, release Egypt Mr. President, release Egypt Mr. President!� he said as students clapped passionately.

“I was provoked [by Nazif’s speech],� Diab told Daily News Egypt. “How can he talk about information technology, the internet and how the youth has to use it to express their opinions and get their voices out there when those who did exactly that are now all behind bars,� he said, referring to students who created the Facebook group promoting the April 6 strike.

“I admit that I was out of order but I had to get my voice out there, officials have to start listening to us instead of detaining us,� he said.

When Diab had completed his outburst, Nazif had turned to him and said, “I feel sarcasm and pain in your words, but I’m telling you Egypt is alright and you have to look at everything with objectivity because there are many challenges facing this country.�

“There objective reason for detaining these people is the acts of destruction they committed and there is a thin line between expressing your opinion and encouraging destruction, striking and rioting. Many want such chaos in this country but we won’t let this happen. Egypt is not a chaotic country,� continued the Prime Minister.

Diab, however, insists that he wasn’t wasn’t being sarcastic. “I was speaking passionately and my tone was serious. As for the sarcasm he was talking about who is really being sarcastic in this country, is his cabinet … those telling people that everything is fine and were are progressing,� he said.

The incident led to an abrupt halt of the lecture. Neither the Minister of Higher Education, Hany Helal, nor the President of Cairo University, Ali Abdel Rahman, gave their scheduled speeches.

As soon as Diab had ended his impassioned speech, two security guards sat behind him, but when the lecture was over and they tried to grab him they were prevented from doing so by the crowd, which saluted him for having “the guts� to speak openly.

But soon enough, the same security guards, accompanied this time by a police officer and a university professor, caught up with him. The professor asked for Diab’s university ID. It was then that the guards took hold of him in front of the crowd and escourted him to the office of the head of the university’s security.

What’s neat about this story, and some of the more recent similar episodes, is that you have people who are not really political activists standing up for themselves and their country. The same could be said of Esraa Abdel Fattah, the woman who is said to have started the Facebook campaign for a general strike on April 6, and who was arrested and charged with inciting unrest. Interestingly, both Diab and Abdel Fattah are young members of the al-Ghad party, the vehicle for Ayman Nour’s brief but spectacular entry into national politics in 2005. Nour, you will remember, is still in jail on trumped up forgery charges as punishment for his temerity. But obviously the spirit of dissent and contestation that Nour and many others (notably Kifaya) pioneered in 2005 is still alive and well, even if those movements and parties aren’t.

On a completely different note: this week the pro-government magazine Rose al-Youssef had a 32-page special on Facebook, including everything from its use for activism to the different groups Egyptians have formed there (such as, apparently, “Egyptians who love Israel” and “Egyptians who love George W. Bush” as well as, of course, the many sexual opportunities a Facebook account provides. Much of this “special” is complete bullshit, but I do like the cartoons.


CAMERA’s war on Wikipedia and Palestinian history

From Electronic Intifada:

A pro-Israel pressure group is orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.

A series of emails by members and associates of the pro-Israel group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), provided to The Electronic Intifada (EI), indicate the group is engaged in what one activist termed a “war” on Wikipedia.

A 13 March action alert signed by Gilead Ini, a “Senior Research Analyst” at CAMERA, calls for “volunteers who can work as ‘editors’ to ensure” that Israel-related articles on Wikipedia are “free of bias and error, and include necessary facts and context.” However, subsequent communications indicate that the group not only wanted to keep the effort secret from the media, the public, and Wikipedia administrators, but that the material they intended to introduce included discredited claims that could smear Palestinians and Muslims and conceal Israel’s true history.

A veteran Wikipedia editor, known as “Zeq,” who according to the emails is colluding with CAMERA, also provided advice to CAMERA volunteers on how they could disguise their agenda. In a 20 March email often in misspelled English, Zeq writes, “You don’t want to be precived [sic] as a ‘CAMERA’ defender’ on wikipedia [sic] that is for sure.” One strategy to avoid that is to “edit articles at random, make friends not enemies — we will need them later on. This is a marathon not a sprint.”

Zeq also identifies, in a 25 March email, another Wikipedia editor, “Jayjg,” whom he views as an effective and independent pro-Israel advocate. Zeq instructs CAMERA operatives to work with and learn from Jayjg, but not to reveal the existence of their group even to him fearing “it would place him in a bind” since “[h]e is very loyal to the wikipedia [sic] system” and might object to CAMERA’s underhanded tactics

Mahalla updates

Keep clicking on that refresh button at Hossam’s for updates on Mahalla, where tensions are extremely high as we might head into a third day of riots. In the meantime, a repeat of the general strike is being called for May 4, the date of Hosni Mubarak’s 80th birthday. I’m heading there this afternoon. In the meantime here is an account from activist Jano Charbel on yesterday’s riots:

Intifada in Al Mahalla

A popular uprising has been taking place in Al Mahalla Al Kobra since April 6. Local residents, in the tens of thousands, took to the streets of this Nile Delta city in protest against price hikes, and in protest against the detention of more than 300 locals. With stone-throwing youth and Central Security Forces engaged in running street battles Al Mahalla has come to resemble the occupied Palestinian territories; and the protests in this city have come to resemble an intifada. Over 100 civilians and members of the security forces have been injured in clashes, and at least one civilian (a 15 year old boy) has been killed.

Continue reading Mahalla updates

What to make of the “general strike”

As the khamseen winds blew into town today, a strange thing happened. A general strike that has been called for weeks went missing. People went out on the streets, asking, “have you seen the general strike?” “Are people striking over there?” “Do you know where the general strike went?”

It was all rather odd, because opposition and independent newspapers had been promising a “day of rage” and an “uprising,” and the stodgy old state newspapers had ignored the subject altogether, preferring to concentrate on news that the price of rice and cooking oil had gone down and, er, that anyone striking or not showing up to work could face prison. The previous evening, a communiqué from the Ministry of Interior was aired on state television, telling people that they could get into a lot of trouble for participating in a general strike which wasn’t going to take place anyway. The very, very pro-NDP Rose al-Youssef had also tried to reassure its readers: “Don’t worry, there won’t be a general strike, you can peacefully go to work.”

On the opposition side, while most legal parties decided not to back the call for a general strike, there was the usual ambiguity from the Muslim Brothers, with one day General Guide Mahdi Akef calling for it and the next the group’s Secretary General Mahmoud Ezzat (frequently thought to have more organizational weight) was saying that the MB were giving moral backing to the strike but would refrain from participating. Only Kifaya, Karama and a handful of the usual groups (radical leftists etc.) lent their full support for the idea of a general strike by going out on the streets. A much bigger group of people, mostly on Facebook, were calling for staying at home rather than going out on the streets to mark the general strike.

So, to recap, there were at least three strikes taking place yesterday: the Mahalla workers’ strike and solidarity strikes by workers elsewhere, such as Kafr al-Dawar; the solidarity strikes and protests by the political movements in universities and major cities like Cairo by Kifaya and related movements; and an unknown number of solidarity stay-at-home “strikes” by individuals. These were of course all connected, but not necessarily all coordinated. I also wonder whether some of the workers striking for specific gains — a new minimum wage, better benefits — might have felt apprehensive about their cause being made into a symbol for the call for abstract gains — democracy, reform, down-with-Mubarakism. The connection between the strikes carried out by the organized labor movement, which has specific bread-and-butter goals and whose political aims have for now focused on better representation in the local and national unions, and the broader political opposition is thus still hazy. There is certainly a great deal of public sympathy and admiration for the workers, a consciousness among the political class that they represent a movement that could be harnessed more effectively than Kifaya’s disparate coalition, and the source of symbolic leadership for dissent that, unlike specific individuals like Ayman Nour or whoever else, can’t be put in jail, be slandered or decapitated.

If we look at these three strikes separately, we can learn different lessons.

The workers’ strike

There had been some uncertainty about the strike beforehand. Its main instigators, or at least the people who inspired it — the brave workers of Mahalla al-Kubra — apparently were divided about whether what was supposed to be their strike should take place. Although Hossam says this is because of the co-option of some labour leaders in Mahalla:

The factory itself has turned into a battleground of open propaganda warfare between the state-backed Factory Union Committee and the CTUWS faction on one side (and what a bloody irony when the CTUWS activists were the ones who had initially led the fight against the govt backed unions!), and the Textile Workers’ League activists who continue to agitate for the strike on the other. Statements and counterstatements are circulating the factory floor. A number of CTUWS activists were threatened with physical assaults by the workers when spotted distributing anti-strike statements from Hussein Megawer the head of the corrupt, state-backed General Federation of Trade Unions. The activists fled the scene, and left the statements hung on the wall, only to be torn down by the workers. Mohamed el-Attar, one of the CTUWS activists, phoned Ad-Dustour labor correspondent Mostafa Bassiouni. Attar was fuming, after Mostafa ran a report exposing the anti-strike pledge signed by Attar and four other labor leaders, and threatened Mostafa with a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Textile Workers’ League called on the media outlets to boycott Attar and Co accusing the latter of losing credibility… Management officials in the different departments and production sectors are showering the factory floor around the day with calls against the strike, and the Gharbeia Province governor showed up in Mahalla and met with a group of the management as well as police informers in the factory to discuss how to sabotage the industrial action…

Since the CTUWS have been the leaders behind the Mahalla workers’ movement — the same ones who previously organized the largest strike in decades — it seems to me that if labour leaders are in the middle of negotiations as they claim to be, they have a right to not go on strike. I would reserve judgement about the workers in favor of the negotiations, since they never asked to become national symbols of dissent and are after getting what they want from management. Besides, whatever the dispute between the CTUWS and the Textile Workers’ League about whether or not to hold the strike, the atmosphere at the factory was very different than on previous occasions they held the strike.

It seems security forces took over the factory starting at 3am, were out in force in the city and made clear that they were ready to use violence. It seems that those who decided to join the spontaneous protests that began after the 3:30pm shift change ran into some serious resistance, including the use of cattle prods to electrocute strikers, tear gas, and other measures. Unlike previous strikes, probably because the security forces were so aggressive, this got quite violent as troops battled workers throwing stones and on occasion molotov cocktails. I hope that this does not set the new pattern for futu
re strike actions, as it would probably mean the end of the powerful non-violent resistance shown by workers across Egypt over the last two years. Most seriously, at least two people appear to have been killed and hundreds were injured as live ammunition was used — as it had been to control the last major strike movement in the mid-1990s. The consequences of this clash for the factory that had indisputably grabbed the leadership of the labor movement is still uncertain, and one hopes it does not put permanent shackles on labor activists there.


Hossam has more details on what happened in Mahalla, and links to pictures.

The activists’ strike

It was already pretty clear from the ministry of interior’s warning on Saturday that a no-tolerance policy would be applied to activists involved in the general strike. By early Sunday over 95 activists, bloggers and politicians had already been arrested, and a stroll through Downtown Cairo showed that security was serious about coming out in force. Midan Tahrir’s occupation by Central Security forces (and various sundry other units, including baltaguiya), with the backdrop of the khamseen’s apocalyptic skies, certainly made a strange impression. As usual the activists were herded and pushed onto Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street, and from the terrace of the Lawyers’ Syndicate over a thousand activists staged their demos. I see nothing very interesting here — the show of solidarity was nice, but we haven’t moved beyond the dynamics of the Kifaya protests of 2005. The presence of baltaguiya, especially, suggested that security forces were quite ready to resort to the tactics of using these hired street thugs, who are paid 20-30 pounds and a sandwich by police to beat up protesters, to avoid direct police-activist clashes. One wonders why they do that, except if only perhaps that the police and Central Security troops, which form the cordons that contain the demos, do not want to get their own hands dirty. Or perhaps security does not trust them to engage against ordinary citizens in this manner and prefers to have them remain on the sidelines.

The stay-at-home strike

This is the potentially most important part of yesterday’s events, although it is difficult to interpret. Why was Cairo so empty yesterday?Was it because people decided to stay at home in a show of solidarity, or because people were afraid to go out and face potential riots and the security crackdown? Was it both, a form of safe civil disobedience for people who don’t want to take the risk of open political participation? It’s hard to know the answer, but the fact that many classrooms at schools and universities were nearly empty yesterday suggests that, one way or another, the call for a general strike had a real, widespread public resonance. Some, like Baheyya, see in this a budding campaign of civil disobedience of the kind many have advocated for several years. She had written in July 2007:

The notion of organising a national civil disobedience campaign has been percolating for some years now, pre-dating the current spectacular wave of protests. In fall 2004, it gained the valuable intellectual and moral imprimatur of retired judge and historian Tariq al-Bishri, who wrote a lucid defence of non-violent resistance as the only feasible and effective method of engaging the increasingly violent and personalised rule of Hosni Mubarak. Reading it again, I’m struck by how much has changed since al-Bishri penned his words. The fragmentation and dearth of collective action that he lamented three years ago are unrecognisable today, replaced by incessant societal movement, to wit: the electoral mobilisation of 2005, the pro-judges’ protests of 2006, the innovative campus organising of 2005 and 2006, the workers’ uprising of 2006-07, and the more recent spate of ordinary people’s street action.

By civil disobedience, al-Bishri meant precisely the kind of street-based collective demand-making and reclaiming of rights that is now sweeping the country, spearheaded by labour unions, craft guilds, professional associations, student unions, and ordinary people. Kifaya et al’s recent initiative goes well beyond this mode. It ventures into the most challenging, the most difficult terrain: seeking to activate societal sectors unused to expressing opposition of any kind, whether street protest or dissent in salons and political parties or writing letters to newspapers or joining a block association or any of the myriad other ways that politically aware citizens air their views.

The stay at home initiative targets those who cringe from making any sort of visible statement about public affairs but are by no means indifferent about current events. It seeks to tap into the intense and ambient sense of anger at the authorities that has settled over the entire country like a thick, low-hanging cloud, the subject of every household conversation and office chatter. It attempts to normalise dissent by weaving into the rhythm of everyday life, whittling it down to a simple, doable, and above-all risk-free act of staying at home (what we all love to do anyway) and hanging the flag from a window or balcony, an eminently respectable and patriotic gesture tweaked just enough to make a bold but non-threatening statement.

Is this what happened yesterday? I really don’t know, but it’s plausible that this kind of attitude is slowly developing. What’s certainly encouraging is that the strike was supported by a myriad of different organizations. The MB’s hesitant take on the strike — understandable since putting thousands of their members on the street would have led to certain mass violence — was nonetheless important, since it gave it the moral backing of Egypt’s most important organized political force. Others too joined in who are not among the usual suspects, such as university professors fighting for greater independence and better
salaries or the latest middle-class, professional movement to hit the scenes, Doctors Without Rights.

The workers’ cause, the bread crisis, the outrage over last year’s constitutional amendments, multiple corruption scandals, high prices, a bankrupt Egyptian foreign policy, the abandonment of even pretending to hold fair elections, routinized arrests of political dissidents — all of these things have affected virtually all strata of Egyptian society, and the feeling of uncertainty over the future caused by the absent of a clear presidential succession process have all contributed to growing disenchantment with this regime. I think this has been pretty well established. For over two decades now, any political force that tried to rally citizens around this disenchantment has been met with repression and decapitation of leadership. We are left with a leaderless movement, one that some fear could turn into a mob, as it did during the 1977 bread riots, whose memory hung heavily over yesterday. Or, maybe, it just turned into a day of limited solidarity, an alpha version of what a real general strike might look like in the future. It remained a real condemnation of the current state of affairs. One socialist activist wrote in an email:

On April 6, 2008 Egypt did not in fact witness a general strike. Yet there is always potential for a general strike and there is clearly a great deal of discontent which may fuel such a general strike in the future. Since the massive strike at the Mahalla Textile Company in December 2006 Egypt’s workers and labor unions have become increasingly vocal and active. An increasing number of workers have also been demanding the establishment of freely organized, independent, and representative labor organizations; an increasing number of workers have also been developing their contacts with other groups of workers and coordinating their efforts – these are the elements that are needed for a general strike.

Speaking of 1977, I was talking recently with a friend who was at university that year about his impressions of what was happening. He told me about one friend who had told him that he had been stopped by rioters who had set up a checkpoint. They politely asked him to step out of his car so they could burn it, as they had been doing all day. He pleaded: “but my car is a small, look at the one behind me, it’s a Mercedes.” So they let him go, and proceeded to torch the Mercedes. A prominent Marxist professor who had been very supportive of any anti-Sadat initiative then arrived, pale-faced: “the riff-raff have taken over the streets!” The lesson here is that even people who sympathize with workers or would like to see a massive uprising are afraid about the consequences of mass public . 1977 was bloody, and did not resolve anything beyond getting the price of bread to be reduced again — a poor substitute for the better economic management, job creation and accountability so sorely needed in Egypt. Perhaps yesterday’s invisible strikers are still looking for means for meaningful political expression without potential chaos, an option the regime has denied them for decades.

See also:

6 April blog – Dedicated to general strike

Underbelly of Egypt’s Neoliberal Agenda – Joel Beinin looks at another factory case, also covered here.