Unions, the First and Last Hope for Egyptian Revolution

0,,15498914_4,00New Orleans   When more than 20 organizers from labor unions and community organizations as part of the Organizers’ Forum delegation visited Egypt in 2011 after the revolution several years ago scores of meetings with political parties, activists, community and labor organizers, proved the one clear reality-tested conclusion that cut through all of the hype was that this was no Facebook revolution whatsoever.  If there was one clear, unheralded hero in the drama whose relentless pressure broke the Mubarak government it was the labor movement.   Their continuing strikes kept the pressure on the government no matter how much repression and press coverage occurred in the Square.  The events leading to Tahir Square and the surge of hope for change in Egypt that many called the Arab Spring were the classic case of something that seemed like a victory having a thousand fathers while a defeat is a bastard child.

            We were also convinced even in the fall of 2011 that the revolution was slipping away.  Now three years later so many of the hopes and aspirations of that time are mired in disappointment.  The elected government, dominated by the best organized, which in that case was the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to right the economy or open government to the array of voices that had made the revolution so vibrant.  In fact repression grew and for those of us who had been there it was not a surprise to see the government go after the leadership of independent trade union federations, often with minor or trumped up charges.  Labor unions were not silent during this period largely because they felt that one of the promises of the revolution were breeched when the new government continued to prop up the state controlled labor apparatus and hold down the ability of emerging, autonomous unions to bargain or even collect dues.  The alienation of some of the independent worker advocates was so extreme that some of them heralded the military coup that displaced the elected government as a relief, hoping that they would finally be able to appropriately establish their unions.

            I often wondered whether we were the only ones stumbling through the hype to the real story until I stumbled on a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal of all places finally giving some credit to workers as the last line of protest and defense threatening “to disrupt the widespread public adulation expected to propel Abdel Fattah al Sisi into the presidential palace….”   In a piece by Matt Bradley and Leila Elmergawi they not only gave credit to workers and trade union activists for their role in ousting Mubarak finally but also noted the price the labor movement is paying by continuing to put on the pressure for rights and wages, including the fact that leaders of the Post Office Union have been taken away and accused of creating a “terrorist” cell and a suit by against 11 strike leaders.  Teachers, doctors, police, and transport workers have also created independent unions and struck the government.  The Journal points out that only about one million of Egypt’s 23 million workers belong to independent unions, and that the government will obviously try to cut separate deals, but the unionization numbers are higher when state unions are counted and workers are still voting with their feet to hit the street in wildcat actions even from these more tightly controlled unions. 

            Unfortunately, unions by themselves can’t restore democracy in Egypt, but their continued pressure will eventually win wage relief from the government and will continue to speak to the courage and the aspirations of people.  You can’t tweet that or post it on Facebook easily, but workers are still proving that it’s strength at the base that counts more than Hail Mary shots at the powers that be through the internet’s social media channels.  It’s got to be feet on the ground, not just fingers on a key board to make real change.


Looking at Occupy and the Arab Spring

AADERT Conference

Springfield   Looking at the connections and contrasts between the revolutionary upheavals of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Occupy Movement was an irresistible topic for the 20th conference of AADERT (African and African-American Development, Education, Research, and Training) at Springfield College.  In fact anything that seeks to look deeply at social movements and learn from them counts as irresistible in my book, so I’m clearly not an unbiased guide.  Nonetheless 150 students, professors, activists, and men and women of the African diaspora assembled in the rain at the newish Flynn Union Center for the discussion all day on Saturday.

Listening to others from the diaspora, it did not seem to hold that distance had made hearts go fonder or certainly more secure.  Long time expatriates and exiles from Somolia, the civil wars of Liberia and Ethiopia, and elsewhere had to be judged from their remarks as highly skeptical of the real likelihood for reform and democracy arising from the Arab Spring.  Even less controversial issues like using the internet still reverberated with fears of security and surveillance 7000 miles away and in another world.

I had to heed the perspective since the Organizers’ Forum delegation’s visit to Cairo has been both inspiring and depressing as we both joined friends in hope for the future and the excitement of Tahrir Square and tried last fall to parse the views of mostly secular presidential candidates, none of whom have now survived to the runoff in recent Egyptian voting.  Were I talking to our friends on the Young Revolutionary Council now, I would imagine they are disaffected and uncertain whether to boycott the election completely with a choice between a member of the old Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, or hold their eyes and vote for the Brotherhood in hopes they can make a difference.

My own remarks focused on the elements of movements and how they could be identified in each of the movements by shining a light that revealed the hands behind the curtain.  I also tried to look at the contributions of each.  Interestingly, asking people to raise their hands less than a handful had any real knowledge or involvement with Occupy, further making my point about the somewhat elite nature of the movement attacking elites.  [See my remarks soon in Social Policy).  It was fun to be challenged to look at both of these major events together, even though the results are also still out in the jury on both of them.   The highlight for me was a woman at the end of the questions & answers, who said she just had to say something and then told a story of being doorknocked in Springfield by an ACORN organizer a couple of years ago, then getting together with her neighbors and winning – it was magical!

Almost as interesting to me was visiting with a class of Human Services graduate students and their professor, Dan Russell, in between sessions.  These were hardened veterans of real work in the trenches of the caregivers with experience  in unions from SEIU to Steel, and real cynicism and trepidation about whether their voices mattered and whether it was worth them speaking up and raising them when they saw injustice.  It goes without saying that I made my best, impassioned plea.  Their assignment had been to read some of my recent blogs, so it was fun to find some real traction with my remarks about the need for even the lonely voices in the jury box to speak truth to justice about the erosion of both mercy and justice in our criminal system.

Hope is not a plan, as I reminded the AADERT crowd, but persistent and committed work and events like these and the dialogues they produce still keep the heart light with expectation.   After my remarks a young man came up, stood in line to speak with me when it came to his turn, said he was from Monrovia, Liberia, and he wanted to know how he could join ACORN and help.  Now that’s a plan!


Egyptian Misogynous and Brutal Military must be Stopped

New Orleans Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has this exactly right when she says the beating of bystanders, protestors, and women in Cairo’s Tafhir Square are “shocking.”

Furthermore she added in a speech at Georgetown, “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people.”   The fact that Clinton has no credibility in Egypt these days should not distract from the timely correctness of her position now.

The video of the beat down and military “riot” in the Tafhir as they beat the living hell out of people with truncheons is sickening to watch.   Nonetheless, double click the YouTube feature which allows you to spend a couple of minutes and feel the panic and fear of the protestors.

Perhaps the only poignant moment in this brutalizing video and a reckoning of the loss of moral core of the military enforcers are the frames picturing one solitary solider of the hundreds on the film, who stops, stoops down, and tries to cover the woman who had been beaten and exposed in a huge cultural breach by the military, but one that is not as the Field Marshall argued an exception, but a clear illustration of the misogyny of the military.  The video makes it unmistakable that these were not instances that arose from fear and reaction from the soldiers.  No way!  The soldiers here are absolutely the aggressors and in full pursuit of the protestors, sticks swinging, and brutalizing anyone and everyone in their way.  This is disgusting.  The military in Egypt is totally unfit to govern!

Women yesterday in the thousands made history by marching into Tafrir Square chanting, “Drag me, strip me, my brothers’ blood will cover me!”  I hope the world hears their cry.

The whole world will be forced to change if people hear their cry:

“The girls of Egypt are here!”


Leaving Cairo

quarried edges of Great Pyramid at Giza

quarried edges of Great Pyramid at Giza

Cairo Sorting out the experience as I pack to leave Cairo, I find my thoughts something of a jumble.

The trip was amazing for all of us.  One of the Organizers’ Forum delegation pointed out to me for example how amazing it was to him that in the evaluation no one mentioned the Pyramids or the Sphinx.  The meetings, the information, the culture, and mainly the revolution had filled our brains to brimming, so the sites that normally wow the first time visitors were pushed far down the list.  Nonetheless, the Pyramids in fact are amazing, no matter how jaded the traveler.  They are larger than you imagine.  They are now pressed into the city’s suburb, and surprise when first sighted looming over the apartment high rises of Giza.  The Sphinx seems small in comparison, a makeshift artistic adaptation of a huge hunk of limestone that happened to be nearby.  The Pyramids are all raggedy and roughed up with the facing long ago expropriated in earlier centuries for building materials in a repurposing of a proximate quarry that happened to be a Pharaoh’s tomb.


cairo's modern metro

cairo's modern metro

he Egyptian economy has been wracked by the revolution.  The concerns about security and traveling have panicked tourists.  Estimates from seasoned observers as well as the man-on-the-street told us the numbers were down 80 to 90% of normal.  Since we had ignored all advice and plowed forward we were rewarded with easy access and nonexistent lines everywhere we went.  The guidebooks warned of multiple lines and hours delay in the famous Egyptian Museum, which feels like entering a dusty tomb itself, but my visit on a Sunday morning saw no lines and an easy walkabout.  Despite the bad rap I had heard everywhere about the chaos and disorganization of the museum, I found it easy to follow.  Just turn left and follow the signs through the time periods on the wall.  The 20 foot mummy of a crocodile was wild.  The cats were creepy.

 big fists in front of Egyptian Museum

big fists in front of Egyptian Museum

Speaking of cats, that’s what you see on the streets.  I cannot think of a place where I have not seen loose dogs before dawn, but dogs were so rare, I would find myself double taking when I saw one.

Marian Fadel, the Solidarity Center program officer, who was so helpful to us, mentioned to me at one point that her husband was from New York City, and would often say that New York was bluffing when it claimed to be a 24-hour city, because compared to Cairo, they rolled the sidewalks up early there.  A breeze seem to come in off the Nile at sunset, and the streets thickened with traffic and sidewalks swarmed with people.  Sidewalk cafes were crowed with people smoking hookas and talking.  In a society where drinking is forbidden by religion and forced in doors and women are to say the least, not invisible, but outnumbered in the night and definitely not front and center, smoking seems to be the vice of choice and clouds all conversations and any space where they occur.  Cafes serving small, sweet, thick cups of Turkish coffee fuel the hours late into the night.  In the Cafe Riche Mehrdad Azemun, one of our crew, turned over the grounds in my cup to tell my fortune, and the waiter picked up the job.   “Seems my daughter is getting married in a couple of months.  Boy, will she be shocked to hear the news!”  The streets are hardly clearing when the first loudspeakers give the call to early call to prayer around 430 AM, punctuated by many other opportunities to pray which also break the day in what becomes a reassuring and centering way marking time and space in Cairo.

Looking over the Nile the river surprises less than the haze that seems to suck at the air around us

fountain in new park built by Aga Kahn

fountain in new park built by Aga Kahn

everywhere.  Mark Landsman, a graduate student at the American University here, and an old friend of my daughter, told me were were lucky to have been here in this season.  The fall that is coming is accompanied by terrible pollution as rice husks are burned in the countryside, browning the haze and unbroken even in the rain.  I don’t miss that.

Despite having been in Amman, Jordan, my time in Cairo seemed more like a new and deeper cultural experience similar to a first time in India or China, partially because Cairo is bigger, bolder, and all over the streets everywhere, while Amman is more a city wrapped around hills that hides the deeper culture.  We had hardly scratched the surface, leaving us all standing ready to return at the first call or flimsiest excuse.