Unions in the Crossfire in Egypt

egypt_groupNew Orleans     From Jump Street let me concede that I find the current coup and counterrevolution in Egypt confusing and contradictory.   The hope of the Arab Spring has eroded over the last two years.   The Organizer’s Forum visited Cairo then, and as exhilarating as many of the meetings were, we could already feel the people’s revolution slipping away during the campaign for the first freely elected president.   Thanks to the much better organized Muslim Brotherhood and its national presence, their candidate Morsi took office, but his unbending style polarized the country even more, laying the ground for the military coup to push him out of office and more recently to brutally suppress demonstrations against their action with blood.   Though much of this has been cast as a fight between secularists and religionists for control of the heart and soul of the country, the actions around unions indicate that they are also in the crossfire of the military, despite in some cases their support for the coup.

            The largely unwritten story we found in Cairo was the critical role of labor in pushing Mubarak out and supporting the actions in the square with widespread strikes and work stoppages largely led by independent unions and workers in defiance of the state approved labor structure.  After the fall of Mubarak there was widespread dissatisfaction that the military supported pre-election puppet government was continuing to maintain the unrepresented and corrupt labor status quo.  The new constitution developed by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood affiliated majority did nothing to assuage the concerns of activists and labor leaders hoping to build and replace the labor apparatus with an independent and autonomous worker centered structure.   Perhaps the most outstanding group we met in Egypt was the leaders of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services.  In fact the Center’s primary leader was even arrested by the post-revolution government on bogus charges.  Importantly, their first email after the recent military coup was adamant and full-throated support of the military and its eviction of the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

            News now indicates that the military is targeting leadership of worker led strikes around Cairo and David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported that some strike leaders were arrested on the pretext of having beards and therefore accused of instigating the strike which had been over wages and declining living standards, claiming instead that they were tools of the Brotherhood, which was denied by all.  In the middle of a mess, this is a worrisome sign for any hopes of the return of democratic prospects or a vibrant labor movement that is so essential in any democratic society.

            While fearing the worse, another message arrives from the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services critiquing the constitution now being formulated by the military’s caretaker government as containing “steps forward” and “steps backward.”  The Center applauds the guarantees in the new formulation of social insurance, an end to child and forced labor, and other provisions, but notes that the right to strike is still not fully protected and that no worker or union representatives are included in the 50-person council that has been appointed to review the latest draft of the constitution.

            The Center’s applause of only several weeks ago now seems to be one hand clapping.   If there is trouble for workers and their organizations in Egypt, as now seems increasingly the case, this is not a situation where, as Secretary of State John Kerry has argued, we need to believe the military that democracy is again on the horizon, nor should conservatives feel comfort that they should swallow this pill now as a pushback against religious extremism, rather than a wider and deeper effort by the military to silence any and all voices and reassert controls over all of the political and economic life of the country, not just the national security.   They are coming after the unions, and that means that this counter-revolution will be devastating to Egypt, its people, and therefore the rest of us who value freedom as well.


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!


Hard Choices, Right Process: Deal Making in Paterno, Cairo, & New Orleans

Everyone is Happy with the Decision and Crowds around Candidate Vittorio Lo Presti (middle/blue sweater)

Paterno     After days of discussion sometimes heated and dramatic, the leadership of the La Citta civic movement in Paterno had come to the crossroads where they had to make decisions.  The right-leaning party had chosen a candidate for mayor and attracted some support from the center as well.  This meant that if La Citta could come up with a choice that was attractive, then there was a viable coalition that was possible with the left-party.  Other movements were beginning to announce their lists of candidates for councilors.  A newly organized movement like La Citta needed time to work through its program and get its people organized, but time was now the last thing it had.  The right steps might propel the movement from nowhere to the top, if they could figure out a way to reach consensus.

The leadership assembled in the campaign office and for two hours I listened to what I knew was a serious, well reasoned debate even with my marginal understanding of Italian and an occasional word of translation from my friend and comrade, Paolo Guarnicca, who had invited me to Paterno to help on technical questions and organizational development.  The debate involved classic questions.  Is it important to win or to make a point?  Is the process more important for the organization than choosing the right candidate?  How would any choice be received by the movement’s emerging constituency that wanted change and something different, if an existing politician was supported and the endorsement was not transparent?  Order was required and the speakers went around the room, one after another, sometimes at length and sometimes loudly, but always yielding to the next turn.  Some were adamant for someone new.  Others felt that they had someone who could win in the head of the water society, a lawyer who had joined their movement.  Others worried that he had previously been involved in the right party and the message would look expedient, rather than principled and kill the movement.  Paolo was even suggested as a possible candidate.

Team La Citta: President Biaggio Di Caro, Vittorio Lo Prestion, Paolo Guarnaccia

Finally, Paolo offered a compromise.  Vittorio should be supported but the president of La Citta should be the official bridge to the movement and Paolo should be part of the team as a consultant to the future mayor’s government to implement needed reforms, if he was victorious in the election.  Quickly, it was clear that there was now something for everyone.  A candidate would be on top of the ticket that might be able to win and a sense of a team guaranteeing change that would also be a signal to the left.   The men were ecstatic.  Bonds were formed.  Handshakes and hugs were everywhere, and pictures were taken.  It was the right decision for the organization.  Who knows if they can now do the work to win, but finally they are in position to do so.

Making deals is so difficult after long struggles, when even victory can seem bittersweet and not quite enough to settle the stomach.  Certainly this was true here in the small city of Paterno, but I had the same thought reading the story in the Times of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now preparing to finally call for the military to step out of power on the eve of Mubarak’s resignation as they realize their base is now all of Egypt and not simply their members, long cloistered in secrecy and silence.  If reporter David Kirkpatrick is right, the liberal parties seem to still not be willing to join the Brotherhood on even a call they support, but rather seem to want the Brotherhood to rise and fall on their own steam.  A deal is hard in the middle of a revolution half-won and half-lost.

I looked at a picture sent to me from New Orleans.  Vanessa Gueringer of A Community Voice, formerly New Orleans ACORN, was wearing her ACV button as she put her foot on a shovel along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city dignitaries as they broke ground for a park in the Lower 9th Ward.  Vanessa has been a constant advocate and thorn in the side of the city officials for years about how little is done to rebuild the Lower 9th and she is constantly showing them how half-full the glass is from the residents’ perspective.  Nonetheless, as a great leader, she knows when the situation requires grace and it’s time to put the shovel in the dirt and celebrate a true victory no matter how many times she might have wanted to swing that tool at the nearest city official!

ACV Leader Vanessa Gueringer, Councilman Jon Johnson, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu at Ground Breaking of Oliver Bush Park in Lower 9th Ward

We are often so long out of power that when we win, it is hard to make the deal, no matter how badly we want it.  If the process is right, then the hard choices will be right, too.


Thanks to Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Revolution May Succeed

            New Orleans               Once again Tahrir Square in Cairo stands for dream of freedom, rather than the disappointment of struggle.  Tens of thousands have held the square for days against scores that have died and thousands injured by the military.  Finally, the demands have been clear and consistent and directed at the brazen power play in recent months by the military (known as SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), which has categorically proven that this is yet another institution in Egypt that cannot be trusted by the military.


Having been in Cairo several months ago with the delegation from the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org), it was impossible not to feel while we were there and in the weeks that followed the profound disappointment of so many of the activists and the increasing likelihood that the revolution’s aims might be lost even though changes would be felt for the future.  The message to the military when we were there was inchoate and spoke more to the divisiveness of the protesters in the emerging politics, than to folks with their “eyes on the grape,” as we used to say.


The push that finally began days ago in Cairo, as doubts continued to increase that the military was angling for a permanent role in running the country and being dilatory in the discussions of any real transfer of power to parliamentary and democratic rule, was led by the much maligned Muslim Brotherhood.  Organizational discipline once again trumped social networking and political jockeying for power.  The Brotherhood poured tens of thousands into the square and their commitment and discipline was deep enough to withstand the military attack and hold Tahrir Square, bringing tens of other thousands to fill the space in escalating protest and resistance.


It is now the military that is forced to blink and retreat.  With the announcement that the civilian puppet cabinet as offered to resign the military reads the writing on the wall:  they either compromise or stand the chance of being institutionally crippled in the future.  Heads will roll!  One protester quoted in the Times pointed out the final realization of the irony that the military was thanked last January for not shooting the protesters as being the same as “thanking your wife for not sleeping with other men.”  Correctly, one should have the right of a citizen to not expect your nation’s  military to shoot you.  The military seems to have forgotten this as well in these strange times.


David Kirkpatrick of the Times, who has been an  excellent source on some much of this, paints the Brotherhood  as “reeling from the swift collapse of the military’s authority” in fear of there being a delay in the elections.  This is a tactical hiccup in the face of a potential victory.  There seems little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been immeasurably strengthened in recent days.  In fact it seems clear if the revolution in fact is finally won that the protesters of all stripes will owe a huge debt of gratitude and grudging respect.


We found a consensus that in elections the Muslim Brotherhood would be big winners, but a realpolitick assessment that they were too smart not to understand the lessons of the revolution and the lack of interest of the Egyptian people in suddenly living in a rigid theocracy.  The Brotherhood is now incurring huge debts for saving the revolution, but hopefully they will not make the mistake the military made in January of ignoring how important the revolution is to all of the Egyptian people.


Egyptian Presidential Candidates Offer Surprising Perspectives

Dr. Fatouh making a point as his campaign manager listens  during our meeting

Dr. Fatouh making a point as his campaign manager listens during our meeting

Cairo        In an amazing development I had to split the Organizers’ Forum delegation into two tracks, one political and the other labor, to accommodate the packed schedule of high level meetings.  On the political side the confluence of Ahmed Rehab’s experience in Tahrir Square and contacts he made there and the novelty of an open minded delegation of visitors from North America at a time when the parliamentary and other election timelines are starting to consolidate, provided us access to three of the four major candidates for Egypt’s first truly democratic election.  Different groups of our delegation met with Mohamed Selim Al-Awa, Amr Moussa, and Abdel Moneim Abul Fatouh.  We only missed former UN official and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize Mohamed El Baradei, who was out of the country during our visit.  We certainly asked the hard questions, including about the prospects for an Islamic state and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and got some surprising answers, as the candidates also used the Organizers’ Forum as they sought alternative channels to communicate with the West and push back at the current narrative.  I did a double take writing these notes now, when I stopped to scan the on-line headlines in the Times and saw Abul Fotouh’s picture on the front page.

There is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood is still the trump card looking at the election, because they are the most organized and experienced group in the field today.  Ironically, their long history of suppression in Egypt has given them both discipline and skills, and their relationships through the Middle East have seemingly opened up unlimited financial resources to them.  The election rules are still neither clear nor established and the seven announced candidates met again yesterday to try and lobby the military council on important issues.  One thing that is not clear for example is campaign financing, so many efforts are relying on “volunteer” operations, which the campaign manager for Abul Fotouh explained to me in one such presidential candidate meeting I attended.  Where the rules are unclear and money is uncertain, a force like the Muslim Brotherhood is even more important, and access to any volunteers that might be available could be critical.  The Brotherhood has indicated that it will not field a presidential candidate though is aligned with several strong emerging parties and by some estimates would be unlikely to take less than 25-35% of the seats in the late November elections.  In fact they reportedly have “welcomed” the candidacy of prominent Muslim scholar Selim Al-Awa, and expelled Dr. Abul Fotouh when he broke ranks from one of their governing councils to decide to run for office.

Amr Moussa was the first candidate met by the delegation.  He was a former foreign minister under Mubarak and then head of the Arab League.  He was articulate and charismatic with strongly secular views and smooth as silk.  He positions himself firmly as an “opposition” figure to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists, though perhaps the differences are not as stark as he and much of the Western media speculate.

Dr. Fatouh for example in the meeting I attended was crystal clear, as a candidate and as a Muslim scholar, that there is “no such thing as a religious state in the Koran.  There is no such thing as an Islamic ruler who interprets or speaks for God.”  He was specific in also arguing that the Iranian experience of imans speaking for religion was also not supported by the Koran in his view.  He also argued that any group of imans who proport to interpret the text for the people and supersede civil law over the interests of any other religious beliefs, Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, was also barred by the Koran.  He repeatedly emphasized that Islam was a “populist” religion protecting individual practices.  He personally welcomed Christian and women candidates for the presidency of Egypt for example.
From his views it followed that the people were the base of power at the bottom, and not God at the top.

On the Muslim Brotherhood Dr. Fatouh claimed that he had resigned rather than being expelled over the issue of the Brotherhood’s refusal to register after the revolution because they were not willing to be transparent.  He stated that he believed after the revolution it was incumbent of the Muslim Brotherhood to be take a public and open place in Egyptian life, and there unwillingness to do so led to his departure.

On the issues he was strongly behind labor’s demands for a right to organize and freedom of association and endorsed higher minimum wages that were fully enforced.  He argued for progressive taxation in our meeting as an path to provide the revenues to deal with economic inequities and support the poor.

The meeting with Selim Al-Awa also produced similar arguments against a religious state and for a secular state in the same vein.  Our delegation found themselves extremely impressed with al-Awa.  The defining moments though were the sudden interruption of their meeting by six or seven members of the secret service who broke into the meeting arguing that it was an unauthorized “political” meeting.  They had gained knowledge of the meeting when the room had been reserved.  They tried to stop one of our group from filming the meeting and their interruption and take his memory card.  Al-Awa was livid and in Arabic and English upbraided them for not having noted that the Revolution had happened and the old ways of stopping meetings like this were over.  The impasse and arguments were ended when finally Al-Awa was able to get the Minister of the Interior on the phone and have him call of the state secret service which is under his ministry.

For our people that episode was perhaps the most vivid flashback to the Mubarak regime and a reminder of a shared experience we now had with the Egyptian people of what the fight was about and why weighing these candidates and the upcoming elections is so critical to the future of the country and the region.  The spinning right wing fear about these elections is way off the mark, but the more important fighting inside the Islamic community and the general population over the forces that drive the future as far away from the Mubarak past as possible is key, and unfortunately the copy US relationship with the terrible past continues to leave us out of the loop and out of step when we could – and should – be most supportive and helpful to a struggling, but emerging, democracy.


Egypt’s Protests and Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp in his office

Gene Sharp in his office

San Pedro Sula Newspapers, as the saying goes, write the rough drafts of history.  In Egypt is is fascinating to watch the 20-day process of rewriting, revising, and re-framing that is already taking place in papers like the New York Times.

The first drafts desperately wanted this to be a Facebook or Twitter revolution…young and hip, and that’s still the hope in the rewriting now, because that supposedly had helped drive the Tunisia overthrow only days before.  Then there was the effort to try and find the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nobel Laureate wherever possible, though it was hard to do, since neither were on the scene in many situations and seemed almost uncomfortable and disconnected from the masses on the streets.  Finally, as the plot thickened the real organizers, as we have discussed earlier, grabbed the press by the collar and had to break it down for them.

Now, luckily, every day we get to see behind the screen a little more clearly.


Today’s lead story purported to once again sand the story down.  Maybe the story is even accurate but I worry that we are getting spun again by someone somewhere behind the screen.

The line today was back to the Balkans and earlier overthrows from the state, particularly the role played Optor years ago.  There the Times had wanted to credit text messages and other communications devices as if all the tools were the same as the carpenters.

It was nice to see that Gene Sharp once again got to make an appearance.  He has been a relentless advocate and theorist of non-violence and one of the unparalleled heroes behind many of the most dramatic efforts to win popular voices a place against firmly entrenched dictatorships.  His has been thankless work, so when he is anywhere near a success, the world is frankly a better place.  When I read the Times piece on Optor, I tracked down Gene at his Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he not only agreed to speak at one of the first dialogues of the Organizers’ Forum, but sent me a copy of his books developing his theories on non-violent organizing, which I found fascinating.  That’s the good news.

The other piece of the news is the way that it is so important for victories to have a thousand fathers is that often Gene’s work and many of these efforts have been funded by various arms of the US government, like National Endowment for Democracy and others.  Given that Secretary of State Clinton had been busted for being off message, I wonder if others are lining up to make sure that they get some accolades for the next funding cycle.

So, good work Gene, and all props to the organizers and the Egyptian people, and we’ll have to look for the future reports as we find the real story in future drafts.