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.

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Egypt’s Grassroots Revolution: Legan Sha3beya

CaAswatna Masriya and Rebecca Porteousiro        The Organizers’ Forum meetings have been outstanding.  On our third day we begin meeting with emerging political leaders who are building parties (Egypt Arab Union Party) and standing as candidates for Egypt’s new president (Amr Moussa, former head of Arab League and Foreign Minister) as well as labor leaders and organizers who played a crucial role in the overthrow of the government, though less celebrated in the glare of the media.  Quieter meetings, especially with women activists and organizers, have developed a significant undercurrent theme at the grassroots level that may hold the real key to on going institutional capacity and democratic participation though, and the movement to consolidate and connect “neighborhood councils” or the Legan Sha3beya movement, seems to be the most interesting and important of these developments.

When we first met Aswatna Masriya, who had come to our attention originally because of a Facebook page standing up for Women in the push for democracy, it was hard to miss the stories of the fundamental changes she described in her upper middle class area of Zemalek, when the women provided the leadership in organizing intricate neighborhood security systems in January as public safety disappeared and rumors were everywhere at flash point.  List were made, young men were recruited, and women perched on balconies taking “block watch” duty until 2 and 3 AM in the night.  Intricate inventories of fire arms were recorded, surprising many residents to discover how militarized the neighbors were.  There was a recognition that everyone, everywhere including the home guard way distant from Tahrir Square had a role to play in making the revolution live and transforming expectations with their own direct participation.

the Organizers' Forum women delegates celebrate Marwa Boushra Al-Sawi and her work!This theme was picked up by Marwa Boushra Al-Sawi, now working with Oxfam-NOVIB, but an activist in various campaigns around the need for civilian rather than military trials and the need to reform the Family Law dealing with custody, divorce, and other issues.  Importantly she felt the neighborhood councils that had survived over the 6 months since the revolution were perhaps the most significant hope for the future.  This Legan Sha3beya movement from her reports has linked a number of neighborhood councils together in Cairo and nationally and the groups that have thrived have increased their range of issues and campaigns more broadly than simple security, and are doing so successfully.  In a classic move they are pushing the government around garbage pickup and threatening to take the garbage to the government if collection does not improve.  Certainly a familiar tactic to many community organizers.  A broader “know your rights” campaign is now being plannned.

Some of this is reminiscent of the self-organization at the community level in Buenos Aires of the barrios asembleas – neighborhood assemblies – that grew up throughout the city during the “crises” and in response to the need to maintain public services, create jobs, and provide stability.  The energy was amazing in the immediate wake of the Crises.  Many of these asembleas have not survived, but they spoke to similar energies and interests.

Importantly, Legan Sha3beya seems to be mainly concentrated in the poorer areas though linked to some of the activity in more middle income neighborhoods.  The development of more political parties in the coming election campaign may also make these councils fundamental, if they remain what is united, even as 30 to 120 parties compete for power.

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Teachers and Health Care Workers Strike, Welcome to Cairo!

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Military moves in

Cairo        The first day is a “shakeout” day for the Organizers’ Forum and with an outstanding delegation of over 20 people from diverse and outstanding organizations in the USA and Canada, just moving about from place to place was a project in the crowds and chaos of Cairo.  After an excellent orientation offered by individual

Cairo residents and activists in the January 25th and 28th activities, and particularly in the post-revolution campaigns to really create change from these movements and build the organizational capacity to sustain it all, we almost felt like we had been there ourselves.

Listening to Ahmed Rehab of CAIR in Chicago talk about the meeting at the mosque and the excitement of pouring out into the streets with the crowd shouting “Down the Mubarak!” and seeing the crowds build in waves from around the city as the protesters took the Square through his eyes, we felt like we were there.  Equally moving was hearing our visiting sisters speak to us of how change worked block by block as women moved to organized the security for the communities, stood on their balconies in Zamalek, made the maps and assigned the men, all the way down to pulling on helmets and poles to fight hand to hand themselves.  We were hearing how change happens in the mess of real life, where some have to take the first uncertain and scary steps and others have to make sure the change leaches down to the deepest points in every community and finding the personal power to prevail.  This is what happens in th

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e mess of movements.  Every word from our new friends cried to the sky for change.

Later in mid-afternoon we moved to the streets across for one of the ministry buildings only a few blocks from Tahrir Square.  Several unions including the teachers and the health care workers had begun strikes and were rallying in central Cairo to build support and increase the pressure.  At first the scene was so calm, I couldn’t believe this was really a union rally, but after pushing into Square and finding nothing, we were back between the police line and the encroaching military.  This was a post-revolution strike.  There was no fear in the air even as as a small delegation of the military moved to clear the area before the curfew.  The players now knew their lines and moved within the new script.  There was drama, but it was mostly drama, rather than the knife point of pressure and reaction.  No strike would be won or lost on this street as we watched the health care union demand more money.

Morning or afternoon it was hard not to hear the repetition of disappointment.  There was pride at the surprise and power of the change, but there was disappointment on the pace and product of change.  There was optimism but it was now tempered by the difficulty of digging out the established folks who were dug in for power.  The problem of having lost one overarching target and now holding the coalition

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together as parties and politicians elbowed forward to the November election day, was depressing, difficult, and depressing.

There is no sugar in our coffee in Cairo.  It’s strong and bitter.  But it is also exhilarating and promises an amazing week before us as we try to get our arms around the revolution and the work to be done.

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Cairo Excitement and Challenges for Organizers’ Forum

Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square

Paris We have a big, diverse and significant delegation traveling with the Organizers’ Forum for our 10th International Dialogue, this time in Cairo.  We are all in the air moving across the time zones now with great anticipation to meet with our counterparts and get a sense of the social changes and revolution everywhere in the streets of the city now.  For me it’s a relief to finally on our way, because navigating the details of housing, transportation, and the agenda for the program itself has been wildly difficult this trip.

At one level that is exactly as it should be.  Who has time for 22 visitors wanting to hear all about it with our million questions in the middle of a revolution?  We get it…there are more important things to do!

At the other level the difficult lies in the very uncertainty of these times for activists and others.  The election is now set, but there are also tensions everywhere around the role of the military, the emerging political formations, and whether or not activists themselves are being targeted and in danger.  This general concern is coupled with added strains around the role of the United States in the Middle East, especially Egypt, at this historic juncture.

Whatever hand the US might have had, was hardly played well.  First, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was widely quoted as lining up with the Mubarak “stability first, rights second” team and arguing in the middle of the revolution for the status quo, which significantly downgraded our standing.  Then after an 11th hour reversal of field by President Obama that seemed more opportunistic than anything else, we joined the winning team only to embarrass ourselves almost immediately as the dust cleared by offering $40 Million in money and attracting long lines of NGOs and others to some kind of weird, ham fisted effort to try and buy a seat at the table.  Now while tensions are huge between Egypt and Israel over a recent killing of Egyptian soldiers, which is unraveling years of an alliance, we have the issue of Palestinian statehood and Obama’s threat to veto that at the UN Security Council to contend with as well.  Let’s just say that I’m wearing my ACORN Canada t-shirt to fly into the airport!

And, all of this makes it more difficult for organizers on the ground to weigh whether or not a meeting with our delegation of Americans, Canadians, and Italians is the smartest idea or whether they should find a conflict on the calendar.  Nonetheless, our schedule will end up packed and exciting even with this as a backdrop.

Just being there alone will be worth the price of admission to this Organizers’ Forum dialogue.  How often do any of us get to be anywhere nearby the ground level of massive social changes in our lifetimes, must less game changing revolutions?  With hard work and great luck many of us never have the opportunity and only the most fortunate can count the times on one hand, but all of us will have the experience now.

Case in point:  Within hours of our landing several unions have announced strikes around both political and economic issues including health care workers and teachers.  Our first day we will get to witness the strikers rallying in front of the Cabinet building in the new tradition of the mass action in Cairo.

Priceless!

I hope to be able to report while we are there, but I already know there are internet issues and potential problems.  We’ll see what we see soon!

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Keeping Up to Date on Slavery, Yes, Slavery!

Nslavery-footprint-footew Orleans Yes, I know many of you believe that slavery ended almost 150 years ago in an American-centric view of the world, but it’s a big world, and shockingly simple to exploit people by having them work for free, which is what slavery is all about.  The US State Department estimates there are 27, 000,000, yes 27 Million!, people who fit this definition of slavery.

An organization called Slavery Footprint has come up with a methodology (and $20000 in funding from the State Department) to allow you to go to www.slaveryfootprint.org, and take a quick survey to determine how many “slaves are working for you?”  Yes, you!  It’s worth a good, hard look.  Don’t wait for the weekend!

We stumbled on this reality almost a decade ago in the second Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue when we visited India and journeyed by bus several hours outside of Delhi, the national capital, and visited a compound that was schooling and training young adolescent and teenage boys in new skills, all of whom had formally been forced to work in  unpaid, slave labor in mining in the area, largely impressed for their labor in exchange for contrived, historic debt to mine owners or labor suppliers, sometimes for generations.   We felt not only shocked, but profoundly naïve for not having realized that so much of this kind of forced labor was still enduring in modern times just beyond our daily recognition in the silence of sweat, hidden from eyesight by thousands of miles.

Cases involving women from Eastern Europe shanghaied for years to the west as sex slaves grab headlines in the 21st Century.  Factory workers report child sized handprints on imports from Asian on their assembly lines.  Even in the United States wage theft and the kind of exploitation that finds immigrant workers at Hersey plants (see special on-line report at www.socialpolicy.org) and in Canadian agricultural fields, is really only a different distinction by a matter of degrees from such oppressive slavery.

Seems like this is something that we should be able to end completely, and if not, we should stop pretending that we stand for any kind of civilized society.

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Support the Save the Khimki Forest Movement

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Yevgenia Chirikova while she was speaking to Organizers' Forum delegation in Moscow in 2007.

Yevgenia Chirikova while she was speaking to Organizers' Forum delegation in Moscow in 2007.

City In the fall of 2007 a delegation of labor and community organizers with the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org) visited with organizers doing similar work in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  One of the more moving meetings we had was with a young, passionate and spirited mother, who told the story of moving with her husband to a Moscow suburb that they could afford and finding signs while walking her baby in the nearby woodland forest that a highway was going to be built in this protected, virgin area.  Her name was Yevgenia Chirikova and this became her cause as she went door to door in her apartment block and suburb trying to build support, recruited friends and students, and tried to build support in challenging circumstances to reroute the construction of safer alternative routes.

I was so impressed with her that upon returning to New Orleans I enlisted the help of a Russian speaking co-worker, Denis Petrov, and his wife to reach back out to Yevgenia and see if there was any way we could help or support her work.  Time, language, and imagination all probably stood in the way, so in spite of the initial enthusiasm of her response, nothing really developed, until yesterday, when I got an email from Yaroslav Nikitenko, a physics student who has joined this effort whole heartedly, and was writing to update me on the situation and ask for any help possible since the effort to save the Khimki Forest has reached a critical juncture.

The twin towers of power in Russian politics have been Valdimir Putin, who as President was a promoter of this project and continues to support it as Prime Minister, and the current President Dmitri Medvedev.   In the fall of 2010 activists seemed to have won some reprieve when Medvedev halted the steps to construction for review, but at the end of the year, the project D greenlighted against despite substantial opposition in the community and throughout Moscow to the project.  There are lots of other issues that are endemic to current Russian politics that muscle their way into this fight including massive corruption that seems hardwired to any highway construction in the country and raises the costs as much as 50 times comparable jobs building in the USA and elsewhere, and brutality and corruption which have seen journalists beaten and in one case crippled, visits by “child protection” to Evegenia’s home to question her fitness as a mother and insinuate that there were reports of child abuse, and countless stories of rallies and demonstrations rousted and stopped.

Bottom line is that the Save the Khimki Forest Movement, Evegenia, Yaroslave, and the crew, Muscovites, and just maybe the ability of the Russian people to have a voice and organize, need our help.  Luckily, they are only asking for us to sign a petition at this point, which seems almost too lame but is the least we could do, so how about a hand by clicking below and sending them some help!

http://www.change.org/petitions/save-khimki-forest-stand-with-russias-human-rights-and-environmental-activists

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