Monday, June 09, 2008

Lean years and repression in Egypt

BESIDES helping to seal off the Gaza Strip along with the Israeli blockade, Egyptian authorities are in trouble with their own people over rising food prices and shortages. The government's continuing privatisation of industry and resources may qualify it for the American-led crusade for "democracy" in the Middle East, but Egypt's working people are confronting hunger and repression. But resistance is growing.

Thousands of demonstrators have clashed with police, in a protest against a decision by local authorities to end distribution of flour rations in the northern coastal town of Burullus.

A Reuters report on Saturday, quoting the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, said around 8,000 protestors sealed off a road for seven hours, using burning tyres to stop traffic. Police used teargas and batons to disperse the crowds and three protesters were hospitalised after inhaling teargas, security sources said. Police made 30 arrests, according to al-Ahram.

One security source said rubber bullets had been fired at the crowd. Security sources said earlier the protests were caused by bread shortages, but subsequent reports said the protestors, primarily local fisherman, were angered by the local authority's decision to end direct distribution of flour rations in favour of supplying bakeries with the flour.

High wheat prices have put great strain on Egypt's bread subsidy system, where the urban poor depend on cheap bread to survive.

The demand for subsidised bread has grown and the heavy subsidy has increased the incentive to divert subsidised flour illegally to other uses. Egypt said in May it would add at least 17 million people to the ranks of ration card holders to ease the effect of rising food prices. (Writing by Aziz El-Kaissouni, editing by Mary Gabriel)

Among recent reports of police arresting opposition leaders, trade unionists and religious figures, one particularly has caught my eye, as it concerns a man described as "a blogger and labour activist". According to Agence France Press, Karim al-Beheiri. "who was released after weeks behind bars over deadly protests at Egypt's biggest textile plant for higher pay and controls on prices, said Monday he and his fellow detainees suffered eeks of 'torture'.

"We were subjected to electric shocks, to beatings and there was no food and or drink for the first few days," blogger Karim el-Beheiri told AFP a day after his release. "We went through weeks of torture and humiliation."

Beheiri, Tarek Amin and Kamal al-Fayoumy, three worker activists, were arrested on April 6 at the Misr Spinning and Weaving company in the Nile Delta industrial city of Mahalla after riots which left three people dead and hundreds detained.

An interior ministry official confirmed the three had been released but denied they had been mistreated.

"These are false accusations," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity. "Everything took place within a framework of human rights."

They were accused of "inciting unrest, damage to property and demonstrating," a security official told AFP, adding that of the hundreds detained in connection with the Mahalla riots, eight remain in custody.

The three were fired from their jobs after their arrest, said Beheiri, whose detention was condemned by international human rights watchdogs.

"Many of us had never seen the inside of a prison before," Beheiri said, describing his first weeks at Borg al-Arab prison near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria sharing a small cell with 25 people as "terrifying."

"We had bread thrown at us. They would dip their hands in our food before throwing it at us," said Beheiri who, with the others, mounted two hunger strikes while in detention.

On April 16, the prosecution ordered the release of several detainees including Beheiri, Fayoumy and Amin, but the three remained behind bars until Sunday.

Beheiri said that during interrogations at state security headquarters in various Egyptian cities, questioning focused mainly on his blog and his connections to other bloggers.

"It's the new fashion," he said of a large-scale crackdown against Egypt's cyber dissidents.

He said the first thing he wanted to do when he got home after the release was to blog the events.

"But I couldn't remember my own password. It was so frustrating," he said.

Symbolic of their rise to power, Egyptian police have arrested several political bloggers in recent months.

But despite Egypt's Internet explosion, the cyber realm remains largely the preserve of the young and educated in a country where 40 percent of the population of 80 million people cannot read.

Nevertheless, Egypt's bloggers, who rarely conceal their real identity, have taken on the role of bridging the gap between civil society's desire for democracy and workers' demands for better pay and working conditions.

In a country where there is little access to live and independent Egyptian reporting, blogs and "real time" social networking sites like Twitter provide regular but unverified updates on events, such as elections and protests.

In recent months, Egypt has seen a number of strikes and protests against low salaries and price rises that have been one of the most serious challenges to the regime of veteran President Hosni Mubarak.

I sometimes wonder whether activity like blogging is a diversion from more useful political activity. I'd like to think it could prove even a fraction of the effect bloggers like Beheiri have apparently had. Not that I want to face similar consequences.

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At 5:44 PM, Blogger Julie said...

Hi Charlie,

Thanks for your good and insightful post on egyptian bloggers. I think - or at least I hope - that blogging has an effect. Otherwise I don't think the regime would crack down as hard on the bloggers. I've been following the events i Egypt with great interest over the last months, and I even heard that the regime is trying to filter access to facebook and other sites.

The severe crackdown that we've seen recently, is to me the clearest proof of the effects that the regime fears that the bloggers and cyber activists have. I hope - perhaps naively, I know - that by creating enough attention on what is going on, the regime will not forever be able to silence the voices that work for democracy.



At 7:37 AM, Anonymous a very public sociologist said...

Excellent post, Charlie. I have no doubt that if we left bloggers in Britain posed a serious threat to the cosy order of things we too would face harassmentin a million and one different ways.


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