Friday, May 14, 2004


William Fisher

The year was 1951. The Korean War was raging. I was drafted into the Army and sent for basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. After basic, I was assigned to a military police company based at the then First Army headquarters on Governors Island in New York harbor.

Since I had a college degree and had worked for a couple of years in journalism, it was, of course, logical that they should make me a cop. My MP company had three missions. It directed traffic on and off the ferries that connected our Island with New York City. It sent teams of MPs to patrol dangerous combat zones like Times Square looking for soldiers who were AWOL, drunk, or otherwise mischievous. And it patrolled the Island itself looking for similar types of miscreants.

They gave me several weeks of MP training. This consisted mostly of lectures on the Code of Military Justice and demonstrations and exercises in making arrests and subduing over-athletic detainees, learning proper dress and radio code numbers like civilian cops have, and completing the paperwork required for each detainee. I can’t recall any mention of the Geneva Conventions, perhaps because they had been ratified only a year or two earlier. Then they gave me my MP armband and an enormous .45 caliber sidearm. I looked like George Patton!

My company commander was the Superintendent of Schools in a smallish city upstate New York. But my chain of command, as I understood it, went from me to my desk sergeant – the man who ran our police station. Sgt. Duffy, we’ll call him, was regular army. He was a caricature of a Georgia redneck. Like many of the regular army people I met, he was rabidly anti-black (called Negro back then), rabidly anti-Semitic, rabidly anti-Northerner, rabidly anti-university, and a big off-duty drinker.

But the scariest thing about Sgt. Duffy was his barely concealed rage. Sgt. Duffy was just plain sadistic. “You find a GI messing up -- I don’t care what he’s done -- and you treat him rough, and he won’t be back. And no exceptions!” Sgt. Duffy admonished his young MPs. Repeated often enough, Sgt. Duffy created an environment of revenge, retribution, and, most importantly, power and domination. We were the bosses. We were empowered!

That bizarre message resonated among the frustrated young MPs in our squad – all draftees, all angry at the Army for drafting us, all angry at the regular army drill sergeants who had made basic training a living hell, all angry at the thought that any day we could get orders to ship out to Korea to become combat MPs, the most dangerous job in the Army.

Mercifully, that anger rarely surfaced among the young MPs – there weren’t that many ‘bad guys’ to for us to arrest. But one night I was on car patrol around the Island when I spotted a car parked where it shouldn’t have been. I took my flashlight and approached the car. In the back seat, a GI and a WAC (that was the Women’s Army Corps) were doing what girls and boys usually do in back seats of cars.

I knocked on the window and called out “you need to move this car, right now!” No response. I used my flashlight to knock on the window again. The window now opened and the GI inside yelled out “I have permission to park here”, and closed the window again. I now banged on the window more aggressively. A door opened and a Staff Sergeant got out. “Piss off, Private!” he shouted. I could smell the booze as he approached me. “Piss off”, he shouted in my face.

I felt myself getting angry at having my power questioned. “Look”, I said, trying to calm this very drunk soldier. “Let’s not get you into trouble. You could lose a stripe. Why don’t you just move your car to a parking space, and we’ll both be on our way?”

Next thing I knew an arm was coming toward me. I ducked and did what I had learned in basic training. I grabbed his hand with both of mine and twisted it downward, forcing his body to go in the same direction. Then I forced the arm I was holding behind his back, and clicked on one handcuff. I pushed him toward the railing where the car was parked, and used it to attach the other cuff. I told the WAC to stay in the car. Then I called Sgt. Duffy for backup. Just like NYPD Blue!

It was 20-or-so minutes before my backup arrived, and all the while my ‘prisoner’ was shouting unprintable threats and insults, and I was getting angrier by the second. It would have been so easy to, as the TV cops say, ‘tune him up’, and I was seriously tempted. After all, this was all about control and domination!

Thankfully, I managed to restrain myself, and I’m glad I did. That’s what I was trained to do. But I have to wonder: How would I have behaved in Abu Ghraib prison?

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By William Fisher

May Day has come and gone in Egypt, and only one thing was missing: Labor.

As reported in Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading daily newspaper, “On May 1st police forces overwhelmed a group of activists holding a May Day demonstration in Tahrir Square (in downtown Cairo) calling for a 40 per cent increase in wages.”

There are three problems with a 40 per cent wage increase – or any. The first is that Egypt’s 21 million workers are understandably seeking a larger slice of a pie that has been getting smaller year-by-year. The second is that labor in Egypt has no political power. The third is that if it had any power, the police would squash it like a roach.

Egypt’s economy is in freefall. Unemployment and under-employment has been rising and working conditions getting worse. Most Egyptian workers live well below the poverty line.

The public sector – the government and the industries it owns – remains the country’s largest employer, despite years of efforts to privatize. Governments produce nothing and the enterprises they run are customarily poorly managed, over-staffed and inefficient.

Meanwhile, prices have been rising steadily. The price of basic staples has gone up between 33 and 109 per cent -- onions have increased by 500 per cent. Over five million people live in shantytowns, and over 100,000 Egyptians are diagnosed with cancer every year as a result of pollutants." According to Manpower and Training Minister Ahmed El-Amawi, improved investment is the key to solving many of the problems. And yet, according to a report by the Chambers of Commerce Federation, 800 factories in the new industrial satellite cities have stopped production as a result of economic recession. Investment in Egypt has dwindled to a trickle.

Organized labor is an oxymoron. It has no political constituency. The channels through which workers can express their demands are extremely limited. Labor activists have long pressed for an open trade union system to allow for multiplicity. The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) is seen to be a government puppet in its endorsement of the unified labor law passed last year. Labor activists like Kamal Abbas, head of the Centre for Trade Union Workers' Services (CTUWS), believe part of the problem stems from the committee established under the law to decide on minimum wage, the restrictions of strike action, and limited time contracts. The committee, which is under the leadership of the Minister of Planning, has yet to take any action.

The legal system still provides an avenue for workers, but the current law impedes worker access to the courts. Petitions now go to the Appeals Court as opposed to courts of first instance, and there are only eight Appeals Courts in the country. Last year alone, more than 1,000 cases were backlogged. Moreover, the five-member committee established under the new law to look into labor complaints does not convene regularly. The group includes representatives of the Federation, the judiciary and the business community, but business people rarely attend, so the committee does not convene.

The Nasserist Party, which rails against privatization, American neo-colonialism and unemployment, has announced the formation of a Labor Front coalition of labor offices at political parties and labor activists. It has initiated a campaign to make sure workers understand their rights under the new law and can press for those rights. But most observers believe the political parties can do little since they are subject to heavy-handed government restrictions. Thus, there is
no organized labor constituency.

For many years, the United States, the European Union, and other donors have poured tens of millions of dollars into helping Egypt build a more competitive private sector and a more business-friendly policy environment for them to operate in. Significant funding has also been devoted to upgrading human capital: training programs to give the workforce the skills needed to survive in a 21st century environment. Yet university grads drive taxis or emigrate to the US and Europe. In 2001, 80 per cent of university graduates were unemployed a year after their graduation.

While there has been some progress in private sector development, government policy, capital, regulatory and practice constraints continue to place virtually insurmountable obstacles in the path of growth, except for the already wealthy. This chokes off investment and leads to still higher unemployment. Moreover, It is the wealthy who are able to use their contacts to practice ‘crony capitalism’, who tend to get most of the benefits of donor funds, who use their money to lubricate permitting and customs procedures, and who have access to the banking system.

In that environment, the prospects for substantial advances for workers are less than minimal. And so are the prospects for Egypt’s rise out of poverty and under-development.

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