Monday, May 02, 2011

Egypt: What Else is the Army Not Doing?

By William Fisher

Over the weekend, as I was writing a piece about the failure of the Egyptian Army to put a stop to former President Mubarak’s grisly practice of arresting people on the flimsiest grounds and then proceeding to detain, torture and abuse them, I was reminded of a couple of other big things the Army isn’t being helpful about.

One of them is press freedom. The other is labor unions. In the former, the interim military government is proposing new regulations that will give journalists less freedom, not more. And in the struggle of working people to morph from pathetic “company unions” to free and independent 21st century unions, the Army seems to be a significant obstacle.

When the Army first weighed in on press freedom, I was cautiously hopeful.
Here what the Supreme Council said:

“Maintaining the council’s policy to communicate with the Egyptian population and the youths of the revolution these days to spread the truths and reply to rumors that may harm the revolt’s achievements and cause strife between the Egyptian people and the Armed Forces, the council stresses on the following:

“1- Since the beginning of the January 25 Revolution, the Supreme Council
has been keen not to interfere in the editorial policies of all kinds of

“2- The media in Egypt is absolutely free to publish or discuss any matter
and assume responsibility for the consequences of its coverage based on
its credibility.

“3- All statements issued by the Supreme Council are made without the
hiding of any facts as the council believes in the importance of spreading
truths as soon as possible.

“4- The ultimate goal of the Supreme Council and the Egyptian people
nowadays is to support all kinds of Egyptian media to restore its vital
role that made the most powerful impact on our Arab and Islamic nation
while back.”

Well, that was encouraging. Restoring the press’s “vital role.”

Until I learned that the Army (which is ruling Egypt until elections can be held) has issued orders that require local print media to obtain government approval, before publication, for any reference to Egypt’s armed forces.

A letter sent to editors by the director of the "morale affairs directorate" of the Egyptian military ordered them not to "publish any (topics, news,
statements, complaints, advertisements, pictures) pertaining to the armed forces or to commanders of the armed forces without first consulting with the Morale Affairs Directorate and the Directorate of Military Intelligence and Information Gathering."

Sound familiar? That letter could have been signed by Hosni Mubarak!!

According to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, the letter's content has not been reported in Egyptian publications, but “the regime of censorship has been noted by bloggers.”

There is nothing theoretical about the Army’s intentions. Witness the military court in Cairo sentencing blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for "insulting the military." His crime: Writing an article in which he criticized the military for not being transparent in its decision-making.

And what was he doing in a military court? He was there because he wrote about the military.

Sanad, 25, was sentenced after participating in a hearing on his case that left the defendant and his lawyer believing the case would be continued later.

But, after his lawyer had left, Sanad was given a 10-minute “trial” and sentenced to three years in prison. Without his lawyer or any family members present.

Maikel Nabil Sanad is well-known to the powers that be, especially the military. He is a conscientious objector and a known critic of the Egyptian military.

"In a way, his arrest proves that his criticism of the role of the military in the revolution is very true", says Andreas Speck of War Resisters International.

"Far from being a free country, Egypt is presently governed directly by the military, which did never and does not now care for political freedom or human rights. The revolution might have gotten rid of Mubarak as figure head, but it has not - yet - achieved political freedom."

"The methods used by the Egyptian military do not seem to have evolved since Hosni Mubarak's fall," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Fran├žois Julliard said. "They show the degree to which the military still cannot be criticized and are still a taboo subject. A civilian should not be tried by a military court. This is not the way things are done in the democratic society to which Egyptians aspire."

Julliard added: "The circumstances of this blogger's arrest and the conduct of his trial demonstrate a complete lack of consideration by the military for the most basic principles of international law. Egypt has begun a process of democratization and it should now be possible to criticize the armed forces like any other component

Meanwhile, on the labor front, workers were struggling to come to grips with a draft anti-strike law ratified by the military in late March. According to Egyptian press reports, “this law criminalizes organizing or inciting a demonstration that is deemed by the military to halt production or the flow of public life. Those convicted will be subject to a fine of up to LE500,000 and a year in prison, even or peaceful demonstrations.”

The local press reports that the ratification “was tucked away in a few lines in SCAF’s last 15-page decree in the Official Gazette. The discreet announcement comes in stark contrast to the multi-colored, user-friendly SCAF announcements posted as pictures on their Facebook page.”

Meanwhile, in a historic “first,” Egypt’s working class was able to celebrate
Labor Day (May 1) in Tahrir Square with independent unions, said Kamal Abbas, a worker and general coordinator for the Egyptian Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services.

The newly founded Egyptian Independent Trade Unions Federation (EITUF) is now home to at least 12 labor unions. The federation sees itself as an umbrella for all independent unions created before and after the 25 January revolution.

According to the El Masry El Yaum newspaper, the EITUF aims to compete with the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which has been accused of repressing workers and being a tool of the ousted regime.

The newspaper said labor groups have called for disbanding the ETUF, and additional demands include setting a higher minimum wage, nullifying the newly implemented protest law, permanently hiring workers who currently have temporary contracts, and removing company management accused of corruption. Workers' rights groups have highlighted the difficulty in establishing new labor unions during the transitional period.

Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) and board member of the EITUF, filed a lawsuit earlier this week to disband the ETUF and put its money under judicial supervision.

The group also called for the nullification of the law criminalizing sit-ins and industrial actions.

"The demand for a minimum wage and, more broadly, the restructuring of the national wages scheme, is one that brings together everyone who works for a wage. Doctors and professors are at the forefront of this battle, not only
industrial workers,” said Salma Saeed, an activist and member of one of the
parties organizing Labor Day told the press.

The coalition will also call for demands that include benefits, amending the
labor law to limit the powers of employers, protecting rights for unemployed and irregular workers and resuming work in places where employers have fled the country.

The official federation, in the meantime, announced last week the cancellation of Labor Day celebrations since its chairman, Hussein Megawer, faces corruption charges and is undergoing investigations.

Egypt’s labor unions have been consistently weakened by the state exercising control over a wide range of issues. Some of these issues have arisen from the stonewalling of employers to increase wages or enhance benefits. But others have grown out of the gradual dismantling of much of the state-owned industrial sector in favor of privatization.

Privatization has had some beneficial effects, since government enterprises were generally inefficient and unable to compete in markets outside Egypt. Some private companies that purchased government-controlled industrial properties were genuinely dedicated to remaining in production with a better competitive environment based on increased efficiencies.

But many others turned out to be a scam. For example, a syndicate of Egyptian investors, or a foreign company, would acquire a state-owned company and thereby privatize it. But instead of retaining the work force to bring about increased efficiencies to boost sales, the new owners dismantled the factories, sold its equipment, with the intention of using the land for non-industrial purposes, for example, tourism.

Government officials were bribed to allow this to happen and the factory labor force was dismissed and sometimes replaced by foreign workers familiar with the planned new incarnation of the one-time factory.

In a move triggered by desperation, workers from a once-profitable privatized factory staged a sit-in in the factory rather than allow all its equipment – and their jobs -- to be shipped elsewhere. Broadcaster Paul Ray has details in his Real News broadcast. (

I’m sure many of you remember the infamous photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, and the allegation by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the torture of prisoners was the work of “a few bad apples.”

Well, as we learned more and more about “enhanced interrogation” techniques, we believed less and less of what Rumsfeld and his generals (and his president) told us.

But even if there never were any written orders for “enhanced” interrogations, that phenomenon known as “commend influence” would probably have got the job done. Command influence means “everyone knows what the boss wants done, so let’s get it done!”

Was there not command influence working in the sentencing of a blogger? Was there not command influence working in the attempt to emasculate the labor movement? And was there not commend influence working as military guards snatched protesters out of Tahrir Square, arrested and detained them, and proceeded to do to prisoners exactly what Hosni Mubarak’s MPs would have done to them?

I have two questions: First, how will it stop? What will stop it? These kinds of aberrations don’t go away by themselves. They’re hard enough to change even with the best training money can buy. And here we are dealing with a culture of brutality that has been nurtured by the military for a generation!

Second question: When the Egyptian people finally get to vote for a parliament and a president, will the military accept its new civilian masters?

In the answer, we’ll know the future of the Arab Awakening in Egypt.

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