Egypt cracks down post-strike

Rob Ray reports for Freedom Newspaper on continuing crackdowns on civil liberties in Egypt

Submitted by Rob Ray on May 22, 2008

Following a period of upheavals in Egypt, the state is attempting to reassert control with a series of measures aimed at curbing both the labour movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest radical Islamic group.

In its most recent bill, parliament has cleared legislation outlawing public demonstrations in or near religious establishments, and continues to hold a large number of labour activists in jail. Some commentators are arguing that the new measures stem from a string of incidents of labour unrest, in particular from severe rioting in the town of Mahalla which took place in early April.

Over 200 people were spirited away by the state during the fighting, which started in response to violent police attacks on peaceful demonstrators, and there have been widespread reports of torture in the prisons since then of people considered ringleaders. In response, a general strike was called by socialists which was widely held to be an example of ‘online organising’ by the mainstream media.

While the strike did see Cairo emptied of people, the government reacted swiftly, with web activists were among those arrested, most notably the administrator of a group on online social networking site Facebook who was calling for support, Ghad Party member Israa. Organisers called for demonstrations to begin from mosque sites around the capital.

However some class struggle writers are downplaying the significance of the strikes, saying that, called by middle-class socialist bloggers, they failed to reach into working class neighbourhoods. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist based in the city, said: “I expressed reservations which I and my comrades in the Socialist movement had about the April 6th strike call. And let’s face it, the country was not brought to halt. The trains kept on going, so did the buses and virtually all other main government and business facilities. The factories that were brought to a halt or semi halt where the cement and grain mills… places where the socialists either have a presence or sympathisers on the ground.

At most, according to another commentator, Khawaga, the strike have helped focus Mubarak’s forces on re-monopolising Egypt’s political life. The closing down of dissent at the mosques was on the cards before the strikes primarily as a measure against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the main threat to state dominance of the mosques. It comes on top of an existing law banning more than six people congregating in a public place, which is used at the state’s discretion.

The state does however seem intent on avoiding a repeat performance. Khawaga told Freedom: “There are still a few hundred rioters from Mahalla in jail, a few labour organisers, bloggers and journalists, and tons of Muslim Brothers (even though they did not take part in the "general strike"). As Mahalla was the symbol of resistance/opposition to the regime, Mahalla was also made an example of. Talking to a few activists here we believe that the call for a general strike in no small part added to the severe repression in Mahalla.”