The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

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JUL-AUG 2011 Issue

Smoke and Mirrors in Pursuit of Suez’s Striking Workers

My visit to Suez, where I planned to interview striking Suez Canal workers, began as expected: One of the workers slipped me a USB drive of video footage taken the night before of protesters clashing with the military; two cops rolled up, radiating good cheer, and asked what me and my three colleagues were doing in Suez, while a company security flack confiscated the worker’s computer, strode off, and disappeared behind the company gates. Then, we got back into our car and hightailed it out of there before being detained any longer by the cops, the company, the military, or a combination of the three.

Waiting for Mubarak.
Waiting for Mubarak.

We drove off looking for 200 strikers that we were told had been picketing down the street in a public park adjacent to the Suez Canal. But all we found were armored military vehicles, the scruffy park surrounded by coils of barbed wire but empty of protesters, dozen of soldiers, and three men standing across the street from the park, who said one shouldn’t negotiate with “stupid people,” meaning the striking workers. All the while, our local contact, a striking worker, insisted, while speaking with one of my companions over the phone, that the rest of his comrades were there.

We agreed to meet with our contact later in the day, when things “cooled off.” Until then, we decided, we should check out a sit-in that had been underway for several days in Arbaeen Square in the city center—Suez’s version of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo.

And then things got really strange.

But before I get to that, let me tell you a bit about Suez. Suez is to the Egyptian, anti-Mubarak, anti-neoliberal struggle what Sidi Bouzid was to Tunisia’s overthrow of its corrupt, despotic president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. That is: Suez is the town where the militancy of the revolt was born.

When the people of Egypt rose up on January 25, it was in Suez where the first protesters were killed; a police station was torched in short order. Last November—two months before Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a symbol of Arab revolt—a police official was assassinated. Before that, Suez had been a hotbed of labor militancy and opposition to the Mubarak regime.

In other words, resistance is a pastime in Suez and as Egypt has once again become lively with insurrectionary zeal, Suez has kept pace with protesters in Cairo in the stone-throwing-and-keeping-the-revolutionary-spirit-alive category.

Revolutionary justice in Suez.
Revolutionary justice in Suez.

But Suez is also where complexities emerge, where popular support for the revolutionary forces, the nation, and the military blur into a tangled web of competing loyalties, concerns, and prejudices; Suez is where the contradictions and limitations of the Egyptian uprising that often simmer just below the surface, barely recognizable, can be found glistening in bright detail before one’s eyes like the summer sun hitting a shard of broken glass.

The first thing I noticed about the sit-in at Arbaeen Square was the effigy dangling from a tall street light that rose up from the paved median strip. The stuffed figure seemed a misplaced scarecrow as it swung with the ebb and flow of a gentle noontime breeze. “Who is it?” I asked a protester. “Mubarak, Tantawi, kulluhum,” he replied, clarifying that it was both no one and every one of them: it was the ousted president; the Field Marshal that heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which currently governs Egypt; the cops that killed over 800 Egyptians during those 18 days in January and February, when the country rose up en mass; and everyone else associated with the former regime.

Like resistance, injustice runs deep in Suez. The two go together like Mubarak’s 1990s neo-liberalization scheme and the country’s yawning economic inequities. As I step into the protest camp, consisting of a couple of dozen people, two brown canvas tents, lots of signs, and the dangling effigy, I’m enveloped by a crush of people. The gathered describe a litany of grievances. One person demands to know why pictures of Mubarak and his son Gamal have not been shown; where is the proof that they are in prison, he asks. They want their trials televised. The people of Suez are drinking sewage water; it tastes salty, a woman explains. She adds that residents have died of liver damage and cancer. Another man demands simply to live. Others want the money that the corrupt regime stole from the country returned. And why, they add, do the U.S. and European nations continue to hold onto the money? They want jobs, too, particularly with the companies that work in the canal but don’t employ locals because, perhaps, an all-local labor force could amplify unrest. Those that work in the public sector want better wages. Others demand better housing.

Egyptian soldiers guard the Suez Canal in Suez.
Egyptian soldiers guard the Suez Canal in Suez.

I struggle to write as the crowd pushes in close to me and I try to ignore my paranoid thoughts of an attacking mob. A significant number of the gathered—mostly young and male from the April 6th Youth Movement, a central player in Egypt’s uprising—

berate us and demand that we leave, feeding my edginess. They do not want outsiders to distort the message, they say.

When we ask about their demands, trying to ingratiate ourselves and diminish any hostility, they point to a large banner hung from a nearby building. The demands are listed there, they say; why do we need them explained, they ask. We explain to them that we want to understand the texture of people’s lives. We want to hear about the water, the police murders, and the shortage of jobs and decent wages that gave rise to the demands.

We want to hear about the grievances in Suez because they differ slightly from those in Cairo and we want to know why. In Cairo concerns about jobs, wages, and the economy have lagged behind demands for the prosecution of former regime officials, "justice" for family members of slain protesters, and a delay in parliamentary elections, scheduled later this year, in order for liberal parties to properly organize and hold off a likely rout by the Muslim Brotherhood. In Suez, though, two demands speak to the dire material conditions: protesters want a minimum and a maximum wage and the creation of an "urgent jobs plan for the youth." These demands are now voiced around Tahrir Square, too, but in the hollow imprecise rhetoric of "social justice" and addressing the needs of "the poor first."

As our debate with the youths continues, another man interjects that he doesn’t want us to write about the conflict between protesters in Suez and the military, which has been widely reported within Egypt and internationally. These skirmishes followed the release from jail of several police officers, who are accused of shooting Suez protesters back in January and February. He’s worried we will depict a divided Egypt, that there is a rift between the people and the military, which, according to a popular chant during the January uprising, are "one hand." The chant can no longer be heard in Cairo, where protesters are fuming at the slow pace of reforms under SCAF rule. But here support for the military remains—at least in the vicinity of the media—a signifier of one’s loyalty to the nation.

Striking workers in Isma'iliyya demand the ouster of the head of the Suez Canal Authority.
Striking workers in Isma'iliyya demand the ouster of the head of the Suez Canal Authority.

In this way, the modest Suez sit-in seems at once more sophisticated than that of Cairo’s bustling Tahrir Square. Economic concerns undergird calls for democratic reforms and justice for slain protesters.  Yet support for the military seems a perverse form of national loyalty in the face of SCAF’s reluctance to relinquish power and heed the demands of the protest movement. It’s all the more strange given the frequency of violent state repression in this city.

Tempers have slowly reached a boil; the revolutionary youth are irritated that we continue to linger and interview. They escort us to our car, while continuing to argue their point. Spray painted in Arabic on the wall adjacent to our parked vehicle are the words: "Waiting for you, oh, Mubarak." A noose is depicted next to the phrase. The local propagandists, however, have mis-spelled "waiting." The April 6th youths wave to us as we pull away and head back to find the striking workers.

Back at the scrubby, barbed-wired park, a crowd has gathered but it’s not a picket line of striking workers. It’s more revolutionary youth. They stand on one side of a tall fence that separates the park from the Suez Canal, calm and deep blue. On the other side of the fence stretches a line of soldiers, looking bored—and extremely hot—but maintaining a menacing facade as they grip rifles or long metal rods. A revolutionary with a sun-bleached Egyptian flag draped around his shoulders leans into the fence, fingers messed in with the metalwork, as he pleads with several soldiers, explaining that the revolutionaries would never obstruct canal traffic or harm the military.

I linger in the park with my colleagues, conducting a couple of interviews and discussing with them the particularities of Suez politics: the central role of the military, the dire economic conditions, and the unique strategic importance as one of the world’s most crucial waterways.

We’ve grown tired of searching for the strike, though, and one of my companions suggests that it might be time to return to Cairo. Just as soon as we’ve decided to leave, the phone rings; it’s our striking worker who says he’ll meet us in the park with two other workers in 15 minutes. They arrive in 30 and we all sit down under the shade of tree inside the park. Finally, after a long, hot day in Suez, we’ve got our interview. There’s no sign of hundreds of striking workers, picketing the company headquarters. But we had been to Ismailia the previous week, where the strike was in full swing. So, these interviews will do just fine for today.

As soon as we begin our interview, though, a contingent of revolutionaries approaches and demands that we leave the park. The workers, they explain, have "sectoral interests," while the revolutionaries represent the interests of the nation. It’s an identical line to that of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has banned labor protests and strikes.

It’s an ironic turn on the popular chant that the army and the people are one hand, which greeted the military in January when it rolled into Tahrir Square but refrained from intervening on behalf of Mubarak and crush the protests. Such unity can now be found in the subordination of workers’ grievances to demands of "the revolution" or the nation.

More youths arrive; two of them seem hostile particularly toward me. My colleagues and I leave the park and head toward a shady area across the street in order to continue our interview with the workers. As we’re crossing the street, a car stops and out jump two military intelligence officers. In an odd twist, one of our interview subjects takes the intelligence officer by the hand and leads him across the street. They return not a minute later and our striking worker explains that everything is fine and motions us to get back to the interview.

As it turns out, our interviewee is not who he claims to be. The signs were subtle at first. He didn’t denounce the national trade union that for decades blocked labor agitation and was a tool for the Mubarak regime. Instead, he claimed that the workers were open to significant compromise regarding their demand for a raise. Finally he admitted to being a manager at the company. The two other workers were probably authentic, striking workers; they said barely a word in the company of their manager.

As we leave Suez I unfold my computer. I’m tucked into the back seat, where the air conditioner doesn’t reach very well. One of my colleagues—the Stanford historian Joel Beinin— explains a bit of modern Suez history from the front seat. I plug in the USB stick, double click on the icon, and find that the there are no videos.

That night the wire services report that four Americans were arrested in Suez by the military. I field a couple of calls and emails from people curious to know if I was alright and if I knew anything about those arrested. It turns out they were working for Vice magazine.

The next morning I receive an email from another one of my companions, a videographer. While in the park, he had clipped a mic to the shirt of the company manager (ne striking worker). The company manager failed to remove the mic.

The videographer’s email is a translation of the audio along with some comments from our translator.

Company manager: I spoke to Colonel Ahmed from your office. I don’t remember his last name. This is his number. We coordinated with them regarding the things we are going to say in this interview. We will finish and call you.

Then the Military Intelligence Dude asked about the minibus that was there earlier and if that was our ride, he told him it wasn’t and that there were other journalists there from the Washington Post and London Magazine. MID asked if they’re still there. The company man told him they left, and that they were only there for exactly 5 minutes, they did not find anyone to talk to so they left, and "the communication was limited." MID told him: No problem at all, they can do whatever they want.

Company manager: No, because last Friday, during the sit-in in Arbaeen Square, some people from the April 6 group said they want the independence of Suez and the management of the waterway, and that is ridiculous. So we interfered, in cooperation with other political forces, and made them take back their statement. This is just stupidity.

MID: Yes, and then they write about it in the newspapers.

Company manager: This is why we don’t want this to escalate. It is not true at all. Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go talk to them for five minutes and then I’ll get back to you.

And so it is in the new Egypt that old habits die hard. Collaboration between managers and police, the marginalization of the working classes, and the pervasive threat of violence remain entrenched features of the political landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2011

All Issues