February 27, 2011

Voices from Mahalla

In a time of great flux, no conversation in Egypt can avoid the inevitable: What’s next? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ widely on what’s to come as well as the level of agency average citizens will have in determining the future.

Yesterday, we traveled to El-Mahalla El-Kubra. Across Egypt, the city is known as a hub for political dissent, largely driven by its well organized labour groups and civic organizations. Finding ourselves at the heart of a lively and complex national debate, we thought we would share some of the voices we heard on the topic of change.

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Chief, Democratic Front Party (Mahalla Chapter): “Change is afoot.”

Egypt’s Democratic Front Party has been among the key organizers of the recent revolution. They credit their coalition of youthful organizers with the change that has occurred, and have tasked themselves leaders in creating the Egypt of tomorrow. While the DFP has many items on its agenda, of pressing importance is bringing knowledge of participatory governance to Egypt’s poorest citizens. Education on voters’ rights and responsibilities ahead of September’s planned elections will be critically important to an inclusive democratic transition.

While the Chief of DFP’s Mahalla Chapter believes the revolution would not have been possible without online organizing — “Facebook opened the door, it started the conversation” — he said digital tactics still don’t reach most Egyptians. Thus, his party will continue to rely on its membership (roughly 7,000 strong), on their social networks, and on ‘old’ tactics such as door-to-door canvassing to educate and organize citizens.

In this time of change, he is frustrated by continuing demonstrations across Egypt and feels that their organizers are shortsighted. “Now is not the time for individual group protests,” he insists. “It is the time for universal reform. Now is the time to work for things that meet everyone’s needs.”

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65-Year-Old Grain Farmer in Kaisaria: “Change? Maybe.”

Having worked the same land for over 50 years, a farmer we spoke with in the rural village of Kaisaria, just outside Malhalla, was cautiously hopeful for meaningful change in the times ahead.

In the last seven years, the cost of renting his land has increased by 25 times, subsidies for pesticides have dried up while prices have risen fourfold due to corruption, and the NGO representing local farmers has since been shut down and replaced by a government-run body. Though the group is tasked with overseeing rural agricultural issues, Sayed says it is aligned with rich land owners and deaf to the needs of farmers like him. “I’m a simple man. All I need are pesticides at an affordable price and rent that still leaves me enough profit for my family to eat.”

When asked how he and farmers like him might insert their voices into the reform process, he shakes his head: “How can I get my voice heard when I can’t even afford the bus to Mahalla, just 15 minutes away? I’ve heard of the internet, I’ve heard of Facebook, but they are not for me. I can’t read, I don’t use a mobile phone, and now they say I must use Facebook to talk to the government? No, I have very basic needs. Why can’t I have simple needs met through simple means? People like me can’t affect change; we just have to wait and see if events work out positively for us. Insha’Allah.”

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Deputy Chief, Muslim Brotherhood (Mahalla Chapter): “We will bring about change.”

Long used by the Mubarak government and certain Western forces as a bogeyman, our time here has shown that the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful force for good in Egyptian society. With a significant percentage of all functioning civil society groups tied to the Brotherhood, their services for the working class have filled a critical gap left by a negligent government.

Having been forced to operate as an underground group for decades, the Brotherhood has an impressive level of organization and discipline, both necessary to operating in a country in flux. El-Mahalla has long been a stronghold for the Brotherhood, and we spoke with the chapter’s Number Two about what his organization has planned for the period ahead.

“We are better prepared than other opposition groups to make our presence felt,” he said. Yet rather than race to the top of the future electoral ballot, he said “the Brotherhood is happy to take our time, and to let others have the chance to organize effective political entities.” Whether shrewd politics, or honest opinion, if this tactic holds true in the coming months, the blossoming Egyptian political scene will benefit.

As the Brotherhood is “now able to operate in the open, with more contact with the people,” Egyptians should have greater access to the critical social services this group has long provided.

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Director + Various Organizers, Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services: “Change? Hasn’t happened yet.”

“Mubarak is gone with the wind.” The surly, heavyset man raises his eyebrows at us, and repeats his joke. “Mubarak. Is. Gone. With. The Wind.” He shoots us another pointed look. We laugh heartily. “But,” he continues, “let us be clear: There has not been a revolution. Now is the time to negotiate for our revolution.”

The leaders of Mahalla’s primary labour organizing group, CTUWS, have long been working for substantive socioeconomic reform and have correspondingly endured imprisonment and harassment for years. These hardened activists see the current period as a rare window where rapid social change is finally possible. They do not, however, think the changing times require changing tactics. Distributing flyers and coordinating mass strikes through personal networks, and largely without any technology, are the most effective tools for change, say CTUWS, both now and in the future. .” The group dismisses digital strategies: “The people we work for aren’t connected, so we don’t need to be either.” The only technology they use is SMS to coordinate with labour leaders across the country.

“In other countries, you can talk and negotiate with the government for your demands. Here, and especially now, talking will get us nowhere. We need to first get the military’s attention through mass demonstrations,” they insisted. “Only then will they give us a spot at the negotiation table

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Journalist, Dostor: “Change is complex.”

We were joined in El-Mahalla by a reserved but passionate local journalist, who writes for the widely respected online newspaper, Dostor. Mohamed is a quiet young man, until the conversation turns to politics, and then he comes alive with the fire of an activist who has known the wrong end of a National Security truncheon.

It was Mohamed’s credibility, and leadership among a diverse array of groups in Mahalla that allowed us to travel so widely and speak with so many different voices. While little known to the West, thanks in large part to his modesty and aversion to spotlight of any kind, Mohamed was a critical organizer of the April 6 opposition movement, bringing together the disparate opposition groups, some of who we’ve covered above. In every conversation, he never fails to chime in at the critical moment with an observation on what it would take for Egypt to thrive in the coming years.

Mohamed believes end to emergency law, a complete change to the culture of the National Security forces, and economic opportunity for the working classes will serve as starting points in a long, hard road to a new governance landscape. It is complex, he says, but entirely possible.

With additional reporting from Zack Brisson and Mostafa Kashef.

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