lunedì 14 gennaio 2013

Rejecting the Constitution: urban middle class, peasants and workers

CAIRO - In Mohammed Morsi's six months of presidency, dissent towards the Muslim Brotherhood has increased amongst the Delta’s workers and Cairo’s urban neighborhoods. The new Constitution, approved by 64% on December 22nd, was rejected here. If some Egyptians support “yes”, there were tens explaining why to vote “no” in these neighborhoods. We followed the electoral procedures in the working class area of Zaawia, a suburb to the west of Cairo, surrounded by burning garbage on street corners and tuk-tuks blaring music at high volume. Ibrahim guarded an abandoned fertilizer factory and warming himself by a fire. He hoped new investments would arrive soon but he did not know when. In the background were the smokestacks of a generating station and the food product factory fence (Bisco Misr).

Why the Copts and Women reject the Constitution

At the gate of the Madrasa Salamat, we witnessed the first disputes between supporters and opponents of the Constitution. “I reject the Constitution. The president has excessive powers, no minimum salary is granted and wages will be linked to level of production”, explained Mahmoud, 43, teacher.

“A quorum should be granted. The Islamists say with the adoption of the new Constitution, stability will return. However, I think there will be new demonstrations”, answered Mohsen, 52, engineer.

We entered the polling stations; only the Islamist judges took part in the electoral procedure. Four small desks were placed to the right of the ballot box, while men paused for a few seconds to dip their finger in the purple indelible ink. Policemen oversaw the doors of the small classrooms, while soldiers sat in the courtyard or hurried up at the main gate. Outside, near a mosque, a few Salafis, seating on several benches, handed over a paper to each voter. In this way, the Islamists could control who was actually going to say “yes”.

In the alleys of this neighborhood, many Christians are mixed into the urban fabric. “The Muslim Brothers are the problem. They distributed meat in my building. For the poorer a piece of bread is enough to approve a Constitution”, denounced George, 38, Coptic pharmacist with pictures of Pope Shenouda III and his successor Tawadros II in the background. We spoke with abuna Antonius. He seemed happy for a chance to let off steam about the Constitution: “If it is approved, the Islamic religion is going to be over the law. And so the Copts will be worth half a Muslim Egyptian”, he stated in his narrow wooden office.

The priest was seated with a Muslim Brotherhood activist who was asking what reasons there could be to reject the Constitution. “A girl would be able to be married if sharia is implemented, the president can repeal laws approved by the Parliament and decide with broad discretion to pardon condemned criminals. While the Sinai will be not protected and as for the defense of Palestine they only chat about it”, as the priest listed the problematic issues given by opponents. There was tension and anger in the long, impatient queue of women at the Mistamara school in Zaawia. “I reject the Constitution”, summarized Sharbat, a housewife with a small blue scarf on her head. Shortly later a woman intervened screaming: “We are happy about the Constitution, everybody should say that, it is the first time Egyptians have written their own fundamental law. And it is in favor of the poor and Christians”. The crowd grew: many women were prevented from voting after ten hours of waiting.

The peasants of the Delta

We arrived at the village of Qafr el-Agazia passing through an expanse of green fields. Hundreds of cotton sacks filled these lands. Peasants here produce honey; gather rice and wheat, while cows pasture beside the paved road. Cotton is used in the old factories of Mahalla al-Kubra. In this small village in the Gharbiya region everything looks like it did during the British Protectorate when the Egyptian workers movement was born in these lands, inspiring the protagonists of the 1919 Revolution. At that time, the workers were silenced by nationalism. A sense of widespread crisis was the feature of those years. Now the workers and peasants are in the grip of the Islamists. We were welcomed by Garib Moussa, 58, worker in the Gazl el-Mahalla’s factory. He was seated, enveloped in his yellow holiday mantle. One by one, the local elites entered the house. “We did not benefit from the revolutionary movement”, Garib explained. As many peasants of Qafr el-Agazia, he voted for Ahmed Shafiq at the presidential elections. For this reason, the main accusation made by the Muslim Brothers who rejected the Constitution here is to be afeloul, men of the old regime. There is some truth in this. It is even clearer listening to the words of the peasants. One of the main reasons of distain is the law, approved by President Morsi, stating a cancelation of farmers’ debts over 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (1,200 euros). “When I went to the bank, I was told to come back with a special permission”, broke off Mahmoud, 40, peasant and tuk-tuk driver.

The demonstrations against Morsi started in Mahalla before 22 November when the President issued a problematic decree enhancing his own powers. Before the Cairo clashes at the entrance of the Heliopolis presidential palace, Mahalla’s workers had already gone on strike and marched towards the main square against the Constitution, asking for peasants’ debts to be reduced. Clashes at this time with the Islamists on the railways dividing Mahalla into two, 318 persons were injured. According to the opposition movement’s youth, the Muslim Brothers’ activists used weapons and bullets, but the police did not intervene.

The leader of the peasant union, Emad Shauki, stated: “The government established the price of a ton of rice should not exceed 2000 EP (230 euros), but actually they buy it for 1500 EP. Often peasants do not find buyers for their rice and they are obliged to sell it to private traders”. At this stage, sheikh Mahrour intervened: “when Mubarak was president, a ton of rise cost 2500 EP (270 euros). Moreover, Gharbiya’s agricultural bank does not have monetary savings yet. With the Islamists, everything is getting worse”.

We visited Taher Rushdy, 60, peasant. “There is no freedom and social justice either. We made the Revolution but we suffer from the debts we owe”. Because the prices of seeds are still increasing, Taher would stop doing a hard job. But at Qafr el-Agazia, many peasants support the Islamists too. We discussed with Khaled Derwish, politician of the Freedom and Justice Party. He told us he has been part of the Brotherhood since 1994; however, he could not work either as a civil servant or at the Al-Azhar mosque because of his political behavior. “This Constitution is the best guarantee for the poor and workers. If the banks refuse to apply the law, approved by Morsi for the cancellation of debts, peasants should sue the judges”, Khaled granted.

The workers of Mahalla al-Kubra

At 3.30 in the afternoon the gates textile factories of Gazl el-Mahalla open: some of the 21,000 workers return home. Among the men and women ending the morning shift there were Salafis, with the forehead marked by pray, mothers with their sons and young liberals. After 1919, the 2008 upheaval began here. In Mahalla al-Kubra, the 6 April’s movement began its engagement defending workers’ rights. Six army tanks protect the gates following recent clashes. We spoke with two workers, Walid and Gamal, two regretful Islamists. “The new Constitution want to gag us”, Walid said. “Being against Morsi does not mean being against religion”, added Gamal who finished his night shift at 7 in the morning. Later we met Eman, who has been working in this factory for 23 years and is active in the syndicate movement. “There are no workers’ rights, they can sack us when they want if the law states that. The right to strike is not clearly stated. For these reasons, we met the government and they promised to cancel some articles that we rejected, but they did not”, she explained.

In the worker neighborhood of Mustamara, in the houses built by the British in the thirties, live 600 families. Here we met Gamal Abu Ela, leader of the Workers’ Union. He is extremely critical of the Constitution regarding social rights. “They put the syndicate’s freedoms under control. The government can fire and transfer workers. Our facilities are obsolete and the prices of raw materials are increasing: to link production and salaries does not make any sense here. The wages should be linked to inflation, while the salaries increased in public sector by two EP per year (25 cents)”, clarified Gamal.

A few days ago in Mahalla, a symbolic Referendum took place on the Constitution for workers and peasants. Hamdi Hussein, leader of the local Socialist party organized it with the opposition youth. He has been in prisons countless times, the last for a demonstration when he brandished Mubarak’s pictures in a coffin during the strikes in 1988. “There was a great participation in our anti-Referendum, ‘no’ won with 96%. The Islamist Constitution will produce more inequalities between citizens and among the first to be marginalized will be Nubians, women, workers, Christians and children. Therefore, the ‘yes’ will be a defeat for the Brotherhood because new protests will spread across Egyptian squares again”, guaranteed Hamdi.

Articolo pubblicato il 31 agosto scorso su 

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