Logic of extremes

Logic of extremes

The labour crisis in Mahala textile factories ended in the simplest of ways, with no need for internal or external mediation. Once the company conceded to worker demands, which it had earlier rejected, the strike ended, but not before significant resources and time had been needlessly wasted. Apparently we haven”t yet grasped the art of managing labour disputes, for we tend to confuse legitimate professional demands for political agitation.

It wasn”t the security measures that ended the crisis, nor the continual blockade of factories, nor the intimidation of workers. Once the government — represented in the Ministry of Manpower and the Workers Federation and the holding company — did what needed to be done the crisis was over. Once the management stopped making conflicting remarks and once authorities gave up on desperate attempts to politicise the dispute, the workers went back to work.

Throughout the crisis, supporters of the National Democratic Party (NDP) kept claiming that saboteurs from the opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood and Kefaya, were responsible for the strike. NDP writers told us that the independent press was fomenting the crisis in order to throw the country into chaos. Anyone reading such comments would have thought that Egypt has turned into another Lebanon. And yet such industrial disputes are common in any democratic country. They are routinely resolved through negotiations, not bullying and name calling.

But in this country, we haven”t yet matured towards rational political thinking. Any crisis is automatically portrayed as a showdown between the government and the opposition. Even the most straightforward industrial action is immediately politicised, just to score points against the opposition.

Look at what happened during the government”s spat with the independent press. The NDP rallied to vilify and then imprison chief editors of independent newspapers, although the president had made a promise to abolish imprisonment for publishing offences. This too was an example of the government”s impatience with the basic rights enshrined in the constitution, including the freedom of expression.

Some people portrayed the press crisis as a conflict among warring parties, among people determined to fight to the end. Senior pro-government writers accused the independent press of working for invisible forces, for foreign powers even. The independent press, we were told, wants to undermine the country and force the regime to accept the dictates of major countries.

Everything is being twisted out of shape. When striking workers in Mahala demand the presence of representatives from the independent press in negotiations with the management we”re immediately told that the independent press encourages chaos and hooliganism. When university students complain about their conditions, pro- government writers accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of inciting them. And when someone speaks out for the rights of journalists and civil society, we”re told he was paid to do so.

No one in this country is thrilled when foreign quarters air our dirty linen. Patriotism is not the monopoly of those in power or their friends. No one is thrilled when the White House or human rights groups slam Egypt”s record on press or religious freedom. The independent press reports the criticism, but that doesn”t mean that they”re selling the country down the river. Actually, what the independent press is doing is using information in an attempt to mend our ways, which is more than we can say for the government.