Egyptian Revolution Demands End to Emergency Law and Higher Minimum Wage

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Broadband from Cairo – Egypt: Amr Gharbeia "Repression increasing as revolution pushes demands for reforms."

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. When people in Madison, Wisconsin, marched against what they thought was draconian legislation instituted by the governor and the Republican-controlled state assembly, many of the signs said "Cairo Madison". And many people said they were inspired by the struggle of the people of Egypt, and there was a connection felt between many Americans and what happened in Egypt. And even though much of the media seems to have moved on from the Egyptian story, in fact, the struggle there has just simply moved into a new phase. Now joining us from Cairo to talk about the current stage of the struggle in Egypt is Amr Gharbeia. Amr is a technologist and also an activist, and was involved in many aspects of the rebellion. Thanks for joining us, Amr.

AMR GHARBEIA: Thank you.

JAY: So bring us up to date. What’s been happening in the last week or two?

GHARBEIA: It has been increasingly getting more and more difficult to organize something on the streets and in Tahrir Square since Mubarak has been ousted on 11 February, almost–well, more than two months ago now. Each week, the general sentiment and the oppression, the oppression of the army, the crackdown [incompr.] making it increasingly more difficult to organize something there. Last Friday there had been a call by a loosely knit coalition of the local committee that has kept the peace during the crisis [incompr.] Tahrir and what’s happened with it. And it hasn’t been a successful [incompr.] like we have seen the weeks before.

JAY: Now, on Friday two weeks ago, several soldiers joined the protests. At least one was killed–or I’m not sure if it was two. And it seemed very significant. They gave very powerful speeches about the need to hold Mubarak accountable, and they wanted–the soldiers themselves were calling for a civilian government, that only one person would represent the military. Talk about the significance of this. And how widespread does this represent, do you think, amongst the army?

GHARBEIA: Well, the army is obviously not an immediate part of what’s been happening, of the revolution. It has played the role in–during the transition [incompr.] still is the big player after the people at large. But the estimations regarding the size of the officers who are aligning themselves with the demands of the revolution is debatable–up to 30,000 officers, some people say. But there is really no way to tell. The army is still a closed institution. The 8 to 20 officers who have shown up on that Friday two weeks ago seem to have sent a very strong message that has forced the military council, the head of the army [incompr.] republic to order a massive crackdown on the sit-in that night. Not only the army officers were disappeared–and there’s a rumor of one person of them executed on sight, but also others, other people who are been assaulted. And it was basically a war zone again in Tahrir.

JAY: Do you have any numbers on how many people in the last two or three weeks you think have been arrested and perhaps tortured?

GHARBEIA: The numbers vary greatly, and there is very little information. We are dealing with the military tribunals there, and the flow of information is not as smooth as [incompr.] which is [incompr.] functioning to the standard that we would like to see. But the–generally, since the beginning of the events, since the beginning of the revolution in January, there is an estimation of thousands. So anything from 2,000 to 6,000 or 7,000 people have been deferred to military tribunals and are now serving time in military prisons, or actually civilian prisons.

JAY: So you–there could be as many as 6,000 or 7,000 people in prison as a result of protesting.

GHARBEIA: Protests or [incompr.] The message, however, is that these are civilians who are tried by military courts, which is against the law, while at the same time the heads of the previous regime are being referred to civilian courts. And the least you can say about military tribunals is that they are unfair.

JAY: Now, on Friday just past, there was a meeting of what they call "people’s committees". If I understand it correctly, when the police withdrew from the streets–this is before Mubarak stepped down, there was the organizing of these local people’s committees, and they took responsibility for security and creating a sort of people’s infrastructure. There was–if I understand it correctly, there was a meeting on Friday in Tahrir Square from people representing these committees across the country. So what happened? What’s the significance of this?

GHARBEIA: Those committees are still trying to maintain their organization. They have explored that they are actually a community. And they’re succeeding in doing that to different degrees. For example, just today, a factory in the coastal city of Alexandria was reclaimed again by the popular committee there, the /"sju.fi/ textile factory, and after it has been occupied by thugs who were taking all the machines out of the factory–to sell them, obviously. And so there are some cases of where the popular committees are very successful, and other cases they’re not as successful. And there seems to be an effort to bring them all together in some sort of a coalition, some sort of a coordinating body. The numbers that we have seen in Tahrir [incompr.] does not indicate a very successful effort there.

JAY: Now, you’re involved in technology. You were–if I understand it correctly, had some connection with the people organizing some of the Facebook and Twitter campaigns early on in all of this. Some people have critiqued the American connection in this, suggesting that some of the people involved in this were trained, and some of them apparently went to Washington, had some connection to some training in Europe. What role did all of this play? How significant was it?

GHARBEIA: Well, I’m not directly involved in any calling for the revolution or for the main sit-in that took place in Tahrir Square in January and February. However, I belong to a group of people who are relaying information when there was an Internet and communications blockage. What we have seen and been hearing is that there is a lot now circulating about leaders of a popular revolution, which is obviously [incompr.] that very few people can have that much control, that much influence. It’s true or may be true that there are some youth activists who have been attracted by certain institutions in the United States, or some of them have been trying to build things over the past few years, where civil disobedience movements–like, for example, Otpor! in Serbia. But from my observation, I see that those individuals played a very, very small role. Let’s not forget that this is a revolution where on one day 12 million people took to the streets and completely crushed the security apparatus. A few people [incompr.] here or there cannot really influence that.

JAY: Now let’s talk about the current stage of the fight. There was a debate, apparently, at the Egyptian journalists’ union a couple of weeks ago where some of the journalists or some of the people at the journalists’ union were critiquing some of the activists for putting the focus on bringing down the current military regime rather than focusing on making Mubarak and people from the old regime accountable. What are some of the debates taking place? And what is the focus of the struggle now?

GHARBEIA: I think there are two tracks where the struggle is going now. So building the future, but also making sure that the transitional justice and the old regime [incompr.] with the previous regime. In many ways there are not clear signs that this transition is happening quickly enough or deep enough, while on the other hand–for example, we’re still operating under an emergency law with a curfew in place, and with the powers by the executive to control the media and right to assembly. How much can that influence the democratic process, particularly that we are going to see democratic parliamentary and supposedly [incompr.] elections later this year if something’s still up to debate. So the debate now is on whether we should focus only on building the institutions, people organizing the parties or in their unions and the NGOs, or actually having, maintaining street presence to challenge basically the only power that is now effective in the country, namely, the army. Personally, I think that we should be doing both: building the future, but also keeping the army in check and making sure that the program of the revolution is still happening.

JAY: What are the main demands now, then, of the young people that have helped lead the charge, and also of so many workers that were involved in this struggle?

GHARBEIA: Oh, the military tribunals is one thing. The second thing is actually the emergency status that’s been ruling the country for 30 years and is still carrying on, even after a revolution. Now, a democratic environment, around which fair elections can happen without lifting that emergency status so that people can actually organize on the streets and start their own unions, organizations, and political [incompr.] The one fair demand is actually a decent living wage. We are going to see, maybe, a protest, the first [incompr.] Tahrir on–in 1 May, a very–within a couple of days. And one of the key demands for the revolution has been [incompr.] 1,200 Egyptian pounds, around $200 a month, as a minimum wage. This would place Egyptian [incompr.] just at the $2 a day UN-defined poverty line. And because poverty is really prevalent in the country, 40 percent of the population lies under that UN-defined poverty line.

JAY: So end the emergency law and a minimum wage–this will be next stage of the fight.

GHARBEIA: And an end to all the military tribunals that are actually preventing more [incompr.] more presence in the streets.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Amr.

GHARBEIA: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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