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Women Unionists of the Arab Spring Battle Two Foes: Sexism and Neoliberalism

8:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

(Public Services International via Facebook)

This year’s World Social Forum, a transnational gathering of social activists, took place in Tunis, a city bubbling with unrest as it struggles to shake off a legacy of authoritarian rule while navigating tensions over women’s rights, labor and nationalism. At the gates of the gathering last week, these faultlines became starkly apparent when a caravan of trade unionists and rights advocates found themselves unexpectedly blockaded. Border police, under official orders, refused entry to a delegation of 96 Algerian activists that included members of the embattled union SNAPAP, known for its militancy and inclusion of women as leaders and front-line protesters.

That feminist-oriented trade unionists figured prominently in the incident is not surprising: In the wake of the Arab Spring, women in labor movements are situated at the crux of two very different, but interrelated battles. At the same time that they are resisting the traditional patriarchal governance of their communities and workplaces, they also push back against the “modernizing” forces of Western-style, pro-corporate neoliberal economic policy, and gradually opening new spaces for social emancipation. By operating within a traditionally male-dominated space, trade unions enable women to assert their agency as activists, simultaneously challenging their general marginalization from the political sphere and the typical Western media portrayal of women as silent victims of culturally ingrained oppression.

In advance of the World Social Forum, women labor activists came together in Tunis on March 23-24 for a leadership conference coordinated by the Public Services International union federation. The event brought women from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait and Palestine, along with fellow unionists from Belgium, Canada and Sweden, to discuss the possibilities and perils wrought by the Arab Spring.

The situation of women trade unionists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) isn’t altogether different from the historical gender-equality struggles within labor movements in Western industrialized nations, in which women were initially marginalized but have incrementally moved up in the union ranks. But women’s labor struggles in MENA are complicated by growing rifts between Islamist and liberal secular political forces that have engulfed the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

In the political movements convulsing the region, gender-justice struggles have often been sidelined or even undermined. In Egypt and Tunisia, the initial wave of pro-democracy protest has yielded to a wave of Islamist-inspired reaction that troubles many leftists and feminists. Though the Arab Spring has scrambled many of MENA’s traditional political alliances, secular leftists and socialists have been increasingly marginalized amid the rise of hardline Islamist factions.

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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

3:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Revolutionary Socialists (http://www.e-socialists.net/)

Cross-posted from In These Times

To commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011, the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo’s railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal…

“We are hungry and we have to feed our children,” said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

“I have to come here every morning and work. I don’t care if there is a strike or civil disobedience,” he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision. Read the rest of this entry →

In a Precarious Revolution, Libya’s Endgame Is Only Beginning

2:26 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Atmosphere in streets - Tripoli (photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Across Tripoli, revolutionaries have perched themselves on a dangerous dream. Author Khaled Darwish reflected in a recent New York Times dispatch from the capital’s battered streets:

I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach. … A few days ago, we were almost killed by one of these snipers who shot at us and then sped off. I found myself prostrate, then crawling until my glasses broke. This is how Colonel Qaddafi wants us to be: crawling. But no more: We have grown wings.

But elsewhere in the city, thousands have been languishing indefinitely in makeshift prisons, captives of a rebel government still grasping to establish control. Masses of dark-skinned people, many of them African migrant workers, have evidently been rounded up on vague suspicions of working as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries. Their bleak captivity, despite their protestations of innocence, suggest that even at a moment of supposed national liberation, some remain trapped in an oppressive past.

The new Libya now straddles these two contrasting scenes, its freedom struggle ruptured by infighting and pressure from foreign forces that have their own designs for the country’s future. Yet viewed from a wide angle, the revolution has cracked open a window for a new political vision, spanning the full spectrum of peril and promise that Libyans have long been denied. Read the rest of this entry →