EGYPT: Released labor activist vows to pursue the battle
He was grabbing a cup of coffee at the factory cafeteria less than two years ago when he heard the call for a strike. “I wondered then what the term strike meant,” recalls Karim El-Beheiry. On his way out of the factory, he heard a fellow tell the press: “I don’t have enough money to satisfy the needs of my son.”
“I cried when I heard that,” remembers El-Beheiry, “and eventually decided to join the strike.”
The words stuck with El-Beheiry until they turned him from a disengaged lay worker into a prominent blogger and labor activist. But he did not know that his dedication to workers’ rights would cost him more than 50 days of imprisonment and torture for allegedly instigating a riot in April, at Mahalla town, the site of Egypt’s biggest spinning and textile factory and the stronghold of the nation’s labor force.
Upon his release, El-Beheiry affirmed to The Times that his experience behind bars, though painful, made him more determined about his cause. “Jail never changes ideas. Coercion and torture makes the person stronger. I love this country and I refuse to give up my rights,” El-Beheiry told The Times over the phone from Mahalla, about 75 miles north of Cairo.
The Mahallah factory has been the scene of several strikes over wages for the last two years. The first erupted in December 2006, when El-Beheiry was first introduced to the notion of labor advocacy. Since then, the 23-year-old worker has been mentored by leftist labor leaders until he eventually embraced a socialist ethos. His devotion was translated into the launching of two blogs (Egyworkers and Watch out You are Now in Egypt) to promote a labor-oriented agenda.
However, his concern with workers’ demands drew his attention to Egypt’s different malaises, he says. “All I had in mind was the labor question and how to retrieve my rights as a worker. However, my concern became broader and expanded from just asking for my rights to asking for civil liberties and freedom of expression,” he explains.
The unrest at the Mahalla factory culminated in a riot April 6 in which two people were killed and more than 100 wounded after police clashed with demonstrators, shooting rubber bullets and throwing tear gas bombs. Holding his camera, El-Beheiry recorded the violence and filed updates over the phone to local and international news organizations until he was caught off guard by police, who kept him in custody until Saturday.
“The first three days in custody were the worst three days in my life. They were days of torture, oppression and coercion,” says El-Beheiry, adding that he had his hands and legs cuffed and was kept blindfolded without food or water for three days.
“They wanted me to let on to other people and to make certain confessions. They tried everything with me but they did not get anything,” he recounts.
El-Beheiry declines to provide details on the way he was allegedly tortured. “I don’t want to remember those days. When I recall those moments, I cry not out of weakness but out of my inability to believe that a human being can get audacious enough to do that to another human being and that Egypt has become this police state.”
However, earlier, El-Beheiry told Agence France-Presse that he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks. “They would give you improper food. They would put their fingers in your food or throw it with their feet to you,” he recounts.
Egypt has recently witnessed several protests over inflation, which has raised the specter of public unrest, putting President Hosni Mubarak’s regime under unprecedented pressure. Young bloggers and Facebook activists have recently come to the fore as the main mobilizers of anti-Mubarak protests.
“Egypt is shaking and the people started to feel pressured. At one point they will explode out of hunger and their explosion will be catastrophic,” warns El-Beheiry.
Despite state retaliation, El-Beheiry vows to pursue the battle on the blogosphere. “I will never stop blogging; I will keep blogging about the labor moment even if it costs my life,” he affirms. “Facebook activists and bloggers carry Egypt’s hopes and they are the ones who retrieve freedom for Egyptians.”
But the future of El-Beheiry’s activism remains to be seen as he may stand trial soon on a package of allegations that include instigating a strike and damaging public property.
—Noha El-Henawy in Cairo
Photos (from top to bottom): Karim El-Beheiry taking pictures of an anti-inflation protest in Mahalla town earlier this year (Courtesy of El-Beheiry); clashes at Mahalla town in last April (AFP)