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WORLD POPULATION REPORT: TOO MANY, TOO FEW OR TOO OLD – Pages 7-11
JULY 2011 No 1107
Europe’s wakeup call y SERGE HALIMI
The economic, and democratic, crisis in Europe raises questions. Why were policies that were bound to fail adopted and applied with exceptional ferocity in Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece? Are those responsible for pursuing these policies mad, doubling the dose every time their medicine predictably fails to work? How is it that in a democratic system, the people forced to accept cuts and austerity simply replace one failed government with another just as dedicated to the same shock treatment? Is there any alternative?
The answer to the first two questions is clear, once we forget the propaganda about the “public interest”, Europe’s “shared values” and being “all in this together”. The policies are rational and on the whole are achieving their objective. But that objective is not to end the economic and financial crisis but to reap its rich rewards. The crisis means that hundreds of thousands of civil service jobs can be cut (in Greece, nine out of ten civil servants will not be replaced on retirement), salaries and paid leave reduced, tranches of the economy sold off for the benefit of private interests, labour laws questioned, indirect taxes (the most regressive) increased, the cost of public services raised, reimbursement of health care charges reduced. The crisis is heaven-sent for neoliberals, who would have had to fight long and hard for any of these measures, and now get them all. Why should they want to see the end of a tunnel that is a fast track to paradise?
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC)’s directors went to Brussels on 15 June to ask the European Commission to pressure Dublin to dismantle some of Ireland’s labour legislation, fast. After the meeting, Brendan McGinty, IBEC director of Industrial Relations and Human Resources, warned: “Ireland needs to show the world it is serious about economic reform and getting labour costs back into line. Foreign observers clearly see that our wage rules are a barrier to job creation, growth and recovery. Major reform is a key part of the programme agreed with the EU and the IMF. Now is not the time for government to shirk from the hard decisions.”
The decisions will not be hard for everyone, following a course that is already familiar: “Pay rates for new workers in unregulated sectors have fallen by about 25% in recent years. This shows the labour market is responding to an economic and unemployment crisis” (1). The lever of sovereign debt enables the European Union and International Monetary Fund to impose the Irish employers’ dream order on Dublin.
The same view seems to apply elsewhere. On 11 June, an Economist editorial observed that “Reform-minded Greeks see the crisis
Continued on page 12
‘IF WE STOP DREAMING IT WIL BE BETTER TO DIE’
Egypt’s revolution is only beginning
Dazzled by events in Tahrir Square, the media overlooked the role of the workers in Egypt’s revolution, whose 6 April movement was named after the struggles of the workers at the Misr textile factory at Mahallah al-Kubra. Similar protests continue across the country
By Alain Gresh
Youssef Chahine would not have recognised Cairo’s central station, the backdrop to one of his finest films, shot in 1958 (1), which tells of the love of Kanawi, a crippled newspaper seller, for the beautiful Hanuma.The colossal statue of Ramses II that used to stand outside the station was moved to the Giza plateau in 2006, and the newly renovated façade gleams in the sun. But inside there was chaos: to reach the platforms, passengers had to pick their way across a construction site, between scaffolding, heaps of rubble and puddles, without any signs to help them. The train for Mahallah al-Kubra was due to leave at 1:15. People forced their way into sordid carriages, their windows opaque with dirt. Only two, at the back, offered reserved seats and air conditioning although the temperature was close to 40°C.
It took more than two hours to reach Mahallah, just 100km north of Cairo across the Nile delta; nothing could explain why the train had to move so slowly as we crossed some of the world’s most fertile farmland, being nibbled away by urbanisation. With half a million people (two million counting the surrounding province), Mahallah is typical of the middlesized cities that have absorbed much of Egypt’s population growth since the megacities of Cairo and Alexandria reached saturation. In the early 19th century it had a monopoly in silk. Later it became one of the centres of the Egyptian textile industry, whose reputation was founded on highquality, long-staple cotton, introduced by the French in 1817. When the American civil war of 1861-65 cut off Europe’s American imports, Egypt became a leading cotton exporter.
The Misr spinning and weaving factory is only a few hundred metres from the station, but you have to find your way along unpaved roads, crowded with traffic, vendors’ carts and young female factory workers in headscarves, all trying to catch a bus, train, shared taxi or motorised rickshaw. The factory operates 24 hours a day, in three shifts, but women work only a day shift that finishes at 4:00 pm.
A sign proclaimed “Welcome to the capital of Egyptian industry”. Misr’s history reflects that of Egypt, and its development policy. The company was established in 1927 by Talaat Harb, the founder of Egypt’s first national bank, who aimed to promote industry, and was floated on the stock market. British investors bought up the shares; though officially independent since 1922,
Egypt was then under British occupation. Misr was Egyptianised between 1954 and 1956, then nationalised in 1962 by Gamal Abdel Nasser under a programme of socialist reform and rapid industrialisation supported by the Soviet Union that also led to the building of the Helwan iron and steel works and the Aswan High Dam. Anwar Sadat’s accession to the presidency in 1970 brought infitah (economic opening), which encouraged private sector investment and the privatisation of the public sector. This policy accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s under Hosni Mubarak.
Only a few public enterprises held out, notably the Misr factory. The huge complex, surrounded by fences, contains Misr’s headquarters, offices and workshops, housing for workers and managers and a sports stadium, hospital, theatre and swimming pool, open to all. Cooperative stores offer food, furniture and clothing at low prices. But some of the buildings, including the canteen, have been abandoned – a sign that the government has lost interest.
One is unsure whether Misr was inspired by paternalistic capitalism borrowed from the British or real socialism, descended from Nasserism; it certainly evokes nostalgia throughout Egypt. Besides the establishment of a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($192) (2) there are frequent calls for the renationalisation of factories privatised in the 2000s, often under doubtful circumstances. These demands have already brought reactions from the US; in May the outgoing US ambassador Margaret Scobey said: “A return to nationalisation will be a huge disincentive to investment. … History proves privatisation has been very healthy, helpful and successful in helping many countries transform to democracy” (3).
Scobey seems to have seen and heard nothing during her three-year posting: the press reports daily that the Egyptians have doubts about the benefits of privatisation: the courts have just stopped the privatisation of the Egyptian retail chain Omar Effendi; some 30,000 fishermen on Lake Bourlos, separated from the Mediterranean
Continued on page 2
Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique
JULES DE BALINCOURT – ‘The Cycles of Morning and Dyeing’ (2007)
inside this issue Libya’s violent struggle: does legalising warfare make it legitimate? Page 2 Islamic Republic divided: Ahmadinejad versus the mullahs Page 4 Unbanned: why Iran allows, and creates, its own popular culture Page 4 Spanish peace: the Basque problem is above all political Page 6
Europe in crisis: reclaiming democracy on the streets of Madrid Page 12 Home and garden: ecofeminism would bury women, not praise them Page 14 Where the profits lie: the dematerialised economy of virtual sex Page 14 In praise of idleness: there’s no virtue in unending labour Page 16