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François PICARD

François PICARD
Host, The FRANCE 24 Debate

Forty minutes in Mahalla

Le 28-11-2011

“One square kilometre does not represent a nation of one million km²,” the tourism minister warned in response to Tahrir Square’s largest turnout since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. One personal anecdote last week proved him all too right.

Until last Thursday’s sexual assault on a France 3 television reporter, foreign journalists in Cairo and Alexandria had been enjoying the kind of unhindered working conditions unheard of before February. Under the old rules, any attempt to film even the most fluffy feature stories would entail run-ins with secret police at every street corner.

For two weeks, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces even tested the concept of using an army spokesperson. That proved short-lived, but it’s the thought that counts.

As the fresh occupation of Tahrir Square started to build, we set off for Mahalla, the Nile Delta city where protests in 2006 and 2008 served as a prelude to Egypt’s revolution.

Mahalla is home to the country’s largest state-owned textile factory, an important pillar of Egypt’s old cotton industry which employs 25,000 people. Labour leader Hussein (not his real name) told us of starting salaries of 700 Egyptian pounds a month (117 dollars) with an average pay of 2,000 a month (US$334).

“Because of bureaucracy, it’s hard to know who to ask for a raise,” Hussein told us.

Despite a heavy police and military presence, he claimed that thousands had rallied the night before on the main square. “The future looks tough but we’re not scared. Our strength is our solidarity.”

As soon as we got to the main square though and turned the camera on to record our interview with Hussein, a crowd gathered and a man in his 50s brandishing a newspaper started shouting for all to hear that we had no business being there
“Go back to Tahrir Square”, ordered the plain-clothed police official who sprang up within minutes. Twiddling the key-ring for his car-keys, he stuck around just to make sure we did.

“This happens all the time,” Hussein shrugged. “Don’t worry about me but you’d better go.”

Our labour leader spent the next hour in custody with questions over who we were, how we got in contact with him and what we wanted. No equipment was confiscated and we were not ourselves detained. Undoubtedly, the fresh wave of protests had made local authorities even edgier than usual but the lesson was clear: in this town, the old sheriff and his posse were still in charge.