Our guest author today, writing from Cairo, is Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS), who last year accepted the AFL-CIO’s 2009 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Egypt’s independent labor movement. The article is reprinted, with permission.
Now, I am proud to be Egyptian. I can sit in the evening among my children and grandchildren and tell them the story of the revolution; the story of boys and girls who refused the injustice and tyranny under which we have lived for years and years. I will tell them the story of Mohamed and Boulis [Peter]: the two boys who stood one against the other, each of whom hates and wants to destroy the other ... I will tell them how Boulis and Mohamed stood shoulder to shoulder confronting tyranny. I will tell them how Muslims protected churches against the violence of the regime’s thugs and how Christians guarded Muslims while they performed their prayers in Tahrir [Liberation] Square.
I will tell them that I have no explanation except that this infamous regime made us reveal our worst part. I will tell my children and grandchildren how thousands, or rather tens of thousands, including young and very beautiful girls demonstrated and that those beautiful girls were not harassed. I will tell them that young males used to listen to the speeches of young females and received orders from them to keep order during the sit-in.
Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own. This is the first of several posts on events in Egypt.
January 25, 2011 was the beginning of a peoples’ revolt in Egypt, a revolt whose outcome is still unclear. What is clear is that, after a smothering 30-year rule, Egyptians have broken the stifling collar of oppression to demonstrate for democracy and freedom. Also at issue are the corruption, high unemployment rates, inflation, and low minimum wages that impoverish even the hardest working, most educated people.
All of this has become fairly well known to Americans over recent days. What is far less known is the role of the small, repressed independent Egyptian labor movement in keeping Egyptian hopes and spirits alive. On January 30, in the middle of Tahrir Square, those workers and their representatives announced the formation of the new "Independent Egyptian Trade Union Federation."
Our guest authors today are Arch Puddington, (director of research) and David J. Kramer (executive director) of Freedom House, a bipartisan organization founded in 1941 by Wendell Willkie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others. It has worked tirelessly over the intervening decades to promote democratic values both at home and abroad. It is best known for its annual Freedom in the World survey, which analyzes the state of political freedom and civil liberties. In 2010, it published The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, a survey of union and workers rights, and a global map of labor rights, with support from the Albert Shanker Institute. Along with the Shanker Institute, Freedom House is also a cosponsor of DemocracyWeb, a resource for history, civics and comparative government education. Antonia Cortese, secretary treasurer of the Shanker Institute, also serves on the Freedom House Board of Trustees.
As we enter a new decade, the evidence is fast mounting that global freedom is under the most intense pressure it has faced in many years. According to the most recent report issued by Freedom House, 2010 marked the fifth consecutive year of a worldwide democracy recession. During that period, democracy has suffered setbacks in every region of the world. All of the political institutions that are crucial to democratic governance—including elections, press freedom, rule of law, minority rights—have suffered setbacks.
The palpable lack of confidence among democracies in their own system of government, driven in part by the global economic crisis that has affected market economies more severely than authoritarian ones, partly explains these trends. Recently, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, western pundits are raising questions about the efficacy of democratic systems.
In the "dog bites man" department, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a devastating report, which found that the Chinese had "failed to deliver" the human rights gains promised in its much-ballyhooed, first-ever "National Human Rights Action Plan" for 2009-10.
The report is timely, since Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington this week to discuss a wide variety of issues with President Obama and other U.S. leaders, including human rights. In terms of "promises made and promises broken," the U.S. will surely have China’s human rights record of the last two years in mind.
HRW reports that the years 2009-2010 witnessed a "rollback of key civil and political rights" in China, as the regime, among other actions, stepped up its practice of "enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, including in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as ‘black jails.’" It also:
"continued its practice of sentencing high-profile dissidents such as imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to lengthy prison terms on spurious state secrets or "subversion" charges;
expanded restrictions on media and internet freedom;
tightened controls on lawyers, human rights defenders, and nongovernmental organizations;
broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans."
This is a serious report. By taking China at its word as to the sincerity of its Human Rights Action Plan, HRW throws a lot of cold water on the theory that has been a critical part of U.S. China policy for nearly half a century: that engagement will lead to democratic change.
Press coverage of the latest PISA results over the past two months has almost been enough to make one want to crawl under the bed and hide. Over and over, we’ve been told that this is a “Sputnik moment," that the U.S. among the lowest performing nations in the world, and that we’re getting worse.
Thankfully, these claims are largely misleading. Insofar as we’re sure to hear them repeated often over the next few years—at least until the next set of international results come in — it makes sense to try to correct the record (also see here and here).
But, first, I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better. Nevertheless, international comparisons of any kind are very difficult, and if we don’t pay careful attention to what the data are really telling us, it will be more difficult to figure out how to respond appropriately.
This brings me to three basic points about the 2009 PISA results that we need to bear in mind.
The New Year brings sad word of the passing of Szeto Wah, celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teacher union leader. He died on January 2 at the age of 79.
Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong, and known by millions as "Uncle Wah," Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He was also a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004, and was the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement in Mainland China, which organized yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
While condolences flow in from all over the world, the political question of the day in Hong Kong is whether or not the Chinese authorities will allow exiled democracy activists back into Hong Kong to attend Szeto’s funeral. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen Square democracy leaders, said that, for him, the loss is personal: "Uncle Wah has always been my personal mentor and a leader in the democratic movement. The greatest achievement he has made has been to pass on his beliefs before he left us. The younger generation now remembers June 4," he said.
We at the Shanker Institute also feel this as a personal loss. We met Szeto in 2002, when he travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver the Institute’s Albert Shanker Lecture. In it, he credited Al Shanker with helping to shape his political and organizational perspective:
On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.
Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.
The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.
Public spending has been under relentless attack in the U.S. since before President Ronald Reagan first took office. The notion that “shrinking government” grows the economy, builds character and may even save our immortal souls is now one of the verities of our political discourse: public=bad; private=good. Indeed, it was the central belief uniting Tea Party members during this year’s campaign. Research and experience don’t support this conviction, but here we are.
The massive government spending that was deployed to push the economy back from the brink of depression has aggravated the always inflamed passions on this issue. With red lights flashing and sirens wailing, anti-spending Tea Party-backed politicians are now riding to Washington to slay – or at least rein in – the beast of government.
This is the narrative we live with.
There is an alternative narrative however, supported by years of research, that tells a different tale, one in which public spending is a positive good, for the economy and society. In this narrative, public spending rises naturally as societies prosper and voters – demanding better infrastructure and better public services for themselves and their families – understand the need to pay for the kind of society in which they want to live.
I once appeared on a panel on the state of press freedom with a man who had been a reporter with one of America’s prestigious news weeklies. He told of having been on assignment in the Middle East during an especially bloody terrorist atrocity, carried out by Hezbollah, that had killed a number of Americans. When the journalist asked a Hezbollah contact why his group had committed the atrocity, the response was: "You ignored us before we were terrorists; now, after this act, you take us seriously."
The message that the reporter took from these chilling words was not that the men who made the decisions for Hezbollah were ruthless murderers. Instead, he discovered a measure of wisdom in the terrorist’s rationalization: The Western democracies, and especially the United States, had for too long held sway over how events were interpreted, history was written, and the news was reported. He saw as altogether encouraging the emergence of differing narratives about world events, especially in combustible regions like the Middle East, where the voices and opinions of the victimized had been suppressed for too long.
What to think? The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) last week approved by "consensus" the creation of a "Special Rapporteur" on freedom of association and assembly. Special Rapporteurs are empowered to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems. In this instance, the Rapporteur will review members’ compliance with a UN resolution on these fundamental rights.
The first reaction to this development, of course, must be skepticism, leavened with deep suspicion. The UNHRC’s membership is usually heavily weighted toward nondemocratic states which routinely infringe on citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, including many nations with a majority Muslim population. As a result, the Council, formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has a long record of pursuing any and all human rights allegations against Israel with single-minded fury. So, when such a body, with such a disgraceful record, creates a Special Rapporteur on any subject, it necessarily sends a shiver down the spine.
Still, it is interesting. What makes the resolution intriguing is that Russia, China, Cuba, and Libya – who love to grandstand at the Council – opposed the Special Rapporteur and "disassociated themselves" from it, though they chose not to upset the "consensus" applecart by calling for a vote. Their objections make interesting reading. To sum up, they are all for freedom of assembly and association (sort of). They just don’t need some UN guy snooping around, raising questions, talking to people, and writing reports. Even worse, if they don't cooperate with the snooper, he’ll write a report about that.