Local road blockade challenges Egyptian election fraud

On Sunday, Egypt held parliamentary elections which are widely known to be neither free nor fair (denunciation by the Carnegie Endowment for international peace). The elections were a demonstration of the government’s plans in advance of the 2011 elections, when long-time president Hosni Mubarak may make way for his son to rise as a successor. Unlike the media frenzy over the selection of Kim Jong-Il’s son to receive a special title, little mainstream outrage has been directed at Mubarak’s machinations. Egypt remains under its third decade of emergency rule (which ban demonstrations and some opposition parties), and is the largest non-democratic recipient of United States’ foreign aid by far. It’s also the largest undemocratic country in the Middle East, helped to remain so by our tax dollars, and military and diplomatic support. It’s the clearest sign that the alleged US policy to support democracy in the region is a joke.

In the absence of outside support, people in Egypt have made a number of challenges to this situation. One of the latest was the mid-day peaceful uprising on Sunday by residents of Balteem and Hamoul against voter fraud. Their actions were in defense of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy (profile). Since 1995, three of Sabahy’s voters have been killed by Egyptian riot police, while he won office in 2000 and 2005.

Blogger Baheyya has an hour-by-hour account of local resistance (h/t to The Arabist). Here are some highlights:

8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps.

9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.

1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.

1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.

2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”

4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”

The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.

Ultimately, these efforts appear not to have saved the day. Instead it was the threat of further government violence that won. Al Ahram reported at 4:35 pm, “Police armored vehicles have stormed Balteem, in Kafr El-Sheikh, firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air.” Later, Sabahy himself convinced his supporters to stand down (again, the full day is here):

7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon.

Somewhat obnoxiously, a government spokesman claimed, “The [governing] party’s careful selection of its candidates was a factor in defeating big opposition names such as Hamdeen Sabahi.” Sabahy withdrew from the race, and made these comments later: “The rigging proves that the [governing] NDP wants no opposition in parliament. With the new parliament, we will see increased restrictions on freedom of expression, including new restrictions on the media.” Whatever the wisdom of backing down (and no one should be too eager to second guess such moves when lives are at stake), residents’ willingness to take their anger to the streets are remarkable under so much pressure.

p.s. Apparently, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would like another dictatorship in Iraq, according to advice he gave to US officials (Thanks, Wikileaks).

IDF kills 30-year-old nonviolent protester in Bil’in

The weapon used against Tristan Anderson, a high velocity tear gas round, has once again proved deadly on the West Bank. This time, on Friday, occupying Israeli soldiers attacked demonstrators, including Bassem Abu Rahme. According to demonstrators’ reports, “He participated in the weekly protest and was standing in the other side of the wall, and was shouting at the soldiers “we are in a nonviolent protest, there are kids and internationals” he couldn’t continue his scrim and was shot. He was transferred to Ramallah governmental hospital, but he was dead. The funeral will be tomorrow in the village of Bilin at 1:00 pm.”

The relative position of soldiers and protesters is clear from this photo: a recently wounded Bassem is in fluorescent yellow.

April 17, 2009: IDF fatally shoots Palestinian protester. Photo by Lazar Simeonov
April 17, 2009: IDF fatally shoots Palestinian protester. Photo by Lazar Simeonov

This was the predictable consequence of the flagrant repurposing of “less lethal” or “non-lethal” munitions to maim and kill at close range. See reporting by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Love for Tristan, Solidarity for Ni’lin Against the Wall

This past Friday afternoon, my friend and comrade Tristan Anderson was shot in the forehead by Israeli occupation forces at a demonstration against the wall they are building across the West Bank. The International Solidarity Movement reports,

Another resident from Ni’lin was shot in the leg with live ammunition. Four Ni’lin residents have been killed during demonstrations against the confiscation of their land.

Ahmed Mousa (10) was shot in the forehead with live ammunition on 29th July 2008.  The following day, Yousef Amira (17) was shot twice with rubber-coated steel bullets, leaving him brain dead.  He died a week later on 4 August 2008. Arafat Rateb Khawaje (22), was the third Ni’lin resident to be killed by Israeli forces.  He was shot in the back with live ammunition on 28 December 2008.  That same day, Mohammed Khawaje (20), was shot in the head with live ammunition, leaving him brain dead.  He died three days in a Ramallah hospital.

Residents in the village of Ni’lin have been demonstrating against the construction of the Apartheid Wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Ni’lin will lose approximately 2500 dunums of agricultural land when the construction of the Wall is completed. Ni’lin was 57,000 dunums in 1948, reduced to 33,000 dunums in 1967, currently is 10,000 dunums and will be 7,500 dunums after the construction of the Wall.

The campaign against the construction of an apartheid wall across the West Bank is a crucial part of changing the dynamics of occupation in Palestine. The wall is the greatest manifestation of the policies of confiscating land, turning the occupation into annexation, and maintaining a logic of social separation between Jews and non-Jews in the occupied West Bank. It is also the key place where international law, solidarity from around the world, Palestinian civil society cooperation, and nonviolent direct action are being experimented with as tools for liberation. It does not surprise me, but does make me proud that Tristan placed himself in this crucial location.

Gabrielle Silverman, an activist, eyewitness and Tristan’s girlfriend, described the scene:

We were at a demonstration against the wall, against the Israeli apartheid wall in the West Bank village of Ni’lin, which is about twenty-six kilometers west of Ramallah. I was very close to him when he was shot. I was only a few feet away. The demonstration had been going for several hours. It was wrapping up; it was almost over. Most people had already gone home.

We were standing on some grass nearby a village mosque, and Tristan was taking pictures. He likes to take pictures and post them on Indymedia, sometimes under assumed names. And he was taking pictures, and he was shot in the head with the extended range tear gas canister. He fell to—nothing was happening immediately around us, by the way, I should mention. No one was throwing rocks around us. Nothing was happening. We were standing there.

He fell to the ground, and immediately medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent responded, came running over. And more people came running over. It was very clear that he was—that there was a seriously injured person on the ground. The medics are impossible to mistake. They wear neon uniforms. They have bright yellow stretchers. The medics were working on him, were getting him onto the stretcher, and as we’re doing so, the army continues to tear gas all around us. As we’re carrying him off on the stretcher, there’s tear gas falling, tear gas canister after tear gas canister falling at our feet.

Finally, we get him to the ambulance. The ambulance is very good. The Palestinian medics were excellent. And we get into the ambulance. We drive in the ambulance to the checkpoint at the beginning of town, and we are stopped there at the checkpoint for about fifteen minutes. For about fifteen minutes, the army, the Israeli army, refuses to let us through, even though we have a critically injured person in the ambulance. And the reason why is because under no circumstances are Palestinian ambulances ever allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank. And so, with Tristan being critically injured and getting worse and worse and worse and worse and falling deeper into this abyss, the soldiers are holding us up and waiting—we had to wait there for an Israeli ambulance to come from who knows where and then transfer him into that ambulance. All of this is taking precious time.

Finally, we drive to the hospital in Tel Aviv. I should add also, once the Israeli ambulance did finally show up, there was a soldier who stood in the doorway smirking and wouldn’t move and wouldn’t let the ambulance through until finally another international activist grabbed this soldier and we slammed the door shut, and then the ambulance was first able to start moving towards the hospital. When he got to the hospital, they started doing surgeries on him. (Democracy Now!, March 16)

Solidarity demonstrations have been held in London and San Francisco. A demonstration will be held in New York on Friday. It will be at the Israeli consulate, 800 2nd Ave, 4:00pm – 6:00pm. More than 4,000 people have joined “Solidarity with Tristan Anderson” on Facebook.

Tristan has been transferred to intensive care and his condition remains serious.

Tristan is unconscious, anesthetized and artificially respirated, has
sustained life-threatening injuries to his brain (as well as to his
right eye), and is expected to undergo several operations in the
coming days.