An interview with Asma Mohammed, 2012 Peace Award Recipient

Tear Gas Not Welcome Here:
An Interview With Asma Mohammed, 2012 Peace Award Recipient

The War Resisters League is proud to have chosen Asma Mohammed and the Suez Port Workers as the 47th recipient of our annual Peace Award. On November 26, 2011 Asma and her coworkers courageously refused to handle a shipment of 7.5 tons of tear gas exported from the U.S. to Egypt during the days of the Egyptian revolution.

What follows is a translated and edited interview with Asma conducted by WRL field organizer Ali Issa. WIN's print magazine excerpted this interview. What follows is the full version.

Ali Issa (AI): What is your name and where do you work?

Asma Mohammed (AM): My [full] name is Asma Mohammed Mohammed. I was born in Suez and have lived here ever since I was born. I didn’t even leave to go to University, my college was also in Suez. I work as a Customs officer in Suez, but the port is outside of the city proper, in Adabiya. The port that I work at is Adabiya Port.

AI: How would you say that you were politicized?

AM: [About] my politicization – my interaction with political or economic positions, and my dealing with them, or the general situation of the country – my Mom would have us sit and listen to the news, to learn what was happening. Interview/debate shows also helped us know how things were moving inside and outside of Egypt. My first [proper political] encounter was when Israel was shelling Gaza, and the siege of Gaza, and the [second] Palestinian intifada, while I was in college. So we started to get fired up in college. The killing of Mohammed al-Durra came to us with a very clear image – when the father was trying to protect his son, but they still shot him - so we got more and more fired up. That was my first political exposure and encounter. That you talk to your colleagues, or that security forces prevent you from protesting, or show any disapproval, about what was happening. “No, don’t speak.” “No, you can’t leave the campus with your march.” “Don’t talk about that issue.” So that was the beginning . . .

AI: How did you participate in the Jan. 25th Uprising?

AM: At first we didn’t know if it could be a revolution. We as youth said, if we march, maybe we could make people aware, just like Tunisia gave us the spark, or made us think about this [as a possibility.] So the calls started on Facebook. Medhat (my husband), especially encouraged us to follow with him, so we started asking: if we put out a call would people really respond? What was the mood on the street, would people keep going or not? So this day the 25th, we would see. And on that day people really did respond to the calls, even if they were not engaged with the internet, but they still heard and knew there were calls through the internet and facebook. So we started, and asked, will we finish the job? Medhat of course was always around, and I started participating by asking what was going on, asking whether people could do it or not? I would invite my colleagues at work to go out onto the street with the youth, and participate. On the 28th [we felt] we really would keep going. Especially since Suez – the first martyrs were from there Suez. So that’s what riled us up more: we’re going to keep going, there is hope, it could really be a revolution, and the regime could really go. And we did it. Thank God.

AI: Were you ever tear gassed?

AM: I’ve been gassed, but during other incidents. Not the first 18 days of the revolution. They used gas after the massacre at Port Said stadium. They used incredible amounts to spread people out. This is when I really inhaled the gas strongly. It was Feb 2nd, 2012 the day of the Port Said massacre, and the youth got worked up over the massacre and those that died, then security forces started to use gas on them. At that moment, they fired canisters right next to my feet. It was a terrific amount.

AI: Was it U.S. tear gas?

AM: Yes, it was U.S.-produced tear gas. There are no tear gas bombs other than U.S. ones. But that was [not the reason for] the stand I took, that I would refuse to handle them – [it was] the events in Mohamed Mahmoud, and the Council of Ministries. It was those events . . . Mohammed Mahmoud was Nov. 19th. And it was that that made me – and also Medhat was there, and he was telling me that the gas this time wasn’t like every time. It’s strength and effects on us wasn’t like Jan 28, 25, 26. No, it was stronger. His friends were hurt, they had to go to the hospital, and were in comas, and some had bouts of spasms. It was outrageous, [things like] the distance police fired from. And they ran out of gas in Egypt, so they went out to get more.

AI: Could you talk about the moments leading up to the shipment of tear gas you refused?

AM: We didn’t know before hand. It was my bosses, they had an idea that the shipment was coming, and that there had to be added security, and extra caution for its departure. Not to make a scene, because they didn’t want people to worry, or anyone to know about it.

And just by coincidence, we divide up jobs, so I got assigned that day to work that particular job. So by pure coincidence the director called me and said come over here so you can work on this shipment. So I said to him: “I’m sorry, I can’t work on this. Maybe one of the other colleagues could.” But the boss insisted that I’m responsible and that I should work on it. And from here the friction started: where he would say, “you have to do this”, and I would say “no, I refuse – because I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s pain or death.” With us [here in Egypt] – I mean you could actually do riot control calmly, but security here uses it in a way that’s wrong, that could kill people, which it did. There was a baby who died, in Dumyat, and he died. He was just sitting at home. So I said to myself, I am not going to cause anyone’s death. So the result was the friction: – ‘you have to – no I won’t.’ So my colleagues started standing (in solidarity) with me. Even though I wasn’t taking on a task, they were supposed to pick up the slack – they’re five. So in solidarity with me, or with the cause, they said no, we’re not going to work on it either. So that was now a problem, that there wasn’t one employee in the whole place that wanted to work on this shipment. To fill out its papers.

AI: How did the authorities react?

AM: The conflict was that the interior and military officers were standing there saying this shipment had to be completed, so the result was that it was our bosses that finished it. Even though it wasn’t their area of expertise. And that’s exactly what happened. They filled out the forms, etc. and the next day it was off after the forms were completed. But [the shipment] was also held for other procedural reasons, there were technical mistakes deep into the forms, so they finally got it sent out.

But later with other shipments we knew only after the fact. In our system you can know what items are being shipped in and out, but only later. We can know that there’s something, but we don’t know at the time. They come in without fanfare, in a normal way, and knowing that we as employees won’t process it, they find others to do it without our knowledge.

AI: So as a result of all this you all decided to form a union?

AM: Yes, we decided to form a union, because Egypt has signed international agreements on the freedom of unions, and the freedom to form unions, and people are fighting for their rights, and we as employees had no one that was defending our rights. If I was in a position like I was in, even if I was in the wrong, who would say I am standing with you until we can see your case resolved? For example I was taken in for questioning, so who would come with me when I stood for questioning like that? There was no one from the union. So we found that there was no one defending our rights, no one was going to give us our rights – whether at work, financially, or in the work environment itself, that it would be a positive environment for us – our right to speak. A lot of laws come to us, and they tell us, ‘they are going to be applied.’ So why don’t you take are opinion as “practitioners” (tanfeezee-een).

So we, my collegues and I decided to form the union, and ask other colleagues to join it. And that it would have a real presence. And then we starting to talk to our colleagues not just in the port of Suez, but also in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Nueba, all of Egypt’s ports. And really, nearly all of us have joined this union – on the level of all of Egypt’s provinces. We have a union.

AI: So returning to the tension with the authorities, how was it resolved?

AM: Of course, Medhat, as a journalist found out, and starting to talk about it. So from that . . . it was a media campaign that got it known. And just the way people are fighting for their rights here, we should also press for freedom of expression – freedom of expression in that I can reject [doing] something. And since this “thing” (shipment) came with our money – the people’s money – it’s my right to say, alright you can use it, but use it to protect me not to kill me. So after the media campaign, the people – from above, from the army itself . . . the authorities, the SCAF (the supreme council of the armed forces) called and said “This shipment is going to move.” The Minister of Defense, very calmly was saying  this – it was Tantawi. It started to slow because there were obstacles. Then there were interrogations of people, and they were insistent on moving us to different jobs. Saying that, “You are no longer going to be at that place” as the least thing they could do to me. Even the minister contacted our bosses here, asking ‘Who is she? What ‘stand’ did she take? What’s her position, etc.’ And then our colleges in Cairo started to stand solidarity with us, talking with the ministers saying ‘Keep her at her job’

AI: Did they bother you at work?

AM: The people that came by were the army, not the police. People from the army came to talk to me, asking, who is she, taking pictures. But it wasn’t me that was bothered by the pictures, it was colleagues.

AI: What is the name if your union, and are you connected to other unions in Egypt?

AM: “The General Independent Union of Customs Workers”. We picked the name after groups outside of Suez joined us.

Through Kamal Abu Aita, we have joined the ‘Egyptian Independent Union Federation’ and are now a part of them. Our union president is a member of a committee in Cairo. And they nominated we to be in the women’s committee there in Cairo for the Federation. We interact with one another, and any workshops or conference they invite us to, we participate.

AI: How is this union different than others would you say?

AM: Customs are a very important institution in Egypt, and we as practitioners, want to have a role. That we have a say in the formation of laws that are set up. Because we defend the country. The entrances to the country are the customs, and we want to have a role, and something happens in the course of our work, that we think could harm the country, we want to be able to have the ability to speak to the authorities, and say “no, this here isn’t right.” Not that we’re imposing our opinion, but that they start to talk to us, and debate with us – to get different perspectives. Us as people on the ground, what’s appropriate, because the people that are putting decrees and laws are not practitioners as much as academics. He might have an idea, but when it comes to practice on the ground, maybe it’s not applicable. So we have the right to comment, and say this is appropriate or inappropriate. And we want to participate in the formation of laws and decisions.

AI: And are there any concrete plans to make that a reality?

AM: We can through the president of our port. Now, for example, he wants to create committee for suggestions, through which we can talk to our colleagues and present suggestions – that can be discussed. He really did meet with our colleagues from independent unions, and he’s trying to create the conditions for our participation, and know what we want. So this is a beginning, that he know we exist as an independent union and have started to ask us, what do you want? And we also are going to monitor – we have a committee for suggestions, and a committee for follow-up, to see if the ‘raeess al-Maslaha’(?) is listening to what we’re saying, and getting it to the ministers, or not. We have people that are going to watch on the ground whether what we’re suggesting is going forward or not.

AI: Turning to where this shipment came from, what are your thoughts on the U.S. role in this?

AM: First, let’s divide things between the American people and the government. We as Egyptian people addressing the American people, and it’s [excitement about] the ‘Arab Spring’ and that they want to know about it, they need to learn not through the media, because this media has a profound effect. Their media might not give the situation its proper size: they should learn about it through us. They may really begin to understand the condition of the Arab people, that they’re trying to improve their situation and move forward. It’s possible that they could begin to pressure their government, to start to deal with the Arab people through its people and not through its leaders. So that it’s not just the rulers, and the government and only their opinion.

The Arab people now want they themselves to be the decision makers. Just as the American people should be the decision makers and affect their government in the decisions it makes. We also want our rulers to know that we are the ones that are going to influence things. And they’re not going to understand that until outside governments begin to act according to that logic. What do peoples want? Not: what do governments want, and we can deal with one another through ‘offices’/embassies, and diplomats and chancellors. Rather: The people themselves. When people interact they start to understand, that there are people that can be affected by something that we do. The American people themselves. That they know us. That the people know what we as Arabs want. We’re not animals, we’re not extremists. No, we are people fighting for our rights, acting in a nonviolent way. Our revolution was nonviolent, so we did something without any hint of ‘terrorism.’ So they have to change their ideas about us, and start to get to know us. Who are we, how do those people think?
And the US government [should] not export – not by aid, or through our own money – death (for our youth) because all that died were youth.

Who are you sending these things to? You can’t send weapons to a butcher and say “Butchers now have the weapons. Oops, we didn’t mean for this to happen.”