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Dr Abdalla vs. The State
Zaid Hassan, 13 Feb 04


While blessed with political stability have we forgotten what it means to have the awesome power of the state ranged against us?

“This is my home. I was born here. I was lucky, in that I went and studied in Cambridge and got my doctorate there but few people have that chance. I’ve come back here because this is my community. I want others here to have that chance.”

Located within a section of Old Cairo known as Ain al Sera, Dr Ahmed Abdalla runs the Al-Jeel Centre. It sits at the meeting point of three traditional industrial districts; the tanning, pottery and car-mechanic districts. While mostly a residential area, a population explosion and shortage of housing has meant that all the original housing has been extended, brick by brick, wall by tottering wall. Most of the housing is ‘informal’ in that it had been built with no planning permission from the authorities. Originally maybe fifty thousand people lived there. Today it’s over one hundred thousand, many of them children who work in the three industries.

Al-Jeel was established in 1994. The purpose of the Centre, in the words of Dr Abdalla, also its founder, is to do “something impossible” -- it aims to be both an academic research centre for child labour issues but also to be an activist centre of sorts, to bring research down from its ivory tower in an effort to address issues of child labour in a very hands-on, very non-academic way.

What makes Dr. Abdalla somewhat of a strange fish, however, isn’t simply his very worthy work on child labour issues. Rather it's the fact that the charming Al-Jeel compound, with it’s bright bubbly children and colourful murals, located behind a police station, is home to one of the fiercest and most vocal critics of the Egyptian quasi-military regime -- he happens to be one of the world’s foremost researchers on child labour issues to boot.

There are several messages scrawled across the vast wall of his work.

As a dissident he teaches us the age old lesson to always and consistently speak out for what we believe in, no matter what the situation, no matter what the weather -- and most importantly that it’s possible. His work as an academic-activist teaches us the necessity of blurring the boundaries between action and reflection and stands as an inspiring example of praxis at a time when academia seems ever more intent on riding out the storm without getting its hands dirty. As a citizen he teaches us what is possible in a hostile civil climate if only we chose to try

Al-Jeel currently runs something called ‘The Child Club’ which provides young children (up to the age of sixteen) many of whom don’t have a hope in hell of getting to school, a place to go, to learn and to express themselves. Every single piece of art created by the children is either up on the walls of the centre or can be found in huge Japanese albums, specially procured for archival purposes. Each piece is carefully labelled with a date and a name. Dr Abdalla explains how the Child Club was founded.

“The establishment of the Child Club was on September 11 – the day that America was burning. Some were happy – I was very grim. We have awakened a giant which will do great harm to the Islamic world. My response was to do something constructive and we formally established the Child Club, which was our little symbolic contribution. The Child Club has significance. Everything is documented, everything is in albums.”

Dr. Abdalla has been a visiting professor and lecturer in a vast number of universities; ranging from all the Ivy League schools (Harvard, Princeton and others) as well as universities in Bulgaria, Germany, India, Japan and Sri Lanka, not to mention the University of Cairo and others in the Middle East. All very respectable.

Every culture has a thin red line. It determines the degree of freedom in that culture. Most law-abiding citizens simply accept the line as they would a geological feature, they wouldn’t dream of crossing it and choose to play firmly below it. As an academic star Dr Abdalla clearly had this choice. He reminds us that there are those few who make a career out of crossing this line. This is an art because if you spend too much time on the far side of the line you’re liable to end up in jail or simply dead -- a la Che Guevara.

The art comes from knowing how and when to poke a sharp stick through the line and clamber through – ignoring the shrill protests of those around you. The art lies in knowing how much time to spend on the far side, what flags to plant there and when to skip back across. It requires a particular sensibility; a sense of timing and judgement, rather like skipping back and forth across a busy train track.

Dr Abdalla is remarkable because he has carved himself a thirty year long career of crossing this line, a feat more remarkable due to the very real fact that the Egyptian regime, (mis)governing one of the most populous countries in the Middle East, has little tolerance for those crossing the red line.

Amnesty International's summary for Egypt in 2003 sets the context bluntly:

"At least 32 prisoners of conscience were sentenced to prison terms of up to seven years. At the end of 2002, 28 prisoners of conscience, including seven people imprisoned in previous years, remained held. Thousands of suspected supporters of banned Islamist groups, including possible prisoners of conscience, remained in detention without charge or trial; some had been held for years. Others were serving sentences imposed after grossly unfair trials before military courts. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees continued to be systematic. At least 48 people were sentenced to death and at least 17 were executed."

During this game of high stakes chicken with the Egyptian regime, Dr Abdalla has authored countless books and articles on child labour as well as the issue of democracy in the Middle East and in Egypt. These have been published in English, Arabic, French, German, Japanese and Spanish. He is one of the few authors to have written critically about the military regime in Egypt and lived to tell the tale.

“That’s when they came and had to decide if they wanted to imprison me. They didn’t.”

Those of us lucky to have grown up in relatively stable political climates have all but forgotten what it means to live in close proximity to the thin red line. We’ve forgotten what it means to challenge it and transgress it, to take a real honest to god risk for the sake of our political and cultural values. Recent events in the States concerning One Stolen Election have woken us up to the fact that the line is very real -- it never went away, we just stopped paying attention and when we did, well…welcome to the New World Order by Dubya.

As Dr Abdalla points out (in "Egypt before & after September 11, 2001"), regardless of who becomes the next President of Egypt, the political system is sick and requires a cure before it’s too late. His consistent message across the decades has been that “the curing doctor must be the Egyptian people themselves.”

There comes a time when we need to sharpen our sticks, take a deep breath and poke through. Those of us without a death-wish need to learn fast. We need to attune our senses to the vibrations along the line and in this learning lies hope.

As we left Al-Jeel, waving to the swarming children, I was struck by the fragility of it all. Looking at it from a certain angle, there was not a lot there. A small building, a middle-aged, grey haired man and a crowd of grubby child labourers. But there was much more than that. What was it that transformed that man into a challenger of a regime that ruled some seventy million people? What was it that transformed a group of child labourers into the most alive and excited bunch of young people I’d seen in a long time? Whatever it was, it was that something that we need more of -- and Al-Jeel was blessed with it in abundance.

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