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Protests and Labor Disputes at the Library of Alexandria


The December 17 burning of Egypt's oldest cultural institution, the Institut D'Egypte, dominated headlines in the West, but surprisingly little attention has been paid to the ongoing unrest at its largest—the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Protests erupted at the library-cum-cultural institution on October 26, 2011, amid a cocktail of concerns "ranging from contractual disputes among security staff to unsubstantiated concerns over the directorship's closeness with the ousted regime," former Bibliotheca senior advisor Layla Abdelhady told American Circus on January 12 in Alexandria. On the previous Sunday, the Library's director, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, was reportedly prevented by disgruntled employees from leaving his fifth-floor office until nine p.m. After the incident, he did not return to the Bibliotheca, and continued to manage his business at the library remotely for at least a week, per numerous staff reports. 

Since reopening in the wake of the revolution, the Bibliotheca has allegedly been the target of frequent threats over the last 2 months, with members of the security staff reporting that enhanced security details, staffed by military police, have secured the perimeter of the library nightly.  This message is consistent with an update sent for dissemination to friends and colleagues on December 21, 2011, in which Serageldin commented on the destruction at the Institut D'Egypte and comments on the possible threat facing the library:

There are rumors that other cultural icons are also being targeted, including the Egyptian Museum and possibly the Library of Alexandria. But these are only rumors in a particularly tense moment in Egypt’s transition… so I do not worry unduly about this at present, although I try to take all possible precautions, e.g. ensuring that added security is watching the building at night,  arranging for the location of a fire engine nearby should it be needed, etc.

The email message, which we have reproduced in full below, also provided some information on dialogue with protestors, and claims that "things have improved considerably" over the previous months. Serageldin concluded the email with the following message:

However, as I warned all my friends, the campaign in the press and the media to discredit me and the BA, vilifying both as corrupt legacies of the old regime, is both persistent and tenacious, and some have been trying hard to rig a corruption charge around me. 

Serageldin, who joined the Bibliotheca after a successful career at the World Bank,  survived the changing of the guard that accompanied Mubarak's ouster. Although as head of the institution he reported directly to the Egyptian president's office, Serageldin maintained an apolitical public image. Nonetheless, posters splayed around the entrance of the Library portray him as the 19th century ruler Khédive Ismail and demand his departure with slogans in Arabic and English. A counterprotest supporting Serageldin's directorship was reportedly held last month, although no artifacts from that event remain.

The protests at the Library initially erupted on 26 October due to contractual disputes linked to the status of employees hired before his tenure, among other mostly administrative issues, including the renewal of security staff contracts. Under Serageldin, the Bibliotheca's hiring policies were substantially reformed, with the implementation of above-average compensation packages paired with four-year contracts and performance targets. This regime, operating in lieu of the public sector's usual ironclad tenureships enjoyed by the millions staffing Egypt's byzantine bureaucracies, "provoked tensions with a small minority of pre-Serageldin hires (around 200, or 10% of the workforce) who had been employed under a less aggressive scheme but were immune from firing," Abdelhady said.

Dr. Serageldin's office did not respond to our requests for comment by press time.

MH

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From: IS [mailto:IS@bibalex.org] 

Sent: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 1:52 PM

To: [REDACTED]

Subject: UPDATE -- Events up to 20 December 2011 

Dear friends,

Allow me first of all to wish you all the very best for the season and the new year, may it bring you and your families and friends all the joy and happiness as well as health and prosperity.

I attach this latest update on the events in Egypt (very mixed impressions) and at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) where things are somewhat improving.

Sincerely,

Ismail Serageldin

Alexandria, 20 December 2011

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PLEASE SHARE THIS INFORMATION WITH CONCERNED FRIENDS.

Many friends have been sending me individual questions about the unfolding events in Egypt and at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA). In general, things are improving at the BA, albeit slowly, and Egypt has started a spectacular elections process but is still wracked by sporadic episodes of violence and extreme brutality (see below and attached).

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx   UPDATE   xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Events in Alexandria as of 20 12 2011 from Ismail Serageldin –

The Events in Egypt:

The Egyptian elections are progressing extremely calmly, better than anybody dared to hope for.  But the sporadic violence continues. It explodes into paroxysms of violence and brutality and then subsides. A few days ago, the Institut d’Egypte, the second oldest academy of science outside of Europe, after The American Philosophical Society, has been burned to the ground in the latest round of violence between the Military and the demonstrators.  It is a disaster. (see my Tweets on the subject – attached). Many books and manuscripts have been destroyed and the Academy Board of Directors (of which I am a member) is meeting to arrange for next steps.

There are rumors that other cultural icons are also being targeted, including the Egyptian Museum and possibly the Library of Alexandria. But these are only rumors in a particularly tense moment in Egypt’s transition… so I do not worry unduly about this at present, although I try to take all possible precautions, e.g. ensuring that added security is watching the building at night,  arranging for the location of a fire engine nearby should it be needed, etc.

On the overall political situation, the Generals remain strong.  They gain in credibility by the way the elections are unfolding in an orderly and peaceful and fair fashion, and lose by their unconvincing public pronouncements and the sporadic sequences of brutal violence that explode again and again.  But the Islamists are gaining every day in strength by the legitimacy of their big electoral triumphs, and by their demonstrated ability to mobilize many people …

The likelihood is more Islamist wins in the elections.  Also, an uneasy coexistence between the Military and the Islamists until there is a handover of power to an elected civilian power, of which the Islamists are going to be a very big part, whatever scenario you believe more probable.

But there are other forces in society: some revolutionary, some anarchic, some self-interested, and some serving various ideological visions, whether homegrown or imported.  There are also lots of thugs and hoodlums, and possibly rogue elements of Police and Military.  The situation is very fluid, the conditions volatile, even explosive, and the politics very murky.  This is a difficult transition for Egypt, and we can only hope that we do not spiral into chaos or stumble into the abyss of a new authoritarianism.  The risks are certainly there.

Back to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA):

As I explained in my last update, over the last six weeks, things have improved considerably:

·        Where we had 700-800 demonstrators closing down the Library, we now have about 40 that swell up to 70 occasionally and that attract passing people only for a few moments on their way into or out of the Library; 

·        Where many of the staff were sympathetic with the demonstrators even when they closed down the library, the majority of the staff now want the library open;

·        Where the library was closed, the Library is now open and receiving and serving the public;

·        Where the only demand was my resignation and that of the Directors, we are now addressing 18 specific demands that we negotiated and are currently implementing (see below); and, above all:

·        We avoided any violence.  No Police or Army interventions, no wounded demonstrators and not a stone thrown at the Library. 

But, as I also stated, all these results are still prone to reversals. Demonstrators still occasionally close the Library for a short period or close down the garage for a few hours.  The situation is very volatile, but we must continue on the path of non-violence and confronting anger and distrust with rationality and civil discourse.  We must continue to do real changes and to solve real problems.

What are the demands of the demonstrating Staff and how are we meeting them?

Initially during the outbreak of 26 October 2011, I had agreed to several items:

·        Transfer to civil service positions for those of the staff who so wish, with automatic renewal of contracts until such positions could be secured;

·        Departure of the two managers (and one advisor) who had recommended the catastrophic decision (renewing a particular group of ten staff for only 3-6 months rather than a full 4 years), the mere discussion of which sent out rumors that all staff would be renewed for 6 months instead of the 4 years initially agreed to, and that sparked the outbreak; 

After the decisions of the Council of Ministers and the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the BA on 3 November 2011, I negotiated through skillful mediators and agreed to a set of 11 demands and then a set of 7 demands (18 in all), that had been drafted by the demonstrators.  They are repetitive and not particularly well drafted, but they were their demands, and cover topics that I can agree to.  I acted on these demands and you can see by the attached report that we responded to almost all the demands (see Report on responses to staff demands 12 12 2011-- attached).  The report gives each of the demands and then the action taken.

We then formed two committees, each of which has a number of representatives of the staff, and these representatives were elected by the staff in an open process managed by the staff.  The committees are:

·        The Follow up Committee (see page 6 of the Report on responses to staff demands 12 12 2011 -- attached) to assess the manner in which the 18 demands are being implemented.

·        The Statutes Committee promised by the Board of Trustees in its statement of 3 November 2011, which will review the entire situation of the staff and the contracts and other issues and will propose important changes in the statutes of the BA (see the Announcement on The BoT-appointed Independent Committee to Review Employment Conditions in the Library of Alexandria – attached)

I would point out that the non-staff participants are among the most distinguished persons in Egypt.

The follow-up Committee has met on Saturday 17, and will meet again on Saturday 24 December. This has allowed the three outside members to familiarize themselves with the issues in the BA. On Saturday the 24th we hope to have the first meeting of the Statutes Committee right after the Second meeting of the Follow up committee.

Outlook:  

I expect that the situation in Egypt will stabilize somewhat after the elected parliament (lower chamber) can actually assemble.  The situation in the BA will stabilize hopefully in about a week and consolidate itself when the results of the Statutes Committee become more clear.  All that is around a month away: say 15-20 January 2012.

VERY IMPORTANT: Specific Questions and New dangers ahead:

However, as I warned all my friends, the campaign in the press and the media to discredit me and the BA, vilifying both as corrupt legacies of the old regime, is both persistent and tenacious, and some have been trying hard to rig a corruption charge around me.   Some have asked me about that issue, and others have asked me about other questions.  I have provided answers in the document entitled Specific Questions and Answers (attached). Truth will ultimately prevail. 

Ismail Serageldin

Alexandria, 20 December 2011

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Ismail Serageldin 

Director 

Library of Alexandria

Shatby 21526 

Alexandria, EGYPT 

Tel: +20-3-487 9993 or +20-3-487 9299

Fax: +20-3-483 0339 

www.bibalex.org

E-mail: is@bibalex.org

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/I_Serageldin

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