Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

The battle in Seattle

By Aziza Sami

Five years after its establishment the World Trade Organisation (WTO) could hardly be more unpopular as scepticism over the benefits of free trade becomes rampant in the poor and developing nations, and pressure groups in advanced western countries become increasingly disillusioned.

Although dissent over a third round of multilateral trade liberalisation talks had been building up over the past few weeks, the violent storms of protest, mainly in the United States and western capitals, took many observers by surprise. The opening of what has been termed a "historic millennial" round was stalled for five hours as some 100,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Seattle.

"This conference will be a success, indeed it is doomed to succeed," promised WTO director-general Mike Moore, in an apology for the delayed start.

Protesters made their mark in several European capitals with police in London throwing tear gas canisters to disperse demonstrators.

On Tuesday, the first day of meetings, trade union and labour representatives marched through the streets of Seattle for what has been dubbed the "Carnival Against Capitalism". US labour organisations joined with environmentalists to contest the "hegemony of capitalism", joining hands with NGOs and human rights groups. The event has become a rallying point for almost every dissenting group, from Tibetan rights' supporters to religious groups demanding debt forgiveness for poor countries.

Protesters believe the WTO puts profits above human rights and environmental concerns, and that its policies reflect the commercial interests of multinational companies.

After the experience of two previous negotiating rounds developing nations this time are adamant that they will not be steam-rolled into making further concessions until the biases in the current global economic system in favour of advanced economies are corrected.

Seattle, a normally laid-back US city on the Pacific, has been turned into a global battle zone. Ten years ago, almost to the day, capitalism's final triumph was proclaimed as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The optimism was short-lived. As posters burn on a downtown street in Seattle, capital and labour, once again, face each other across the barricades (photo: AP)
According to Reuters, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had warned of a "backlash" from developing countries if the current round of trade talks did not give them a better deal.

The Egyptian delegation, headed by Minister of Economy and External Trade Youssef Boutros Ghali, is already networking with groups of developing countries, specifically African members of regional groupings such as the G15 and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Government sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egypt is not prepared to compromise on its interests. Egypt is one of the few African countries that maintains a permanent negotiating team at WTO headquarters in Geneva and, consequently, its position in the current round is expected to reflect, according to Ghali, the "minimum" that is acceptable to developing nations.

Cairo hosted an experts-level meeting of the G15 last week in which Secretary General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Rubens Ricupero recommended that the negotiating teams in Seattle adopt an agenda focusing on "trade in textiles, clothing and agriculture, as well as anti-dumping measures, sanitary and other technical barriers imposed by the developed nations. These are precisely the issues that, when tackled, will enable the developing countries to improve their trade balances."

Greater liberalisation will have no relevance to the developing countries, Ricupero said, if they do not have abundant infrastructure financing from the international community.

A similar view was expressed by World Bank president James Wolfensohn in an address to the WTO meeting, urging wealthy nations to eliminate trade barriers "for the sake of three billion people living on less than $2 a day".

Despite attempts by the US to portray "free trade" as the elixir for the new millennium -- reinforced by Washington's brokering success in the historic deal initiating China's admission to the WTO next year -- the absence of several European heads-of-state marred what the US hoped would be a successful round.

Meanwhile, negotiators in Seattle have so far failed to even agree on an agenda for a new round of talks. Agriculture has been the most contentious issue so far, with the US and the Australian-led Cairns group of major food exporters pushing for its inclusion on the agenda and the European Union (EU) and Japan, whose agricultural sectors are heavily protected, opposing its inclusion. Political tensions have also mounted, with the EU accusing the US over the past two weeks of trying to "rig the agenda" by imposing its own priorities.

National chauvinism peaked with the demonstration by representatives of the French farmers confederation, who walked the streets of Seattle passing out Roquefort cheese, banned by the US in retaliation for an earlier French ban on US hormone-treated beef.

On the first day, Britain announced that EU members would drop tariffs on imports from the world's poorest nations and show "greater flexibility" over agricultural subsidies. "All goods coming from the 49 least developed countries will have access to the EU without duties," said the UK representative.

Other issues threaten to add to the tensions. While western labour unions demand that workers' rights be addressed in the talks and call for the inclusion of labour standards in the new negotiating round, the position of the developing countries, including Egypt, is that the labour issue, specifically that of child labour, is a pretext to enforce protectionist measures. The labour question, Third World negotiators insist, ignores cultural differences and is being used as a pretext to place obstacles in the way of exports from developing countries.

Egypt's position, shared by many developing nations, is that the agricultural talks must take account of Third World interests by ensuring that increased liberalisation of trade in agricultural products be accompanied by a more stable compensation system for their own staple commodity import requirements.


Not quite a free for all
The WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle has attracted a record number of protesters. But is this simply a response to a now established hegemony, writes Thomas Gorguissian from Seattle
Civil society against the WTO Mohamed Sid-AhmedMohamed Sid-Ahmed argues that the battle now underway in Seattle between fifty thousand demonstrators and the World Trade Organisation involves issues far beyond world commerce
Who elected the WTO?
Will the 21st century see a handful of unelected and unaccountable global giants lord it over the rest of humanity? Or will justice prevail? Faiza Rady previews the Seattle 'Counter Summit'
Developing strategies
How can developing countries ensure they are not left out in the cold? Aziza Sami attended a meeting of the G15 group in Cairo just days before the WTO ministerial talks
Sleepless in Seattle
Negotiations may continue around the clock but the Egyptian delegation is determined they will not leave the table empty-handed, reports Niveen Wahish
China takes the plunge
After 13 years of failed negotiations, last week's deal between Beijing and Washington at last paves the way for China's admission to the World Trade Organisation. Sameh Naguib examines the implications

   Top of page
Front Page