NS Christmas campaign: Show your solidarity for Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman

The Egyptian activist was beaten by soldiers as she tried to come to a woman's aid during last year's protests in Tahrir Square.

It was the quest for freedom, justice and democracy which spurred thousands, like Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman to protest in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere across Egypt last year.

Determined to dwell in a country based on human rights and democracy, ordinary men and women gathered in Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of President Mubarak and for a new regime across Egypt. 

For many Egyptians, including Azza, the demise of President Mubarak provided a sense of relief and the promise of the beginning of a more just and fair society.

It is tragic then to see how the recent actions of current ruler, President Morsi have compelled thousands of Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square once again to reiterate demands for the freedoms for which they so bitterly fought last year.

Azza is one of the thousands who suffered at the hands of the security forces in Egypt last year. In spite of her own physical and emotional trauma she has returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to fight again.

On 17 December 2011 – exactly one year ago - Azza was brutally attacked by soldiers in Egypt. She was in Tahrir Square when she saw soldiers attacking another woman – stripping her of her clothes and beating her.

Immediately, Azza and a few other demonstrators rushed to the woman and tried to carry her away from the attacking soldiers.

Enraged, the soldiers turned their fury towards Azza. They beat her so viciously that she fell to the ground unconscious. Azza ended up with her skull fractured in two places, and she now suffers from severe memory loss as a result.  

She is still waiting for justice from the authorities for this violent attack.

Today Azza fights two battles. On one hand, Azza still demands justice and democracy for Egypt. On the other she is also fighting for justice in her own case.

As one of the cases featured in Amnesty’s Write for Rights Campaign, Azza’s case has already received attention from several quarters including Dame Vivienne Westwood. 

“Empathy is what makes us human,” Vivienne Westwood tell us in a new Amnesty film (see below).

She later told us, “The bravery shown by Azza Suleiman who dared to stand up for another woman who was being beaten, and paid a heavy price in doing so, is both awe-inspiring and humbling.”

Show your empathy by taking action for Azza at www.amnesty.org.uk/azza

Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman is still fighting for democracy in Egypt and also justice in her own case.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

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