CORK — On a December morning, as my plane pierces the ceiling of clouds and begins its descent toward the airport of Cork, my eyes are drawn to the flocks of sheep spread across the green fields below. It's hard to imagine but this seemingly rural backdrop in southern Ireland houses the European headquarters of Apple, one the most important American companies in the world.
Cork has made headlines in recent months. Last year, the European Commission ordered Apple to pay 13 billion euros in back taxes to Ireland based on their operations in Cork. Apple employs 6,000 people in the city, and created an estimated 2,500 related jobs. The Commission accused Ireland of illegally helping Apple with tax breaks and denounced Dublin's tax incentives policy.
Why did the Silicon Valley giant choose this city of 130,000, which is routinely hammered by rain, chilly temperatures — even in the summer — and a two-and-a-half hour drive from Dublin.
Brussels thinks the answer is obvious — tax evasion or so-called "fiscal optimization." But there's more to this city from where 3 million people emigrated to the New World in the 19th century. Work in Cork is flexible and the workforce is qualified. There are several nearby universities for Apple to tap into for new recruits. Cork, from where Apple manages all its operations outside of the U.S., therefore offers considerable advantages.
The Holly Hill campus rests on old fields, about 10 minutes by car from the city center. The first thing you notice once you've passed the security gate is the parking lot, which is massive like American shopping malls. At the other end of it, you find the entrance to an ultra-modern building that once used to hold a factory. Behind it, a vast construction site separates the campus from houses.
Apple employs a lot of young people — their average age is about 30 — from 96 different nationalities. *Brian, who joined the company in 2004, is head of logistics. He and his 90-member team are in charge of supplying retailers and Apple stores outside of the U.S. Before Apple releases a new product, he's only told about one aspect — the weight and size of the packaging. His job is to optimize the transport of boxes from factories to the stores where they'll be sold.
"Why do we do it all from Cork? First of all, because most of our transporters are pan-European," Brian explains. "So we have one person that negotiates for the whole of Europe... Also, we want to provide the same service for all clients across Europe."
"Being all together in the same place enables us to make economies of scale and to exchange information on different markets, where tastes often vary greatly," says Lilian, who leads a team of 110 people focused on retail operations.
The city of Cork, twinned with San Francisco since 1984, is Apple's biggest site after Cupertino, the California headquarters. Founder Steve Jobs picked it himself when he decided to expand the company internationally. When Apple established itself in Cork in October 1980, the company was only a start-up created four years earlier, and was just about to enter the stock market. This was its first computer production line outside of the U.S. There were 60 employees in 1980, 170 a year later.
Manufacturing for export was a tax-free activity in Ireland at the time, which explains why the company paid no tax, or almost no tax, until 1991. Then the law changed and Ireland granted Apple the infamous tax ruling the European Commission disapproves of.
The site expanded at first, then shrunk. Jobs, leading the company at a time the company was going through a rough patch, didn't hesitate to cut the local workforce from 2,000 to 600 people in 1998. It was Tim Cook, the current CEO, who was in charge of restructuring production. Mac computers gradually stopped being manufactured in Ireland and the operation was relocated to China. But in the 2000s, Apple bounced back, first with the iPod and later with the iPhone. It was a revival not just for the company, but also for this city.
The legacy of Steve Jobs can still be felt in how everything is centralized. Rather than letting each country decide for itself how to sell Apple products, he wanted to gather all teams in one place so institute the same procedures and make the same demands.
Cork is a way for the American company to be as close as possible to its European customers. Not far from the 1,000 AppleCare employees working from the old printed circuit factory are the 150 people whose job it is to test iPhone, iPad and iMac software, and to adapt them in some 30 languages.
"There are 650,000 words in macOS. But words are on average 30% longer in German than in Englishm and 40-45 % longer in Greek or Hungarian. So we have to reduce the messages in size," explains Dave, an employee who heads the team. Can an emoji be perceived as offensive in a certain market? It's up to Dave and his colleagues to remove it before the product goes on sale.
In an adjoining room, about 20 people test prototypes, especially new iMacs, under Neil's supervision. The idea is to take into account any European specificity since norms can vary from those in the U.S.
Surprisingly perhaps, there's still an iMac assembly plant in Cork. It's actually the only Apple factory in the world, all of the others being owned by subcontractors, including the one that recently opened in the U.S. to manufacture the MacBook Pro. Here, 360 people busy themselves around two lines that produce a total of 140 units per hour. Components come from China and workers assemble them for the European, Middle Eastern and African markets. Two teams work in shifts, each doing 12 hours three days in a row with four days off. And 65% of employees are assigned to quality testing.
Why Cork instead of China? Paul repeats that this helps to "adapt the software" within each product to local markets. Also, he adds, "because given the size of iMacs, assembling them in China and then shipping them from there to European consumers would cost a lot more..." To manufacture dreams, you sometimes have to be down-to-earth.
*Only first names of Apple employees were used
The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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