Since the army-led takeover of the Egyptian state in July 1952, there have been four historic cases in which military courts tried civilian workers for protesting in demand of basic labor rights. Most recently, on Saturday a military trial began of 26 Alexandria Shipyard Company employees on charges of instigating strikes.
These four trials exemplify the extent of the military judiciary’s far-reaching arm over civilian workers, regardless of whether they are employed by army-owned industries or civilian facilities. In these cases, military tribunals have issued sentences including incarceration, suspended prison sentences and even the historic execution of two textile workers from the Nile Delta town of Kafr al-Dawwar in September 1952.
While that execution, which constituted the harshest verdict against civilian workers, happened nearly 64 years ago, the other three trials have taken place over the past six years alone, including cases against workers at the Helwan Engineering Industries Company in 2010, the Petrojet Company in 2011 and the Alexandria Shipyard Company in 2016.
The Alexandria Military Court held its first hearing in the trial of 26 civilian workers from the Alexandria Shipyard Company on June 18, and the defendants are due to return to court on June 21 on charges of instigating strikes and obstructing production and operations. The Alexandria Shipyard was originally established as a state-owned facility in the 1970s, but the Defense Ministry took it over in 2007.
The shipyard workers staged a sit-in late last month to demand payment of the national monthly minimum wage of LE1,200 per month, overdue profit-shares, annual Ramadan bonuses and health insurance coverage, along with the dismissal of the company’s chief administrator and the reoperation of the shipyard’s stalled production lines.
As of May 26, 13 of the workers were jailed, while the remaining 13 had not yet handed themselves in.
Military prosecutors are charging the protesters with violating Article 124 of Egypt’s Penal Code, which stipulates penalties of three months to one year in prison and/or fines of up to LE500 for civil servants who deliberately refrain from performing their duties at work. According to their lawyer, Mohamed Awad of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), the defendants will have the right to appeal the final verdict.
While a majority of the nearly 2,500 shipyard employees had conducted a sit-in at the Port of Alexandria on May 22 and 23, “they did not engage in any form of strike action, not even a partial strike or a slowdown” which could have obstructed or negatively affected operations, claims Awad.
Instead, work at the shipyard ground to a complete halt as a result of a lockout imposed by company authorities and military police on May 24, which remains in effect to this day, Awad says. “If anybody is obstructing the company’s operations, it is the company’s administration, which continues to lockout its workers,” he argues.
Article 204 of the 2014 Constitution stipulates that “civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that constitute a direct assault on military installations, the Armed Forces, its camps or all else under their authority … including military factories.”
Awad points out that given this constitutional provision, the shipyard workers do not belong in military court, as their non-violent actions did not constitute a work stoppage or a direct assault on the military’s interests.
The authorities are sending “a warning to all other companies [owned by the military] and their workers: ‘We can take similar actions against you if you think of protesting, or organizing for your demands’,” Awad claims.
“The rest of the shipyard workers are fearful,” the lawyer continues. “Many feel their livelihoods may be threatened, or that they may be referred to military trial for any future form of protest.”
Military police arrested five civilian workers from the state-managed Petrojet Company outside the Petroleum Ministry on June 1, 2011 when they staged a sizeable sit-in to demand full-time contracts and the reinstatement of fired coworkers.
On June 6, the five protesters became the first workers to stand military trial on charges of violating a law criminalizing labor strikes and sit-ins that was issued by the interim-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in April 2011, shortly after former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power.
SCAF’s decree, which was drafted to be enforced during a state of emergency, stipulates penalties of up to one year in prison and fines of up to LE500,000 for strikes or other actions that obstruct production or operations at either private or public-sector companies. The decree makes no mention referring civilians to military tribunals.
Operating under the general of authority of the Petroleum Ministry, Petrojet is a civilian facility with a civilian workforce, but its employees stood trial before the Nasr City Military Court.
ECESR lawyers who were involved in the defense say that military prosecutors charged the five workers with violating the SCAF decree, but also accused them of violating the Military Justice Code, which facilitated the extraordinary referral to military court.
Legally, however, the military court had no jurisdiction to try the workers, the ECESR lawyers claim.
Nonetheless, on June 29, 2011 the court issued a suspended one-year prison sentence for each of the protesters.
The sentences could be enforced if judicial authorities find the defendants have committed similar infractions since the verdict was issued, the lawyers explain. Further penalties could also be added to the initial sentence if the defendants are found to be repeat offenders.
In August 2010, a military court tried eight civilian workers from the army-owned Helwan Engineering Industries Company after they protested for improved workplace safety standards.
On August 3, hundreds of workers had demonstrated against repeated industrial accidents at the military factory, including the explosion of a gas cylinder that killed one worker and injured six others.
Military prosecutors jailed the protesting civilian workers and charged them with instigating strikes, obstructing production, industrial sabotage, assaulting a company official and disclosing military secrets.
The Nasr City Military Court held the first hearing on August 22. After a trial that lasted only eight days, on August 30 the court found five of the defendants guilty of damaging factory equipment, sentencing them to suspended prison sentences ranging from six months to a year and fining them LE1,000 each. The three other workers were found innocent of all charges. The court also acquitted all eight workers of the charges of striking and assaulting the factory manager.
Amnesty International condemned the trial, calling on Egypt to refrain from trying civilian workers before military tribunals. Instead, the “Egyptian authorities should do their utmost to improve working conditions and safety in the workplace,” Amnesty argued.
Egypt’s first military trial of civilian workers took place just three weeks after the army’s July 23, 1952 revolution. The ruling Free Officers movement deployed army units and riot police forces to quell protests staged by textile workers in Kafr al-Dawwar on August 13 of that year.
Workers at the privately owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company were engaged in partial strike actions to demand the dismissal of the company’s manager, the establishment of a local trade union and the reinstatement of fired coworkers.
Along with labor unrest within company, street protests and riots erupted outside the factory’s gates, along with acts of arson.
Media reports from the time indicate that an exchange of gunfire from disputed locations outside the textile company resulted in seven fatalities — including three members of the security forces and four local residents and workers — along with dozens of injuries.
Troops arrested 567 workers from the company, and military prosecutors charged 29 people with instigating strikes and rioting.
The first hearing was held on August 15. In just three days, the military tribunal issued its verdict. Of the 29 defendants, 13 were found guilty — 11 were sentenced to lengthy terms in prison, while Mostafa Khamis and Mohamed al-Baqari were sentenced to hang with no right of appeal, and very little in terms of the right to legal defense beyond a state-appointed defense lawyer.
In September, they were executed.
According to historians Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman in their book, Workers on the Nile, Khamis’s last words before he was hung on September 7, 1952 were, “I am wronged. I want a retrial.”