Recent nationwide labor protests have found themselves confronted by extraordinary measures of repression as the country continues to weather economic struggles, austerity measures and rising inflation.
The Egyptian government has deployed security forces to quash any suggestion of labor action in the public or private sector, arresting workers and subsequently imposing exceptional legal measures to punish those detained.
Since 2016, the state has increasingly moved toward suppressing labor protests. According to an annual report published by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), there were 726 labor protests over workplace demands, claims of administrative mismanagement and corruption in 2016. These protests have particularly been driven by grievances over working conditions and demands for increased wages and bonuses in light of recent economic reform policies.
However, the ECESR report also noted that 2016 saw a decline in the total number of labor protests compared to 2015, in which there were 933 labor protests. In 2014, there were 1,609 labor protests, while, in 2013, there were 2,239.
The latest ECESR report states that the 726 labor protests in 2016 made up the majority of the 1,736 protests witnessed throughout the year. This report attributes the decrease in the total number of protests to restrictive legislation regulating the right to demonstrate and security crackdowns on dissent.
The state’s crackdown has prompted solidarity campaigns and petitions — in Egypt and abroad — demanding that the criminal charges against dozens of workers be dropped. Addressed to executive authorities, the petitions have been signed by hundreds of rights workers, labor unions and federations, denouncing the deployment of security forces to suppress protesting workers.
Alexandria Shipyard Company workers
“Undoubtedly, Egypt has been witnessing increased repression against workers protests since 2013,” says ECESR lawyer Mohamed Awwad.
According to a report issued by the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), security forces have forcibly dispersed seven labor protests over the past year, while 28 workers have been prosecuted and nine others are standing trial. The report adds that corporations have also dismissed 271 workers, union members and labor leaders due to their involvement in labor action.
The state’s initial response to a potential problem in the cog of military production — the Alexandria Shipyard Company has been managed by the Defense Ministry since 2007 — was particularly extreme, Awwad says, as the workers had not forced a work stoppage but had organized a sit-in on May 23 and 24, 2016. They were demanding an increase in salary to align with the national minimum wage, payment of overdue bonuses and for work at stalled production lines to recommence. Military police forces were deployed to the shipyard on May 24, where they surrounded the workers’ sit-in.
Of the Alexandria Shipyard Company’s 2,300 workers, some 1,200 have still not been allowed to recommence work with the company since its management imposed a lockout on May 24 and therefore cannot collect their full salary. Awwad says that 32 workers, including the 26 standing trial, remain barred from entering the company’s premises. The state has also moved to force 19 of the workers standing trial to tender their resignations in exchange for bail.
“There is increasing pressure from military officials upon the remaining workers to submit their resignations,” says Awwad.
Public Transport Authority workers
Another significant case centers on the ongoing trial of six Public Transport Authority (PTA) workers who had planned to strike on September 24, the first day of the academic year, but were arrested in dawn raids.
The public bus drivers had prepared to strike to demand increased bonuses and for the PTA to be placed under the authority of the Transportation Ministry.
The six PTA workers were jailed and are being prosecuted on charges of inciting unrest within a state institution, instigating protests against the state, obstructing public transport, forming a terrorist cell within the PTA and belonging to an outlawed organization, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
After being detained for over three months, four of the six workers were released on bail, while two remain jailed in Tora Prison pending investigations.
“My father was arrested at home,” says Seif, the son of jailed PTA worker Abdel Khaleq. “They came for him even though the strike never took place. There wasn’t even a protest. Why is my father in prison when strikes are a legitimate and legally stipulated right?”
IFFCO Oils Company
The latest crackdown took place in the Suez Governorate on January 2, when police forcefully dispersed a sit-in at the privately owned IFFCO Oils Company, a subsidiary of the Dubai-based IFFCO Group, arresting scores of workers, 21 of whom are now standing trial for “instigating a strike,” while two remain jailed pending investigations.
Security forces were deployed in response to a complaint filed at the local police station in which the company’s management accused the workers of striking and obstructing production, a charge which is increasingly being leveled against workers who embark on industrial action.
Seoud Omar, a Suez-based trade unionist and regional labor organizer, says these kinds of industrial action are staged over “‘bread and butter”’ issues and are typically apolitical in nature. “Labor strikes are not criminal actions,” he asserts. “There is no terrorism, political conspiracy, or plots against the ruling regime in these non-violent labor protests.”
While Omar has seen violence used to suppress labor movements in the past, the recent developments add a new dimension. “The use of violence on the part of Ministry of Interior is not new,” he says. “But the increased use of its police forces in so many different locations is.”
Omar argues that “police are clearly acting on behalf of business interests and against workers’ basic rights,” a fact, he argues, is clearly illustrated in the raid of the IFFCO Oils Company.
Ahmed Bakr, the secretary general of the Independent Union of IFFCO Employees, says that since January 2, 27 workers have been barred from entering the company, of which 21 are standing trial, including all nine elected members of the company’s trade union committee. Bakr himself is among those facing prosecution.
The initial court hearing before the Suez Criminal Court is scheduled for January 29, which is the same day that the court is expected to issue a verdict in the case. Bakr calls this unprecedented, asking why he and his co-workers are not being granted an opportunity to defend themselves in court. “It appears that the authorities are sending a message that they won’t tolerate strikes or any labor union organization in the Suez area.”
According to Bakr, the crackdown was not limited to the 12 workers arrested at the factory, as security forces arrested three others in dawn raids. He adds that several of his co-workers were interrogated by National Security Agency representatives.
“Are protests over bonuses now a threat to national security?” he asks. “We were arrested and are now on trial like criminals because we exercised our legally protected rights.”
Egyptian Fertilizers Company
Another notable security crackdown took place on December 5, when police raided the Egyptian Fertilizers Company (EFC) and Egyptian Basic Industries Corporation (EBIC), both of which are owned by business magnate Nassif Sawiris — Egypt’s richest man, worth an estimated $US6.1 billion.
Workers at both of Sawiris’ fertilizer companies were striking to demand higher wages in light of the flotation and devaluation of the Egyptian pound. The coordinated police raids resulted in the arrests of around 200 striking workers, who were released within hours. Two other EFC workers were taken to Attaqa Police Station and released the following day after paying LE 10,000 bail each. A total of six EFC workers — all of whom have been sacked in light of this strike — will appear before the Suez Criminal Court on January 28 on charges of “instigating a strike” and “halting production.”
Following the forced dispersal of these strikes, a half-page notice was published in the December 25 issue of the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper under the headline, “Message of thanks and appreciation from workers at EFC.” The notice asserted that, “all workers at the Egyptian Fertilizers Company express their utmost sorrow and pain regarding recent incidents,” a reference to the strike. “Workers consider themselves to be strategic partners with the owners of capital.”
Yasser al-Geneidy, who was arrested in the raid, points out that he wrote this apology together with a co-worker, under pressure from company administrators. “We were told to formulate this apology as a precondition to being reinstated,” he says.
A management official is said to have paid for this ad, which cost around LE133,000. “Many workers objected to the wording of the statement, but we did so in hopes of keeping our jobs,” according to Geneidy. “We have apologized but have not been reinstated, and now we are standing trial.”
Geneidy concludes, “Nassif [Sawiris] is much bigger and stronger than us. What can you do with a billionaire who is actually helping to fund the state? Who do you think they are going to side with?”
Omar predicts that rising inflation rates and stagnating wages, coupled with the state’s austerity measures and crackdown on workers’ protests, will result in significant labor unrest across Egypt.
“Take it from me,” Omar says. “After all these years in the labor movement, I can safely tell you that there will be a massive wave of worker protests affecting the country soon.”
*Seoud Omar passed away just a few days after Mada Masr conducted this interview with him.