More than 500 individuals and civil society groups signed petitions in solidarity with 26 civilian workers from Alexandria Shipyard Company who are currently standing trial before a military court.
The case has been ongoing since June 18. The workers, half of whom are being tried in absentia, face charges of instigating strikes and obstructing operations at the company. They deny the charges, claiming they weren’t involved in any strike action but rather staged a sit-in that did not halt production.
Military prosecutors have charged the workers with violating Article 124 of Egypt’s Penal Code, which stipulates penalties of three months to one year imprisonment and/or fines of up to LE500 for civil servants who deliberately refrain from performing their duties at work.
A verdict in the ongoing case was due to be issued on August 2, but was postponed to August 16.
During the sit-in, staged on May 22 and 23, workers demanded the payment of the national minimum wage (LE1,200 per month), overdue profit-shares, annual Ramadan bonuses, health insurance coverage and the dismissal of the company’s chief administrator, as well as the re-operation of the shipyard’s stalled production lines.
Despite the non-violent nature of their sit-in, military police were deployed to the Shipyard Company, where security forces have prevented nearly 2,500 shipyard workers from entering the premises since May 24, bringing almost all production to a halt.
Military conscripts were deployed to temporarily replace some of the civilian workers at the company, according to lawyer Mohamed Awad, who added that the lockdown is still being enforced despite promises the company would be operational again by August 1.
The company’s nearly 2,500 excluded workers, who are not on trial, have been paid their basic wages, but not the bonuses that usually supplement their incomes, as they didn’t work during the 70-day lockdown, according to Awad. These wages amount to less than the minimum wage.
One online petition, signed by over 330 individuals, calls on Egyptian authorities to end the use of military trials to punish civilian workers for standing up for their rights. The petition adds that Alexandria Military Court should “immediately halt this illegal persecution.”
Another email-based petition, circulated by labor activists, was signed by over 200 people and endorsed by 13 political groups. The petition cites Article 204 of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, which stipulates, “Civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that constitute a direct assault on military institutions, the Armed Forces, its camps or any other body under its jurisdiction… including military factories.”
The 13 groups who signed the petition include: The Bread and Freedom Party, the Karama Party, the Strong Egypt Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the National Partnership Current, the Popular Current, the Liberties Committee of the Journalists Syndicate, the Revolutionary Socialists, Youth for Justice and Freedom, the April 6 Youth Movement’s Democratic Front, Toward a Just Labor Law campaign, Workers Struggle Current, and the Independent General Union for Tourism Workers.
“Neither workers nor other civilians should stand trial before military courts, or any other form of exceptional courts,” the petition stated.
These petitions were preceded by a solidarity conference in Cairo on June 27, titled: Against Military Trials of Workers, which demanded that all charges be dropped and the case be referred to a civilian court.
Some parliamentarians also issued their own statements criticizing the trial, the latest in a number of military trials against civilian workers.
“Egypt is a state, not a military barracks,” Member of Parliament Haitham al-Hariry says, asserting that the trial “aims to intimidate and threaten workers,” and “Civilians should not stand trial before military courts, even if they are working under military administration.”
Officials from the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) have, however, issued statements supporting the military trial.
ETUF Vice President, Magdy al-Badawy told media outlets in late July that the trial of civilian workers before a military court is regular procedure. Badawy added that, since the company is administered by the Defense Ministry, its workers should be subject to the provisions of military laws.
Alexandria Shipyard Company was established as a state-owned enterprise in the 1960s, and has been owned and operated by Egypt’s Defense Ministry since 2007.
At least 18,000 civilians have stood trial before military tribunals since the popular uprising of January 25, 2011, according to rights activists.