Court Ruling Threatens Egypt’s Labor Movement

A recent ruling issued by the Supreme Administrative Court, outlawing labor strikes, has called into question the ability of Egyptian workers to defend their interests peacefully. The ruling, which forcibly retires striking employees, was criticized by labor and human rights activists for several reasons. First, it ignores article 15 in the Constitution, which states that “peaceful strikes are a right organized by the law,” as well as several other international treaties ratified by Egypt. Second, and more significantly, it makes the unprecedented claim that practicing this right is a violation of sharia law.

The April 28 ruling sent into retirement three government employees in the governorate of Menoufiya, who in mid June 2013, together with fourteen other colleagues, had declared a strike in protest of their working conditions. The Supreme Administrative Court issued lesser administrative penalties against the fourteen others. The court ruled that the employees were “public servants,” and that their strike resulted in depriving citizens of services they needed.

The court’s decision was seen as controversial because it based its ruling on Islamic law. The court ruled that going on strike “goes against Islamic teachings and the purposes of sharia law.” It also considered strikes by public servants “a crime,” and stated that, in Islamic law, “obeying orders from managers at work is a duty.” The court did concede that Egypt had signed international agreements that guarantee the rights of workers to go on strike, but added that the government’s approval of the International Convention on Social and Economic Rights “was conditional on its consistency with sharia law.”

Former Deputy Prime Minister, Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, wrote in a recent article published in Shorouk that he found the ruling hard to comprehend because of the line drawn by the court between strikes and sharia. “What is the relationship between sharia and an issue such as workers’ strikes? And who said that going on strike was against Islamic teachings?” he asked. Bahaa-Eldin, who is currently deputy president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said that this reasoning went contrary to the simple definition of a civilian state. “Courts should rule on the basis of the Constitution and the law only. Didn’t we protest the constitution that was drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood [in December 2012] because of their attempt to mix religion and state?” he added.  

Kamal Abbas, an independent union activist and member of the semi-governmental National Human Rights Council, told EgyptSource he found the ruling “shocking,” because of the use of religious reasoning. He added that it clearly violated the “Egyptian constitution and the basic principles of a civilian state.” The ruling will also weaken Egypt’s position in international labor organizations and increase criticism of its human rights record, Abbas said. He Abbas believes the ruling should also be seen within a wider context. “We are witnessing a major retreat in all the gains we made as workers following the January 25, 2011 Revolution. The government is bowing again to pressure from the business community and is issuing laws to serve their interests, while pushing workers to accept deteriorating living conditions, and even give up their right to peaceful strike,” he said.

Under former president Hosni Mubarak, the state’s relationship with workers was fraught. State Security maintained a tight grip on trade unions, ensuring that elected union leaders were loyal to the state, and were members of the now-defunct National Democratic Party. For years, only one trade union has been permitted for each industry—all gathered under the umbrella of the General Federation of Egypt Trade Unions (GFETU). After the January 25 Revolution, demands to establish independent syndicates emerged, but under former president Mohamed Morsi’s rule, little changed, as the Brotherhood-dominated parliament rejected a law allowing the establishment of independent trade unions. The issue has since remained on the backburner. Abbas says it is particularly alarming that the government has yet to issue this law, describing it as an intentional delay. They are “restoring the same old Mubarak policy of backing GFETU leaders alone,” he said.

The unprecedented ruling by the Administrative Court came only one day after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi marked Egypt’s annual Labor Day celebrations. This year, the celebrations were attended only by GFETU leaders and top government officials, and were held neither at a major state-owned factory, nor at a stadium as Mubarak had often done. Instead, the event was held at the Police Academy. At the end of the celebration, GFETU President Gebali al-Maraghi handed Sisi “a code of honor” on behalf of Egypt’s workers. It stated that, “Egypt’s workers reject going on strike, and confirm their commitment to social dialogue with the government and business owners as a mechanism to achieve social justice and stability.” Two days later when Maraghi was asked in an interview with privately-owned newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm, about the demands of Egypt’s workers, he replied: “Egypt workers have no demands. We will work on carrying out all the demands made by the president in his meeting with the workers, increasing production, and fighting terrorism.”

Government officials, among them Maraghi, have, however, refused to comment on the recent ruling itself. They repeat the same refrain often heard from government officials—that the judiciary is independent and they cannot interfere in court rulings.

The surprising ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court, the statements by the state-backed GFETU head, and the shelving of a law allowing the establishment of independent trade unions, all suggest a further narrowing of public freedoms in Egypt. The situation is also unlikely to change given the government’s “war against terror.” In his speech during the Labor Day celebrations, Sisi called on Egyptians to prioritize the “interests of the homeland above any other demands, by any faction, to give the government room to handle the immense challenges facing Egypt at the current stage.”

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Workers strike in Mahalla in February, 2014. (Ahram Online)