"Since February 11, Tahrir has been taken to the factories,” says workers’ rights activist and blogger Hossam al-Hamalawy. “The barometer for progress has been [thought of as] how many people gather in Tahrir, but that’s not true. The labor strikes that have taken place after former president Hosni Mubarak’s fall are phase two of the revolution.”
Egypt has witnessed more than 120 different labor strikes since March this year, according to data from the Egyptian non-governmental organization (NGO) Awlad El Ard Association for Human Rights. This is in addition to over 490 sit-ins, demonstrations and protests. Experts estimate that roughly half a million workers participated in strikes in August and September alone.
The current wave of labor actions found its roots in December 2006, when the nation’s center of textile production in the industrial city of Mahalla El Kubra saw an outbreak of wildcat strikes. These protests in many ways helped pave the way for this year’s 18-day uprising and its perceived success after workers took to the streets during the final days of the revolution, ensuring Mubarak’s dethroning.
Labor agitation escalated in mid-September, most significantly when tens of thousands of teachers descended on downtown Cairo as part of a larger strike calling for increased wages. That same week, hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses and health technicians walked out of public hospitals, while transportation networks ground to a crawl when workers from 25 bus depots across Greater Cairo staged a partial strike.
“The organization and awareness of workers is in itself outstanding,” says labor activist and journalist Moustafa Basyouni. “I think in the future, these workers will lead the way to change.”
Egypt’s labor force is more than 25 million people and worker protests have affected all sectors of the economy, most occurring in the public sector. Acting government officials eventually negotiated with teachers and transport workers. However, other strikers have been completely ignored.
“It just depends on the power of the strike,” says Hamalawy. “Look at the aviation workers; you can’t mess with them. They brought Cairo to a halt.” When air traffic controllers went on partial strike in early October, hundreds of flights were delayed and travelers stranded, forcing officials to address their concerns.
In what human rights activists consider among the more troubling responses to the strikes, workers have been arrested and tried in military courts. Many cite the authorities’ failure to address workers’ concerns in a consistent manner as an obstruction to a return to normalcy, wreaking havoc on the economy.
The government’s projected 3.5 percent economic growth rate for 2011-2012 is unrealistic given the unstable political and social environment, according to Magda Kandil of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.
“We know that growth rate has slowed to 1.8 percent,” she says, “and I’m not confident at this point that it’s back on track. The private sector remains at a standstill and foreign investors are concerned [about financial risk], so they’ve scaled down involvement.”
“The military is not dealing well with the labor strike movement,” she adds, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the ruling junta that rose to power following Mubarak’s ousting.
“I think the frustration in the labor movement reflects [the fact] that many people are not happy,” says Kandil. “The best thing the ruling council can do is ensure a swift transition.” Parliamentary elections are slated to begin on November 28, but SCAF says it will retain power until a new president is elected, with this ballot now expected as late as 2013.
SCAF’s bludgeon of ‘justice’
Within the confines of a military prison, Khamis Mohammad was stripped and beaten brutally. “I was treated as an enemy of the country, as if I was the reason for the poor economy,” says the young Egyptian who is one of many arrested on charges of public assembly in violation of an anti-strike law.
After being plucked from a 200-man sit-in outside Cairo’s petroleum ministry, Mohammad remained in a dingy jail cell for weeks until he was given a one-year suspended sentence by a military — not civilian — court. Such trials are just one aspect of post-revolution governance by the ruling military council that human rights organizations claim undermine a smooth transition to democracy.
“Military trials are a way of intimidating the opposition and are counter-revolutionary by nature,” says Shahira Abu Leil of the human rights group No Military Trials for Civilians. “The revolution was about freedom of expression and free speech. And the military has tried people who were exercising these rights.”
“SCAF is doing this because it’s a way to put people back into a disciplined state,” she adds.
Some 12,000 Egyptians have appeared before military courts since the start of the revolution; roughly 8,000 remain in prison and 4,000 have been released, according to Abu Leil. Courts have acquitted 795 of the total number of cases, equating to a conviction rate of 93 percent, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a September 2011 report; 1,836 individuals, like Mohammad, were released on suspended sentences.
“The judges are in a clear hierarchy, so one of the concerns we’ve had with the military justice system is there have been cases of clear political instruction,” says Heba Morayef of HRW. “In your average [civilian] courts judges make independent decisions, but in these cases SCAF is making the decisions.”
The ruling council has held their ground on the judicial system refusing calls to end military tribunals, citing increased crime rates and the need to prosecute baltageya — or thugs — who have been on the prowl since the January uprising.
“Military trials are easy and efficient,” Morayef says. The average length of each trial is between twenty and forty minutes and civilians are sometimes tried and sentenced in groups. “But decisions are often not based on proper examination of the evidence,” she argues.
The number of civilians subjected to military tribunals since the ruling council rose to power on February 11 exceeds the total number of people tried this way under Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Those convicted range from laborers to activists, such as blogger Maikel Nabil who went on a hunger strike after being sentenced to three years in jail for “spreading false information” and “insulting the military establishment”.
In early October, seven demonstrators were plucked from a protest in the Nile Delta city of Shabin El Koom while demanding improved factory conditions and increased job stability for workers at the Turkish textile company, Mega Textile. Those arrested were given 15-day jail sentences while investigations took place, an act allowed under Egypt’s Emergency Law.
“This needs to be changed because the people are considered guilty until they’re proven innocent,” says Egyptian lawyer Mohammad Hassan as he stands among a group of workers in the city.
Egypt’s widely reviled Emergency Law has long been a hot-button issue for activists because it gives the military government the right to detain people without charge and criminalize mass gatherings. Emergency law was to expire at the end of September but was renewed following a violent attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
“The recent crackdown is on political protests, labor protests,” HRW’s Morayef says, “and from a freedom of assembly standpoint, that’s very serious.”
SCAF is refusing to repeal emergency law despite requests not only by enraged activists but also by the Obama administration. United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta raised concerns about the Emergency Law while visiting Egypt in October, and US President Barack Obama is urging Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to repeal the action and put an end to military trials. As part of the widening crackdown, SCAF has placed a firmer grip on civil society, restricted press freedoms and carried out arbitrary arrests — all characteristics of Mubarak’s regime.
The Egyptian cabinet announced in September that more than 30 Egyptian NGOs are being investigated for receiving foreign funding without being properly registered. Should these groups be found guilty of “treason”, Egypt’s human rights network could effectively be shut down.
Silencing the press
Additionally, the military council is censoring media following months of relative press freedom. In mid September, plainclothes police stormed the offices of Al Jazeera’s Mubasher Misr Channel , taking equipment and rouging up staff. Two weeks later, an edition of the weekly Sawt Al Umma and the daily Rose Al Youssef were prevented from going to print allegedly over controversial stories. In a subtler form of censorship, a writer at a popular Cairo-based magazine says management was told specifically not to write articles that criticize the military, or they would face punishment.
Most severely, military forces clashed with civilians on October 9 during a demonstration by Coptic Christians, leaving 24 dead and hundreds injured. The same evening, the US-funded Al Hurra television station was raided by military forces brandishing automatic weapons. Telephone, electricity and Internet services were also cut to one of Egypt’s leading newspapers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.