Egyptian Crackdown Threatens Rights to Free Association, Expression

Egypt: End Campaign Against Labor Rights Group

The Egyptian government should reverse its order to close two offices of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS) and should cease harassing the organization, Human Rights Watch said today.

The organization offers legal aid to Egyptian factory workers, educates them as to their rights, and reports on labor-rights issues in the country. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has blamed the CTUWS for inciting widespread labor unrest around the country. Egyptian officials have ordered two branches of the CTUWS to close within the last two weeks.

“Closing the offices of a labor rights group won’t end labor unrest,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should be upholding legal commitments to Egyptian workers instead of seeking a scapegoat.”

On April 11, approximately 100 police officers arrived at the CTUWS office in the Nile Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra to deliver an administrative decision ordering its closure. This came just over a week after General al-Sharbini Hashish, head of the Local Council in the southern industrial town of Naga’ Hammidi, issued an administrative decision on March 29 ordering the closure of the CTUWS branch there on the grounds that it violated Egypt’s law on associations, though the order did not specify how.

Government action against the Naga’ Hammidi branch of the CTUWS began in mid-March, when officials from the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration called the center’s representatives in for questioning, saying they had orders to investigate the legality of the center’s operations. Days before Gen. Hashish issued the order to close the center, the local representative of the Ministry of Social Solidarity requested CTUWS representatives to come to the local office of the Interior Ministry’s office of State Security Investigations. They declined the invitation.

The government’s moves against the CTUWS come amid continuing labor unrest throughout Egypt. According to a March 2 story in the independent newspaper Al-Masri al-Youm, there were 222 sit-ins, strikes, and workers’ demonstrations in 2006. The largest was a public-sector textile workers’ strike at a factory in al-Mahalla al-Kubra in December 2006.

That strike came after the al-Mahalla office of the CTUWS helped inform textile workers of Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif’s March 3, 2006, decree that all public-sector textile workers’ year-end bonuses should henceforth be equal to two months’ salary, up as much as 500 percent from a flat, pre-tax bonus of 100 Egyptian pounds (US$18). Factory managers initially denied that the decree had been issued, saying that it was a nonbinding political promise. When representatives of the government-affiliated General Textile Worker’s Union failed to make good on their election promises to extract the increased bonus from the government, more than 20,000 workers at the Mahalla al-Kubra textile factory went on strike until the government offered a 45-day bonus.

Since then, thousands of workers have resigned from the General Textile Workers’ Union, saying the elections were fixed in favor of the government’s candidates, and more than 30,000 textile workers at other factories in the Delta have staged protests. Thousands of cement factory and railway workers, some of whom told reporters they were inspired by the Mahalla workers’ success, have staged protests ranging from slowdowns to strikes. Officials from the Ministry of Social Solidarity have blamed the CTUWS for the unrest on television talk shows and on the floor of the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament.

The CTUWS organized in 1990, not long after police in the Cairo industrial suburb of Helwan cracked down on an unsanctioned strike, killing one person, injuring 15, and arresting hundreds more. Because Egypt’s law on associations is highly restrictive, both in its terms and in its enforcement, the CTUWS has been registered as a civil company. Although in 2003 and 2004 the group sought to register as an association to obtain a license to monitor elections, it was denied due to legal prohibitions on associations engaging in pro-union or political activity. Human Rights Watch documented the continuing suppression of civil society organizations in Egypt in its 2005 report, “Margins of Repression: State Limits on Nongovernmental Organization Activism”.

The CTUWS office in Naga’ Hammidi, which opened in May 2005, was the most recently established and the furthest from Cairo. Rahma Rif’at, a lawyer for the CTUWS, described it as the only civil society organization in the town. The center reported widespread irregularities in the October 2006 union elections at the large, Italian-owned aluminum factory in Naga’ Hammidi, and elsewhere in Egypt. The Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) had indicated it would look to the elections as it evaluated the independence of the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, many of whose officers occupy senior positions in the ruling party. The Federation is applying for membership in the ITUC.

“Egypt should end its crackdown on the CTUWS and allow its branches to reopen,” Whitson said. “The campaign violates Egypt’s obligations under international law to uphold the rights to freedom of association, free assembly and expression. These rights need defenders like the CTUWS if they’re to be upheld in Egypt.”

Egypt is a state party to many international treaties that protect freedom of expression and the right of association, including the right of workers to organize freely.

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