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Egyptian court stifles dissent by public employees

by Deena Gamil

Egypt’s High Administrative Court (HAC) has outlawed sit-ins by government employees at municipal facilities, declaring them illegal wildcat strikes.

In its 28 April decision, the court said public employees who participate in sit-ins at a work place would be retired for impeding municipal services.

The court also upheld a management decision to order compulsory retirement for three employees in the governorate of Menoufiya, for striking and stalling municipal operations where they work. It also postponed the promotion and pay rises of 14 others for striking and preventing their institution from serving the public.

The reasoning of the verdict, as stated by the court, is that a sit-in should not be treated as a protest, meeting or assembly but should be considered as an illegal strike by employees who disrupt services without officially declaring a full work-stoppage.

The court said its decision was based on an Islamic rule which puts avoiding harm before pursuing benefits. The case dates back to June 2013, when employees at a provincial service department in a village in Menoufiya arranged a sit-in to demand the dismissal of their boss.

Fatma Ramadan, a civil service trade union leader, told Equal Times that this verdict should be viewed as part of a larger effort against public employees in Egypt.

“There is a clear intention by the current regime to stop all kinds of protests organised by public employees. Recently, a new law that regulates the work of public employees was approved. The civil service law will be effective starting next July. It will basically threaten their job security, and thus could be used to exert more control on them,” Ramadan said.

 

“No strikes, more production and work”

Egypt has an estimated five million public employees, and according to a recent report by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, they came first in the number of protests in 2014, and the first quarter of 2015.

In 2014 there were 1,655 worker protests overall, 63 per cent of which were staged by government employees. In the first quarter of 2015, the report counted 276 protests, 69 per cent by public employees.

Most government employees are members of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) which is aligned to the government. Before this year’s May Day celebrations, the ETUF issued a "code of conduct" calling for "no strikes, more production and work."

Hence, Ramadan anticipates that the ETUF will oppose any protests organised by government employees, and that it will use the HAC verdict to intimidate them.

Nevertheless, Ramadan expects some resistance from the employees themselves to the verdict, especially with the implementation of the new civil service law which will reform hiring and wage practices in government institutions.

“Traditionally the government employees were very passive, but with the outbreak of the January revolution things changed, and they started to actively participate in strikes. The political atmosphere encouraged them to demand improvements in their working conditions,” Ramadan said.

She adds: “It also depends on the degree of repression the state is using to combat strikes and political opposition; if the degree of repression increases, this will make it harder for employees to protest.”

Khaled Aly, a prominent labour lawyer, explained to Equal Times that the verdict runs against national and international law.

“This verdict contradicts the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory,” he said, noting it includes workers’ right to strike.

“Furthermore, striking is a constitutional right in the 2012 and 2014 constitutions.”

According to Aly, employees who were forcibly retired will appeal, though the chances of winning such a case are estimated at only five per cent.

“There is no law governing or organising the right of government employees to strike. There is a need for a law that balances between the right to strike and the necessity of running public services,” Aly added.

So far there has been no reaction from the government employees to the verdict, yet it is too early to say that it will pass unchallenged.

“The implementation of the civil service law might be the spark to a protest wave against both the law and the verdict,” Ramadan said.

More than a dozen NGOs, however, have protested the decision, saying that a peaceful strike “is not a crime”.

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