Workers: The Egyptian Army’s Next Target?

How the Egyptian authorities treat workers, and those working to defend their rights, is quickly becoming an important avenue of interrogation for anyone hoping to get behind the government’s rhetoric.

There are already worrying signs that workers and activists are under threat. Egypt since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsy has already seen strikes attacked, journalists killed, revolutions co-opted.

Haitham Mohamadeen, a human rights lawyer and leading member of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists (RevSoc), was arrested by the army on Thursday evening. He was en route to Suez where workers had requested his legal counsel. The circumstances of his arrest, and the charges against Haitham, remained largely unclear until his interrogation in an Emergency State Security court on Saturday afternoon. It then became apparent that Haitham’s detention was politically motivated.

An initial report had said Mohamadeen had been arrested after he refused to allow army troops to search his car and verbally assaulted a soldier. Fellow RevSoc member Hossam al-Hamlawy tweeted afterwards that Mohamadeen does not own a car.

Another report stated that Mohamadeen was in fact travelling on a bus to Suez. “Once his bus arrived at the military check point in Suez, he was called off the bus individually, suggesting that the arrest was targeted specifically at him,” a statement by Dublin-based rights NGO Frontline Defenders said.

Frontline Defenders corroborated this report with Haitham’s colleagues at Cairo’s El Nadeem Centre for Victims of Torture. The fact Haitham was apparently singled out for arrest therefore changes the nature of his detention significantly.

El Nadeem’s Aida Seif El-Dawla later said that she had spoken with Haitham shortly after his arrest on Thursday night. He said he had refused to let a soldier search his bag, which contained clients’ legal documents. Lawyers in Egypt cannot be searched unless by order from a prosecutor, something which had not been issued on Thursday.

“He told me that army forces stopped him at the checkpoint and took hold of his bag, which contained documents and legal records of his clients,” Aida told state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram. “He refused this action.”

Haitham was accused of verbally assaulting an army soldier while on duty, claims RevSoc has dismissed as “forged.” Aida later claimed this original charge was not mentioned on the legal documents used in Haitham’s case.

Instead he faced a litany of new, more creative charges. Among them, “leading and joining a secret organization called the Revolutionary Socialists, the purpose of which is to deny the authority of the state, assault citizens and damage social peace”; “Attempting to change the form of government by terrorist means” and “Establishing and leading the Revolutionary Socialists organization which agitates in favour [of] imposing a specific social class on the whole of society and overthrowing the social order of the state.”(A full list of the charges can be found here [link:].)

Haitham was released without bail late Saturday – the charges still stand. He has since said he does not expect this to go away. On returning to Cairo, the activist posted on Facebook: “I would like to thank all the revolutionaries and comrades in Egypt for their solidarity. All credit goes to you in the liberation of all those arbitrarily detained.”

“I am confident that oppression did not and will not terrorize us,” he added.

It is significant this all took place in Suez. The canal city has become a symbol of the uncertain position workers now hold in post-Morsi Egypt, not least after army and police forces came down on striking workers at Suez Steel last month. The subsequent clampdown, reportage of which has been comfortingly absent in many Egyptian newspapers, saw workers arrested and intimidated. Others have been threatened with re-arrest, despite a promise by Suez’s governor they would be freed. Recently, Haitham had represented some of these workers.

Earlier this week a government spokesman denied the stories about Suez. “What did you hear?” he asked during an interview at a ministry office in Nasr City. I told him about the arrests, intimidation and potential sackings. How “troublemakers” were marked out for sackings. “No,” he said. “This did not happen.”

Instead he explained that the crackdown had taken place because troublemakers had sought to escalate the situation after negotiations – attended by Lebanese owner Rafiq Daou, Manpower Minister Kamal Abu Eita and others – broke down. One worker tried to set himself on fire and the army moved in “only to save his life, not to escalate,” the spokesman claimed. Jano Charbel, a journalist who visited the area and spoke with Suez Steel workers afterwards, said no one interviewed mentioned any attempted self-immolation at the factory.

Reactions by the army suggest Egypt’s new regime sees workers, and organized labour, as a threat. Another recent strike at a ceramics factory in Mahalla – the Delta city seen as the home of working-class rebellion in Egypt – faced a similar fate to Suez. Activists, journalists and organizers have meanwhile been targeted, smeared and arrested.

On Saturday a list of 35 activists marked for investigations was released by the prosecutor general’s office. Wael Ghonim, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, April 6 Movement leader Ahmed Maher and liberal politician Amr Hamzawy were all named as having received foreign funding from the United States. Al-Ahram, quoting judicial sources, later reported the story was “altogether untrue.”

Rights activist and journalist Wael Abbas, himself on the list, told The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley this was a “test balloon” by the army-led government – a strategic leak aimed at gauging public opinion. “It’s a technique they’ve been using since the revolution,” he added.

Since 3 July, the army’s greatest weapon against the Muslim Brotherhood (other than the obvious) has been the enforcement of political process: constitution, law, roadmap. All three have been presented as irrefutable, vital elements in Egypt’s transition from ur-Islamist caliphate to secular, democratic state. This march of progress has been intermittently cheered on by elusive army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The alternative is chaos, he says. Democracy or terrorism, you decide.

This is the problem with the new scope of repression and intimidation, it’s done in the name of the law. Haitham Mohamadeen was doing his job when he was arrested. The officers who tried to search him did so without prosecutorial order, while Haitham was charged with leading a “secret organization” that anyone who knows a smidgeon about Egyptian politics knows is not all that much of a secret.

“This so-called underground organization is a 20-year-old movement in Egypt,” Aida Saif El Dawra argued on Sunday. “It has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a web-based membership format, a known leadership who have been hosted on several talk shows on TV and which has an office in Giza.”

It becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously the army and interim administration’s claims that it is acting in the name of the January 25 revolution. (Are they even bothering to say that with a straight face anymore?) It looks like mission creep. A government that claimed it was legitimate, mandated and ready to rule has begun targeting activists for representing workers who have exercised what should be – according to Egypt’s own laws – a legally enshrined right to strike.

Some hoped the appointment of Kamal Abu Eita, a Nasserist and trade unionist who formed Egypt’s first union outside of government control in 2008, as manpower minister meant Egyptian labour prospects would improve. But there is a long way to go.

Recently I spent an evening in a basement flat in Giza’s working-class Sakkiert Mekki neighbourhood, downing Twinkies and guava juice with a group of workers from factories across Cairo. Brought together with the help of Neama Ibrahim’s Serious Work Association (SWA), an Egyptian NGO that aims to defend women’s and workers’ rights, the five men presented a picture of working conditions that demonstrate s why work like Haitham’s can be so important.

Hassanine, who told me that the ceramics factory he had worked for for over 30 years was suffering after it was privatized under Mubarak, said workers had been talking about forming a trade union committee until over half the workforce were sacked in favour of machinery. The factory didn’t have the 50 people necessary for a committee anymore and that was that. Hani, employed in temporary, contract-less labour at a privately-owned workshop, said he suspected bosses had deliberately fired scores of workers when a similar initiative was raised. Again, not enough workers for a committee. No representation.

But the workers’ problems went beyond trade unions. Some laughed when I asked if political discussions had changed since the overthrow of Morsi. “We don’t talk about politics at work,” Hani smiled. “Word will get out. We’ll get fired.” Others said they could not file a complaint with their company because they’d end up being investigated, their pay delayed.

Ahmed, who distributes cigarettes for a state-owned tobacco manufacturer, signed a document which meant if his daily deliveries (worth between LE60,000-70,000) were robbed, he would have to reimburse the company himself. If he couldn’t, he’d go to prison. The company even asked for witnesses when Ahmed signed his particular contract, so that if he died, his family would still have to pay the bill.

Where would he get this kind of money from? “I’ll go to prison,” he quickly replied.

It’s not clear whether the Egyptian labour movement is equipped to deal with circumstances like this, old and new. With legislation enshrining the right to establish independent unions still in the pipeline – where it has been more or less lodged since Ahmed al-Borei first proposed it in spring 2011 – temporary labourers like Ahmed and Hani are beyond the reach of union representation. Sometimes they have to depend on lawyers and activists like Haitham when something goes wrong.

Borei resigned in November 2011 when the army refused to allow his legislation to pass. With Sisi’s armed forces back in power, Egypt could see a repeat.

The labour movement is increasingly divided after supporting the army-sponsored overthrow of Morsi. Cracks between it and the government, despite former Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation (EFITU) leader Kamal Abu Eita now heading the Manpower Ministry, are also growing. The Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) issued a damning statement last week condemning the government’s decision only to represent the state-sponsored union federation in a 50-member committee tasked with amending Egypt’s dormant constitution. ETUF meanwhile claims the ministry is interfering in its own union business after leader Gebaly al-Maraghy and two executive committee members were chucked over the weekend.

A lot has changed since the thousands of strikes and socio-economic protests up and down Egypt challenged Hosni Mubarak’s regime and helped create groundswell disobedience in the same way Kefaya, Kullena Khaled Said and activists across Egypt were doing. Workers helped break that fear of taking to the streets, something that can feel like a strange anachronism in post-revolutionary Egypt’s protest-worn politics.

But this isn’t just a labour issue. The message Haitham’s arrest gives out is that there are people in Egypt who have little or no rights and, if you try to fight for them, you might lose your rights too. It is increasingly difficult to take seriously whatever postures the Egyptian army takes about being “pro-revolution” or “guardians of the people” or whatever they call themselves in their next statement. It is increasingly difficult to rule out the notion that the ancien regime feloul are back.

A protest for Mohamadeen (and Ahmed Abu Deraa, a journalist currently detained in the Sinai on undisclosed charges) in downtown Cairo on Saturday was forced to move on after locals hijacked the demonstration with posters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “The army and the people are one hand!” they chanted. A soldier wearing a helmet at a jaunty angle mouthed the words to himself, smiling.

As well as targeted attacks by the authorities, Egypt’s activists and its labour movement will have to come to terms with the fact it is now facing an up-hill struggle against widely held popular support for Sisi and his interim government.

The past week in Egypt suggests activists and workers there could be next on the list. And that would mean more like Suez Steel, morel like Haitham Mohamadeen.

Tom Rollins is a journalist based in Cairo, focusing on the Egyptian labour movement, protest and Israel-Palestine.