Closure of Upper Egypt NGO condemned

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CAIRO: A coalition of 37 civil society organizations has called on the governor of the Upper Egyptian province of Qena to re-open the offices of a workers rights organization which was closed by the city government of Nagaa Hammadi last week.

The local branch office of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) was closed on Thursday, March 29, after an order to shut down the group was issued by the Chairman of the City, General Al Sherbeeny Hasheesh.

A broad range of Egyptian civil society organizations have endorsed the call for solidarity with the CTUWS, including the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

According to a statement issued by the coalition, the closure of the Nagaa Hammadi office came at the end of a campaign of state harassment against the labor rights group.

“The issuance of this decision completes the series of administrative provocations against that branch throughout the last week, read the statement, “the latest of which was summoning the staff of the said branch to the police station where the Chief Officer told them that the branch must be shut down and that as a police officer he is mandated to implement the decision regardless of its validity or legality.

According to the CTUWS, the week before the shut-down its local staff in Nagaa Hamadi were summoned to meetings with both the director of the labor relations office of the Ministry of Manpower as well as the director of the social solidarity regional office of the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

Both directors said their offices were investigating the activities of the CTUWS, and told local staff they had been ordered to write a report on the organization by General Magdy Ayoub, the Governor of Qena.

The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services has complained of harassment since the government accused it of inciting disruptive strikes and protests in the Delta last December and January.

“The government has tried to lay all the blame on the CTUWS and say that we instigated it all, Kamal Abbas, the group’s leader, told The Daily Star Egypt.

“It’s an honor we can’t claim, although we would have loved it if this had been the case. But just because some of the strike leaders were either members of the Tagammu Party or the CTUWS or any other organization does not mean that these organizations were the ones that mobilized them for the strike.

The largest of those strikes took place at the Ghazl El Mahalla textile factory, where 27,000 workers protested against low pay, dangerous working conditions, and corruption within the state-dominated General Federation of Trade Unions, formed by President Nasser in 1957.

After the strike ended, Mahalla workers began an ongoing campaign to impeach their local union representatives. They have threatened to secede from the General Federation and form the country’s first independent union since 1957 if their impeachment drive fails.

If the Mahalla workers are successful in either impeaching their union or forming an independent one, the regime will be put on the defensive, says Joel Beinin, the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the American University in Cairo and an expert in Egyptian labor history.

“If the factory committee is impeached it implies that either there will be a new election within the framework of the General Federation, and of course if the textile workers can arrange that, then if the General Federation tries to impose an undemocratic solution on such a well-organized group of workers it will be very difficult; or they will become independent, says Beinin.

“Especially if the workers succeed in that locale, which is not only the largest industrial enterprise in Egypt, but also probably the largest industrial enterprise in the entire Middle East, then that is a very serious blow to the regime. If that happens they will have lost something very substantial and will set a very bad precedent for them.

According to Abbas, despite these high stakes the state has not suppressed this winter’s labor unrest as hard as it has in the past. But in the midst of an ongoing crackdown against opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the environment is still a dangerous one for organizing workers.

“The government hasn’t acted with the heavy-handedness that it was once infamous for, although I don’t rule out the chance that this might happen eventually, he said.

“There was talk last month in the Shura Council about the strikes, and members from the National Democratic Party were suggesting that the recent strikes were nothing but the Muslim Brotherhood’s general plan for civil disobedience in the country.

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