Engineering a thaw
At the Engineers' Syndicate, the next few months will provide a crucial test of the government's willingness to keep its promises, reports Mona El-Nahhas
There are signs that the decade-long sequestration of the Engineers' Syndicate may finally be loosened. Irrigation Minister Mahmoud Abu Zeid -- in his constitutional capacity as the syndicate's supervisor -- recently said that syndicate elections would take place mid-year. The minister also set 13 February as the date for an emergency general assembly, the first since the syndicate was placed under judicial sequestration in 1995.
The assembly is expected to "commission the syndicate's legal office to file a lawsuit at the administrative court calling for a lifting of the sequestration," engineer Omar Abdella told Al-Ahram Weekly. The assembly will also set a date for elections, Abdella said. "We will continue pressuring the state until elections take place."
Groups of engineers affiliated to different political trends have been fighting the sequestration for years; most of the skirmishes have taken place in court. In December 2004, a court finally ruled in the engineers' favour, when it declared that a general assembly could be held as a preparatory step towards staging syndicate elections. Although the ruling did not stipulate that the sequestration should be lifted, engineers saw it as a partial victory. Contesting the ruling, however, were the irrigation minister and the syndicate's 93-year-old, government-appointed custodian Ahmed Moharram. Although their appeal was quashed, the minister -- Abu Zeid -- still refrained from carrying out the court's ruling regarding the assembly.
Just as a group of engineers set out to sue the minister and the custodian, Abu Zeid surprised them -- ahead of last September's presidential elections -- by asking the custodian to take the necessary steps towards holding an emergency general assembly. The assembly was originally scheduled for December 2005, before its postponement to February.
The minister's sudden change of heart was seen by some as further evidence of a rapprochement between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood group, which has a powerful presence within the syndicate. In fact, the Brotherhood's influence was the main reason for both the syndicate's sequestration in the first place, as well as the deliberate delays, over the years, when it came to holding elections.
If the state decides to delay again this time, many engineers vowed to escalate the confrontation. They recently threatened to stage a general work stoppage and declare a state of civil disobedience if the assembly meeting date was not respected. Another key question will be whether the government intends to keep its word about the electoral guarantees engineers submitted to judge Hanaa El-Mansi, who heads the committee in charge of supervising professional syndicate elections.
Should it take place as scheduled, the assembly plans to assign a temporary committee charge of the syndicate's affairs, after asking the custodians to submit their resignations. An attempt will also be made to alert the general prosecution about alleged budget infringements that have taken place over the past decade of sequestration. A preparatory conference held last month declared that "those responsible for wasting the syndicate's money" had to be questioned.
The syndicate -- with over 300,000 members -- is one of Egypt's largest.