Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2011
Issue No. 1041
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Anti- strike law effective?

The new law banning protests is raising many eyebrows, writes Shaden Shehab

Military personnel entered the campus of the Faculty of Mass Communication, Cairo University on 24 March to end an 18-day student strike demanding the dismissal of the faculty dean. When negotiations went nowhere electric batons were used to break up protests and four professors were detained. The event is unprecedented in the history of Egypt's first, and most prestigious, public university. Commentators were appalled by the first action taken following a new law banning protests that hamper productivity.

The timing of the law -- 24 March, a day on which the public was anticipating the unveiling of the promised constitutional declaration -- also raised eyebrows. Instead of the declaration the cabinet issued a draft law banning protests, strikes and sit-ins that "damage the economy". The penalty for protesters, or to anyone who calls for or incites such actions, is a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine up to LE500,000. The new law was then approved by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF).

The law will remain in force as long as emergency laws are in effect. The HCAF has promised that the state of emergency, in force since 1981, will end before parliamentary elections scheduled in September.

Observers have pointed to the irony of a transitional government that replaced one ousted for not respecting freedom of speech and assembly putting new restrictions on freedom of expression. Even Mubarak didn't issue such a law, they argue. Others, though, have claimed that the plethora of strikes afflicting Egypt threaten chaos. A political decision was awaited rather than a law banning protests.

"The timing of the law is very bad. Many people are complaining about the slow pace of the government in dealing with crucial issues," says Mustafa El-Sayed, a professor of political science. "Strikes are intended to stop work, that is how they function. Yet once again we seem to have a government intent on dealing with socio-economic issues as if they were security ones."

The law was adopted by the cabinet after demonstrations swept the nation following the ouster of Mubarak on 11 February demanding better wages, working conditions and the sacking of "corrupt" administrators. The 24 March also saw hundreds of policemen protesting in front of the Ministry of Interior's headquarters demanding better salaries. That protest ended in fire breaking out in the building though the blaze was quickly contained.

Few doubt that strikes have disrupted the economy, including Egypt's beleaguered tourist industry. The interim government is expected to meet the expectations of workers while facing a budget deficit and the possible shortage of essential food commodities in coming months. The cabinet argues that strikes must end and that it is unrealistic for the public to expect an end to all its travails overnight.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, who has barely completed a month in his post, insists the law does not restrict freedom of expression or the right to protest. Strikes, he said, constitute a "continued distraction" from the real task of rebuilding the country.

The law was not meant to outlaw peaceful demonstrations but is intended to prevent "counter-revolution" from hijacking Egypt.

"We are trying to protect the revolution," said Sharaf. "Let us put our hands together. We cannot protect the revolution without cooperation in pushing the wheel of production forward."

Minister of Justice Ahmed El-Guindi reiterated Sharaf's words, arguing that the anti-strike law doesn't ban protests and strikes, but with the proviso "as long as they do not disrupt work".

El-Guindi said he wants to "assure" Egyptians they still have the right to protest. He added that the ministry had noticed growing chaos during recent protests and appealed to young Egyptians to help abort those strikes "ignited by members of the old regime".

Human Rights Watch has stated that the law violates international laws on freedom of assembly and must be scrapped.

"This virtually blanket ban on strikes and demonstrations is a betrayal of the demands of Tahrir protesters for a free Egypt," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"Any genuine transition towards democracy must be based on respect for the basic rights of the people, including their right to demonstrate," she said in a statement demanding the immediate reversal of the ban.

The law had "overbroad and vague provisions" that did not meet "narrowly permitted grounds for limits on public assembly under international law". "It's quite shocking, really, that a transitional government meant to replace a government ousted for its failure to respect free speech and assembly is now itself putting new restrictions on free speech and assembly," Human Rights Watch concluded.

Egyptian Human Rights organisations and political groups have signed a statement condemning the law as undemocratic and a retreat from the revolution's values. The statement condemned the criminalisation of workers' strikes and added that such strikes were "a legitimate right, recognised within international agreements that should be respected by authorities".

The law has sparked a wave of industrial action by factory workers and activists. Tens of protesters gathered at the Press Syndicate on Sunday and marched through downtown Cairo until they reached the cabinet chanting slogans against the law and telling ministers "strikes are what brought you here".

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