STRIKES, SIT-INS AND OCCUPATIONS IN EGYPT –as workers fight to scrap Mubarak laws

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Between 1st January 2011 and 31 December 2011 there were 335 labour protests in Egypt, said a report issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Manpower on Tuesday.

The sudden rise in workers’ actions followed decades of repression under former president Hosni Mubarak, who was thrown out of power by a popular movement in February 2011.

During the same period, the ministry received 4,460 individual and group complaints from workers.

The ministry said it helped settle 94 group disputes through collective negotiations and achieve reconciliation between workers and management.

It also claimed to have taken the necessary legal action in a number of other conflicts which were not specifically described.

According to the report, settlements reached by the ministry led to improved working conditions, in addition to financial benefits for workers.

It added that during this period 135 sit-ins were organised at workplaces in the public sector, while 123 sit-ins were organised in the private sector nationwide.

‘All of these cases were settled and the workers’ demands were affably achieved after business owners responded to the ministry’s intervention, either through direct negotiations or through mediation with the concerned parties,’ said the report.

• The New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report yesterday outlining priority areas for legislative and institutional reform in Egypt, saying that Mubarak-era laws, still in place, are holding back the movement for change.

‘The Road Ahead: A Human Rights Agenda for Egypt’s New Parliament’ says that Egypt’s transitional political leaders have failed to reform these laws. The ruling military has relied on them to arrest protesters and journalists and to try over 12,000 civilians before military courts, adding to the heavy abusive legacy that Egypt’s future civilian rulers will have to address.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said Egypt’s new political parties need to live up to the promises of the Egyptian uprising by ensuring that no government can ever again trample on the rights of the Egyptian people.

‘Mubarak’s laws were used to curb free expression and criticism of government, limit association and assembly, detain people indefinitely without charge, and shield an abusive police force from accountability’ she said.

The report sets out nine areas of Egyptian law that the newly elected parliament must urgently reform if the law is to become an instrument that protects Egyptians rights rather than represses them.

In particular, Human Rights Watch calls upon the new parliament to make urgent human rights reforms a top priority by:

• Lifting the state of emergency, repealing the Emergency Law, and revising the police law that allows Egyptian police wide latitude to shoot civilians including those who assemble in public and on the country’s borders;

• Amending the Code of Military Justice to restrict its jurisdiction to military offences perpetrated by military officers, and ending civilian trials before military courts;

• Reforming the laws that restrict freedom of expression, association, and assembly, rights that are essential to creating the political space for Egyptian political parties, civil society, activist groups, and the media to receive and share information and views, including controversial and political ones; and

• Amending the Penal Code’s definition of torture so that it accords with international law and covers all forms of physical and psychological abuse, and strengthening penalties for abuse by police officers so that the law will be an effective deterrent.

Egypt’s newly elected lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly, will sit for the first time on January 23, 2012, two days ahead of the first anniversary of the January 25 uprising that led to the overthrow of ex-President Hosni Mubarak.

On February 13, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued the first Constitutional Declaration stating that, ‘The SCAF will issue laws during the transitional period.’

But with the elections for the country’s new parliament now complete, a new body also will be able to pass laws. It is unclear, however, what the power and mandate of the new parliament will be vis-a-vis the SCAF.

Under SCAF leadership, excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings, torture, attacks on peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrests of bloggers and journalists have become commonplace and illustrate how little has changed, Human Rights Watch said.

The SCAF has justified many of these abuses by noting that they are authorised under existing laws.

Military prosecutors have sentenced or summoned dozens of activists and journalists for insulting the military or spreading false information.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee states categorically on Freedom of Expression, that parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.

By this standard, article 184 of the Egyptian penal code, which criminalises insulting the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council or any State Authority, or the Army or the Courts, is incompatible with international law and Egypt’s new parliament should amend it, along with other provisions that restrict speech.

In effect, the SCAF has continuously promised to lift the state of emergency for the past 30 years. But on September 10 the SCAF expanded its scope of application beyond its use under Mubarak.

The state security prosecutor has so far referred at least five cases to the Emergency State Security Courts, which do not provide the right to an appeal.

Both the Emergency Law and the Code of Military Justice allow for the trial of civilians before military courts, which violates the right to fair trial. Military courts have tried over 12,000 civilians in the past year.

The SCAF also has passed new laws under the state of emergency, such as Law 34 which criminalises and imposes financial penalties for strikes and demonstrations that obstruct public works.

Most recently, Egyptian ministers for international cooperation and justice justified a police and military raid on ten human rights and democracy organisations by citing the deeply flawed 2002 Associations Law, which restricts the formation and operation of independent associations and punishes them if they become ‘a nuisance’.

Despite the fact that the SCAF reformed the Political Parties law in March to allow for the establishment of new political parties and has allowed the establishment of over 100 new independent trade unions, there has been no movement to reform the Associations Law.

Egypt is party to a number of human rights treaties, yet the Egyptian authorities have so far failed to take these international obligations into account in drafting new laws or in striking down old laws.