State harassment of union leader
Sept. 8, 2009
Head of Egypt’s only independent labor union questioned and released
By Jano Charbel
Labor activist Kamal Abu Eita, head of Egypt’s only independent labor union, faces charges of disseminating false information and defaming the reputation of the country’s state-controlled union leaders.
Abu Eita who helped found the independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees (RETA) earlier this year, was summoned for questioning Tuesday morning at the Omraneya Prosecutor’s Office in Giza. With an estimated 50 union members protesting outside, he was released after about three hours.
The charges against Abu Eita stem from accusations leveled by Farouq Shehata, head of the state-controlled General Union for Banking and Insurance Employees. Abu Eita’s union was essentially formed to compete with Shehata’s union after the latter refused to support a national strike by the tax collectors in 2007, and Abu Eita claims that 37,000 of the 42,000 tax collectors under the state-run union have already switched sides.
Defense Lawyer Khaled Ali stated that his client has not been charged with violation of any law, but, "may be recalled for further questioning following the hearing of Farouq Shehata's testimony before the prosecution."
Shehata has argued that Abu Eita, in his criticisms of the state-controlled trade union structures violate Article 73 of Trade Union Law 35/1976.
This article stipulates a punishment of "imprisonment for a period of no more than six months and/or a fine not exceeding LE 100 for each member of the union secretariat who willfully provides incorrect information relating to the statutes, financial regulations, registers, books, funds or accounts of their union organization."
Abu Eita told Al-Masry Al-Youm, "I am willing to spend six months in prison for the sake of our union's freedom; this is a small price to pay for our independence and democracy." He added jokingly, "What I really fear is the steep LE100 fine (less than $US 20.)"
Regarding the claims leveled against him, Abu Eita stated, "I have resigned from the official trade union organization, and we have since established our own independent unions. I have not disseminated any false information about the official union or about our independent union."
He went on to say, "I do not wish to tarnish Egypt’s image abroad, in fact we are attempting to improve its image abroad. Through our efforts we are proving to the whole world that Egypt is capable of genuine trade unionism. In this sense I am proud of improving Egypt’s image."
*Photo by Hossam El-Hamalawy