Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Police attempt to thwart labor protest in authorized area

Mada Masr

Security forces attempted to prevent a planned mass demonstration in an authorized area by civil service workers on Saturday.

Protesters called for the civil service law, issued in March by presidential decree, to be amended or annulled, until a parliament is formed to draft a new law.

Civil service workers claim current legislation negatively affects their incomes, and gives administrators sweeping powers. They say the government did not engage in any genuine consultation with public sector workers, civil servants or their unions in the process of drafting the decree.

The park is one of two designated areas in Cairo where protests can take place without prior police authorization, according to a decree by the governor of Cairo, although organizers are required to give prior notification of any action. The other is Car's Market in Nasr City.

Civil servants, particularly Tax Authority employees, have organized previous demonstrations against the civil service law. They gathered outside the Cabinet headquarters on July 27, at the Journalists Syndicate on August 10, and outside the Tax Authority headquarters on September 6. A similar protest planned for August 17 was denied authorization.

Civil servants and public sector employees were also denied access to Tahrir Square just one month after security forces secured celebrations to mark the inauguration of the new Suez Canal passageway. They were similarly denied permission to protest outside the Cabinet and Journalists Syndicate. The only location that was agreed upon for Saturday's demonstration was the walled garden, Fustat Park.

Protest organizer Wael Tawfiq told Mada Masr, "These designated protest sites are difficult to access, isolated from the streets and blocked-off from public view. It is an extension of the ban on street protests, and an attempt to isolate all protests from the public."

As protesters gathered outside Fustat Park in Cairo, police sealed off the main entrance and claimed maintenance works were taking place, although no such work was evident, according to Mada Masr reporters present.

The media spokesperson for Fustat Park, Randa al-Rawwas, confirmed that no renovations or maintenance work were being undertaken in the park.

She added that only 20 feddans (approx. 20 acres) were allocated for Saturday's protest, not the whole park. Demonstrators were reportedly told they would have to disperse by 4 pm, as the park closes at this time.

Rawwas said that regime supporters would not be permitted entry to the park during the protest, to avoid potential clashes.

The Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) issued a statement saying that several buses transporting civil servants were stopped as they approached the park, with many participants from provinces outside Cairo returning home after being denied access.

An independent union organizer, employed by the Public Transport Authority, reported that buses transporting civil servants to Cairo were being stopped at checkpoints and some were turned back, along with supplies of water for protesters in the park.

However, after an hour of negotiation with police forces, around 500 protesters were permitted to enter the park through the back entrance, as police largely withdrew from the scene and plain-clothed regime supporters gathered at the rear entrance, prompting fears of an attack.

Civil service protest in Fustat park

Tawfiq told Mada Masr that, although regime supporters didn't enter the park, police did not prevent them from congregating outside, and some of them had weapons.

Protesters carried placards calling for the purging of the Tax Authority and bearing the name of the organizing committee "Tadamon" (Solidarity). They chanted "illegitimate" against the civil service law.

Tawfiq told Mada Masr, "Police banned protesters from accessing the park at several points. The regime also engaged in misinformation campaigns and used the threat of attack from locals to deter future protests."

In the lead up to Saturday's protest, organizers and demonstrators reported being subjected to a series of threats and misinformation from television personalities, as well as condemnation by the state-controlled trade union. The demonstration was largely planned by members of independent trade unions.

Media reports were also circulated claiming the protest had been cancelled.

Protest organizer Fatma Fouad says there were attempts to hijack the protest in a similar way to during the Battle of the Camel, which took place in Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011.

Two days ago, pro-government television anchor Ahmed Moussa threatened the civil servants planning to protest: “You will pay the price dearly if you join.”

He attempted to link the protest to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, who he described as "terrorists," during his show on the privately owned Sada al-Balad channel.

“There are orders from the terrorist Brotherhood that there must be bloodshed on this day, it doesn’t matter whose blood is shed, that of Brotherhood members, employees. I warn the populace that they have tents and intend on organizing a protest camp,” Moussa claimed, adding, “They should be arrested, prosecuted and put on trial, even referred to military trials.”

However, protest organizers denied that a sit-in was planned, insisting it was always intended as a one-day event.

Civil service protest at Fustat park

Moussa warned participants, who he argued are bent on toppling the state: “You will be grabbed by the neck. You think you’ll go back home? You won’t go home.”

He asserted: “It’s an issue of the state versus no state, and I know there is a strong state.”
Organizers and independent unions behind Saturday’s protest denied that they are seeking to topple the state or to threaten national security in any way.

The state-controlled trade union federation (ETUF) openly denounced the protest. ETUF President Gebali al-Maraghy claimed the federation “strongly condemns calls for demonstrations under the guise of protesting against the civil service law,” referring to the planned protest as being “suspect,” and attempting to ruin the government’s accomplishments.

The ETUF countered calls for the protest by calling on all civil servants and public sector employees to work an additional hour on Saturday, following the conclusion of their workday on Saturday.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, whose Cabinet resigned on Saturday ahead of the planned protest, warned against attempts to strike, or to obstruct state functions last week. Mehleb claimed such protests aim “to unsettle the political scene.”

Similarly, the Justice Ministry warned against strike action or absenteeism in light of Saturday’s planned mass protest. Civil servants employed under the auspices of the ministry were threatened with disciplinary measures if they did not attend work.

Tawfiq told Mada Masr: "We were practically prevented from protesting today due to all these restrictions and police harassment, yet, our message against this unjust law has been delivered. It is the first nail in the coffin of the civil service law. This is only the beginning."

He added that further protests are being planned and will be announced in the next few days.

*Photos by Siham Shawada

No comments: