The fate of 26 Egyptian shipyard workers facing trial by a military court remains in limbo.
In May, the workers, employed by the Alexandria Shipyard Company, were charged with inciting a strike. Eight remain in jail, 12 have so far managed to avoid arrest, and six were released on bail.
The military court trying the workers on October 18 again postponed a verdict in their case. If convicted the workers could be sentenced for up to three years in prison.
The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, an Egyptian workers center, is urging people to support the jailed workers by signing and sending an electronic message of solidarity.
The Alexandria Shipyard, which builds and repairs ships for the Egyptian navy and for private companies, is owned by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense but is still considered a privately operated business.
In 2015, Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, an army general, announced a plan to expand and modernize the shipyard, but said that in order to do so, shipyard labor costs would need to be lowered.
A year later, the shipyard’s management announced that the workers’ allowances for the month of Ramadan would be cut.
Representatives of the workers and their union on May 23 tried to meet with management to discuss the announced pay cut but were rebuffed.
Frustrated by management’s intransigence and the worsening economic conditions in Egypt, the workers held a sit-in.
During the sit-in, workers formulated a list of demands that included a pay raise to keep up with the country’s rising cost of living, payment of past due profit-sharing bonuses that hadn’t been paid in four years, better access to health care, more company investment in equipment and repairs that would make their work safer, and re-opening parts of the shipyard that had been shut down.
In response, the company called in the military police who evicted those participating in the sit-in. The company then locked out the shipyard’s 2400 workers.
Twenty-six of the workers were ordered to appear before military prosecutors for interrogation. Fourteen who did were arrested and held in a military prison.
Supporters of the arrested workers argue that because the shipyard is considered a private business, it is illegal for the workers to be tried in military courts, which provide few rights for the accused.
The military court hearing the cases was supposed to issue a verdict on October 18, but for the fifth time since June postponed its verdict.
In October, five of those arrested were finally allowed to go free on bail after they signed letters of resignation from the shipyard.
“This is an exceptional trial against civilian workers,” said Mohamed Awwad, a defense lawyer to Mada Masr, an independent online newspaper. “Many of them were employed at the company before it came under the administration of the Ministry of Defense.”
The Ministry of Defense bought the Alexandria Shipyard in 2003 when the government began privatizing many of its public assets.
The ministry has extensive business interests other than the shipyard, including ten companies involved in a wide range of business activities such as construction and agriculture. The ministry also owns 25 factories that produce military and civilian equipment, military weapons, and consumer goods such as electronics and sports equipment.
Some of these factories are joint ventures with international private businesses.
According to Egypt Solidarity, a workers and human rights organization, the charges against the shipyard workers need to be seen as part of wider counterattack by the military “aimed at reversing the democratic gains of the 2011 Revolution” and implementing austerity programs.
The government appears to be proposing austerity programs in order to attract loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
In December, the World Bank agreed to lend Egypt $3 billion, and in August the IMF agreed to lend Egypt another $12 billion on condition that the government increase its foreign reserves by $6 billion.
The IMF and World Bank also want Egypt to implement a value added tax on commodities and reduce fuel subsidies that people receive.
According Egypt Solidarity, the only way to oppose the austerity programs and the attacks on democracy won by the 2011 revolution is through acts of solidarity.
“Unity and solidarity are our only weapons in confronting tyranny and exploitation,” reads a statement by Egypt Solidarity.