Syndicates: Loss of the MB’s last stronghold

The Muslim Brotherhood appears to be losing its grip on many of Egypt’s professional syndicates, which it has dominated for over two decades.

Most recently the Brotherhood was voted out of office in the Doctors Syndicate, issued a vote of no confidence in the Engineers Syndicate, while it is also facing petitions, campaigns and court cases to purge the boards of the Teachers Syndicate, along with a pending decision to withdraw confidence from a regional Farmers Syndicate.

According to Shereen Barakat, of the Brotherhood’s Doctors for Egypt bloc, these losses can be attributed to “the ruling regime and their mainstream media, which has frightened and led voters away from the [Islamist] current. They’ve distorted our image and portrayed us all as terrorists.”

Brotherhood representatives have been successfully elected to the boards of a number of professional associations for nearly 25 years, especially the syndicates of the doctors, engineers, pharmacists, dentists, veterinarians, teachers and lawyers, among others.

Furthermore, crackdowns on the Brotherhood and their Islamist allies by the interim government have reportedly led to the deaths of several physicians, an estimated 100 arrests of doctors affiliated to the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, and hundreds more seeking voluntary exile outside the country, according to Brotherhood sources in the Doctors Syndicate.

However, state crackdowns against the Brotherhood within professional syndicates date back several decades. The Mubarak regime imposed a host of restrictions on syndicates’ electoral and organizational rights with the aim of keeping the Brotherhood off their boards.

The professional syndicates law (officiall known as Law 100/1993 Guaranteeing Democracy in Professional Syndicates) imposed quorums on all syndicate elections in an attempt to keep the well-organized Brotherhood from sweeping elections with low turnout rates.

These restrictions resulted in the state’s sequestration of the Engineers Syndicate, a number of doctors branch syndicates and the Lawyers Syndicate in Cairo, which were dominated by the Brotherhood — although no such quorums or sequestration existed for any other elections or referendums in Egypt.

The professional syndicates law was scrapped in January 2011 when the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional. The Brotherhood was once again able to sweep a number of syndicate elections, and continued to do so until mid-2013.

The Brotherhood and their Islamist allies utilized professional syndicates to campaign and mobilize voters for the Brotherhood-drafted Constitution in late 2012. The Brotherhood-dominated syndicate boards were accused of politicizing professional syndicates for the sake of their political agenda.

“As a political current, the Brotherhood sought to involve itself in any social, popular or political organization in order to promote their brand of politics,” says Karam Saber, Director of the Land Center for Human Rights.

Saber adds that state-imposed political restrictions have pushed the Islamist group toward the white-collar professional syndicate movement. “The Brotherhood has historically been guided by its middle-class leadership. Their politics appeal primarily to the middle classes, not to the organized working classes or labor unions.”

Indeed, the Brotherhood had a negligible presence among blue-collar trade unions until President Mohamed Morsi briefly appointed Brotherhood member Khaled al-Azhari to preside over both the Ministry of Manpower and the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation. In his ministerial post, Azhari proposed a one-year ban on all strikes.

Until Morsi’s ouster on July 3, 2013, the Brotherhood openly denounced strikes and other industrial action. However, since their loss of power, the Brotherhood has started to condone, support and even partake in some strikes, particularly among the medical professions.

Doctors Syndicate

The Brotherhood and their electoral bloc Doctors for Egypt have come under heavy criticism for their apparent double standards regarding strikes.

The Brotherhood bloc openly called for strike action during the Doctors General Assembly meeting last month. Despite denouncing strikes when the Brotherhood-controlled Parliament, the presidency and Cabinet, Doctors for Egypt has partaken in two partial strikes this year on January 1 and 8.

Their blocs in the Pharmacists and Veterinarians Syndicates have also taken part in limited strike action this month. Such participation in strikes has convinced many doctors that the Brotherhood is now using strike action as a political pressure tool.

Barakat argues, “The syndicate is a professional association for all Egyptian doctors, not a political pressure tool. Regardless of our political tendencies, we should all strive to uphold the rights of Egyptian physicians through the Doctors Syndicate.”

Yet party politics have been, and apparently still are, an integral part of syndicate politics.

After being postponed for 19 years under the Mubarak regime, the Doctors Syndicate finally held its elections in 2011. The results of these elections, as with the previous elections, resulted in a Muslim Brotherhood majority among the Doctors General Syndicate and its branch syndicate boards.

However, midterm elections held on December 13, 2013, drastically reduced the number of Brotherhood representatives and their Doctors For Egypt Bloc on these boards. The winners were the candidates of the Independence Current — a coalition of liberals, centrists and left-leaning doctors — who formed a new majority.

“Beyond our losses in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria, we still fared well in a number of branch syndicates nationwide during these last mid-term elections,” Barakat comments. “Politicized petitions and sectarian campaigning from the church against our current contributed to our losses.”

“The army generals and Christian businessmen also bussed in pro-regime elements to vote against our current. This is the same thing that happened at the Engineers Syndicate during their general assembly,” the doctor adds.

Engineers Syndicate

The Engineers Syndicate convened an emergency general assembly meeting on January 17 to determine the fate of the Brotherhood-dominated syndicate boards.

With nearly 16,000 engineers casting their ballots, a vote of no confidence was issued against the syndicate boards, with around 56 percent of engineers voting to withdraw confidence from the Brotherhood’s leadership.

The minister of irrigation has since appointed caretaker committees to oversee the affairs of the Engineers General Syndicate board and the boards of regional branch syndicates until the next elections are to be held within 90 days.

The state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) quoted Minister Mohamed Abdel Motelleb as saying there would be no intervention into the syndicates’ affairs from the ministry. Abdel Motelleb added there would be no politicization and no state sequestration of the syndicate.

However, the minister’s rhetoric regarding the syndicate is clearly political. In a reference to the Brotherhood, MENA mentions Abdel Motelleb said that engineers have liberated themselves from those with bloodied hands.

The Engineers Freedom Committee had been active in demanding Morsi’s release since his ouster and detention by the military on July 3.

The board of the Engineers General Syndicate rested firmly in the hands of the Brotherhood’s electoral bloc since they won the syndicate’s 2011 elections.

In light of allegations of financial irregularities and mismanagement, the Engineers Syndicate had been under state sequestration since 1994. The general and branch syndicates were all under the custodianship of the Ministry of Irrigation and his caretaker committees.

Teachers Syndicate

Over the past three years, two independent syndicates have been established to challenge the Brotherhood’s domination of the Teachers Syndicate.

Moreover, since 2012 there have been a number of petitions and campaigns to impeach the Brotherhood-dominated syndicate boards across the country, especially after the Brotherhood openly stood against a nationwide teachers strike in September 2011.

Teachers Syndicate elections were held early that same month and the Brotherhood bloc won by a landslide. However, many teachers claimed there were electoral irregularities, violations and vote rigging.

Moving from petitions and impeachment campaigns, protesting teachers eventually filed a lawsuit demanding the dissolution of the Teachers Syndicate boards.

On January 26, the Administrative Court said that it does not have jurisdiction to rule on the dissolution of the Teachers Syndicate boards, referring the case to the Court of Cassation.

Farmers unions

The only agricultural professional association recognized by law prior to the 2011 uprising was the Syndicate of Agricultural Professions for agricultural engineers, machine operators and consultants. Since early this month, the Agricultural Professions branch syndicate in the Nile Delta City of Mansura has moved to vote against its Brotherhood-dominated board following allegations of financial mismanagement and biased party politics within the syndicate.

On the other hand, farmers unions emerged shortly after the January 25 uprising, and since then have mushroomed nationwide. There are now an estimated 10 farmers unions and federations across the country. In 2011, the Brotherhood claimed influence in one of these unions in the Nile Delta.

Yet over the past two months, Minister of Agriculture Ayman Farid Abul Hadid has been attempting to unify several of these farmers unions into a singular Federation of Farmers Unions.

According to Abdel Meguid al-Khouli, president of the Independent Farmers’ Union,  “the minister’s efforts constitute a non-democratic intervention into the affairs of farmers and their unions.”

“Farmers unions should determine their own organizational and membership regulations, so as not to allow feudalists, large farmers and landowners, or agricultural engineers and technicians into such unions,” he says.

“Without consulting us, Abul Hadid has appointed his own leadership from amongst his ‘yes men’ in an attempt to have them rule over all the farmers unions,” Khouli adds.  

This month, Abul Hadid appointed his own president to the Federation of Farmers Unions — Osama al-Gahsh.

MENA quoted Gahsh as saying, “We will stage farmers conferences and organize convoys to campaign for Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s nomination to the presidential elections.”

Khouli comments, “We all want a unified farmers union, one that is democratically chosen and independently organized. Not one that is controlled by any particular current, whether left or right, or by the state. We demand inclusive membership in this union for all Egyptian farmers.”

“The Brotherhood has sought to exploit religion in its organization and leadership. Yet there must be no distinction between Muslim or Christian farmers. We’re all in the same boat,” Khouli adds.

According to Saber, “the organizational rights of labor unions, professional syndicates, NGOs and all other civil society groups in Egypt will be determined according to the margins of freedoms and democracy in this country.”

“If democracy, human rights and liberties are upheld, then the organizational rights of civil society will flourish,” he says. “Otherwise, they will wither.”

Jano Charbel 

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