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For the love of state control?
How the Engineers Syndicate lost its moment of independence
Archive: Engineers Syndicate elections, 2016

Members of the Engineers Syndicate elected Hany Dahy as the new head of their syndicate on March 9, with the former transportation minister taking home 56 percent of the vote in the runoff election against the incumbent Tarek al-Nabrawi.

The mid-term elections for the syndicate, which serves as an important middle-class professional block and is divided between a General Engineers Syndicate Council and 24 regional subsydincate councils, took place over three weeks, starting on February 23. At the local level, half of the 14 seats in each council were up for reelection, in addition to the councils’ heads, as well as seven seats on each of the General Engineers Syndicate Council’s seven specialized divisions and 11 supplementary places on the general council. The seat at the helm of the overall syndicate was the final position to be settled.

Dahy and his electoral list, the state-supported Engineers for the Love of Egypt, dominated the elections, counting all 11 supplementary places on the general council, about half of the seats on region councils, and Dahy’s own election among their victories.

Nabrawi’s political backing, consolidated in the Independence Current, did secure majority representation in the seven specialized divisions and a third of the seats on subsyndicate councils.

However, the return of seeming state control in this electoral cycle represents a change in course from the fledgling independence the Engineers Syndicate enjoyed after the 2011 revolution, when the 17-year-long judicial guardianship that had been imposed in 1994 as the Muslim Brotherhood gained a strong influence on its board came to an end. In the period that followed, the syndicate managed to form a general assembly and hold elections, which were won by Muslim Brotherhood member Maged Khlousy and his newly established list. After Khlousy was ousted in 2014 when the general assembly decided to sack the entire syndicate’s board, Nabrawi was elected to the top spot with the tacit endorsement of the state, who chose not to field a candidate against him, and the Independence Current won the majority of the seats on the general syndicate’s council.

The syndicate has long provided services to an important sector of the middle class, granting it special importance in the eyes of the state as a space to secure loyalty. Several senior state officials have sat atop the Engineers Syndicate, including former Prime Minister Mostafa Khalil, businessman Osman Ahmed Osman, who was close to former presidents Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak and former Housing Minister Hasaballah al-Kafrawy.

In the 1970s, under the leadership of Osman, the syndicate expanded its activities to sectors that included banking and land acquisition. As the Muslim Brotherhood extended its power in the syndicate and was able to secure seats on its board in the 80s and 90s, however, these resources then fell into the hands of the group that represented a threat to the state. In response, the judicial branch established guardianship over the syndicate in 1994.

Diagnosing the reasons for the about-face, syndicate members point to circumstances beyond the state’s rekindled interest in this loyalty base, however. For many insiders, the results of this election are a sign that there is no longer a space for independent syndicates, as much as it is a product of missteps by the Independence Current in the management of syndicate politics.

Introducing the candidates

In the current elections, Nabrawi was listed as a representative of the Independence Current, which he co-founded alongside the Engineers Against Guardianship group. They worked for years to remove the judicial guardianship imposed on the syndicate. He did not, however, stand in the 2014 elections under the banner of the Independence Current. Instead, he was the leading candidate on the unified national list that ran against the Muslim Brotherhood’s list and the Amal list, which was formed by Mostafa Abu Zeid, head of the Irrigation Ministry’s mechanics and electricity department.

Said Abu Taleb, an engineer and independent syndicate member, believes that the state did not field an explicit candidate in the 2014 elections, preferring to support Nabrawi’s run against the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Negotiations took place to make sure that the state did not push any of its candidates to face Nabrawi,” Abu Taleb says. “The state ended up supporting Nabrawi, and his list had both pro-state and Independence Current candidates.”

Abu Taleb points to the syndicate’s current treasurer, Zeinab Afify, as an example. Afify stood in the current elections with the Engineers for the Love of Egypt list, despite being a candidate on Nabrawi’s list in 2014.

Dahy, on the other hand, has a different pedigree. The website of the Engineers for the Love of Egypt cites the new syndicate head’s accomplishments and former positions. He was a member on several administration boards and served as the chairperson of governmental companies, before finally assuming the chair of the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation for two years and heading the Ministry of Transport for one year.

On the site, Dahy states that he decided to take part in the elections in response to calls from engineers who were dissatisfied with the status quo, as well as from Ahmed Osman, Osman Ahmed Osman’s son and the current secretary of the syndicate, and Afify.

How the state supported the Engineers for the Love of Egypt coalition

Ghada Emad, a General Engineers Syndicate Council member and one of the candidates on the Independence Current list, says there has been obvious government support for the Engineers for the Love of Egypt list since the elections on March 3.

Emad says she observed Arab Contractors Company buses arriving at 9 am on election day in Cairo and Giza — the two governorates that boast 50 percent of the syndicate’s members — as well as buses from electricity companies and Petrojet, which continued to arrive throughout the day, transporting engineers working in these companies to Cairo Stadium where the elections were held.

In every bus, she says, there was a person with an attendance and departure sheet to keep track of voting.

“A person on every bus registered the arrival of engineers at the election site. He registered them once again after they cast their vote, at which point they were asked to show photos of their ballot on their smartphones,” she says.

She says that the Engineers for the Love of Egypt campaigning became “comic” at a certain point, as campaign members started playing nationalist songs like Boshret Kheir [A Good Omen] and Tislam Al-Ayady and using microphones outside the polling stations to guide voters to the name of the candidates on their list.  

Eman Allam, a candidate for the left-leaning Bena (Construction) list agrees with Emad. “There were some heads of departments present in the polling stations to assure the mobilization of the engineers, to the extent that some complained they were forced to vote for a particular list,” he says.

In his eyes, the Engineers for the Love of Egypt broke syndicate rules in its campaigning, using special advantages not afforded to other electoral lists. Instead, he says, “they mainly relied on the support of the power backing them.”

Dahy responded to these accusations in an interview with the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper. “This can’t be. How would I be capable of pressuring a cultured and politically aware engineer into anything? As for the state, it stands at an equal distance from both candidates,” he said. “Perhaps rumors are driven by the fact that members of my list also hold state posts? This shouldn’t prevent them from taking part in the syndicate. Dr. Mostafa Khalil, for example, was a minster and a syndicate member. The same applies to Hasaballah al-Kafrawy.”

Meanwhile, Hesham Abu Sena, the newly elected head of the Cairo regional syndicate council who ran on the Engineers for the Love of Egypt list, responded to accusations of using government resources for campaigning purposes in an interview with the privately owned Youm7 newspaper. “The rent of the hall in which the campaign’s conference took place was paid for via syndicate members’ subscriptions,” Abu Sena stated.

Engineers for the Love of Egypt list spokesperson Ibrahim Abu Areda also went on the offensive, issuing a statement  in which he accused Nabrawi of abusing “the resources of the syndicate, because he is the current head, to campaign for his list.”  

“Nabrawi uses the computers and the IT employees in the syndicate’s headquarters to send SMS messages calling on engineers to vote for him in the runoff,” Abu Areda said.

Why did the state campaign against Nabrawi?

The general performance of the Engineers Syndicate over the last four years makes it difficult to understand why the state would mobilize against Nabrawi. According to Independence Current members, the syndicate has not been involved in violent confrontations with state institutions similar, for example, to the confrontations of the Journalists Syndicate and Doctors Syndicate.

For Abu Taleb, the state’s actions are a sign that the government no longer accepts any form of independent syndicate action, no matter how narrow the margin of that independence. There were also indications that the state could not count on the former syndicate head’s loyalty, according to Abu Taleb.

“Three situations counted in Nabrawi’s favor, but they also indicated to the state that he is not a state loyalist: his individual position on the Tiran and Sanafir case, his support for the maintenance engineers in the electricity incident at Cairo International Airport, at a time when the engineers were accused of being Muslim Brotherhood members, and his formation of a legal aid committee to support detained engineers,” says Abu Taleb.

At a dinner organized by the Kafr al-Sheikh subsyndicate in June 2016, Nabrawi came out in support of those those contesting Egypt’s decision to cede control over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. “The islands of Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian,” he is quoted as saying during the dinner. He made it clear at the time, however, that this was a personal view and not the syndicate’s official position.

The syndicate also lent legal support to engineers who were referred to the prosecutor on accusations of “negligence and damaging public funds,”  after the power outage incident at Cairo International Airport last July. Nabrawi himself attended one of the trial sessions and defended the engineers in court. He also gave out temporary pensions to the families of the defendants during their detention, according to Emad.

Under Nabrawi’s guidance, the syndicate also formed a legal aid committee, which offered legal and material support to engineers held in detention for political cases, including those detained in protests against the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir.

In 2015, Nabrawi also expressed solidarity with the Pharmacists Syndicate, after it was brought under state guardianship. At the time, he announced that the Engineers Syndicate’s lawyer would attend the administrative court ruling session to express solidarity with the lawsuit filed to terminate the guardianship decision.

Emad also points to Nabrawi’s decision to support engineers working at the Irrigation Ministry who had demanded the syndicate’s mediation in resolving a dispute with the minister. The Engineers Syndicate hosted a demonstration for Irrigation Ministry engineers in February 2016, for which they had secured the approval of the Interior Ministry.

“Nevertheless, this incident is being used to claim that the Independence Current and Tarek al-Nabrawi are against the state,” Emad says.

The state has exacted punishments against Nabrawi for these stances, according to Abu Taleb, hindering several laws which would have improved bonuses, benefits and compensation for engineers, as well as amendments to the syndicate’s law (Law 66/174), which would have allowed it to expand its resources.

The Independence Current’s mistakes

Abu Taleb expected Dahy to secure the General Engineers Syndicate Council’s chief seat, not only because of the his institutional support, but also because of what he perceives as mistakes made by the Independence Current in recent years, which have decreased its popularity in the syndicate’s general assembly.

Abu Taleb says that evidence for the decline in popularity is clear in the Independence Current’s loss of seats on the Cairo and Alexandria subsyndicate councils, two of the councils that contain a significant proportion of the syndicate’s wider membership.

“The decline is a result of the lack of effective means to engage the general assembly, as well the failure to build power blocs for the Independence Current inside it,” Abu Taleb says. “These problems are faced by any group working in a professional syndicate, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood or with state backing.”

Allam expresses similar sentiments, adding that the Independence Current took up too many causes at the same time, from work on amending the syndicate law to trying to grant better financial benefits to engineers. “But it has not been able to secure tangible achievements,” she says.

Abu Talb and Allam agree on the existence of “mismanagement of the companies affiliated with the syndicate, as well as the budget of the syndicate itself, in addition to its failure to investigate a number of violations raised by members regarding the branch syndicates in Alexandria and Giza.”

“The Independence Current suffered from a lack of serious syndicate experience after being under supervision for 17 years. It was not able to confront this problem,” Allam says.

While Emad agrees with Allam, she says that this lack of experience is reason to limit criticism of the Independence Current.

“Most of the criticism comes from engineers who graduated after 2011. They did not experience the guardianship period, nor did they witness the state of the syndicate after years under state control,” she says.

The problems with syndicate-affiliated companies also extends beyond the Independence Current’s time in leadership, according to Emad. She points to the Mohandes al-Watania Company for Pasta Industry and Starches, whose operations have been halted for 10 years after it was seized by a bank for nonperforming loans.

Postponing the discussion and approval of the syndicate budget

The decision to postpone discussion of the 2017 budget to March 23 stoked controversy among engineers. The syndicate law stipulates that a general assembly must be convened in the first week of every March to discuss and approve the annual budget. The syndicate had scheduled the assembly for March 5, before Nabrawi decided to postpone.

Despite the official postponement, around 700 engineers insisted on the General Assembly session being held on time. They met at the theater in the syndicate’s main headquarters on Ramsis Street in Cairo in the absence of Nabrawi and General Secretariat Mohamed Khedr. They discussed and rejected the budget in the presence of Afify and Ahmed Osman, also choosing to reject the discretionary budget for 2018.

Nabrawi refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the general assembly’s decision, given his absence. He justified his decision to postpone the general assembly convention by arguing that the Central Auditing Authority (CAA) report was late to be submitted to the syndicate’s financial and legal affairs department. These bodies were thus delayed in preparing a response to the report to be presented to the general assembly.

Emad says that the CAA report was submitted to the syndicate on Sunday, March 4, which made it impossible to prepare a response before the general assembly. “There could have been another solution, where we could have gathered in the general assembly and voted for or against postponing it,” she says. “This could have been a burden on the engineers, however. Some of them travel from remote governorates to attend the assembly. To travel all the way and be met with a demand for postponement would have been taxing. This is what pushed Tarek al-Nabrawi to take the decision to postpone the session until all the documents are available for syndicate members to discuss the budget.”

Nabrawi’s opponents opposed the decision to postpone.

Engineers for the Love of Egypt spokesperson Momen Shafiq called on the members of the syndicate to gather and attend the general assembly, asserting that Nabrawi’s decision contravened the syndicate law.

Engineers affiliated with the coalition called for the General Engineers Syndicate Council to be referred to the prosecution on charges of wasting public funds, a charge which requires investigations by the prosecution, especially after a report by the CAA cited financial violations.”

The irregularities cited by the pro-state coalition refer to a deficit in the pension fund that exceeds LE167 million.

According to Emad, talking about a deficit is not quite accurate. “Yes,” she says, “there is, in fact, a deficit but it’s a temporary one. The syndicate funds housing projects from its pension funds, which creates a temporary deficit until all the units are sold and it pays back the sum.”

The decision to increase pension payments from LE400 to LE700 will cost the syndicate around LE1.7 billion each year, according to Emad. “This cost should have been covered by raising the value of the engineering stamp duty on various projects,” she says. “However, the decision to raise increase the stamp duty awaits Parliament’s approval.”

The syndicate does have enough assets to close its deficit, according to Emad, but she says it is not wise to sell the assets, as the deficit can be repaid using other resources.

Engineers for the Love of Egypt were not the only critics of the postponement of the general assembly, as Abu Taleb and Allam also voiced their disapproval. “The increase in pensions passed without an actuarial study, and the syndicate board decided to build a hospital for engineers in Badr City without a feasibility study. Additionally, some of the expenses in the budget were not clearly explained,” Allam says.

For Allam, the way that the Independence Current dealt with the budget was undemocratic, a fact that hurt its support.

Voting for Nabrawi to ‘prevent state-control over the syndicate’

Despite Abu Taleb and Allam’s differences with the Independence Current, both said they would vote for Nabrawi ahead of the election.

Abu Taleb says, “I will vote for Nabrawi, regardless of our disputes, because Dahy is very dangerous. He will enter into the syndicate and immediately close the door behind him. This is a man who did not make any effort to meet the engineers or introduce himself to them. That’s because he is certain of victory through other means.”

Before the election, Allam expressed a fear that a Engineers for the Love of Egypt victory would mean an end to the syndicate’s independence. “This is the reason that we, the members of the Construction list, will support Tarek al-Nabrawi despite our criticisms,” says Allam. “Because his presence means the possibility for change.”

Mostafa Mohie