Professional Discord

Article excerpt

Islamic terrorism in Egypt is attracting increasing attention, particularly overseas when it involves attacks on foreign tourists. The country's Christian community feels threatened and the government is nervous. From Cairo, Scott Mattoon reports on a more insidious initiative of the Islamists - the gradual hijacking of Egypt's professional associations.

THEY WERE ONLY unsubstantiated reports in the Cairo's opposition press. The government was considering legislation to modify the syndicates' electoral laws, it was said. Too many of Egypt's professional unions had fallen to the fundamentalists, captured by the small but organised minority exploiting a majority's electoral apathy. The state would have to act.

"This is only a trial balloon," one prominent syndicate's secretary-general told The Middle East last December. "It was precipitated by the Muslim Brotherhood's recent takeover of the lawyers syndicate. The government only wants to know how the syndicates would react to the measures." Indeed, officials seem anxious to dispel concern over governmental interference in the fiercely independent professional unions.

"Any action rests with the professionals themselves, such as the lawyers and engineers, and not with the government," said President Hosni Mubarak at a press conference in December. "We are not worried by this matter."

But by mid-February, rumour had given way to proclamation. The Law on Guarantees of Democracy in Professional Syndicates was introduced to Egypt's People's Assembly on 16 February. It was passed after only six hours of debate, and ratified by President Mubarak the following morning. It was then challenged in the streets that same day, and in the courts one week later.

The new law was ostensibly designed to promote greater participation in Egypt's professional unions. A minimum 50% turnout is now required for any syndicate's elections to be valid. Second and third round voting drops to a 33% turnout. Failure to meet the required quorum by the third round would require the creation of a caretaker committee of Egypt's judiciary to manage the syndicate and hold new elections every six months until the legal minimum of ballots are cast.

Other provisions in the law are also designed to encourage greater electoral involvement. Elections will not be held on Fridays or legal holidays, so as to guarantee fewer absences due to weekend excursions. Syndicate members who abstain from voting will be fined. And any syndicate with a sizeable number of members will be allowed to conduct polls at the work place, rather than at the syndicate itself.

The law is not to be applied against any syndicate's standing executive committee or president. But it was clearly created to stem what many fear is a fundamentalist tide sweeping over Egypt's professional bodies.

Egypt's largest syndicates have fallen to the Muslim Brotherhood and more militant Islamists in recent years. The most dramatic instance was last September's Islamist takeover of the Bar Association (The Middle East, November 1992). It is assumed that the Islamists enjoy only a minimal support in the syndicates, and that greater electoral participation in syndicate elections will depose them from positions of power.

Since the passage of the law, the government has emphasised its disinterest in the legal process. Officials are keen to point out that the legislation was proposed to the People's Assembly by four members of the governing National Democratic party and one independent member of parliament. Few however, seem to accept the government's disclaimers.

The law's sudden appearance at the People's Assembly, the speed with which it passed through debate, and the president's immediate ratification was seen as evidence of the government's complicity. Some have speculated that the law was as much an effort to curb Egypt's opposition centres as it was to check the growing influence of fundamentalism in society. …