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Professional discord.

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.

Egypt's syndicates have traditionally played an important role as opposition platforms. More recently, the banned Muslim Brotherhood has seen union politics as one of the few venues through which it can participate openly in political life. By winning control of syndicates' executive committees, yet allowing a government-backed candidate to take the presidency, some kind of peripheral dialogue with the government is also maintained. For many, however, who is elected as president or secretary-general is now a secondary issue.

Several syndicates - particularly those dominated by the Islamists - reacted to the new law with predictable hostility. Members protested at their syndicate headquarters, sit-ins were staged at the People's Assembly and work stopped, albeit only for a short time. Scheduled elections at the engineers and the scientific professions syndicates, both controlled by Islamists, were nonetheless indefinitely suspended.

"Egypt's constitution guarantees the liberty and autonomy of Egypt's syndicates," Mohammed Asfour, a leading Cairo attorney, told The Middle East "Any legislation restricting their liberty or attacking the syndicates' independence and integrity is unconstitutional."

All of Egypt's syndicates expressed at least some reservations with the law, and criticism over the government's failure at least to consult with syndicate leaders. But only a few have moved to oppose it. The press syndicate - overwhelmingly made up of journalists working on government-backed papers - was vocal in its criticism, but has refrained from legal action (although individual members have filed suit). The scientific professions syndicate is reportedly awaiting the outcome of Asfour's initial legal proceedings before making any legal challenge.

Peculiarly, Egypt's Bar Association has remained inactive. Seif al Islam Hassan al Banna, chairman of the executive committee and son of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, has publicly described the new law as "unconstitutional." The Islamists' toppling of the Bar Association is considered by many to have prompted the introduction of the new law. The association's membership has also demanded that the executive committee take legal action. Yet the Islamist-dominated council has so far failed to move.

"They are intimidated," said one observer. Public outrage aside, he explained, the lawyers syndicate's executive committee is fearful of antagonising the government. And with good reason. It may soon be removed from power.

Rumours are rife once again. Members of the Bar Association are now collecting signatures to petition for an emergency congress. Opponents of the fundamentalists have apparently worked out a strategy to out manouevre the Islamists. A petition will be presented to Ahmed al Khawaga, president of the Bar and at odds with its Islamist-dominated executive committee, which will oblige him to convene a congress. A motion to withdraw confidence from the present executive committee will be made to and passed by a congress stacked against the Islamists. New elections - held in accordance with the new syndicates law - will then be called, which will bring in committee members more palatable to the government.

The syndicate could not possibly muster 50% of its membership for the first round of balloting. If it fails to bring in the required 30% in subsequent elections - not unlikely, given that the syndicate's membership exceeds 150,000 - the executive committee will be replaced by a council of government-appointed caretakers. "The government can then take de facto control of the lawyers syndicate," says one anti-Islamist member of the union.
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Title Annotation:new law governing elections in Egypt's professional unions passed
Author:Mattoon, Scott
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Previous Article:Give us our due.
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