Egypt Supreme Administrative Court Says Labor Strikes Are a Crime

2015-07-06    |   

Egypt Supreme Administrative Court Says Labor Strikes Are a Crime

Article 15 of the Egyptian Constitution specifies that “Peaceful strike is a right regulated by Law”. However, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court disregarded this article when it ruled that striking was “a crime” whose perpetrators deserve disciplinary measures, including forced early retirement or delayed promotions.[1] On April 18, 2015, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in support of a previous ruling issued by the Disciplinary Court in Menoufia, which penalized workers who organized a strike and sit-in to demand their rights by pensioning them off. The Administrative Court’s ruling prompts three observations, presented below.

Consistencies Between the Ruling and State Rhetoric

Banning strikes

Social protest movements in Egypt have recently lost momentum with the exception of the labor movement. According to the 2014 Report on Labor Protests published by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, there were 1,655 labor actions in 2014, including strikes, demonstrations, marches, grievances, and other forms of protest.

Up until this point, the state has been unable to put an end to these protests. It has worked, however, to produce public discourse hostile towards them, portraying the protests as disrupting production and causing economic waste. The prime minister took a step towards banning strikes, asking labor leaders to form worker committees to that end while meeting with the leaders to plan Labor Day celebrations. The meeting was followed by an announcement from the president of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation on April 27, 2015, during official Labor Day commemorations about a “Worker’s Code of Honor”. He affirmed that through this “Code”, workers would pledge to reject the right to strike.[2]

Thus the court ruling emerged in line with state discourse that seeks to ban strikes, and in support of the notion that strikes ought to be opposed for the benefit of the state. Moreover, the ruling establishes a legal basis that the government can rely on to ban strikes. The state can now do so not only by raising the matter of state interests, but also by referring to the “rule of law” and the need to implement this judicial ruling.

Banning Opposition to the State System

The second way in which the ruling falls in line with state discourse is its view towards public employee strikes. The court held that such a strike is “a rebellion of public sector workers against the authorities, and against the system, because it seeks to mobilize public opinion against that system – which individuals hold responsible for the provision of services for public benefit”. By taking up this definition, the court has taken the position of protecting both the authority and the state. In doing so, it is ignoring the fact that when public sector workers resort to putting pressure on authority, they are laying claim to rights guaranteed to them by Egyptian law.

There is also the court’s viewpoint of the public employee in general. The view established in the content of the court’s ruling is that the public employee “has the right to express his opinion on public affairs, but he must exercise this right always keeping in mind that he is a public employee, and that all of his actions must be in compliance with the requirements of public service. It is insufficient to say that an employee has done his duty merely by carrying out the directives of state policy; he is also obligated to demonstrate his loyalty to the state and to the existing state of rule through his actions. At the very least, this should be demonstrated through abstention of opposition to the state system and its social philosophy, both in meetings and in private discussions, and through refraining from any behavior that damages the reputation of the state or undermines or damages the integrity of the system”.

From this, we can conclude that the ruling not only requires public sector employees’ obedience and occupational loyalty to the state during working hours, but that it demands loyalty even in private gatherings. They are forbidden from opposing the state system and its decisions even privately. This is tantamount to reducing their right to an opinion and to freedom of expression in comparison with other kinds of workers.

The court’s adoption of a definition of an “ideal” public employee is perhaps reminiscent of current public discourse in Egypt around the “ideal” citizen, who has a duty to express an opinion on public matters – but without opposing the state and its regime.

Islamic Law (Sharia) as a Means to Strike Down Economic and Social Rights

The second observation prompted by the ruling concerns the court’s reliance on Islamic law to ban strikes. The court likewise refused to implement the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which guarantees the right to strike as stipulated in Article 8. The court deemed this a violation of Islamic law, maintaining that the reservations entered by the Egyptian government when it ratified the treaty, which take into consideration the provisions of Sharia and their compatibility with the treaty’s articles, apply to the right to strike.

Furthermore, the court held that the provisions of Islamic Law do not endorse a strike “if its intention is only to damage another [party], or if the benefits that [the strike] accrues in the end are of little significance in proportion to the damage it does to the other [party]”. Likewise, it held that Islamic Law does not permit strikes among workers in the public sector, as this would lead to a stoppage of services and it would deprive the public of those services.

The ruling did not stop there, adding that another reason Islamic Law does not permit strikes is “because they are a rebellion against executive authority, and obedience to the president is obligatory”. The use of Islamic Law in this manner reflects that the court is moving towards interpreting Islamic Law on its own terms and without outside input. In doing so, it is drawing upon Islamic Law as a basis for its ruling rather than drawing on [Egyptian] legislation, as stipulated by the Constitution.[3]

To the State Council, the use of Sharia as a valid form of legislation and its interpretation in the manner described above, comes as a surprise. Customarily, the state consults Sharia at the stage of drafting laws [not applying them in court]. Using Sharia as a source [of law] for this ruling thus contradicts the system of fiqh (jurisprudence), that has been designated for judges by the State Council – and which views Article 2 of the Constitution as addressing the legislature, not the judiciary. To say that Sharia is binding in and of itself could lead to conflicting rulings, as it contradicts the principle of the separation of powers.[4]

The practice of forming rulings based on Sharia occurs in the implementation of international treaties in cases of articles pertaining to women, the rights of religious minorities, and the death penalty. However, this ruling is the first time in which it is being used to strike down a fundamental economic and social right. This development demands that we pause and consider whether the ruling is a unique case, or if it is subject to expansion and generalization. The latter possibility could lead to the dismantling of the state’s commitments in the realm of social and economic rights. Given that the State Council has issued numerous rulings in the past in support of economic and social rights, in turn paving the way for many social movements in Egypt, this ruling is tantamount to a shift in direction.

Is the State Council Establishing New Approaches to the Strike?

This recent ruling is reminiscent of an earlier decision issued by the Supreme Administrative Court in 1994. That ruling which refused to implement the ICESCR, prohibited the right to strike as it considered going on strike to be a serious breach of a worker’s duties. Yet subsequent rulings issued by the State Council, particularly in recent years, established a general defense of economic and social rights, including the right to strike. In a number of rulings, the court itself exonerated employees from charges of striking, which it ruled to a worker’s right rather than a crime.[5]

In a meeting convened on December 9, 2012, the State Council’s Legislation and Fatwas department recognized the strike as a right of workers, including public employees, in accordance with the ICESCR. As for the legislative vacuum regarding state employees’ right to strike, the legislation and fatwas department requested that the legislature regulate this right in accordance with the articles of the ICESCR, thereby not prohibiting the right to strike. This is in contrast to the recently issued ruling, of course, which deems striking impermissible. Thus, the court’s recent ruling is a serious setback. It destroys the court’s legal interpretations from recent years concerning economic and social rights, not to mention its position as an advocate on behalf of citizens’ rights and freedoms in the face of state violations.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] The Arabic term referring to retirement is the equivalent of “pensioning off”, implying that the employee is laid off and given a pension.

[2] See: “Ten Points about the Supreme Administrative Court’s Ruling Banning Strikes”, a statement issued by 15 rights organizations on May 1, 2015.

[3] The legal interpretation of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court and Court of Cassation holds that Article 2 of the Constitution establishes Sharia as a source of law for the legislature, not for the judiciary; See: Menna Omar’s, “Principles of Islamic Sharia in Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution: A Struggle over Interpretation Seeks to Close the Gates of Ijtihad”, The Legal Agenda, August 28, 2013.

[4] See the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court, issued April 3, 1982.
[5] In a Disciplinary Court ruling issued in Cairo on April 30, 2012, employees of the Doaa Hospital of the Ministry of Religious Endowments were declared innocent of charges of striking, which was upheld as a right and not a crime, as stated in the “Ten Points about the Supreme Administrative Court’s Ruling Banning Strikes” statement referenced in note 2 above.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Egypt, Labor Rights and Unions

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *