North Africa, West Asia

Egypt: human rights on hold, in the name of economic development

The argument that economic development should precede human rights is tired and dangerous, though often seen. It will only be a matter of time until this becomes clear (again) in Egypt – but  how much time will that take, with how much repression suffered beforehand?

Rania Fazah
29 May 2014
Egyptian dock workers load up crates of coal, 1916.

Egyptian dock workers load up crates of coal, 1916. Imperial War Museum/James McBey. Public domain. Workers from Egypt’s National Vegetable Oil Company (owned by the US firm Cargill) have been through a four-month virtual 'siege' in the factory’s parking lot. As Egypt’s independent news hub Mada Masr and international unions have highlighted, the workers have faced assaults by dogs and security contractors, had their electricity and water supplies cut off, and were unable to receive visitors.

The sit-in began in December, after the factory’s management locked them out when they protested over overdue bonuses and insurance coverage. Cargill headquarters, for its part, denies intimidation tactics and says that it “reached a full and final settlement with around 80 former employees…whose contracts were terminated due to repeated violations of company procedures.”

While former army chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi headed for victory in Egypt’s May 26-27-28 Presidential elections, economic development is trumping human rights – including workers’ rights. Sisi recently said that it will take up to 25 years for Egypt to achieve “true democracy.”  He added that democratic aspirations are hindering national security and slowing down much-needed economic recovery.

Given this context, the space in which civil society can operate seems to be closing down, in real and legal terms. This includes the field of business and human rights, in which our organisation (Business & Human Rights Resource Centre) works. New amendments to the Investment Law prohibit third parties including citizens from questioning or challenging government contracts with private enterprises – just when many new deals are being signed with multinationals and Gulf-state firms.

The labour law prevents the right to strike in certain sectors, and despite the creation of many independent trade unions following the overthrow of Mubarak, forthcoming revisions may make the law more repressive again.  An Assembly Law approved in November 2013 restricts the right to protest in public spaces, for example, by requiring government approval for public gatherings and allowing police crack-downs. And the existing and draft NGO laws make it extremely difficult for civil society organisations to register and operate independently. 

Despite this oppressive environment, members of Egyptian civil society are still determined to push for change. Crucial issues in relation to business’ responsibilities include labour rights, environmental pollution, the opacity of “hidden” companies in the informal sector and those owned by the military, and the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

1. Widespread repression of labour movements and strikes throughout Egypt involves the sometimes-violent dispersal and intimidation of striking workers, and arrests of trade union leaders who are pushing for improved working conditions. This is in a climate where trade union activity is portrayed as impeding much-needed economic growth, which fuels broader public antipathy against unions.

Additionally, many manufacturing, industrial and agricultural workers face dangerous working conditions, often losing their livelihoods when they are injured.

2. The interim government recently allowed new imports of coal for fuelling cement plants. This follows pressure from the cement industry (65% of which is owned by six international firms), that has been facing increasing gas prices and reduced production from power shortages. The use of coal is expected to put the health of thousands of Egyptians in danger.

The coalition “Egyptians against Coal” is pushing for a reversal of this decision, and it is being challenged by a lawsuit in the courts. This government move builds on a trajectory of lax environmental regulations and enforcement – people living near heavy-polluting industries in cities like Alexandria and Helwan have been suffering the consequences for years. While legal actions against the government for failing to curb pollution are an important strategy, they are also an uphill battle, with many cases currently stalled in the courts.

3. The opacity of “hidden” and informal companies makes it particularly difficult to hold them to account.  A high proportion of the economy is in the informal sector. Estimates vary, but earlier this year the finance minister said it makes up about 30 percent of the economy and employs 40 percent of the labour force. This means preventing and remedying abuses is difficult.

Civil society groups have described, for example, cases of state-owned land leased to un-registered factories that make widespread use of child labour. Linked with informality is large-scale tax avoidance: which deprives the government of resources that could (if managed right) be allocated to combatting poverty and inequality.

The opaque nature of military-owned business interests is another major challenge: transparency on this is so limited that estimates of the military’s economic holdings range from eight to 30 percent of the country’s GDP. 

4. Privacy and freedom of expression are increasingly at risk. The growing clamp-down on journalists in Egypt has been widely reported. At the same time, human rights activists can no longer rely on their conversations remaining private. In December, TV talk show host Abdel Raheem Ali aired the private conversations of two political activists Mohamed Adel and Ahmad Maher on Al-Kahira Wal Nas, a private TV channel: he has since done the same with others’ conversations.

“This is a violation of the sanctity of private life and an illegal act which returns us to the hateful practices of the Mubarak era and his state security police. It is also a crime under Egyptian law,” said five human rights organisations in a joint statement. We invited Al-Kahira Wal Nas to respond to this, but it remained silent. We also reached out to Vodafone, which provided the phone service for both the activists: it said that “[n]either Vodafone Egypt nor any other part of Vodafone had any involvement whatsoever in this matter. Vodafone Egypt will never intercept or record customers' private communications in this manner.”

There are signs that some Egyptian firms, as well as Egyptian arms of multinationals, are starting to take their human rights responsibilities more seriously. The Egyptian Center for Corporate Responsibility has recently held training sessions on human rights for UN Global Compact participant companies (the Compact is a global corporate responsibility initiative). There is no shortage of guidance for companies that want to do the right thing: including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and the ISO 26000 guidance which is well-recognized among companies in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet there is a long way to go until the majority of companies operating in Egypt make human rights commitments, and put them into action. 

The argument that economic development should precede human rights is a tired and dangerous one that we have seen many times before. “Development without rights” is usually abusive and unsustainable, and brings domestic and international business into disrepute. It will only be a matter of time until this becomes clear (again) in Egypt – the question is how much time that will take, and how much repression people will have to experience beforehand.

A courageous Egyptian civil society, supported by international movements, will keep up the pressure on businesses and the government. Companies that benefit from or collude in the repression of democracy and human rights in Egypt should be aware of the high reputation-risks they run. 

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