Khaled Ali: Labor’s politics and judicialization intermingled

When hundreds of workers and activists protested Sunday to pressure the Egyptian government to implement a recent court decision that raises the 26-year-old national minimum wage, Khaled Ali had the most reason to be disappointed.
Ali was the one who litigated the case, bringing about what many have considered a major victory in a country marred by double digit inflation with nearly half of its population surfacing around or below the poverty line and the minimum wage at LE36.

But after 16 years of practicing law in Egypt, Ali has come to understand the limitations of “judicial achievement.”

“Without strong political mobilization behind a certain demand, a lawsuit, even if it is won in courtrooms, could end up being a mere dossier of papers with only symbolic value,” says the 38-year-old lawyer who made headlines on 30 March when he won a verdict by a Cairo administrative court ordering the government to activate the National Council for Wages, a body tasked with balancing the minimum wage against rising consumer prices.

Translating a court order into a tangible reality is seldom an easy endeavor, Ali says.

Last December, Ali, the director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), obtained a ruling to lift restrictions on the Engineers’ Syndicate. He argued the case on behalf of Engineers Against Sequestration, a group of engineers who have been rallying to lift the custody imposed on their syndicate by the government since 1995 on allegations that it was controlled by the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

“Although the government had appealed the verdict before a higher court, the fact that the engineers have managed to create a reasonably organized pressure group that made it more difficult for the government to resist their demands,” says Ali.

“Now, engineers themselves, after gaining confidence from a court ruling, are considering establishing an independent syndicate if [the government] fails to eventually lift the impounding, an idea which they were highly resistant to few years ago,” he adds.

Some, however, argue that judicial conflict resolution to labor disputes has contributed to depoliticizing workers’ struggles. The main premise is that battling for labor demands in courtrooms, with their legal jargon and long proceedings, has diverted blue collar attention from direct political organization and left them hostage to the “straight-jacket of law.”

Such concerns, according to Ali, have not been present in Egypt, where the state has had a strong grip on every aspect of labor organization since the establishment of the 57-year-old Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the state-run umbrella of Egypt’s 23 labor unions.

“Lacking representative bodies, Egypt’s workers go to strike in order to force the management to negotiate their demands, not the other way around as happens in the rest of the world,” says Ali.

Laborers, Ali adds, are protected by court verdicts. “Unlike political pamphlets and communiqués, workers would openly distribute court orders among themselves. They have turned out to be viable tools for building solidarity in different workplaces,” he explains, adding that assembling inside a courtroom is more secure than, for example, staging a sit-in.

But for Ali, compromising the political for the judicial was not the tormenting experience it was for an older generation of human rights activists. 

When he recounts his early involvement in Egypt’s non-governmental organization (NGO) movement in the mid-1990s, a particular moment stands out. After enrolling in the Center for Human Rights Legal Assistance in August 1996, Ali, then a fresh law school graduate, was assigned to deliver a lecture in a seminar about the labor movement.

“Suddenly I found myself in a dilemma when I was supposed to give something meaningful in a session that included Egypt’s most prominent legal experts, such as the late Youssef Darwish and Kamal Abbas.”

The easy way out, he recalls, was to avoid “being entrapped in a legal discussion when I lacked the necessary philosophical and jurisprudential expertise.”

So he decided to narrate what he was most familiar with at that time, simply his participation as a junior lawyer in supervising the elections of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which had been held earlier that year.

“My paper was based on the data I collected throughout the elections period. My argument was simply to question the conventional wisdom that vote rigging was practiced at the ballot box or through the counting process. Instead, I tried to show that irregularities run through the entire process from deciding who was eligible to run to the less visible dimensions like publicity, funding, etc.”

Aside from gaining his audience’s admiration, Ali’s experience opened his eyes to a fundamental realization: Expanding labor and political freedoms requires struggle at a variety of levels, including taking on the structures of domination that control every-day practices.

Unlike his mentors, who could be loosely labeled as the first generation of human rights advocates in Egypt, Ali’s engagement with NGO politics was triggered by “untraditional motives.”

Ali describes his upbringing as barely political. He was involved in a Muslim Brotherhood network in his early adolescence and had some general exposure to leftism in his home village Meit Yaeish in the Nile Delta governorate of Daqahlia. Actually, Ali says, becoming a labor rights activist was initially a matter of finding a job.

“Before joining the Legal Assistance Center, I could not differentiate between a labor union and a professional syndicate,” he says.

Following his graduation from Zagazig University in May 1995, Ali worked briefly in two lawyers’ offices.

“As with all fresh graduates, junior lawyers are never paid except for travel allowances if they had to take long trips,” says the lawyer, whose achievement record includes winning a historic 2008 verdict halting the privatization of Egypt’s health insurance system, a move many saw as depriving millions of people of their right to affordable health care.

Early in Ali’s career, prospects for advancement seemed slim. “My second employer wouldn’t even allow me to borrow legal books from his library, so there wasn’t really any room available for learning and research,” he explains.

Employment at the Legal Assistance Center, one of Egypt’s prestigious advocacy organizations, brought a life-changing opportunity for Ali. “All moral, professional and material satisfactions were present. You defend poor people on a pro bono basis, while being paid by your organization at the same time. You had access to the center’s library, and were taught by great lawyers, such as Ahmed Seif.”

With the exception of a tiny minority, almost all the founders of Egypt’s politically-oriented NGOs in the early 1980s came from Marxist or Nasserist backgrounds. They were the active members of the 1970s student movement, harshly marginalized by the rise of political Islam and the active depoliticization process pushed by President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

In the early years of Egypt’s NGO movement, establishing organizations was not seen as a way to defend the legal rights of the disenfranchised, but rather as a way to make their political presence known. Instead of raising awareness, networking, and organizing the disenfranchised groups, those activists clung to a kind of politics that is mainly concerned with bringing a rights-based vocabulary to the ideological sphere rather than engaging in any real politicking.

Issuing press releases and reports, and holding general, abstract conferences on human rights abuses have turned out to be their only strategies.

While this old guard of activists is generally regarded as powerless because of the severe curbs imposed by the regime–the 30-year-old Emergency Law is only one example. Ali and the younger generation of human rights activists brought more dynamism to the NGO movement.

With their focus on specific political, economic, social, and cultural issues, these new activists have managed to empower larger segments of the population and push the boundaries of collective action.

Throughout his ten-year career with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (1999-2009), and now, as head of the ECESR, Ali has represented thousands of protesters who were arrested for a variety of reasons. He particularly takes pride in defending those detained during the general strike that swept several Egyptian cities in April 2008, including Mahalla el-Kubra, the hub of Egypt’s textile industry.

“Back then, there were more than a thousand arrested in seven governorates, and it was a huge challenge as we didn’t have any experience dealing with such a big volume outside Cairo,” Ali says. “But we managed to gather a big pool of volunteers to represent many detainees and provide legal aid to them.”

But labor issues remain Ali’s favorite, for both personal and professional reasons. “It’s only insensible, to say the least, for anybody to refuse to admit the huge class gaps and the grave income disparities in today’s Egypt,” he says.

Of the various professional categories Ali has dealt with, he says he enjoys working with blue collar workers the most because of their communal solidarity and loyalty.

“If a worker manages to obtain a court ruling, he would rush to document it in order to share it later on with others to expand the realm of liberties, not thinking selfishly as other professionals do,” says Ali of his working-class clients.

These days, Ali is hopeful. He says that the changing dynamics of NGOs politics and the labor movement are encouraging. Meanwhile, the challenges ahead don’t seem insurmountable.

“NGOs are gradually moving away from the vilification policy which has been masking them throughout the 1980s and 1990s,” says Ali.

One specific incident that was vital for human rights defenders to acquire legitimacy within the wider political sphere, according to Ali, was the Hisham Mubarak Law Center’s initiative to host the activities of the Popular Campaign to Support the Palestinian Intifada in 2000.

“While the majority of opposition groups shunned away from backing the Intifada, we provided a space for meeting and allocating financial resources for the Palestinians.” This, Ali says, helped the law center to combat allegations of being viewed as agents of the West because the law center receives foreign funding.

On the labor front, Ali also sees a window of hope.

“Just five years ago, one would have been labeled a wishful thinker if one imagined that all kinds of labor protest will sweep the country,” Ali explains, referring to the more than 3000 acts of labor protests-strike, sit-ins and production halts carried out by more than two million workers across Egypt since 2006.

The qualitative transformations in labor protest are even more intriguing.

“Workers have moved from narrow economic demands of raising wages and improving working conditions, to call for more politically oriented objectives,” says Ali. This has been seen as protests have moved away from factories and into the streets of downtown Cairo in front of the Egyptian parliament. 

“Workers, even if indirectly, now dare to channel their grievances to the real decision-makers, not the inefficient bureaucracy of their trade unions,” he says.

Related Articles

Back to top button