The Sumid oil workers’ strike: a new Suez crisis?

As my partner observed the other day, it’s May Day today but we’re not on holiday.

Unlike some other countries, we have to wait until next week (not sure why there’s this obsession with having 'Bank Holidays' on a Monday in Britain). Anyway, as some of us sweat away on International Worker’s Day (while many in Europe stage holiday-day demos against austerity cuts), it’s a good moment to mention … the right to be able to withdraw your labour without fear of reprisal, even imprisonment.

A personal anecdote: back when I was 16 I went on strike (at Midland Bank no less) over pay. When the strike was called our manager assembled all the new staff (about 18 of us) into his office and gave us some “advice” about how participating in a strike could be “detrimental to us” as we set out on our shiny new careers in banking. Hmm. Unnerving. Made you think twice. Well, anyway, probably influenced by years of childhood exposure to my dad’s very pro-union talk at home, I defied the boss and went on strike nonetheless (it was only a one-day effort, nothing massively heroic). Of course most of the others didn’t.

Intimidating workers is nothing new. Tolpuddle, the 1926 General Strike, the Dagenham sewing-machinists’ dispute (“Made in Dagenham”), Grunwick, the mine-workers’ strikes of the 70s and 80s - it’s part of an unending struggle for workplace rights (sometimes, admittedly, featuring over-the-top behaviour from “closed shops” and strike “enforcers” etc).

Strike-breaking takes many forms, but in Egypt right now one company has gone for a pretty basic method: the military police have arrested some of the strikers and are keeping them in jail. Five men working at the Sumid Arab Petroleum Pipeline Factory in the port of Suez have been behind bars since 7 March after taking part in a strike to demand improvements in working conditions at the plant. The five - Mahmoud Farouk Aljundi, Ahmed Mohamed Talaat, Mohamed Issam Syam, Abu Al Yazid Abdul Atti and Hassan Ahmed Al Armouti - are being held at Suez’s Ataki police station. It seems the MPs beat up the men as they arrested them and forced them to strip off their clothes at the police station, apparently to humiliate and further intimidate them.

The Sumid five are likely prisoners of conscience, held solely for peacefully exercising their right to assemble and their right to strike. Worryingly enough, in post-revolutionary Egypt where strikes have been made illegal by the army leaders, the men could even face a military trial. Please support Amnesty’s campaign for the men’s release. Here, meanwhile, is the TUC’s supportive article on the campaign, including reference to how the estimable Brendan Barber has written to Egypt’s ambassador to the UK, Hatem Seif El-Nasr, raising the matter.

Amongst other things, the strikers have been accused of “disrupting navigation in the Suez Canal”, and this episode has strange echoes of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Egypt’s famous waterway between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea apparently still carries a hefty 7.5% of global world sea trade, and significant quantities of Qatar-sourced liquefied natural gas make their way to European markets (including the UK) via the canal. So, if there’s an economically sensitive target in Egypt, it’s surely this one.

Cracking down on uppity workers in Suez has an unpleasant echo of the way that Britain and France tried to wield their (fading) military might to stamp on Nasser’s newly-assertive Egypt back in the 50s. Except now it’s Egypt’s own military authorities doing the stamping. Today striking workers in Suez, tomorrow protesting rights activists in Cairo. It’s all the same struggle.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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