Thousands of policemen and officers across Egypt are seeking to establish trade unions with which to protect their interests. Legal obstacles, however, stand in their way.
Egypt's trade union legislation — particularly Trade Union Law 35/1976 and its predecessors — specifically mentions that the police and armed forces are not allowed to join or form any sort of professional associations. In its current format, a new draft law on trade union liberties also stipulates similar provisions.
Moreover, Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization, which Egypt ratified in the 1950s, stipulate that it is up to each state’s discretion whether to allow for the establishment of unions among police or armed forces.
But policemen argue that their unionization would assist the country in efforts toward reforming the Interior Ministry, with police abuses being a notable cause behind the eruption of the Egyptian revolution: 25 January, the day when masses broke out against the police and the regime, was originally celebrated as Egyptian Police Day.
“Unions may also help us in cleansing, or at least monitoring, corrupt elements and abuses within the Interior Ministry,” said policeman Khaled Badran.
Hassan Shendy, another policeman, said unionizing Egypt's police forces would “help to identify those responsible for acts of corruption, bribery, torture or other abuses, and take action against them.”
Shendy added that unions would “help to improve our working conditions and raise our incomes, and in doing so would help to decrease the phenomena of corruption and bribery among the police.”
“Unions will help us settle our financial and professional problems,” he said. “When we settle our problems, then we will be better prepared to settle the streets’ problems. This will help the whole security balance of the country.”.
Badran said police do not want to protest for a union and the rest of their rights.
“We want a legitimate association through which we can put forth our demands and raise them to the officials as one cohesive group,” the policeman said.
Egyptian labor and law enforcement legislation bans police forces from engaging in protests and strikes, although a number of police protests have taken place since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February 2011.
These protests began just two days after Mubarak’s abdication. Thousands of policemen protested outside the Interior Ministry in Cairo on 22 March for improved wages and working conditions, and a fire broke out in the ministry. A number of other police protests took place nationwide in October and November of last year.
Shendy concluded, “We don’t want unions for the sake of engaging in politics or unrest, we want an exclusively professional association. We want a union that prevents punitive measures against both policemen and civilians.”
However, the trajectory for establishing such unions appears hazy among union organizers, particularly as police employees are presenting a less-than-unified front.
Officers are attempting to establish unions for themselves, while lower-ranking policemen are going after separate unions. Some have sought to federate these unions under the affiliation of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation, while others have sought to establish their unions under the umbrella of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
“Police forces should have the right to unionize because they are state employees who are responsible for law enforcement among the civilian population. Therefore they should have the same rights to organize as any other employees,” argued Emad al-Araby, the independent union federation’s deputy secretary general.
Araby went on to say “unionizing the police would help tend to their needs, and thus it would diminish the numbers of protests and strikes in which they are involved.”
Araby denied allegations that the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions is an opposition entity or a politicized federation.
“We are against the establishment of any unions on the basis of political or party affiliation,” Araby said. “We take off our political robes at the doors of our union offices. This is what we expect of all unions within this federation.”
“Claims that unionizing the police will lead to their politicization are baseless,” Araby said.
The union organizer pointed out that the Union of Civil Employees of the Interior Ministry had already been established under the federation’s umbrella in January of this year, although this union is not open to policemen or officers.
Some 700 Cairo-based policemen have sought to establish a union through the federation, though it seems the majority of policemen and officers have preferred to establish their unions via the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, Araby said.
Shendy said more than 250,000 policemen around the country are interested in establishing unions in their governorates.
“Given that we are state employees, we want ETUF membership because it is more closely associated with the state,” he said.
In Qalyubiya, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions helped policemen establish an independent union, which is pending recognition from the Manpower and Interior ministries but is, in effect, functioning. While that federation is taking steps, the state federation is still dragging its feet regarding the establishment of these unions.
Badran indicated that the coalitions of policemen and officers that emerged since the revolution “aim at promoting the rights of both civilians and police forces in a new Egypt that respects the rule of law.” Badran pointed out that the calls for the establishment of police unions came from these coalitions.
Major Ahmed Ragab, a former member of the Coalition of Police Officers, said there have been numerous applications to Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim calling for the establishment of unions, yet he has not yet replied to these applications.
“This is not the time for such demands. The ministry's first priority is to uphold security on Egypt’s streets, and confront lawbreakers, drug dealers and arms traders,” Ragab said.
The major indicated that unionization of police forces is in itself an illegal act.
Commenting on police unions acting as potential agents of reform within the ministry, Ragab said "there is in fact a nationwide restructuring effort on the part of the Interior Ministry. In its attempt to reach out to civil society, the ministry has established the Administration of Communications with Human Rights Centers and NGOs.”
Ragab concluded by saying “there is no need for such unions, for we already have clubs for police officers and policemen. These are sufficient to serve as venues where police forces can meet and discuss their concerns.”
According to Araby, however, “these police clubs are not like the Judges Clubs, which serve as professional associations. Police clubs are only spaces for informal social gatherings. They resemble cafeterias rather than professional associations.”
“We are still studying the means by which we can establish police unions in keeping with new laws, even if this involves drafting new legislation,” Araby added.
Late last month, Alexandria’s Coalition of Police Officers sent its paperwork and notarizations to the Manpower Ministry calling for the right to unionize. The ministry is due to accept or refuse their application within 60 days.
The coalition has suggested that it might resort to the judiciary in hopes of a ruling for unionization, but their chances appear to be slim — unless the laws are changed, or unless the police are able to exert enough pressure on these authorities to accept their unionization efforts.
Numerous countries around the world have legalized the unionization of police forces, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, UK, the US and Sweden, among many others.