On September 18, 2016, public attention turned to the Military Court in Alexandria for the verdict in the prosecution of 26 workers[1] of the Alexandria Shipyard Company.[2] However, the verdict was postponed until October 18. The Military Prosecution had referred the accused “as public employees of the Alexandria Shipyard Company affiliated with the Marine Industries and Services Organization of the Ministry of Defense” to the Misdemeanor Military Court. They faced the charges of “inciting workers in the company’s various departments to cease work, calling for assembly, and organizing a protest inside the company in order to disrupt operations; and thus, achieve a common purpose, namely the fulfilment of the demands explained in the report by the company’s security department that is enclosed with the investigations. This could have caused a strike across all of the company’s departments and harmed public interest”.[3] Under the Egyptian Criminal Code, the workers face punishments ranging from six months to six years of imprisonment.[4]

Military Trials On Account of Labor Demands
The charges were brought against the workers because they practiced their right to unionize and demanded some of their overdue financial entitlements from the chairman of the company’s board. They objected to the bonus granted by the armed forces for the month of Ramadan (EGP75.00, or less than US$8.50), and they demanded that the company pay the outstanding liabilities of its employee fellowship fund and that a date be set for issuing promotions. They also demanded that a percentage of profits, specifically those of previous years, be distributed to the company’s workers.[5] According to the workers, when the head of the labor committee presented these demands to the chairman of the board Major-General Abd al-Hamid Ismat, the latter rebuffed him by saying “take two steps back and get out”.[6] Offended, the head of the labor committee informed the workers. The following morning, some of the shipyard’s workers gathered to talk to the chairman of the board during his morning transit. But when they headed to work the next day, they were surprised to find military riot police and the director of the Office of the Commander in Chief of Egyptian Naval Forces, who told them provocatively that “no one treats us like this. We’re ready to close it down – it’s no problem for us. Anyone who has a right should return to his workstation and demand it from there. But because of the approach you’ve taken, you have no entitlements whatsoever”.[7]

Labor Laws That Provide No Protection for Workers
The workers were referred to the military court despite the nature of their employment relationship with the company, a relationship governed by the labor laws for civilians. The company’s activity is unrelated to the Ministry of Defense’s military activities. The Alexandria Shipyard Company was established in 1960 and its ownership was transferred to the Holding Co. for Maritime Transport in 1993. With this transfer, the company joined the public business sector. While the company was merged into the Ministry of Defense’s Marine Industries and Services Organization in 2003,[8] the change in affiliation was not coupled with any change in the nature of the establishment or in the system of employment relationships, which remained subject to public business law.[9]

The 2014 Constitution: The Military Court is for Protecting Military Personnel and their Equivalents
The military court is an effectuation of Article 204 of the amended Egyptian Constitution passed in the January 2014 referendum.[10] This article inaugurated a new era of trying civilians militarily in the wake of the June 30 popular movement. The representative of the armed forces in the constitution-drafting committee insisted not only on preserving the text in the 2012 Constitution that permitted the trial of civilians before the military courts under specific circumstances, but also on elaborating and expanding these circumstances and thereby extending the military court’s jurisdiction.

Hence, the 2014 Constitution asserted the military judiciary’s jurisdiction over crimes connected to the armed forces and to “persons equivalent to its officers and personnel”, without clarifying the intended meaning of this expression. It also allowed the trial of civilians before the military judiciary “for crimes that constitute a direct attack on military facilities or camps of the armed forces or their equivalents, on so-declared military or border zones, on their equipment, vehicles, weapons, munitions, documents, military secrets, or public finances, or on war factories; for crimes related to recruitment [tajnid]; or, for crimes that constitute a direct attack on their officers or personnel on account of their performance of their duties”.

The article on military trials in the current Constitution has met widespread opposition from some democratic forces, particularly the "No to Military Trials” group.[11] On November 26, 2013, this group held a demonstration in front of the Shura Council in opposition to the proposed article, which was being discussed therein by the 50-member committee charged with drafting constitutional amendments. The demonstration cost its participants dearly as it resulted in the first actual application of the Egyptian Protest Law.[12] Twenty-five of the protesters were arrested and handed down extremely harsh sentences. Two received five years of rigorous imprisonment and an equivalent period of probation, as well as a fine of EGP100,000 [US$11,250]. Eighteen others received three years of imprisonment and an equivalent period of probation, in addition to the aforementioned fine. The court also upheld in absentia the 15-year prison sentence issued against the five absent defendants.

The Armed Forces’ Economic Expansion Broadens the Military Court’s Jurisdiction
This case is a revealing example of the flaws of the constitutional text that permitted the trial of civilians before military courts. The relevant crimes now include those perpetrated against military establishments and their equivalents, which is especially problematic given the economic expansion of the Ministry of Defense’s various apparatuses. During the last twelve months, the army has steadily begun working in new sectors and expanded its activities in sectors wherein it was already working, as revealed by the Official Gazette, the minutes of official meetings, and announcements made via the media.[13] Each economic expansion of the Ministry of Defense adds to the fear that more civilians will be tried before the military judiciary on the charge of attacking military establishments, or their equivalents, or their public finances. Under Article 204 of the Constitution, any attack on these “economic” entities affiliated with the Ministry of Defense or on the people providing services within them could be deemed akin to an attack on armed forces personnel, and therefore result in the military trail of the “suspect”.

Fear and anticipation about the military judiciary’s future application of this article is on the rise. Will the military judiciary limit its jurisdiction to cases of attacks targeting the safety and security of the armed forces as the body charged with protecting the country from foreign attacks? Or will it expand its jurisdiction to encompass any attack on the Ministry of Defense’s growing economic activities? This concern and anticipation was exacerbated by statements that the head of the Military Justice Committee Major-General Medhat Radwan made in an interview with Lamis Elhadidy on December 1, 2013, following the Committee of 50’s endorsement of the previous article.[14] Radwan repeatedly affirmed that all institutions affiliated with the armed forces are subject to military law. He used a Wataniya petrol station as an example and stated that a civilian who attacks an officer or soldier working therein, or who attacks the establishment itself could face a military trial, for a soldier or officer serving in such a petrol station or business affiliated with the armed forces is no less important than a soldier or officer who bears arms or fights atop a tank.

This case is the second known instance of the military judiciary addressing crimes as a result of the Ministry of Defense’s economic activity. In the first instance, which occurred in August 2014, a citizen was referred to the military judiciary following a fight over whose car would be filled first at one of the fuel stations affiliated with the Ministry of Defense. Now 26 workers face up to six years of imprisonment on account of labor demands unrelated to any military activity. In such a situation, the right of Egyptians to be tried before their natural judge seems like a distant dream.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

 

[1] Case No. 2759 of 2016, in which 26 workers stand trial. Fourteen have been on remand for four months, 11 are being tried in absentia, and one has been released.
[2] The company specializes in shipbuilding and is located within the port’s free economic zone.
[3] Referral order issued by the Military Prosecution on May 25, 2016.
[4] These punishments are stipulated in Articles 124 and 124a of the Egyptian Criminal Code, which are mentioned in the referral order.
[5] See: Fatma Ramadan’s, “The Complete Story of the Trial of the Shipyard Workers”, Mada Masr, July 7, 2015.
[6] For more on this topic, see: Report on the company by the Egyptian Center for Economic & Social Rights.
[7] Ibid.
[8] The Marine Industries and Services Organization was established by Presidential Decision No. 204 of 2003.
[9] For more on this topic, see: Law on Companies of the Public Business Sector No. 203 of 1991.
[10] Article 204 stipulates that, “The Military Judiciary is an independent judicial authority that has exclusive jurisdiction over all crimes related to the armed forces, their officers, their personnel, and equivalents thereof and over crimes committed by General Intelligence personnel during or on account of service. A civilian shall not be tried before the military judiciary except for crimes that constitute a direct attack on military facilities or camps of the armed forces or their equivalents, on so-declared military or border zones, on their equipment, vehicles, weapons, munitions, documents, military secrets, or public finances, or on war factories; for crimes related to recruitment; or, for crimes that constitute a direct attack on their officers or personnel on account of their performance of their duties. The law shall specify those crimes and clarify the military judiciary’s other jurisdictions”.
[11] See: The “No to Military Trials”, Wikipedia and Facebook pages.
[12] Protest Law No. 107 of 2013 was published in the Official Gazette on November 24, 2013, and came into effect the following day. The protest occurred on November 26, 2013.
[13] These are the economic sectors that the army has entered over the course of 12 months.
[14] See: Lamis Elhadidy’s interview with Major-General Medhat Radwan, head of the Military Justice Committee.