CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian police prevented hundreds of workers from holding a meeting in Cairo to commemorate International Workers' Day on Sunday, while independent trade union leaders urged the government to allow them freedom of assembly.
Kamal Abbas, of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers' Services, said some 650 workers came to the city center and initially sought an alternate location to hold a news conference after police prevented them from entering the journalists' syndicate building.
The area was under lockdown by dozens of uniformed and plainclothes security forces, some wearing facemasks and carrying automatic weapons. A smaller group of workers later convened at Abbas' organization's headquarters and spoke out against what they described as government suppression of their constitutional rights.
The journalists' syndicate has been a rallying point for demonstrations in the past, and was blocked in a similar way ahead of planned anti-government protests last Monday.
After nightfall, police stormed the building and arrested two Egyptian journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud el-Sakka, who had been inside, syndicate leaders posted on social media. The two were posting on social media and had appeared in a photo circulating online holding a banner that read, "journalism is not a crime," after they said police raided their homes.
Senior syndicate leader Khaled el-Belshy called for a "swift response by the journalistic community" for what he described on Facebook as a "brutal and unprecedented aggression" since the institution's founding in 1941.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the government to legalize independent trade unions and end a decades-old system that enshrines a single official union.
"Egypt's government is ignoring the basic right of workers to organize independently," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government seems intent on stifling the freedom Egypt's labor movement only gained after years of struggle that culminated in the 2011 uprising."
Worker movements were among the early supporters of the 2011 revolt that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, ushering in years of tumult as the country was ruled by the military, elected but divisive Islamist Mohammed Morsi, and eventually President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Under Mubarak, the syndicate building was one of the few places demonstrators could gather to voice grievances, as long as they stayed on the building steps or the area directly in front of it.
That changed under el-Sissi, the general who ousted Morsi in 2013. Protests now are effectively banned and activists from a wide spectrum — Islamists to secularists and liberals — are labeled terrorists and enemies of the state.
The journalists' syndicate building drew particular attention because it was from there that some 2,000 demonstrators gathered last month to protest el-Sissi's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Police fired tear gas and arrested dozens to break up the protests, the first significant wave of street demonstrations since the former army chief became president in 2014.
A second round of mass demonstrations over the issue planned for Monday were stifled by a massive security presence, with hundreds of arrests and only small flash mobs managing to assemble, drawing tear gas and birdshot from the riot police.
Spokesmen for the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, as well as the presidency's office did not respond to repeated telephone calls throughout the day seeking comment. Sunday coincides with Egypt's Orthodox Easter as well as a long holiday weekend celebrating the beginning of spring.
Government social media accounts and that of national carrier EgyptAir posted notes in commemoration of Labor Day, with the Foreign Ministry applauding Egyptian workers for their skill and "capacity for production." The official Facebook page of the armed forces posted an image showing industrial cogs to mark the day.
Last month, the International Labor Organization urged Egypt to respect international labor conventions on freedom of association that it has ratified. In its April 8 statement, the ILO also demanded the repeal of measures that prevent unions from publishing official documents and prohibit collective bargaining, exposing union leaders to the risk of dismissal and arrest.
Egypt's independent trade unions were a focus of the doctoral thesis of an Italian student who was tortured and killed after he disappeared earlier this year on a day when police were out in force to prevent protests, fueling speculation they were behind his abduction and death. Italy has withdrawn its ambassador from Cairo to protest what it described as a lack of cooperation in the investigation, while Egypt denies security forces were involved.
Also on Sunday, a political party founded by opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi, the only candidate who ran against el-Sissi in the 2014 presidential election, issued a statement condemning the police blockade of the syndicate building and urging independent unions be allowed to organize freely.
The Karama, or Dignity, party, which itself had been surrounded by armed security forces last Monday, said "It is a pity that Egypt's workers are prevented on their day to express demands and their rights."
This story has been corrected to remove a reference to a posting on a purported armed forces Facebook page that appears to be unreliable.