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Monday 16 April 2012

Khaled Ali: The Hard Labor of Law By: Radwan Adam

Khaled Ali: The Hard Labor of Law
By: Radwan Adam
Published Saturday, April 14, 2012

Khaled Ali is running in next month's Egyptian presidential elections. Win or lose, his long struggle for labor rights will likely continue to be his utmost priority.

The boy from the village had few things to occupy his mind. He stimulated his imagination inventing answers to questions like "where does rain come from?" He narrowed the possible answers to this question down to three. The first was "God wants to water the thirsty land, and God does what he wills." The second was "the white elephant beat the red bull, so rain fell." The third was the story of clouds colliding.

Life's pages turned and Khaled Ali's attention turned to other serious questions which spurred him into a career as a prominent lawyer and fierce defender of the Egyptian working class.

Ali aligned himself in his youth with the Communist camp in his "cosmopolitan" village of Mit Yaish in the governorate of Daqhaliyah, the same place Egyptian Communist leader Shuhdi Atiya al-Shafei hailed from.

He recalls receiving a phone call in 2006 that would change the course of his life. The caller was Yousef Darwish, the teacher and well-known Communist activist, asking Ali to visit him. He entrusted him with a heavy bag full of personal memoirs and documents recording the struggle of the working class, which he could barely carry home. "Uncle Yousef" died a few days later.

At the conclusion of their last meeting, Darwish told Ali that he would make no financial gain from taking on labor cases as a lawyer, but the reward in terms of workers' appreciation would be immense. "The working class glorifies those who defend it. Workers do not forget," he had said.

Sure enough, Ali was welcomed with exceptionally warm applause by Egyptian workers at an International Workers Day commemoration in 2009, and honored by the journalists' syndicate "for supporting labor rights and defending the marginalized."

Supporting the Struggle

The working class is the revolution's foremost guardian and the guarantor of its continuity.Portraits of other people who won the hearts of the workers are hung at the entrance to Ali's modest office in downtown Cairo. "To departed workers and strugglers, more immortal than the living," says the inscription on a frame containing photos of Darwish, Ahmad Nabil Hilali, Hisham Mubarak, and others.

Ali does not comment, but points to another picture and his eyes sparkle. Here are the workers of the Tanta Linen Company, which was sold off to a foreign investor for 83 million Egyptian pounds, though its real value was in the billions. A simple wooden frame encloses the paper on which the workers wrote: "A certificate of appreciation for the struggler lawyer who supported our recent strike in front of the Council of Ministers."

Months after the company was sold, Ali won a historic court verdict for these workers in June 2010, which included a prison sentence for the company's new Saudi owner. "It was a critical ruling," he says. "It threatens any businessman who is tempted to compromise labor rights with punishment."

A metal cabinet in Ali's office contains gauze, cotton wool, disinfectants, and pain-killers. "This is what is left of the medical supplies we used to provide in the first few days of the revolution to the field hospital in Tahrir Square." He wipes his brow as he speaks of the law criminalizing strikes recently issued by the Cabinet: "They can soak it in water and drink it," he remarks. "The protests are continuing. The working class is the revolution's foremost guardian and the guarantor of its continuity."

Directly opposite his desk hangs a display about the rights of working women, featuring photos depicting "labor struggles that we supported and that triumphed." They include pictures of female rural pioneers, property tax workers, and textile company workers.

Coincidence played a big part in charting Ali's personal and political course. After graduating from Zagazig University law school in 1994, he worked at a little-known law office in the town of Mit Ghamr. He then got a job by chance at the Legal Aid Center, where he met the lawyer and legal activist Ahmad Seif, who had been tortured and imprisoned several times in connection with a student case. "He opened his library to me and handed me its keys...He was a romantic struggler."

The first time Ali was arrested was in 1997, during a nurses' strike at Zagazig University Hospital.Four years later, Ali and Seif joined like-minded activists and lawyers in founding the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, later becoming its director. On its behalf he succeeded in obtaining dozens of verdicts, including landmark rulings on the annulment of trade union elections, the privatization of the health insurance authority, and the state-sanctioned looting of the 200 billion Egyptian Pound (US$33 billion) social insurance fund.

Ali left to set up the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, where he continued to champion labor rights and won a historic ruling that obliges the state to set a minimum wage. He also managed to end the sequestration of the Engineers' Syndicate.

Not all these struggles passed in peace. The first time Ali was arrested was in 1997, during a nurses' strike at Zagazig University Hospital. He was beaten by the police and held for four hours at a store in downtown Cairo on International Workers Day.

His office was also raided by state security and military police in the early days of the revolution. Several activists, including Seif, were arrested there, though they were released prior to former President Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

In the years to come, the struggle will be continued by others. "We organize training courses at the center in order to create cadres of labor lawyers, and other courses to acquaint workers with their basic rights," says Ali. He is inspired by the example of Darwish, who decades ago established night schools to teach workers literacy and the principles of organization.

The center has also provided legal help in the establishment of four independent trade unions.

"I am optimistic about the situation of workers after the revolution," says Ali, who has co-authored a manual titled How to Establish a Labor Union.

"Workers were the first to die for the revolution," he affirms. "The future of the working class is in the hands of the working class."

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