Dozens of engineers gathered on Monday noon in front of the Cairo Southern Court in Bab Al-Khalq calling for a lifting of the 14-year-long judicial sequestration imposed upon their syndicate. A sit-in this week was due to be followed by several protests. "Sit-ins will not stop until we free our syndicate," said Tareq El-Nabarawi from an anti-sequestration group of engineers.
"For 14 years, half a million engineers have been deprived of practising their democratic right and electing a legitimate council to represent them," El-Nabarawi said, stressing that successive sit-ins "will be the beginning of a new stage in [their] struggle". The group also intends to refer the dispute to the UN Human Rights Council and the Arab Federation of Engineers.
Hundreds of engineers are complaining that since 1995 their syndicate has been deteriorating. Millions of the syndicate money, as engineers argue, has been wasted due to the absence of general assemblies. "A file including all financial infringements committed during the period of sequestration will be attached to the UN Human Rights Council and the Arab Federation of Engineers," El-Nabarawi said.
The anti-sequestration group of engineers was formed in 2004 to press for an end to sequestration. Sit-ins were staged, street demonstrations organised, conferences held and lawsuits issued to state officials responsible for prolonging sequestration.
The Engineers' Syndicate was placed under sequestration after being charged with committing flagrant violations by its Islamist-controlled elected council. Although sequestration was meant as a temporary measure until a new council is elected, it has lasted for 14 years because elections were not given the green light.
The fear that the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood (MB) would once again control the syndicate council if sequestration was lifted and fresh elections staged appears the reason behind the reluctance by the government to end the dispute. Pledges that the MB would no longer seek to control the coming council have failed to allay government fears.
Those responsible for holding elections see this as an unacceptable delay. Former and current heads of Cairo Southern Court who had been chairing for the past 14 years the judicial committee charged with supervising professional syndicate elections, have refrained from setting a date for the polls.
"Voters' lists need to be sorted out," is the mantra oft repeated.
"Is the process of sorting out voters' lists so complicated that it's taking all this time? And it's still not ready," engineers ask sarcastically.
Last year, the Administrative Court ruled that sorting out voters' lists is an electoral measure which should follow the announcement of a poll date. The court also ordered the current head of the Cairo Southern Court to set an immediate date for a vote. The ruling was ignored.
"We decided to sue the head of Cairo Southern Court for not implementing last year's ruling," said Omar Abdella, from the anti-sequestration group. Abdella added that the group issued another lawsuit at the Southern Cairo first-degree Court, calling for ending sequestration. The ruling is due 27 December.
The head of the Cairo Southern Court is not the only one prolonging sequestration. As engineers argue, there are other bodies at work. Judicial custodians who have been running the syndicate since it was placed under sequestration and who benefit from administering the financial affairs of the syndicate, seek to maintain their influence. "They will fight to remain in their posts, wasting the syndicate's money without being questioned," Abdella said.
To end the dispute, observers say the custodians should have simply sent a letter to the Cairo Southern Court, informing them when exactly voters' lists and electoral committees would be ready and asking them to set a date for the polls. "If they're serious, it will take them just a couple of days. But why should they bother?" Abdella noted.
To perhaps show his keenness to end the dispute, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Nasreddin, in his capacity as the constitutional supervisor of the Engineers' Syndicate, recently formed a 31-member committee to coordinate with custodians on how elections should be staged.
Former minister of transportation Essam Sharaf was assigned head of the committee. As a consultative and technical committee, its role is largely relegated to mediating between engineers and custodians. The final say remains with the custodians.
As such, engineers have been asking about possible ulterior motives for forming such a committee. Apparently, members of the committee are divided into two groups -- one in favour of amending the syndicate law before holding any elections, while the second, which constitutes a minority, believes that elections should precede all. "We have been trying to reach some kind of an agreement on which issue should come first," Sharaf told Al-Ahram Weekly. Sharaf has been noticeably silent over the issue and is accused of not making the committee's stand clear. The committee has recently come under fire for not taking action.
"Why don't they leave it to the next elected council to decide whether the current law needs amending?" Abdella asked.
"Now the true intentions behind forming the committee are clear. The committee and talk about amending the syndicate law sounds like a government trick which aims at dragging engineers into another battle and distracting attention from the elections," El-Nabarawi said.