Egyptian Leaders Fail to Defend Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia

Article Summary
Alaa Al Aswany reports that the ongoing demands for rights and justice by Egyptian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are not being supported by the Egyptian government. Despite thousands of cases of mistreatment, government officials, the Military Council and even the Muslim Brotherhood have apologized to and defended the Saudi regime.

Picture yourself working in a company where one of your colleagues has verbally abused you. Undoubtedly, you would object to your colleague’s conduct and demand to be treated with respect. But what if the president of the company was the one who had verbally abused you? What would you do in this case? You would be left with two choices: to respond with dignity at whatever cost, or to swallow your pride in order to keep your job.

This introduction is necessary to understand the situation of Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia. Certainly, we must not generalize this principle. We have no intention of prejudice against the Saudi people, whom we value and cherish in Egypt. However, we are talking about thousands of grievances that have afflicted the Egyptian people for decades. One of the worst injustices against Egyptians in Saudi Arabia is the abusive sponsorship system, which is considered a form of slavery by the United Nations.

Under the sponsorship system, an Egyptian worker is required to pay a share of his or her salary to their Saudi sponsor. The worker is totally at the mercy of the sponsor or employer, and he is not even allowed to travel within or outside Saudi Arabia without the sponsor’s prior consent. A simple complaint against the work enviroment could result in his dismissal or even imprisonment.

A cursory glance at human rights organizations’ reports and the Egyptian foreign ministry’s files will show thousands of Egyptians who were plundered, deported or even arrested despite their innocence. There are multiple reasons behind this obvious injustice that has affected the many Egyptians who have worked in Saudi Arabia over the decades.

First, we must mention the abject poverty and the high rate of unemployment that is currently plaguing Egypt. Those who leave Egypt for Saudi Arabia are exhausted by their dire living conditions and are often willing to endure any type of hardship to provide food for their children.

The sponsor buys these people’s effort and sweat. He believes that with his money, he can treat people as easily replaceable commodities. Egyptian workers, on the other hand, cling to their jobs as a drowning man clutches a straw. Many workers endure great hardships and unfair employment conditions in Saudi Arabia because they have no other choice.

A few years ago, two Egyptian doctors working in Saudi Arabia were arrested and tried under mysterious circumstances. They were sentenced to imprisonment and flogging. At the time, I wrote an article defending their right to a fair trial. I was surprised at the scores of letters I received from readers who told me about the unjust and degrading treatment they previously faced as Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia. However, the strangest thing was that I also received letters from Egyptian readers requesting that I not defend the doctors. They feared that my defense would push the Saudi authorities to punish and dismiss Egyptian workers.

Second, under Mubarak’s regime, Egyptian rights were constantly violated. People lived under dreadful conditions. Thus, the regime was not in a position to defend its people's rights abroad when it was not any better domestically. Today, the military council is an extension of Mubarak’s regime, in terms of both words and actions. How can the military council respect the dignity of Egyptians abroad when they are the first to trample their dignity in Egypt? Thousands of Egyptians have been unjustly arrested, killed and publicly humiliated.

Third, the law in Saudi Arabia does not meet the standards of international justice. People are not equal before the law there, which differentiates between nationalities. The laws that apply to Egyptians in Saudi Arabia are never applied to Americans or Europeans. What’s more, Saudi princes are above the law. They do whatever they want, the way they want to. Saudi law is modern-day slavery. Egyptians are deprived of their most basic legal right, which is the right to a legal investigation and a fair trial.

Fourth, following the October War in 1973, the skyrocketing oil prices made Saudi Arabia a major regional power. This economic surge was mainly the result of a war fought by Egyptian soldiers, who paid for victory with their lives and their blood. This pushed the late president Anwar Sadat to officially request the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to allocate a fixed proportion of oil revenue to Egypt and Syria, since the oil boom was the result of the Egyptian and Syrian soldiers’ sacrifices.

Sadat’s request was not approved, but an abundance of oil money flowed into Egypt for other reasons. Millions were poured in to support and strengthen the extremist Wahhabi movements, as the Saudi regime relies heavily on an alliance between the Wahhabi sheikhs and the Al-Saud family. The Wahhabi sect is spreading in Egypt and throughout the world, which will ultimately help maintain the stability of the Saudi regime. Saudi oil money is also used in Egypt for the establishment of a business network with close ties to Saudi Arabia.

Wherever you go in Egypt, you will find that Egyptians have strong ties with Saudi Arabia, from those working in Saudi media outlets to the many Salafist sheiks who work in religious television channels with huge salaries. Al-Azhar sheikhs teach at Saudi universities and Egyptian businessmen regularly work with the Saudis. Even most of the presidential candidates are hesitant to criticize the Saudi regime in defense of Egyptian rights.

This has always been the situation in Egypt during Mubarak’s rule. Egyptians were subjected to injustices at home and abroad. When the Egyptian revolution broke out, the Saudi regime naturally took a clear stand against it. Saudi Arabia exerted unprecedented pressure on US President Barack Obama to save the regime and to prevent Mubarak’s trial. The establishment of a real democracy in Egypt — one that would be a model for the entire Arab word — would threaten the autocratic Saudi regime that is still resisting real political reform.

However, in the heat of the situation, the Saudi regime failed to realize that the revolution changed Egyptian behavior. This major shift in the Egyptian mindset was obvious in the case of lawyer Ahmad al-Gizawi.

Al-Gizawi is a brave revolutionary lawyer who defended many of the rebels before military courts. He then took the cases of Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia who were detained without trial, thus finding himself in litigation with the Saudi king himself. When al-Gizawi and his wife went to perform umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca), he was assured that the Saudi regime would not be able to punish him for his political positions, as under Islamic law, all those who go on a pilgrimage are untouchable.

Unfortunately, al-Gizawi was arrested as soon as he landed in Saudi Arabia. Those who asked about him were told that he would be whipped and imprisoned for insulting the king of Saudi Arabia. Two days later, Saudi authorities announced that they found more than 21,000 drug tablets on al-Gizawi.

This silly accusation is not worth discussion. Al-Gizawi is a brave fighter who got arrested several times in defense of his principles. What made him suddenly turn into a drug dealer?

Is he stupid enough to travel with such a high amount of drugs through the Cairo airport, where baggage X-rays make it impossible to transfer that many drugs?

Moreover, the quantity of that many tablets weighs more than 60 kilos, and the baggage weight limit is only 30 kilos. According to the records of the Cairo airport, the weight of al-Gizawi and his wife’s bag did not exceed the limit.

Also, why didn't the Saudi authorities announce this futile fabrication from the beginning? Where is the video depicting the inspection of the bag used against al-Gizawi, as stipulated under international law? Why did the Saudi authorities leave al-Gizawi's wife alone and choose to arrest him when they knew that the alleged drug bag belonged to both of them?

The charge was invented in a naive and shameful way, and perhaps the Saudi power did not expect any serious Egyptian reaction. What happened to al-Gizawi has happened to many Egyptians before him. When they were unfairly arrested and expelled from their jobs, there was no reaction.

However, the revolution returned the sense of dignity to Egyptians. Mass demonstrations were held in front of the Saudi embassy denouncing the injustice and calling for a fair trial for al-Gizawi.

Throughout the world, demonstrations are a legitimate means of protest that are usually used against officials. Had these demonstrations taken place against the Saudi embassy in London or Washington, the Saudi regime would not have had the nerve to object. But for Egyptians to dare to claim their rights is something that the Saudi regime is not accustomed to, and it was a step it did not tolerate.

Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador for consultations, shutting down its embassy. Consequently, the remnants of the Mubarak regime — which is still the ruling power in Egypt — was greatly confused and Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri apologized. Foreign Minister Mohammad Kamal Amr, whose consul in Saudi Arabia rushed to condemn al-Gizawi before the investigation was even ready, apologized as well. Al-Azhar sheikhs also apologized, though no one knows why. What’s more, the military council hired writers to cover the crisis on Facebook.

The leftovers of Mubarak's regime are adopting his approach. The entire Egyptian state has apologized because Egyptians simply dared to demand a fair trial for an Egyptian citizen. However, the Muslim Brotherhood — who refused to apologize for their deal with the military council and for surrendering the principles of the revolution for their own interests — rushed to apologize to Saudi Arabia on behalf of Katatni, the president of the People's Assembly. To them, the close ties between the Saudi regime and the Brotherhood are more important than the dignity of the Egyptian people.

Those giving up on al-Gizawi's rights are those who abandoned the Egyptian revolution, namely the military council, the Ganzouri government and the Muslim Brotherhood. There is nothing left but the revolution to pay for Egyptian dignity and to demand a fair trial for al-Gizawi. 

By closing the Saudi embassy and impeding the issuance of visas to Egyptians, the Saudi regime seeks to assert that it is capable of dealing with Egyptians as it pleases, without accountability. This is a message that will not be tolerated. The Saudi government should realize that the era of stepping on the dignity of Egyptians without any punishment is forever gone.

We will continue to support al-Gizawi's right to a fair trial and we demand the release of all Egyptians detained in Saudi prisons. We demand that they and their families be compensated for the injustices they endured.

The Egyptian people, who offered hundreds of martyrs and thousands of injured to obtain freedom, will not allow anyone to crush the dignity of Egyptians in or outside Egypt.

Democracy is the solution.

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Found in: sponsorship system, saudi sponsor, saudi law, saudi, scaf, muslim brotherhood, muslim, military council, military, migrant workers, immigrants, human rights, ganzouri, egyptian workers, egypt, economic, ahmad al-gizawi

Alaa al-Aswany is an Egyptian writer and a prominent member of the Egyptian Movement for Change, Kefaya. Al-Aswany currently writes a weekly column for Al-Masry Al-Youm and his political articles have been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and Le Monde. His 2002 novel, The Yacoubian Building, has been translated into 27 languages and was nominated by US Newsday in 2006 as the most important translated novel in the United States.

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