'I am the noblest businessman on Earth': Egypt's tycoon Abul-Einein

Bassem Abo Alabass, Wednesday 18 Jul 2012

Mubarak-era business tycoon Mohamed Abul-Enein says he deserves to be 'saluted, not condemned' as thousands of Cleopatra Ceramics workers continue months-old battle for a higher standard of living after the revolution

Abol Enein
Mohamed Abul-Enein, owner of the Cleopatra Group (Photo: Ahram file)
The embattled owner of Egypt's largest ceramics maker has hit back at his critics, saying that factories will remain closed until a government-backed settlement to his dispute with workers is reached.
Mohamed Abul-Enein, the owner of the Cleopatra Group, blamed "fifty troublemakers" from the factories' workers syndicates for provoking weeks of strikes by employees who demand a greater share of company profits. A previous attempt to fire all staff failed when workers seized the two ceramics factories, disrupting activities.
Production has been frozen since 20 June at the firm's factories in Ain Sokhna, 120km east of Cairo, and 10th of Ramadan City, 60km north of the capital. 

The Ain Sokhna facility is built in a special economic zone close to Sokhna Port. Abul Einein, who enjoys tax breaks on all of his factories, was one of four investors granted cheap plots of lands in this location. All investors were members of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party. 

Abul Einein's empire extends beyond ceramics. The group has investments in six sectors including agriculture, housing, tourism, mining and media. 

He is facing trial on charges of being helping orchestrate the infamous 'Battle of the Camel' on 2 February last year, when thugs attacked protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the 18-day revolt that led to president Hosni Mubarak's resignation.

Abul-Enein last week threatened to permanently close the factories and liquidate his assets -- a move that would leave 25,000 out of work.

At a Wednesday news conference, convened on a barge floating off the Giza corniche, Abul-Enein defended himself from workers' allegations of mistreatment and going back on his promises.
"I deserve congratulations, not blame," he said at one stage. "I am one of the noblest businessmen in the world."
On Tuesday, the city of Suez saw bloody clashes when hundreds of employees of the Cleopatra Group broke into the Suez administration building, enraged by local government's seeming reluctance to help settle differences with their employer. 
"Shame on them," declared Abul-Enein on Wednesday. "There is no industrial country around the world that sees what my factories see [in terms of rights and conditions]."
For the last 30 years, he went on to claim, workers at Cleopatra have been treated better than any other staff in Egypt's morethan three dozen other ceramic factories.
"The combined wage bill for all workers in the group's factories is LE40 million," Abul-Enein said, adding that most Cleopatra workers are against the industrial action. The current dispute is being engineered by a minority, he claimed several times.
Earlier in July, hundreds of disgruntled Cleopatra workers blocked the streets in front of Egypt's Supreme Court in downtown Cairo to reiterate their longstanding demands for what they call a fair share of company profits.
Chanting slogans against Abul-Enein, they had gathered at the court building to escalate their protests after Egypt's newly-inaugurated President Mohamed Morsi failed to resolve their complaints. They had previously protested at the presidential palace in Heliopolis.
"Abul-Enein stands in direct opposition to around 25,000 workers at Cleopatra factories nationwide," worker Ahmed Roshdi told Ahram Online at the time.
"He is reneging on his promises to distribute profit shares to workers."
Speaking on Wednesday, however, Abul-Enein denied he had ever pledged to pay workers bonuses, extra allowance or profit shares. 
He said the supposed promises had been made by members of the Ministry of Manpower in a bid to quell workers' anger during protests earlier in 2012.
"[Such payment] was recommended by the Minister of Labour who was afraid of their bullying behaviour. There was no agreement on this between myself and my employees," he told reporters.
"I have paid each of the workers a LE500 bonus and distribution of profits equivalent to 20 days." 
Egypt's prosecutor-general on 5 July issued a travel ban against Abul-Enein, following accusations that he had unjustly dismissed workers and denied them due pay.
"The workers broke into the bureau of the Attorney General so he decided to avoid escalation by ordering this ban. But it did not work," Abul-Enein claimed.
In March, around 4,000 of the 6,000 workers employed at the Cleopatra factory in Ain Sokhna, Suez, launched a strike to demand salary increases, bonus payments and a share of company profits.
Two months later, factory operations were suspended for 12 days after company management stopped providing the free transportation for workers. In response, around 4,000 employees staged a sit-in before the Suez governor's office. Abul Enein at the time dubbed the labour protests "artificial" and illegal.
On Wednesday, he said that factory production has been halted since 20 June and claimed the company "has not even one pound" to its name.
The Cleopatra Group saw a net loss of LE140 million in 2011, he claimed. There is no apparent way to verify this, as the group is not listed on the stock market and thus not obligated to publish quarterly financial results.
Established in 1983, Cleopatra Ceramics claims to export to more than 100 countries and employ around 20,000 people. Its Ain Sokhna factory, near the Suez Canal, is one of the largest ceramics plants in the Middle East.
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