May 1, 12:15 PM EDT

Egypt police block workers' assembly, labor activist says

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CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian police prevented hundreds of workers from holding a meeting in Cairo to commemorate International Workers' Day, an independent Egyptian trade union leader said.

Kamal Abbas, of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers' Services, said some 650 workers from several provinces were in the city center seeking an alternate location to hold a news conference after police prevented them from entering the journalists' syndicate building.

The area is currently under lockdown by dozens of uniformed and plainclothes security forces, some wearing facemasks and carrying automatic weapons.

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.

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.

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 has changed under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general who ousted Mubarak's divisive successor, the Islamist Mohammed 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 among other policies. 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.

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