Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Opposition Finds Renewed Strength

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Apr 17 2008 (IPS) - What was planned as a workers’ strike at a major textiles company turned into a nationwide protest against skyrocketing food prices Apr 6. Over the days following, the opposition has found renewed strength.

“April 6 was a watershed in the history of Egypt,” Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the Socialist Labour Party told IPS. “It will be studied by future students of political science.”

Labour leaders from the state-owned Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving located in Mahalla town in Egypt’s Nile Delta planned the strike against the soaring cost of living. The company’s roughly 25,000 employees were seeking higher salaries and improved working conditions.

It would not be Mahalla’s first serious labour action: in December 2006, workers staged a major strike over unpaid bonuses. The action – after which company officials acceded to workers’ demands – encouraged a series of similar labour strikes throughout the course of last year in a number of industries.

The recent wave of labour unrest can be largely attributed to the rising cost of basic commodities, particularly food. According to recent estimates by the UN, expenditures on basic foodstuffs and services for the average Egyptian household have risen by some 50 percent since January.

But the Mahalla strike was destined to become something much greater in scope than originally intended.

At a meeting in early March, labour leaders met with representatives from several opposition parties and political movements. The strike in Mahalla, attendees agreed, would be accompanied by a nationwide call for general economic relief and – more contentiously – political change.

The initiative, led by the Islamist-leaning Labour party – officially frozen since 2000 – and the Kefaya pro-democracy movement, urged Egyptians to use the occasion to express dissatisfaction with the country’s economic and political status quo.

“We began calling on the people to show their support on Apr. 6 by organising popular demonstrations, staging strikes at the workplace or by simply staying home that day,” said the Labour Party’s Hussein. “Soon afterwards, the appeal was heavily circulated via mobile phone and by email.”

Most notably, the call to action was picked up by a member group on the popular networking website Facebook. In a development that surprised everyone, the group – dubbed ‘April 6: A Nationwide Strike’ – grew rapidly through March to reach some 60,000 members as of Apr. 5.

“The message was quickly picked up by the Internet crowd,” said Hussein. “The Facebook group effectively conveyed our appeal to the wider public.”

In an effort to thwart the event, the government launched its own counter-campaign in the days leading up to the strike.

On Apr. 5, the interior ministry released a statement warning of “immediate and firm measures” against perceived attempts to “demonstrate, disrupt road traffic or the running of public establishments.” All public institutions, the ministry stated, were expected to remain open for the duration of working hours the following day.

The ministry went on to blame the planned strike on “provocateurs and illegal movements” working against the interests of the Egyptian people.

According to supporters of the call to strike, however, the government’s heavy-handed campaign had the opposite effect.

“The interior ministry only began to make threatening statements once it realised that the call to strike was receiving wide popular support,” said Hussein. “But its campaign only served to alert even more of the public to the planned action.”

Ironically, the original plan – for a workers’ strike at Mahalla – never materialised.

The day before the scheduled event, Mahalla labour leaders bowed out after receiving assurances from company officials that workers’ salaries would be raised. To ensure that work proceeded as usual, however, the government deployed massive numbers of police in and around the town on the day of the planned strike.

But after the close of the work day, thousands of protesters convened in Mahalla and began chanting anti-government slogans. The situation quickly became explosive.

According to subsequent reports, security forces using rubber bullets and tear gas clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators in a number of violent incidents. By the end of the day, two people had been killed – including a 15-year-old local boy – and more than 100 injured.

“Violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators lasted late into the night,” Saad al-Husseini, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated MP for the Greater Mahalla district, told IPS.

In an indication of mounting anger with the Egyptian regime, several large posters depicting longstanding President Hosni Mubarak – plastered throughout the town’s main squares – were torn down the following day.

Meanwhile, in Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt, popular calls to strike appeared to have had an effect.

There are no official numbers as to how many people chose not to go to work that day. But in a sign at least of the action’s partial efficacy, the streets of the capital – usually gridlocked with traffic – were eerily empty on the day of the strike.

“I didn’t go to work on Apr. 6,” a 35-year old government employee told IPS. “I wanted to send a message to the government that – thanks to soaring food prices – my monthly salary no longer lasts me even ten days.”

Although several ancillary demonstrations and protest marches were scheduled for the same day, these were largely pre-empted by a heavy security presence in urban centres throughout the country. The lone exception was a brief demonstration held at the Egyptian Lawyers’ Syndicate that was eventually broken up by police.

According to government spokesmen, the empty streets could be attributed to a mild sandstorm that swept Egypt. Supporters of the strike, however, insist the action constituted a resounding victory for freedom of expression.

“Some 80 percent of the Egyptian people participated in some form of strike on Apr. 6,” said Hussein. “This is because they are literally going hungry. The government’s economic failure is making people boil with anger.”

In answer to earlier statements by the interior ministry, he added: “Those working against the Egyptian people aren’t the ones calling for the strike, but rather those allowing the people to go without bread.”

Hussein went on to note the absence of official political parties in the organisation of the event, which was led mainly by popular movements and informal groups on the Internet.

“This Internet-savvy youth represents Egypt’s new political opposition,” said Hussein. “The traditional opposition parties died a long time ago.”

Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, which controls roughly one-fifth of the seats in Egypt’s parliament, did not lend official support to the strike.

“We didn’t participate in the action because we didn’t know its goals or who its leaders were,” said the Brotherhood’s al-Husseini. “Any strike of this kind – without leadership or stated goals – will lead to chaos. And this is exactly what happened in Mahalla.”

“We stand with the Mahalla workers as long as they work to achieve their goals by peaceful means, but we stand against violence and destruction,” al-Husseini added.

A massive police presence remains in and around Mahalla. In an effort to soothe the town’s outraged citizenry, however, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif visited Mahalla Apr. 8 where he reportedly promised company employees substantial bonuses.

As for the strike’s principal supporters, several have since been detained by police on charges of instigating riots. These include several leaders of the Labour Party and the Kefaya movement, as well as a handful of the Facebook group’s founding members.

Nevertheless, a second nationwide strike has been declared for May 4 to coincide with Mubarak’s 80th birthday.

“The call for another strike, which we have endorsed, originated from supporters on the Internet,” said Hussein. “It’s becoming obvious that, in the absence of free and fair elections, political change cannot be realised without popular action.

“Fortunately, a new, politically-aware generation appears ready to lead it,” he added.

 
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