Wave of Labor Unrest Grips Egypt at Crucial Juncture

Hosni Mubarak, 81, became Egypt's fourth president in 1981 and has since survived several assassination attempts and held his office longer than any other Egyptian leader of the twentieth century.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 27, 2009

TANTA, Egypt -- The warehouses of the Tanta Flax and Oil Co. are quiet, the machines covered with dust. In the silence, Hisham Abu Zaid has found a power unlike anything he has experienced in his life.

For four months, the lanky, low-key father of three and his co-workers have staged a sit-in to demand higher salaries. They have blocked a main highway for hours and demonstrated in front of the prime minister's office. Outside the shuttered factory's rusting gate, government security officers keep close watch.

Almost everyone in Egypt seems to have gone on strike these days -- lawyers and judges, doctors and engineers, pharmacists and government employees, public transport workers and garbage collectors. Fueled by poverty, rising costs and a lack of government responsiveness, this unprecedented wave of labor unrest has become the primary means of venting frustration at a government that has survived for decades by clamping down on political dissent.

The protests come at a critical juncture for Egyptian politics and U.S. policy in the Middle East. Questions are rampant about the health of President Hosni Mubarak, 81, who has been at the helm for 28 years. Many are concerned that he will hand power to his son Gamal, extending the life of an unpopular regime marked by repression and stagnation. Against this backdrop, the Obama administration is relying on Egypt to help broker peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and improve America's relationship with the Muslim world, goals that President Obama has made clear will help define his tenure.

"There is real social anger in Egypt," said Ayman Nour, an opposition politician who was jailed on unsubstantiated fraud allegations. "It's erupting for economic reasons, but in the womb of this social anger, there is political anger."

The unrest is the latest indicator of a collective acrimony in the Arab world's most populous nation, one that has deepened in the four years since Mubarak won Egypt's first contested presidential election amid widespread reports of fraud. Its society is increasingly polarized as the gulf between the rich and the poor widens. Basic services and living standards are deteriorating; the global financial crisis has compounded the woes.

U.S. pressure for democratic reforms, once viewed as effective, has receded as Egypt's strategic importance has risen and as the Obama administration has shifted focus in light of struggling democracy-building initiatives across the Middle East, say opposition and government officials. Today, the government has all but crushed the nation's fractured opposition movement; its pervasive security forces routinely monitor, intimidate and arrest scores of activists.

The jaded say the labor unrest is another futile exercise in the long narrative of failed challenges to Mubarak's rule. But others are convinced that the seeds of a revolution are being planted.

"We are certain that our rights, in a country like Egypt, can only be taken by force," said Kamal Abu Ita, a union leader.

A New Boldness

On April 6, 2008, Kamal al-Fayoumi was among thousands of textile factory workers who took to the streets of Mahallah al-Kobra, a dusty industrial city along the Nile Delta. Denouncing high food prices and low wages, protesters clashed with Egyptian riot police. "Down with Hosni Mubarak," some boldly chanted.

The strike brought out the government's worst fears. Young pro-democracy activists promoted the strike using the social networking site Facebook, blogs and SMS text messages. Members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most influential Islamist party, also participated. Egyptian security forces arrested bloggers and labor leaders.

Within days of the unrest, the government announced a bonus worth a month's pay to the textile workers, and it promised to address their demands for better health care and higher salaries, surprising even hardened activists.


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