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Wave of Labor Unrest Grips Egypt at Crucial Juncture

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.

"The government can dilute the crisis for the moment, but they will encourage more opposition," said Hassan Nafaa, a political analyst at Cairo University.

By some accounts, more than 600 strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest have taken place this year; there were just as many last year. Last month, factory workers in Mahallah al-Kobra launched a strike when Mubarak met with Obama in Washington. Workers such as Fayoumi have unearthed a boldness their fathers and grandfathers never felt in the 57 years of one-party rule in modern Egypt.

"It's not political as much as it is about lost rights," said Fayoumi, a determined expression spreading across his angular, goateed face. "There are no politics in Egypt."

The government is concerned that its opponents, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, could turn the public's frustration to its advantage. Many labor leaders are aligned with opposition groups, and elections are scheduled for 2011. But if the government cracks down on the protesters, it could repel foreign investment. Publicly, senior officials of the ruling National Democratic Party downplay the unrest. "It's purely economic," said Mohamed Kamal, a top NDP member with close ties to Gamal Mubarak. "Once you give more money to those people, it's over."

Still, there's concern. When a Washington Post reporter and an Egyptian colleague entered the privately owned Tanta factory and took photos of the empty warehouses, government security forces demanded their identity cards and detained them for an hour. They ordered the photos erased in front of them.

Fears of Fizzling Out

Abu Ita's office on the second floor of a dark, crumbling building in a poor nook of Cairo, the capital, is a symbol of victory. It houses the General Union for Property Tax Employees, which Abu Ita heads. The body is the nation's only independent union.

In Egypt, every union has to be sanctioned by the government; its leaders are often government appointees. But fed up with their low salaries, thousands of property tax workers went on strike across the country in December 2007.

"We decided to stop working. That meant we would not collect the taxes," said Abu Ita, smiling.

The government tripled their wages. Lawmakers scrapped draft legislation that would have taken more rights away from government employees. Then, the workers formed an independent union. Today, Abu Ita says, the union has 37,000 members.

Two weeks ago, Egyptian security forces took him into custody and interrogated him for an hour, he said.

"We know this is the price we pay for what we do," Abu Ita said. "This is evidence of how terrified the government is."

Mahmoud al-Khodeyri once epitomized the promise of Egypt's reform movement.

In 2005, he and thousands of judges took to the streets to demand autonomy for the judicial branch. Today, the protest's leaders have fled the country; the government has divided the judiciary and retains its grip.

"We were a threat to the government," said a solemn-faced Khodeyri. "No longer."

Many worry that the labor movement faces the same future. Mustafa Foudha, who is trying to start an independent textile workers union, says his movement is infiltrated by government spies. He was expecting greater change after last year's strike.

"All that is happening now is just a little stone thrown into stagnant water," Foudha said. "It hasn't opened a new path for the water to move."

But Nafaa and others say that without major reform, the unrest could boil over.

"It is like a time bomb," Nafaa said. "You don't know when this will explode."

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