EGYPT: New Strike to Greet Mubarak

EGYPT:  New Strike to Greet Mubarak

Hundreds remain in detention following a nationwide protest Apr. 6 against rising food prices and political stagnation. But this has not deterred activists from calling for a second general strike on May 4, timed to coincide with President Hosni Mubarak”s birthday.

“About 40 percent of the Egyptian people answered the call to strike earlier this month,” Mohammed Zeki, a 28-year-old Internet-based activist from Cairo told IPS. “Despite the state”s dictatorial methods, we expect an even greater response on May 4.”

On Apr. 6, employees of a major state-owned textiles company in the town Mahalla about two hours driving distance from Cairo, planned a massive labour strike, demanding wages more in keeping with soaring local food prices. According to UN estimates, expenditures on basic food commodities and services for the average Egyptian household have risen 50 percent since January.

But with encouragement from a handful of political activists, the strike turned into a nationwide call for general economic relief and — more contentiously — political change. The initiative was led by the Islamist-leaning Labour Party, officially frozen since 2000, and the pro-democracy Kefaya movement.

In a statement published online, protest leaders urged Egyptians to register their dissatisfaction with the political and economic status quo by either staying at home or by staging protest marches throughout the country.

The appeal, which was picked up by online activists through popular social networking website Facebook, appeared to have had a strong effect.

On Apr. 6, the streets of the capital — usually gridlocked with traffic — were eerily silent. A number of other planned demonstrations, meanwhile, were prevented by a heavy security presence deployed in most urban centres.

Although the Mahalla strike never materialised, the town, located in Egypt”s Nile Delta, became the scene of violent confrontations between security forces and stone-throwing demonstrators. The clashes, in which anti-riot police used rubber bullets and tear gas, resulted in three deaths and scores of injuries.

In the days that followed, hundreds of people — including Mahalla labour organisers, activists and politically-minded bloggers — were detained by authorities. Although roughly 200 have since been released, an estimated 450 remain in detention on charges of instigating strikes and riots.

Local and international human rights groups have condemned the arrests.

“The mass detentions and vague charges are typical of the regime”s reaction to dissent,” Khaled Ali, head of the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Law Centre told IPS. The centre, which is devoted to providing legal services to limited-income citizens, is currently helping to coordinate a defence campaign for the accused.

In mid-April, Egypt”s prosecutor-general ordered the release of 20 of the detainees, half of whom were online activists that had endorsed the call to strike on Facebook. Before they could be discharged, however, the interior ministry — citing Egypt”s draconian 27-year-old emergency law — ordered their re-arrest for an unspecified period.

“The detention — and subsequent re-arrest — of peaceful activists is inexcusable,” Hafez Abu Saeda, secretary-general of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights told IPS. “This step by the interior ministry can be seen as an infringement on the authority of the prosecutor-general.”

According to Zeki, the mass arrest of political activists “represents proof that the state doesn”t recognise the right of citizens to express themselves peacefully.”

Of ten Internet activists to have been detained, only one has so far been definitively released. On Apr. 23, Israa Abdel-Fattah Ahmed, a founding member of a pro-strike Facebook group, was freed following an extensive “Free Israa” campaign online and heavy coverage in the local media.

“I”m not a political leader,” the somewhat shaken 29-year-old told reporters shortly after her release.

Yet despite the arrests, activists are calling for a second nationwide protest to be held on May 4.

In contrast to the Apr. 6 action, protest leaders are limiting their demands solely to the social and economic arenas. Demands include salary increases to meet rising costs of living, concrete steps against inflation and market monopolies, and the release of remaining political detainees.

In online statements, organisers are urging Egyptians not to go to work on May 4 and refrain from making purchases at commercial retail outlets. Two Egypt-based Facebook groups, with a combined membership of more than 115,000, have endorsed the appeal.

Although the strike is timed to coincide with President Mubarak”s 80th birthday, protest leaders stress they are not calling for political change. Nevertheless, they have promised more protests to follow if their demands are not met.

The use of electronic media, meanwhile, appears to now be a regular feature of Egyptian political activism.

“We”re sending out emails and mobile phone messages and communicating on Facebook groups in order to get the message out,” said Zeki.

In an effort to prevent more mass arrests, strike leaders are also urging supporters to avoid gathering in specific locations en masse.

As was the case with the Apr. 6 protest, the role played by Egypt”s main opposition groups in the planned May 4 strike has so far been negligible.

“Opposition parties still haven”t announced their respective levels of participation,” said Ali. “But if they take part by organising street demonstrations, there could be more violent confrontations with security forces.”

Unlike the heavy-handed state media campaign that preceded April 6 — in which the interior ministry warned citizens not to take part — the government has until now remained largely silent about the upcoming protest.

“We”re still waiting for the government”s reaction,” said Abu Saeda. “It”s possible that the interior ministry will try to close down the Facebook site or arrest the group”s founding members.”

Protest advocates seem prepared for any eventuality. “Sure, they might arrest me for promoting the call to strike,” said Zeki. “But I haven”t done anything wrong, and there are others that will continue the fight.”