EGYPT: Salary Hike Kills Strike

EGYPT: Salary Hike Kills Strike

Calls for a nationwide protest against the rising cost of living ended in anticlimax on Sunday (May 4), with most Egyptians going to work as usual. Although protest leaders had urged the public to register its disaffection en masse by staying home, the streets of the capital were busy.

“Public participation was considerably less than expected,” Hamadeen Sabahi, independent MP and protest leader, told IPS.

“The May 4 strike certainly lacked the popular effect of the Apr. 6 action,” agreed MP Sabahi, who also heads the Karama Party. He went on to attribute the strike”s poor showing to a government announcement Apr. 30 that all public and private sector salaries would be raised by a total of 30 percent, effective as of next month.

“This announcement — made one week before the strike — was the main reason for the low level of participation,” said Sabahi.

The appeal to strike on May 4 came on the heels of a larger — and considerably more dramatic — general protest organised early last month.

On Apr. 6, a labour strike at a state-owned textiles company turned into a nationwide call for economic relief and political change. The initiative, which was soon picked up by politically minded Facebook members, was also led by the frozen Labour Party and Kefaya.

In contrast to May 4, the streets of the capital — usually gridlocked with traffic — were eerily silent on Apr. 6. The textile workers” strike became the scene of violent confrontations between security forces and demonstrators.

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

Mohammed Zaki, a 28-year-old Internet activist and strike advocate, attributed the low turnout on May 4 to the “politicisation” of the initiative.

“On Apr. 6, Egyptians came together to voice common grievances — namely, rising prices and low salaries,” Zaki told IPS. “But with the increased participation of political groups on May 4, our demands became politicised. For example, many people from the more liberal Facebook crowd didn”t want to participate in an action alongside the Muslim Brotherhood.”

For the last three weeks, activists had urged Egyptians not to go to work, and to refrain from making purchases at commercial retail outlets on May 4. The call to strike came in reaction to soaring food prices, which have doubled — and in some cases tripled — in recent months.

Although the protest was timed to coincide with the 80th birthday of longstanding President Hosni Mubarak, strike leaders stressed that their demands were limited to the social and economic — rather than political — arenas.

Cited in an online statement, demands included salary increases to meet the rising cost of living, viable economic policies to combat inflation, and concrete moves against market monopolies.

The call to strike was spearheaded by a handful of opposition groups, including the Islamist-leaning Labour Party (frozen since 2000), the al-Karama Party (as yet unlicensed), the al-Ghad Party and the pro-democracy Kefaya movement.

The Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, which controls roughly one-fifth of the seats in Egypt”s parliament, also supported the appeal.

In a development that has disconcerted the authorities, the call was also picked up by a number of social networking groups on popular website Facebook. According to strike leaders, some 30 different Facebook groups with a combined membership of more than 150,000 people endorsed the call to strike.

But when the day came, the appeal appeared to have had little effect. Few Egyptians chose to stay home, and — despite expectations — no demonstrations were staged at Cairo”s usual venues of protest.

The one exception was a protest held at the Egyptian Bar Association in central Cairo, where dozens of activists chanted anti-government slogans. Riot police quickly cordoned off the building to prevent the modest protest from moving onto the street.