• May 6, 2008

High food prices revive Egypt’s opposition parties

High food prices revive Egypt’s opposition parties

Egypt’s opposition parties have found renewed strength following a nationwide protest against skyrocketing food prices that took place April 6.
“April 6 was a watershed in the history of Egypt,” said Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the Socialist Labor Party. “It will be studied by future students of political science.”

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

It was not Mahalla’s first serious labor 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 labor strikes throughout the course of last year in a number of industries.

The recent wave of labor 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.

At a meeting in early March, labor 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 Labor party, which has been 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.

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 April 5.

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

On April 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 realized that the call to strike was receiving wide popular support,” Mr. Hussein said. “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 materialized.

The day before the scheduled event, Mahalla labor 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 had been injured.

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 April 6,” a 35-year-old government employee said. “I wanted to send a message to the government that—thanks to soaring food prices—my monthly salary no longer lasts me even 10 days.”

Although several ancillary demonstrations and protest marches were scheduled for the same day, these were largely preempted by a heavy security presence in urban centers 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.

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

Several of the strike’s principal supporters, several have since been detained by police on charges of instigating riots.

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