Mubarak’s own strike-free birthday gift

Mubarak’s own strike-free birthday gift

Egyptian activists failed Sunday for the second time in a month to rally the public to down tools in a general strike to send a message of protest to President Hosni Mubarak on his 80th birthday about price hikes and curbs to their freedom. After weeks of build-up to the planned strike action the result was a repeat of the April 6 attempt: Cairo”s streets were congested and few seemed to care.

The capital”s streets remained teeming with hundreds of thousands of vehicles making Sunday business as usual. Shops remained open and there was little, if any at all, of the strike called by activists felt across the capital.

This was not good news for an opposition movement that thought it was picking up steam following the April 6 general strike, which at least saw some streets, schools and universities emptier early in the day.

Mubarak may have helped undercut the strike with the promise only days earlier of a hefty pay rise to all state employees.

“What do they [the opposition] expect to do? The government has given a raise to employees and a strike is still called for. I don”t understand,” said Muhammad, a supermarket owner in a more upscale Cairo neighborhood. He said it was as any Sunday would be in terms of business and customers.

On Wednesday last week, Mubarak promised government employees a 30 percent wage increase. Activists say it is a cunning but empty promise to preempt demonstrations and people from staying home.

Whether or not the proposal of raising income will come to fruition, the president has won the battle of hearts and minds for now.

National state-run newspapers tried to outdo each other in lauding their president by carrying birthday wishes to the leader of 27 years and praising his character and successes.

In grand fashion, the state-owned daily newspaper Akhbar al-Youm showered congratulations on the leader with a front-page picture of Mubarak under a headline that read, “Why we love you, chief.”

The English language Egyptian Gazette said of Mubarak, who has been in power since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, that “Egyptians will light a new candle in the victorious life of their leader who has a high sense of self-denial and has made many sacrifices for Egypt.”

The strike, which had garnered over 70,000 members of the Facebook social networking Web site, called on supporters to boycott work and wear black to symbolize action against Mubarak”s government.

Now activists are questioning their methods, even the future of such acts that have seemingly failed to galvanize a frustrated population that has seen the cost of living rise by 50 percent since the beginning of the year.

Even with the nation”s largest opposition organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, supporting Sunday”s boycott it was not enough to get people to move toward a mass movement.

One leading activist in the country believes a lot has to do with the failure of a strong leadership among the small and largely unorganized opposition groups.

“There is not a unifying person that can get people onto the streets to take action,” he said, asking his name be withheld due to his status within the opposition movement. “Like Bob Marley said, “a hungry person is an angry person,” but here in Egypt there isn”t a leader that can hit these points home to the whole population.”

He says that until this occurs more Sundays of hopes will dwindle as Egyptians continue to struggle in a weakening economy where prices of essential goods spiral out of control. Almost half the population lives on approximately $2 daily, not enough to support a family.

This activist says he knows from experience, “how hard and scary” it can be to put oneself in action. He spent over a month in prison in 2006 for participating in the Kefaya (Enough) movement-led demonstrations over judicial freedom.

At the same time, it may have been arrests and the subsequent detentions by the government that prevented widespread action from taking place. Dozens of people were arrested on April 6 and on the days immediate following. Families of those activists report that they still have received no word on their loved ones” status and in some cases their whereabouts.

As for the Brotherhood, security forces have rounded up hundreds of its members in the past few months in a new campaign to block the group”s popularity and limit its activities. In April, 25 leading financiers of the Islamic organization were sentenced to between three and 10 years in prison for “financing a banned organization.”

“It is very difficult to have a movement when hundreds of the members and people that would be on the streets doing something are already in state custody,” the activist admits.

With confidence in a waning opposition movement on the ropes, the government and Mubarak have put another dent into the thin armor of the opposition camp.