EGYPT: Too poor to strike?

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Egyptians might be mad, but they are not ready for revolt.

Riot police and a public skittish about confronting the government of President Hosni Mubarak led to a failed nationwide strike on Sunday. Activists had hoped that an Internet campaign and text messaging would arouse enough passion to get hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the streets to protest low wages and spiraling inflation.

Instead, they got a whimper. The focal point was to be the big textile plant in the Nile Delta at Mahalla. The plant has come to symbolize labor and public unrest over Mubarak’s policies. But police seized the factory before dawn and prevented thousands of workers from striking. Similar rallies were squelched across the country, including at Tahrir Square in Cairo. About 30 activists were arrested, but the atmosphere was relatively calm.


“People are passive and don’t have the strike culture. They don’t even know how to hold a strike,” said one health ministry employee, who asked not to be named.

There were indications that some workers did stay home from work to protest bread lines and inflation that has doubled and tripled in a country where nearly half the population is poor.

Cairo traffic was thinner than usual, and a few shops said business was down. Shopkeeper Ahmed Mohammed said sales were off by 50%. But others said the strike failed because when you barely make enough to survive, you can’t afford to sacrifice a day’s pay to vent your anger.

‘The strike is a good idea, but it has to be well-implemented, which means we should all go on strike together’ said elderly shopkeeper Mohamed Tawfik. “However, the 25-year-old man can not go on strike as it will have cost him 15 Egyptian pounds daily pay. I would have been directly harmed if I had gone on strike because I would have lost my daily stipend.’

UPDATE: News reports out of Mahalla by early evening said that clashes erupted between textile workers and riot police. Some reports indicated that two people were killed in the violence and as many as 100 were injured. One resident told an Egyptian journalist that a train was set ablaze.

— Jeffrey Fleishman and Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo