Kamal Abbas is a compact man with a wry smile who has become a major annoyance to the troubled regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
From an office near the steel mill where he led his first uprising years ago amid the sting of rubber bullets, Abbas has helped organize nationwide strikes that have exposed a widening anger over rising food prices, low salaries, political repression and a government that often appears detached from the concerns of its people.
Abbas is passionate, methodical and accustomed to police surveillance. The state has accused him of working with "external forces" to disrupt the country's economy; he faces the prospect of a year in prison. The 50-year-old former millworker, whose hands are thick but no longer calloused from joining hot steel, said the government "feels the cloud of labor's appeal" and fears a wave of unrest.
"The regime is dead. It has no legitimacy," he said. "But the problem is that no alternative force is willing to come forward to bring about change. It's a fear of the state, but not only that. The state has neutralized some opposition voices and simply gotten rid of others. We have become a suffering society with no way to express itself."
Abbas' Center for Trade Union and Workers Services is part of a labor vanguard seeking to undermine state-controlled unions, which many workers regard as corrupt and indifferent to their demands. The organization has also chosen not to openly align itself with a disparate political opposition that includes secularists and leftists in the Kefaya party and Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The allure of the labor movement, which is strongest among the 27,000 textile workers in the town of El Mahalla el Kubra, comes from a bond with struggling Egyptians, about 45% of whom earn $2 or less a day and can no longer afford inflation that has more than doubled the price of many commodities, such as peppers, cooking oil and onions.
The prospect of strikes flaring across the country has prompted Mubarak to raise the basic salaries of about 6 million public workers by 30% and set off a wave of police crackdowns. The authorities shut down the union's four national offices, but a court recently decided that they were free to operate. There's a catch that speaks to a curious legal system that quiets dissident voices: It's up to police discretion to "implement" the court's verdict.
Cairo is a Washington ally, and unrest here could jeopardize U.S. policy in the region. But the deeper dilemma facing the 80-year-old president is gaining the patience of poor and working-class Egyptians who have not benefited from deregulation and privatization, even as the economy grows.
"The worst scenario," Abbas said, "is that the slums of Cairo will escalate into violence that will lead to police force that will exacerbate the hate that already exists between the people and the police."
The police, ubiquitous in their blue and white uniforms, still hold sway. A nationwide protest against high food prices called for early this month by cyberspace activists and opposition groups failed because Egyptians are fearful of crossing a state often criticized for torture and human rights abuses.
Anger is tempered by resignation and a lack of faith in opposition parties stifled by Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
"The [protests] won't lead to anything because the government does what it wants in the end," said Mustafa Balaha, a government driver. "The raise won't solve anything. My basic salary is 200 pounds [$37], which means I will get a 60-pound [$11] raise. What can 60 pounds do for me and for my eight children?"
Labor strikes, however, have shaken the government. Beginning in 2006, strikes and protests have been staged by rail and textile workers, tax collectors, university professors, doctors and at cement factories. The hot spot was El Mahalla el Kubra, where days of riots that left one youth dead erupted in April when police prevented textile workers from striking at a state-owned plant.
Last week, the government raised gasoline and diesel prices between 36% and 57% to fund the public employee pay raise. Some analysts suggest that this could spur more inflation, but officials portrayed themselves as looking out for the poor by taxing products aimed at those rich enough to afford cars.
"We could not provide the big wage raise that the president asked for without having real revenues," Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief said in announcing the new measures. "I simply took money from the financially capable to give to the less capable."
Abbas' push for independent unions began after he spent 45 days in jail in 1989 for leading a steel mill strike. He is a student of world labor movements. He envies the power of unions in Italy and France, and reveres the Solidarity revolution in Poland in the 1980s as the epitome of the working class forcing political change.
But much has altered in Egypt since Abbas' early days on the picket line: Globalization and the world food crisis have put enormous pressure on the government, which recently ordered the army to bake bread for civilian bakeries to prevent shortages that had led to violence and the deaths of 11 people across the country.
"Egypt has gone from state-controlled capitalism to more of a free market," Abbas said. "More than 350,000 workers have been laid off since the mid-1990s. We have economic growth, but state-run factories are crumbling and even in the private sector workers are working long hours with cheap pay."
Abbas said he is waiting for a charismatic opposition leader to rise from the clamor and rally the nation. He cautioned that such a voice probably would not come from the ranks of labor.
"Those who think the labor movement will lead to political change in Egypt are foolish," he said.
"The movement is still too young. We have to be concerned with the economic conditions of the workers. We can't rush things."
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.