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Workers at Suez Canal go on strike

Join labor protests in Egypt for better wages, conditions

By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / February 18, 2011

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CAIRO — Hundreds of workers went on strike yesterday along the Suez Canal, one of the world’s strategic waterways, joining others across Egypt pressing demands for better wages and conditions. The protests have sent the economy reeling and defied the military’s attempt to restore a veneer of the ordinary after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall last week.

The labor unrest this week at textile mills, pharmaceutical plants, chemical industries, the Cairo airport, the transportation sector, and banks has emerged as one of the most powerful dynamics in a country navigating the military-led transition that followed an 18-day popular uprising and the end of Mubarak’s three decades of rule.

Banks reopened last week but amid a wave of protests over salaries and management abuses promptly shut again this week. The opening of schools was delayed another week, and a date has yet to be set for opening the stock market, which some fear may plummet over the economic reverberations and anxiety about the political transition.

The military has repeatedly urged workers to end their strikes, to no avail.

“For 30 years, there were no protests at all — well, not really — and now that’s all there is,’’ Ibrahim Aziz, a merchant in downtown Cairo, said. “The situation’s a mess.’’

For days the military leadership has sought to steer a country in the throes of a political transition that could remake Egypt more dramatically than at any time since the overthrown monarchy win 1952. In a series of statements, it outlined steps to amend the Constitution and a return to civilian leadership within six months, though the date for elections for the presidency and Parliament was unclear.

Egypt’s revolution was, in some ways, remarkable for the consensus over its demands, primarily the end to Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, with disparate ideologies subsumed in the narrative of a popular uprising. But already this week some of the fundamental rules that have underlined republican Egypt have begun to be renegotiated.

The head of Al-Azhar, once one of the world’s foremost institutions of religious scholarship, has called for its leadership to be elected, not appointed by the government, a change that could reverse decades of the institution’s abject subordination to the state. The strikes may prove no less decisive as they gather momentum in turning back years of privatization that left workers with fewer protections and more grievances.

In a statement yesterday, striking workers in Mahalla el-Kobra, the center of Egypt’s textile industry and a stronghold of labor resistance in the Nile Delta, said they would no longer take part in a government-controlled labor union but rather join the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which it said was set up on Jan. 30.

The striking workers at the Suez Canal Authority said their protests in the three major canal cities — Suez, Port Said, and Ismailiya — would not interfere with the operations of the canal, which links the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. One of the world’s busiest waterways, the canal serves as one of Egypt’s primary sources of revenue and a major transit route for global shipping and oil.

Other strikes were reported at textile plants in the coastal city of Damietta and a pharmaceutical factory in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. Taken together they number in the tens of thousands of workers in one of Egypt’s most pronounced episodes of labor unrest.

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