Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 April 2008
Issue No. 892
Front Page
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Riding the storm

The response to calls for a general strike on Sunday is open to a variety of interpretations. Shaden Shehab sifts through some of the possibilities

Click to view caption
Students remove shards of broken glass from their classroom window hours after their school was set on fire during the Mahala Al-Kubra riots

Though 6 April started with a sandstorm the restricted vision it caused could not conceal the large number of security personnel and armoured vehicles that were patrolling likely points of assembly for anyone seeking to turn the call for a general strike into a series of mass demonstrations. Organising a protest became the equivalent of mission impossible. There was a bonus spin-off, however. Cairo's often impassable streets were rendered navigable, given that so many people had decided to spend the day at home.

The situation began to take an ugly twist around 4pm when thousands of protesters convened in the industrial city of Mahala Al-Kubra, chanting anti-government slogans and demanding an end to spiralling inflation of basic foodstuffs. Violent scenes ensued as demonstrators threw stones at security forces, vandalised government buildings, burned railway track and tyres. Two schools were left in flames. The police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and 176 people were arrested of which 26 were released on Tuesday. The next day the disturbances spread to the nearby villages of Abu Ali and Rahidein.

A 15 year-old boy died as a result of gunshot to the head and according to the Interior Ministry 111 people were injured, including 41 security personnel. Official statements claiming that the police were reacting to violence directed against them were contradicted by some eyewitnesses, who claimed the demonstrators had been antagonised and their anger was a response to heavy-handed policing tactics.

Though several reports emerged suggesting that workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company had formed the core of the protest, they have been denied by official sources. "Workers would never engage in sabotage or take part in such destructive activities," said Abdel-Rahman Kheir, a workers' representative on the Shura Council. Tellingly, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif visited the plant on Tuesday to thank the workers and announce the payment of an unexpected 30-day bonus.

Up to 23,000 workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahala had announced as early as January that they would hold a massive strike on 6 April if their ongoing demands for improved wages and conditions were not met. The company only agreed to their conditions a day before the scheduled protest, by which time the planned action had snowballed into calls for a general nationwide strike spread via SMSs, Internet bloggers and websites such as Facebook.

But if the calls to strike were ubiquitous, it still remains unclear where they originated. Similarly, no one knows as yet if the riots witnessed in Mahala were a spontaneous outburst or if they were part of a pre-planned strategy.

As calls for the strike spread the public was urged to stay at home on Sunday, or else to join in any number of the planned peaceful protests that on the day failed to materialise. They were also asked to show their solidarity by hanging flags from their windows and balconies, refraining from visiting shops and other retail outlets, and taking the day off from schools, work and universities. A majority of opposition parties turned their back on the call to action. Only the Nasserist Party, the unlicensed Karama Party and the Democratic Front supported the protests, though non-partisan movements like Kifaya took a lead. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood said that while it supported the strike it would not take part.

"We are a responsible party," said Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, the secretary-general of the Wafd, explaining why the party had rebuffed the strike call. "We aim to secure change but not through chaos. These calls for nationwide strikes and civil disobedience are extremely dangerous. Unleash the forces of the mob and Cairo will burn within 24 hours. We cannot afford this kind of demagoguery."

The Muslim Brotherhood's Deputy Supreme Guide Mohamed Habib said the group had not participated in the action because "its instigators were unidentified and their agenda seems to be to court chaos which is something into which we refuse to be dragged".

Such statements were not enough to avoid accusatory fingers being pointed at the Muslim Brotherhood. Predictably, they were blamed for inciting unrest in Mahala, with the state-owned daily Rose El-Youssef leading the charge. The Brotherhood, it announced, was directly responsible for "the burning of Mahala Al-Kubra".

Maged El-Sherbini, a member of the influential Policies Committee of the National Democratic Party, believes it would be foolish to measure either the success or failure of the strike call by events in Mahala "since [what happened there] was not a protest against price hikes and falling standards of living but the result of mobilisation by unknown forces intent on creating chaos".

"What happened in Mahala was not a strike but a series of acts of destruction and wanton vandalism," saying that "groups of shadowy figures had been hanging around the factory, speaking to workers each time they changed shifts and trying to incite them into taking to the streets in a clear attempt to spread chaos and confusion." Investigations will eventually prove the truth, he says, though he discounts the possibility of Muslim Brotherhood involvement.

While the debate over whether the strike call should be judged a success or a flop will continue to rage for the foreseeable future, most commentators agree that it has served to highlight the growing frustration of the vast numbers of Egyptians who are finding it difficult to meet their daily needs. The authorities, think many, can no longer be in no doubt that the pent-up anger of many ordinary people is nearing bursting point, and could eventually explode if their livelihoods are threatened.

Not so, says El-Sherbini. The events of 6 April, he argues, "prove society refuses to have its sufferings turned into a tool by which the public is manipulated".

"Rights activists who tried to play that role," he concludes, "were exposed as having neither the tools nor the ability to mobilise the masses."

Why then the empty streets? According to El-Sherbini "the main reason people stayed at home is because they feared being caught in the middle, between the police and protesters. Then there was the sandstorm and the Interior Ministry's statement warning people of engaging in civil disobedience. In fact many people were aware of the strike only because the Interior Ministry's warning publicised it."

On the evening of 5 April the Interior Ministry had threatened "immediate and firm measures against any attempt to demonstrate, disrupt road traffic or the running of public establishments and against all attempts to incite such acts". The statement said that all public institutions, including schools and state-run factories, would open for business as usual and accused "provocateurs and illegal movements" of having "spread false rumours and called for protests, demonstrations and a strike on Sunday".

Ironically it was the statements by the Interior Ministry, says the Editor-in-Chief of the independent Al-Masry Al-Yom Magdi El-Gallad, that ensured there would be a major response to the protesters' calls for the public to stay at home. "The Interior Ministry's statements convinced people something dangerous would happen and in response many parents kept their children home from school. It was a reaction to a perceived threat of violence rather than compliance with the strike call."

The heavy police presence, El-Gallad continues, betrayed just how seriously the government was taking the threat, something even El-Sherbini does not deny. The government, he says, "is somewhat fearful".

"The failure of the strike doesn't mean that there are no problems. There are. People suffer to make ends meet. They need solutions desperately. This is why President Hosni Mubarak has already taken a number of steps to alleviate their hardship."

The UN World Food Programme this month reported that average household expenditure in Egypt on basic foodstuffs and services had risen by 50 per cent since January. In an attempt to reduce prices on 2 April President Mubarak issued Decree 103 of 2008, modifying custom duties on some imports. The decree, which went into effect on Friday, amends tariffs on 111 items, with duties on some products, including rice, cooking oil, cheese, butter, cement, steel, dairy products and selected pharmaceuticals, eliminated completely. The government announced that the decision was part of a package of initiatives that aim to contain runaway inflation. Officials also revealed that civil servants will receive a pay of more than 15 per cent increase in July. State-owned newspapers highlighted the measures in stories on Saturday and Sunday, both before and on the day of the strike.

"We should not call it a strike, though it is clearly an expression of the discontent felt by large segments of society," says leading Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama. Though there was no general strike to speak of, he believes the call for one was significant in itself.

In his column in the independent Al-Dostour, Fahmy Howeidy wrote that the strike "alleviated a portion of the pent-up anger and public discontent which if it continues could well find harsher and more violent expression".

"The call for the strike," says Howeidy, "sets a precedent for a culture of non-violent means which should have been encouraged given that when the suffering of the public reaches the levels we are now seeing there is a threat of the kind of explosion that saw parts of Cairo go up in flames in 1952 and the country convulsed by bread riots in 1977."

Historian and former judge Tarek El-Bishri goes further, seeing in the events of Sunday the "beginning of true civil disobedience".

"The protests that began to take place two years ago involving a cross section of society," offers the Wafd's Abdel-Nour, "should have set alarm bells ringing in government circles. Yet the government continues to address basic problems on a piecemeal basis. It is to blame for the current situation. It silenced legal opposition forces years ago and failed to listen to the people's demands leaving them prey to any force or means that seems to offer hope."

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