Cairo, Egypt – Thousands of workers throughout industry, education and transportation joined Egypt’s popular revolt Wednesday by staging strikes or protests that raised the specter of a general strike, an ominous sign for U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
In Cairo and hardscrabble towns across the country, working-class Egyptians went on strike, demanding higher pay, better conditions and Mubarak’s ouster, and there were reports of violence in at least one provincial town.
The government announced a 15 percent pay boost for public servants earlier this week, but some workers who joined the protests Wednesday said they couldn’t be “bribed” out of joining the uprising. More labor unrest is expected Thursday, in solidarity with the huge crowds that have occupied Cairo’s main square and are now expanding to the parliament and other strategic sites.
“These are now the same demands that the Tahrir Square protesters are calling for because the workers have realized that this current regime will never fulfill their goals,” said Kamal el Fayoumi, a factory worker and organizer in the city of Mahalla el Kubra, a hotbed of labor activism for the textile industry. “The regime has to go.”
Arabic-language satellite TV channels reported as many as 200,000 workers were on strike Wednesday, a figure that couldn’t be verified. Much of the information about strikes was disseminated via bloggers and on social networking sites without attribution.
The unrest spread against a backdrop of the worst public acrimony between Egypt and the U.S. since the crisis began 16 days ago.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Washington against “imposing your will” on Egypt, after Vice President Joe Biden called his Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman, Tuesday and, among other steps, urged him to immediately repeal Egypt’s draconian emergency law, in place for three decades.
“I was really amazed because right now, as we speak, we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed. How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I’m in difficulty? Give me time, allow me to have control to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state and then we would look into the issue,” Aboul Gheit said in an interview with PBS NewsHour.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday again called the Egyptian government’s response to the protesters inadequate.
Also Tuesday, two protesters were killed in Kharga, an oasis town in the western desert, where hundreds of residents set fire to a courthouse and attacked a police station in two days of rioting, wire services reported. Police opened fire on the protesters, and the army intervened to protect prisons and other government facilities.
Railroad technicians, teachers, sanitation workers and many others took to the streets as part of the impromptu labor rallies. Of chief concern to western countries was the Suez Canal, which is vital to international trade and a foreign currency earner for Egypt. Some workers affiliated with Suez Canal Authority mounted a protest according to news reports, but traffic in the waterway was not affected.
Many protesters hope that a general strike, closing down transportation, industry and the Suez Canal would paralyze the country and deliver a fatal blow to Mubarak’s weakened regime.
But Egyptian workers would have to organize themselves spontaneously, workers and labor organizers said, because the government controls nearly all trade unions as well as their umbrella federation.
“When those in Tahrir call for a general strike, I wonder what is the mechanism they would use to organize it? There are no real unions. And, sorry, the Egyptian working class is not on Facebook,” said Hossam Hamalawy, an activist and blogger who closely monitors Egyptian labor issues.
A Western diplomat in Cairo said the regime has been rattled by indications that the protest movement is still attracting new supporters to Tahrir Square and that unrest among labor unions was a troublesome development.
“There has been a lot of major labor activity in the last several years,” said the diplomat, who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name. “When you start getting workers coming out spontaneously with their economic demands . . . people that were silent or waiting, some of them seem to be shifting.”
The diplomat said that while Mubarak’s concessions — declining to seek re-election and offers of constitutional reform — were more than many Egyptians could have imagined three weeks ago, “it does appear to be inadequate, certainly in the way it’s being rolled out.
“The concern is that it’s been too top down, sort of, ‘I hear you, I understand, now leave it to me.’ And that’s not what people want. People want to be involved,” the diplomat said.
The discontent has spread to the state-owned media, long a bulwark of the Mubarak regime, and scores of journalists demonstrated at the entrance to al Ahram newspaper, Egypt’s oldest paper. They demanded permanent contracts and justice for two colleagues who died in the protests.
“Many, many people in different sectors in Egypt are encouraged by the revolution, so they are raising their voices against what they are feeling,” said Karem Yehia, a journalist at al Ahram for more than 20 years.
Last week, journalists sent a letter condemning the newspaper’s coverage of the uprising, which has been dismissive and misleading, Yehia said. On Jan. 26, one day after the protests began, the paper’s top story was about Lebanon. Last week, after 11 protesters died and thousands were injured in clashes with Mubarak loyalists in Tahrir Square, al Ahram’s headline was: “Millions demonstrate in support of Mubarak.”
Shahira Amin, a senior anchor on state television who resigned after 22 years to protest censorship of the protests, said media employees share the same hardships as other Egyptians. She said it’s too soon to tell whether their anger would cost the government its conduit to the masses.
“Let’s not forget that government employees and workers all over the country have borne the brunt of the financial crisis: prices of basic commodities have soared whilst their salaries have remained the same,” Amin said. “In the past, they have not been able to publicly express their grievances, but now that the fear barrier has dissolved, they are finally able to express their anger and frustrations.”
(McClatchy special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed from Cairo. Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)