Egypt’s opposition group backs textile strike


Egyptian textile workers and pro-democracy activists are calling for a day of strikes and protests on Sunday, just ahead of local elections at a time of widespread anger at the government of President Hosni Mubarak over rising prices and low wages.


The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday threw its support behind the strikers – raising government fears that the movement, Egypt’s strongest opposition group, seeks to position itself to be the political vehicle for the economic discontent.


The government quickly announced a ban on political rallies inside mosques, hoping to blunt protests. Mubarak also lifted taxes on some foodstuffs in an effort to soften economic complaints.


Around 40,000 weavers are to walk out at textile factories in the northern Nile Delta industrial city of Mahalla el-Kobra on Sunday, to voice their dissatisfaction over low wages. The city has already been the scene of a string of unprecedented strikes over the past year.


On the same day, the pro-democracy group Kifaya, which in Arabic means “Enough,” has said it would hold a solidarity rally in Cairo’s twin city of Giza. Kifaya’s leader Abdel-Halim Qandil said the move will support the workers and “express the grievances of the people ... in a day of anger.”


In recent days, anti-government groups have been sending mobile phone messages and emails to people around the country to hold protests, stay home from work, avoid shopping, wear black clothes and hang the Egyptian flag from windows and balconies in a show of support for the strikers.


It was difficult to tell how widespread protests would be around the country. But the calls were the first major attempt by opposition groups to turn the past year’s labor unrest and the rising anger over the economy into a wider political protest against the government, only two days before key elections for local councils on Tuesday.


The government has launched a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood ahead of the elections, a move the group says is aimed at preventing it from running for seats on councils around the country. Hundreds of Brotherhood members have been arrested – including many would-be candidates. Thousands of other Brotherhood candidates were prevented from registering, the group said.


In recent weeks, Brotherhood protesters have clashed with police in street demonstrations. The crackdown has brought sharp criticism from Mubarak’s ally the United States and from several international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.


In a statement on Thursday, the Brotherhood announced its support for the Sunday strike, through it underlined that it had no role in organizing it.


“We are with the strike as a means of expression and peaceful protest in the face of the despotic and suppressive actions of the executive authority,” it said.


The Brotherhood said it would take more than strikes to bring about change in Egypt, which it said was possible only through a wider civic movement – hinting it could take such a role.


“The Egyptian people possess great capabilities and power, but need someone who is able to ... point them in the right direction to create the right pressure at the right time and in the best effective manner,” the group said.


While secular opposition groups like Kifaya have largely been marginalized, the government views the Brotherhood as its top political challenge.


The Brotherhood scored surprise victories in 2005 parliament elections that gave it a fifth of the legislature’s 454 seats. The local elections had been scheduled to take place in 2006 but were put off for two years, apparently out of fear of more Brotherhood gains. The Brotherhood is banned but its candidates run in elections as independents.


Labor unrest and economic woes appear to be even more worrisome for the government, given the potential for unrest among the millions of impoverished Egyptians. Authorities have tried to accommodate workers during recent strikes, promising to deal with their wage demands and refraining from using force against them as is done without hesitation against political demonstrations.


Parliament on Wednesday hastily approved a law prohibiting demonstrations inside places of worship – a move likely aimed to prevent the opposition from holding protests inside Al-Azhar, Cairo’s most prominent mosque.


Hamdi Zaqzouq, minister of endowments, said it wasn’t acceptable to “turn ... Al-Azhar Mosque into a Hyde Park,” in a reference to London’s famous free speech spot.


Also on Wednesday, Mubarak decreed that rice, some cooking oils, dairy products and baby milk powder would be exempted from import duties while taxes would be lowered on other items to ease the burden on the needy population as prices continue soaring. Also exempted were some medicines, cement, construction materials and commodities such as refrigerators and air conditioner parts.


Last month, Mubarak ordered the army to increase bread production and distribution to cope with acute shortages of subsidized bread that have sparked clashes at bakeries in low-income neighborhoods leaving at least two people dead.


Demand for subsidized bread has grown steadily in Egypt in recent months, fueled by rising wheat prices that have made unsubsidized bread less affordable for the 20 percent of Egypt’s 76 million strong population that lives below the poverty line. (AP)