‘Widespread strikes put Egypt to the test’ from Sydney Morning Heralds

CAIRO:  In a nation that outlawed strikes and largely judged independent  unions to be enemies of the state, a juggernaut labour movement is flourishing.

Egypt’s ruling military council, that assumed power after the fall of  president Hosni Mubarak, issued a renewed ban on strikes in April. But in recent  days, this has been resoundingly defied by empowered labour leaders and  burgeoning bands of new unionists who are striking in massive numbers not seen   since the first weeks of the revolution.

The fast-spreading strikes amount to a serious test for the interim  government over the parameters of freedom of expression in the new Egypt.

The strikes are threatening the fragile economy, described by observers as a  ticking time bomb, with the government bleeding cash reserves and Egypt losing  foreign investment. Economists  warn against granting broad public-sector raises  given that Egypt’s gaping budget deficit is on a parallel with  Greece.

But the military council has to decide whether a crackdown on the strikes  would  ignite more unrest and lend truth to charges that little has changed  since Mubarak fell in February.

Doctors are staging sit-ins at hospitals, demanding pay rises and a trebling  of public health spending. Teachers, on strike for the first time since 1951,  are shutting down thousands of schools, calling for the sacking of the education  minister – one of the many remnants of the Mubarak era – and a ninefold rise in  pay.

Transport workers have partially stalled Cairo’s bus fleet  calling for a 200  per cent pay rise, while  dockworkers stopped work at the key port of Ain Al  Sokhna,  disrupting Egypt’s vital sea links to the Far East.

Further unnerving jittery foreign investors, the nascent labour movement  appears to be spreading to private factories and farms, fuelled by the breaking  of a barrier of fear that served to curb union activity here for decades.

The labour unrest  underscores the duality of the revolutions that have  upended the Arab world with uprisings sparked as much by a hunger for economic  change as a thirst for political freedom and democracy. In Egypt, it is becoming  clear that the interim government, followed by a  new, democratically elected  one  after promised elections, faces a massive challenge.

”The genie is out the bottle,” the executive director of the Egyptian  Centre for Economic Studies, Magda Kandil, said. ”Now that fear is gone, the  workers are demanding more.”

The Washington Post

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/widespread-strikes-put-egypt-to-the-test-20110927-1kvfg.html#ixzz1ZEs9HqL3

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