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Labour unrest as Egypt moves towards democracy

First working day since military's appeal; Mubarak in Sharm, not well, says Saudi official; Further talks on transition to democracy; Constitutional committee meets for first time.

February 16, 2011 4:10 by



Some workers ignored a call by military rulers to return to work on Wednesday, and a committee hammered out changes in Egypt’s constitution to pave the way for a democracy to replace 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s iron role.

The Higher Military Council had urged Egyptians to put aside the revolutionary ardour, that has found expression in protests and strikes about poor pay and working conditions, in the interests of national unity and restarting the damaged economy.

Banks were closed across Egypt because of labour rows that were having a spillover effect across many sectors, while 12,000 workers went on strike at a textile plant in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra and Cairo’s airport was also hit by industrial action.

“Mubarak has left, but the problems are still the same if not more,” said John Sfakianakis, economist at Banque Saudi Fransi. “At this stage I would be more optimistic than last week given that you don’t have hundreds of thousands on the streets.”

With uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia sending shockwaves around the Middle East, hundreds of people, angry at the arrest of a rights campaigner, clashed with police and government supporters overnight in the Libyan city of Benghazi.

There have also been clashes in Iran, Bahrain and Yemen.

There was a frenzy of rumour about the health of Mubarak, 82, who is holed up at his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after flying from his Cairo palace. In last-ditch addresses, Mubarak said he wanted to die in Egypt.

One Saudi official in Riyadh said: “He is not dead but is not doing well at all and refuses to leave. Basically, he has given up and wants to die in Sharm.” The official added that Saudi Arabia had offered to be his host.

Life was far from normal five days after Mubarak was forced from power by a whirlwind 18-day uprising, with troops and tanks on the streets of Cairo, schools and banks closed and Egyptians still finding their new found freedom hard to believe.

YOUTH MOVEMENT CRUCIAL

Youth activists behind protests which toppled Mubarak asked for a meeting with the Higher Military Council, which has promised a swift handover to democracy and civilian rule, but had yet to receive a reply, a leading activist said.

With no clear leadership, the youth movement that was pivotal to the revolution because of its use of social networking sites to organise protests, is seeking to overcome divisions and unite to form political parties.

“There are various strands of youth who have similar demands. The next step is to unite their ranks,” AbdelRahman Samir, a youth activist who has previously met with the military council said, adding: “Some youth coalitions have formed.”

Opposition leaders are calling for the immediate release of political prisoners and the lifting of emergency laws.

A committee, set up to amend the constitution within 10 days as a prelude to parliamentary and presidential elections in six months, also met as the military dismantles the apparatus used to maintain Mubarak’s rule. The Higher Military Council has already dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution.

Egyptian pro-democracy leaders plan a big “Victory March” on Friday to celebrate the revolution — and perhaps remind the military of the power of the street.

The military had hoped tens of thousands of Egyptians would heed its appeal to get back to work on Wednesday and abandon the strikes and protests that flared after the downfall of Mubarak.

But anecdotal evidence suggested unions, emboldened by the people’s overthrow of Mubarak, are still pressing their demands.

Facing a rash of pent-up labour demands from groups ranging from bank staff and tour guides to policemen and steelworkers, the military has urged people not to disrupt further an economy already damaged by the revolution.

Workers cite a series of grievances. What unites them is a new sense of being able to speak out in the post-Mubarak era.

Tuesday was a national holiday to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad so for many sectors Wednesday was the first work day since the military’s appeal.

MILITARY’S SOFTER SIDE

The careful wording of the army’s plea on Monday marked a change of tone from the more autocratic style of the past, provoking concern among some industry executives.

“The army must use stronger language to the people,” said Chamber of Metallurgical Industries General Manager Mohamed Said Hanfy. “A lot of them don’t have a problem but want to seize the opportunity presented by the political situation,” he said.

Uncertainty remains over how much influence the military will seek to exert in reshaping a corrupt and oppressive ruling system which it has propped up for six decades. In a new post-Mubarak era the army is keen not to appear heavy-handed.

State television broadcast footage of military officers visiting an orphanage to mark the Prophet’s birthday, taking on the kind of caring role often played by Mubarak’s wife.

“I love the army and the armed forces because they protect the nation and Egypt,” said one of the orphans.

But a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood said he was stopped from leaving the country on Wednesday by police he identified as state security, saying that it appeared the force associated with Mubarak’s rule was trying to reassert itself.

Sheikh Sayyed Askar, a member of parliament for the Brotherhood from 2005 to 2010, said he had not been given an explanation for being turned away from Cairo airport, where he had tried to board a flight to Beirut.

The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which did not play a leading role in the revolution but has been Egypt’s best-organised opposition group for many years, has a member on the committee drawing up the constitutional amendments.

Some secular leaders fret that racing into presidential and parliamentary elections in a nation where Mubarak suppressed most opposition activity for 30 years may hand an edge to the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood.

In Tahrir Square, scene of clashes between protesters and police during the revolt, traffic flowed on Wednesday and some of the army tanks and armoured vehicles had been pulled back, although military armour remained in other Cairo locations.

(Reporting by Marwa Awad, Edmund Blair, Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed, Andrew Hammond, Alistair Lyon, Sherine El Madany, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Tom Pfeiffer, Patrick Werr, Jonathan Wright, Dina Zayed and Amena Bakr in Saudi Arabia; writing by Peter Millership; editing by Jon Boyle)



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