CAIRO (Reuters) - An outbreak of strikes by Egyptian workers, emboldened by more than two weeks of anti-government protests, is compounding the challenge to President Hosni Mubarak as he confronts a mass movement determined to oust him.
Thousands of workers in industries like textiles, steel and telecommunications are staging protests, sit-ins and strikes over wages and working conditions across the country, suggesting a spirit of civil disobedience is spreading.
It is still unclear whether Egypt’s unions, fractured and dispersed, can gain momentum and act in unison as happened in Tunisia, where an uprising unseated the president last month.
But the acceleration of the strike movement could push the country’s army, now limited mostly to guarding streets and state buildings, to step in to avert economic paralysis, analysts say.
It will also add to price pressures, already building with a government pledge to hike some state wages by 15 percent. Surging inflation was one of the complaints that pushed many Egyptians on to the streets in a movement that began on January 25.
“The revolution is increasing the expectations of different social forces who think they have rights that have been ignored for a long time,” said Gamal Soltan, senior research fellow at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“I think it is implicit that if their demands are not met, they are going to escalate them and politicize them, perhaps joining the protesters. They have a bargaining chip that they didn’t have before.”
In a sign the government is wary of the trend, Vice President Omar Suleiman warned on Tuesday against calls for civil disobedience, saying they could destabilize the country.
Suleiman, who said he was entrusted to manage the crisis until Mubarak’s term ends in September, warned against a “new wave in Egypt to increase chaos, whereby everyone who has a demand or does not like something specific will demonstrate.”
Protesters say a peaceful civil disobedience campaign involving sit-ins in public places and refusing to pay utility bills could escalate the protest movement without risking violent reprisals.
About 3,000 workers at companies owned by Suez Canal authorities have gone on strike over pay and conditions, although the unrest has so far not affected the waterway. The canal is a vital global trade route and a key source of revenue for Egypt, earning the government nearly $5 billion last year.
Hundreds of government employees and university professors staged protests demanding better wages on Wednesday and thousands of industrial workers have declared strikes in Suez, Ismailia and Cairo.
Railway and post office workers are reported to have staged sit-ins and protests, and several hundred employees of the mostly state-owned landline monopoly Telecom Egypt have demonstrated for better pay.
Workers complain wages have not kept up with inflation of more than 10 percent a year. Food prices are climbing much faster. With the Egyptian pound also under pressure, analysts say inflation is set to climb further, though where it levels off will depend on how long the crisis lasts.
In the meantime, workers may become more restless but it remains to be seen if they can coordinate their action.
“Strikes have broken out everywhere, but there remains no structure in the form of unions to organize the strikes into one movement,” said Hossam Hamalawy, an activist familiar with Egyptian labor movements.
Some union leaders, however, are already voicing solidarity.
“This is the revolution of the youth and we are part of it as workers,” Kamal Abouaita, the Tax Collectors Union’s leading member, told Reuters. “We chant the same slogans and protest in solidarity with others. We are all Egyptians.”
He said the union was discussing ways of coordinating civil disobedience such as refusing to pay taxes and utility bills to weaken the state and push the president from power.
If the strikes spread across the country, and paralyze key sectors, it could push Egypt’s army to take sides, after trying to maintain an appearance of neutrality. “Labor strikes of that scale would provide pressure to bring a speedy end to the crisis,” said Safwat Zayaat, a Cairo-based military analyst.
“The army would certainly not use tanks and force against striking workers,” he said. “The army would likely stage a coup and announce a limited period of control.”
Such escalation is not a foregone conclusion, but it is unlikely that laborers, freshly empowered to press old demands, will be placated by moves such as a 15 percent raise in some state wages, announced on Monday.
“The more concessions the government makes, the more labor protests will demand,” said Soltan of the Al-Ahram Center. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle that we will not get out of without a political solution.”
Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Sherine El Madany in Cairo and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Trevelyan