CAIRO (Reuters) - President Hosni Mubarak told opponents calling for political change in Egypt they needed to offer more than slogans and promised to stand by workers, but showed no sign of ceding to demands to raise the minimum wage.
Mubarak, in his first address to a live audience since returning from surgery in Germany in March, said that investment and continuing economic growth would deliver a better standard of living as complaints from workers multiply.
“I say to Egyptian workers: you will always find me by your side, keeping my promises to you,” he said in a speech that followed international labor day.
But after 29 years in power, Mubarak faces growing rancor in the Arab world’s most populous nation, where rapid economic growth has not reached many among the millions of working poor.
In the last month, workers have staged protests calling for a boost to Egypt’s minimum wage, which has not been changed since the early 1980s and officially amounts to just $6 a month.
Some have been camped outside parliament for weeks, a novel move in a nation where public displays of dissidence are largely banned by emergency laws in place for decades.
Those protests coincide with calls for political change from opposition groups hoping to capture world attention ahead of parliamentary polls this year and a 2011 presidential vote.
Mubarak, who turned 82 this week, has not said if he will stand for a sixth six-year term. If he does not, many Egyptians expect his son Gamal or a member of the country’s political and military establishment to stand for president.
Egypt’s biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is officially banned and is seen as too weak to pose a real challenge to Mubarak. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. atomic energy agency, might be a dark horse candidate but it’s uncertain whether he would be allowed to run.
Speaking to an audience of labor union leaders, who occasionally erupted into shouts of praise, Mubarak warned against abrupt turns that could endanger Egypt’s stability.
“There is no place at this critical stage for those who can’t distinguish between change and chaos,” he said.
“I say to those who raise slogans ... this will not be enough to win voters’ trust,” said the aging leader, who despite jet-black hair appeared wan during a half-hour speech.
“They must answer the questions of the simple people.”
But despite a court order to boost the low minimum wage, which forces many government workers to juggle several jobs, Mubarak did not promise an increase.
Egypt’s economy grew strongly in recent years, up to 7 percent a year, but a fifth of Egyptians are believed to live on less than $1 a day and rely on the state for subsidised bread and fuel. Many Egyptians say growth has mainly benefited the business elite and according to U.N. figures, per capita income was about $1,788 in 2007.
Worker protests over wages and surging prices in 2008 turned violent, prompting the state to hike some wages by 30 percent.
But past attempts to ignite a major social protest movement have failed and analysts say opponents would need to broaden their support in order to seriously challenge entrenched powers.
Mubarak did promise improvements for the poor, and said that if a draft law before parliament is approved, 2.7 million people would get an increase in their monthly retirement payments.
He also said the success of an April bond issue, in which Egypt sold its first 30-year sovereign bond in a $1.5 billion offering, reflected the wisdom of economic policies.
“The reception of the recent dollar bond sale places Egypt among a small group of seven emerging nations that can offer world markets bonds with maturities of up to 30 years.”
Writing by Edmund Blair and Missy Ryan; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton