General strike did not aim to harm the economy, says expert

Alex Dziadosz
6 Min Read

CAIRO: Around mid-afternoon yesterday, stretches of Tahrir Square would have set a perfect scene for the finale of an American Western film, as sandy, orange-tinted air silhouetted droves of riot police against unusually quiet streets.

Perfect, that is, but for a missing climax.

The throngs of chanting, sign-wielding marchers, talked up on blogs and internet forums over the past weeks, did not appear as much as was expected. Visible displays of rage over government corruption, marginalization and a perceived failure to stifle rampant inflation mostly fizzled save for a few contained demonstrations.

Although the strike called for people to avoid shopping and to stay home from work, initial reports did not indicate a large effect on the economy. “The point of the strike was not to harm the economy, said Khaled Ali, a lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “The point was to make a strong statement and to take a stand.

Inflation and other trends have reached “irrational levels here, said Ahmed El-Naggar, an economist at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“For the good of businesses, there is a need to correct this market, he added.

As the first general strike called for here in recent memory, yesterday’s events were generally expected to fall short of the historic impact they might have had. But many say it was a promising enough experiment to warrant repeat attempts.

“I think [the results are] okay if you take into account the lack of political experience and leadership in opposition groups, said Samer Sulaiman, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “This is how people get experience.

He predicted that yesterday’s strike could foretell popular movements and pressure for democratic reforms on a level not recently seen in Egypt. “It’s the beginning of something, he said. “But the road is long.

The early stages of yesterday’s action were fomented in Mahalla Al-Kobra, where nearly 25,000 textile workers announced their intent to strike at the state-owned Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving Company factory. A cadre of opposition groups moved to popularize the strike, hoping to showcase their discontent with state policies.

The workers strike was stopped before it even started early Sunday, and the streets were mostly empty in the Delta city of Mahalla where a majority of the local shops closed for the day.

The state has made several moves to cope with inflation and soaring staple food prices over the past month, including a ban on rice and cement exports, a waiver for import duties on rice, dairy, oils and some cement and steel.

Last February, inflation reached 12.1 percent. Prices on staples like vegetables, oils and dairy products rose between 15 and 40 percent according to state statistics.

Some officials, including Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid, have uttered concern that continued inflation could menace Egypt’s liberalization projects, the cornerstones of its recent economic policy.

The unrest sown by high food prices and what some perceive as a widening divide between rich and poor – even as the Egyptian growth rates top 7 percent – are some of the most recent examples of this.

Hard statistics on the number that actually took part in the strike are hard to come by, with many of those involved instead making rough guesses based on observable facts, like lightened traffic.

“There is no official number, but you can tell, walking in the streets, that the number of people out was very few, said El-Naggar, “So there was participation.

Sulaiman said many people might have stayed home due to fear of clashes between police and protestors, rather than political anger. In his own department at AUC, three secretaries missed work because they feared for their safety, he said.

Ali said the only groups that participated directly in the strike in Cairo were the Lawyer’s Syndicate, Cairo University and Helwan University. He said the number of participants exceeded his expectations and was high enough for groups to try similar measures in the future.

El-Naggar echoed the same sentiments, saying that “the main point is to give a message to the government and the regime, said El-Naggar. “I think it will give a message to the society that we are able to do more.

The situation is not specific to Egypt as discontent soars over rising food and fuel prices in other parts of Africa.

Forty people died during price riots in Cameroon in February, Reuters reported, and there have been deadly clashes in Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Senegal and Burkina Faso – where a nationwide strike against price rises is to start Tuesday.

Governments across the continent – where the crisis ranges from 100,000 percent inflation in Zimbabwe to Morocco, where subsidies for key commodities have grown fivefold over six years – are becoming anxious about public anger, Reuters reported.

The rise in international food prices “poses significant threats to Africa’s growth, peace and security, African finance ministers warned in a statement at the end of a meeting in Addis Ababa last week to discuss the crisis.

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