April 6 strike kicks off a year of protests

Sarah Carr
6 Min Read

The April 6 call for a general strike resulted in a police crackdown on demonstrators and activists across Egypt. In the industrial town of Mahalla – whose spinning factory and its militant workers have become emblematic of resistance – peaceful demonstrators protesting increasing food prices were put down by central security forces.

Activists labeled the Mahalla April demonstration the largest popular uprising of its kind since the January 1977 riots over threats by the government to reduce bread subsidies.

Reckless use of force by the police – including live ammunition – during the two-day demonstrations was heavily criticized by international and local rights groups, and resulted in the deaths of three people, including a 15-year-old boy shot dead on the balcony of his home.

Administrators of the Facebook group which called for the strike faced reprisals from the police. Israa Abdel Fattah, co-founder of the group, was arrested and detained for a couple of weeks.

Ahmed Maher was kidnapped by state security investigations officers and allegedly tortured in the wake of a second call for a general strike on May 5.

The May 5 call for a general strike was generally held to be a failure: Cairo’s empty streets reflected the fear which had been created by televised Interior ministry threats against anyone taking part in protest action.

Both April 6 and May 5 demonstrated the limits of computer-led political activism: while technology has proved invaluable in communicating information (as US photojournalist James Buck discovered in Mahalla when he sent out “arrested on messaging-service Twitter) it has clearly failed as a tool for mobilizing Egypt’s population of 80 million, the vast majority of which do not own a computer.

A month later, in June, a reported 8,000 people sealed off a major road in El-Borollos, Kafr El-Sheikh, for seven hours protesting at the government’s decision to end distribution of subsidized flour rations.

The Hisham Mubarak Law Center reported that over 80 people from the coastal fishing community were arrested.

April 6 gave birth to the April 6 Youth Movement, a small group of young protestors of disparate or no political tendencies who regularly take part in, and organize, demonstrations.

On July 23, a national holiday commemorating the 1952 revolution, 14 members of the group were arrested and detained for 15 days. At the time of their arrest they were singing nationalist songs and had raised the Egyptian flag on a beach in Alexandria.

It wasn’t only young people who protested regularly this year’s middle-aged, middle-class professionals resorted to demonstrations in order to draw attention to grievances which their government-controlled syndicates are either unwilling or unable to resolve.

In March, lobby group Doctors Without Rights (DWR) held a week-long protest on the steps of the Doctors’ Syndicate after the syndicate reneged on its initial support for a two-hour strike against pay and conditions.

Syndicate head Hamdy El-Sayyed dismissed the group as “unrepresentative of Egypt’s 100,000 doctors. Meanwhile, revised pay scales put in place by the Ministry of Health in the form of allowances have so far not satisfied doctors’ demands for an LE 1,000 minimum wage.

DWR’s protest coincided with a one-day strike organized by university professors held on March 23.

The strike was organized by the March 9 Movement, a group of Cairo University professors who came together in March 2003 to protest the US invasion of Iraq and who now press for university autonomy and academic freedom.

Simultaneous protests condemning deteriorating teaching standards, interference by security bodies and low pay were held across Egypt despite threats by university deans that professors taking part would face disciplinary measures.

The government responded by introducing in June the Supreme Council of Universities (SCU), a governmental body made up of university presidents and the Minister of Higher Education that in turn introduced an elective scheme under which teaching staff who satisfy certain conditions receive increases in pay.

The scheme was heavily criticized as being divisive by university professors who are calling for across the board improvements in pay and conditions.

The education sector also witnessed protests in other areas.

In July, administrative employees and other non-teaching staff protested after the ministry of education failed to uphold pay promises.

In August, primary and secondary school teachers staged a series of protest against government plans to link pay increases with performance in assessment exams.

Teachers labeled the examinations “humiliating and criticized the failure of the Teachers’ Syndicate to adequately represent their interests.

The situation in Gaza, the crippling siege imposed on its 1.4 million people and the Egyptian authorities’ almost continual closure of the Egyptian border with Gaza continued to inspire solidarity protests in Egypt.

Three aid caravans destined for Gaza were prevented from completing – or in two instances, starting – their journey to the border and some of the activists on board arrested.

Activists who gathered outside the State Council in December in order to deliver aid on the occasion of the Eid celebrations were surrounded by hundreds of police troops and two journalists at the scene were arrested.

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Sarah Carr is a British-Egyptian journalist in Cairo. She blogs at www.inanities.org.
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