Egyptians air grievances, ignoring army warning

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By Maggie Michael / AP

CAIRO: Airport employees protested for better pay Wednesday, textile workers went on strike to demand a corruption investigation and residents of a Suez Canal city pressed for closing a chemical factory they say is dumping toxic waste into a lake in the latest wave of unrest shaking Egypt.

The ruling military council issued its second statement in three days calling for an immediate halt to all labor unrest. The new warning Wednesday raised expectations of an outright ban on protests and strikes that could raise the tension level in a country already growing more nervous by the day over uncertainties about the future.

“We urge citizens and members of professional and labor unions to go on with their jobs, each in their position,” a text message sent to Egyptian cellphones from the military said.

So far, the warnings have been defied by people airing grievances everywhere over just about everything, from meager wages to police brutality and corruption.

The council that took power from longtime leader Hosni Mubarak on Friday says strikes and protests are hampering efforts to salvage the economy and return to normal life after the 18-day democracy revolt that forced the president out of office.

Egypt’s economy is in virtual paralysis with the labor unrest, extended bank and stock market closures and an evaporation of tourism — a key source of income for the country.

Hundreds of airport employees protested inside the arrivals terminal at Cairo International Airport to press demands for better wages and health coverage.

In the industrial Nile Delta city of Mahallah Al-Koubra, workers from Egypt’s largest textile factory went on strike over pay and calls for an investigation into alleged corruption at the factory, according to labor rights activist Mustafa Bassiouni.

Mahallah in April 2008 witnessed the country’s largest protests in decades, when demonstrators took to the streets to press demands for better pay and a check on rising food prices. The youth movement behind the Mahallah protest then was a key player in the 18 days of anti-Mubarak protests that broke out Jan. 25 and eventually forced the longtime authoritarian leader to step down.

In Port Said, a coastal city at the northern tip of the Suez Canal, about 1,000 people demonstrated to demand that a chemical factory be closed because it was dumping waste in a lake near the city.

Given the instability around this country of 80 million people, authorities decided to put back by another week the reopening of schools and universities across the country, an indication that the country still has some way to go before it returns to full normalcy. Schools and universities were just starting their midyear break when the protests broke out.

Banks are closed Wednesday and Thursday, the last day of the business week in Egypt.

There was no word on whether they would reopen Sunday, the start of the business week.

The stock market has been closed for the past three weeks and, again, there was no word on when it would resume operating. The market lost nearly 17 percent of its value in two tumultuous sessions in late January before it was ordered shut to halt the slide.

The European Union said Wednesday that its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would visit Egypt next week after the Egyptian Foreign Ministry asked the international community for aid. Ashton, already in the region, would be the most senior foreign official to come to Cairo since Mubarak’s Feb. 11 ouster. Details of her visit and who she would meet while in Cairo were yet to be announced.

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