Tens of the thousands of Egyptian workers ignored appeals by the military high command and spread their strike actions across the country Wednesday, demanding higher pay, better working conditions, and the purging of corrupt officials linked to ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
In Egypt's largest industrial center, the textile manufacturing capital Mahalla al-Kubra, some 12,000 workers resumed a strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving factory that had been suspended for three days after the resignation of President Mubarak. In addition to demands for higher wages, the workers want two top managers to resign, a strike organizer said.
Another 6,000 textile workers went on strike in the coastal city of Damietta. Thousands more continued a walkout at the Misr Helwan Spinning and Weaving company, south of Cairo, also for wage demands.
Strikes and protests were reported across Cairo, in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, in the Nile Delta province of Qaliubiya, and in the heavily industrialized area along the Suez Canal.
In Port Said, at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, 1,000 people demonstrated to demand closure of a chemical factory that is polluting a local lake. At Ismailiya, halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Suez, workers at the irrigation, education and health ministries protested for wage demands outside the headquarters of the provincial government.
Airport workers walked out at Cairo International Airport, forcing the cancellation of 11 flights. Hundreds of workers protested at the arrival terminal in support of demands for higher wages and better health coverage, as well as better transport and other benefits.
Pay strikes are underway in banking, transport, oil, tourism, and a wide array of government agencies. One activist told the press, "It's difficult to say exactly how many people are striking and where. Who isn't striking?"
In one of the few incidents reported where the military intervened directly, soldiers dispersed 200 workers striking a welding factory outside Cairo after they staged a demonstration at the factory headquarters on the Cairo-Alexandria road and blocked traffic there for 30 minutes. The workers were demanding higher pay, overtime rates for longer hours and better treatment by management overall.
The workers complained that company officials demanded each worker sign a letter of resignation before beginning work, so they could be dismissed at will. And they also compelled workers to sign blank checks, so their wages could be seized in the event of further stoppages.
One of the most strategically significant strikes is going on against the major Egyptian banks in Cairo, which has forced many businesses and factories to close down because their customers cannot get money to buy the goods being produced.
Officials of Egypt's central bank issued an appeal for the end of the bank workers' strikes "to ensure the stability of the national economy." Banks have been closed since Monday, and are not expected to reopen until at least the start of the next work week, on Sunday, February 20.
The central bank published a statement in state-run newspapers calling on workers to elect representatives in each bank and discuss demands with senior management in the presence of the governor of the central bank.
In many cases factories have closed when even a fraction of the work force has gone on strike, in order to prevent the walkouts from gathering even greater strength. Textile, chemicals, cement and ceramics industries are all affected.
Employees of national government agencies in Cairo have joined the strike wave. According to an account in the newspaper Al-Masri Al-Youm, "In the wake of the 25 January uprising, employees in many sectors -- including state-owned publishing houses and the supply directorate (rations) -- took to the streets for the first time. While their demands were primarily economic, they also included pleas against corruption and nepotism."
The newspaper noted that social injustice was a major concern: "Although protesters have clear economic grievances, they primarily lament what they perceive as unfair procedures, either in regard to unequal pay among employees of various government institutions or the arbitrary dismissal of workers."
The Armed Forces Supreme Council, which assumed power on Mubarak's resignation, has issued a series of appeals to end the strike wave, to no effect. After Tuesday's national holiday for the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, there was no general return to work, and the authorities dropped plans to reopen schools, universities, banks and the stock exchange, all of which will remain closed until February 20.
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