After the carrot, Egypt military shows the stick

Egypt’s military, after promising to deliver civilian rule in six months, warned workers using their new freedom to protest over pay that strikes must stop, in a move businessmen said on Saturday could have come sooner.

Every step of the way, the basic fact of the uprising in Egypt has become more obvious and more explicit: with each new confrontation, the protestors have realised, and demonstrated, that they are more powerful than their oppressors.

The military council, under pressure from activists to speed up the pace of reform, has adopted a softly-softly approach since taking power after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, but said late on Friday that labour unrest threatened national security.

It issued the order, effectively banning strikes, after millions celebrated across Egypt with fireworks, dancing and music to mark a week since Mubarak (82) was swept aside after 30 years, triggering a cascade of Middle East protests.

“I think it is a very late decision. The army should have given a firm statement for all kinds of sit-ins to stop, immediately after Mubarak stepped down,” Sami Mahmoud, a board member of the Nile Company food distributor, said on Saturday.

“Though this statement should have come way earlier, I think the army was just allowing people to take their chance to voice their demands and enjoy the spirit of freedom,” said Walid Abdel-Sattar, a businessman in the power industry.

“It’s Not The Time For It”, said Saturday’s banner headline in the state-owned Akhbar Elyom newspaper, urging the nation to end work stoppages which were causing “a state of paralysis to our national economy” and losing Egypt crucial revenue. Banks, which have been closed this week because of strikes that have disrupted business, are due to open on Sunday, the first day of the working week in Egypt. The military believes this is an important step towards restoring normality.

Freedom to speak out
Workers cite a series of grievances. What unites them is a new sense of being able to speak out in the post-Mubarak era.

The message to return to work was reinforced by influential preacher Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi at Friday prayers.

Most Egyptians, however, are keen to get back to normal, begin earning again and restart the damaged economy.

Life is far from normal in Egypt after the 18-day uprising erupted on January 25, with schools closed, tanks on the streets in major cities and nationwide public sector strikes.

In a sign of economic nervousness, Egypt’s stock exchange, closed since January 27 because of the turmoil, said it would remain shut until it was sure banks were functioning properly.

Nine airlines cancelled flights to and from Egypt’s capital on Saturday, Cairo airport officials said. The unrest prompted foreign embassy travel warnings, hitting tourism.

The military statement also said that “some elements” were preventing state employees from working. Others were appropriating state land and building on farm land.

“The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces will not allow the continuation of those illegitimate practices,” it said in the strongly-worded statement, without specifying precisely what steps would be taken against the perpetrators.

Protests, sit-ins and strikes have occurred at state-owned institutions across Egypt, including at the stock exchange, textile and steel firms, media organisations, the postal service, railways, the Culture Ministry and the Health Ministry.

The council understood workers’ demands and had instructed the relevant state bodies to study and act on them, the military statement said. But citizens had a duty towards the state.

“It was also noted that the continuation of the state of instability and the consequences resulting from it will lead to damage in national security,” the statement said.

Pro-democracy campaigners welcomed the army’s suspension of the constitution, dissolution of Parliament and a referendum on constitutional amendments but still want the immediate release of political prisoners and lifting of emergency laws.

A Cairo court on Saturday approved the establishment of an Egyptian political party that has been trying to secure an official licence for 15 years.

The Wasat Party (Centre Party) has applied four times for a licence since the 1990s. Saturday’s ruling made it the first party to gain legal status since Mubarak was toppled.

The ruling paves the way for the Wasat Party, founded by a former Muslim Brotherhood member, to take part in coming elections. – Reuters

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