Rising food prices in Egypt have led in recent weeks to popular discontent
culminating in strikes and demonstrations [Michaela Singer]
Thousands of Egyptians have demonstrated over rising prices, with some hurling bricks at police who responded with tear gas.
Earlier on Sunday, security personnel prevented a strike highlighting poor workers' conditions at Egypt's largest textile factory in Mahalla el-Kobra, an industrial city 100km north of Cairo.
In several other cities, including the Egyptian capital, people defied government warnings by skipping work and school, while hundreds gathered to protest.
The government had strongly warned citizens against participating in any strikes and worked feverishly behind the scenes with labour leaders in Mahalla to foil the long promised strike.
The Egyptian constitution states that protests are permissible, but according to the law, any gathering of more than five people is considered illegal, an amendment that came about in the 1920s stemming from regulations under British colonialism.
Political analysts say the call to strike
was significant in itself [Michaela Singer]
The call for a general strike had been circulating for more than a week on the internet and through text messages, but on Saturday, the interior ministry issued a statement threatening harsh measures against anyone who took part.
"Immediate and firm measures against any attempt to demonstrate or disrupt road traffic or the running of public establishments and against all attempts to incite such acts," the statement said.
In keeping with the warnings, police arrested at least 150 people in Mahalla el-Kobra after clashes, and another 94 people in provinces across the country, according to a security official.
The call for a national strike was the first major attempt by opposition groups to turn last year's labour unrest and rising anger over the economy into a wider political protest against the government.
The protests come only two days before key elections for local councils, prompting a heavy security clampdown from the government.
"The government tried its best to deter people from participating," Ahmed Selah, a member of Egypt's Kefaya movement for change, said.
"There were television announcements every half-hour last night telling people we were traitors and warning people not to strike. You will even find that today is the first day in two years when you will not find queues at the bakery, and prices of certain goods have also decreased to give people the false impression there is no reason to strike."
In the end, hordes of riot police kept protesters off Cairo's main squares and plainclothes agents stopped any workers from striking at the Mahalla el-Kobra factory.
Anger over inflation
While it remains unclear who initiated the strike call, it began to gather momentum after some 25,000 employees at the textile plant refused to show up for work.
Nevertheless, in Cairo, the response was mixed.
"Of course we felt anger at rising prices for the last few years," said Maha Abu Baker, a Nasserist activist.
"We have gone to work, earned little, but have always been able to buy bread. There is a direct relation between the strikes today and the bread crisis. When we can't afford to eat, there is nothing else we can do."
Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, has lifted import duties on some foodstuffs in an effort to soften economic hardship brought on by a near doubling of prices of foodstuff due to international and local market pressures.
Today, nearly 40 per cent of the country lives below or near the poverty line of $2 a day.
Kholoud Khalifa, an American University of Cairo student, said: "Many professors cancelled classes and from what I have heard, attendance was low at all the schools and universities in Cairo. I didn't attend because I wanted to participate in the strike."
Hundreds of students also demonstrated in other Cairo-based universities and in Helwan, 30km south of the capital, after skipping classes and chanting anti-government slogans.
One female blogger, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said: "My mother's generation is staying at home. They are scared of what the police will do. They also remember scenes of violence from the 1970s, and thought people would be taking violent action such as burning cars.
"But there is nobody here except masses of security. It's a good thing though; it means the government is afraid."
'We are fed up'
Ghadiga Madkoura, editor of the banned newspaper of the opposition Ghad party, said: "We are fed up."
|Police clashed with protestors in Mahalla,
firing tear gas and arresting dozens [AFP]
"I am a member of a political party but I am striking as a citizen. We have seen prices of sugar rise to four Egyptian pounds (about 74 US cents) and cooking oil rise to LE 10 (about $1.80). The rise in prices does not translate to our pitiful wages."
"I know of one man who poisoned his children because he could not feed them. We feel anger, and we want to express it."
Organisers in Cairo said they were banned from gathering at any of the major squares.
"The government has prepared itself well. They have got Cairo 'locked down' with security. If we try to gather in any small numbers, we will be moved on. If we refuse we will face the same fate as our colleagues: immediate arrest," said Victor Naguib, an Egyptian businessman and Kefaya activist.
They could do little more than gather at the lawyers' syndicate building in Downtown Cairo, where many intellectuals and activists also protested, waving banners and chanting slogans demanding economic reform.
"This is a peaceful protest with credible demands, there doesn't need to be so much military security," said Khaled Mohammed Awad, an Egyptian lawyer.
"Why has President Mubarak not given any statement over the radio and television to at least acknowledge this protest?" he said.
"In Europe they go out and ask people their opinions; here they surround them with security."
Kefaya campaigners, who were present at the lawyers' syndicate protest, said that this was only the beginning of an intense period of strikes and demonstrations.
"They said Kefaya was dead," Karima el-Hifnawy, a Kefaya activist, said. "But this is only a start of a revolution."
In Mahalla too, the textile workers have vowed to continue protesting.