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The New Egypt

Egyptian protesters celebrate as labor strikes continue

Mitchell Hartman Feb 18, 2011
The New Egypt

Egyptian protesters celebrate as labor strikes continue

Mitchell Hartman Feb 18, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: There are more reports today of crackdowns on protesters in several Middle Eastern countries. Specifically Libya and Bahrain, where police opened fire on funeral marchers this morning.

There were protests and demonstrations in Egypt today as well, in part to celebrate a week since Hosni Mubarak stepped down and in part to step up economic pressure on the military government over pay and working conditions. In fact, the army said today a series of ongoing labor strikes are hurting the economy and Egyptian national security and that the strikes will be — and this is the army’s word — “confronted.” Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman has been in Tahrir Square all day. Hi Mitchell.

Mitchell Hartman: Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: So we’ll get to the labor strikes in a minute, but I have to tell you, it sounds like a busy night where you are. But more celebratory, really, than protests, right?

Hartman: Right. I mean today was a holiday and there were hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, people all through downtown. A huge rally in Tahrir Square. They called it a rally of victory and celebration. I can only tell you what it felt like. It was incredibly crowded. Here’s what it sounded like: [sound of celebrating].

Ryssdal: Mitchell, can you tell us what they’re saying?

Hartman: One of the things they’re chanting is, “The people want to bring the government down.”

Ryssdal: Well about the government, Mitchell, and having brought one government down, what’s going on with the economy? There are labor strikes there. How’s that playing out actually on the streets every day?

Hartman: Well, right. It’s a very uncertain, chaotic situation still. You know, many of the ministers from the former government are still sitting in their fancy offices drawing from their big salaries. The country in many ways has ground to a halt. The country in many ways has ground to a halt. It’s not just these rallies — all the military barriers all over the place, which can make traffic even worse. Workers and hosts of government ministries are on strike, oil and soap factory workers, textile workers, the people who work on the trains, bank tellers. Yesterday, 1,500 workers on the Suez Canal went on strike. That’s a key to Egypt’s economy. For that matter, one-tenth of world trade and sea-going cargo goes through there, as well as a lot of military ships.

Ryssdal: Are you talking to anybody who’s expressing awareness or concern about the costs, then, of the revolution in Tahrir Square?

Hartman: There may be disgruntled Egyptians out there. I didn’t see any of them in the street today. Now that doesn’t mean people aren’t aware of the chaos and how much it’s costing. I asked Khaled Daoud about this. He was out for today’s rally. He’s a columnist at the daily paper Al-Ahram.

Khaled Daoud: So you see, for example, people who work for banks. They are on strike because they say we have been working for 20 years and our salary is like $200-$300. While the manager of the bank, his salary is like $250,000. So i expect this to go on for a while until everybody gets out their grievances. Maybe we see some serious responses from the new government, the military leadership right now. And probably after that you will see things calming down. But this is the best time for people to speak out and express their demands.

Ryssdal: Obviously best for the protesters, Mitchell, I mean they’ve got the momentum. But what about — step back for me a minute and look at the bigger picture — people and companies wanting to do business in Egypt, with Egypt, with the government. What are they saying and what’s happening with them?

Hartman: Well the government estimates the cost for this so far at around $1.7 billion from the strikes to huge fall off in tourism. Obviously if things don’t settle down, especially once the banks and the stock market open this coming week, the situation could get worse. Investors, foreign businesses could stay away. Rich people could pull their money out. On the other hand, what the Egyptians seem to be saying is just give us a chance. They do want to try to show the rest of the Arab countries a way forward here.

Ryssdal: About those other Arab countries though, Mitchell, what about the news out of Bahrain and Yemen and Libya today, and the way the protests have been put down. How’s that news playing in Cairo?

Hartman: You know I think most people are not paying attention to what’s going on there. They know that they’re the vanguard. They’re really focused on what moves forward. They don’t get oil from there. They don’t necessarily need those countries to be stable the way they’ve been. They’re really focusing on what happens next. Literally what happens next week: The banks open. And does the government respond to their continuing demands?

Ryssdal: Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman in Cairo for us. Thanks Mitchell.

Hartman: You’re welcome, Kai.

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