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Egypt Moves to Halt Spread of Labor Strikes

The Egyptian government is trying to head off a new wave of labor strikes that have erupted since a standoff at a key textile plant last week. Workers at a number of factories around the country have announced strikes, but their demands have been quickly met. A top labor advocate says the government is trying to stop the industrial actions from becoming a wider political crisis. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

When 27,000 workers at Egypt's largest textile factory walked off the job for the second time in a year, it took less than a week before high-level negotiators agreed to meet almost all of their demands to get the state-owned factory back online.

After the success of the striking workers in Mahalla, other strikes popped up around the country, including at a textile plant in Damietta, and a linseed oil factory in Tanta, both in the Nile Delta north of Cairo. In those cases, the government has quickly given in to workers' demands.

The state-owned press has downplayed the political aspects of the wave of labor unrest. Three government-run newspapers quoted Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif saying the government is concerned about workers' rights.

Several analysts say the government is trying to quickly end the strikes and keep the focus on economic issues because it fears labor unrest might spread and become more political.

Top labor rights advocate Kamal Abbas notes that unlike major work stoppages in 1989 and 1994, these striking workers have generally not been met with force.

He says the government is largely meeting workers demands so they do not widen, and so there will be no merging of labor strikes and political resistance.

The government's approach to the striking workers is in marked contrast to its recent crackdown on political opposition leaders and critics in civil society. Five independent newspaper editors were recently sentenced to prison terms, opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour is in jail, and senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are facing trial in military courts.

Abbas was director of the Center for Workers and Trade Union Services, a non-governmental group that was shut down by the government several months ago after 17 years of educational work and legal advocacy on behalf of Egyptian laborers.

He says most of the political opposition groups are largely elite movements, with little grassroots support, but the government cannot afford to antagonize the country's workforce.

He said he expects the number of strikes to increase as inflation continues to rise, hitting workers' pocketbooks.

The government acknowledged Wednesday that food prices have spiked by 16.4 percent this month.

Poor Egyptians are finding the price increases especially hard to bear during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when they traditionally break their daytime fasts with a special meal known as Iftar. They are also preparing for the Eid al-Fitr holiday celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan.