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Egypt Strike Fizzles Amid Tight Security

In Egypt, a one-day labor strike calling for higher wages has had mixed results amid a security crackdown. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Some people refused to go to work out of solidarity with the calls for higher wages, but others said they stayed home because they were simply afraid of trouble.

Protests planned for several locations failed to materialize after the Interior Ministry threatened on Saturday to prosecute anyone who took part in any sort of public demonstration. Amid heavy police deployments around Cairo, only one small rally took place.

Surrounded by a thick cordon of riot police, a few hundred protesters stood on the front steps and roof of the Lawyer's Syndicate in downtown Cairo, waving Egyptian flags and chanting slogans about economic justice.

Shoe store employee Mustafa Shaaban held up a sign calling for more rights.

He said he did not go to work because food and other things have become so expensive that he can no longer afford them. He said he had to go on strike, asking "What is next?"

But across town in the impoverished Imbaba neighborhood, most shops were open as usual. The narrow streets of the marketplace may have been less crowded than usual, but most workers and business owners there said going on strike was a luxury they simply could not afford.

A clothing store employee said some people had warned him to keep his shop closed because there could be trouble, but he decided to open it up and work because he needs the money.

Another shop worker agreed that food prices were too high and wages too low, but he saw little point in striking.

He said, "We are all sick and tired of the situation, but what can we do?"

The strike call originated in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, north of Cairo, where 25,000 factory workers had planned a strike for higher wages and other demands.

But that was called off - partly because one faction of workers said the government had met their demands, and partly because security forces descended on the factory overnight to ensure the machines kept running.

By then, the call had gone out to make the work stoppage nationwide, although nobody is entirely sure who was behind it.

A group dedicated to the strike on the Facebook social networking Web site attracted more than 66.000 members, and activists were sending out cellphone text messages and e-mails urging people to stay at home.

The national strike was backed by several minor political parties, but the leaders of the influential Muslim Brotherhood issued conflicting statements that left many confused about where the group stood on the issue.

American University of Cairo Professor Joel Beinin, a historian who studies labor movements, said calling for a strike is a politically risky move.

"If you call for a general strike and not much happens, it reduces your credibility and I think the Mahalla workers understood that and backed away from it for that reason," said Joel Beinin.

Earlier, police arrested a number of activists for handing out flyers urging people to strike. Beinin said the lack of organization is nothing new for the Egyptian opposition and is partly a symptom of the political environment here.

"Because the repressive apparatus of the state is so pervasive and people, many people, are so intimidated by it that it is very difficult to stand up openly and say we are organizing this for this place and this time, and consequently there is a lot of rumors, a lot of un-clarity, and as has happened a number of times in the past, the result is not very much of anything," he said.

The general strike follows more than a year of intense labor action in Egypt, but this is the first time political parties have tried to turn the workers' movements into a wider political protest. It also comes two days before Egyptians vote in local elections where most opposition candidates have been kept off the ballots.