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Egypt's labor pains

An activist creates headaches for the government.

HELWAN, Egypt - Kamal Abbas is a compact man with a wry smile who has become a big annoyance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

From an office near the steel mill where he led his first uprising years ago amid the sting of rubber bullets, Abbas has helped organize nationwide strikes that have exposed a widening anger over rising food prices, low salaries, political repression, and a government that often appears detached from the concerns of its people.

The state has accused him of working with "external forces" to disrupt the country's economy; he faces the prospect of a year in prison.

The 50-year-old former mill worker, whose hands are thick but no longer calloused from joining hot steel, said the government "feels the cloud of labor's appeal."

"The regime is dead," he said. "It has no legitimacy. But the problem is that no alternative force is willing to come forward to bring about change. It's a fear of the state, but not only that. The state has neutralized some opposition voices and simply gotten rid of others. We have become a suffering society with no way to express itself."

Abbas' Center for Trade Union and Workers Services is part of a labor vanguard seeking to undermine state-controlled unions, which many workers regard as corrupt and indifferent to them.

The organization has also chosen not to openly align itself with a disparate political opposition that includes secularists and leftists in the Kefaya party and Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood.

The allure of the labor movement is strongest among the 27,000 textile workers in the town of El Mahalla el Kubra. Last month, days of riots erupted in the town, leaving one youth dead, when police prevented textile workers from striking at a state-owned plant.

The union has struck a chord with struggling Egyptians, about half of whom earn $2 or less a day and can no longer cope with inflation that has more than doubled the price of many commodities, including peppers, cooking oil and onions.

The prospect of strikes flaring across the country has prompted Mubarak to raise the basic salaries of six million public workers by 30 percent and launch a wave of police crackdowns.

The authorities shut down the union's four national offices, but a court recently decided that they were free to operate. There is a catch in the court's decision: It is up to police discretion to implement the court's verdict.

Mubarak is a U.S. ally, and unrest in Cairo could jeopardize U.S. policy in the region. But the deeper problem facing the 80-year-old president is gaining the patience of poor and working-class Egyptians who have not benefited from deregulation and privatization, even as the economy grows.

Anger is tempered by resignation and a lack of faith in opposition parties that have been stifled by Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

"The [protests] won't lead to anything because the government does what it wants in the end," said Mustafa Balaha, a government driver. "The raise won't solve anything. My basic salary is 200 pounds [$37], which means I will get a 60-pound [$11] raise. What can 60 pounds do for me and for my eight children?"

Labor strikes, however, have shaken the government. Beginning in 2006, strikes and protests have been staged by rail and textile workers, tax collectors, university professors, doctors, and cement-factory workers.

Last week, the government raised gasoline and diesel prices from 36 percent to 57 percent to fund the public-employee pay raise.

"I simply took money from the financially capable to give to the less capable," Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief said in announcing the measures.