CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced a 30 percent salary increase for all government employees Wednesday, a day after the country’s largest opposition group backed activists’ calls for a general strike against rising food prices on May 4.
The Egyptian government has been on edge ever since thousands of citizens staged violent riots in early April in the northern city of Mahalla over low salaries and rising prices. Three people were killed during the protests, 80 were injured and around 400 were arrested. The Muslim Brotherhood stayed on the sidelines during the April protests. But the powerful opposition group’s decision to back a strike timed to coincide with Mubarak’s 80th birthday in May could have contributed to the president’s decision to take unprecedented action.
“Of course, nobody expected a 30 percent (salary) increase … but I asked the government to search for resources,” Mubarak told hundreds of cheering workers Wednesday during a speech marking the upcoming May 1 Labor Day holiday.
The call for a strike on May 4 was initiated by a group of young Egyptian activists on the Internet social networking Web site Facebook. A majority of Egyptians lack access to the Internet, but the Facebook group has also spread word using mobile phone text messages and by plastering leaflets across the capital Cairo.
The activists have demanded that the government crack down on monopolies to help manage price increases and have also called on the government to increase minimum wages for public workers.
“Our demands are specific, and the government can implement them only if it gives up personal interests and interests of some businessmen close to the regime,” the activists said in a statement posted on their Web site.
In his speech Wednesday, Mubarak blamed Egyptians’ suffering on the global increase in food prices. The World Bank estimates that food prices have increased 83 percent in the past three years.
“We are not isolated from the world,” said Mubarak. “We import half of our needs of grain and corn and 90 percent of cooking oil, and our imports of food commodities increase year after year to meet the growth of the population.”
The global food crisis has a number of causes, including climate change, long spells of drought, changing consumption patterns in major developing countries and the planting of crops for biofuel.
Mubarak said Wednesday that “it’s unimaginable and unacceptable to use food to produce fuel.”
Inflation in Egypt reached 14.4 percent in March, making life difficult for the 20 percent of the country’s 76.5 million people who live below the poverty line of about US$2 per day. In the last two months, eleven people have died in clashes while standing in line to buy subsidized bread, according to police.
“I follow around the clock the bread lines, price hikes, the burdens of the Egyptian family in general and the poor and those with limited income in particular,” said Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981.
Egyptians have often been criticized for being politically apathetic, but rising food prices have helped ignite the population’s anger over deteriorating economic conditions.
Hoping to capitalize on this discontent, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement Tuesday calling its members and sympathizers to participate in the May 4 strike by staying home.
Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said the opposition group was against “public policies that deepen corruption and dictatorship.”
The Brotherhood is banned by the government, but officials have not wiped out the organization despite periodic crackdowns. Brotherhood members often participate in elections as independents and scored surprise victories in 2005 that gave them a fifth of the parliament’s 454 seats.
The government has increased pressure on the group in recent weeks, sentencing 25 senior members to prison by a military tribunal and preventing hundreds from running in local elections.