SUEZ, Egypt — Strikes staged by thousands of Egyptian workers for higher wages and better working conditions in recent months are setting the stage for a possible confrontation between the impoverished laborers and a new president after elections this spring.
The rallies and sit-ins that have crippled the postal service, textile factories and even public hospitals are still fragmented, largely uncoordinated and lack unified demands. But as the cash-strapped government moves to quash labor unrest in places such as Suez, the strikes underscore a social discontent that is still festering among Egypt’s working class and could evolve into a more solid opposition to the military-backed administration.
“Businessmen in this country have sucked the blood of the people — and the one who is responsible is Abdel Fatah al-Sissi,” Ahmed Mahmoud, who heads the Cairo branch of the Independent Union for Public Transport Workers, said of the powerful former defense minister and now presidential hopeful.
Sissi, who spearheaded the coup against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last summer and recently resigned as military commander to run for the presidency, oversaw in February the mobilization of scores of army bus drivers to thwart a strike led by Mahmoud’s union. Sissi’s allies have included some of the corrupt businessmen and politicians who grew rich under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“The army and police are stronger than us,” Mahmoud, 49, said at a rally held by government postal workers outside the cabinet building in Cairo last month. Police had arrested and detained five postal employees in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, the week before for leading strikes for better pay.
“But our movement will spread in the face of this government,” he said.
Not all of Egypt’s striking workers are as quick to link their bread-and-butter issues in the workplace to a wider political struggle — or even to the shared pains of their fellow laborers.