Airport strike spotlights Egypt's economic woes

By Tarek El-tablawy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Egyptians on the 6th of October bridge take photos of military aircraft as the fly over the burned building of the past ruling National party during an air show in Cairo, Egypt Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. Egypt marked the 38th anniversary of the Oct. 6 Arab-Israeli war in 1973 on Thursday. In 1973 Egypt and Syria took advantage of the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday to launch surprise attacks on territories occupied by Israel in previous conflicts, which was a turning point for the region. It ended with a truce that led to the return of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.

Khalil Hamra, Associated Press

CAIRO — A work slowdown by air traffic controllers delayed scores of flights Thursday and left passengers stranded for many hours in Cairo's international airport, wreaking havoc in the latest example of cascading labor unrest that officials and analysts say is devastating Egypt's economy.

The protest at Cairo International Airport was over a decision to rescind a promised bonus. It forced the delay of more than 200 flights and turned Egypt's flagship airport into a microcosm of the general mayhem that has come to define the country since the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Egyptian Labor Minister Ahmed El-Boraie warned this week that the country is going through a "critical period and (was) on the brink of bankruptcy," according to the daily, Al-Masry al-Youm. Egypt's "losses are growing day by day," he was quoted as saying. "Either we band together and change the current situation, or let Egypt be destroyed."

However other officials, including the finance minister, have taken a softer tone. They say the country faces challenges, but worker grievances are justified after decades of low salaries.

The labor action coincided with a highly symbolic day in Egypt — as the country's post-Mubarak military rulers put on a show of strength to mark the 38th anniversary of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The celebration came against a backdrop of waning public confidence in their commitment to move the country to civilian rule.

Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling military council that took power from Mubarak, said in a speech marking the anniversary of the October war that the country was going through a critical period in terms of security and the economy.

Egypt "is witnessing a comprehensive transformation of its national course ... as changes and crises loom on the horizon," Tantawi said. "People, despite their different political and nonpolitical orientations, must realize the ramifications and what it takes to get out of that rough road."

The partial strike was the latest labor action in months of near daily protests in virtually every sector of the economy.

The strikes picked up in mid-February after Mubarak's ouster. In the first three months after he left office, the labor unrest nearly crippled the economy as manufacturing ground to a halt, tourism revenues plummeted and foreign investment dried up.

Workers demand higher pay, more jobs and a narrowing the wide salary gaps in which some "consultants" or top executives within the public sector can bring home more than $30,000 per month in a country where the per capita annual income is about $2,600. The striking workers also demand changes in company and union leadership and reforms in their sectors.

The unrest has exacerbated the already significant hardships of daily life in Egypt.

"It was a mob scene," Meg Conner, a Canadian teacher living in Egypt, said of the scene at the Cairo airport as she waited more than 11 hours to board a delayed flight to Greece Thursday. "People were pushing and yelling. Airport workers climbed on the conveyer belts and started screaming," she added. "It was the worst I have seen in my life."

Though their demands were not met, the controllers called off their strike around sundown.

More broadly, the work stoppages have essentially forced the military rulers and the interim government which was appointed by them to cave in to worker demands by raising salaries and pensions, and instituting a new minimum wage in the public sector. However, some officials and analysts claim the country can ill afford the concessions.

Economic indicators point to troubling times ahead for Egypt — where more than 40 percent live around or below the World Bank poverty line of $2 per day.

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