Egypt's Mubarak regime signals harsh tactics against opponents

President Mubarak gave his first public address since March in Cairo yesterday in a bid to thwart a possible merger between disgruntled workers and the political opposition amid increasing uncertainty about who will succeed the 82-year-old leader.

By , Correspondent

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    Protesters hold a placard as they take part in a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarak's rule in front of the Egyptian Press Syndicate building in Cairo May 4.
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In Egypt this week, two protests – one economic, one political – appear to have caught the attention of President Hosni Mubarak, a US ally and a fixture of Mideast politics for nearly three decades.

The potential for labor unions to join forces with the political opposition is something that has long worried regime strategists and they've worked hard in recent years to prevent a political alliance with arrests and intimidation. On Thursday, Mr. Mubarak seemed to address the prospect of a labor-opposition alliance when he gave his first public address since having surgery in Germany two months ago.

“To those who raise slogans and content themselves with posturing: this is not enough to gain the trust of the people,” he said, speaking to union leaders in Cairo. “In this delicate period there can be no room for those who confuse change with chaos.”

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The speech was seen here and abroad as a direct message to protesters.

“It is the first time that Mubarak was very tough when he spoke about the opposition, because he is afraid of any kind of cooperation between the opposition, the political parties, and the workers movements,” says Emad Gad, political analyst at Al Ahram, a government-funded think tank in Cairo. “The government ... will do what they can to prevent a scenario like that.

While the government's tactical efforts against opponents – whether the largely secular Kifaya movement that erupted a few years ago or the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most popular opposition group – have been broadly effective, growing uncertainty about who will succeed Mr. Mubarak has reenergized the political opposition.

Earlier in the week, political protesters called for an end to the 30-year-old emergency law, which gives the government broad powers to suppress political dissent and detain citizens without trial and is expected to be renewed this month. Labor protesters, meanwhile, called for a higher national minimum wage.

Largest wave of Egyptian protests since WWII – report

As Egypt approaches three elections in the next 18 months, including a presidential vote, the country has confronted the largest wave of labor protests in over 50 years.

"The current wave of protests is erupting form the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century," leading labor historian of Egypt Joel Beinin wrote in a February report for the pro-labor Solidarity Center in Washington.

Dr. Beinin found that 1.7 million Egyptian workers had participated in labor action between 2004 and 2008. While that surge in labor strikes and demonstrations has since cooled, at least in part due to tough police tactics against strikers and labor organizers, current levels of labor unrest remain higher than they were at the end of 1990s or in the early years of the last decade.

Outside the Egyptian parliament, workers' groups have been camped out for weeks. As the temperature in Cairo climb past 100 degrees, workers fanned themselves on Friday with newspapers, seeking shade in a few small cardboard tents.

Workers from the Nuberieh Company, an industrial machinery factory, have been sleeping on the pavement for 32 days. They have gone more than two years without salaries after their company was privatized.

Ahmed Mustafa, a heavy machine driver, was initially unable to recall how many children he has. “I forgot my own name on this pavement,” says the father of six. He’s had to borrow heavily from friends, pull his children out of school, and has been unable to marry off his daughters. He is angry with the government for privatizing his company. Fellow protesters echo his complaints.

Mubarak sets fault lines for future conflict

Whether the rejuvenated political opposition is able to capitalize on the fury of workers such as Mr. Mustafa – something they’ve tried to do for years – remains to be seen. But if the recent past is anything to go by, Mubarak is likely to use a strong hand to block them.

“Mubarak’s speech establishes the fault lines of the future confrontation with the opposition in all its forms,” writes Adel Iskandar, a media professor at Georgetown University in Washington, in an e-mail. “[He sounded] a clear warning that the state will equate public protestations as ‘chaos,’ a signal that the Emergency Law will remain a defining legislation between now and election time.”

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