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Egypt's economic reform meets unprecedented wave of labor resistance

This week, tax collectors went on strike, adding to growing labor unrest that threatens to unleash a 'social explosion' against Mubarak's regime.

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The first time the 27,000 employees at Misr Mahallah Spinning and Weaving factory went on strike, it was with the feeling of a doomed effort that they nevertheless had to make.

After all, independent labor activity is illegal in Egypt and in the 1980s the government had called out the troops on striking workers, killing scores.

Then the unexpected happened.

With dozens of other factories going on strike around the same time late last year – pressing similar demands to those at Mahallah – they won.

Government officials caved in to most of their demands in the hopes, analysts say, that it would stave off the emergence of a politicized labor movement at a time when the regime of President Hosni Mubarak was taking a beating from the domestic press and a more assertive Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most popular opposition movement.

"The government is worried about a social explosion," says Mustafa Basyouni, the labor correspondent for Al Dustour, an Egyptian daily. "When the government saw solidarity strikes popping up, that pushed the scales in favor of accommodation."

If that was in fact the intention, it failed. In the past year, Egypt has seen an unprecedented wave of strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations at its factories – at least 300 of them involving well over 150,000 workers, amounting to what labor historian Joel Beinin calls the "biggest mass movement in Egypt" since the 1950s.

The workers at Mahallah went on strike again in September and again wrung concessions out of a skittish government.

This week, it's Egyptian tax collectors who are striking, complaining that they can't live on salaries of about 350 pounds ($60) a month. About 55,000 tax collectors walked off the job, and Tuesday, when about 500 of them sought to march on the Cabinet building in central Cairo, they were blocked by riot police.

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