Egypt's Suez Now Faces Labor Unrest

One of Egypt's major industrial towns has gone from revolution to labor unrest. Dozens of factories in Suez are facing action from disgruntled workers, ranging from lists of demands to full-scale strikes. Some analysts say the turmoil is just an adjustment after the Mubarak era, when factory owners were able to pay low wages while flouting health and safety laws. Suez is a major industrial center, with petrochemicals and heavy industry, such as steel mills, so any long-term disruptions there could be very costly to Egypt's economy. The unrest is also causing anxiety for Suez's young people, worried about high unemployment, and minorities, whose lives are more vulnerable during unstable times.

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The rallies in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East were of course inspired by the successful protests in Egypt, but there is still unrest in the wake of the revolution there.

In Suez, one of country's major industrial ports, dozens of factories are facing action from disgruntled workers. The city is home to petrochemical plants and steel mills, so any long-term disruptions there could be costly to Egypt's economy. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

(Soundbite of people talking)

COREY FLINTOFF: Several hundred steel workers are camped out at the entrance to one of Suez's mills, sleeping in tents propped up by the steel bars that they forged at the plant.

(Soundbite of Foreign Language)

FLINTOFF: This man asked that his name not be used because he's afraid of retribution from the factor owner. He says the wages here are barely enough to pay the rent, so workers take on double shifts and put in 16-hour days.

That's a normal day for you when you work 16 hours?

(Soundbite of Foreign Language)

FLINTOFF: Yes, he says, with no overtime, and often for six days a week. He's a tall man in his late 20s with long beard and the knit skullcap of a devout Muslim. When he gestures, his right hand is riven by a wedge-shaped scar where his middle finger should be. He says he lost it in a workplace accident because the equipment at the plant is outdated and unsafe. Workers lose concentration during the long hours, and injuries like his are common. There's no compensation he says for injuries and no insurance.

The factory has been shut down all week, but the owner has refused to talk to them.

Saoud Omar is a supervisor with the Suez Canal Authority, and a member of the workers' syndicate there. He says labor grievances has been simmering since the city was rebuilt after being nearly destroyed during the 1967 war with Israel.

Mr. SAOUD OMAR (Supervisor, Suez Canal Authority): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: He says Egypt's revolution may be perceived as a youth movement, but that it was really born in what he calls the laboratory of the labor strikes in Suez. The first clashes of the revolution took place here, where at least 13 people were killed by riot police over several days of violent protest.

(Soundbite of people talking)

FLINTOFF: Some aspects of life in Suez are returning to normal. On a Thursday evening, the start of the Muslim weekend, people gather on the promenade that edges the harbor.

(Soundbite of women shouting)

FLINTOFF: The young people here say jobs are scarce and the distribution of city services is vastly unequal for the rich and the poor. But many say they wouldn't think of leaving.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, we will stay here, because this is our country. (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: We've been to Cairo and lots of other places, she says, but we love Suez and we would like to stay here all our lives.

Suez is home to a small Christian community, about five percent of the population, according to Hany Shnenouda Nassif, the pastor of St. Savior Anglican Church. He says St. Savior was attacked during the revolt by people throwing stones and gasoline bombs, but that his Muslim neighbors helped protect the church. He says his congregation has good relations with Muslims, but that there's a worrisome streak of Islamist fundamentalism that's been growing here.

Mr. HANY SHNENOUDA NASSIF (Pastor, St. Savior Anglican Church): We are very near South Arabia, okay, and the people you know, like South Arabia. And they thought like that. You know, you understand me?

FLINTOFF: He means that fundamentalist ideas from Saudi Arabia are taking root among some Muslims in the city, and that some clerics are preaching hostility to Christians. Nassif says that most of his church members work in the city's mills and petro plants, so they're caught in the middle of both labor and religious unrest. Still, he says, he's an optimist at heart.

Mr. NASSIF: Our city between God's hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NASSIF: And I believe that.

FLINTOFF: That phrase, our city, is repeated over and over again by people in Suez from all walks of life. Most of them say that they believe that somehow, Suez city will come through this upheaval and thrive.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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