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Mubarak puts his weight behind workers

Hosni Mubarak vows to throw his support behind the country's workers and warned against opposition members who "confuse change with chaos" in the political arena.

The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has guaranteed free elections.
The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has guaranteed free elections.

CAIRO // In his first speech in Cairo after a two-month hiatus, Hosni Mubarak yesterday vowed to throw his support behind the country's workers and warned against opposition members who "confuse change with chaos" in the political arena. Analysts said the president's speech indicated that the government is beginning to worry about the growth of the opposition.

"I'll always be on the side of Egyptian workers, keeping my allegiance to them, biased to their issues, rights and interests, and will face all those who attempt to take away from their rights," Mr Mubarak told a cheering audience, as he delivered his belated Labor Day speech, which was aired live on Egyptian state TV. In attendance were ministers and selected members of pro-state labour unions. Mr Mubarak said opposition criticism was hollow without having solid plans of their own.

"I say to those who raise slogans and content themselves with posturing: This is not enough to gain the trust of the people. They must respond to the questions of the poor. What can they offer them?" He added: "The salaries have increased in the past five years more than I had promised to achieve in six years during my election campaign" in 2005. Mr Mubarak's government has been criticised in Egypt for liberal economic reforms it has pursued since 2004. There has been a wave of worker's strikes over the past few years protesting low wages and poor working condition.

About 42 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people live under or near the poverty line, making under US$2 a day, and the disparity between rich and poor is growing. President Mubarak, 82, had his gall bladder removed in Germany two months ago, and has been recuperating in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh for the past five weeks. He has lost weight and his voice sounded tired during his half-hour speech, which was delivered at Cairo Convention Center in Nasr city, not far from Mr Mubarak's Cairo residence in Heliopolis.

In a meeting with key cabinet ministers last month, Mr Mubarak announced a 10 per cent rise for government wages and pensions, as he ordered all government employees be paid a monthly bonus equivalent to 10 per cent of their wages, starting with the new financial year in July. Some of what Mr Mubarak said sounded like a warning to the opposition, ahead of elections next year. "In this delicate period, there can be no place for those who confuse change with chaos," he said, in apparent reference to the almost daily protests by opposition groups who are demanding economic and political reforms.

"I have apprehensions about those who slip … into agitation that subjects Egypt and its sons to the dangers of regression." The president did, however, guarantee that, "The upcoming elections will be free and have integrity". Ammar Ali Hassan, director of the Middle East Studies Center in Cairo, said Mr Mubarak's references to the opposition seemed to indicate the government's awareness of its growing influence.

"What really attracted my attention is that for the second time in 10 days, Mubarak spoke about political mobilisation as part of his achievements and grants to the people, and warned the opposition from exceeding the limit and chaos," he said. Mr Hassan said the president's concern over the opposition is likely fuelled by the rise of Mohammed ElBaradei, 67, the former chief of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, who has rejuvenated the opposition since his return to Egypt in February.

Mr ElBaradei has been calling for political reform and a constitutional amendment to allow independents like him to run in presidential elections. "Mubarak used to ignore the opposition, but his warnings again reveal that the regime is confused and still figuring out how to deal with [Mr ElBaradei," Mr Hassan said. Mr ElBaradei is touring the United States, where he has been giving speeches calling for democracy in his country and meeting with Egyptian expatriates.

"Its very clear that our political mobilisation is causing the regime severe confusion and that ElBaradei is posing a real problem to them," said George Ishaq, a prominent opposition figure with Mr ElBaradei's National Association for Change. "Concerning threats to the opposition ... the president is free to say what he wants, and we will continue with our political pressure, which seems to be annoying the regime, and starting to bear fruit."

"Change is inevitable," wrote Mr ElBaradei on twitter after Mr Mubarak's speech. "It's timing and extent has to do with a strong and clear will." Mr Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, has not announced if he will run in the presidential election in 2011. @Email:nmagd@thenational.ae