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Cablegate: Mahalla Riots: Isolated Incident or Tip of An

VZCZCXRO9526
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHEG #0783/01 1071041
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 161041Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 8946
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 CAIRO 000783

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

NSC FOR PASCUAL

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/14/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV KDEM PHUM EG
SUBJECT: MAHALLA RIOTS: ISOLATED INCIDENT OR TIP OF AN
ICEBERG?

REF: A. CAIRO 621
B. CAIRO 697
C. CAIRO 715
D. CAIRO 724
E. CAIRO 730

Classified By: DCM Stuart E. Jones, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: Egyptians are uneasy about the April 6 and 7
anti-government riots in Mahalla, which featured thousands of
unemployed youth battling riot police in the streets of the
Nile Delta mill-town (refs B-D). The violent demonstrations
followed on an opposition-organized general strike on April
6, which noticeably quieted Cairo's busy streets, as many
Egyptians stayed home, many out of fear of potential public
disorder, and some in solidarity with the strike (ref B).
The Mahalla riots have both reflected and fed into resentment
about spiraling food prices and widespread anger at the
government. Egyptians are in a sour mood, and their
frustration seems more vocal than just a few months ago. The
government is paying close attention, and is now focused on
heading off a follow-on national strike called for May 4,
Mubarak's eightieth birthday. End summary.

--------------------
HEROES OR HOOLIGANS?
--------------------

2. (C) Reaction to the Mahalla clashes seems divided along
class lines. The lower-income Egyptians we spoke with
expressed enthusiasm about the riots, with two independently
telling us they were "ecstatic" at the news. Many said, "the
government deserved it." They all attributed the riots to
sharply increased food prices. Year-on-year inflation in
March reached 14.4 percent; food-only inflation for March
reached 22 percent. Many Egyptians acknowledge that the
fundamental unspoken Egyptians social pact -- the peoples'
obeisance in exchange for a modest but government-guaranteed
standard of living -- is under stress, and the poor feel this
most acutely. One worker remarked: "it is the people's
right (to strike), if their government lies to them, tells
them that food prices are stable, but then we go try to buy
oil or bread, and cannot afford it." A cab driver told us,
"God willing, such riots will occur in Cairo soon; the only
thing stopping us is fear."

3. (C) Elites appear anxious. On April 6, many parents of
private school children kept their children home. The
private German School was reportedly half empty. Referring
to Mahalla, a textile factory owner told us, "The poor are
desperate, and this is a natural result of that. We may see
more riots, and we will definitely see more crime in Cairo;
it is already happening; the poor have to resort to
stealing." Meanwhile, Cairo's limited middle class seems
stuck in between - a reflexive fear of chaos feeds their
worries of riots, but seems nearly equaled by their
admiration of the Mahalla protesters for "giving the
government what it deserves," as one shop-owner told us.

-------------------------------
IS THIS THE START OF SOMETHING?
-------------------------------

4. (C) The key question is, will the localized incident in
Mahalla spark a wider movement? The government is clearly
focused on containing unrest. Even while the riots were
still winding down, PM Nazif traveled to Mahalla, paid
bonuses to factory workers and praised those who did not join
in the riots (ref D). The government has also accelerated
arrests of activists in Cairo (ref E). The organizers of the
April 6 strike -- distinct from Mahalla -- have already
called, via Facebook, for a follow-on national strike on May
4, Mubarak's eightieth birthday. Even regime insiders have
acknowledged the political savvy behind this tactic --
channeling current outrage towards the next big event. The
GOE responded with a press release announcing that President
Mubarak will give a May 5 speech to "underline Egypt's keen
to desire to protect the rights of laborers and accentuate
the role they can play in the development process .... and to
reiterate the government's commitment to safeguard the
interests of workers against any backlashes they might face
as a result of the economic reform program." More broadly,
the government continues to address the shortage of
subsidized bread by using military bakeries and distribution
centers, and bread lines in Cairo seem to have diminished.

5. (C) The government's concern is driven by recent events,
but likely also by worried looks in the rear-view mirror.
Egyptians are renowned for their apathy in the face of trying

CAIRO 00000783 002 OF 002


conditions. Nevertheless, 1952's "Black Saturday," when many
foreign-affiliated establishments in Cairo were burned to the
ground; the January 1977 bread riots, when tens of thousands
of Egyptians took to the streets nationwide in
anti-government riots precipitated by the government's
planned cancellation of food subsidies; and the February 1986
riots of the Central Security Forces, protesting a rumored
extension of their term of service, resulting in hundreds of
deaths nationwide, and USD millions in damage, all
demonstrate that even supposedly quiescent Egyptians have
their limits.

6. (C) While there are currently no angry demonstrators on
the streets of Cairo, the situation is more tense than even a
few months ago. Widespread bitterness about spiraling
prices, seething upset about government corruption, disdain
for the Mubarak government's perceived pro-US and Israel
posture, and working class economic woes (ref A) bubble up in
virtually every conversation. It is not clear how the next
catalyst for action -- if there is one -- might materialize.
Neither the Mahalla rioters nor the April 6 group have
charismatic, clearly identified leadership. It is
significant that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), now suffering
under the arrests of thousands of arrests of its members,
distanced itself from both of "movements." Egypt's
omnipresent security apparatus is also a strong
counter-balance to riots and demonstrations. We think it is
possible that Egypt will witness further spasms of limited
violence, but these are likely to be isolated and
uncoordinated, rather than revolutionary in nature.

7. (C) Although not on the scale of the 1977 or 1986 riots,
Mahalla is significant. The violent protests demonstrated
that it is possible to tear down a poster of Mubarak and
stomp on it, to shout obscene anti-regime slogans, to burn a
minibus and hurl rocks at riot police. These are unfamiliar
images that lower-income Egyptians thrill to. In Mahalla, a
new organic opposition force bubbled to the surface, defying
current political labels, and apparently not affiliated with
the MB. This may require the government to change its
script.

8. (C) April 6 brought together disparate opposition forces
together with numerous non-activist Egyptians, with the
Facebook calls for a strike attracting 70,000 people on-line,
and garnering widespread national attention. The nexus of
the upper and middle-class Facebook users, and their poorer
counterparts in the factories of Mahalla, created a new
dynamic. One senior insider mused, "Who could have imagined
that a few kids on the internet could foment a buzz that the
entire country noticed? I wish we could do that in the
National Democratic Party."

9. (C) Another result of Mahalla is that Mubarak will even
more strongly resist both economic and political reform
initiatives. Six months ago, economic cabinet ministers
openly discussed phasing out food and fuel subsidies in favor
of transfer payments to the very poor. That initiative now
seems to be off the table. We are also hearing that unrest
over prices has strengthened the security ministers in the
cabinet in resisting privatization and other efforts towards
liberalization. The riots introduce a new dynamic for us as
well. Under these stressful conditions, Mubarak and his
regime will be even more sensitive to US criticism over human
rights abuses and democracy shortfalls. On April 15, Foreign
Minister Aboul Gheit, meeting with the Ambassador, cited the
Mahalla incident as a strain and added that he hoped that the
United States would be supportive of Egypt during this
difficult period.
RICCIARDONE

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