Egypt's president announced a 30 percent salary increase for all government employees Wednesday, a day after the country's largest opposition group backed calls for a general strike to protest rising food prices.
The Egyptian government has been on edge since early April, when thousands of citizens staged violent riots in the northern city of Mahalla over low salaries and rising prices. Three people were killed during the protests, 80 were injured and about 400 were arrested.
The Muslim Brotherhood stayed on the sidelines during the April protests. But the powerful opposition group's decision Tuesday to back a strike timed to coincide with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday in May could have contributed to the president's decision to take unprecedented action.
"Of course, nobody expected a 30 percent (salary) increase ... but I asked the government to search for resources," Mubarak told hundreds of cheering workers Wednesday during a speech marking the upcoming May 1 Labor Day holiday.
The call for a May 4 strike was initiated by a group of young Egyptian activists on the social networking Web site Facebook. A majority of Egyptians lack access to the Internet, but the Facebook group also has spread word using mobile phone text messages and by plastering leaflets across Cairo.
The activists have demanded that the government crack down on monopolies to help manage price increases and also have called on the government to increase minimum wages for public workers.
"Our demands are specific, and the government can implement them only if it gives up personal interests and interests of some businessmen close to the regime," the activists said in a statement posted on their Web site.
In his speech Wednesday, Mubarak blamed Egyptians' suffering on the global increase in food prices. The World Bank estimates that food prices have increased 83 percent in the past three years.
"We are not isolated from the world," said Mubarak. "We import half of our needs of grain and corn and 90 percent of cooking oil, and our imports of food commodities increase year after year to meet the growth of the population."
14.4 percent inflation in March
Inflation in Egypt reached 14.4 percent in March, making life difficult for the 20 percent of the country's 76.5 million people who live below the poverty line of about $2 per day. In the last two months, eleven people have died in clashes while standing in line to buy subsidized bread, according to police.
On Tuesday, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement calling its members and sympathizers to participate in the May 4 strike by staying home.
Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef said the opposition group was against "public policies that deepen corruption and dictatorship."
The Brotherhood is banned by the government, but officials have not wiped out the organization despite periodic crackdowns. Brotherhood members often participate in elections as independents and scored surprise victories in 2005 that gave them a fifth of the parliament's 454 seats.
The government has increased pressure on the group in recent weeks, sentencing 25 senior members to prison by a military tribunal and preventing hundreds from running in local elections.