By Wael Gamal
CAIRO (Reuters) - More than 100 people were injured in a Nile Delta textile town on Sunday when Egyptian police fought street battles with workers who tried to go on strike for more pay to compensate for higher prices, witnesses said.
Textile workers and their sympathizers attacked and set fire to shops in the town of Mahalla el-Kubra and stopped an incoming train by putting blazing tires on the tracks, they said.
Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the protests, which spread through large parts of the town centre. Some 40 people were injured and hundreds of others had breathing problems from gas inhalation, security sources said.
Protesters threw stones at police, attacked police vehicles and tore down the posters of the ruling party's candidates in Tuesday's local elections, witnesses said.
Independent workers groups and opposition parties had hoped the 20,000 workers at state-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla would go on strike as the centerpiece of a national day of protest at economic grievances.
But a strong police presence, stormy weather and stern warnings from the government helped to thwart their plans.
Across the country police arrested more than 200 people. In the capital riot police hemmed in small groups of protesters.
A call for a national general strike had won overt support from the anti-government protest movement Kefaya and some small opposition parties and movements. The influential Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition force, gave it tacit approval but said it would not participate.
In Mahalla, 100 km (60 miles) north of Cairo, hundreds of plainclothes security men took control of the massive textile factory before work began, worker activists said.
Police escorted small groups of workers from the factory at the end of their shifts to stop them organizing and protesting.
Opposition activists had hoped the day would crown a recent wave of strikes and protests against high prices.
Egypt's urban consumer inflation jumped to an 11-month high of 12.1 percent in the year to February. Higher prices for food have hit the poorest Egyptians hardest.
Those detained on Sunday were from Cairo, Alexandria, and the provinces of Beheira, Gharbia and Qena. They included activists from Kefaya, the Ghad (Tomorrow) party, the frozen Labour Party, labor activists and a handful of people who had called for the strike on Facebook.
They were held mostly for distributing leaflets in support of the strike or protesting, security sources said.
"These included the opposition blogger Malek Mostafa," lawyer and human rights activist Gamal Eid told Reuters.
The police presence was especially strong around Tahrir Square in central Cairo and at the headquarters of the lawyers and journalists association, popular venues for protests.
"We tried to demonstrate in Tahrir Square but we were chased out and some of us were arrested," Abdelwahab El-Messiri, the general coordinator of Kefaya, told Reuters.
"So we decided to cancel it because we don't want to have victims," he added.
Workers in Kafr Al Dawar and Shebine Al Koom said there too organizers had cancelled solidarity strikes and demonstrations.
But some private schools in Cairo cancelled classes and told pupils to stay at home for fear of trouble in the streets.
(Additional reporting by Aziz el-Kaissouni, editing by Mary Gabriel)