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Protesters in Egypt regain initiative as workers strike

CAIRO — An array of new developments turned against President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday as Egypt moved closer to a full rupture between its autocratic government and a growing popular rebellion.

In Cairo, masses of demonstrators succeeded in blockading the Parliament building, spilling over for the first time from Tahrir Square. Elsewhere, labor unrest spread as thousands of textile, steel and hospital workers staged strikes. In a further break with the government, state-run television and newspapers changed their tone virtually overnight and began reporting favorably about the demonstrations.

The government adopted a harder line in its rhetoric, issuing dark warnings and an ultimatum. Vice President Omar Suleiman, in remarks carried by the official Middle East News Agency, said protesters had a choice: commit to "dialogue" with the government or face the likelihood of a "coup."

"We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools," he said.

His warnings of a possible coup were taken by protesters as a veiled threat to impose martial law — which would be a dramatic escalation in the standoff. But instead of backing off, they promised more huge protests on Friday.

The Mubarak government also had harsh words Wednesday for the United States, a longtime ally. In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he was "often angry" and "infuriated" with the White House for its criticism of how Egypt had responded to the early days of the crisis.

He also said Mubarak would not budge on his refusal to resign before his term ends in September. "He thinks it would entail chaos and it would entail violence," Gheit said.

Opposition leaders met with Suleiman on Sunday, but they have refused to join in further talks despite a pledge by the vice president to set up committees to study possible constitutional changes. The negotiations will go nowhere, the opposition leaders say, unless Mubarak quits or acts more decisively to meet their demands.

"What is taking place on the ground is a conflict of wills," said Mohammed Mursi, a senior figure with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Thousands strike

Workers "were motivated to strike when they heard about how many billions the Mubarak family was worth," said Kamal Abbas, a labor leader. "They said: 'How much longer should we be silent?' "

Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day.

In Cairo, hundreds of state electricity workers stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company, demanding the ouster of its director. Public transport workers at five of the city's roughly 17 garages also called strikes, demanding Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses would be halted today.

Among those joining in the labor unrest were 2,500 textile and steel workers who staged a strike in Suez, following 6,000 workers in the canal zone who walked out the day before. In towns across the Nile Delta, about 1,500 nurses held a sit-in at a hospital, 800 workers went on strike at a bottling plant and 2,000 more stopped work at steel factories, according to state media reports.

At a factory in the textile town of Mahalla, more than 1,500 striking workers blocked roads, continuing a long-running dispute with the owner. About 24,000 textile factory workers there were planning a strike today, said Kamal Abbas, head of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services.

More than 2,000 workers from Sigma pharmaceutical company in the city of Quesna went on strike while some 5,000 unemployed youth stormed a government building in Aswan, demanding the dismissal of the governor.

Demonstrations expand

In Cairo's Tahrir Square, about 10,000 massed again on Wednesday. Nearby, 2,000 more protesters blocked off Parliament several blocks away, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved. A huge caricature of Mubarak hung on the gates of Parliament, and army troops were on the grounds.

Even the government's flagship newspaper, Al Ahram, which had sought for days to downplay the protests, changed its tone Wednesday. The front page called recent attacks by pro-Mubarak protesters on Tahrir Square an "offense to the whole nation."

Meanwhile, fresh demonstrations erupted in remote corners of the country.

In the desert oasis town of Kharga, southwest of Cairo, five protesters were killed in two days of rioting, security officials said. Police opened fire Tuesday on hundreds who set a courthouse on fire and attacked a police station, demanding the removal of the provincial security chief. The army was forced to secure several government buildings and prisons, and on Wednesday the security chief was dismissed, security officials said. Reports varied from three to five on the number killed.

In Assiut province, some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees. They blocked the main highway and railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the governor by pelting his van with stones.

In Port Said, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, protesters set fire to a government building and occupied the city's central square.

Television images also showed crowds gathering in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city.

Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

Protesters in Egypt regain initiative as workers strike 02/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 7:08am]
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