Wednesday, February 09, 2011

[olympiaworkers] Strikes erupt as Egypt protesters defy VP warnings

By MAGGIE MICHAEL and TAREK EL-TABLAWY, Associated Press Feb. 9, 2011

CAIRO – Thousands of state workers and impoverished Egyptians launched
strikes and protests around the country on Wednesday over their economic
woes as anti-government activists sought to expand their campaign to oust
President Hosni Mubarak despite warnings from the vice president that
protests won't be tolerated much longer.

Some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm
trees in the southern province of Assiut, blocking the main highway and
railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the
governor by pelting his van with stones. Hundreds of slum dwellers in the
Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to part of the governor's
headquarters in anger over lack of housing.

Efforts by Vice President Omar Suleiman to open a dialogue with protesters
over reforms have broken down since the weekend, with youth organizers of
the movement deeply suspicious that he plans only superficial changes far
short of real democracy. They refuse any talks unless Mubarak steps down

Showing growing impatience with the rejection, Suleiman issued a sharp
warning that raised the prospect of a renewed crackdown. He told Egyptian
newspaper editors late Tuesday that there could be a "coup" unless
demonstrators agree to enter negotiations. Further deepening skepticism of
his intentions, he suggested Egypt was not ready for democracy and said a
government-formed panel of judges, dominated by Mubarak loyalists, would
push ahead with recommending its own constitutional amendments to be put
to a referendum.

"He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the
square will be smashed," said Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a
coalition of the five main youth groups behind protests in Cairo's Tahrir
Square. "But what would he do with the rest of the 70 million Egyptians
who will follow us afterward."

Suleiman is creating "a disastrous scenario," Samir said. "We are striking
and we will protest and we will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down.
Whoever wants to threaten us, then let them do so," he added.

Nearly 10,000 massed in Tahrir on Wednesday in the 16th day of protests.
Nearby, 2,000 more blocked off parliament, several blocks away, chanting
slogans for it to be dissolved. Army troops deployed in the parliament

For the first time, protesters were calling forcefully Wednesday for labor
strikes, despite a warning by Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience
are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."

Click image to see photos of protests, clashes in Egypt

AP/Paul Schemm

Strikes broke out across Egypt as many companies reopened for the first
time after closing for much of the turmoil because of curfews. Not all the
strikers were responding directly to the protesters' calls — but the
movement's success and its denunciations of the increasing poverty under
nearly 30 years of Mubarak's rule clearly reignited labor discontent that
has broken out frequently in recent years.

The farmers in Assiut voiced their support of the Tahrir movement,
witnesses said, as did the Port Said protesters, who set up a tent camp in
the city's main Martyrs Square similar to the Cairo camp.

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, calling for Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses
would be halted Thursday, though it was not clear if they represented the
entire bus system.

Also, dozens of state museum workers demanding higher wages staged a
protest in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, crowding around
antiquities chief Zahi Hawass when he came to talk to them.

Several hundred workers also demonstrated at a silk factory and a fuel
coke plant in Cairo's industrial suburb of Helwan, demanding better pay
and work conditions.

Two protesters were killed Tuesday when police opened fire on hundreds who
set a courthouse on fire and attacked a police station in the desert oasis
town of Kharga, southwest of Cairo, in two days of rioting, security
officials said Wednesday. The protesters are demanding the removal of a
senior local police commander accused of abuse. The army was forced to
secure a number of government buildings including prisons. The officials
spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk
to the press.

Strikes entered a second day in the city of Suez on Wednesday. Some 5,000
workers at various state companies — including a textile workers, medicine
bottle manufacturers, sanitation workers and a firm involved in repairs
for ships on the Suez Canal — held separate strikes and protests at their
factories. Traffic at the Suez Canal, a vital international waterway that
is a top revenue earner for Egypt, was not affected.

"We're not getting our rights," said Ahmed Tantawi, a Public Works
employee in Suez. He said workers provide 24-hour service and are exposed
to health risks but get only an extra $1.50 a month in hardship
compensation. He said there are employees who have worked their entire
lives in the department and will retire with a salary equivalent to $200 a

In Tahrir, organizers of the central anti-Mubarak demonstrations called
for a new "protest of millions" for Friday similar to those that have
drawn the largest crowds so far. But in a change of tactic, they want to
spread the protests out around different parts of Cairo instead of only in
downtown Tahrir Square where a permanent sit-in is now in its second week,
said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers.

A previous "protest of millions" last week drew at least a quarter-million
people to Tahrir — their biggest yet, along with crowds of tens of
thousands in other cities. A Tahrir rally on Tuesday rivaled that one in
size, fueled by a renewed enthusiasm after the release of Wael Ghonim, a
Google marketing manager who helped spark the unprecedented protest

Still, authorities were projecting an image of normalcy. Egypt's most
famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists on
Wednesday. Tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos,
raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests. Mubarak met
Wednesday with a Russian envoy.

Suleiman's interview Tuesday evening was a tough warning to protesters
that their continued demonstrations would not be tolerated for a long time
and that they must get behind his program for reform. The U.S. has given a
strong endorsement to Suleiman's efforts but insists it want to see real
changes. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Suleiman on Tuesday,
saying Washington wants Egypt to immediately rescind emergency laws that
give broad powers to security forces — a key demand of the protesters.

Officials have made a series of pledges not to attack, harass or arrest
the activists in recent days. But Suleiman's comments suggested that won't
last forever.

"We can't bear this for a long time," he said of the Tahrir protests.
"There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible." He said the
regime wants to resolve the crisis through dialogue, warning: "We don't
want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."

He also warned of chaos if the situation continued, speaking of "the dark
bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people." If dialogue is not
successful, the alternative is "that a coup happens, which would mean
uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities," he told
state and independent newspaper editors in the round-table briefing

Although it was not completely clear what the vice president intended in
his "coup" comment, the protesters heard it as a veiled threat to impose
martial law — which would be a dramatic escalation in the standoff.

Suleiman, a military man who was intelligence chief before being elevated
to vice president amid the crisis, tried to explain the remark by saying:

"I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an
absence of the system. Some force, whether its the army or police or the
intelligence agency or the (opposition Muslim) Brotherhood or the youth
themselves could carry out 'creative chaos' to end the regime and take
power," he said.

Suleiman, a close confident of the president, rejected any "end to the
regime" including an immediate departure for Mubarak, who says he will
serve out the rest of his term until September elections. Suleiman
reiterated his view that Egypt is not ready for democracy.

"The culture of democracy is still far away," he said.

Over the weekend, Suleiman held a widely publicized round of talks with
the opposition — including representatives from among the protest
activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and official, government-sanctioned
opposition parties, which have taken no role in the protests.

But the youth activists who participated say the session appeared to be an
attempt to divide their ranks and they have said they don't trust
Suleiman's promises that the regime will carry out constitutional reforms
to bring greater democracy in a country Mubarak has ruled for nearly 30
years with an authoritarian hand.

A committee of the various youth groups behind the protests say they will
hold no talks, and the Brotherhood underlined that they too have cut off
contacts for now.

"Since our last meeting with Soleiman we have not met with him or anyone
else from the government in either an official or nonofficial manner,"
said Mohammed Mursi, a Brotherhood leader.

Suleiman indicated the government plans to push ahead with its own reform
program even without negotiations, a move likely to do nothing to ease
protests. On Tuesday, Suleiman announced a panel of top judges and legal
experts would recommend amendments to the constitution by the end of the
month, which would then be put to a referendum.

But the panel is dominated by Mubarak loyalists, and previous referendums
on amendments drawn up by the regime have been marred by vote rigging to
push them through.

The head of the panel, Serry Siam, top judge on the country's highest
appellate court, "represents the old regime along with its ideology and
legislation which restrict rights and freedom," said Nasser Amin, director
of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal
Profession, an independent organization that works for judicial

In one concession made in the newspaper interview, Suleiman said Mubarak
was willing to have international supervision of September elections, a
longtime demand by reformers that officials have long rejected.


Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi, Hamza Hendawi, Paul Schemm,
Maggie Hyde and Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report.

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