- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s anti-government activists pushed to expand their protests and sought to drum up labor unrest as thousands launched strikes at state firms and offices around the country, in defiance of the vice president’s warning that demonstrations calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster would not be tolerated for much longer.

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

Showing growing impatience with the rejection, Mr. 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?”

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

Anti-Mubarak protesters are seen next to Egyptian army tanks and armored vehicles near Tahrir Square in Cairo on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. Protesters appear to have settled in for a long standoff, turning the square into a makeshift village with tens of thousands coming every day, with some sleeping in tents made of blankets and plastic sheeting. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Anti-Mubarak protesters are seen next to Egyptian army tanks and armored vehicles ... more >

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 grounds.

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

Around the country, small strikes, usually in the hundreds each, erupted — by state electrical workers, farmers and museum staffers over low wages, bread shortages or anger at mismanagement. Most of the strikes did not appear to be in response to the Tahrir protesters’ calls and seemed fueled by longtime labor discontent re-emerging amid the unrest. Some strikers, however, threatened to feed into the Tahrir-centered movement.

Some 8,000 protesters in the southern province of Assiut blocked the main highway and railroad to Cairo with burning palm trees, complaining of bread shortages and calling for the regime’s downfall.

When the governor, escorted by police, went to talk with them, they pelted his van with stones, smashing its windows before he fled. The protesters threatened to join the Tahrir movement.

About 300 slum residents in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to some parts of the governorate building and several motorcycles, protesting the failure of the governor to build proper housing for them. Police did not interfere, and the protesters set up tents in the city’s central Martyrs Square, similar to Tahrir.

In Cairo, hundreds of state electricity workers stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company, demanding the ouster of its director. “Why are you staying here? You’ve ruined our lives,” they chanted. 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.

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.

The Tahrir protest organizers 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 the central Tahrir Square, where a permanent sit-in is now in its second week, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers.

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