- 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.

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.

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 movement.

Still, authorities were projecting an image of normalcy. Egypt’s most famous tourist attraction, the Great 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.

Mr. Mubarak met Wednesday with a Russian envoy.

Mr. 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 United States has given a strong endorsement to Mr. Suleiman’s efforts but insists it want to see real changes. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke by phone with Mr. 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 Mr. Suleiman’s comments suggest 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 Tuesday.

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.

Mr. 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.”

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

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

Over the weekend, Mr. 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 Mr. Suleiman’s promises that the regime will carry out constitutional reforms to bring greater democracy in a country Mr. 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 Suleiman, 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 neutrality.

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

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