Egypt crisis: Cairo raises threat of martial law

Thousands of state workers and impoverished Egyptians launched strikes and protests around the country yesterday over their economic woes as anti-government activists sought to expand their campaign to oust president Hosni Mubarak.

The action came despite warnings from Egypt's vice-president that protests would not be tolerated much longer.

Some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, lit barricades of 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 organisers of the movement deeply suspicious that he plans only superficial changes. They refuse any talks unless Mubarak steps down first.

Mr Suleiman issued a sharp warning that raised the prospect of a renewed crackdown. He said there could be a "coup" unless demonstrators agree to enter negotiations.

Further deepening scepticism 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.

Nearly 10,000 people massed in Tahrir Square yesterday in the 16th day of protests. Nearby, 2,000 more blocked off parliament, several blocks away, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved.

Troops were deployed in the parliament grounds. For the first time, protesters called forcefully for labour 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".

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 labour discontent.

In Cairo, hundreds of workers stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company, demanding the ousting 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 today.

In Tahrir Square, organisers of the central anti-Mubarak demonstrations called for a new "protest of millions" for tomorrow similar to those that have drawn the largest crowds so far.

Meanwhile, US vice-president Joe Biden said a transition of power should produce "immediate, irreversible progress that responds to the aspirations of the Egyptian people". Earlier, the White House described as "particularly unhelpful" comments by Mr Suleiman that the country was not ready for democracy.

Egyptian officials have made a series of pledges not to attack, harass or arrest the activists in recent days. However, Mr Suleiman's comments suggested that will not last forever. "We can't bear this for a long time," he said of the Tahrir Square protests. "There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible."

He also warned of chaos if the situation continued, speaking of "the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorise 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 said.

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