Strikes erupt across Egypt

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 against President Hosni Mubarak.Culture Minister Gaber Asfour, appointed just nine days ago to a new Cabinet after a reshuffle prompted by the protests, resigned. Asfour said the resignation was for “medical reasons,” but it came after he faced criticism from prominent intellectuals for joining the new Cabinet.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 . They refuse any talks unless Mubarak steps down first.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. He suggested Egypt was not ready for democracy and said a government-formed panel of judges 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?”

The state news agency MENA quoted Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit as saying the army would be forced to intervene to protect the country if protesters push the country into chaos.Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, who is convalescing in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, received a telephone call Wednesday from US President Barack Obama and they discussed developments in Egypt and other major regional and international issues, the Saudi Press Agency reported.Nearly 10,000 people massed Wednesday at Tahrir Square on the 16th day of protests. Nearby, 2,000 more blocked off Parliament, several blocks away, chanting slogans for all members to resign and Parliament to be dissolved. Army troops deployed in the Parliament grounds.For the first time, protesters called 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.”

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 to resign, 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.Immigration officers meanwhile were instructed to bar Palestinians from entering Egypt, an official at Cairo airport said Wednesday after 12 travelers were sent back – Arabnews