Suez Canal Company workers protest as they began an open-ended strike in front of the company's headquarters Wednesday.
Suez Canal Company workers protest as they began an open-ended strike in front of the company's headquarters Wednesday. AP
Thousands of workers across Egypt went on strike Wednesday to demand better pay, benefits and conditions in unrest that could add momentum to anti-government protests.
More than 5,000 workers from a variety of companies, including a ship repair firm, have gone on strike in the port city of Suez. Thousands of others have staged protests on company grounds in the cities of Mahalla, Port Said and Cairo. The Suez strikes have not affected ship traffic through the Suez Canal.
Small strikes were staged by state electrical workers, farmers and museum staffers. Hundreds of employees stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company to demand the ouster of its director. "Why are you staying here? You've ruined our lives," they chanted.
Egypt's government has offered a 15 percent pay raise effective in April for all public workers, but it wasn't clear whether government employees thought the promise would be honored.
The labor unrest was likely to ratchet up pressure on the already jittery regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
In the heart of Cairo, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters massed for a 16th straight day in an angry rejection of Vice President Omar Suleiman's veiled warning that a crackdown was imminent.
Tahrir Square reverberated with cries of "We are not leaving until he leaves!" from demonstrators who say they won't depart until Mubarak does. On Tuesday, the square saw one of the largest gatherings since the popular uprising began more than two weeks ago, paralyzing Egypt's government and its economy.
Protest organizers said they planned to launch another "protest of millions" Friday, similar to the one that drew at least a quarter-million people last week.
Despite the massive turnouts, the government has responded with words of defiance.
A Dangerous Ultimatum
Suleiman told Egyptian newspaper editors late Tuesday that the crisis needs to end as soon as possible. He said the protesters essentially have two options: dialogue or coup.
"We can't bear this for a long time," Suleiman said of the protests. "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."
If dialogue is not successful, he added, the alternative is "that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities."
Protesters and opposition groups took his comments as a dangerous ultimatum and a veiled threat.
Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a coalition of the five main youth groups behind the protests in Tahrir Square, said the vice president was creating "a disastrous scenario."
"He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed," Samir said. "But what would he do with the rest of 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward?"
Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate who is an opposition Ghad liberal party leader, dismissed the remarks: "He is leaving one option to us — that option is the coup."
One protester, Ahmed Rafat, said he thinks more blood would be spilled if protesters went ahead with a plan to take their demonstration to the gates of the presidential palace.
"I think if we try to go there, it's going to take some blood," he told NPR. "I don't think it's going to be safe. But I'm going to be the first person to go there. If there is a move there, I will be the first person to go."
Fear Of Undercover Police At Protests
There is increasing unease that Mubarak or leaders he has chosen may hang on to power. If they do, there is a growing fear that the entrenched regime will try to exact revenge in the way it has done many times before: mass arrests and abuse of detainees.
Some protesters in Tahrir Square reportedly have noticed people in the crowds who look out of place. They hold mobile telephones aloft, recording video of the panorama. The protesters suspect these are undercover police documenting who is attending the protests and fear that if they don't win far-reaching concessions soon, an emboldened security establishment will identify and round them up, one by one.
Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
A doctor sits in a makeshift clinic in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday, the 16th day of protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
A doctor sits in a makeshift clinic in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday, the 16th day of protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
"We've heard about plainclothes security milling about in the crowd," said Salih Abdul Aziz, 39, who first joined protests at the square on Jan. 28, a day of intense clashes with riot police. "We are careful in what we say to each other. And we don't talk politics very much to people we don't know."
The emergency laws expand police powers and sharply curtail rights to demonstrate and organize politically. The restrictions were imposed after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, which led to Mubarak taking power.
A worker with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said she had heard of recent detentions involving "lower-level harassment" of people approaching Tahrir Square with blankets and other supplies, or for alleged violations of a nightly curfew.
"There are new reports every day," said rights activist Heba Morayef. "It's not all targeted."
Human Rights Watch said Monday that 297 people had been killed in two weeks of protests and sporadic clashes between anti-government demonstrators and Mubarak supporters.
The police beat protesters and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them Jan. 28, but the army was sent in afterward and has largely maintained the peace.
Tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos, raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests. Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists Wednesday.
A Leader For The Uprising Emerges?
Suleiman delivered his remarks hours after a 30-year-old Google executive spoke to the sea of people in Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Wael Ghonim electrified the crowd, energizing the movement after being released from 12 days in secret detention.
"He made a huge difference," 18-year-old high school student Hanna Rahawi told NPR. "I think we need a leader. Everyone has different ideas in Tahrir and they want a leader, and this is a very suitable leader."
Anti-Mubarak protesters camped out next to army tanks and armored vehicles near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday.
Anti-Mubarak protesters camped out next to army tanks and armored vehicles near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday. Emilio Morenatti/AP
Over the weekend, Suleiman held a widely publicized round of talks with the opposition, including representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood, opposition demonstrators and government-sanctioned opposition parties, which have taken no role in the protests.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized opposition group, which initially welcomed the talks, took a tougher line Tuesday, calling Mubarak's regime "illegitimate" and demanding that the government open "all files of corruption."
Meanwhile, a militant group urged Egyptians to join holy war and establish an Islamic state — the latest in a series of statements by Islamist militants supporting the protesters in their bid to oust Mubarak.
The Islamic State of Iraq, which is affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq, warned Egyptians against being deceived by "the malicious secularism, the infidel democracy and the rotten pagan nationalism," according to a statement posted Wednesday on two militant websites.
It urged the Egyptians not to be afraid of the United States, saying the U.S. is in its weakest state because it is involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and busy watching events in Yemen, Somalia and other North African countries.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, Corey Flintoff and Eric Westervelt reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.