Egyptian Protesters, Regime Harden Positions

The two sides in the political crisis in Egypt seemed to harden their positions Wednesday, as protesters maintained their demonstration in the center of Cairo. Talks between the protesters and the government are apparently stalemated over the protesters' demand that President Hosni Mubarak leave office immediately. Meanwhile, Egyptian farmers and industrial workers launched strikes of their own, adding to a disruption to Egypt's economy that's estimated to be costing the country more than $300 million a day.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with a stalemate in Egypt. Protesters maintained their demonstration today in the center of Cairo. Talks between them and the government have stalled over demands that President Hosni Mubarak leave office immediately.

Representatives of the government hinted that the army may step in if the demonstrators refuse to negotiate. Meanwhile, Egyptian farmers and industrial workers launched strikes of their own, compounding a disruption to Egypt's economy that's estimated to be costing more than $300 million a day.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Cairo.

(Soundbite of protest)

COREY FLINTOFF: Thousands of demonstrators continue to crowd Tahrir Square and they seem to be trying to reflect their diversity from farmers in weather-stained robes to professionals in crisp suits. Fifty-nine-year-old Gahlal Arif(ph) says he works as a manager for an American company. He says it's only his second time in the square, where he thought at first he'd see a revolution of Egypt's poor. Instead, he says, he's met Egyptians from all walks of life.

Mr. GHALAL ARIF: The Egyptian people from all standards of living, surprise of this demonstration which become biggest revolution, while these thousands of demonstrations and you don't have a policeman around us to protect us.

(Soundbite of singing)

FLINTOFF: The demonstrators still seem eager to portray their protests as a patriotic one, waving Egyptian flags and singing the country's national anthem. The United States and other countries continue to press for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But a Western diplomat in Cairo told reporters today that there's no sense among diplomats that Egypt has found anything close to a political balance.

The diplomat cited a television interview with Vice President Omar Suleiman in which Suleiman said the government can go no further in offering concessions to the protesters. The diplomat added that the government's offers appear to be inadequate, given the degree of popular support for the protesters in the square.

There have been demonstrations and clashes elsewhere in Egypt, including reports of a protest by farmers in Egypt's southern province of Assiut, where thousands of demonstrators blocked roads and a railway demanding bread. On the outskirts of Cairo, workers at seven factories, most of them cement plants, went on strike to demand better wages and working conditions.

Tommy Erfaque(ph) is with a non-governmental organization called the Center for Trade Unions and Worker Services. He says the strikes are about work issues. But the inspiration is linked to the protests in Tahrir Square.

Mr. TOMMY ERFAQUE (Center for Trade Unions and Worker Services): Sure, it's related. It give courageous spirit to worker to asking for their rights.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: In the dust-laden air outside of one of the cement factories in Helwan, an industrial suburb south of Cairo, workers gathered to air their grievances. They complained that a multinational company that owns their factory has been cutting jobs, denying health benefits and violating Egypt's worker safety laws.

But despite their quarrels with the company, the men said that they are not in sympathy with the protesters in Tahrir Square.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: This man says: We are with the legitimate government. We are with Mubarak. There's no substitute for him.

There are many different voices emerging from the turmoil in Egypt and at the moment, they don't seem to be coming any closer to agreement.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Cairo.

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