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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Protesters in Egypt Regain Initiative as Workers Strike -

President George W. Bush and Egyptian Presiden...Image via WikipediaProtesters in Egypt Regain Initiative as Workers Strike -

CAIRO —Labor strikes and worker protests that flared across Egypt on Wednesday affected post offices, textile factories and even the government’s flagship newspaper, as protesters recaptured the initiative in their battle for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

At the newspaper, Al Ahram, freelance reporters demanding better wages and more independence from the government snarled one of the state’s most powerful propaganda tools and seemed to be forcing a change in its tone. On Wednesday, the front page, which had sought for days to downplay the protests, called recent attacks by pro-Mubarak protesters on Tahrir Square an “offense to the whole nation.”

In the face of unrest now in its 16th day, government officials delivered stern warnings that seemed to reflect growing impatience with the protests, and hardening positions.

The country’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, dismissed calls by Egyptian protesters and the Vice President Joe Biden to scrap the country’s emergency laws, which allow the authorities to detain people without charge.

“We have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets out of jails that have been destroyed,” Mr. Aboul Gheit said. “How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I’m in that difficulty?”

His comment came on the heels of a warning the night before from Mr. Mubarak’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Omar Suleiman, that the only alternative to constitutional talks was a “coup.” “We don’t want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools,” Mr. Suleiman said.

Several hundred of the pro-democracy protesters who marched on Parliament, a few blocks from Tahrir Square, camped out there overnight.

By midday, hundreds of workers from the Health Ministry, adjacent to Parliament and a few hundred yards from the square, also took to the streets in a protest whose exact focus was not immediately clear, Interior Ministry officials said.

By nightfall, tens of thousands of protesters filled the square and more than a thousand prepared for another nighttime encampment outside Parliament, a symbolic move that showed the movement’s growing confidence.

Government officials said the protests had spread to the previously quiet southern region of Upper Egypt.

In Port Said, a city of 600,000 at the mouth of the Suez Canal, protesters set fire to a government building and occupied the city’s central square. There were unconfirmed reports that police fired live rounds on protesters on Tuesday in El Kharga, 375 miles south of Cairo, resulting in several deaths. Protesters responded by burning police stations and other government buildings on Wednesday, according to wire reports.

On Tuesday, the officials said, thousands protested in the province of Wadi El Jedid. One person died and 61 were injured, including seven from gunfire by the authorities, the officials said. Television images also showed crowds gathering in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city.

Before the reports of those clashes, Human Rights Watch reported that more than 300 people have been killed since Jan. 25.

Increasingly, the political clamor for Mr. Mubarak’s ouster seemed to be complemented by strikes.

In the most potentially significant action, about 6,000 workers at five service companies owned by the Suez Canal Authority — a major component of the Egyptian economy — began a sit-in on Tuesday night. There was no immediate suggestion of disruptions to shipping in the canal, a vital international waterway leading from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. But Egyptian officials said that total traffic declined by 1.6 percent in January, though it was up significantly from last year.

More than 2,000 textile workers and others in Suez demonstrated as well, Al Ahram reported, while in Luxor thousands hurt by the collapse of the tourist industry marched to demand government benefits. There was no immediate independent corroboration of the reports.

At one factory in the textile town of Mahalla, more than striking 1,500 workers blocked roads, continuing a long-running dispute with the owner. And more than 2,000 workers from the Sigma pharmaceutical company in the city of Quesna went on strike while some 5,000 unemployed youth stormed a government building in Aswan, demanding the dismissal of the governor.

For many foreign visitors to Egypt, Aswan is known as a starting point or destination for luxury cruises to and from Luxor on the Nile River. The government’s Ministry of Civil Aviation reported on Wednesday that flights to Egypt had dropped by 70 percent since the protests began.

In Cairo, sanitation workers demonstrated around their headquarters in Dokki.

While state television has focused its coverage on episodes of violence that could spread fear among the wider Egyptian public and prompt calls for the restoration, Al Ahram’s coverage was a distinct departure from its usual practice of avoiding reporting that might embarrass the government.

In the lobby of the newspaper on Wednesday, journalists were in open revolt against the newspaper’s management and editorial policies. Several said the editor of the English-language division heads to the square to join the protests every night, joined by many of the staff.Some called their own protest a microcosm of the Egyptian uprising, with young journalists leading demands for better working conditions and less biased coverage. “We want a voice,” said Sara Ramadan, 23, a sports reporter.

The paper described how “more than 500 media figures” issued a statement declaring “their rejection of official media coverage of the January 25 uprising and demanded that Minister of Information Anas El-Fikki step down.”

Members of the Journalists Syndicate moved toward a no-confidence vote against their leader, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a former Mubarak speech writer, the daily Al Masry Al Youm reported on its English-language Web site.

The scattered protests and labor unrest seemed symptomatic of an emerging trend for some Egyptians to air an array of grievances, some related to the protests and some of an older origin.

The government’s bid to project its willingness to make concessions has had limited success. On Tuesday, Vice President Suleiman announced the creation of a committee of judges and legal scholars to propose constitutional amendments. But all the members are considered Mubarak loyalists.

The Obama administration was continuing its efforts to influence a transition. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called Mr. Suleiman on Tuesday to ask him to lift the 30-year emergency law that the government has used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders, to stop imprisoning protesters and journalists, and to invite demonstrators to help develop a specific timetable for opening up the political process. He also asked Mr. Suleiman to open talks on Egypt’s political future to a wider range of opposition members.

Mr. Suleiman has said only that Egypt will remove the emergency law when the situation justifies its repeal, and the harassment and arrest of journalists and human rights activists has continued even in the last few days.

And while he raised the prospect of a coup, he also said, “we want to avoid that — meaning uncalculated and hasty steps that produce more irrationality.”

“There will be no ending of the regime, nor a coup, because that means chaos,” Mr. Suleiman said. And he warned the protesters not to attempt more civil disobedience, calling it “extremely dangerous.” He added, “We absolutely do not tolerate it.”

Many in the crowd discussed the inspiration they drew from the emotional interview on Monday night with the online organizer, Wael Ghonim, hours after he was freed from nearly two weeks of secret detention. A Google executive, he had been the anonymous administrator of a Facebook group that enlisted tens of thousands to oppose the Mubarak government by publicizing a young Egyptian’s beating death at the hands of its reviled police force.

In the tearful conversation on Egypt’s Dream TV, Mr. Ghonim told the story of his “kidnapping,” secret imprisonment in blindfolded isolation for 12 days and determination to overturn Egypt’s authoritarian government. Both Mr. Ghonim and his interviewer, Mona el-Shazly, appeared in Tahrir Square Tuesday to cheer on the revolt.

Some protesters said they saw the broadcast as a potential turning point in a propaganda war that has so far gone badly against them, with the state-run television network and newspapers portraying the crowds in Tahrir Square as a dwindling band of obstructionists doing the bidding of foreign interests.

Reporting was contributed by David D. Kirkpatrick, Anthony Shadid, Mona El-Naggar, Thanassis Cambanis and Liam Stack.

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