Thousands of workers strike to join Egypt protests

Doctors, lawyers leave work for second day to join anti-gov't protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square as protests enter 17th day; crowds gather in Suez Canal city angry at lack of housing.

Cairo protests Egypt 311 (photo credit: AP)
Cairo protests Egypt 311
(photo credit: AP)
CAIRO — Doctors in white lab coats and lawyers in black robes streamed into Cairo's Tahrir Square Thursday, linking striking workers with anti-government protesters to create powerful new momentum for calls to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. With its efforts to manage the crisis failing, the government threatened the army could crack down by imposing martial law.
The protests in their 17th day, which have focused on discontent with Mubarak's 29-year monopoly on power, now have tapped into the even deeper well of anger over economic woes, including inflation, unemployment, corruption, low wages and wide economic disparities between rich and poor.
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A crowd of 4,000 angry over lack of housing rioted in the Suez Canal city of Port Said on Thursday for a second straight day. They marched on the local state security headquarters, demanded those inside leave, then stormed the building, set fire to part of it and six police cars. Police did not intervene. A day earlier they torched the governor's home and offices.
The spread of labor unrest was in part in direct response to calls from protesters as strikers joined in the movement. But there also seemed to be another element — locals unleashing long pent-up resentment at specific symbols of the state, whether it was an unpopular local police commander, a state factory seen as stiffing workers or a governor failing to follow through on promises.
The government warnings raised the prospect that the energized protests could bring a new crackdown despite repeated army and government promises not to try to clear protesters from their camp in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in EgyptClick here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Foreign minister says military 'will be compelled to defend constitution'
Speaking to the Arab news network Al-Arabiya on Thursday, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that if "adventurers" take over the process of reform the military "will be compelled to defend the constitution and national security ... and we'll find ourselves in a very grave situation."
The night earlier, he was more explicit, saying in an interview with "PBS NewsHour" that there would be chaos if Mubarak stepped down immediately. "Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation thru imposing martial law, and army in the streets?" he said. It was the second coup warning this week, with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman making similar threats Tuesday.
The warnings reflect growing government impatience as its own attempts to manage the crisis have failed. Mubarak has refused to step down immediately, saying he will serve out the rest of his term until September elections.
Suleiman has put forward a gradual program for reform in the meantime: Discussions with the opposition over constitutional amendments to be approved by referendum by June, paving the way to the election, in which Mubarak would not run.
But his plan preserves a heavy regime hand in directing the reform process, so protesters have rejected it on suspicion it will not bring real democracy. Youth activists organizing the Tahrir protests have refused any negotiations on reform or halt to demonstrations until Mubarak goes. Not only have they fended off government attempts to fragment their ranks and draw some into talks, their protests have spread.
Leftist party breaks off talks with Suleiman
One of the few groups that did enter talks with Suleiman — the leftist Tagammu Party — announced Thursday it had broken off contacts in anger over the coup threats. Tagammu is one of the official, government-sanctioned opposition parties that have little public support and no role in the protests, and are seen by protesters as little more than extensions of the regime.
Youth activists organizing the protests planned to up the pressure on the streets even further, calling for an expanded rally on Friday, hoping to repeat a showing earlier this week that drew about a quarter-million people. Friday's protest was to be expanded, with six separate rallies planned around Cairo, all to eventually march on Tahrir, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, speaking for a coalition of groups behind the protests.
Thousands were packing the square on Thursday, vowing not to give up until the longtime leader steps down despite a host of sweeping government concessions. At the same time, protest organizers have made a concerted effort to bring labor movements into the protests.
The labor unrest unleashed this week was flaring so quickly that protesters sent out messages to railroad workers not to go on strike and halt trains because people in the provinces wanted to come to Cairo to join the Tahrir rallies.
Strikes erupt in wide breadth of sectors
Strikes have erupted in a wide breadth of sectors — postal workers, electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and hospitals.
A bus strike launched Thursday snarled traffic in Cairo, a city of 18 million where many of its impoverished residents rely on public transport. Few buses were seen on the streets, which were jammed and slow moving because of the extra reliance on cars.
Around 800 public transport workers blocked a main Cairo thoroughfare with a protest, demanding salary increases, and they said at least 3,000 of their co-workers were rallying in other parts of the city.
The White House warned Egypt's leaders to expect unrelenting protests unless they start to show real reforms and a transition to a freer society, dismissing governmental concessions so far as not having met even the minimum threshold of what people want.