Opposition: Mubarak must act now or risk 'complete chaos'

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 3:15 PM

CAIRO - Opposition groups accused the Egyptian government Wednesday of trying to draw out the process of amending the constitution after Vice President Omar Suleiman said the only way forward was through "dialogue" or a "coup."

The public show of dissent that has roiled Egypt for more than two weeks spread for the first time to the labor sector, with trade unions, railway technicians, oil workers, public transportation employees and some members of state-controlled media striking or joining the protests, according to local news broadcasts.

Despite government efforts to placate them, demonstrators were adamant that President Hosni Mubarak act quickly to end his 30-year autocratic rule. They said they were angered by Suleiman's remarks on Tuesday that the demonstrations must end soon, and by the vice president's claim that Egypt is not ready for democratic rule.

"We believe all [President Hosni Mubarak] needs is seven days maximum" to amend the constitution by setting term limits and relaxing eligibility requirements to run for president, said Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, the secretary general of the Wafd Party, a liberal opposition party involved in negotiations with the government.

"We are faced with two choices," Nour said. "Either to move forward with reform through constitutional legitimate channels, or we're opening the door to complete chaos or a military coup."

But Mubarak's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, flatly rejected demands for the president's immediate departure, telling the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday that such a move would trigger more violence and insisting that Egypt must move "step by step" to a free presidential election.

Tens of thousands of people participated in labor protests throughout the country late Tuesday and Wednesday, said Kamal Abbas, head of the Center for Trade Unions and Labor Services. They demanded pay increases and permanent contracts from both state-run and private companies, he said.

In the industrial city of Mahala, about 24,000 textile factory workers were planning a strike on Thursday, Abbas said. "These are spontaneous," he said.

Protests and clashes were reported in other cities across Egypt. Three people were killed and several were wounded when security forces battled about 3,000 protesters in New Valley, about 300 miles south of Cairo, on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to state television and news agencies. In the southern province of Assiut, about 8,000 protesters blocked the main highway and railroad to Cairo with burning palm trees, then pelted the provincial governor's vehicle with rocks when he tried to talk to them, the Associated Press reported.

For the 16th day, thousands of protesters gathered in central Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand Mubarak's immediate ouster. Demonstrators also gathered outside parliament and the cabinet building for the second consecutive day.

In Tahrir Square, angry protesters on Wednesday kicked out a famous Egyptian singer, Tamer Hosni, who tried to participate in the demonstrations. The military shot in the air to disperse the enraged crowd that gathered around Hosni, who previously had made pro-Mubarak statements. He later wept in a television interview.

The television network al-Jazeera reported that the cabinet building was evacuated because of the protests. A government spokesman said he could not confirm that account but believed the cabinet may be moving their offices because of the demonstrations.

Mubarak, meanwhile, appeared to be trying to go about business as usual, meeting at the presidential palace with the visiting deputy foreign minister of Russia.

The Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda's front organization in Iraq, called on the demonstrators to establish a government based in Islamic law. The group advised protesters to incite violence and organize cells to force the end of Mubarak's 30-year-rule. The group seems to be trying to rally extremists to take over what has so far been a largely secular movement built by hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all economic, political and religious backgrounds.

In the square, anti-government demonstrators have stressed peaceful dissent and cooperation between Egypt's Christian and Muslim communities.

In an interview Wednesday morning with the PBS NewsHour program, Aboul Gheit, the foreign minister, criticized the U.S. response to the crisis, accusing the Obama administration of trying to impose its will on Egypt. He spoke a day after Vice President Biden phoned Suleiman to reiterate U.S. concerns and urged him to do more to end the arrests and harassment of journalists, protesters and activists.

Aboul Gheit also rejected lifting Egypt's emergency law on grounds that "we have 17,000 prisoners loose in the streets" from jails that have been destroyed. "How can you ask me to . . . disband that emergency law while I'm in difficulty?" he asked.

"We imagine ourselves in a boat in the midst of the Nile moving from one bank to the other," Aboul Gheit added. "Give us the time to row and to go with the current and see how we will reach that point."

He said Mubarak believes that stepping down now would be "unconstitutional." Moreover, "he thinks that it would entail chaos and it would entail violence and it would entail also opportunities for those who would wish to act in a manner to threaten the state, the stability of the country and society," the foreign minister said.

As the protest continued to draw attention throughout the Arab world, Egyptian workers at state-controlled media outlets launched some small-scale revolts of their own.

On Tuesday night, laborers at the al-Ahram newspaper railed against the newspaper's editor and demanded permanent, rather than temporary, contracts, according to the newspaper. They chanted "Revolution everywhere in Egypt, revolution in Ahram," and "No to injustice." Reporters at the state-run paper said they have been quietly pushing to change the publication's pro-government editorial stance.

At the state-run Nile News channel, Soha al-Naqqash resigned from her reporting job after being told to report that things were calm throughout the state, even if they weren't. She was the second employee to quit.

"They used to say 'these are the instructions,' " Naqqash told the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm. "I decided to resign so as not to get involved in what's unprofessional."

Tuesday's protests appeared to be the largest in Tahrir Square since the popular revolt began. But even amid the reinforcements, protesters said they must do more or risk their political and physical survival. They said that if the crowds disperse but Mubarak remains in power, they might be attacked, jailed or even killed.

Suleiman failed to calm those concerns as he delivered a mixed message on state television, promising that authorities would not seek retribution against the demonstrators but also warning that his government "can't put up with" prolonged protests.

The demonstrators drew energy from Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive who has become something of a folk hero among young protesters.

"I'm not a hero, but those who were martyred are the heroes," he told hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square.

Ghonim helped organize the first street protests in Cairo on Jan. 25; Egyptian security officials then detained him for 12 days. Many who joined the demonstrations for the first time Tuesday said Ghonim's emotional television appearance after his release, in which he wept for those killed in the protests, had inspired them.

Ghonim's words galvanized a crowd that clearly rejected Suleiman's assurances earlier in the day that the protesters should not fear reprisals, the latest in the government's attempts to persuade its critics to return home. Mubarak had "issued a directive to prevent them being pursued, harassed or having their right to freedom of expression taken away," Suleiman said.

Suleiman quoted the president as saying that Egypt's young people deserved gratitude "for this national dialogue, emphasizing that it puts our feet on the right path out of this ongoing crisis." He said that Mubarak had called for an investigation of bloody clashes last week that protesters blame on the president's loyalists, undercover police and paid "thugs."

But Suleiman also showed growing frustration with the protests, which have rocked this country at the center of the Arab world. He said at a meeting of newspaper chiefs that the demonstrations must end soon and repeated that there will be "no ending of the regime," according to the Associated Press, which cited a report from the official Middle East News Agency.

U.S. scolds government

The White House on Tuesday issued an unusually blunt rebuke to Suleiman for his weekend remarks suggesting that Egyptian society lacked a "culture of democracy" and was not ready for an immediate lifting of the country's long-standing state of emergency.

"I don't think that it in any way squares with what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. He said that a greater threat of instability would come from a government refusal to move toward the reforms being sought by the demonstrators. "They're going to need to see progress from their government," he said.

Demonstrators here said they were worried that any promise of safety from retribution could be broken if they bowed to pressure from the regime and left the streets.

"If [Mubarak] stays in power, he will take revenge on all of us," said Khalid al-Zidi, 46, as he ate with his family in Tahrir Square. The Education Ministry employee had spent seven days among the protesters and went home Monday. He returned Tuesday with his sister, his three children and his wife, an unemployed teacher.

Zidi said he had been detained for 87 days because he voted for an independent candidate from the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the country's biggest opposition group, in parliamentary elections in November.

"If Mubarak stays, this will be half a revolution," he said. "It would mean a grave for all the people who participated."

Waiting game in tent city

Tahrir Square was decorated Tuesday with photos of some of the estimated 300 people killed during the two weeks of demonstrations. A memorial of "martyrs' clothes" was set up at one entrance to the square.

Electricity lines have been diverted to the square to charge phones and other appliances as people in this tent city try to wait out the president.

After gathering in front of Egypt's parliament Tuesday, protesters demanded that it be dissolved.

Mahmoud Salem, a well-known anti-government blogger, said he had heard promises such as Suleiman's before police incited a mob of men to attack him and his friends, before he was detained and released, and before mobs attacked the square.

"The government said they wouldn't target us on Tuesday and they targeted us on Wednesday and Thursday," Salem said. "The point is the more [protesters] we are, the less able they are to crush us."

Rania Siam, 40, urged friends and relatives to head to Tahrir Square to reinforce the crowd numbers.

Siam, a professor at the American University in Cairo, said she felt "free" in the square but fears that she and others could be detained or attacked.

She said that on returning home Tuesday night, she would do what she had done the night before: lock the front door, lock her bedroom door and place a knife under her pillow. Without the presence of thousands of Egyptians around her demanding the same thing, she worries that the state could come after her.

Mubarak "can't afford to come after us with this amount of people," Siam said, her curly blond hair held back by a hair band sporting the colors of the Egyptian flag. "If our numbers decrease, they will come after us. This can't, and this won't, fizzle."

Staff writers William Branigin and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company