Protests, strikes and media shift intensify pressure on Mubarak government

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2011

CAIRO - An array of new developments turned against President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday as Egypt moved closer to a full rupture between its autocratic government and a growing popular rebellion.

In Cairo, masses of demonstrators succeeded in blockading the parliament building, after spilling over from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests. Elsewhere in the country, labor unrest spread, as thousands of textile, steel and hospital workers staged strikes. In a further break with the government, state-run television and newspapers changed their tone virtually overnight and began reporting favorably about the demonstrations.

For its part, the government adopted a harder line in its rhetoric, issuing dark warnings and an ultimatum. Vice President Omar Suleiman, in remarks carried by the official Middle East News Agency, said protesters had a choice - either commit to a "dialogue" with the government or face the likelihood of a "coup."

The Mubarak government also had harsh words Wednesday for the United States, a longtime ally. In an interview with "PBS NewsHour," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he was "often angry" and "infuriated" with the White House for its criticism of the Egyptian government's response in the early days of the crisis.

He also said Mubarak would not budge on his refusal to resign before his term ends in September. "He thinks it would entail chaos and it would entail violence," Aboul Gheit said.

In Washington, the White House repeated its call for Egypt to take "immediate" steps, including an end to violence and suppression of opposition figures and journalists, the lifting of long-standing emergency laws that restrict civil rights, and a broadening of the government's dialogue with the opposition.

White House officials declined to say what action, if any, the administration would take if the Egyptian government continued to reject its entreaties.

"The Egyptian people are going to be the drivers of the process," said deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. "Our ability to dictate outcomes, that's not something we're able to do. But we are able to make very clear what we expect and what we stand for."

Egypt's opposition leaders met with Suleiman on Sunday, but they have refused to join in further talks, despite a pledge by the vice president to set up committees to study possible constitutional changes. The negotiations will go nowhere, the opposition leaders say, unless Mubarak quits or acts more decisively to meet their demands.

"What is taking place on the ground is a conflict of wills," said Mohammed Mursi, a senior figure with the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement that seeks to impose religious rule. "The steadfastness of the people is confronting the stubbornness of the man who heads the regime."

The size of the crowd in Tahrir Square on Wednesday was modest compared with the unprecedented numbers that packed the city center the day before, but organizers were calling for another huge turnout Friday, the start of the Muslim weekend.

Among those joining in the labor unrest were 2,500 textile and steel workers who staged a strike in Suez, following 6,000 workers in the canal zone who had walked out the day before. In towns across the Nile Delta, about 1,500 nurses held a sit-in at a hospital, 800 workers went on strike at a bottling plant and 2,000 more stopped work at steel factories, according to state media reports.

In the industrial city of Mahala, about 24,000 textile factory workers were planning a strike Thursday, said Kamal Abbas, head of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services. "These are spontaneous," he said.

Fresh demonstrations erupted in remote corners of the country, including one that led to a confrontation between security police and about 3,000 protesters in the New Valley region, in Egypt's western desert. At least three protesters were killed, state television reported. In Assiut province, 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.

Mubarak has refused calls from Washington and European capitals to lift the 30-year-old emergency law and to order the security services to stop harassing activists and journalists. Suleiman also has made clear in recent public statements that the government thinks it has done enough to accommodate protesters.

Any acts of civil disobedience, the vice president said Wednesday, would be "very dangerous for society, and we can't put up with this at all."

Although Suleiman has been the government's public face in talks with opposition factions, Mubarak remains fully in charge, said a Western diplomat in Cairo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Egyptian officials. Mubarak has ignored calls to cede power to a transition council while elections are prepared.

Opposition leaders and Western diplomats said it is unclear when or if negotiations will resume. Suleiman "doesn't want to give people any hope that the government will give further inducements," said the diplomat in Cairo. But so far, the diplomat said, "it's not working for them."

"The ball is in their court," Essam el-Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, said of the government.

One complicating factor, the diplomats said, is that the opposition is highly decentralized. No figure has emerged who can speak for a majority of the demonstrators, many of whom have been spurred on by a coterie of young, well-educated Egyptians who have had no previous involvement in politics.

"It's the challenge of dealing with this leaderless phenomenon," said the Western diplomat in Cairo. "These are names, we have to say, that we don't know who they are. And they could be the next leaders of Egypt."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Cairo and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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