Strikers in Egypt try to turn up heat on Mubarak
Thousands of workers throughout industry, education and transportation joined Egypt's popular revolt Wednesday by staging strikes or protests...
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UPDATE - 11:13 AM
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CAIRO — Thousands of workers throughout industry, education and transportation joined Egypt's popular revolt Wednesday by staging strikes or protests that raised the specter of a general strike, an ominous sign for U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak's regime.
In Cairo and hardscrabble towns across the country, working-class Egyptians went on strike, demanding higher pay, better conditions and Mubarak's ouster, and there were reports of violence in at least one provincial town.
Railroad technicians, teachers, sanitation workers and many others took to the streets as part of the impromptu labor rallies.
Workers "were motivated to strike when they heard about how many billions the Mubarak family was worth," said Kamal Abbas, a labor leader. "They said: 'How much longer should we be silent?' "
Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.
"Mubarak, tell us where you get 70 billion dollars," dozens of protesters chanted in front of the Health Ministry.
For the first time, protesters were forcefully urging labor strikes despite a warning by Vice President Omar Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."
His warnings of a possible "coup" Tuesday were taken by protesters as a veiled threat to impose martial law — which would be a dramatic escalation in the standoff. But instead of backing off, they promised more huge protests on Friday.
The government announced a 15 percent pay boost for public servants earlier this week, but some workers who joined the protests Wednesday said they couldn't be "bribed" out of joining the uprising. More labor unrest is expected Thursday, in solidarity with the huge crowds that have occupied Cairo's main square and are now expanding to the parliament and other strategic sites.
Of chief concern to Western countries was the Suez Canal, which is vital to international trade and a foreign currency earner for Egypt. Some workers affiliated with Suez Canal Authority mounted a protest, according to news reports, but traffic in the waterway was not affected.
Many protesters hope that a general strike, closing down transportation, industry and the Suez Canal, would paralyze the country and deliver a fatal blow to Mubarak's weakened regime.
"These are now the same demands that the Tahrir Square protesters are calling for because the workers have realized that this current regime will never fulfill their goals," said Kamal el Fayoumi, a factory worker and organizer in the city of Mahalla el Kubra, a hotbed of labor activism for the textile industry. "The regime has to go."
The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities since Jan. 25 have already posed the greatest challenge to the president's authoritarian rule since he came to power 30 years ago. They have wrought promises of sweeping concessions and reforms, a new Cabinet and a purge of the ruling-party leadership, but Mubarak refuses their demands that he step down before September elections.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said about 300 people have been killed since the protests began, but it is still compiling a final toll.
Arabic-language satellite TV channels reported as many as 200,000 workers were on strike Wednesday, a figure that couldn't be verified. Much of the information about strikes was disseminated via bloggers and on social-networking sites without attribution.
In one of the flash points of unrest Wednesday, some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees in the southern province of Assiut. They blocked the main highway and railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the governor by pelting his van with stones.
Hundreds of slum dwellers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to part of the governor's headquarters in anger over a lack of housing.
In Cairo, hundreds of state electricity workers stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company, demanding the ouster of its director. Public-transport workers at five of the city's roughly 17 garages also called strikes, demanding Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses would be halted Thursday. Sanitation workers demonstrated around their headquarters in Dokki.
Several hundred workers also demonstrated at a silk factory and a fuel coke plant in Cairo's industrial suburb of Helwan, demanding better pay and work conditions.
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.
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 Wednesday that flights to Egypt had dropped by 70 percent since the protests began.
Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists on Wednesday after a 12-day closure. But few came to visit.
In Tahrir Square, about 10,000 massed again on Wednesday, the day after a crowd of about a quarter-million proved that they had not lost momentum even as Mubarak clings to power. Visitors snapped pictures and took videos while vendors sold nuts, popcorn, Egyptian flags, sandwiches and drinks.
Nearby, 2,000 more protesters blocked off parliament, several blocks away, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved. A huge caricature of Mubarak hung on the gates of parliament and army troops were on the grounds.
The parliament has been a major focus of the opposition's ire because of rigged elections and one-party rule. Members of parliament were told to stay home Wednesday, and the building was closed off.
Organizers called for a new "protest of millions" for Friday similar to those that have drawn the largest crowds so far. But in a change of tactic, they want several protests across Cairo instead of only in Tahrir Square downtown, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers.
Fresh support for the protesters is coming from an unlikely corner — Egypt's state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. The mouthpiece of successive regimes since the 1950s, the paper has sharply changed the tone of its unrest coverage and is using the word "revolution" to describe the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. The newspaper, Egypt's oldest, previously echoed official statements that called the protesters "outlaws" or "saboteurs" and a "bunch of conspirators."
Officials have made a series of pledges not to attack, harass or arrest the activists, but Suleiman's comments suggested that won't last forever.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in an interview with "PBS NewsHour" that there would be chaos if Mubarak were to step down immediately. He warned that if the opposition tried to compose an unconstitutional government, "then maybe the armed forces would feel compelled to intervene in a more drastic manner. Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation through imposing martial law, and army in the streets?"
Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The Associated Press, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times reports
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