Pressure is building on the regime of Hosni Mubarak as thousands of state workers and other Egyptians have launched strikes and protests around the country. Others may soon follow suit.
This comes as protesters in Cairo continue their occupation of Tahrir Square and have extended indefinitely their unprecedented demonstration at the country’s parliament. At the same time, a war of words between Washington and Cairo has grown worse, and Egyptian officials now warn of the possibility of a military takeover if negotiations for a lengthy transition to democracy do not succeed.
Some 5,000 workers at various state companies – including textile workers, medicine bottle manufacturers, sanitation workers and a firm involved in repairs for ships on the Suez Canal – are reported to have held separate strikes and protests at their factories Wednesday.
Farmers in the southern governorate of Asyut voiced their support of the Tahrir movement, witnesses said, as did the Port Said protesters, who set up a tent camp in the city's main Martyrs Square similar to the scene in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square.
In the capital, 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 calling for Mr. Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses would be halted Thursday, though it was not clear if they represented the entire bus system.
In front of the parliament buildings, anti-Mubarak protesters maintained a boisterous demonstration that began Tuesday, the first time the protesters have targeted a site other than Tahrir Square for a demonstration. Several hundred were preparing to spend the night on the street under makeshift plastic tents.
“This is the second stage,” said Mohamed Fadl, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former member of parliament, referring to the demonstration outside the People’s Assembly. “The next stage will be to move to more centres around the city, to put more and more pressure on this regime.” That stage, he said, is expected to be on Friday.
Dr. Fadl, who lost his seat in the November elections widely criticized as fraudulent, was examining with his wife the many posters and placards that have been attached to the ornate iron gate at the assembly’s entrance.
Did he not think that such a display was disrespectful of the institution? “Yes, I do,” he said with defiance. “We mean for it to be disrespectful.”
“I have only contempt for it now.”
In Washington, meanwhile, the White House once again indicated its displeasure at the Mubarak regime’s inability to get the message of the need for change. “It is clear that what the government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Commenting on some surprisingly strident statements by Egypt’s Vice-President Omar Suleiman, long a close interlocutor of Washington’s, Mr. Gibbs said: “The process for his transition does not appear to be in line with the people of Egypt. We believe that more has to be done.”
In meetings with Egyptian journalists this week, Mr. Suleiman said that if dialogue with the opposition is not successful in affirming Mr. Mubarak’s continued presidency, the alternative is “that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities.”
At one point, Mr. Suleiman, the long-time head of Egypt’s feared intelligence agencies, said that as much as he valued democracy, it required a certain culture to succeed. For Egypt, he said, “the culture of democracy is still far away.”
Asked to explain what he meant by his reference to a “coup,” he is reported to have said: “I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an absence of the system. Some force, whether it’s the army or police or the intelligence agency or the [opposition Muslim] Brotherhood or the youth themselves could carry out ‘creative chaos’ to end the regime and take power,” he said.
“There will be no overthrow of the regime because this will lead to chaos, which will take the country into the unknown,” he added.
In the course of one meeting, Mr. Suleiman announced another political concession by the regime. He said Mr. Mubarak was willing to accept international supervision of presidential elections scheduled for September. Such supervision, a long-time demand by reformers, has always been rejected by officials.
In an interview Wednesday with the U.S. PBS television network, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said he was “amazed” by comments made this week by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to his Egyptian counterpart, Mr. Suleiman.
It seemed that “you [Americans] are imposing your will on him,” Mr. Abul Gheit said.
Regarding Mr. Biden’s specific demand that Egypt end its 30-year-old state of emergency, Mr. Abul Gheit said: “How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I’m in difficulty? Give me time, allow me to have control, to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state, and then we would look into the issue.”
He said that these were momentous days for his country. “It is an upheaval, an upheaval that is transforming Egypt from one era to a new era. We’re moving into a new era, no doubt about it and the country has changed tremendously since the 25th of January,” a reference to the start of large-scale public protests.
Like Mr. Suleiman, the Foreign Minister said it would be chaotic if Mr. Mubarak were forced to step down.
“Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilizing the nation through imposing martial law, and army in the streets?” Mr. Abul Gheit asked.
“The army is in defence of the borders of the country and the national security of the state. But for the army to rule, to step in, to put its friends on the scene, that would be a very dangerous possibility.”
With a report from Associated Press