Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman warned anti-government protesters their actions could spark a "coup," unless opposition groups enter negotiations to chart democratic reforms.
The apparent threat of military law causing greater turmoil in Egypt angered demonstrators as thousands of workers went on strike across the North African country and mass rallies continued for the 16th day in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
PYRAMIDS TOURISM A CASUALTY
CBC reporter David Common found no signs of tourists Wednesday at Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza. There was no waiting for a camel ride, he reported. "Tourists have high-tailed it out of here on evacuation flights and there is little sign they are returning . ...The big question is when will the tourists themselves return after watching images of violence," he said. "This industry, which is worth billions to the Egyptian economy, has effectively dried up."
Many in the streets dismissed veiled hints of a crackdown as indicative the government was not fully grasping the gravity of Egypt's popular revolution.
Protesters are demanding that President Hosni Mubarak first relinquish his post after 30 years in power, before the opposition movement agrees to talks. Otherwise, those opposing Mubarak's regime worry the government will only make superficial reforms.
In a development that may add fuel to the anti-Mubarak rallies, thousands of workers have gone on strike across the country, demanding better pay, benefits and working conditions. More than 5,000 workers were on strike in the port city of Suez, and thousands of others have taken similar actions outside companies in the cities of Mahalla, Port Said and Cairo.
Mubarak's net worth is unknown, but news reports that he has amassed perhaps tens of billions of dollars have infuriated the Egyptian public. About 40 per cent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Friday is expected to draw a "protest of millions" — a term describing dramatically enlarged rallies — that will broaden outside Tahrir Square to multiple parts of Cairo for the first time, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers.
'Protest of millions' expected Friday
He added that the demonstrators this time was also requesting support from labour unions.
Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, continues to be the nucleus for rallies, with tens of thousands of people camped out in tarps and sleeping beneath tanks to prevent the vehicles from moving out and trying to reopen traffic.
On Wednesday, 2,000 other demonstrators moved several blocks away to the Egyptian Parliament, calling for its dissolution.
Mubarak has agreed not to run for another term, but opposition leaders want him out now, rather than by the September elections.
His vice-president's remarks about a coup were made on Tuesday night to editors of local newspapers.
"We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools" if dialogue cannot resolve the current crisis, Suleiman said. The alternative, he said, is "that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities."
'[Suleiman] is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed.' —Youth protester Abdul-Rahman Samir
The exact death toll from the recent weeks of demonstrations is not yet clear, but Human Rights Watch said Monday that 302 people have been killed in the unrest since Jan. 28.
The unofficial figures, collected from doctors at hospitals, cited death tolls of:
- 232 in Cairo.
- 52 in Alexandria.
- 18 in Suez.
Egypt's minister of health rejected the report in an interview on BBC Arabic, and said an official figure would be issued within days.
Osama Saraya, the editor-in-chief of the pro-government newspaper Al-Ahram, attended the meeting with Suleiman. He said he didn't only mean a military coup but a takeover by another powerful state apparatus or Islamist groups.
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But protest supporters and organizers reacted with alarm.
Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a coalition of the five main youth groups behind the protests in Tahrir Square, said Suleiman was creating "a disastrous scenario."
"He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed," Samir said. "But what would he do with the rest of 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward?"
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has sought to communicate a unified stance on events in Egypt, without overstepping diplomatic bounds.
The White House on Wednesday said that only by showing real reforms and accepting a transition of power would Egypt be able to calm protesters. The Obama administration stopped short of dictating what should happen next and how.
"We're not going to be able to force them to do anything," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.