Workers walk out to join Egypt protesters

A wave of strikes added to the chaos in Egypt tonight with thousands walking out of their state jobs in support of anti-government protests.

A wave of strikes added to the chaos in Egypt tonight with thousands walking out of their state jobs in support of anti-government protests.

Meanwhile activists called for bigger street demonstrations, defying a warning that the crowds calling for president Hosni Mubarak's removal would not be tolerated for much longer.

Efforts by vice president Omar Suleiman to open talks with protesters over reforms have broken down since the weekend, with the youth organisers of the movement suspicious that he plans only superficial changes far short of real democracy.

The want Mr Mubarak to step down first.

Showing growing impatience with the rejection, Mr Suleiman raised the prospect of a renewed crackdown.

He told Egyptian newspaper editors last night that there could be a coup unless demonstrators agree to enter negotiations.

He suggested Egypt was not ready for democracy and said a government-formed panel of judges, dominated by Mubarak loyalists, would push ahead with recommending its own constitutional amendments to be put to a referendum.

"He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed," said Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a coalition of the five main youth groups behind protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "But what would he do with the rest of the 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward."

Mr Suleiman is creating "a disastrous scenario," he said. "We are striking and we will protest and we will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down. Whoever wants to threaten us, then let them do so."

Nearly 10,000 massed in Tahrir today in the 16th day of protests. Nearby, 2,000 more blocked off parliament, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved. Army troops deployed in the parliament grounds.

For the first time, protesters were called forcefully for strikes, despite a warning by Mr Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all".

Around the country, small strikes - usually in the hundreds each - erupted - by state electrical workers, farmers, museum staff over low wages, bread shortages or anger at mismanagement.

Most of the strikes did not appear to be in response to the Tahrir protesters' calls, and seemed fuelled by longtime discontent re-emerging amid the unrest. But some strikers threatened to feed into the Tahrir-centred movement.

Around 8,000 protesters in the southern province of Assiut blocked the main road and railroad to Cairo with burning palm trees, complaining of bread shortages and calling for the regime's downfall.

About 300 slum residents in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to some parts of the governorate building and several motorcycles.

In Cairo, hundreds of state electricity workers stood demanding the ouster of its head.

Dozens of state museum workers demanding higher wages protested in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Strikes entered a second day in Suez. Some 5,000 workers at various state companies - including a textile workers, medicine bottle manufacturers, sanitation workers and a firm involved in repairs for ships on the Suez Canal - held separate strikes and protests at their factories.

The Tahrir protest organisers 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 to spread the protests out around different parts of Cairo instead of only in central Tahrir Square where a permanent sit-in is now in its second week.

The authorities were trying to give an image of normality. Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists today. Tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos, raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests.

Mr Suleiman indicated the government plans to push ahead with its own reform program even without negotiations, a move likely to do nothing to ease protests.

He has announced a panel of top judges and legal experts would recommend amendments to the constitution by the end of the month, which would then be put to a referendum.

But the panel is dominated by Mubarak loyalists, and previous referendums on amendments drawn up by the regime have been marred by vote rigging to push them through.

The head of the panel, Serry Siam, top judge on the country's highest appeal court, "represents the old regime along with its ideology and legislation which restrict rights and freedom," said Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, an independent organization that works for judicial neutrality.

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