Doctors in white coats and lawyers in black robes have streamed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square as strikes across the country give powerful momentum to Egypt’s wave of anti-government protests.
With its efforts to manage the crisis failing, the government has threatened the army could crack down by imposing martial law.
The 17-day protests – focused on demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak – have tapped into the even deeper well of anger over inflation, unemployment, corruption, low wages and the big gap between rich and poor.
For the second day, crowds angry over lack of housing rioted in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
They set fire today to the local headquarters of state security, the main post office and the governor’s offices, which had already been partially burned the day before. It appeared police and soldiers were not intervening.
The government warnings raised the prospect that the energised protests could bring a new crackdown.
Speaking to the Arab news network Al-Arabiya today, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that if “adventurers” take over the process of reform the military “will be compelled to defend the constitution and national security ... and we’ll find ourselves in a very grave situation.”
The night earlier, he was more explicit, saying in an interview with “PBS NewsHour” that there would be chaos if Mubarak stepped down immediately.
“Do we want the armed forces to assume the responsibility of stabilising the nation through imposing martial law, and army in the streets?” he said. It was the second coup warning this week, with Prime Minister Omar Suleiman making similar threats.
The warnings reflect growing government impatience as its own attempts to manage the crisis have failed. Mubarak has refused to step down immediately, saying he will serve out the rest of his term until September elections.
Suleiman has put forward a gradual programme for reform in the meantime: Discussions with the opposition over constitutional amendments to be approved by referendum by June, paving the way to the election, in which Mubarak would not run.