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CAIRO (AP) — Thousands of state workers and impoverished Egyptians launched strikes and protests around the country on Thursday over their economic woes as anti-government activists sought to expand their campaign to oust President Hosni Mubarak despite warnings from the vice president that protests won't be tolerated much longer.
Some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees in the southern province of Assiut, blocking 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 lack of housing.
Efforts by Vice President Omar Suleiman to open a dialogue with protesters over reforms have broken down since the weekend, with youth organizers of the movement deeply suspicious that he plans only superficial changes far short of real democracy. They refuse any talks unless Mubarak steps down first.
Showing growing impatience with the rejection, Suleiman issued a sharp warning that raised the prospect of a renewed crackdown. He told Egyptian newspaper editors late Tuesday that there could be a "coup" unless demonstrators agree to enter negotiations. Further deepening skepticism of his intentions, 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."
Suleiman is creating "a disastrous scenario," Samir 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," he added.
Nearly 10,000 massed in Tahrir on Wednesday in the 16th day of protests. Nearby, 2,000 more blocked off parliament, several blocks away, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved. Army troops deployed in the parliament grounds.
For the first time, protesters were calling forcefully Wednesday for labor strikes, despite a warning by Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."
Strikes broke out across Egypt as many companies reopened for the first time after closing for much of the turmoil because of curfews. Not all the strikers were responding directly to the protesters' calls — but the movement's success and its denunciations of the increasing poverty under nearly 30 years of Mubarak's rule clearly reignited labor discontent that has broken out frequently in recent years.
The farmers in Assiut 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 Cairo camp.
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, calling for Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses would be halted Thursday, though it was not clear if they represented the entire bus system.
Also, dozens of state museum workers demanding higher wages staged a protest in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, crowding around antiquities chief Zahi Hawass when he came to talk to them.
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.
Two protesters were killed Tuesday when police opened fire on hundreds who set a courthouse on fire and attacked a police station in the desert oasis town of Kharga, southwest of Cairo, in two days of rioting, security officials said Wednesday. The protesters are demanding the removal of a senior local police commander accused of abuse. The army was forced to secure a number of government buildings including prisons. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Strikes entered a second day in the city of Suez on Wednesday. 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. Traffic at the Suez Canal, a vital international waterway that is a top revenue earner for Egypt, was not affected.
"We're not getting our rights," said Ahmed Tantawi, a Public Works employee in Suez. He said workers provide 24-hour service and are exposed to health risks but get only an extra $1.50 a month in hardship compensation. He said there are employees who have worked their entire lives in the department and will retire with a salary equivalent to $200 a month.
In Tahrir, organizers of the central anti-Mubarak demonstrations 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 downtown Tahrir Square where a permanent sit-in is now in its second week, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organizers.
A previous "protest of millions" last week drew at least a quarter-million people to Tahrir — their biggest yet, along with crowds of tens of thousands in other cities. A Tahrir rally on Tuesday rivaled that one in size, fueled by a renewed enthusiasm after the release of Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager who helped spark the unprecedented protest movement.
Still, authorities were projecting an image of normalcy. Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos, raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests. Mubarak met Wednesday with a Russian envoy.
Suleiman's interview Tuesday evening was a tough warning to protesters that their continued demonstrations would not be tolerated for a long time and that they must get behind his program for reform. The U.S. has given a strong endorsement to Suleiman's efforts but insists it want to see real changes. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Suleiman on Tuesday, saying Washington wants Egypt to immediately rescind emergency laws that give broad powers to security forces — a key demand of the protesters.
Officials have made a series of pledges not to attack, harass or arrest the activists in recent days. But Suleiman's comments suggested that won't last forever.
"We can't bear this for a long time," he said of the Tahrir protests. "There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible." He said the regime wants to resolve the crisis through dialogue, warning: "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."
He also warned of chaos if the situation continued, speaking of "the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people." If dialogue is not successful, the alternative is "that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities," he told state and independent newspaper editors in the round-table briefing Tuesday.
Although it was not completely clear what the vice president intended in his "coup" comment, the protesters heard it as a veiled threat to impose martial law — which would be a dramatic escalation in the standoff.
Suleiman, a military man who was intelligence chief before being elevated to vice president amid the crisis, tried to explain the remark by saying:
"I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an absence of the system. Some force, whether its 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.
Suleiman, a close confident of the president, rejected any "end to the regime" including an immediate departure for Mubarak, who says he will serve out the rest of his term until September elections. Suleiman reiterated his view that Egypt is not ready for democracy.
"The culture of democracy is still far away," he said.
Over the weekend, Suleiman held a widely publicized round of talks with the opposition — including representatives from among the protest activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and official, government-sanctioned opposition parties, which have taken no role in the protests.
But the youth activists who participated say the session appeared to be an attempt to divide their ranks and they have said they don't trust Suleiman's promises that the regime will carry out constitutional reforms to bring greater democracy in a country Mubarak has ruled for nearly 30 years with an authoritarian hand.
A committee of the various youth groups behind the protests say they will hold no talks, and the Brotherhood underlined that they too have cut off contacts for now.
"Since our last meeting with Soleiman we have not met with him or anyone else from the government in either an official or nonofficial manner," said Mohammed Mursi, a Brotherhood leader.
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. On Tuesday, Suleiman 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 appellate court, "represents the old regime along with its ideology and legislation which restrict rights and freedom," said Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, an independent organization that works for judicial neutrality.
In one concession made in the newspaper interview, Suleiman said Mubarak was willing to have international supervision of September elections, a longtime demand by reformers that officials have long rejected.