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Egypt Labor Unrest Grows After Anti-Mubarak Uprising

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EGYPT LABOR UNREST
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CAIRO — Thousands of state employees, from ambulance drivers to police and bank workers, protested on Monday demanding better pay, in a growing wave of labor unrest rekindled by the democracy uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak's regime. Egypt's military rulers asked for an end to the protests in what could be a final warning before an outright ban.

The military said it needed calm to implement what it promises will be an eventual handover to civilian rule under a new, more democratic system. It has set a swift timetable, saying it aims to have constitutional amendments drawn up within 10 days and a referendum to approve them within two months ahead of elections for a new parliament and ultimately a new civilian government, according to youth activists who met two of the top generals.

The coalition of young activists who organized the unprecedented protest movement pressured the military for new steps to ensure the autocratic system that has pervaded Egypt for the past 30 years is dismantled. Protesters welcomed the military's takeover after Mubarak's resignation, but many remain wary of its ultimate intentions.

In a list of demands Monday, they called for the dissolving of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and for the creation of a Cabinet of technocrats within 30 days. They want it to replace the current caretaker government, appointed by Mubarak after the protests erupted Jan. 25.

"It is unacceptable that the same government which caused this revolution with its corrupt ways oversees the transitional period," said Ziad al-Oleimi, a member of the coalition.

A number of youth organizers met Sunday with two generals from the Armed Forces Supreme Council, now the country's official ruler. They called the meeting positive and were further encouraged by the military's dissolving of parliament and suspending of the constitution, two of their top demands. The activists' coalition has called off its protests centered at Tahrir Square for now as a gesture, and their camp has been cleared away by soldiers.

The military's patience with the strikes, which are independent of the activists, may be running out as it struggles to restore stability and get Egypt's economy functioning again, after being hit heavily by three weeks of turmoil.

Egypt's dusty streets were transformed Monday into fertile ground for anyone with a grievance against anything.

Employees of the National Bank of Egypt, the largest government-owned bank, went on strike, a day after hundreds of them massed outside its headquarters.

The strike there and at other government banks forced the Central Banks to order all banks closed Monday, with the next day a religious holiday. It also forced Egypt's stock exchange to delay its reopening until next week at the earliest – it had been due to resume operations Wednesday after a nearly three-week halt.

"It's part of the revolution," NBE chairman Tarek Amer said of the strike. "They believe that it's an opportunity – if they had any complaints and demands – and that there's a higher probability of getting them answered." The strike was by the bank's many temporary workers demanding permanent contracts.

Outside the Nile-side TV and state radio building, hundreds of public transport workers demanded better pay.

Several hundred also protested outside the state-run Trade and Workers Federation demanding the dissolving of its board, which they accuse of corruption. They traded volleys of bottles, stones and bricks with board supporters inside, smashing windows, until soldiers separated the two sides.

Hundreds of ambulance drivers demanding better pay lined up their vehicles on a road along the Nile in the capital's Giza district. Workers at a key Cairo traffic tunnel threatened to shut down the route if their salaries weren't raised.

Dozens of graduates of archaeology schools demonstrated outside the office of Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass, seeking jobs. They denounced Hawass, whose "Indiana Jones"-style hat made him an iconic figure the world over, as a "showman" who neglects graduates unable to find work. Hawass reportedly beat a hasty retreat from his offices.

Striking employees at EgyptAir, the national commercial carrier, succeeded in getting their boss fired. About 500 employees of the Opera House demanded the dismissal of the facility's chairman, accusing him of corruption.

Demonstrations also occurred in Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city, and its northernmost, Alexandria on the Mediterranean. In Minya province, south of Cairo, police and soldiers foiled an attempted prison break, killing four inmates and wounding 11, according to Egypt's official news agency.

In Beni Sweif, an impoverished city south of Cairo, thousands demanded the distribution of promised state-built, low-cost apartments that are often awarded on the basis of nepotism. Some tired of waiting have moved on their own, seizing 60,000 empty units of such housing in the provinces of Cairo, Beni Sweif and Qalioubiya, police officials said.

A strike was called at the Sukari gold mine near the southern Red Sea coastal town of Marsa Alam, one of the largest in the world. Strike organizers warned that some of the gold in the mine was in danger of being taken away and urged workers to protect it. One employee, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, told The Associated press that an armored car was at the site, taking some of the gold.

The military's statement Monday was gently worded but reflected its exasperation.

It said the country needed quiet so the military can run the nation's affairs at this "critical stage" and eventually hand power to an elected and civilian administration.

It warned that strikes and protests hurt security and the economy and give an opportunity for "irresponsible parties" to commit "illegal acts."

The strikes worsen the blow Egypt's economy has already taken from 18 days of mass protests. During the crisis, hundreds of thousands of tourists fled, wrecking a main foreign currency source. Analysts and economists expect a drop in foreign investment as well.

The stock market had lost almost 17 percent in two consecutive sessions before it closed early on in the crisis. Egypt's currency, the pound, took a pummeling last week before the Central Bank stepped in to prop it up.

EgyptAir is flying only about 30 percent of its scheduled domestic and international flights, in part because demand for seats was sharply down amid the crisis.

The finance minister lowered the country's economic growth forecast by over 2 percentage points, to under 4 percent for the year.

Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Sameh Shoukry, said Mubarak, 82, was "possibly in somewhat of bad health," providing the first word about him since being ousted Friday.

Speaking Monday on NBC's "Today" show, the envoy said he had received the information about Mubarak but could not be more specific. Two Cairo newspapers said Mubarak was refusing to take medication, depressed and repeatedly passing out at his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. There was no immediate confirmation of the reports. Mubarak had surgery in Germany last year to remove his gallbladder.

Momentum was building to move against international assets of Mubarak, his family and regime officials.

The United States is examining requests from Egypt's new government to freeze the assets of top Mubarak aides, but not the president himself, a senior U.S. official said. The European Union will also discussed the request, said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Luxembourg's prime minister said the EU should follow Switzerland's lead in moving to identify and freeze the deposed president's assets.

Protest organizers warned that the strikes likely would not end without a reassuring signal from the military that change will be real – specifically, replacement of the Mubarak-picked government.

Hague also said he had been told by Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq that the current government would be reshuffled by next week to bring in opposition figures.

Al-Oleimi, also of the protest coalition, said this did not go far enough.

Coalition members who attended the Sunday meeting with the military said another sit-down with leaders of the armed forces is slated for later this week.

But the activists are still looking to see whether the generals "are planning to listen to us or just sit with us," said Shady Ghazali, a coalition member.

The group's ranks came from the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of Nobel Laureate and democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, members of the activists group of April 6, and the liberal Democratic Front. Among those attending was Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has become a poster child of the revolution.

Sunday's session was "reassuring from one side and worrying from another," said Abdul-Rahman Samir, one of the activists who attended.

"It was clear that the army men were determined to purge the old symbols of corruption. But I was worried because I can see they have limits on who they will get rid of," he said. "We felt that there were wings in the army had sensitivies about total reform."

He said he sensed the generals realize the youth are a force to be reckoned with because of their street strength and that they sincerely wanted help from them.

But the generals were eager to stress their own weight, pointing out the achievements of the military as an institution owned by all Egyptians, Samir said. The meeting took place in the Military Intelligence headquarters, which the generals noted to the activists was where the officers who carried out Egypt's 1952 coup that removed the monarchy used to meet.

The generals told protest organizers they were forming a new committee to draw up constitutional amendments within 10 days, to be headed by Tarek el-Bishri, a pro-opposition former judge and expert in Islamic law, and including a Muslim Brotherhood figure.

Tahrir Square, the heart of the 18-day revolt, was almost entirely cleared of demonstrators. By early afternoon, a few dozen stalwarts remained in one corner, saying they won't leave until all those detained during the uprising are released.

Hundreds of police entered the square demonstrating for a second day for better pay. They also want to clear their reputation: Police opened fire on protesters early in the uprising, cementing the loathing many Egyptians feel for the security forces over widespread bribe-taking, abuse and torture.

The police protesters carried portraits of officers killed in clashes with protesters. "These are victims of the regime too," declared one placard. Some called for the prosecution and even execution of their former boss, ousted Interior Minister Habib El-Adly.

The Interior Ministry says 33 policemen were killed and 1,109 wounded in the clashes. Several hundred protesters are thought to have been killed, but no exact figures are available.

Military police tried to herd the protesting police to the side of Tahrir, shoving them when they resisted.

"Of course the police are part of the people," said lawyer Khalid Abdel-Alim, who was among the remaining democracy protesters in Tahrir. "But it will take 30 more years (for them) to regain the trust of the people. "

"How can they come out after it's all over and act like they didn't do anything?"

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Associated Press correspondents Ben Hubbard, Christopher Torchia, Karin Laub and Marjorie Olster contributed to this report.

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