CAIRO — Egypt's foreign minister warns of a military coup if protesters continue mass demonstrations and don't follow a government-run framework for enacting gradual reform.
The comments by Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit were the second veiled threat this week from the regime of a direct military takeover if protests persist. The comments suggest there could be a new confrontation as protests have gained new momentum, growing in size and branching out into labor unrest erupting around the country
Speaking to the Arab news network Al-Arabiya, Aboul Gheit warns 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."
Labor challenges spread Thursday, with bus drivers and other public transportation employees going on strike as mass protests demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster unleashed public anger over economic disparity.
Thousands of protesters packed into Cairo's central Tahrir Square for a 17th day, vowing not to give up until the longtime leader steps down despite a host of sweeping government concessions.
Organizers planned another swelling of protesters on Friday, hoping to repeat a showing on Tuesday that drew about a quarter-million people and helped revitalize the movement.
Khaled Abdel-Hamid, speaking for a coalition of groups behind the protests, said they wanted Egyptians to show up at six separate rallies on main squares in Cairo from which they would all march to Tahrir Square, which has been the focal point of the demonstrations.
Protests calling for Mubarak's ouster have been spreading since Tuesday outside of Cairo's Tahrir Square. Strikes also have erupted in a breadth of sectors — among railway and bus workers, state electricity staff and service technicians at the Suez Canal, in factories manufacturing textiles, steel and beverages and hospitals.
Witnesses said hundreds of doctors in white coats marched down a street from the Qasr el-Aini hospital to the square, chanting "Join us, O Egyptian."
The labor strikes come despite a warning by Vice President Omar Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."
Impoverished Egyptians are heavily dependent on public transportation and the strike threatened a new blow to the hard-hit economy.
Ali Fatouh, a bus driver in Cairo says buses were locked in the garages and won't be moved "until we achieve our demands," which include salary increases. He says organizers are calling on all 62,000 transportation employees to participate.
Some buses were still seen on the streets early Thursday and it's not immediately clear how widespread the strike is.
Mustafa Mohammed, a bus driver since 1997 who earns about 550 Egyptian pounds (about $93), said he Egyptians deserve a better life.
"We are immersed in debts," the 43-year-old driver said as he joined a crowd outside the administration building on the outskirts of Cairo. "We are staying until our demands are met. If our demands are not met, we will join Tahrir, and camp there."
He said the administration sent a senior employee to "throw us a bone" with a holiday bonus but that wasn't enough.
Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.
The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities since Jan. 25 have already posed the greatest challenge to the president's authoritarian rule since he came to power 30 years ago. They have wrought promises of sweeping concessions and reforms, a new Cabinet and a purge of the ruling party leadership, but Mubarak refuses their demands that he step down before September elections.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said about 300 people have been killed since the protests began, but it is still compiling a final toll.
The White House warned Egypt's leaders to expect unrelenting protests unless they start to show real reforms and a transition to a freer society, dismissing governmental concessions so far as not having met even the minimum threshold of what people want.
Obama administration officials were also increasingly blunt in describing the limits of their leverage, reasserting that the United States is not seeking to dictate events in Egypt — and that it cannot.
"We're not going to be able to force them do anything," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.
Still, Gibbs and other officials called on Egypt's leaders to end the harassment of activists, to broaden the makeup of their negotiations with opposition leaders, to lift a repressive emergency law, and to take up a series of other moves the Obama government has requested for days.
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