Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Jack Shenker and Chris McGreal: Egyptian talks near collapse as unions back protests

(Essential reading: Guardian: "Egypt protests - Wednesday 9 February")

Egyptian talks near collapse as unions back protests
by Jack Shenker and Chris McGreal

Government refuses transition plan as demonstrations are joined by strikes – and vice-president's coup ultimatum raises tensions

Talks between the Egyptian government and opposition have all but collapsed after the regime balked at surrendering power to a transitional administration in the hope that mass protests would die down this week.

Instead, the unrest is spreading as some of the largest demonstrations yet against President Hosni Mubarak were joined by labour strikes across the country, including on the Suez canal, in the city of Alexandria and by public transport workers in Cairo.

A prominent member of a key opposition group, the Council of Wise Men, said negotiations had "essentially come to an end". A western diplomat said Washington was alarmed by the lack of political progress and the Egyptian vice-president Omar Suleiman's warning of a coup if the opposition refused to accept the government's terms.

Diaa Rashwan, of the Council of Wise Men, said he offered Suleiman a compromise in which Mubarak would have remained president but with his powers transferred to a transitional government.

Rashwan said this proposal was rejected at the weekend and there had been no further movement.

"The regime is taking a hard line and so negotiations have essentially come to an end," he said. "Suleiman's comments about there being a danger of a coup were shocking to all of us – it was a betrayal of the spirit of negotiations, and is unacceptable.

"The regime's strategy has been just to play for time and stall with negotiations. They don't really want to talk to anyone. At the start of this week they were convinced that the protests were going to fade away."

Instead, the largest anti-Mubarak demonstration so far took place in Cairo on Tuesday. This came on the same day as 25 separate big demonstrations elsewhere in Egypt and the start of a series of strikes as trade unions joined the fray. Some stoppages are mainly about wage demands, but in the present crisis there is little doubt that they are timed to support the pro-democracy movement.

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