CAIRO – Egypt's anti-government activists called on supporters Wednesday to expand their demonstrations in defiance of the vice president's warning that protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster would not be tolerated for much longer.
Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is managing the crisis, raised the prospect of a new crackdown on protesters Tuesday when he told Egyptian newspaper editors there could be a "coup" unless demonstrators agree to enter negotiations. The protesters insist they won't talk before Mubarak steps down, which the president is refusing to do.
"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.
For the first time, protesters were calling forcefully Wednesday for labor strikes after Suleiman warned that calls by some protesters for a campaign of civil disobedience are "very dangerous for society and we can't put up with this at all."
The vice president's warnings were the latest in a series of confused messages from the government to the protesters. Officials have made a series of pledges not to attack, harass or arrest the activists in recent days, followed by Suleiman's thinly veiled threat of a new crackdown.
"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, he said, the alternative is "that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities."
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 confidant of Mubarak, also reiterated his view that Egypt is not ready for democracy.
"The culture of democracy is still far away," he told state and independent newspaper editors in the roundtable discussion Tuesday.
His comments were a blunt, impatient warning for the youth organizers to enter talks and drop their insistence on Mubarak's ouster. He 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.
U.S. 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.
Suleiman's sharply worded warning deepened protesters' suspicions of his U.S.-backed efforts to put together negotiations with the opposition over reforms. The protesters fear that if they enter talks before Mubarak leaves, the regime will manipulate them and conduct only superficial changes without bringing real democracy.
Organizers of the mass demonstrations, now in their 16th day, sought to widen their uprising. They 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.
Around 2,000 protesters waved huge flags outside the parliament several blocks from Tahrir on Wednesday, where they moved a day earlier in the movement's first expansion out of the square. They chanted slogans demanding the dissolving of the legislature, where almost all the seats are held by the ruling party.
Thousands of protesters chanting "we are not leaving until he leaves" camped overnight in Tahrir Square in tents made with plastic tarps and bed covers to protect them from chilly weather, sprawling out into sidestreets. Many have been sleeping underneath the tanks of soldiers surrounding the square to prevent the vehicles from moving or trying to clear the area for traffic.
Others started to flow into Tahrir on Wednesday morning, some welcomed with sweets by those who spent the night. The demonstrations have paralyzed the area around the square, defying the government's efforts to restore a sense of normalcy as the uprising enters its third week.
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.
Separate, small protests have begun to erupt in many places in recent days from people apparently unrelated to the Tahrir-centered movement, but taking the moment to press their own personal complains.
In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, about 300 slum residents set fire to some parts of the governorate building and several motorcycles, protesting the failure of the governor to build proper housing for them. Police did not interfere, and the protesters set up tents in the city's central Martyrs Square similar to Tahrir.
In Cairo, dozens of state museum workers demanding higher wages staged a protest in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, crowing around antiquities chief Zahi Hawass when he came to talk to them. Protesters said they wanted higher salaries and more funding for their sector, which they said former Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni had reduced. "He took our money," said Suha Al Nabil, a museum employee.
The vice president also appeared to be pushing ahead with a reform process even without dialogue. He said 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.
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.
Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate who is an opposition Ghad liberal party leader, dismissed the remarks.
"He is leaving one option to us, since dialogue is not real and those who are talking are Suleiman to Suleiman," Nour said. "That option is the coup."
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 have said 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.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized opposition group, which initially welcomed the talks, took a tougher line Wednesday. It has accused the military of detaining and torturing some of its members — a dramatic claim, since the military is usually believed not to engage in abuse, unlike the police.
Muhammed Mursi, a Brotherhood lead who met with Suleiman, said the army detained up to 100 Brotherhood members on their way to the Tahrir square, and they were badly tortured.
"The president must step aside. He must leave," Mursi told reporters Wednesday, saying that "no transition is taking place."
An al-Qaida in Iraq front group, meanwhile, urged Egyptians to join holy war and establish an Islamic state — the latest in a series of statements by Islamic militants supporting the protesters in their bid to oust Mubarak.
The Islamic State of Iraq warned Egyptians against being deceived by "the malicious secularism, the infidel democracy and the rotten pagan nationalism," according to a statement posted Wednesday on two militant websites.
It urged the Egyptians not to be afraid of the United States, saying the country is in its weakest state because it is involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and busy watching events in Yemen, Somalia and other North African countries.
Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi, Hamza Hendawi, Paul Schemm, Maggie Hyde and Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report.