Egypt's Mubarak cautions opposition against fomenting "chaos" amid mounting push for reform

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's president warned opposition groups Thursday against fomenting "chaos" in the country and challenged them to outline plans to rival his for sustaining growth and development in the Arab world's most populous nation.

Hosni Mubarak's remarks are some of his sharpest yet since near-daily protests have taken hold in the Egyptian capital. The protesters — a mix of reformists and workers — have rallied for greater political freedoms and better wages, arguing that Mubarak's government has provided neither while coddling the wealthy.

Speaking to a gathering of trade unionists, Mubarak lauded the protests as "evidence of the vitality of our society." But he also struck a cautionary tone, saying he fears "that some might slip ... into chaos that would expose Egypt and its sons to setbacks."

The demontrations have come at a critical juncture for Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the Mideast. Parliamentary elections are months away while presidential elections are slated for next year.

It remains unclear if Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, will run again. He has no clear successor and has never appointed a vice president, although many suspect he is grooming his younger son, Gamal, to succeed him.

But calls for reform, spearheaded in part by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency, are resonating increasingly loudly in a country where frustration over the political stasis has now been eclipsed by anger that the promised economic reforms enacted over the past five years have yet to trickle down to the country's poor.

Mubarak stressed that the upcoming elections would be "free," and that voters would decide the outcome.

The 82-year-old president, appearing visibly thinner after undergoing surgery in Germany in March to remove his gall bladder, said his administration's efforts have been focused on helping the poor break free from the circle of poverty.

He reiterated that Egypt had largely weathered the global economic meltdown and was on track for economic growth of about 5.5 percent this year. That growth, he said, would result in greater job creation.

In a clear challenge to opposition groups and other reformists, he called on those who have stirred unrest in the country to put forward their own platforms for growth.

"There is no time, at this critical juncture, for those who fail to realize the huge difference between change and chaos, between calculated moves and ... hastiness," Mubarak said. "I say to those who raise slogans and for whom posturing is sufficient, this is not enough to win voter confidence."

"They must work to convince the people with a clear vision that presents solutions to our problems," he said. "They must answer the questions of the simplest of the people. What can they offer them? What are their policies for attracting investments" and job creation.

Egypt's economic reform program has been praised for helping the country post growth rates as high as 7 percent before the global financial crisis. Even in the past two years, when other nations fell into recession, the country boasted growth of over 4 percent.

But in a nation where the World Bank estimates over 40 percent live below the poverty threshold of $2 per day, the changes have done little to offset the mounting cost of living.

A boycott has been in effect, for example, over meat prices, which have increased in some Cairo neighborhoods by nearly 80 percent. Shortages of subsidized bread have lead to violence and shortages of cooking fuel for a time spawned a black market for the basic commodity. Other rallies have called for an increase in the minimum wage from the rougly $6 per month level set in 1984 to almost $220 per month.

Mubarak said that the country's masses should be the first to benefit from the reforms and vowed to continue to work to raise salaries and safeguard workers' rights.

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Associated Press writer Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report.

Eds: RECASTS and UPDATES throughout. CORRECTS Mubarak's age to 82. ADDS byline.