Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press
CAIRO — Thousands of state workers and impoverished Egyptians went on strike Wednesday after weeks of anti-government protests cast a spotlight on corruption and the wealth amassed by those in power in a country where almost half the people live near the poverty line.
The protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak's ouster have been spreading since Tuesday outside of Cairo's Tahrir Square, where they have been concentrated for the past week. On Wednesday, demonstrators also gathered at parliament, the Cabinet and the Health Ministry buildings, all a few blocks from the square. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was working out of the Civil Aviation Ministry on the other side of the city because his office was blocked by protesters.
For the first time, protesters were forcefully urging labor strikes 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." His warnings Tuesday were taken by protesters as a thinly veiled threat of another crackdown.
Strikes 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 at least one hospital.
"They were motivated to strike when they heard about how many billions the Mubarak family was worth," said Kamal Abbas, a labor leader. "They said: 'How much longer should we be silent?'"
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.
"O Mubarak, tell us where you get $70 billion dollars," dozens of protesters chanted in front of the Health Ministry.
Growing labor unrest is adding a new dimension to the pressures for Mubarak to step down. The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities for the past 16 days 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.
The strikes broke out across Egypt as many companies reopened for the first time since night curfews were imposed almost two weeks ago. Not all the strikers were responding directly to the protesters' calls. But the movement's success and its denunciations of the increasing poverty under Mubarak's rule resonated and reignited labor discontent that has broken out frequently in recent years.
In one of the flashpoints of unrest Wednesday, some 8,000 protesters, mainly farmers, set barricades of flaming palm trees in the southern province of Assiut. They blocked the main highway and railway to Cairo to complain of bread shortages. They then drove off the governor by pelting his van with stones.
Hundreds of slum dwellers in the Suez Canal city of Port Said set fire to part of the governor's headquarters in anger over lack of housing.
The farmers in Assiut voiced their support for the Tahrir movement, witnesses said, as did the Port Said protesters, who set up a tent camp in the city's main Martyrs Square similar to the Cairo camp.
In Cairo, hundreds of state electricity workers stood in front of the South Cairo Electricity company, demanding the ouster of its director. Public transport workers at five of the city's roughly 17 garages also called strikes, demanding Mubarak's overthrow, and vowed that buses would be halted Thursday. It was not clear if they represented the entire bus system for this city of 18 million.
Dozens of state museum workers demanding higher wages staged a protest in front of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, crowding around antiquities chief Zahi Hawass when he came to talk to them.
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