CAIRO — Thousands of workers went on strike Wednesday across Egypt, adding a new dimension to the uprising as public rage turned to the vast wealth President Hosni Mubarak's family reportedly amassed while close to half the country struggled near the poverty line.
Protests calling for Mubarak's ouster have been spreading since Tuesday outside of Cairo's Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have been concentrated for the past two weeks. On Wednesday, protesters also gathered at parliament, the Cabinet and the Health Ministry buildings, all a few blocks from the square, and blocked Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq from his office.
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.
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.
Workers "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.
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 of a possible "coup" Tuesday were taken by protesters as a veiled threat to impose martial law — which would be a dramatic escalation in the standoff. But instead of backing off, they promised more huge protests on Friday.
"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 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.
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 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.
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