Tens of thousands of Egyptian workers walked out yesterday in mass nationwide strikes to demand wage increases and show support for the widening revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
The dramatic surge in support for the protests came on the eve of Friday’s Muslim day of prayers, when pro-democracy groups have urged millions to turn out in what they hope will be the biggest show of defiance yet.
Strikes swept private and public sector workplaces in cities across Egypt, labor unions said, as the opposition braved stark warnings from Mubarak’s lieutenants that they could face a military crackdown.
In Cairo, about 3,000 health workers marched to join the anti-regime crowds that have blockaded parliament and occupied central Cairo’s “liberated” Tahrir Square, symbolic epicenter of the popular revolt.
Lawyers also staged a protest, marching on one of Mubarak’s palaces.
A security official confirmed union reports that thousands of employees in the public sector were staging strikes in the city of Alexandria, the canal city of Suez and cities on the north coast and on the Red Sea.
Workers at Egypt’s largest factory — the Misr Spinning and Weaving textile plant, which employs 24,000 people in the Nile Delta — padlocked the buildings and massed in front of the administrative offices.
The strikes broke out as both sides in the conflict toughened their rhetoric, with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit tacitly threatening to turn to the military to regain control.
Soldiers were deployed to protect the building but, to the amazement of many activists more used to the strong-arm tactics of Mubarak’s autocratic regime, they made no attempt to dislodge the growing protest.
“If we don’t die here we’ll die in prison. I’d prefer to die here,” said Attiya Abuella, 24, an unemployed graduate who said he had been jailed last year for 60 days, often naked and in chains, for taking photographs.
Meanwhile, the Saudi embassy in Morocco, where King Abdullah has been convalescing after surgery in the US, yesterday denied rumors that he had died.
“I can assure that the health of King Abdullah is excellent and gives no cause for any concern,” a senior embassy official said.
The Web site www.islamtimes.org said in an article yesterday that King Abdullah had died of a heart attack the previous day after a heated telephone debate with US President Barack Obama on the situation in Egypt.
Britain’s Times newspaper reported that in a “testy, personal” telephone call with Obama on Jan. 29, the king had threatened to bankroll the Egyptian regime if the US withdrew its aid.
He also warned Washington not to humiliate Mubarak, saying he should be allowed to stay on to oversee the transition, the Times reported, citing a senior source in Riyadh confirmed by two other sources.