CAIRO – Egypt’s military government on Monday urged a halt to widespread strikes inspired by a popular uprising that threatened to paralyse the country following Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.
The orders came after the elderly generals now ruling the country met some of the young Internet activists who triggered the revolt against Mubarak, reportedly promising a referendum on a new constitution within two months.
European governments, meanwhile, moved on Egyptian requests to freeze the assets of several officials of the ousted regime amid accusations that they had salted away billions of dollars in ill-gotten assets.
In its latest announcement since it took power on Friday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urged trade union leaders to call off their action but stopped short of issuing a decree banning strikes, as it had been rumoured to be preparing to do.
“Honourable citizens can see that protests at this critical time will have a negative effect in harming the security of the country,” its spokesman said.
The nationwide uprising that toppled Mubarak’s 30-year rule has splintered into scattered pay strikes by workers in the banking, transport, health care, oil, tourism and textiles sectors, as well as state-owned media and government bodies.
“It’s difficult to say exactly how many people are striking and where. Who isn’t striking?” Kamal Abbas of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services said.
Many of the strikes were aimed at removing corrupt union leaders tied to Mubarak, he said.
At one such protest, public transport workers demanded better working conditions and accused officials of corruption.
“They send us out with vehicles with bad brakes… There is no maintenance on the cars,” said one demonstrator.
At another protest, hospital workers formed a human chain to stop traffic on the highway south out of the capital, causing a major traffic jam and infuriating motorists who shouted: “Shame on you!”
The strikes prompted the stock exchange to again delay reopening until next week, citing “fears of instability.”
In the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Giza a different kind of protest was held, with hundreds of guides urging tourists to return, holding banners in English, French, Russian and German that: “Egypt loves you.”
The cyber campaigners said the junta, which dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution on Sunday, vowed to rewrite the document within 10 days in line with the protesters’ demands for democratic change.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has set a six-month timetable for holding elections but said the cabinet Mubarak hastily appointed on January 31 — headed by a former air force commander — would stay on.
“We met the army… to understand their point of view and lay out our views,” said 30-year-old Google executive Wael Ghonim and blogger Amr Salama, in a note on a pro-democracy website that helped launch the revolt.
Ghonim became an unlikely hero of the uprising after tearfully describing his 12 days in detention in a televised interview, and has since embarked on a high-profile media blitz despite denying he has political ambitions.
The sweeping changes announced by the council dismantled the political system that underpinned Mubarak’s rule, which ended on Friday when he was driven from power after the 18-day pro-democracy uprising.
The dissolved parliament was seen as illegitimate following elections last year that were marred by widespread allegations of fraud and gave Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) an overwhelming majority.
The protesters had also demanded the overhaul of the constitution, which placed restrictions on who could stand in elections and made it virtually impossible to seriously challenge the NDP.
Several members of the previous government, including sacked premier Ahmed Nazif and widely hated interior minister Habib al-Adly, have been banned from leaving Egypt by authorities investigating graft allegations.
Hundreds of members of Mubarak’s police force — which was widely viewed as corrupt and brutal — have demanded in an attempt to show their solidarity with the uprising that Adly, their former boss, be publicly executed.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government had been asked to freeze the assets of several former regime officials. A German foreign ministry said Berlin had received a similar request.
The Tunisian uprising was an inspiration to Egypt’s protest movement, which in turn triggered anti-government demonstrations around the Middle East, from Algeria to Iran and Yemen.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Egyptian military had so far taken “reassuring” steps towards democratic reforms but warned there was still much work to do.
“This is a very challenging moment for the Egyptian military,” Clinton told reporters during a visit to the US Congress.
“The steps they’ve taken so far are reassuring, but there’s a long way to go, and the United States has made it clear that we stand ready to assist in any way appropriate,” she said.