CAIRO // Egypt's protesters were defiant today after a warning from the country's new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, that if protesters do not enter negotiations, a "coup" could take place causing greater chaos, raising alarm of crackdown. Organizers of the mass demonstrations, now in their 16th day, sought to widen their uprising.
Mr Suleiman's sharply worded warning deepened protesters' suspicions of his US-backed efforts to put together negotiations with the opposition over reforms. The protesters insist they will only enter dialogue after President Hosni Mubarak steps down, fearing the regime will manipulate talks and conduct only superficial changes without bringing real democracy.
Mr Suleiman, a military man who was intelligence chief before being elevated to vice-president amid the crisis, has repeatedly said Egypt is not ready for democracy. "The culture of democracy is still far away," Mr Suleiman said in a meeting on Tuesday night with newspaper editors.
The-vice president also appeared to be pushing ahead with a reform process even without dialogue. He said a panel of top judges and legal experts would recommend amendments to the constitution by the end of the month, which would then be put to a referendum. But the panel is dominated by Mubarak loyalists, and previous referendums on amendments drawn up by the regime have been marred by vote rigging to push them through.
Protest organisers have called for new "protest of millions", their term for dramatically enlarged rallies, for Friday, but this time they would be held in multiple parts of Cairo instead of only in central Tahrir Square, said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, one of the youth organisers. He also said protesters were calling for labour strikes, trying to draw powerful labour unions into support for their cause.
Mr Abdel-Hamid dismissed Mr Suleiman's warnings. "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 said.
A previous "protest of millions" last week drew at least a quarter-million people to Tahrir, the biggest protest yet, along with crowds of tens of thousands in other cities. A rally in Tahrir Square on Tuesday rivalled that one in size, fuelled by a renewed enthusiasm after the release of Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager who helped spark the unprecedented protest movement.
Around 2,000 protesters waved huge flags outside the parliament several blocks from Tahrir Square today, where they moved a day earlier in the movement's first expansion out of the square. They chanted slogans demanding the dissolving of the legislature, where almost all the seats are held by the ruling party.
Thousands of protesters chanting "we are not leaving until he leaves" camped overnight in Tahrir Square in tents made with plastic tarps and bed covers to protect them from chilly weather, sprawling out into sidestreets. Many have been sleeping underneath the tanks of soldiers surrounding the square to prevent the vehicles from moving or trying to clear the area for traffic.
Others started to flow into Tahrir Square this morning, some welcomed with sweets by those who spent the night. The demonstrations have paralysed the area around the square, defying the government's efforts to restore a sense of normality as the uprising enters its third week.
Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists today. Tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos, raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests.
Separate, small protests have begun to erupt in many places in recent days from people apparently unrelated to the Tahrir Square-centered movement, but taking the moment to press their own personal complains. In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, about 300 slum residents set fire to some parts of the governorate building and several motorcycles, protesting against the failure of the governor to build proper housing for them. Police did not interfere, and the protesters set up tents in the city's central Martyrs Square.
In Cairo, 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. Protesters said they wanted higher salaries and more funding for their sector, which they said the former Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni had reduced. "He took our money," said Suha Al Nabil, a museum employee.
Mr Suleiman's comments on Tuesday night were a blunt, impatient warning for the protests' youth organisers to enter talks and drop their insistence on Mr Mubarak's departure. He rejected any immediate departure for Mr Mubarak, who says he will serve out the rest of his term until September elections, or any "end to the regime."
"We can't bear this for a long time," he said of the Tahrir Square protests. "There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible." Speaking to the editors of state and independent newspapers on Tuesday night, he said the regime wants to resolve the crisis through dialogue, adding, "We don't want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools."
He warned of chaos if the situation continued, speaking of "the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorise the people."
If dialogue is not successful, he said, the alternative is "that a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities."
"I mean a coup of the regime against itself, or a military coup or an absence of the system. Some force, whether it's the army or police or the intelligence agency or the Brotherhood or the youth themselves could carry out 'creative chaos' to end the regime and take power," he said.
In one concession made in the interview, Mr Suleiman said Mr Mubarak was willing to have international supervision of September elections, a longtime demand by reformers that officials have long rejected.
Some protesters warned that Mr Suleiman was hinting at imposing martial law - which would be a dramatic escalation.
Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a coalition of the five main youth groups behind the protests in Tahrir Square, said Mr Suleiman was creating "a disastrous scenario."
"He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed," Mr Samir said. "But what would he do with the rest of 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward."
Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate who is an opposition Ghad liberal party leader, dismissed the remarks.
"He is leaving one option to us, since dialogue is not real and those who are talking are Suleiman to Suleiman," Mr Nour said. "That option is the coup."
Over the weekend, Mr Suleiman held a widely publicised round of talks with the opposition, including representatives from among the protest activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and official, government-sanctioned opposition parties, which have taken no role in the protests.
But the youth activists have said the session appeared to be an attempt to divide their ranks and they have said they do not trust Mr Suleiman's promises that the regime will carry out constitutional reforms to bring greater democracy in a country Mr Mubarak has ruled for nearly 30 years with an authoritarian hand.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organised opposition group, which initially welcomed the talks, took a tougher line today. It has accused the military of detaining and torturing some of its members, a dramatic claim, since the military is usually believed not to engage in abuse, unlike the police.
Muhammed Mursi, a Brotherhood lead who met Mr Suleiman, said the army detained up to 100 Brotherhood members on their way to Tahrir Square, and they were badly tortured.
"The president must step aside. He must leave," Mr Mursi told reporters today, saying that "no transition is taking place."
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, spoke by phone with Mr Suleiman on Tuesday, saying Washington wants Egypt to immediately rescind emergency laws that give broad powers to security forces, a key demand of the protesters.
An al Qa'eda in Iraq front group, meanwhile, urged Egyptians to join holy war and establish an Islamic state, the latest in a series of statements by Islamic militants supporting the protesters in their bid to oust Mr Mubarak.
TIt urged the Egyptians not to be afraid of the United States, saying the country is in its weakest state because it is involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and busy watching events in Yemen, Somalia and other North African countries.