egypt - AP - February 4 2011
Anti-government protestors react in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, February 4, 2011. Photo by AP
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Egypt's protesters were defiant Wednesday after a warning from Vice President Omar Suleiman that if protesters don't 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.

Suleiman's sharply worded warning deepened protesters' suspicions of his U.S.-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.

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," Suleiman said in a meeting 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 organizers have called for new protest of millions for Friday - their term for dramatically enlarged rallies - 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 organizers. He also said protesters were calling for labor strikes, trying to draw powerful labor unions into support for their cause.

Abdel-Hamid dismissed 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 - their biggest yet, along with crowds of tens of thousands in other cities. A Tahrir rally on Tuesday rivaled that one in size, fueled 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 on Wednesday, 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 side streets. 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 on Wednesday morning, some welcomed with sweets by those who spent the night. The demonstrations have paralyzed the area around the square, defying the government's efforts to restore a sense of normalcy as the uprising enters its third week.

Egypt's most famous tourist attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, reopened to tourists on Wednesday. Tens of thousands of foreigners have fled Egypt amid the chaos, raising concerns about the economic impact of the protests.

Suleiman's comments Tuesday night were a blunt, impatient warning for the protests' youth organizers to enter talks and drop their insistence on Mubarak's ouster. He rejected any immediate departure for 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 protests. "There must be an end to this crisis as soon as possible." Speaking to the editors of state and independent newspapers 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 terrorize 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 its 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, Suleiman said Mubarak was willing to have international supervision of September elections, a longtime demand by reformers that officials have long rejected.

Over the weekend, Suleiman held a widely publicized 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 don't trust Suleiman's promises that the regime will carry out constitutional reforms to bring greater democracy in a country Mubarak has ruled for nearly 30 years with an authoritarian hand.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized opposition group, which initially welcomed the talks, took a tougher line Wednesday. 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 leader who met with Suleiman, said the army detained up to 100 Brotherhood members on their way to the Tahrir square, and they were badly tortured.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with 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.