CAIRO – Egypt’s government and protesters edged closer to violent confrontation Wednesday as demonstrators escalated their tactics and the vice president warned sharply of a coup if the unrest continued.
Labor unrest continued to plague the nation for a second day, threatening to merge the political goals of the opposition with the more focused economic issues that have long plagued Egypt. Violence spread to a normally peaceful desert oasis 500 miles southwest of Cairo, where police killed four people.
Protesters in the central square, re-energized by massive crowds Tuesday after turnout began to flag on Monday, promised the biggest demonstrations yet on Friday, this time nationwide as well as in multiple locations in Cairo. On Wednesday, they defied the Egyptian army by occupying the street in front of parliament, creating a second front in downtown Cairo.
Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, in comments to Egyptian newspaper editors, warned sharply that demonstrations could not continue. Suleiman, who until now has presented himself as a soft-spoken voice of reason in discussions with opposition leaders, sounded rattled as he warned of tougher measures.
The protests are “very dangerous for society and we can’t put up with this at all,” he said. “We don’t want to deal with Egyptian society with police tools.”
He said he foresaw “the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people” if the situation is not resolved. If protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s leadership continued, he said, the likelihood is that “a coup happens, which would mean uncalculated and hasty steps, including lots of irrationalities.”
A coup could come from within the regime, the army, the police or intelligence services – which he used to lead – or the opposition, Suleiman warned.