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Spreading Labor Strikes Energize Protests In Egypt

Doctors and lawyers, steel workers and bus drivers joined in labor unrest that spread across Egypt on Thursday, adding momentum to opposition protests amid renewed threats of a government crackdown.

Medical workers in white lab coats and lawyers in black robes streamed into Cairo's Tahrir Square on the 17th day of protests aimed at bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Steel and transport workers were also staged strikes for better wages in an economy that has seen rising inflation, unemployment, corruption and wide disparities between rich and poor.

State television reported Thursday that a formal corruption investigation has been opened against three former government ministers and a former ruling party leader.

Egyptians have been infuriated by newspaper reports that the Mubarak family has amassed billions, and perhaps tens of billions of dollars in wealth while, according to the World Bank, about 40 percent of the country's 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day. The family's true net worth is not known.

"We demand a trial of Mubarak and his regime; we are protesting corruption," said Mohammed Zarie, one of the marching lawyers, who said hundreds of lawyers arrived from provinces and planned to spend the night at the square.

Amid the demonstrations, the government also telegraphed more warnings of a strong response to the popular uprising.

Speaking to the Arab news network Al-Arabiya, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Thursday that if "adventurers" take over the process of reform, the military "will be compelled to defend the constitution and national security ... and we'll find ourselves in a very grave situation."

Gheit's remarks echoed Vice President Omar Suleiman's comments a day before implying that martial law could result if the protesters did not go home.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from Tahrir Square, said protesters are following such statements closely and that the situation has people "quite worried" but nonetheless determined to go forward with a "march of millions" on Friday.

She said there has also been talk that a "stealthy crackdown" has already been taking place. Until recently, the army has remained neutral, but there have been reports that soldiers have begun harassing protesters in the past few days.

"Some of the people that have been trying to get in supplies to the square have disappeared only to re-emerge later with allegations that they have been mistreated by the army," Garcia-Navarro said.

Youth activists organizing the protests are calling for an expanded rally on Friday, hoping to match demonstrations over the past several weeks that have drawn an estimated quarter-million people or more.

The protesters filling streets of Cairo and other cities since Jan. 25 have already posed the greatest challenge to the president's authoritarian rule since he came to power 30 years ago. They have wrought promises of sweeping concessions and reforms, a new Cabinet and a purge of the ruling party leadership, but Mubarak refuses their demands that he step down before September elections.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said about 300 people have been killed since the protests began, but it is still compiling a final toll.

Suleiman has proposed a gradual program for reform, holding discussions with the opposition over constitutional amendments to be approved by referendum by June, paving the way to an election in which Mubarak would not run.

But that outline also preserves a heavy regime hand in directing the reform process, raising suspicion it will not bring real democracy. Youth activists organizing the Tahrir protests have refused to attend any negotiations on reform or to halt demonstrations until Mubarak goes. Not only have they fended off government attempts to fragment their ranks and draw some into talks, their protests have spread.

Despite the negotiations, "most people say they will not talk to the government until Hosni Mubarak is gone — and there's no sign of that happening," Garcia-Navarro said.

One of the few groups that did enter talks with Suleiman — the leftist group Tagammu — announced Thursday that it had broken off contacts over the coup threats. Tagammu is one of the official, government-sanctioned opposition parties that have little public support and no role in the protests, and are seen by protesters as little more than extensions of the regime.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Corey Flintoff reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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