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Omar Suleiman warns of coup as tension rises between Egyptian demonstrators, army

Protesters occupy new territory near the Egyptian parliament building, sparking a temporary confrontation with troops. Vice President Omar Suleiman warns of tougher measures to prevent a possible coup.

February 10, 2011|By Timothy M. Phelps and Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian anti-government protesters occupy new territory in front of the parliament building.
Egyptian anti-government protesters occupy new territory in front of… (Mohammed Abed, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting From Cairo — Egypt's government and protesters edged closer to violent confrontation Wednesday as demonstrators escalated their tactics and the vice president warned of a coup if the unrest continued, saying protests must end or "the dark bats of the night" would emerge to terrorize the nation.

Labor unrest continued in 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.

And violence spread to a normally peaceful desert oasis 500 miles southwest of Cairo, where police killed four people.

Protesters in central Cairo's Tahrir Square, reenergized by a massive crowd 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 the parliament building, creating a second front in downtown Cairo.

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, in comments to Egyptian newspaper editors published Wednesday, warned sharply that the 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 was 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 Suleiman used to lead, or the opposition, he warned.

Middle-class Cairenes in particular were terrified by the withdrawal of police from the city Jan. 28, resulting in a mass release of prisoners and reports of people from poor neighborhoods marauding at night in wealthier areas. Many have spent nights outside guarding their homes and businesses with makeshift weapons and sometimes guns.

Though fewer people have been out patrolling the last two nights, Suleiman's comments about "bats" appeared calculated to stir up fear.

The army has taken over security from the police but has focused on the protests, not police work. It has been highly praised by the opposition since it moved into Cairo and other urban areas, but Wednesday that relationship seemed to change as the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group, accused the army of arresting and torturing protesters headed to Tahrir Square.

"We appreciate the Egyptian army's role in protecting protesters," Mohamed Morsy, who has met with Suleiman to discuss the crisis, said at a news conference. "But in some places, protesters are being taken to military camps, and they are being tortured like those from the [police intelligence] tortured people in the past."

He said 70 to 100 people had been tortured "very badly" by the army.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit also seemed to signal that a crackdown could be coming, and said he was "amazed" to hear of Vice President Joe Biden's call for Egypt to immediately scrap its harsh "emergency law" aimed at maintaining civil order.

"How can you ask me to sort of disband that emergency law while I'm in difficulty? … Allow me to have control to stabilize the nation, to stabilize the state, and then we would look into the issue," Abul Gheit said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Abul Gheit should not be taken aback by U.S. calls for democratic reform.

"With all due respect to the foreign minister, he should not be amazed — if that's the word that he used — at our call for rescinding the emergency law," Crowley said at a news briefing. "We have been calling for that for years, if not decades."

On Wednesday, about 500 protesters blocked the street in front of the parliament building, some of them having camped there overnight after spillover of Tuesday's massive gathering in Tahrir Square, four blocks away. The government has promised not to forcibly remove demonstrators from Tahrir, but the occupation of new territory increased pressure on the army to act.

The army blocked off Qasr El Ainey Street, the major road into downtown from the south, because it runs by the parliament, creating massive traffic jams even beyond the normal tie-ups.

"It's not OK what you are doing here," Gen. Hassan Ruwaini of the military police told protesters. "If you want to protest, go to Tahrir."

The army has pledged not to attack peaceful protesters, at least in the square, and it is a rare time in modern Egyptian history when people feel free to disregard military orders.

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