Egypt tries to return to work, protests hit economy

Monday, 7 February 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s government tried to get the nation back to work on Sunday and people queued in Cairo when banks opened for the first time in a week as protests to force President Hosni Mubarak to quit entered their 13th day.

Demonstrators camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which has become an epicentre for protest, vowed to intensify their battle to oust Mubarak but the 82-year-old president has said he will stay until September elections because the alternative is chaos.

With some Egyptians keen for a return to normal after unrest that the United Nations says killed 300 people, the government has warned of the damage to political stability and the economy.

“We want people to go back to work and to get paid, and life to get back to normal,” army commander Hassan al-Roweny said.

The Egyptian pound opened weaker against the U.S. dollar after the week-long bank closure. “The pound started off down as widely expected, but not with the magnitude one would have thought,” one trader said. The commander of the army, which many say holds the key to the nation’s future, was touring Tahrir Square to try to convince protesters, complaining about poverty, repression and corruption, to leave the usually busy intersection.

The United States, Egypt’s ally which provides the army with $1.3 billion (807 million pounds) annually, has advocated the need for gradual change and political talks between the government and opposition groups on an orderly handover of power.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday backed talks between the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, a long-time intelligence chief, and opposition groups, saying the government’s dialogue with the opposition must be given time.

Suleiman was due to meet opposition groups at 11 a.m. (9:00 a.m. British time) on Sunday in talks joined for the first time by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised opposition group. “We have decided to engage in a round of dialogue to ascertain the seriousness of officials towards the demands of the people and their willingness to respond to them,” a spokesman for the banned Brotherhood told Reuters on Saturday.

It is testimony to the ground protesters have gained that the government is willing to talk to the group which would have been unthinkable before the protests started on January 25.

But opposition activists are concerned about any compromise which would see Mubarak hand over power to Suleiman but also serve out his term -- essentially relying on the old authoritarian system to pave the way to full civilian democracy.

“To hear ... that Mubarak should stay and lead the process of change, and that the process of change should essentially be led by his closest military adviser ... would be very, very disappointing,” opposition activist Mohamed ElBaradei said.


At Tahrir Square, army tanks tried on Saturday to squeeze demonstrators to make way for traffic. But protesters, huddled under tents to escape a rare rain shower, refused to leave.

“It is very clear that they are trying to suffocate us. This shows ill intent. But we are not moving until our legitimate demands are met,” one protester, Moustafa Mohamed, said.

Egypt gas pipeline attacked, Israel, Jordan flow hit

CAIRO: Saboteurs blew up a pipeline that runs through Egypt’s North Sinai, state television said, disrupting flows to Israel and Jordan, after Islamists called on militants to exploit the unrest that has rocked the government.

“It is a big terrorist operation”, a state TV reporter said. A security source in North Sinai said “foreign elements” targeted the branch of the pipe that supplies Jordan.

A security source said the Egyptian army closed the main source of gas supplying the pipeline and were controlling the fire. Television footage showed a tower of flame at the scene.

Jordan said gas supplies from Egypt were expected to remain halted for a week until the pipeline was repaired. Israel said it expected to be without Egyptian gas “for a number of days”.

A Jordanian energy source told Reuters the kingdom had switched power stations to burning fuel oil and diesel as a precaution, after the cut-off of the Egyptian gas supplies that help generate most of Jordan’s electricity.

Israel’s National Infrastructure Ministry said it also had alternative energy sources available and anticipated no disruption to domestic electricity production. “The Israeli economy should prepare for a number of days without the supply of natural gas from Egypt,” the ministry said in a statement.