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05 October 2023

Government aims to get Egyptians back to work

By Reuters

President Hosni Mubarak's government aimed to get people back to work on Sunday with banks and businesses reopening, in the first clear test of how far his opponents can keep up the momentum of protests to force him out.

Protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square vowed to continue their battle to oust Mubarak, but the 82-year-old president insists he will stay until September polls.

And with some Egyptians keen for a return to normal, the government appears to be trying to emphasise the threat to stability and the economy from the protests, and tough it out.

The reopening of banks at the start of Egypt's working week will give the first clear indication of the economic toll of almost two weeks of protests against Mubarak's 30-year rule.

"We want people to go back to work and to get paid, and life to get back to normal," Egyptian army commander Hassan al-Roweny said. He was touring Tahrir Square to try to convince protesters to leave the usually busy intersection at the heart of the city.

The United States, Egypt's ally and aid donor, is stressing the need for gradual change and talks between the government and opposition groups on an orderly handover of power.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday threw her weight behind talks between Mubarak's handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, and opposition groups, saying the government's dialogue with the opposition must be given time.

Suleiman is due to meet opposition groups at 11:00 a.m (0900 GMT) 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.

But opposition activists are concerned about any compromise which would see Mubarak hand over powers 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.

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At Tahrir Square, army tanks on Saturday sought to squeeze demonstrators to make way for traffic. 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.

But many Egyptians, even some who joined massive countrywide demonstrations, are desperate for return to normal life.

Many shops have been closed during 12 days of protests and banks have been shut, making it hard for Egyptians to stock up on basic goods. Some prices have been pushed up, and economic growth, which was running at 6 percent, is expected to suffer.

Some also see challenge in keeping anti-government ranks united, with the opposition already showing signs of splintering over its earlier stance that there could be no talks until Mubarak quit.

"Until now there is no agreement among the various parties and factions on one scenario," Mohammed Morsy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters.

Sunday's bank openings will test how worried foreign investors are about the events that have sent shockwaves across the Middle East. Egypt was inspired by a Tunisian revolt. Since then protests have spread to Yemen and Jordan.

Egypt closed its banks and the stock exchange for a week during the protests that have driven away a million tourists -- one of Egypt's main sources of revenues.

The central bank has insisted it has the reserves to deal with any outflows, which could hit $8 billion in two weeks the governor said, saying Egypt had handled bigger outflows.

"I am confident that the market will be orderly," governor Farouk el-Okdah said.

But analysts say there may be chaos in bank dealing rooms as foreign investors and local businessmen flee the Egyptian pound, which tumbled to six-year lows in the two days the market was open after Jan. 25.

The stock exchange's sudden decision on Saturday to stay closed on Monday next week, instead of reopening as originally planned, suggests authorities are not confident that the financial system will resume smooth operations quickly.

Many protesters, however, including the youth who used the Internet to mobilise mass support for change, are unlikely to deterred by market turbulence. ElBaradei said there was a "hard core" who would not give up as long as Mubarak held onto power.

"It might not be every day but what I hear is that they might stage demonstrations every other day," he said.

"The difference is that it would become more angry and more vicious. And I do not want to see it turning from a beautiful, peaceful revolution into a bloody revolution."

The United Nations estimates 300 people have died in the unrest and the health minister has said around 5,000 people have been wounded since Jan. 25.