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Egyptian labor unrest grows after uprising; Mubarak said to be in ‘bad health’

CAIRO >> Thousands of state employees, from ambulance drivers to police and transport workers, protested Monday to demand better pay and conditions in a growing wave of labor unrest unleashed by the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. Soldiers cleared out almost all the remaining protesters from a central Cairo square that had been the epicenter of the 18-day revolt.

Egypt’s ambassador to the United States said Mubarak may be in “bad health,” providing the first word on the state of the 82-year-old leader since he was ousted on Friday and the military took over running the country.

Speaking Monday on NBC’s “Today” program, Sameh Shoukry said he had received information that Mubarak was “possibly in somewhat of bad health.” He said he could not be more specific, but two Cairo newspapers on Monday said Mubarak was refusing to take medication, depressed and repeatedly passing out at his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. There was no immediate confirmation of the reports.

Mubarak had surgery in Germany last year to remove his gallbladder.

At Tahrir (Liberation) Square, army soldiers cleared the area except for a small group of holdout protesters after more than two weeks of round-the-clock demonstrations. Protesters had turned the busy traffic circle into a tent camp, complete with a medical clinics, a makeshift jail, and food stalls. Over the past two days, the army cleared out the tents, blankets and the many huge banners that festooned the square, calling for the removal of the regime.

At the height of the protests, hundreds of thousands demanding Mubarak’s immediate ouster and sweeping reforms filled the square. The remaining protesters say they won’t leave before all those detained during the protests are released.

Several huge trucks were piled high with blankets that protesters used to sleep left the square Tuesday. All the tents were gone, as were other signs of permanent camps. By early afternoon, a few dozen determined protesters remained, standing in one corner of the square, yelling for the release of political prisoners.

Outside the Nile-side TV and state radio building, hundreds of public transport workers demonstrated to demand better pay. Several hundred protesters from the state Youth and Sports Organization also protested Monday in Tahrir with similar demands.

Across the Nile River in the Giza district, hundreds of ambulance drivers staged a protest, also to demand better pay and permanent jobs. They parked at least 70 ambulances on a roadside along the river, but did not block the main road where they protested.

In downtown Cairo, hundreds of policemen demonstrated for better pay for a second day. They also want to clear the name of the hated police, further tarnished by the deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. Some carried portraits of policemen killed in the clashes.

“These are victims of the regime too,” declared one placard.

“It’s hard for us to go back to work because people hate us,” said one protester, a captain who was among the demonstrators. “An official funeral must be held for our martyrs.”

Several hundred unemployed archaeology graduates demonstrated outside the Supreme Council for Antiquities in the upscale district of Zamalek, demanding jobs.

The head of the country’s national carrier, EgyptAir, was removed by the civil aviation minister after workers went on strike at Cairo International Airport. Alaa Ashour, who airport officials said was also Mubarak’s pilot on international trips, was removed late Sunday after workers called for more perks and pay.

Even so, the protests continued Monday in other subsidiaries of EgyptAir’s parent company, as well as workers at companies that provide support services to the airline. Tour liaisons at the airport were preparing to go on strike in response to the deterioration in the vital tourism industry in the country.

Reflecting the continuing downturn in travel from Egypt, EgyptAir said it had organized only 31 international flights and 12 domestic flights for Monday. The carrier generally has about 145 scheduled flights per day.

The Central Bank of Egypt ordered banks across the country closed following a strike by employees of the National Bank, the largest state bank, and several other financial institutions. Tuesday is a national holiday in Egypt to mark the birth of Islam’s 7th century Prophet Muhammad. The banks are now scheduled to reopen Wednesday.

The stock market, however, will stay closed Wednesday and Thursday, the final weekday in Egypt. A previous announcement had said it would reopen Wednesday, ending a three-week closure that began after the market lost almost 17 percent of its value in two days of trading in late January.

The ruling military council that took over power from Mubarak on Friday has said that security and a return to normalcy are among its top priorities. It has called on Egyptians to return to work to save the economy after the 18 days of protests sent hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists fleeing the country in hurried evacuation flights — a major blow to the country’s biggest economic sector.

Monday’s protests came one day after the ruling military rulers took sweeping action to dismantle Mubarak’s autocratic legacy, dissolving parliament, suspending the constitution and promising elections.

The generals also met Sunday with representatives of the broad-based youth movement that brought down the government. Prominent activist Wael Ghonim posted on a Facebook page he manages notes from the meeting between members of the military council and youth representatives, which he described as encouraging.

The military defended the caretaker government led by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and stocked with Mubarak loyalists as necessary for now in the interests of stability but pledged to soon change it, according to Ghonim and another protester, Amr Salama.

“They said they will go after corrupt people no matter what their position current or previous,” the posted statement added. Amendments to the much-reviled constitution will be prepared by an independent committee over the next 10 days and then presented for approval in a popular referendum to be held in two months, they said.

The military also encouraged the youth to consider forming political parties — something very difficult to do under the old system — and pledged to meet with them regularly.

“We felt a sincere desire to protect the gains of the revolution and an unprecedented respect for the right of young Egyptians to express their opinions,” Ghonim said.

On Monday, representatives of the youth groups that organized the protests said they wanted Shafiq’s government replaced by a cabinet of technocrats and that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party be dissolved.

The party has dominated political life in Egypt for three decades, and is widely thought to have been behind much of the corruption that protesters have complained about during their protests. The party won all but a small fraction of parliament’s 518-seat chamber in elections held in November and November that were marred by widespread fraud blamed on the party and its allies in the police and civil service.

The wave of post-Mubarak strikes and protests spread to the community of refugees too.

Hundreds of refugees from East African countries, including Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, gathered outside the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, on the outskirts of Cairo on Monday, demanding they be allowed to leave Egypt to resettle elsewhere. Several helmeted riot police officers blocked the entrance, as many in the crowd tried to get into the building. However, there were no clashes.

The refugees complained that they have been stuck in Egypt for several years, some as long as a decade. They said the U.N. has made no effort to move them elsewhere, and that they live in difficult conditions in Egypt. The refugees said that with the country in turmoil, there is even greater urgency to move them.

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