Egypt's new military rulers called on labor leaders to end demonstrations after thousands of public-sector workers — emboldened by last week's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak — staged protests Monday for better pay and conditions.
Police, ambulance drivers, transport workers and bank employees were among those who rallied in Cairo to demand higher wages and better working conditions.
In the military's fifth communique since assuming what it has promised will be only interim authority after Mubarak stepped down Friday, the junta appeared to be aiming for persuasion rather than coercion to end the labor unrest.
"Noble Egyptians see that these strikes, at this delicate time, lead to negative results," according to the statement read on state TV. The military also called on citizens and unions to "play their role fully" to help restore the country's economy.
Army Empties Out Tahrir Square
Soldiers cleared out almost all the remaining demonstrators from Cairo's Tahrir Square, the giant traffic circle that was turned into a protest camp headquarters for the 18-day revolt. During more than two weeks of round-the-clock demonstrations at the square, protesters set up tents, brought in blankets, operated medical clinics and festooned the entire plaza with giant banners demanding removal of the regime.
At the height of the uprising, hundreds of thousands packed the downtown crossroads.
Several huge trucks piled high with protesters' blankets left the square Tuesday. All the tents were gone, as were other signs of permanent camps. By early afternoon, a few dozen stalwarts remained, standing in one corner of the square and yelling for the release of political prisoners.
The remaining protesters say they won't leave until they see the release of all those detained during the revolt to boot Mubarak. Egypt's ambassador to the U.S. said the deposed leader may be in "bad health."
The ruling military council has said that security and a return to normalcy are among its top priorities.
"The military seems to be very concerned about returning to what they regard as order, now that the main symbol of repressive government is gone," NPR's Corey Flintoff said, reporting from Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city.
The success of Egypt's popular uprising has stoked anti-government sentiment in much of the Arab world. Thousands of protesters rallied in Bahrain and in Iran's capital city, Tehran, on Monday before clashing with anti-riot police who fired tear gas to hold them back. People also took to the streets in Yemen for a fourth-straight day, while the Palestinian prime minister dissolved his Cabinet in what appeared to be a new gesture inspired by the regional unrest.
Frustrated Workers Take To The Streets
In Cairo, transportation workers demonstrated near the state broadcasting building to demand higher wages, while some 70 ambulances were parked along the Nile River as part of a protest by drivers. Several hundred from the state Youth and Sports Organization held a rally Monday in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square with similar demands.
About 200 policemen also demonstrated for better pay for a second day. The police — whose image was tarnished in deadly anti-government demonstrations earlier this month — also hope to clear their name. Some carried portraits of policemen killed in the clashes.
Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy has called on police to return to duty.
The Central Bank of Egypt ordered banks across the country closed following a strike by employees of the National Bank, the largest state bank. Tuesday is a national holiday, and the banks are 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 weeks of unrest in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere nearly crippled the country's economy, particularly the tourism sector, which lost the business of hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who fled in hurried evacuation flights at the height of the protests.
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.
Activists Hopeful After Talks With Military
In the wake of Mubarak's departure, Egyptians welcomed the military as an interim stabilizing force. On Sunday, the generals took sweeping action to dismantle 30 years of autocracy — establishing martial law, dissolving parliament, suspending the constitution and promising elections.
But unease over the military's intentions persists. Among the concerns is the fact that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has yet to offer a timetable for lifting Egypt's hated emergency law, which gives police virtually unlimited powers of arrest and has been in force since Mubarak took office in 1981.
In an apparent effort to calm fears, the generals met Sunday with representatives of the broad-based youth movement that brought down the government. Prominent activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim posted on Facebook that the discussion was encouraging.
The generals 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 change it soon, according to the posting from Ghonim and another protester, Amr Salama.
"They said they will go after corrupt people no matter what their position current or previous," the statement added.
An independent committee will prepare amendments to the much-reviled constitution over the next 10 days, and present them for approval in a popular referendum to be held in two months. 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.
Pro-democracy leaders have said they will resume demonstrations in Tahrir Square if the military doesn't move forward with reforms. To show their strength, opposition groups plan to stage a huge "Victory March" on Friday to mark the one-week anniversary of the fall of Mubarak's regime.
NPR's Corey Flintoff in Alexandria and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Cairo contributed to this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.