Strikes replace protests in Egypt

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Egypt was hit by a wave of pay strikes by public sector workers today, even as the interim government managed to virtually clear out demonstrators from Tahrir Square.

In a desperate attemtpt to get the country back towards normality, the ruling military council made a public plea for the strikers to return to work.

The thousands of state employees, from ambulance drivers to police and transport workers joined a growing wave of labour unrest unleashed by the uprising that removed president Hosni Mubarak.

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 overthrown on Friday.

Sameh Shoukry said he had been told Mubarak was "possibly in somewhat of bad health."

Ttwo Cairo newspapers said he was refusing to take medication, depressed and repeatedly passing out at his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Meanwhile at Tahrir Square, 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 area 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 removal and sweeping reforms filled the square. The remaining protesters say they will leave before all those detained during the protests are released.

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 pushed similar demands.

Across the Nile 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.

In central Cairo, hundreds of policemen demonstrated for better pay for a second day. They also wanted 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 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 was also Mubarak's pilot on international trips.

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.

Reflecting the continuing downturn in travel from Egypt, EgyptAir said it had organised only 31 international flights and 12 domestic flights for today. 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.

Tomorrow is a national holiday in Egypt to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. The banks are now scheduled to reopen Wednesday.

The stock market, however, will stay closed.

The ruling military council that took over power from Mubarak on Friday has said that security and a return to normalality 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.

Today'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 representatives of the broad-based youth movement that brought down the government.

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.

Representatives of the youth groups that organised the protests said they wanted Mr 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 30 years, 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 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 UN refugee agency, UNHCR, on the outskirts of Cairo on Monday, demanding they be allowed to leave Egypt to resettle elsewhere.