A wave of strikes has added to the chaos in Egypt with thousands walking out of their state jobs in support of anti-government protests.
Meanwhile activists called for bigger street demonstrations, defying a warning that the crowds calling for president Hosni Mubarak’s removal would not be tolerated for much longer.
Efforts by vice president Omar Suleiman to open talks with protesters over reforms have broken down since the weekend, with the youth organisers of the movement suspicious that he plans only superficial changes far short of real democracy. They want Mr Mubarak to step down first.
Showing growing impatience with the rejection, Mr Suleiman raised the prospect of a renewed crackdown.
He told Egyptian newspaper editors that there could be a coup unless demonstrators agree to enter negotiations.
He suggested Egypt was not ready for democracy and said a government-formed panel of judges, dominated by Mubarak loyalists, would push ahead with recommending its own constitutional amendments to be put to a referendum.
“He is threatening to impose martial law, which means everybody in the square will be smashed,” said Abdul-Rahman Samir, a spokesman for a coalition of the five main youth groups behind protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “But what would he do with the rest of the 70 million Egyptians who will follow us afterward.”
Mr Suleiman is creating “a disastrous scenario,” he said. “We are striking and we will protest and we will not negotiate until Mubarak steps down. Whoever wants to threaten us, then let them do so.”
Nearly 10,000 massed in Tahrir on Wednesday in the 16th day of protests. Nearby, 2,000 more blocked off parliament, chanting slogans for it to be dissolved. Army troops deployed in the parliament grounds.
For the first time, protesters called forcefully for strikes, despite a warning by Mr Suleiman that calls for civil disobedience are “very dangerous for society and we can’t put up with this at all.”