Egyptians Defy Military Rulers With More Protests

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CAIRO (AP) - Egyptians staged protests and strikes Wednesday over a host of grievances from paltry wages to toxic waste dumping, defying the second warning in three days from the nation's military rulers to halt all labor unrest at a time when the economy is staggering.

The military-led caretaker government gave its first estimate of the death toll in the 18-day democracy uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said at least 365 civilians died according to a preliminary count that does not include police or prisoners.

Mubarak's departure set off a chain reaction of revolt around the Middle East with anti-government demonstrations in Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Iraq on Wednesday.

"We urge citizens and members of professional and labor unions to go back to their positions, and each play their part," the military said in a text message sent to Egyptian cell phones.

The new warning raised expectations of an outright ban on protests and strikes, but it was ignored by people angered over a long list of woes. One of the youth groups that helped organize the anti-Mubarak revolt tweeted Wednesday: "Strikes and protests should NOT stop." It said Mubarak's men were still running the government.

The group also promoted a planned march this Friday to Cairo's Tahrir Square, the democracy movement's key gathering point.

The military council that took power from Mubarak on Friday says strikes and protests are hampering efforts to salvage the economy and return the nation to normal life. The uprising has led to extended bank and stock market closures along with an evaporation of tourism - a key source of income for the country.

Banks will have been closed two out of the past three weeks by Thursday, the last day of the business week in Egypt. There was no word on whether they would reopen Sunday, the start of the business week.

The stock market has been closed for the past three weeks and, again, and it's uncertain when it will resume operating. The market lost nearly 17 percent of its value in two tumultuous sessions in late January before it was ordered shut to halt the slide.

As the economy falters, a wide array of groups are making it known they want change now.

Hundreds of airport employees protested inside the arrivals terminal at Cairo International Airport to press demands for better wages and health coverage. The protest did not disrupt flights.

In the industrial Nile Delta city of Mahallah al-Koubra, workers from Egypt's largest textile factory went on strike over pay and calls for an investigation into alleged corruption at the factory, according to labor rights activist Mustafa Bassiouni.

More than 60 women's and community groups condemned the new panel formed by the Armed Forces Supreme Council to amend Egypt's constitution, saying it is an all-male group which "excludes half of society."

"This casts doubt on the future of democratic transformation in Egypt after the revolution, and raises questions about ... whether the revolution was seeking to free the whole society or only certain segments," the statement said.

In Port Said, a coastal city at the northern tip of the Suez Canal, about 1,000 people demonstrated to demand that a chemical factory be closed because it was dumping waste in a lake near the city.

In the wake of protests Monday and Wednesday outside the office of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, a spokeswoman for the group said it has started giving each refugee a small, one-time payment to help with their immediate needs.

The refugees demonstrating at the UNHCR office on the outskirts of Cairo complained they have been stuck in Egypt for several years, sometimes as long as a decade. Wilkes said there are some 40,000 registered refugees in the country, many from East Africa.

The European Union said Wednesday that its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would visit Egypt next week after the Egyptian Foreign Ministry asked the international community for aid. Ashton, already in the region, would be the most senior foreign official to come to Cairo since Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster. Details of her visit and who she would meet while in Cairo were yet to be announced.

There was one crumb of good news for Egyptian authorities.

The country's chief archaeologist announced the recovery of three of 18 pieces reported missing from the famed Egyptian Museum during the anti-Mubarak uprising.

"God almighty saved the antiquities from this hell because God loves Egypt," Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass said.

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Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this story.
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