Egypt banks and pyramids open as some protest in Cairo

CAIRO Sun Feb 20, 2011 5:31pm EST

1 of 8. An Egyptian policeman stands guard outside a bank in Cairo February 20, 2011.

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Banks opened on Sunday after a week-long closure as Egypt's economy struggled to get back on its feet after political turmoil caused by the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and subsequent labor protests.

New military rulers watched closely as many Egyptians resumed their jobs on the first day of the working week, after issuing a stern warning effectively banning labor protests and telling workers to abandon their revolutionary fervor.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the pyramids at Giza were among the tourist sites that were reopened to the public for the first time in some three weeks. Egypt's lucrative tourist sector was dealt a body blow as foreigners stayed away due to unrest.

There were some pockets of protest in Cairo.

Attempting to placate pro-democracy reformers who want swift change, the military said at the weekend constitutional changes paving the way for elections in six months should be ready soon and the hated emergency law would be lifted before the polls.

"A new constitution is a long-term goal. Let's first get the flaws out of the system to bring the process along," one expert on a key constitutional change committee said. "The say of the people is the most important factor in this process."

At pains to distance itself from Mubarak's old guard, the government plans to reshuffle the cabinet, probably on Monday.

The new military rulers were also facing their first foreign policy test on Sunday with two Iranian naval vessels about to sail through the Suez Canal, causing grave concern in Israel.

In a difficult decision, the military approved the Iranian ships' passage. Cairo is an ally of Washington, was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel and its relations with Iran have been strained for more than three decades.

Egyptians generally respect the 470,000-strong military, which played a key role in the downfall of Mubarak by not intervening, but some mistrust its intentions in reshaping a corrupt and oppressive system which it supported for decades.

"I don't think the military is the best incubator of democracy anywhere," one Western diplomat said, adding:

"You have to create an open political space now, so parties can be formed with freedom of association, assembly, peaceful activities, freedom of expression without interference from police sources. That should start right away."

POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE

A court at the weekend approved a new political party that had sought a license for 15 years, making it the first to be recognized since Mubarak's overthrow and illustrating the political earthquake shaking the new Egypt.

The Wasat Party (Center Party), set up by a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, had tried to gain an official license four times since 1996, but each time its application was rejected by a political parties committee chaired by a leading member of the ruling party, a procedure that stifled opposition.

Washington has watched with discomfort as the Brotherhood played an increasingly big role in politics in the new Egypt, which is the Arab world's most populous nation.

By far the best-organized group that said it could win 30 percent of the vote in an election, the Brotherhood has a member on the constitution committee, a member on a Council to protect the revolution and is eager to register as a political party.

Any sign the army is reneging on its promises of democracy and civilian rule could reignite mass protests on the street and newly-empowered political voices are urging the army to proceed quickly with democracy and to free political prisoners.

In another move to reach out to reformists, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said 222 political prisoners would soon be freed.

The government said that 365 died in the bloodshed that accompanied the revolution, with about 5,000 people injured.

Dozens of customers queued outside the branches of state-owned banks in downtown Cairo.

There were no signs of the worker protests outside the state banks that erupted last Sunday and prompted the central bank to shut down state and private banks for the rest of the week.

Sunday was the seventh day that banks had opened their doors for business since January 27, when they were closed two days after protests broke out against the 30-year iron rule of Mubarak and swept him from power in just 18 days, shaking the Middle East.

There were a few tourists at the Egyptian Museum, which houses the world's biggest collection of Pharaonic treasures.

"The tour operators said it was safe for us to go, so we gambled. We didn't know the museum would be open," Dutch supermarket worker Sandra de Rooij told Reuters.

Not everyone in the Egyptian capital heeded the army's warning that "the Supreme Council for the Armed forces will not allow the continuation of these illegal practices."

About 70 employees were demonstrating in front of the head office of the Omar Effendi department store chain in central Cairo, demanding that the company be renationalized.

Denying media reports that Mubarak, ailing in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, amassed enormous wealth in office, a representative said the 82-year-old had submitted his financial statements to judicial bodies, in accordance with the law.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Mikhail, Edmund Blair, Sherine El Madany, Shaimaa Fayed, Marwa Awad, Tom Perry, Patrick Werr; Writing by Peter Millership)

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