Some workers ignored a call by military rulers to return to work on Wednesday, and a committee hammered out changes in Egypt's constitution to pave the way for democracy to replace 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's iron rule.

The Higher Military Council had urged Egyptians to put aside the revolutionary ardour, that has found expression in protests and strikes about poor pay and working conditions, in the interests of national unity and restarting the damaged economy.

Banks were closed across Egypt because of labour rows that were having a spillover effect across many sectors, while 12,000 workers went on strike at a textile plant in the city of Mahalla el-Kubra and Cairo's airport was also hit by industrial action.

The ripple effect of the Egyptian revolution is shaking Middle Eastern dictators to their foundation, said Fawaz Gerges, a London School of Economics Middle East expert.

There was a frenzy of rumour about the health of Mubarak, 82, who is holed up at his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after flying from his Cairo palace. In one of his final addresses, Mubarak said he wanted to die in Egypt.

One Saudi official in Riyadh said: He is not dead but is not doing well at all and refuses to leave. Basically, he has given up and wants to die in Sharm. The official added that Saudi Arabia had offered to be his host.

Life was far from normal five days after Mubarak was forced from power by a whirlwind 18-day uprising, with troops and tanks on the streets of Cairo, schools and banks closed and Egyptians still finding their new found freedom hard to believe.

A committee, set up to amend the constitution within 10 days as a prelude to parliamentary and presidential elections in six months, also met as the military dismantles the mechanisms used to maintain Mubarak's rule. The Higher Military Council has already dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution.

Tareq al-Bishry, the head of the constitutional amendment committee told Reuters the committee was meeting daily at the Ministry of Justice and will deliver on time.

WASHINGTON SUSPICIONS

The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which did not play a leading role in the revolution but has been Egypt's best-organised opposition group for many years, has a member on the committee drawing up the constitutional amendments.

Some secular leaders fret that racing into presidential and parliamentary elections in a nation where Mubarak suppressed most opposition activity for 30 years may hand an edge to the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood.

Washington, a major aid donor to Egypt which became the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel in a 1979 treaty, regards the Brotherhood with suspicion.

I would asses that they are not in favour of the treaty, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. But the Brotherhood was only one voice in the emerging political milieu, Clapper said.

Opposition leaders welcomed the military's commitment to a swift handover to civilian rule, but called for the release of political prisoners and the lifting of emergency laws.

Egyptian pro-democracy leaders plan a big Victory March on Friday to celebrate the revolution -- and perhaps remind the military of the power of the street.

With no clear leadership, the youth movement that was pivotal to the revolution due to its use of social networking sites to organise protests, is seeking to overcome divisions and expects to announce a new political party on Thursday.

Uncertainty remains over how much influence the military, which receives $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid annually, will seek to exert in reshaping a corrupt and oppressive ruling system which it has propped up for six decades.

INCALCULABLE VALUE

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said military aid was of incalculable value, helping Egypt's armed forces to become a capable, professional body.

Changes to those relationships ... ought to be considered only with an abundance of caution and a thorough appreciation for the long view, rather than in the flush of public passion and the urgency to save a buck, he said.

Egypt's military, which Mullen has praised for a peaceful power handover, had hoped tens of thousands would heed its appeal to get back to work on Wednesday and abandon the strikes and protests that flared after the downfall of Mubarak.

But anecdotal evidence suggested unions, emboldened by the people's overthrow of Mubarak, are still pressing their demands.

Facing a rash of pent-up labour demands from groups ranging from bank staff and tour guides to policemen and steelworkers, the military has urged people not to disrupt further an economy already damaged by the revolution.

Workers cite a series of grievances. What unites them is a new sense of being able to speak out in the post-Mubarak era.

Tuesday was a national holiday to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad so for many sectors Wednesday was the first work day since the military's appeal.

The foreign minister had spoken with his counterparts about international aid for Egypt and Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, will become the most senior diplomat to visit since Mubarak stepped down when she visits Cairo next Tuesday.

Motivated by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, hundreds of people, angry at the arrest of a rights campaigner, clashed with police and government supporters n the Libyan city of Benghazi. There have also been clashes in Iran, Bahrain and Yemen.

The departure of Mubarak marks the beginning of the fall of the authoritarian wall in the Arab world. Mubarak was the public face of political authoritarianism in the region, Gerges said. It removes the barrier of fear in the region.

The careful wording of the army's plea on Monday marked a change of tone from the more autocratic style of the past, provoking concern among some industry executives. In a new post-Mubarak era the army is keen not to appear heavy-handed.

The army must use stronger language to the people, said Chamber of Metallurgical Industries General Manager Mohamed Said Hanfy. A lot of them don't have a problem but want to seize the opportunity presented by the political situation, he said.

Switzerland, the world's biggest offshore banking centre, ordered a freeze of assets that may belong to Mubarak, the government said on Wednesday. The Swiss asset freeze covers Mubarak, his wife and her brother, his two sons and their wives as well as four former ministers.

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