Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thousands Converge In Cairo To Demand Mubarak Go

by NPR Staff and Wires

Hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators flooded into Cairo's main square Tuesday for what organizers hoped would be a "march of a million people" to demand President Hosni Mubarak's removal from power.

People carrying anti-government banners and Egyptian flags and beating drums, stood shoulder to shoulder in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square after passing through checkpoints guarded by protesters and the army. Effigies of Mubarak, whose autocratic government has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, were hung from light posts.

Protesters at what was by far the largest rally during a week of demonstrations and unrest were expected to march on the presidential palace but had not moved from the square as of early Tuesday afternoon.

The crowd — estimated to be anywhere from 250,000 to 1 million people — was galvanized by an army statement that people had a legitimate right to protest and by Vice President Omar Suleiman's remarks on state TV that the government would open a dialogue with the opposition, said NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

"The mood is extremely ebullient. Everyone I'm speaking to says this is the beginning of the end of the Mubarak regime," Garcia-Navarro reported from the square. She added: "The military has behaved very calmly and they are letting people assemble freely."

Thousands of protesters also gathered in Alexandria, Suez, the southern province of Assiut, the city of Mansoura north of Cairo, and Luxor, the southern city where some 5,000 people protested outside its iconic Ancient Egyptian temple on the east bank of the Nile.

The loosely organized protest movement seized momentum from last month's popular uprising that toppled Tunisia's government and channeled it toward Mubarak's ouster. In a further sign of reverberation in the Arab world, Jordan's King Abdullah II abruptly fired his government Tuesday in the wake of street protests and asked an ex-prime minister to form a new Cabinet, ordering him to launch immediate political reforms.

A pledge by the Palestinian government in the West Bank to hold local elections "as soon as possible" also appeared to be linked to the unrest in Egypt. The instability is of particular concern to the U.S. and to Israel, where a decades-long peace treaty with Cairo could be in jeopardy if Mubarak is forced out.

The protests have become increasingly anti-American in recent days, with demonstrators accusing Mubarak of being an agent of Israel and the U.S., whose 2003 invasion of Iraq is widely seen as fueling anger across the region.

On Monday, Egyptian military spokesman Ismail Etman said the army "has not and will not use force against the public," adding that the people had a right to "peaceful expression" as long as they did not do anything to destabilize the country. It was a dramatic sign that the army's support for Mubarak, who is a former air force commander, was quickly eroding.

For days, army tanks and troops have surrounded the square, keeping the protests confined but doing nothing to stop people from joining.

"We are not going anywhere until Mubarak leaves," said Mohammed Abdullah, a 27-year-old aviation engineer who was at Tuesday's gathering in Tahrir, which drew Egyptians of all walks of life. Many chanted, "The people want to bring down the regime!"

Volunteers wearing tags reading "Security of the People" said they were watching for government infiltrators who might try to instigate violence.

"We are trying to keep things safe, that's it," one such volunteer, a 23-year-old dentist named Taher Benani, told NPR. "I mean, we caught a guy last night … he says he's looking for a job and looking for it at 3 a.m. I mean come on. He had a switchblade." Benani said he handed the man over to soldiers.

Yousry Nasrallah, a popular Egyptian filmmaker who also was among the security volunteers, said he was uneasy about how quickly his neighbors have adopted the same police tactics that have made the Mubarak regime so unpopular — such as demanding to know people's business or asking to see their papers.

"I don't like that. But it's an education again when you've been brought up in 60 years of dictatorship where things happen that way," Nasrallah said. "That's what you are taught and that's what you are brought up with, too."

Security officials said all roads and public transportation into Cairo had been shut down. Banks, schools and the stock market in the capital were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread, for which prices were spiraling.

Roads in and out of the flashpoint cities of Alexandria, Suez, Masnoura and Fayoum were closed.

Train services nationwide were suspended for a second day and all bus services between cities were halted. An unprecedented shutdown of the Internet was in its fifth day after the last of the service providers abruptly stopped shuttling Internet traffic into and out of the country.

Cairo's international airport remained a scene of chaos as thousands of foreigners sought to flee. The U.S. State Department said Tuesday that it had ordered all non-emergency U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt. The agency said it will continue to assist American citizens seeking to leave the country, but warned that flights out of Cairo airport may be disrupted due to the protests.

The official death toll from the Egypt uprising stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.

Hours after the army said it would not use force on the protesters, Suleiman — appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier in what could be a succession plan — went on state TV to announce the offer of a dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms.

The U.S. State Department said that a retired senior diplomat, former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, was now on the ground in Cairo and would meet with Egyptian officials to urge them to embrace broad economic and political changes that can pave the way for free and fair elections.

Some 30 representatives from opposition groups were meeting on Tuesday to draw up a set of demands and to decide whether Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei should lead them, according to Abu'l-Ela Madi, a spokesman of one of the participating groups, al-Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The various protesters have little in common beyond the demand that Mubarak go.

Perhaps the most significant tensions among them is between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement. American officials have suggested they have similar fears.

In a nod to the suspicions, Brotherhood figures insist they are not seeking a leadership role.

Still, Brotherhood members appeared to be joining the protest in greater numbers and more openly. During the first few days of protests, the crowd in Tahrir Square was composed of mostly young men in jeans and T-shirts. On Monday, many of the volunteers handing out food and water to protesters were men in long traditional dress with the trademark Brotherhood appearance: a closely cropped haircut and bushy beards.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I want to hear from you but any comment that advocates violence, illegal activity or that contains advertisements that do not promote activism or awareness, will be deleted.