Protests Persist in Egypt as New Cabinet Is Seated

Monday, 31 January 2011 10:19 By Kareem Fahim, David D Kirkpatrick and Anthony Shadid, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Cairo - In a limited gesture unlikely to ease protesters’ pressure for his ouster, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt reorganized his government on Monday, leaving some key ministers in place but replacing the interior minister in charge of the police.

The announcement came as Egyptian protesters gathered by the thousands on Monday for a seventh day in the central Liberation Square. Concerns over violence grew, as for the first time in three days, security police redeployed and clustered near the square’s entrances along with soldiers.

“I brought my American passport today in case I die today,” said Marwan Mossaad, 33, a graduate student of architecture with dual Egyptian-American citizenship. “I want the American people to know that they are supporting one of the most oppressive regimes in the world and Americans are also dying for it.”

In contrast to the prior days of protests dominated by the young, the demonstrations Monday included a more obvious contingent of older, disciplined protesters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptians gathered at mosques around the city for noon prayers and then marched by the hundreds and thousands toward Liberation Square.

“Come down Egyptians!” chanted one group heading to the square, drawing men into their march from the buildings they passed. The group, led by older men, linked hands and kept to one lane of traffic, allowing cars to pass.

At the square, they joined protesters who had stayed there all night in defiance of a curfew that the authorities are now seeking to enforce an hour earlier in the day. The numbers in the square appeared to exceed those of previous days, despite an apparent effort by the military to impose some kind of authority and corral the protesters into a narrower space. Army troops checked the identity of people entering the square and began placing a cordon of concrete barriers and razor wire around its access routes, news reports said, but there were no immediate reports of clashes with protesters who have cast the military as their ally and protector. As military helicopters circled overhead, demonstrators jabbed their fists in the air. “The people and the army are one hand,” protesters chanted.

Organizers said they were calling for the largest demonstrations yet — a “march of millions” — on Tuesday, seen as an attempt to retake the initiative in the face of a government campaign to cast the uprising as an incubator of lawlessness after several nights of looting.

Witnesses in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city on the Mediterranean coast, said police had also returned to the streets, though in small numbers accompanied by soldiers.

At Cairo airport, American Embassy officials said, a voluntary evacuation of Americans — including dependents of government officials in Egypt, some diplomats and private citizens — got under way on Monday with a flight to Cyprus and two to Athens as passengers waited to board six more heading for other unspecified destinations described as safe havens, including Turkey.

Israel, meanwhile, was reported to have called on the United States and a number of European countries over the weekend to mute criticism of Mr. Mubarak to preserve stability in the region, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

But an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue, said that the Haaretz report does not reflect the position of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu spoke cautiously in his first public remarks on the situation in Egypt, telling his cabinet that the Israeli government’s efforts were “designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region.”

“I remind you that the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and our goal is to ensure that these relations continue,” he said on Sunday as Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition banded together around a prominent government critic to negotiate for forces seeking the fall of Mr. Mubarak.

The announcement that the critic, Mohamed ElBaradei, would represent a loosely unified opposition reconfigured the struggle between Mr. Mubarak’s government and a six-day-old uprising bent on driving him and his party from power.

Though lacking deep support on his own, Dr. ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and diplomat, could serve as a consensus figure for a movement that has struggled to articulate a program for a potential transition. It suggested, too, that the opposition was aware of the uprising’s image abroad, putting forth a candidate who might be more acceptable to the West than beloved in Egypt.

In scenes as tumultuous as any since the uprising began, Dr. ElBaradei defied a government curfew on Sunday night and joined thousands of protesters in Liberation Square, which has become the epicenter of the uprising and a platform, writ small, for the frustrations, ambitions and resurgent pride of a generation claiming the country’s mantle.

“Today we are proud of Egyptians,” Dr. ElBaradei told throngs who surged toward him in a square festooned with banners calling for Mr. Mubarak’s fall. “We have restored our rights, restored our freedom, and what we have begun cannot be reversed.”

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Dr. ElBaradei declared it a “new era,” and as night fell there were few in Egypt who seemed to disagree.

Dr. ElBaradei also criticized the Obama administration, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the message via Sunday news programs in Washington that Mr. Mubarak should create an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt, while she refrained from calling on him to resign. That approach, Dr. ElBaradei said, was “a failed policy” eroding American credibility.

“It’s better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, it’s time for you to go,” Dr. ElBaradei said.

The tumult Sunday seemed perched between two deepening narratives: a vision of anarchy offered by the government, and echoed by Egyptians fearing chaos, against the perspective of protesters and many others that the uprising had become what they called “a popular revolution.”

The military, Egypt’s most powerful institution and one embedded deeply in all aspects of life here, reinforced parts of the capital Sunday. It gathered as many as 100 tanks and armored carriers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the site of President Anwar el-Sadat’s assassination in 1981, which brought Mr. Mubarak to power. The Interior Ministry announced it would again deploy once-ubiquitous police forces — despised by many as the symbol of the daily humiliations of Mr. Mubarak’s government — across the country, except in Liberation Square.

In a collapse of authority, the police withdrew from major cities on Saturday, giving free rein to gangs that stole and burned cars, looted shops and ransacked a fashionable mall, where dismembered mannequins for conservative Islamic dress were strewn over broken glass and puddles of water. Thousands of inmates poured out of four prisons, including the country’s most notorious, Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun. Checkpoints run by the military and neighborhood groups, sometimes spaced just a block apart, proliferated across Cairo and other cities.

Many have darkly suggested that the government was behind the collapse of authority as a way to justify a crackdown or discredit protesters’ calls for change.

“Egypt challenges anarchy,” a government-owned newspaper declared Sunday.

“A Conspiracy by Security to Support the Scenario of Chaos,” replied an independent newspaper in a headline that shared space at a downtown kiosk.

The United States said it was organizing flights to evacuate its citizens on Monday, and the American Embassy urged all Americans to “consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so,” in a statement that underlined a deep sense of pessimism among Egypt’s allies over Mr. Mubarak’s fate.

“We’re worried about the chaos, sure,” said Selma al-Tarzi, 33, a film director who had joined friends in Liberation Square. “But everyone is aware the chaos is generated by the government. The revolution is not generating the chaos.”

Still, driven by instances of looting — and rumors fed by Egyptian television’s unrelenting coverage of lawlessness — it was clear that many feared the menace could worsen, and possibly undermine the protesters’ demands.

“At first the words were right,” said Abu Sayyid al-Sayyid, a driver. “The protests were peaceful — freedom, jobs and all that. But then the looting came and the thugs and thieves with it. Someone has to step in before there’s nothing left to step into.”

For a government that long celebrated the mantra of Arab strongmen — security and stability — Mr. Mubarak and his officials seemed to stumble in formulating a response to the most serious challenge to his rule. Mr. Mubarak appeared on state television on Sunday in a meeting with military chiefs in what was portrayed as business as usual. Through the day, the station broadcast pledges of fealty from caller after caller.

“Behind you are 80 million people, saying yes to Mubarak!” one declared.

That was the rarest of comments across Cairo, though, as anger grew at what residents described as treason and betrayal on the part of a reeling state.

Since the uprising began last week, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken part in the protests but shied away from a leadership role, though that appeared to change Sunday. Mohammed el-Beltagui, a key Brotherhood leader and former Parliament member, said an alliance of the protest’s more youthful leaders and older opposition figures had met again in an attempt to assemble a more unified front with a joint committee.

It included Dr. ElBaradei, along with other prominent figures like Ayman Nour and Osama al-Ghazali Harb, who have struggled to build a popular following. By far, the Brotherhood represents the most powerful force, but Mr. Beltagui and another Brotherhood official, Mohamed el-Katatni, said the group understood the implications of seeking leadership in a country still deeply divided over its religious program.

Whether Dr. ElBaradei can emerge as that consensus figure remained unclear. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work leading the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Even in Liberation Square, the crowd’s reaction to Dr. ElBaradei was mixed — some were sympathetic but many more were reserved in their support for a man who has spent much time abroad.

Whatever his success, the army, long an institution shielded from criticism in the state media, was still the fulcrum of events, with a growing recognition that it would probably play the pivotal role in shaping the outcome.

In a show of authority, Mr. Mubarak was shown meeting with Defense Minister Mohammed Tantawi and Omar Suleiman, his right-hand man and the country’s intelligence chief, whom he appointed as vice president on Saturday. In slogans and actions, protesters cultivated the military, too, in a bid to turn it to their side.

Across the capital, youths and some older men guarded their own neighborhoods, sometimes posting themselves at each block and alley.

“We know each other, we stand by each other and people respect what we’re doing,” said Ramadan Farghal, who headed one self-defense group in the poorer neighborhood of Bassateen. “This is the Egyptian people. We used to be one hand.”

Kareem Fahim, Liam Stack, Mona El-Naggar and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting from Cairo, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

This article "Protests Persist in Egypt as New Cabinet Is Seated" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Monday, 31 January 2011 10:35