Largest Crowds Yet Demand Change in Egypt

Tuesday, 01 February 2011 09:35 By Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Largest Crowds Yet Demand Change in Egypt
Protesters demonstrate in Cairo on Monday, January 31, 2011. (Photo: Scott Nelson / The New York Times)

Cairo - Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday in scenes of jubilation and protest that cut across Egypt’s entrenched lines of piety, class and ideology, marking the largest demonstration yet against the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak and energizing a country that feels on the cusp of change.

“We’re a million now!” protesters cried, as crowds kept surging to the landmark square, shadowed by the burned headquarters of Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party and a vast complex housing a bureaucracy many Egyptians accuse of endlessly humiliating them.

While the numbers fell short, the protest rivaled some of the most epic moments in Egypt’s tumultuous modern history, from the wars with Israel to a coup that sent a corpulent monarch packing on his yacht in 1952. With little regard, protesters defied a curfew that has become a joke to residents here and overcame attempts by the government to keep protesters away by closing roads, suspending train service and shutting down public transportation to Cairo. Some walked miles to the square, whose name means “liberation.” Others woke up there in the muddy patches where they had slept for days.

“No one would have imagined a week before that this would happen in Egypt,” said Bassem Ramsis, a 37-year-old director who returned from Spain for the uprising.

The momentous events in Egypt, the most populous Arab country and once the axis on which the Arab world revolved, have reverberated across the region. King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his Cabinet after protests there Tuesday, and organizers in Yemen and Syria, with their own authoritarian rulers, have called for protests.

In scale and message, the protests in Egypt were a remarkable moment of unity in a country that once represented the Arab world’s nexus but has stagnated under the withering authoritarianism of Mr. Mubarak’s regime. Peasants from southern Egypt joined Islamists from the Nile Delta and businessmen from upper-class suburbs rubbed shoulders with street-smart youths from gritty Boulaq in the square, a vast tapestry of the country’s diversity joined in the bluntest of messages: Mr. Mubarak must surrender power.

“Go, already,” read one sign that was held aloft. “My arm’s starting to hurt.”

Tens of thousands of people also took to the streets of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, north of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast.

As the uprising has spread here, culminating with Tuesday’s demonstration, thousands of foreigners have sought to flee the country in chaotic scenes at the Cairo airport. The United States ordered all nonemergency embassy staff and other American government employees to leave the country, fearing unrest as the protests continue.

The breadth of the uprising, organized by youthful activists and driven by the legions of poor and dispossessed in a country of 80 million people, stunned even the most critical of Mr. Mubarak’s government. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, has so far stayed mainly in the background, and other opposition leaders — the Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei among them — have struggled to cultivate support among the protesters, whose demands seem to grow as the uprising gathers force.

Margaret Scobey, the American ambassador to Egypt, spoke by telephone to Mr. ElBaradei on Tuesday, as American officials have sought to navigate an uprising that has not only challenged their most loyal ally in the region but also posed a threat to a broader American-backed order in Jordan, Yemen and the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

At the same time, a Western diplomat said Tuesday that there were preliminary reports that Egypt’s top military and political leaders were working on a plan to usher Mr. Mubarak from power.

The diplomat, who spoke anonymously because of the extraordinary sensitivity of the situation, said that the newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, was in discussions with military officials to ease Mr. Mubarak from office and begin the transition to an interim government.

American diplomats here and in Washington said that the United States envoy, Frank G. Wisner, told Mr. Mubarak in discussions this week that that he should not seek another term in office and should instead make way for free and fair elections in September to elect a successor. State television reported on Tuesday that Mr. Mubarak would broadcast a statement, and there was widespread speculation that he would say at that time that he would not seek re-election.

It remained to be seen whether the protesters would be satisfied, or would demand more far-reaching changes, as demonstrators in Tunisia did after its strongman president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled in mid-January.

In Tahrir Square, the chants of the huge crowd suggested that the demonstrators would not stop at Mr. Mubarak’s departure. “The people of Egypt want the president on trial,” some chanted for the first time, while others chorused: “The people of Egypt want the government to fall.”

“Nobody wants him, nobody,” said El-Mahdy Mohamed, one of the demonstrators. “Can’t he see on the TV what’s happening?”

As opposition groups sought to stake out positions, Mr. ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has emerged as a potential rallying point for opposition, said Tuesday that Mr. Mubarak must leave the country before any dialogue could start between the opposition and the government, Reuters reported.

“There can be dialogue but it has to come after the demands of the people are met and the first of those is that President Mubarak leaves,” Mr. ElBaradei told Al Arabiya television. “I hope to see Egypt peaceful and that’s going to require as a first step the departure of President Mubarak. If President Mubarak leaves, then everything will progress correctly.”

His words were apparently a first response to an offer of talks on Monday night by Omar Suleiman, Mr. Mubarak’s right-hand man and newly appointed vice president.

By Tuesday morning, as a formal curfew that many have ignored was lifted, vast crowds flooded into Tahrir Square — a plaza that for some has assumed some of the symbolic importance of Tiananmen Square in Beijing during pro-democracy demonstrations there in 1989.

But, in marked contrast to those events, the military’s promise not to use force has emboldened demonstrators sensing that the political landscape of the country has shifted as decisively as at any moment in Mr. Mubarak’s tenure. The military seemed to aggressively assert itself as an arbiter between two irreconcilable forces: a popular uprising demanding Mr. Mubarak’s fall and his tenacious refusal to relinquish power.

And even as the square itself filled up, rivers of protesters flowed from side streets. Crowd size is notoriously difficult to calculate. However, given that Tahrir Square has an area of about 560,000 square feet, and that each person in a tightly packed crowd takes up about 2.5 square feet, the upper limit for the crowd in the square itself, not counting the surrounding streets, is around 225,000 people.

Overnight, soldiers boosted their presence around the square, with tanks and armored personnel carriers guarding some of its entrances and stringing concertina wire to block off some streets. The black-clad police — reviled by many protesters as a tool of the regime — also seemed to have been deployed in larger numbers, though not on the same scale as when the protests started a week ago.

News reports said the authorities had sought to isolate Cairo from the rest of the country, throwing up roadblocks on main highways and canceling train and bus services to prevent demonstrators from reaching the city. There was no official confirmation of the report but witnesses said many people who had been stopped at roadblocks simply walked into the center of Cairo.

In a further token of the paralysis of normal business, news reports said, the Cairo stock exchange announced that it would remain closed for a fourth successive day on Wednesday.

In what seemed a new display of alarm in Washington, the State Department said that it was ordering the departure of “all nonemergency United States government personnel and their families.” Previously the American Embassy in Cairo had offered voluntary evacuation flights to those diplomats, their families and private citizens. Some 1,200 Americans took the chartered flights on Monday.

By midafternoon on Tuesday, two more flights chartered by the State Department had left Cairo for Istanbul, while passengers were boarding other planes for Athens and Cyprus, embassy officials said. Many more flights were likely on Wednesday.

In a further diplomatic twist, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — whose country is often held up as a model of Western-style democracy within a predominantly Islamic nation — canceled a visit to Egypt planned for next week, urging Mr. Mubarak to “listen to people’s outcries and extremely humanistic demands” and to “meet the freedom demands of people without a doubt,” Reuters reported.

And in an Op-Ed in The New York Times on Tuesday, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for Mr. Mubarak to step aside.

The week-old uprising here entered a new stage about 9 p.m. on Monday when a uniformed military spokesman declared on state television that “the armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.” Addressing the throngs who took to the streets, he declared that the military understood “the legitimacy of your demands” and “affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”

A roar of celebration rose up immediately from the crowd of thousands of protesters still lingering in Tahrir Square, where a television displayed the news. Opposition leaders argued that the phrase “the legitimacy of your demands” could only refer to the protests’ central request — Mr. Mubarak’s departure to make way for free elections.

About an hour later, Mr. Suleiman, the vice president, delivered another address, lasting just two minutes.

“I was assigned by the president today to contact all the political forces to start a dialogue about all the raised issues concerning constitutional and legislative reform,” he said, “and to find a way to clearly identify the proposed amendments and specific timings for implementing them.”

The protesters in the streets took Mr. Suleiman’s speech as a capitulation to the army’s refusal to use force against them. “The army and the people want the collapse of the government,” they chanted in celebration. Even some supporters of Mr. Mubarak acknowledged that events may have turned decisively against him after the military indicated its refusal to confront the protesters.

Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from London; Mona El-Naggar, Kareem Fahim, and Robert F. Worth from Cairo; and Nicholas Kulish from Alexandria.

This article "Largest Crowds Yet Demand Change in Egypt" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 01 February 2011 15:06