Egyptians Defy Crackdown With New Mass Protests

Friday, 04 February 2011 08:37 By David D Kirkpatrick and Alan Cowell, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Egyptians Defy Crackdown With New Mass Protests
Egyptian demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 3, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)

Cairo - Defying a wider government crackdown, more than 100,000 Egyptians packed Cairo’s central Tahrir Square on Friday, chanting slogans, bowing in prayer and waving Egyptian flags to press a largely peaceful campaign for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak that has transfixed the Arab world and tested American diplomacy.

Some carried baskets of bread, food and water for those who camped out in the central square overnight after days of running battles, urging the president to depart and seeking to maintain the momentum of their protests at one of the most decisive moments in Egypt since the 1952 revolution against the monarchy. “Leave, leave, leave,” protesters chanted.

As the uprising entered its 11th day, the numbers of the protesters and their passion seemed to offer a sharp rejection of the authorities’ attempt to seize the initiative. But there were also indications that the tenacity of the demonstrations had provoked some soul searching beyond the street protests.

In Tahrir Square on Friday, Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League and a former foreign minister serving Mr. Mubarak, appeared among the crowds, seeming to align himself with the protest after years as a central player in Cairo’s elite. Twice he sought to give a speech, but twice people in the crowd drowned him out with roars of approval at what seemed a tacit endorsement of their cause.

Separately, Mohamed Rafah Tahtawy, the public spokesman for Al Azhar — the center of Sunni Muslim learning and Egypt’s highest, state-run religious authority — told reporters that he was resigning because “I am participating in the protests and I have issued statements that support the revolutionists as far as they go.”

The government broadened its crackdown on Thursday, arresting journalists and human rights advocates across an edgy city, while offering more concessions in a bid to win support from a population growing frustrated with a devastated economy and scenes of chaos in the streets.

But, after a night of scattered clashes and bursts of gunfire, an uneasy calm gave way to what seemed jubilation on Friday as antigovernment protesters mustered for what they have called a “Friday of departure.” Television images showed thousands of protesters crowded beneath the palm trees of Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city on the Mediterranean coast, waving Egyptian flags and demanding Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.

In a highly unusual move, the defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, appeared in the square on Friday — the first member of the ruling government elite to do so. As he inspected troops there, protesters cheered him and formed a human chain in order, they said, to prevent any hostile action against him. “We have faith and trust in the Egyptian military,” said one of those in the chain, Amr Makleb, 28.

Just a week ago, demonstrators poured from Cairo’s many mosques after noon prayers on the Muslim holy day to press their uprising, and there seemed to be a similar surge on Friday. But one big difference was that last week the protesters confronted the police at the start of a day of violence and looting. Since then, though, the uniformed police force has largely disappeared from the streets and the protesters have clashed with pro-Mubarak adversaries they accuse of being sponsored by the government.

On Friday, there were no immediate signs of the pro-Mubarak camp.

On one approach to Tahrir Square on Friday, two orderly lines of protesters stretched back hundreds of yards on the Kasr al-Nil bridge, their progress slowed by elite paratroops who threw razor wire across the bridge and searched demonstrators as they arrived — apparently a new attempt by the military to assert some control.

On Thursday, the authorities said that neither Mr. Mubarak nor his son Gamal, long seen as a contender for power, would run for president. They also offered dialogue with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, a gesture almost unthinkable weeks ago.

For its part, the Brotherhood insisted on Friday that it had no ambitions to field presidential candidates if those talks took place. But, speaking to reporters in Tahrir Square, Mohammed el-Beltagui, a leading member of the outlawed group, said that if Mr. Mubarak left, the Brotherhood — the most organized opposition in the country — would not present a candidate for election.

“It is not a retreat,” Mr. Beltagui said. “It is to take away the scare tactics that Hosni Mubarak uses to deceive the people here and abroad that he should stay in power.” A close ally of the United States, Mr. Mubarak has cast himself for years as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

The Brotherhood has assumed an increasingly prominent role in the uprising, but its disavowal of long-term political ambitions seemed to contradict an assertion on Friday from Iran that Egypt was in the throes of an Islamic revolution similar to the tumult that ended the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Tehran in 1979.

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“The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement, and I, in the name of the Iranian government, salute the Egyptian people and the Tunisian people,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said at Friday prayers in Tehran, which were broadcast on television, Reuters reported.

On a larger scale than on previous days, thousands of people in Tahrir Square sank to their knees at noon as loudspeakers amplified the sound of prayers filling the air. But those in the square reflected a cross-section of society, not just members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The minute the prayers were over, the square erupted in slogans of defiance, urging Mr. Mubarak to go.

Many said their determination was blending with a fear that if they lost, the protesters and their organizers would bear the brunt of a withering crackdown.

“If we can’t bring this to an end, we’re going to all be in the slammer by June,” said Murad Mohsen, a doctor treating the wounded at a makeshift clinic near barricades, where thousands fought off droves of government supporters with rocks and firebombs.

On Friday, Mohamed ElBaradei, who has been authorized by the protesters to negotiate with the authorities, said that, despite the authorities’ offers of negotiation, no one from government had contacted him or any other opposition leader.

At a news conference at his home in Giza, close to the pyramids, Mr. ElBaradei said Mr. Mubarak’s adversaries had already begun drawing up a constitution and were seeking the creation of a council of two to five members — including a representative from the powerful military — to oversee reform over a one year period. It was the first public suggestion of a formal proposal for transition.

“The earlier he goes with dignity the better it will be for everybody,” Mr. ElBaradei said, referring to Mr. Mubarak.

He said the young people propelling the uprising were not interested in retribution. “The Egyptian people are not a bloodthirsty people,” he said. The conciliatory tone of his remarks contrasted with the demands of some protesters for Mr. Mubarak’s execution.

“We need to move the current dictatorship and all of its apparatus to a democracy,” he said.

Mr. ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel laureate, took issue sharply with remarks by Mr. Mubarak in an interview with ABC News on Thursday when he said that he was fed up with ruling but that his precipitate departure would cause chaos.

“We as a people are fed up as well, it is not only him,” Mr. ElBaradei said. “The idea that there would be chaos is symptomatic of a dictatorship. He thinks if he leaves power the whole country will fall apart.”

From festive scenes of just days ago, the revolt on Thursday had become more martial, as exhausted men defended what they described as the perimeter of a free Egypt around Tahrir Square. Their demands have grown more forceful and the uprising more radical. After pitched clashes of two days that left at least seven dead and hundreds wounded, banners in Tahrir Square declared Mr. Mubarak “a war criminal,” and several in the crowd said that the president should be executed. Major television networks were largely unable to broadcast from the square on Thursday.

On Friday, the mood seemed to have swung back to an atmosphere of celebration.

On Thursday, the United States joined a chorus of criticism, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton saying, “We condemn in the strongest terms attacks on peaceful demonstrators, human rights activists, foreigners and diplomats.”

The government’s strategy seems motivated at turning broader opinion in the country against the protests and perhaps wearing down the demonstrators themselves, some of whom seemed exhausted by the clashes. Vice President Omar Suleiman, appointed Saturday to a position that Mr. Mubarak had until then refused to fill, appealed to Egypt’s sense of decency in allowing Mr. Mubarak to serve out his term, and he chronicled the mounting losses that, he said, the uprising had inflicted on a crippled Egyptian economy.

“End your sit-in,” he said. “Your demands have been answered.”

In interviews and statements, the government has increasingly spread an image that foreigners were inciting the uprising, a refrain echoed in the streets. The suggestions are part of a days-long Egyptian media campaign that has portrayed the protesters as troublemakers and ignored the scope of an uprising with diffuse goals and leadership.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said it had 100 reports of attacks on journalists. Al Jazeera, the influential Arabic channel, said government supporters stormed the Hilton Hotel in Cairo, searching for journalists, and two of its reporters were attacked. A Greek journalist was stabbed with a screwdriver and others were beaten and harassed.

Police also raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a headquarters for many of the international human rights organizations working in Egypt. The human rights workers were told to lie on the floor and the chips were removed from the telephones, someone present in the building said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Liam Stack, Kareem Fahim and Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo. 

This article "Egyptians Defy Crackdown With New Mass Protests" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Friday, 04 February 2011 10:10