Egypt Details Reforms as Protest Takes on New Life

Tuesday, 08 February 2011 10:40 By Alan Cowell, Kareem Fahim and David D Kirkpatrick, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Egypt Details Reforms as Protest Takes on New Life
After a relative calm over the last few days, Egyptian anti-government protesters gather in massive numbers in Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the current regime in Cairo on February 8, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)

Cairo - As the authorities and protesters struggle to grasp the see-sawing initiative in Egypt’s 15-day-old revolt, the government of Hosni Mubarak unveiled new pledges of reform on Tuesday, but demonstrators crammed anew into Tahrir Square in ever greater numbers to reject anything less than the president’s immediate ouster.

The crowds swelled despite an appearance on state television by Vice President Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief who has met opposition groups including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and who said on Tuesday that Mr. Mubarak had had endorsed moves to create a timetable for a “peaceful and organized transfer of power.”

The president “welcomed this national reconciliation assuring that it puts our feet at the beginning of the right path to get out of the current crisis,” Mr. Suleiman said.

But his words found no resonance among the tens of thousands of people pouring into Tahrir Square, the focus of the revolt. Reporters who have followed the protests throughout their unfolding said the numbers seemed to have increased beyond those on Monday, suggesting that the authorities’ attempt to dampen the momentum of the revolt had suffered a setback.

The impetus for the intensity of protest seemed, in part, to be the freeing of Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive and an organizer of the revolt, who was released on Monday after disappearing nearly two weeks ago. For some, he has offered the uprising a visible emblem drawn from the tech-savvy young people who ignited it.

“Please do not make me a hero,” Mr. Ghonim said in a voice trembling with emotion during a long interview on a popular television show on Monday night. He broke down completely when told of the hundreds of people who have died in clashes since the protests began.

“I want to express my condolences for all the Egyptians who died,” he said. “We were all down there for peaceful demonstrations,” he added. “The heroes were the ones on the street.”

In response, said Ahmed Meyer El Shamy, an executive with an international pharmaceutical company, who joined the protesters in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, “many, many people” had resolved to support the uprising “because of what they saw on TV last night.”

As the government sought to counter the impact of Mr. Ghonim’s words, Vice President Suleiman, newly appointed as the uprising unfolded, quoted Mr. Mubarak as pledging that there would be no reprisals against the protesters — a widely voiced fear that has propelled some to intensify their demand for his resignation long before elections in September, when he has said he will step down.

“The youth of Egypt deserve national appreciation,” Mr. Suleiman quoted the president as saying. “He gave orders to abstain from prosecuting them and forfeiting their rights to freedom of expression.”

The promise reflected earlier suggestions that both sides believed the uprising’s vitality might depend on their ability to sway a population still deeply divided over events that represent the most fundamental realignment of politics here in nearly three decades.

“Now it feels like Hosni Mubarak is playing a game of who has the longest breath,” said Amur el-Etrebi, who joined tens of thousands in Tahrir Square on Monday. As the protests entered their third week, there were indications on Tuesday that the authorities were trying to limit foreign journalists’ access to Tahrir Square. Soldiers at the only accessible entrance to the square said foreign reporters would have to present an Egyptian press credential to enter. The vast majority of journalists who have flown in to cover the uprising do not have such a credential, which normally is restricted to resident correspondents and can be obtained only after a lengthy bureaucratic process.

As part of the protesters’ campaign against state-run media, some demonstrators handed out spoof copies of the official Al Ahram newspaper on Tuesday with a headline saying: “From the people of Tahrir, Mubarak must go.”

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Protesters also turned out in substantial numbers in Alexandria, according to television images.

While some deonstrators had urged a general strike on Tuesday, there was no indication that the call had been heeded, or widely broadcast, in a city where many people live from day to day on low wages.

Momentum has seemed to shift by the day in a climactic struggle over what kind of change Egypt will undergo and whether Egyptian officials are sincere about delivering it. In a sign of the tension, American officials described as “unacceptable” statements by Mr. Suleiman that the country was not ready for democracy, but showed no sign that they had shifted away from supporting him, a man widely viewed here as an heir to Mr. Mubarak.

After demonstrating an ability to bring hundreds of thousands to downtown Cairo, protest organizers have sought to broaden their movement this week, acknowledging that simple numbers are not enough to force Mr. Mubarak’s departure. The government — by trying to divide the opposition, offering limited concessions and remaining patient — appears to believe it can weather the biggest challenge to its rule.

Underlining the government’s perspective that it has already offered what the protesters demanded, Naguib Sawiris, a wealthy businessman who has sought to act as a mediator, said: “Tahrir is underestimating their victory. They should declare victory.”

Cairo’s chronic traffic jams have returned as the city begins to adapt to both the sprawling protests in Tahrir Square, a landmark of downtown Cairo, and the tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers who continued to block some streets. Banks again opened their doors, as people lined up outside, and some shops took newspapers down from windows, occasionally near burnt-out vehicles still littering some streets.

The government has sought to cultivate that image of the ordinary, mobilizing its newspapers and television to insist that it was re-exerting control over the capital after its police force utterly collapsed on Jan. 28. The cabinet on Monday held its first formal meeting since Mr. Mubarak reorganized it after the protests.

Officials announced that the stock market, whose index fell nearly 20 percent in two days of protests, would reopen Sunday and that six million government employees would receive a 15 percent raise, which the new finance minister, Samir Radwan, said would take effect in April.

The raise mirrored moves in Kuwait and Jordan to raise salaries or provide grants to stanch anger over rising prices across the Middle East, shaken with the repercussions of Egypt’s uprising and the earlier revolt in Tunisia. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said Friday he would cut in half his salary, believed to be $350,000, amid anger there over dreary government services.

As in the past the government here has swerved between crackdown and modest moves of conciliation. In harrowing raids it arrested 30 human rights activists, but released them by Sunday morning. In past years the government has managed to at least make its version of events the dominant narrative, but in the outpouring of dissent here that is no longer the case. Fighting still flared in the Sinai Peninsula, where Bedouins, long treated as second-class citizens, have fought Egyptian security forces for weeks.

In scenes Monday that were most remarkable for having become so familiar, tens of thousands returned to Tahrir Square, where a small army of vendors sold cigarettes, coffee and even sweet potatoes wrapped in lists of the demonstrators’ demands. Festive drummers arrived to celebrate a wedding just a little way from the scene of tumultuous street battles last week, and a dozen horse-drawn carts, bereft of their usual trade, waited for fares at the end of the Kasr el-Nil Bridge, which leads to the square.

“There are no tourists now, so what are we going to do?” asked Mohammed Adel, a 38-year-old driver, parked near the square. “I’m hoping to make a little money here.”

The very joviality has seemed to worry some organizers, who have sought to recapture the initiative from a government determined to wait them out. They have also considered trying to organize more large-scale demonstrations in other Egyptian cities and acts of civil disobedience like surrounding the state television headquarters, reviled by many protesters for its blatantly misleading portrayal of them.

“The means for escalation are still there,” said Zyad el-Alawi, a 30-year-old coordinator of the protests. “The means for driving our movement are still there.”

Some protesters have contended that their very presence in Tahrir Square, where crowds have surged past 100,000 several times, is enough. As long as they remain, the argument goes, the government will have to keep offering them concessions. Others, though, have worried that the tide may be turning against them in the rest of Cairo, punctuated as it is by complaints over a reeling economy and unease over the current uncertainty.

David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported from Cairo and Alan Cowell from Paris. Anthony Shadid, Mona el-Naggar, Thanassis Cambanis and Liam Stack contributed reporting in Cairo. 

This article “Egypt Details Reforms as Protest Takes on New Life” originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 08 February 2011 12:07