Protests Swell in Rejection of Egypt's Limited Reforms

Tuesday, 08 February 2011 17:35 By Alan Cowell, Kareem Fahim and David D Kirkpatrick, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Cairo - With a new wave of demonstrations in Tahrir Square on Tuesday — by some measures the largest anti-government protests in the two-week uprising — Egyptians loudly rejected their government's approach to political change and renewed their demands for the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

In a telephone call, Vice President Joseph R. Biden pressed his Egyptian counterpart, Omar Suleiman, to lift the 30-year emergency law that the government has used to suppress and imprison opposition leaders, to stop locking and beating up protesters and journalists and to invite demonstrators to help develop a specific timetable for opening up the political process. He also asked Mr. Suleiman to open talks on Egypt's political future to a wider range of opposition members.

In a daily battle for momentum, the government made fresh pledges to create committees to study proposed democratic openings, but demonstrators came out in force to insist that they wanted more than an evolutionary plan by the existing authorities. And the protesters extended their range on Tuesday, with thousands storming the gates of Parliament demanding that it be dissolved.

With many ordinary Egyptians beginning to complain about the economic toll of the protests, the government may still have advantages as the standoff becomes protracted. But many younger people are wary of losing the grass-roots fervor that has brought Egypt to the precipice of historic change.

The latest wave of dissent was inspired in part by an emotional television interview Monday night with a young Google executive Wael Ghonim, after his release from secret detention. Mr. Ghonim had been a quiet force behind the YouTube and Facebook promotion of the protests, but became a symbol after he disappeared nearly two weeks ago. He became an instant icon Monday when the interview was broadcast on an Egyptian satellite channel, telling his story of detention and continued hope for change that resonated deeply with the demonstrators' demands for more fundamental shifts and their outrage over repression.

In the interview, Mr. Ghonim wept over the death toll from clashes with the government. "We were all down there for peaceful demonstrations," he said, asking that he not be made a hero. "The heroes were the ones on the street."

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Ghonim galvanized Tahrir Square, briefly joining the tens of thousands of chanting protesters there. "We will not abandon our demand, and that is the departure of the regime," he told the crowd, which roared its agreement, The Associated Press reported.

State television responded Tuesday with an appearance by Vice President Omar Suleiman offering soothing messages of respect and reform that Mr. Suleiman said came from Mr. Mubarak himself.

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

Mr. Mubarak named the panel that will recommend constitutional amendments, and endorsed other moves to create a timetable for a "peaceful and organized transfer of power," Mr. Suleiman said. Another panel will begin work to progress on other measures Mr. Suleiman announced after meeting with opposition members on Sunday.

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

After demonstrating their ability to bring hundreds of thousands to downtown Cairo, protest organizers have sought this week to broaden their movement, 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.

"The government wanted to say that life was returning to normal," said Mahmoud Mustafa, a 25-year-old protester standing in front of Parliament. "We're saying it's not."

Some protesters handed out spoof copies of the official Al Ahram newspaper with the headline: "From the people of Tahrir, Mubarak must go." Substantial protests were seen in Alexandria, as well.

While some demonstrators had urged a general strike on Tuesday, there was little indication that the call had been heeded, or widely broadcast, in the capital, where many people live from day to day on low wages. An Egyptian state newspaper, Al Ahram, acknowledged scattered reports of walk-outs in Suez and other cities, including a sit-in by as many as 6,000 workers from the Suez Canal Authority.

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.

Underscoring 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."

Normalcy had begun returning to parts of Cairo on Monday. Chronic traffic jams resumed as the city adapted to both the sprawling protests in Tahrir Square, a landmark of downtown Cairo, and the tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers out in the streets. People lined up at banks and returned to shops.

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.

Human Rights Watch calculated that at least 297 people have died in the protests since Jan. 28, including 232 in Cairo, 52 in Alexandria and 13 in Suez. The majority of those deaths occurred on Jan. 28 and 29 as a result of live gunfire, the group reported, relying on hospital lists and interviews with doctors.

In one harrowing raid, the government arrested 30 human rights activists, but released them by Sunday morning. Fighting still flared in the Sinai Peninsula, where Bedouins, long treated as second-class citizens, have fought Egyptian security forces for weeks.

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 "As Egypt Protest Swells,U.S. Sends Specific Demands" originally appeared at The New York Times.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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Last modified on Wednesday, 09 February 2011 07:50