CAIRO – A coalition of opposition groups called for a Million Man March in the Egyptian capital’s streets on Tuesday to demand the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, in the clearest sign yet that a unified leadership might be emerging for the powerful but disparate protest movement.
The Egyptian military said on Monday night it recognized “the legitimacy of the people’s demands” and promised to guarantee “freedom of expression” ahead of the planned escalation of the country’s week-old anti-government protests.
PM fears Egypt will fall into hands of Islamic radicals
EU urges Egypt: Seek peaceful shift to democracy
Peres: Israel has great respect for Egyptian president
Mubarak swears in new cabinet as protests continue
A military spokesman, Ismail Etman, appeared on state TV saying the army “has not and will not use force” against protesters, although he urged them not to commit acts that harm security or damage property, and did not specify whether the military considered the demands for Mubarak’s removal legitimate.
The statement was the strongest indication to date that the military would allow the protests to continue and even grow, as long as they are peaceful.
Monday’s one-week anniversary of the protests, which have effectively shut down Cairo, revealed strains among the capital’s poor, although demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the central Cairo plaza that has become the protests’ epicenter, showed no signs of diminishing in numbers or enthusiasm.
“We will continue like this for another week!” an ebullient stock market trader named Redi said at a protest on Monday night. He said he felt the confidence of the demonstrators was increasing with each day.
Monday night’s protest was significantly larger than the demonstrations on Sunday, due partially to everyone’s need to recover from the violent clashes on Saturday.
In an apparent attempt to defuse the weeklong political upheaval, Mubarak named a new government on Monday – dropping his interior minister, who is in charge of security forces and whom protesters have denounced for the brutality of police. But the lineup was greeted with scorn in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, with crowds of more than 10,000 chanting for Mubarak’s ouster.
“We don’t want life to go back to normal until Mubarak leaves,” said Israa Abdel-Fattah, a founder of the April 6 Group, a movement of young people pushing for democratic reform.
Another concession came later Monday night, when Vice President Omar Suleiman – who was appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier – went on state TV to announce that the president had tasked him to immediately begin dialogue with “political forces” for constitutional and legislative reforms.
Suleiman, a longtime Mubarak confidant, did not say what the changes would entail or which groups the government would speak with. Opposition forces have long demanded a lifting of strict restrictions on who is eligible to run for president, to allow a real challenge to the ruling party, as well as measures to ensure elections are fair. A presidential election is scheduled for September.
The mood in Tahrir Square, which has been surrounded by army tanks and barbed wire, was celebratory and determined on Monday as more protesters filtered in to join what has turned into a continual encampment despite the fourth day of a curfew that has been moved up an hour, to 3 p.m. Some protesters played music while others distributed dates and other food to their colleagues or watched the latest news on TVs set up on sidewalks.
Young men climbed lamp posts to hang Egyptian flags and signs proclaiming “Leave, Mubarak!” One poster featured Mubarak’s face plastered with a Hitler mustache, a sign of the deep resentment toward the 82- year-old leader being blamed for widespread poverty, inflation and official indifference and brutality during his three decades in power.
Looting that erupted over the weekend across the city of some 18 million eased – but Egyptians endured another day of the near-complete halt to normal life. Trains stopped running on Monday, raising the possibility that authorities were trying to prevent residents of the periphery from joining the protests.
Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the second working day, making cash tight. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet was in its fourth day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread.
Cairo’s international airport was a scene of chaos and confusion as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest, and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual figure was far higher.
Mubarak’s naming of a new cabinet appeared to be aimed at showing the regime is willing to an extent to listen to the popular anger. The most significant change was the replacement of Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who headed internal security forces. A retired police general, Mahmoud Wagdi, will replace him.
Of the 29-member cabinet, 14 were new faces, most of them from outside the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party. Among those purged were several prominent businessmen who engineered the country’s economic liberalization of the past decades. Many Egyptians resented the influence of millionaire politician-moguls who were close allies of the president’s son Gamal Mubarak, long thought to be his father’s heir-apparent.
The elder Mubarak retained his long serving defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
State newspapers on Monday published a sternly worded letter from Mubarak to his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, ordering him to move swiftly to introduce political, legislative and constitutional reforms and pursue economic policies that will improve people’s lives.
But as news of the new government reached Tahrir Square, many of the protesters renewed chants of “We want the fall of this regime.”
Mostafa el-Naggar, a member of the Association for Change, which backs opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, said he would not recognize any decisions Mubarak made after January 25, the first day of the protests, which came in the wake of the popular uprising in Tunisia earlier in the month.
“This is a failed attempt,” Naggar said of the new government. “He is done with.”
If Egypt’s opposition groups are able to coalesce, it could sustain and amplify the momentum of the protests. But unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the unrest, which include students, online activists, grassroots organizers, oldschool opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens drawn by the exhilaration of marching against the government.
With sometimes conflicting agendas, it was not clear how much the groups that met on Monday spoke for everyone.
The gathering of around 30 representatives, meeting in Cairo’s Dokki district, agreed to work as a united coalition and supported a call for a Million Man March to turn out on Tuesday, said Abu’l-Ela Madi, spokesman for al- Wasat, a moderate breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet they disagreed on other key points.
The representatives decided to meet again on Tuesday morning at the downtown Cairo headquarters of Wafd, the oldest legal opposition party, to finalize and announce a list of demands.
According to Madi, they will also decide whether to make ElBaradei, a prominent advocate of reform and a former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, the spokesman for the protesters.
Afterwards, they will march to Tahrir Square to demand Mubarak’s ouster.
The coalition also called for a general strike on Monday, although much of Cairo was already shut down, with government offices and private businesses closed.
The protesters are united by little except the demand that the president go. Perhaps the most significant tensions are between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The more secular among the protesters are deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood, believing it aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement.
ElBaradei invigorated already-existing anti-Mubarak feelings with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains the country’s largest opposition movement.
In a nod to the suspicions, Brotherhood figures insisted they were not seeking a leadership role.
“We don’t want to harm this revolution,” said Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a former leader of the group.
Still, members of the Brotherhood appeared to be joining the protests in greater numbers and more openly. During the first few days, the crowd in Tahrir Square was composed of mostly young men in jeans and T-shirts. But more recently, many of the volunteers handing out food and water to protesters have been men with the Brotherhood trademark – closely cropped hair and bushy beards.