ElBaradei: What we have begun can't be reversed

Egyptian opposition figure addresses crowds; Muslim Brotherhood gives ElBaradei its support, gives him mandate to negotiate unity gov't; police to return to Cairo's streets; fighter jets buzz Cairo; death toll at 97.

Mohamed ElBaradei speaking bullhorn 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Mohamed ElBaradei speaking bullhorn 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
CAIRO — Egypt's most prominent democracy advocate took up a bullhorn Sunday to call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to go, speaking to thousands of protesters who defied a third night of curfew to mass in the capital's main square. Fighter jets streaked low overhead and police returned to the streets as Egypt's government tried to show its authority over a situation spiraling out of control.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei addressed the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where up to 10,000 protesters gathered during the day. Even when he spoke hours after the 4 p.m. curfew, they numbered in the thousands, including families with young children, addressing Mubarak with their chants of "Leave, leave, leave."
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"You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future," ElBaradei told supporters. "Our essential demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which every Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity."
ElBaradei said: "They stole our freedom, and what we have begun cannot be reversed. As we mentioned before," he added, "we have a key demand, for the regime to step down and to start a new era."
In a further sign of Mubarak's teetering position, his top ally the United States called for an "orderly transition to democracy."
Asked if Washington supports Mubarak as Egypt's leader, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton avoided a direct answer, telling Fox News in an interview, "We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy, and we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about."
Now in their sixth day, the protests have come to be centered in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, where demonstrators have camped out since Friday despite the curfew, which officials announced would be moved up to 3 p.m. starting Monday. Protesters have shrugged off Mubarak's gestures of reform, including the sacking of his Cabinet and the appointment of a vice president and a new prime minister — both seen as figures from the heart of his regime.
The military was taking the lead in restoring order after police virtually vanished from the streets on Friday without explanation after initially clashing with protesters. The disappearance of the police opened the door for a wave of looting, armed robberies and arson in cities around the country.
The anarchy was further fueled when gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, freeing hundreds of criminals and Muslim militants. Gangs of young men with guns and large sticks smashed cars and robbed people in Cairo.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated that the actual toll was far higher.
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The military, which enjoys far greater support among the public than the police, fanned out in tanks and armored vehicles around the city starting Sunday morning. At Tahrir Square, they appeared to cooperate with protesters in keeping the demonstrations orderly, and there were many scenes of affection between soldiers and protesters, who allowed troops to use their mobile phones to call home or offered them cigarettes.
"I am glad they are continuing to protest. God willing, he (Mubarak) will go," said one Air Force captain in uniform who drove by the edge of the square.
One banner held by protesters summed up the dilemma facing the military, proclaiming, "The army must chose between Egypt and Mubarak."
Minutes before the start of the curfew, at least two jets roared over the Nile, making several passes over the square, dropping lower every time and setting off alarms in parked cars. Some protesters clapped and waved to them while others jeered.
Police on Sunday began reasserting their presence, moving back into some Cairo neighborhoods. In some spots, they were jeered by residents who chanted anti-police slogans.
Egyptian Interior Minister Habib al-Adly said he was ordering security forces to return to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere to work in tandem with army troops to restore order.
"It is necessary that the police role is quickly restored and that there should be cooperation in the field with the armed forces ... to defend the presence and future of the nation."
The police move could put an end to lawlessness and looting, which stunned many Cairenes and which the military struggled to control. But it could also lead to renewed clashes with protesters, among whom hatred of the black-garbed security forces runs deep — though it appeared the police would not be deployed in Tahrir Square.
In a sign of the distrust, many protesters were convinced the police intentionally allowed the looting in an attempt to spread chaos that would undermine the political demonstrations.
"Those people who are looting are from the police, they want to scare us and make us stay home and not participate in the demonstrations," said Walid Ambar, an engineer who joined the crowds in Tahrir along with his 2-year-old son and pregnant wife. "This is a campaign to scare us. But I came here to join the demonstration and I will not leave until Mubarak leaves."
In a bid to show he remained in control, the 82-year-old Mubarak met with his defense minister and Omar Suleiman, the military intelligence chief whom he named as vice president over the weekend, to review the security situation. Later Sunday, a tired looking Mubarak was shown on state TV conferring with Suleiman and the new prime minister-designate Ahmed Shafiq, like Mubarak a former air force officer.