Mubarak won't seek re-election, but will that be enough?

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2011 

CAIRO — Faced with an unprecedented popular revolt that drew record crowds of protesters to downtown Cairo Tuesday, U.S.-backed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he'd step down before elections this fall, a humbling end to his 30 years of authoritarian rule.

"I will say, with all honesty and without looking at this particular situation, that I was not intending to stand for the next elections because I've spent enough time serving Egypt," Mubarak said in a televised speech. "I'm now careful to conclude my work for Egypt by presenting Egypt to the next government in a constitutional way."

Mubarak acted after President Barack Obama sent a special envoy to Cairo, urging him not to seek re-election, and following calls from Turkey and Iran that he step down.

Obama later telephoned Mubarak, and in a "direct and frank" 30-minute conversation, told him an orderly transition to a new regime had to begin immediately, the White House said. In a nationally televised appearance, Obama all but ignored Mubarak's announcement, declaring that "an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and must begin now."

Initial reaction was mostly negative among protesters in Tahrir Square, where earlier Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians — more than a million by some estimates — staged a festive rally to demand the president's ouster. "He's leaving! He's leaving!" some protesters shouted gleefully. More than an hour after he spoke, however, chants continued to echo from Tahrir Square as protestors vowed to keep flooding Egypt's streets until Mubarak heeded their demand to resign immediately.

"We have only one condition: We need Mubarak to be out of our lives," said Mostafa Fathy, 28, an online journalist and activist. "He's supposed to be out of the game now."

The 82-year-old Mubarak appeared to make some concessions to the protesters, saying there should be presidential term limits and fewer restrictions on who can run for public office. But he didn't dissolve parliament, which is filled almost completely with members of his ruling party.

All day long, protesters had chanted, "Leave!" It came from the mouths of children draped in the Egyptian flag, bearded clerics in turbans, teenagers dancing to a drumbeat and elderly women with tears in their eyes. Long before the president's speech, cameras flashed and video recorders rolled as the protesters documented what they hoped would go down in Egyptian history as the end of Mubarak's regime.

"In my whole life, I've never known another president, and suddenly I can't imagine how he can stay for even one more day," said Tasneem Osman, 26. "He has to go. He will go."

Before Mubarak's appearance around 11 p.m., state TV stations mostly ignored the crowds in the square, instead airing call-in shows with government supporters and dismissing independent news coverage as tainted by foreign interests. The government's intense pressure on the protesters continued: an Internet shutdown, spotty phone service, a nationwide curfew, shuttered banks, no trains from other provinces and a crackdown on journalists.

Despite the obstacles, this week-old rebellion with no clearly defined leadership drew massive crowds in an atmosphere that was peaceful and jubilant well into the night. Young protesters made up chants like freestyle rappers, playing with puns and rhymes. Placards depicted Mubarak as Hitler or with devilish horns. An effigy of the president dangled from a noose tied to a traffic light.

"The people said it clearly: they want a new democratic regime and this regime has lost its legitimacy," opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei told Al Jazeera television. "I would have liked that President Mubarak would listen to the sounds of the millions that went out today."

Even without Mubarak's immediate ouster, the movement has achieved in a week something opposition groups have attempted in vain for decades. Mubarak was forced to name his first-ever vice president, the former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Habib el Adly, the interior minister who was detested for the alleged brutality of his police force, was unceremoniously sacked.

A young boy was perched on a man's shoulders, waving an Egyptian flag as he yelled a chant aimed at Suleiman. The newly appointed vice president is a strong contender for interim leadership should Mubarak leave sooner.

"We don't need America's man. Omar Suleiman, leave the country!" the boy shouted. More than a dozen adult protesters chanted along with him, cheering and snapping photos.

The anti-government movement has steadily grown more defiant — and more disciplined. While military tanks hung back on the outskirts of the square, citizen volunteers checked IDs and searched Egyptians streaming into the square. In the middle of the frenzy, ordinary people were collecting trash — a rare sight in Egypt even when the country is not in turmoil.

"I came for the liberation of my country," said Yahya Zakaria, 29, slight man with sunken cheeks who took a bus several hundred miles from southern Egypt to Cairo to participate in the Jan. 25 protest, the first major rally. He's been camping in the square ever since, and on Tuesday he picked up garbage.

Zakaria's voice was hoarse from chanting slogans such as, "Mubarak, you are cheap; Egypt is worth more than you!" He needed a change of clothes, but he seemed convinced that the only president he's ever known was on his way out.

"Before, I didn't love my country," he said. "Now I love my country a lot."

Reports that demonstrators would march en masse nearly eight miles from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace didn't materialize. At midday, cranes were laying stone roadblocks outside the palace gates and Mubarak's presidential guard forces had posted tanks to block the roads.

Activists said that they'd decided such a huge crowd marching such a long distance was unwieldy and could put them in conflict with the Egyptian army, which is deployed throughout Cairo but so far has allowed the demonstrations to carry on mostly unfettered.

"We didn't want to clash with anyone, and we wanted to avoid thugs or police that might have put some traps for us," said Ahmed Salah, an activist with the April 6 youth movement, a pro-democracy group.

Some in the crowd greeted Mubarak's announcement with satisfaction. Moataz Shalaby, 27, a real-estate salesman who brought a "Mubarak, Get Out" sign to the square Tuesday afternoon, said after the speech that at least Egyptians had the end of the Mubarak era in sight.

He said he would have been happier if Mubarak said he'd dissolve the parliament after his ruling National Democratic Party won 97 percent of the seats in November elections that were widely described as rigged.

"The problem is the system of that party," Shalaby said. "All of them follow the same management school, so we need another school, another system, another everything."

(McClatchy special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this article from Cairo.)

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