'Day of departure' ends with Mubarak still in power

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 4, 2011 

CAIRO — The protesters called it his "day of departure," but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak showed no overt sign of resigning Friday despite the hundreds of thousands who gathered in Tahrir Square for the 11th straight day to call for his removal.

Amid a beefed-up Egyptian army presence and few major clashes — unlike the previous days — the demonstrators called for three more days of mass anti-Mubarak rallies next week. The mood was upbeat at the square, where chants and nationalist songs echoed until well after nightfall from a huge, diverse crowd.

Young women in headscarves mingled with retirees walking with canes, pious Muslims with prayer marks on their foreheads and young men with bandaged heads who'd been wounded in the week's fighting.

A few hundred Mubarak supporters collected on the outskirts of the square in what the regime called a "day of loyalty," and some engaged in rock-throwing skirmishes with the demonstrators. But they never challenged the anti-government group's hold on the square as they did earlier this week in fighting that killed at least 11 people and injured more than 1,000.

President Barack Obama again called on Mubarak for a prompt transition to a new government after nearly three decades of rule. He said he'd told him in two phone calls since the crisis began that "going back to the old ways is not going to work" and urged him to leave "a legacy behind in which Egypt is able to get through this transformative period."

Obama said, "My understanding is that some discussions have begun" between the Egyptian government and the opposition. However, U.S. officials described the talks Thursday between Vice President Omar Suleiman and some opponents, overshadowed by the violence a day earlier, as unfruitful.

Another session may take place Saturday, with White House encouragement. The U.S. is seeking more than "an empty gesture of dialogue," said a U.S. official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Everyone is wrestling about how to get there."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke Friday with his Egyptian counterpart for the fourth time in 10 days — an indication of they key role Washington sees for Egypt's military.

While senior officials continued to state publicly that Mubarak would serve out the remainder of his term until elections scheduled for this fall, a onetime Mubarak confidant, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, drew loud applause when he briefly joined the demonstrators Friday. Moussa, who's that he understands the democracy movement's economic and political grievances, said he'd be ready to run for the presidency after Mubarak's term ends.

Also Friday, the spokesman for Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's most important educational institution, whose religious leader is appointed by the president, resigned to join the protests.

Several Egyptians in the square scoffed at Mubarak's comments Thursday night, when he told ABC News that he's "fed up" after so many years in public life but couldn't resign because it would result in chaos.

"We are the ones who are fed up," said Sara Gouda, a 20-year-old engineering student who came to the square with her father and three siblings. "We are tired of the poverty and the lack of educational standards."

Egyptian authorities extended a harsh crackdown on opponents and foreign observers. At least 16 human rights activists who were arrested Wednesday remained in detention, including staff members of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Protest organizers said that many of their colleagues had gone missing or were unreachable, and had no information on their whereabouts.

A day after government loyalists assaulted dozens of journalists and security forces detained several others for questioning, the news channel Al Jazeera, which the government has accused of inciting protesters, said its Cairo bureau was ransacked and burned by "a gang of thugs."

"It appears to be the latest attempt by the Egyptian regime or its supporters to hinder Al Jazeera's coverage of events in the country," the channel said in a statement.

The Egyptian government press center denied that authorities were behind the attacks, saying, "Regrettably, international journalists have been endangered by the same conditions that have threatened all Egyptians in areas of the country where there have been major disturbances and a breakdown of security."

The Egyptian army, after being criticized for doing little to rein in clashes earlier this week, posted soldiers around Tahrir ("Liberation") Square, checking cars and pedestrians for weapons and keeping a close watch alongside tanks and tangles of concertina wire. The demonstrators conducted stiffer security checks at all entrances to the square, inspecting ID cards and subjecting each person to several pat-downs.

Uniformed police again were nowhere in sight, and at one point a few hundred pro-Mubarak supporters marched along a divided road near the Egyptian Museum, where the two sides fought with stones and firebombs two days earlier. Along a parallel road, protesters saw the group and began banging sticks and metal shields to alert their comrades.

Within minutes, about 100 protesters had gathered on the opposite side of the road in a show of strength, running past their opponents chanting, "He must go!"

In Old Cairo, a tourist spot east of the square with an ancient bazaar, a group of armed men stopped a car carrying first-aid kits, water, juice boxes and other supplies for demonstrators and told the passengers not to go to the square, said one of the passengers, Mustafa Adel, 27. The men brandished knives and swords, Adel said, and were fraternizing with two uniformed police officers watching the scene.

The mob let the group go but seized their supplies. Outraged, Adel and his friends reported the incident to a military patrol, which retrieved the supplies with only a carton of juice missing.

"Even the soldiers said, 'You shouldn't be going there,'" Adel said.

The ongoing upheaval, which has paralyzed downtown Cairo for nearly two weeks, has begun to wear on some Egyptians. Hamada Hussein, 24, said he's no fan of Mubarak but that the mass revolt's disruption to Egyptian life was turning sympathizers against them, especially after the regime formed a new cabinet and pledged sweeping pro-democracy changes.

"You can't have revolution every day of the week," Hamada said. "People have to work."

(Special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed from Cairo. Margaret Talev contributed from Washington)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

Egyptian protestors bloodied and shaken but unmoved

Egypt's prime minister apologizes for violence in Cairo

Pro-Mubarak mob attacks protesters with stones, fire-bombs

A brief look at major players in Egypt's political crisis

Despite close contacts, U.S. in dark about Egypt military's views

Huge crowd demands Mubarak go in largest protest yet

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