Egypt protests gather strength as army vows to hold its fire
The push to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak veered toward a pivotal confrontation as organizers appealed for a million compatriots to flood the streets of Cairo on Tuesday and brushed aside the appointment of new government ministers as meaningless.
The rallying call for a massive protest march was issued as the largest crowds yet thronged iconic Tahrir, or Liberation, Square in the heart of the capital. The action could force Egypt’s powerful army to choose sides: Either take violent measures to quell the unrest, or acknowledge through inaction that anti-Mubarak passions have become too great to contain.
The army said in a statement late Monday that it would not fire on demonstrators, echoing previous statements of solidarity with the Egyptian people. But it also said it would start enforcing a curfew more stringently and urged protesters to refrain from acts of “sabotage.”
Uniformed police, whose heavy-handed tactics against demonstrations were in keeping with a long history of repression, were redeployed across much of the capital, heightening the possibility of violence. They did not take up positions in Tahrir Square.
The disappearance of police from the streets over the weekend had triggered a wave of looting, but also brought a measure of equilibrium. Security control was ceded to the army, a conscript force that is one of the country’s most revered institutions.
As they have for several days, crowds ignored a 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew, roaring chants into the chilly night air as they spilled beyond the boundaries of the sprawling central plaza.
“Previously, we had seven demands,” said organizer Hussein Abdul Fatah, ticking off a wish list of reforms. “Now we only have one: Mubarak must go!”
The Egyptian leader’s autocratic 30-year tenure is the only rule many of the younger protesters have ever known. But the demonstrators are drawn from across the age and political spectrums, forging unlikely alliances between Muslim hard-liners and liberal social activists.
Although mass rallies have been largely confined to the square, organizers said they intended to use the plaza as a starting point for a march Tuesday in the direction of the presidential palace, perhaps bearing the bodies of some of the more than 100 people killed in the week’s violence.
Alarmed by calls for people to come to Cairo from the provinces to participate in the march, authorities announced that nationwide train service during curfew hours and domestic flights would be suspended. News reports quoted Information Ministry officials as saying that Internet and cellphone traffic would be shut down before the march.
In some parts of the city, Monday brought somewhat of a return to normality, at least during the noncurfew hours. Previously thin traffic roared back to life, though it was blocked from large swaths of the city center. Shops outside the city center were open, but a run on food supplies continued and customers searched in vain for staples such as bread.
The 82-year-old Mubarak has remained largely out of sight. On Monday, his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, said in a televised speech that he had been directed to open a dialogue with opposition groups.
Suleiman said the government was looking into constitutional reform, taking measures to tackle poverty and investigate the results of an election last year that strengthened the hold of the ruling National Democratic Party. Human rights groups said the election was rife with irregularities. Many Egyptians considered the balloting rigged and didn’t vote.
Mubarak reshuffled his Cabinet on Monday but retained stalwarts in many key positions. The most significant of the moves was the dropping of his much-reviled interior minister, Habib Adly, but his replacement with another senior law enforcement figure, Mahmoud Wagdy, did little to appease the protesters.
In Washington, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a podcast to the U.S. military made public Monday that the Egyptian military had handled itself “exceptionally well.” U.S. officials said it would probably be impossible to continue the $1.3 billion in military aid that Egypt has received annually from the U.S. if there was a violent crackdown.
The Obama administration also signaled that it would support inclusion of groups such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood in a new Egyptian government.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mubarak’s Cabinet shake-up was insufficient to meet the demands of protesters, adding that Egypt’s discord calls for action, not appointments.
Israeli officials also were concerned. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed fear that Islamic radicals could take advantage of a leadership vacuum. Egypt was the first country in the region to make peace with Israel under a 1979 accord, and Mubarak, who came to power after Islamic radicals angered by that treaty assassinated President Anwar Sadat, has maintained a stable relationship with Israel throughout his rule.
Suleiman’s pledge to consider reforming the constitution appeared to be a response to demands by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has come to symbolize the opposition to Mubarak.
The flight of foreigners from Egypt, meanwhile, began taking on the proportions of a biblical exodus, as chaotic scenes played out at Cairo’s international airport. Governments of more than a dozen countries including the United States began evacuation airlifts, but it could take days to clear the backlog of tourists and foreign residents who fear even greater instability.
In a token of the disarray in Egypt, which is the Arab world’s most populous and influential state, Iraq was among the countries flying out its nationals.
Fikr Hassan, a 19-year-old from Malaysia who had come to the port city of Alexandria to study medicine, said he had slept four nights at the airport, hoping for a flight out. Bleary-eyed and unshaven, he was trying to push his way into a terminal to buy a ticket. “Maybe I’ll sleep a whole year here,” he said.
At the State Department, spokesman Philip J. Crowley said that about 1,200 U.S. citizens were evacuated from Egypt on nine flights Monday, and that at least six more government-organized airlifts were planned for Tuesday.
Economic fallout stemming from the crisis worsened as Egyptian banks and the stock exchange remained closed and large-scale commercial activity ground to a near-halt. The international fiscal-rating group Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Egypt’s government bonds, citing a shift in outlook that had turned from stable to negative, and the lucrative tourist trade is taking a heavy hit.
Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. shut its office in Egypt and said it wouldn’t resume operations there until the security situation improved. The only U.S. air carrier with direct flights to Egypt, Delta Air Lines, has also indefinitely suspended service because of the unrest.
Despite the widespread desire to shake off Mubarak’s rule, the strain of a week of disrupted lives was showing.
At Kasr el-Einy hospital, only blocks from Tahrir Square, Dr. Nasheh Abed was hollow-eyed and weary. “I haven’t been home in 48 hours,” she said. “We are working day and night. We are exhausted. I hope this story’s end is coming soon.”
In the square, the mood ricocheted between exuberance and trepidation. “Mubarak burned this country and gave it over to thieves,” read a sign held by an angry-looking man.
Another protester took a more lighthearted approach.
“Leave!” the man’s placard read. “My arms are tired of holding up this sign.”
Times staff writers Edmund Sanders, Ned Parker and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, David S. Cloud in Washington and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.