Egypt protests grow again; government offers new compromises
In one of the largest demonstrations yet at Cairo’s vast Tahrir Square, boisterous crowds continued to press for the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, while officials offered another set of compromises to try to appease protesters.
Vice President Omar Suleiman said Tuesday that a pair of special committees would begin work immediately to bring about political reforms. A third committee, to be launched soon, will investigate the bloody clashes a week ago between anti-government protesters and Mubarak’s supporters, he said.
Suleiman said Mubarak had promised that the protesters — some of whom have been detained or arrested since the uprising began Jan. 25 — would not be punished.
“The president emphasized that the youth of Egypt deserve the appreciation of their country,” Suleiman said in a statement aired on state television. “And he issued his instructions that prevent their pursuit or restrictions on them or denial of their freedom of opinion and expression.”
The announcement included few specifics and seemed unlikely to satisfy the protesters, who are in their third week of nationwide demonstrations calling for nothing short of Mubarak’s immediate resignation. Mubarak, who has been in power for three decades, has refused to step down, though he did say he would not seek reelection this fall.
Suleiman said Mubarak would not resign immediately and that the government wanted the protests to end as soon as possible, according to the state news agency. He said the regime wanted dialogue to result in democratic reform.
Tuesday’s large protest turnout was seen as a rebuke to the government’s attempts at concessions, which fell well short of protesters’ demands. Estimates put the attendance in Cairo close to or higher than that of last week’s demonstrations, which peaked at an estimated 200,000 people. Google executive and Facebook activist Wael Ghonim briefly addressed the cheering crowd, a day after he was released from police custody.
Some protesters marched several blocks to the parliament building, to which the army previously had blocked access. It was a symbolic move in recognition of November’s parliamentary elections, which were marred by mass arrests, pressure on independent candidates, news media harassment and a boycott by some opposition groups.
Protesters have blamed the government for corruption, lack of economic opportunity for citizens and repression.
Hani Kamal, 23, a recent college graduate, was among those not particularly impressed by Suleiman’s announcement.
“He talked about investigating Wednesday’s events, which is good, but it’s not one of our main demands,” Kamal said. “They should start showing goodwill regarding our priorities, but they only want to do reforms according to the regime’s own convenience, not according to people’s demands.”
He said the protesters would wait to see what specific steps were proposed by the committee on constitutional amendments. But Kamal was less hopeful regarding talks between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group.
“That’s a joke, because those so-called opposition parties don’t represent the people anyway,” he said. “They were handpicked by the regime, and real opposition figures or the youth protesters were not invited for any talks.”
The crowd built steadily all day, and at sunset people were waiting in a line several blocks long to pass a security checkpoint at an entrance to the plaza. In the square, it was a cheerful, festive gathering that seemed more street fair than determined political insurrection.
Many protesters gaily waved Egyptian flags, and others wore hats, headbands or face paint in the flag’s colors.
“I want to change the future for my children,” said Mohamed Mohi Din, an unemployed agricultural engineer, who held his 14-month-old daughter, Gana, on his shoulder. “I want her to remember this time, when we became free.”
Nearby, a woman wearing a full veil clutched the hand of her 3-year-old son, Ahmed, who stood nervously at her side. “I want him to be an eyewitness to the uprising, and get used to being free,” she said, declining to give her name.
In other developments, the head of the public hospital in the southern city of Kharga confirmed that about 100 people were injured Monday night in clashes between residents and police. Several people were in critical condition.
The situation erupted after the city’s chief intelligence officer, angered by complaints against him, reportedly stormed a wedding with a group of police officers.
Residents responded by attacking the police station and courthouse and many were injured when authorities fired guns and tear gas to disperse them.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo Bureau. Times staff writers Timothy M. Phelps and Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.