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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egyptians pack Liberation Square as protests gather more steam

Cairo, Egypt  -- Egypt teetered on a political precipice Tuesday as people fed up with their government amassed for a "march of millions" and vowed not to leave Cairo's central square until President Hosni Mubarak steps down.
A week of uprising, sometimes violent, took on the tones of revolution in the Arab world's most populous nation and the world watched, amazed at the possibility of emboldened popular discontent sparking change in the authoritarian state.
By afternoon, tens of thousands of demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in Cairo's Tahrir Square. In Arabic, the name means liberation. Never did it seem more true.
Tuesday's demonstrations were greater in intensity but largely peaceful, though no one can say with any certainty what will come next; whether another decisive show of people power will result in change or lead to repression.
There was an air of jubilation in Tahrir Square, as though the government was sure to cave. But the reality is that Mubarak has, thus far, refused to give.

Helicopters hovered. Soldiers stood guard with their guns at key locations.
The Interior Ministry had announced it would shut down mobile phone networks in preparation for Tuesday's protests. But some cell phone service was still available Tuesday afternoon.
Banks and schools were shuttered and ATM screens were dark. Gas stations ran out of fuel. Long lines snaked around bakeries and supermarkets as shops began to ration how much food customers could buy.
State television reported Monday that the crisis has cost the country an estimated 69 billion Egyptian pounds (nearly $12 billion) and set its economy back six months.
Egypt's new finance minister, Samir Radwan, announced Tuesday that salaries would be disbursed through banks' automatic teller machines and owners of vandalized businesses would be compensated.
The internet was still down as Egyptians, despite the hardships, voiced their determination to carry on. They defied again a 3 p.m. curfew to demand that Mubarak step down.
Protesters set up their own checkpoints to keep weapons out of Tahrir Square.
The Egyptian army issued a statement thanking "all the citizens and the youth for working with their armed forces to protect public and private property."
The demonstrations turned ugly last Friday when thousands of riot and plainclothes police used brutal force to crack down on people on the streets. Since then, the army has replaced police as the enforcers of security and the gatherings have been largely peaceful.
Unconfirmed reports suggest up to 300 people may have been killed during the protests, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Tuesday. CNN has not been able to independently confirm the death toll. Human Rights Watch has reported 80 deaths from two hospitals in Cairo, 36 in Alexandria and 13 in Suez.
"I urge the Egyptian authorities to ensure police and other security forces scrupulously avoid excessive use of force, and there needs to be a full investigation into the role of security forces in the violence that occurred over the past few days," Pillay said in a statement.
Amid the swirling tension, hope blossomed in the hearts of millions of Egyptians, many of whom have never dared to harbor such sentiment before.
Amr Badr, a young doctor, optimistically said his voice was important and that it "is going to be heard after today."

"This is our Egypt," Badr said with the conviction that the nation would be returned to people who, for three decades, have known nothing other than the iron hand of Mubarak.
People flooded into the square, bringing food and beverages to share. Some even set up tents to spend the night.
Patriotic music blared amid chants of "Down with Mubarak."
Scattered pro-Mubarak camps tried to defend the Egyptian leader. "No to the traitors," said one group of supporters making their way to the heart of the protests.
Inside the square, some protesters suggested marching toward Mubarak's presidential palace.
One said, "Mubarak may have thick skin, but we have sharper nails."
It will be "a very dramatic and perhaps even a decisive day," said Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former U.S. undersecretary of state.
"If the military cracks down on peaceful demonstrators on the streets of Alexandria or Cairo, that will be a decisive factor," he said.
The military had said Monday evening that it would not open fire on peaceful protesters.
Mubarak, now 82, imposed an emergency decree after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat and since then, has ruled accordingly. The wave of protests against his regime erupted after the uprising in Tunisia that ousted its longtime strongman January 14.
 
In recent days, protests inspired by the Tunisian outcome have spread to Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Sudan. A Facebook page urged similar demonstrations in Syria.
In Jordan, calls for political reform prompted King Abdullah II Tuesday to dismiss his government and appoint a new prime minister.
The protesters are calling for democratization -- for a government that they feel represents them. They want an end to what they complain is a corrupt regime. Some have even called for government leaders to stand trial for alleged criminal actions.
Egyptian opposition leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei told CNN that Mubarak must step down within two weeks.
Margaret Scobey, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, met Tuesday with ElBaradei and will be speaking with leaders of other political movements, a senior State Department official said. The official cautioned that Scobey's talks with ElBaradei doesn't mean the United States favors him.
A joint statement issued Tuesday by a so-called coalition of six political parties, including the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood, laid out five demands for the government:
-- The resignation of Mubarak, whose presidency the opposition groups call illegitimate after a week of protests.
-- The formation of a transitional government to calm the unrest.
-- The establishment of a committee that will create a new constitution for the country, one that "will guarantee the principle of equality and the circulation of power."
-- The dissolution of parliamentary councils in the wake of "forged" elections.
-- The use of the military "to protect the country according to the constitution."
Mubarak fired his Cabinet on Saturday and designated his longtime intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president, the first time he has filled that post since he came to power in 1981.
Suleiman announced Monday that he had begun discussing reform with opposition parties. Speaking on the state television network, he said a reform package should be drawn up "expeditiously."
"The other parties will also have a role to play, which will lead to real political reform," Suleiman said.
But there were no details about what proposals might be on the table or which parties were taking part.
Meanwhile, foreigners have started streaming out of Egypt. The U.S. State Department said 1,200 Americans have been evacuated and the British carrier BMI was organizing an extra flight to get 124 passengers out Tuesday. Other countries including China, India, Thailand and Australia were attempting to get stranded citizens out of Egypt.
Much of the Egyptian anger is driven by economic woes, including a dramatic rise in the cost of living coupled with high unemployment. Despite the government's food subsidies, people are struggling.
Egypt's economy was stagnant for decades, but in the past 10 years it began to grow, creating bigger differences between rich and poor, said Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan.
The majority of Egypt's population is under 30 -- as is the vast majority of its unemployed. Many in the crowd are young men looking for economic opportunities and a better life.

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