Friday, February 4, 2011
Anti-government protesters massed again in central Cairo for what organizers billed as a "Friday of Departure" seeking to force out President Hosni Mubarak after two days of clashes with supporters of the regime.
The crowd that filled Tahrir Square for an 11th day of demonstrations was the biggest since Tuesday, when hundreds of thousands of people turned out. One man sitting in a wheelchair was lifted — wheelchair and all — over the heads of the demonstrators and he pumped his arms in the air. Thousands prostrated in noon prayers and immediately after uttering the prayer's concluding "God's peace and blessings be upon you," they began chanting their message to Mubarak: "Leave! Leave! Leave!"
The square was mostly calm Friday after 48 hours of violence between pro-and anti-Mubarak forces that battled with paving stones and shields fashioned out of sheet metal from a construction site. Doctors at the scene said at least 10 people were killed and more than 800 wounded in the fighting. Gangs backing Mubarak also attacked journalists and human rights activists across Cairo on Thursday, while others were detained by soldiers.
Soldiers from the army, which has ringed the square with barbed wire and armored personnel carriers, helped check I.D.s and perform body searches Friday to make sure weapons were kept out of the area. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported that people were required to pass through multiple checkpoints to enter the square.
"They are very, very thorough," said Garcia-Navarro, adding that the protesters are "very serious about wanting their protests to be peaceful and will only fight if they are attacked."
Many of the people who poured into Tahrir Square brought fresh bread, water, fruit and other supplies with them. Makeshift clinics had been set up in the entranceways of stores, including a KFC.
Protesters were hopeful that the "size and peaceful nature of the rally sends a clear signal to Mubarak and the rest of the world," NPR's Eric Westervelt reported from the square.
But after the violence of the past two days, anti-government demonstrators — some wearing hard hats — were taking no chances.
"In one area there's a catapult. In another area, they're using it as an armory, stashing rocks and putting them into containers so that they'll have stuff ready in case clashes break out again," Garcia-Navarro said.
Ahmed Ibrahim, a 32-year-old engineer, told NPR that the preparations were for defense against Mubarak's "criminals." He dismissed rumors that the protesters planned to march to the presidential palace to demand the removal of Mubarak.
"They want us to move from the square, but we will not do that," he said.
Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi and senior army officials visited the square Friday morning in what many anti-Mubarak protesters interpreted as a tacit endorsement of their movement.
"The army and people are united," many in the crowd chanted after an announcement over loudspeakers that the minister was in the square.
But the army's sympathies — whether to the Mubarak regime or the protesters — has been a "wildcard" in protests, Garcia-Navarro said. Soldiers stood aside as pro-government gangs attacked the protesters only to step between the rival factions later in an apparent effort to protect them.
The pro-Mubarak crowds that have attacked demonstrators and foreign journalists did not have a visible presence Friday.
Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate who is a member of a new committee formed by various factions to conduct any future negotiations on the protesters' behalf once Mubarak steps down, said that he hopes the demonstration "leads to Mubarak's departure."
Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with a heavy hand for three decades, insists he will serve out the remaining seven months of his term. In an interview with ABC News on Thursday, Mubarak said he wants to step down but that doing so would spark chaos, and he vowed not to leave Egypt.
U.S. and European officials have stepped up pressure for Mubarak to step down immediately. The Obama administration said it was in talks with top Egyptian officials about the possibility of Mubarak resigning and an interim government forming before free and fair elections this year.
Prominent Egyptian reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei has said Mubarak should step down now. The Nobel Peace laureate, who has become one of the leaders of Egypt's protest movement, said the Egyptian president "should hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity."
He told reporters Friday that there should be a yearlong transition to democracy under a temporary constitution with a presidential council of several people, including a military representative. During that year, a permanent constitution would be drawn up to guarantee freedom to form political parties — currently highly restricted — and other freedoms, and then elections could be held.
NPR's Garcia-Navarro was at ElBaradei's house Thursday and said she observed "various envoys from the European embassies arriving and leaving — there are definitely negotiations going on."
But the question of what would follow a Mubarak regime has worried many both inside and outside of Egypt. Garcia-Navarro said one such group is Coptic Christians, who have flourished under Mubarak in an otherwise predominantly Muslim country.
In a possible effort to up the ante should the current regime edge toward a quick collapse, Vice President Omar Suleiman said Thursday that he had invited the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood into negotiations over Egypt's future. The Islamic organization is officially outlawed and has been ruthlessly suppressed by Mubarak.
After keeping a low profile for the first several days of protests, members of the Muslim Brotherhood — distinguishable by their close-cropped beards — have begun to dominate the protesters' front lines, often lining up to pray for "victory or martyrdom," before throwing themselves into the fray, hurling stones, sticks and firebombs at the attackers while shouting, "God is great."
The editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's website told the AP that policemen stormed its office Friday morning and arrested 10 to 15 of its journalists. Abdel Galil el-Sharnoubi said that the website was also being blocked.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news agency, whose coverage is widely viewed in the Arab world and elsewhere, said Friday that its office in Cairo also had been stormed by "gangs of thugs."
The news agency said in a statement that the attack on its operations "appears to be the latest attempt by the Egyptian regime or its supporters to hinder Al-Jazeera's coverage of events in the country." Al-Jazeera's Egyptian bureau has been forcibly closed and several of its reporters briefly detained.
Protesters say Mubarak's government has been revealed as extremely corrupt and that he has no alternative but to leave.
Anti-government demonstrator Fareed Ahmed dismissed Mubarak's prediction that Egypt would fall into chaos or undergo an Islamist revolution similar to Iran's if his government fell
"He is only saying this to frighten all the Europe countries and USA," Ahmed told NPR. "It is not like this."
NPR's Corey Flintoff, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Eric Westervelt reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.