More than a quarter-million people flooded Cairo’s main square Tuesday in a jubilant array of young and old, urban poor and middle class professionals, mounting by far the largest protest yet in a week of unrelenting demands for President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.
The crowds — determined but peaceful — filled Tahrir, or Liberation, Square and spilled into nearby streets, among them people defying a government transportation shutdown to make their way from rural provinces. Protesters jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, with schoolteachers, farmers, unemployed university graduates, women in conservative headscarves and women in high heels, men in suits and working-class men in scuffed shoes.
They sang nationalist songs, danced, beat drums and chanted the anti-Mubarak slogan “Leave! Leave! Leave!” as military helicopters buzzed overhead. Organizers said the aim was to intensify marches to get the president out of power by Friday, and similar demonstrations erupted in at least five other cities around Egypt.
Soldiers at checkpoints set up at the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.
The military promised on state TV Monday night that it would not fire on protesters answering a call for a million to demonstrate, a sign that army support for Mubarak may be unraveling as momentum builds for an extraordinary eruption of discontent and demands for democracy in the United States’ most important Arab ally.
“This is the end for him. It’s time,” said Musab Galal, a 23-year-old unemployed university graduate who came by minibus with his friends from the Nile Delta city of Menoufiya, 40 miles north of Cairo.
Mubarak, 82, would be the second Arab leader pushed from office by a popular uprising in the history of the modern Middle East, following the ouster last month of the president of Tunisia — another North African nation.
The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke by telephone Tuesday with Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition, the embassy said. The pro-democracy advocate has taken a key role with other opposition groups in formulating the movement’s demands for Mubarak to step down and allow a transitional government paving the way for free elections. There was no immediate word on what they discussed.
The movement to drive Mubarak out has been built on the work of online activists and fueled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant. After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the Tunisia unrest took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of protests across this nation of 80 million.
The repercussions were being felt around the Mideast, as other authoritarian governments fearing popular discontent pre-emptively tried to burnish their democratic image.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government Tuesday in the face of smaller street protests, named an ex-prime minister to form a new Cabinet and ordered him to launch political reforms. The Palestinian Cabinet in the West Bank said it would hold long-promised municipal elections “as soon as possible.”
With Mubarak’s hold on power weakening, the world was forced to plan for the end of a regime that has maintained three decades of peace with Israel and a bulwark against Islamic militants. But under the stability was a barely hidden crumbling of society, mounting criticism of the regime’s human rights record and a widening gap between rich and poor, with 40 percent of the population living under or just above the poverty line set by the World Bank at $2 a day.
The chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, gave public voice to what senior U.S. officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mubarak should “step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure.”
In an interview with Al-Arabiya television, ElBaradei rejected an offer late Monday by Vice President Omar Suleiman for a dialogue on enacting constitutional reforms. He said there could be no negotiations until Mubarak leaves. Suleiman, the first vice president named by Mubarak, is considered his designated successor.
Mostafa al-Naggar, a protest organizer and an ElBaradei supporter, said the newly installed government contacted him before dawn to ask him to bring other youth representatives for a dialogue with the government.
Al-Naggar said he declined the invitation, saying there will be no dialogue until Mubarak steps down. But al-Naggar also said:
“This Cabinet is illegitimate. If there is any dialogue, it will be with the only institution we are proud of, which is the military,” he said.
Suleiman’s offer and other gestures by the regime have fallen flat. The Obama administration roundly rejected Mubarak’s appointment of a new government Monday afternoon that dropped his interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters. State TV on Tuesday ran a statement by the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, pleading with the public to “give a chance” to his government.
The United States, meanwhile, ordered non-essential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt in an indication of the deepening concern over the situation.
They join a wave of people rushing to flee the country — over 18,000 overwhelmed Cairo’s international airport and threw it into chaos. EgyptAir staff scuffled with frantic passengers, food supplies were dwindling and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.
Normally bustling, Cairo’s streets outside Tahrir Square had a fraction of their normal weekdaytraffic. Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Bread prices spiraled. An unprecedented shutdown of the Internet was in its fifth day.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, though reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher.
But perhaps most startling was how peaceful protests have been in recent days, after the military replaced the police around Tahrir Square and made no move to try to suppress the demonstrations. No clashes between the military and protesters have been reported since Friday night, after pitched street battles with the police throughout the day Friday.
Egypt’s military leadership has reassured the U.S. that they do not intend to crack down on demonstrators, but instead they are allowing the protesters to “wear themselves out,” according to a former U.S. official in contact with several top Egyptian army officers. The Egyptians use a colloquial saying to describe their strategy: A boiling pot with a tight lid will blow up the kitchen, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Troops alongside Soviet-era and newer U.S.-made Abrams tanks stood guard at roads leading into Tahrir Square, a plaza overlooked by the headquarters of the Arab League, the campus of the American University in Cairo, the famed Egyptian Museum and the Mugammma, an enormous building housing departments of the notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.
Protester volunteers wearing tags reading “the People’s Security” circulated through the crowds in the square, saying they were watching for government infiltrators who might try to instigate violence.
“We will throw out anyone who tries to create trouble,” one announced over a loudspeaker. Other volunteers joined the soldiers at the checkpoints, searching bags of those entering for weapons. Organizers said the protest would remain in the square and not attempt to march to the presidential palace to avoid frictions with the military.
Two effigies of Mubarak dangled from traffic lights. On their chests was written: “We want to put the murderous president on trial.” Their faces were scrawled with the Star of David, an allusion to many protesters’ feeling that Mubarak is a friend of Israel, still seen by most Egyptians as their country’s archenemy more than 30 years after the two nations signed a peace treaty.
Every protester had their own story of why they came — with a shared theme of frustration with a life pinned in by corruption, low wages, crushed opportunities and abuse by authorities.
Sahar Ahmad, a 41-year-old school teacher and mother of one, said she has taught for 22 years and still only makes about $70 a month.
“There are 120 students in my classroom. That’s more than any teacher can handle,” said Ahmad. “Change would mean a better education system I can teach in and one that guarantees my students a good life after school. If there is democracy in my country, then I can ask for democracy in my own home.”
Tamer Adly, a driver of one of the thousands of minibuses that ferry commuters around Cairo, said he was sick of the daily humiliation he felt from police who demand free rides and send him on petty errands, reflecting the widespread public anger at police high-handedness.
“They would force me to share my breakfast with them … force me to go fetch them a newspaper. This country should not just be about one person,” the 30-year-old lamented, referring to Mubarak.
Among the older protesters, there was also a sense of amazement after three decades of unquestioned control by Mubarak’s security forces over the streets.
“We could never say no to Mubarak when we were young, but our young people today proved that they can say no, and I’m here to support them,” said Yusra Mahmoud, a 46-year-old school principal who said she had been sleeping in the square alongside other protesters for the past two nights.
Authorities shut down all roads and public transportation to Cairo and in and out of other main cities, security officials said. Train services nationwide were suspended for a second day and all bus services between cities were halted.
Still, many from the provinces managed to make it to the square. Hamada Massoud, a 32-year-old a lawyer, said he and 50 others came in cars and minibuses from the impoverished province of Beni Sweif south of Cairo.
“Cairo today is all of Egypt,” he said. “I want my son to have a better life and not suffer as much as I did … I want to feel like I chose my president.”
Tens of thousands rallied in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura, north of Cairo, as well as in the southern province of Assiut and Luxor, the southern city where some 5,000 people protested outside an ancient Egyptian temple.
The various protesters have little in common beyond the demand that Mubarak go.
A range of groups are involved, with sometimes conflicting agendas — including students, online activists, grass-roots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
Perhaps the most significant tensions among them are between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form a state governed by Islamic law. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement. American officials have suggested they have similar fears.
A second day of talks among opposition groups fell apart after many of the youth groups boycotted the meeting over charges that some of the traditional, government-condoned opposition parties have agreed to start a dialogue with Suleiman.