Egypt protesters prepare for final push

Michael Peel, Andrew England and Heba Saleh – January 4, 2011

Thousands of protesters were gathering on Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for a “Day of Departure” rally aimed at ousting President Hosni Mubarak.

Meanwhile, US officials said talks were under way between the Obama administration and senior Egyptian officials on the possible immediate resignation of Mr Mubarak and the formation of a military-backed caretaker government.

With protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities expected to grow in size and intensity on Friday, the US administration fears they may erupt into more widespread violence unless the government takes tangible steps to address the protesters’ main demand that Mr Mubarak leave office quickly.

“The president has said that now is the time to begin a peaceful, orderly and meaningful transition, with credible, inclusive negotiations,’’ White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. “We have discussed with the Egyptians a variety of different ways to move that process forward, but all of those decisions must be made by the Egyptian people.’’

Supporters of Egypt’s embattled president intensified their attacks on Thursday, targeting anti-government protesters, rights activists and journalists in a concerted campaign to end a 10-day uprising.

As pro-Mubarak mobs battled demonstrators for a second day in and around Tahrir Square , Mr Mubarak told ABC News that he wanted to step down but feared there would be chaos if he did so: “I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go.”

He added that he never intended for his son Gamal to take over from him, in spite of it being widely acknowledged that Gamal was being groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps. The government announced that Gamal would not stand in elections due in September.

Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s recently appointed vice-president, issued a rare invitation to the banned Muslim Brotherhood for talks on Friday – an offer swiftly rejected by Egypt’s best-organised opposition group.

Mohammed al-Beltagi, a leading member of the Islamist movement told Al Jazeera television on Friday that government representatives had indicated that the group, which is formally banned, would receive official recognition as a party.

“We are ready to negotiate after [the end of] the Mubarak regime,” he said, adding that the government was “flirting” with the group. “We have said clearly that we have no ambitions to run for the presidency, or posts in a coalition government.”

Joe Biden, US vice-president, telephoned Mr Suleiman and stressed the Egyptian government was responsible for ensuring peaceful protests do not lead to violence. Mr Biden called for “restraint by all sides”, according to the White House, and urged that inclusive negotiations begin for Egypt to move to a democratic government.

Attacks on journalists continued. Some were beaten up and others arrested, amid reports that hotels where journalists were staying had been stormed by mobs. The US condemned the crackdown on press coverage, with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton calling attacks on journalists “unacceptable”.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said researchers had been detained in what the latter described as “a clear campaign against independent witnesses of the violence”.

The mood among anti-regime protesters in Tahrir Square remained defiant. More people headed to support the protesters, many carrying food and medicine. According to the health ministry, eight people have been killed and 890 injured over the past two days.

“I think people really want to stay as long as it takes. I don’t know how long and bloody it’s going to be,” said Noha, an anti-government protester.

Some protesters said some of the thugs had police cards. The interior ministry denied on state TV that any plainclothes police officers were in the square.

Egypt’s army, which had won the trust of protesters earlier in the week when it said it would not fire on them, largely stood by on Wednesday as supporters of Mr Mubarak unleashed their attacks. On Thursday, the military appeared to be making more of an effort to keep the rival factions apart, deploying soldiers between the two camps and firing repeatedly in the air.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard on the edge of the square near the Egyptian Museum, where archeological treasures are kept.

But as criticism of the Egyptian regime gathers pace, with demands from the US for a swifter transfer of power, Mr Suleiman said Cairo would not accept intervention in its internal affairs. “Intervention … is strange, unacceptable and we will not allow it,” he said on state television.

Additional reporting by Harvey Morris in New York


Watch earlier footage of Egyptian security vehicles trying to run down protesters who had gathered on a bridge over the Nile:


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