Egypt: “march of a million” gives Mubarak three days to leave country

Several hundred thousand protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a eighth day of defiance of authorities Feb. 1, the biggest outpouring yet demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. A second “march of a million” was held in Alexandria. There were no incidents of violence reported anywhere in the country; army tanks continued to surround Tahrir Square but again did not interfere with the massive protest. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said Friday Feb. 4 had been set as “departure day” for Mubarak, pledging that there would be no negotiations with the regime until the president “leaves.” Chants of “Revolution! Revolution until victory!” filled the square.

Mubarak spoke in a televised address, saying he would not seek a sixth term in September—but also that he would not step down before then, posing himself as the only bulwark “between chaos and stability”. He also had harsh words for the protesters:

Those protests were transformed from a noble and civilized phenomenon of practicing freedom of expression to unfortunate clashes, mobilized and controlled by political forces that wanted to escalate and worsen the situation. They targeted the nation’s security and stability through acts of provocation theft and looting and setting fires and blocking roads and attacking vital installations and public and private properties and storming some diplomatic missions.

“I speak to you in difficult conditions which put Egypt and its people to the test and which could drag it into the unknown,” he said. “My first responsibility is now to bring security and stability to the nation to ensure a peaceful transition of power.”

The phrase “peaceful transition” echoes words used by the White House in recent days, but some reports indicate that Washington is now asking Mubarak to step down. Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to Egypt, has reportedly been sent to meet Mubarak directly. Writing in the New York Times, John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated: “President Hosni Mubarak must accept that the stability of his country hinges on his willingness to step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure.” But Kerry equivocated on the protesters’ unanimous demand for an immediate resignation: “It is not enough for President Mubarak to pledge ‘fair’ elections… The most important step that he can take is to address his nation and declare that neither he nor the son he has been positioning as his successor will run in the presidential election this year.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that, according to preliminary estimates, a total of 300 people had been killed in the unrest so far, with casualties “mounting on a daily basis.” (AFP, Reuters, Middle East Online, NYT, Feb. 1)

See our last posts on Egypt and the new Arab uprisings.

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